I have been in high tech more than half my life. In that time, I’ve noticed that there while there are many different ways to phrase things, some of them are more prone to starting arguments and name-calling than others. As I am
a hothead passionate and stubborn opinionated, I had to learn—often the hard way—ways of expressing myself that don’t sound like I’m trying to pick a fight. Because to be honest, I don’t want to pick fights. I hate fights. They exhaust me. But when I get worked up on a topic—and I can get worked up about semi-colon placement—I can sound like an arrogant, self-absorbed, unhelpful, uncooperative jerk. So what to do?
Find less confrontational or emotionally-charged ways to express my opinion, that’s what! After many (many many) years, I’ve established a decent-sized library of terms, which I am now foisting on an unsuspecting world. Enjoy! Or not!
You want to say: “That sounds really stupid.”
Instead try: “I’m not sure I understand.” A few things here: First, it’s very possible you didn’t understand it, and you’ll look like a right fool if you say something is stupid and it turns out you were just clueless. So it saves face for you. Second, if it really is stupid, other people now have the opportunity to chime in and express their own incredulity/lack of comprehension/skepticism/etc. If it’s a genuinely bad idea, that will quickly become apparent under extensive question. And finally, if it was stupid, it gives the speaker the opportunity to save face and not feel insulted. You’ll probably have to work with this person again, so not antagonizing them is a good idea. And besides; you might be the one to say something stupid next. Best be gracious.
You want to say: “You didn’t put that in your [document | project plan | web page | Word file | etc. ].”
Instead try: “I wasn’t able to find that. Can you point me to it?” Again, this has a twofold purpose. First, you may genuinely have missed the item in the [document | project plan | web page | Word file | etc. ]; heck, it happens to me all the time. I have a bad habit of quick-reading work documents—especially project plans!—and it’s all-too-easy to miss some piece of information somewhere. Second, it again helps the author save face; they may have simply forgotten to include the item, or included it in another draft and left it out of this one, or made a mental note to put it in and forgot, or some other totally valid reason. And besides, the next person who leaves something out might be you.
You want to say: “Stop wasting our time!”
Instead try: “Can we take that offline?” This is a hoary old chestnut in the high tech world, and everyone understands the subtext here: “You’re going down a conversational or topic rathole, and we just don’t have time for that in this meeting.” It prevents embarrassment while also acknowledging that, just because it’s a rathole now, it might not be under other circumstances.
You want to say: “It’s your fault not mine, you stupid twit!”
Instead try: “Let’s not assign blame; let’s just try to fix the problem.” No one wants to take the blame when something goes wrong, and it’s ingrained in American culture to blame someone—anyone—else. (“Americans want to fix the blame rather than the problem.”) And it’s a waste of time. Do you really want to spend 30, 60, 90 minutes (or even days!) trying to assign blame instead of using that time to fix whatever done did break? I mean, you can, but it’s not a good use of time, pisses almost everyone off, and leaves behind enemies and hurt feelings. Yes, yes, I know; in many companies, blaming other people is a good way to get promoted. I hate those kinds of companies and tend leave them pretty quickly. Your Mileage May Vary™.
To be sure, promotions and raises are often affected when you end up blamed for some screw-up. The way to avoid that is not to shift the blame, but to be careful when in doubt to do your due diligence. Then if something blows up in your face, you’ve done the best you can. If you have competent management—and despite the complaints in the industry on this score, I’ve tended to have competent managers more often than the other sort—they will recognize you did all that could be done and not hold it against you, or recognize who really was at fault…and not hold it against you. In other words, if you do your job properly and perform due diligence, you shouldn’t have to shift blame. Nor will you have to come up with excuses; you can just state facts: “I did X, Y, and Z. Was there something I missed?”
You want to say: “I did X.”
Instead try: “We did X.” While this is much more important for managers (as a manager, you actually don’t do anything, your team members do), it also applies to what we in the biz call “individual contributors” (ie worker bees). Hardly anything in high tech is done by one person, no matter how brilliant they are; it behooves you to keep that in mind. And when you give other people credit regularly, they tend to respond in kind. Further, it makes you a much more pleasant co-worker, and people will want to work on projects with you rather than avoiding them. And believe me, that is really helpful.
Yup, there are absolutely times when you did something all by your little self and deserve recognition for that fact. If you have competent management, you will usually get recognition for those things. And if you don’t, hey, go ahead and tell your manager privately. No one likes an arrogant braggart.
A side note to this: Give people credit when it’s due. Everyone loves being acknowledged for their efforts, and I have never, in my whole career, regretted complimenting someone when they’ve done something noteworthy; not as a manager or an individual contributor. Very few people not in management are paid what they deserve, and praise and recognition is a huge help in improving job satisfaction and retention rates. I mean, don’t you want to keep those folks around? Well, compliment them publicly, then! (A good rule of thumb: Praise in public; chastise in private. Far too many managers do the reverse.)
You want to say: “Well, if you had told me, then it wouldn’t be a problem now!”
Instead try: “I think I missed the notification on that. Can you please tell me again?” Yes, it drives me bats when people think they’ve told me/emailed me/DM’d me something and they absolutely haven’t. Of course it does! But again, recriminations waste time and only cause bad feelings all around. Admitting the problem may have been you missing something is both gracious, and allows the other person to admit it if it were actually their fault without feeling attacked. Which smooths the road and speeds things up. And besides, let’s face it: Sometimes we do miss notifications. What does it hurt to be kind about it?
You want to say: “Shut up and let [Jennifer | Sonia | Medhi | Kat | Michelle | Francoise | insert any other female name here] finish!”
Instead try: “Excuse me, I’d like to hear [female] finish her thought.”
I have written repeatedly on this blog on the built-in sexism in high tech. One of the best ways for male (especially white male) individual contributors and front-line managers to combat this (in addition to hiring more women) is to be proactive allies. If you see someone in a meeting running roughshod over one of your coworkers (and it’s almost always a female coworker that gets treated this way), don’t just sit there like a lump; speak up! But in the interests of comity and continuing to work with people, don’t stomp all over them in kind; politely note that someone else was trying to express an opinion, and give them the space to do so.
While I have focused on women in this particular instance, it also happens to other folks, notably: The neurodiverse, introverts, and historically-marginalized minorities. In the latter instance it gets trickier. For example, I worked at a company that had a very large Asia engineering contingent, and I’m sorry to say the men from India and China were absolutely horrible about letting women speak. Whether this was an outlier or part of their culture or just those particular individuals I have no way to know; I just want to note it’s not always white guys acting like mansplainin’ twits.
That’s all I got. What do you do to avoid sounding like a mansplain’ twit?