What Did You Say? 7 Offensive Words and Phrases Still Used in the Office


Arbitrator and Mediator Leah Ward Sears Authored Post:

Six years ago, I wrote an op-ed delineating ten words and phrases unfit for work environments entitled “Sticks and Stones: Common Expressions That May Offend.” In the 72 months since its publication, considerable changes have rocked the socio-political landscape. So I thought it time to revisit the topic and address a few more words and phrases that have no place in respectful office discourse.

As the Turkish proverb teaches, “No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, [you can] turn back.” Among other things, this can apply to how we communicate. Even if you mean no disrespect by something you said — and most of the time we don’t — other people may not see it the same way. Yes, changing words and phrases you’ve used throughout your life can be difficult. But like all bad habits, changing them is worth the effort.

Workplace and public discourse improve when we amplify respect and minimize disdain. To that end, I’ve outlined seven more offensive sayings to erase from the public lexicon as we fumble our way to a more egalitarian future.

1. Homosexual

Did you know the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) listed “homosexual” as offensive back in 2006? This may surprise many people over 40 since the term was commonplace in the not-too-distant past. Some continue to say “homosexual,” wrongly assuming it’s an inoffensive technical term.

The truth is that the word has an ugly history and should never be used instead of “gay” or “lesbian.” Even the style guides for The Associated Press and The New York Times prohibit the use of “homosexual” unless it’s in a quote.

Over the years, people eager to strip the LGBTQ+ community of their rights gnarled the word into a dog-whistle slur that suggests gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, and others are somehow diseased or mentally disordered. Additionally, the recognizable slur “homo” derives from “homosexual,” and the other root word “sexual” linguistically reduces people to sexual acts, robbing them of basic humanity.

2. Disabled / Handicapped

Phrases that describe people solely by their medical or physical differences can be demeaning. Instead, use people-first language (PFL). For example, “a person with disabilities” is preferable to saying “a disabled person.” The point of PFL, which has been adopted by most state and federal health departments, is to describe the condition a person “has” rather than profess what a person “is.”

The trend toward respectful disability language has made a lot of past-tense words describing disabilities outdated. While most people today recognize “crippled” and “retarded” as offensive, many still say “handicapped,” which can be just as troublesome. Instead of referring to “handicapped parking,” it’s just as easy to say “accessible parking.”

The principles of PFL can be applied when referencing any disability or chronic illness. For example, consider saying “Jane has arthritis” and “Jack has paralysis in his lower body” as opposed to “Jane is arthritic” and “Jack is a paraplegic.”

Using words like “suffering” and “stricken” when referencing someone’s disease status can also be problematic. For example, instead of saying “Bob suffers from HIV,” say, “Bob has HIV.” Pairing negative verbs with ailments is falling out of linguistic fashion because many live fulfilling and independent lives while managing various medical conditions.

3. Pow Wow

Pow wows are sacred social gatherings for many indigenous nations in North America to honor cultural milestones and special events. Sometime during the 1800s, the word crept into the American English lexicon and became a synonym for “meeting.”

But many First Nations peoples take exception to its casual use because it strips the word and associated ceremonies of their dignity and importance.

Similar phrases to avoid include “lowest person on the totem pole,” “circle the wagons,” “off the reservation,” “Indian giver,” and “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” Our nation’s historical treatment of Native Americans is fraught with physical, mental, and cultural mistreatment. Thus, it would be best to always think twice before using Native American-related terms in casual ways.

4. Crazy / Psycho

This is an example of how some offensive words come down to context. People often use the words “crazy” and “psycho” with things that have nothing to do with mental health. When was the last time you noted how “traffic was crazy” or your pet “goes psycho for treats”? While we don’t need to ban these words altogether, you should never use “crazy” or “psycho” to describe someone’s mental health.

Studies show that one in five Americans has experienced a mental illness. When used pejoratively, “crazy” and “psycho” further stigmatize a large portion of our population. Making people feel ashamed can also make them less willing to seek help. Lambasting individuals over psychological conditions is just as unacceptable as blaming someone for developing breast cancer.

5. Midget/Dwarf

It’s not up for debate. People with these conditions have made it unequivocally clear that “midget” and “dwarf” are unacceptable, derogatory slurs. Like everyone else, small people prefer to be called by their names. When it’s appropriate or necessary to describe the community or identify a person that’s part of it, “little people” and “people of short stature” are your best options.

Why are the words “midget” and “dwarf” offensive? They were created as disparaging labels for little people who were once on display for ridicule, curiosity, and sport at traveling circuses in exhibits offensively named “freak shows.”

6. Committed Suicide

“Died by suicide” should be used instead of “committed suicide.” Mental health advocates are encouraging the shift because it reflects the victim’s considerable struggles instead of placing blame. Instead of calling someone “suicidal,” it’s better to refer to them as a person “living with suicidal thoughts or behavior.”

Scientists now understand that brain chemistry — which is out of our control — significantly impacts our neurological realities. When someone slips into a state of suicidal ideation, they’re crumbling under a fatal amount of mental strain, and it may be a symptom of their brain’s wiring. In other words, mental health isn’t a matter of choice or willpower. So framing suicide as a selfish, self-determined act is disrespectful and inaccurate. It impedes efforts to destigmatize clinical depression and other mental health conditions.

7. You Don’t Look Your Age

It’s great that society increasingly recognizes ageism as a significant form of discrimination. All age groups fall victim to ageism, but its harshest forms are often directed toward older people. In many cases, ageist language comes in the guise of backhanded compliments.

Case in point: the overused comment of “you don’t look your age.” This supposedly flattering phrase can take many forms, such as “she looks fabulous for her age” or “wow, I never would have thought you were in your 60s.” If your compliment implies a caveat of “for your age,” keep it to yourself. People of all ages can be beautiful and fabulous, so there’s no reason to add that qualification.

It also unintentionally assumes that younger is somehow always better, which it isn’t. Instead, make your compliments more specific and sincere to what you genuinely like about someone (their eyes, style, or sense of humor).

Language Always Evolves

People opposed to treating others with respect have little interest in tweaking their vocabularies to be more inclusive. But those of us who want to pave a productive path forward can support the process by minding our phraseology.

It’s also wise to walk a compassionate path. Don’t rush to “cancel” and harass anyone who uses a now-outdated phrase. Conversely, stop whining about “cancel culture” anytime someone offers you a gentle correction about the words you use — because language is forever in flux. Your understanding of that might pay big dividends.

Note: This article was originally published on March 8, 2022, on LinkedIn.

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