The Worst 4 Letter Word In Your Vocabulary

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve noted a number of people I’ve been having conversations with have unwittingly put themselves down and in more than a few instances unintentionally put down many other people with the use of single word.

Yes whether in the community theatre group I’m with at the moment or at work, the word is possibly one of the worst four letter works you can use. The odd thing about this particular 4 letter word is that you can use it in any social situation and you won’t raise a ruckus with anyone for slang, swearing, vulgarity or causing embarrassment. Yet, as I say, by using the word in the wrong context, you can insult yourself and others and let your opinion slip out unintended but there for all to see.

Okay so enough of the cryptic beginning; what’s the word? The word my dear readers is, ‘just’. “Just? That’s it? What’s the big deal?”

Here are a few actual comments I’ve heard uttered recently.

“I’m just a stay-at-home mom.”

“I’m just looking for a general labour job.”

“I’m just looking for a job until I find out what I really want to do.”

“I’m just living in Oshawa until January.”

“I’m not really qualified to do anything so I’m just looking for a job in retail.”

Ouch! Each one of these statements is real and in each case the person gave no indication whatsoever that they insulted both themselves and others; offending in order: moms, those in general labour jobs, all those living in Oshawa and all those working in retail.

Please do yourself a favour and stop using the word ‘just’ in a similar context to the examples above. IF you’re only interested in my point to this blog feel free to stop reading here. If on the other hand you want to read on you’ll gain more insight into how this betrays your lack of self-esteem, self-image and can hurt your employment opportunities.

Okay all you moms out there, yes you. Are you a proud mom? Are you good at running the household, budgeting meals, housing and recreation costs on what you bring in? Are you the kind of mother that puts her kids as a first priority, raises them as best you can with the skills, education and good sense you have? In short, are you a good mom? Then why would you say, “I’m just a mom.” This short sentence composed of four words the longest of which is only 4 letters is a put-down to all moms everywhere and expresses the view that you yourself see motherhood as something of little value. More to the point it says you view the people who are mothers around the globe as in some lowly occupation of little social standing. I doubt that is your intent.

As for the retail example above, when you say, “I’m not really qualified to do anything so I’ll just get a job in retail”, you’re betraying to anyone listening that you have a low opinion of those in this profession. It’s like your saying, “Working in retail doesn’t really require any specific skills; anyone could do it”. Your personal opinion may and probably will offend a large number of people who would gladly educate you on the required skills to work successfully in retail. Oh and by the way, the employers who hire people to work in retail positions are doing their very best to make sure that they avoid hiring people who are not going to invest themselves in the work and see it as some kind of ‘pay for doing precious little’ job.

Now I grant that in our various societies around the globe there are certain professions that have more prestige than others. In some cultures its Doctors, Bankers, Architects and Professors. In some countries you might find it’s the patriarchs; the mothers who are esteemed and held in high regard. General Labourers might not be on your personal list of valued professions, but without them consider how the life you lead would be impacted. Once again, there are many highly skilled and valued people toiling quite successfully who are general labour positions.

Look I know you probably don’t mean to put anybody down let alone yourself. Watch your language and listen to yourself for subtle words like, ‘just’ that creep into your everyday vocabulary.

Here’s an interesting thing to drive home this point. When we meet someone for the first time or the first few times, we instinctively start to gather all kinds of information on them in order to figure out who they are and how to interact with them. Our eyes take in their body language and appearance, our noses pick up on body odour or fragrances. Our ears pick up on tone of voice, language skills and words. Our brains process all this information and do it amazingly quickly. All of this information comes together and we have what we generally call an impression of someone. As we gather more information, our first impression is strengthened or adjusted.

Phrases that start, “I’m just a…” suggest to our brains many things; possibly that the speaker has low self-esteem and views themselves as being of less value. This gives an advantage to the listener in dominating the speaker and possibly in ways which can be harmful and controlling.

Something to think about. Just saying.

“Um, Ah, If I Wrote Like I Talk, Then Like, Ah…”

Can you imagine how painful it would if we had to communicate in writing the words we actually speak? Come to think of it, this might be precisely how educators go about transforming the horrendous language skills some people have.

I was conducting a mock interview not long ago with a person who was pretty sure their interview skills were top-notch. While they had great content to share from their present and past to prove they had the experience to compete for employment, what they also had was a constant use of the words, ‘like’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’. At one point, I actually realized I had shifted from evaluating the strength of their answer to counting the number of times they used these three words.

So why do people consciously or unconsciously overuse these words? I believe the words, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ are used most often to hold the speakers place in the conversation, while their brain accesses memory files and arranges their thoughts in a meaningful way so that when the spoken words are uttered, it sounds coherent. It’s as if the person is saying, “I’ve got something else I want to add, just give me a moment to organize things in the way I want to share them; here it comes…right, I’m ready.”

Every now and then this kind of behaviour creates for the speaker a real unexpected problem. The overuse of, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ can cause a person to finish a thought and then the mouth almost instinctively throws in one last, ‘um’. The listener’s interest is piqued as the speaker has something further to add, so they themselves go silent and wait with anticipation to whatever is about to be said. The problem? The speaker who uttered the dreaded ‘um’ has nothing further to add whatsoever, and so lamely says something like, “Ah, it’s okay.”

What I find most interesting myself as someone who is often on the receiving end, is that the speakers either know they have this habit as others have mentioned it to them, or they are completely oblivious to this habit. They may say therefore, “I know, I know it’s a bad habit; everybody tells me!” Or they say, “Really? Wow! I had no idea!”

Here’s the thing about your language skills: you communicate much more than words alone. When you listen to someone, words combine with tone, body language, voice intensity, vocabulary, facial expression, eye contact etc.; all of which strengthen or detract from the content of the message you are delivering. If for example someone says, “Help me please, I’m desperate” and has a strained expression, their words are barely audible but intense and their eyes a wide and fixed on ours, – we do not doubt their plea. However, were they to say, “Help me please, I’m desperate” while shrugging their shoulders, grinning ear to ear and the words uttered in a mocked tone, then we might be left with an impression they aren’t really serious.

It’s the same when we overuse the word, ‘like’. “Could you like, help me, ’cause like, I’m – you know – like, desperate.” Is the visualization in your head right now of the person uttering this sentence a young, poorly educated female? If I told you it was really a university educated senior management person in the commodities sector would that image seem genuine? No probably not. So how we communicate does conjure up things we associate with people who talk a certain way.

Therefore others who hear us make assumptions about our education level, our professionalism, our income level, our intelligence; all from our vocabulary. Lest you think that it is wrong of people to make all these assumptions and judge you based on these alone, don’t exclude yourself from judging others based on the same criteria. As we listen to others speak, our minds take in all this data and access past memories and experiences we have had dealing with others who have appeared to us to be similar. In a matter of seconds, we think, slang = casual, overuse of ‘like’ = valley girl, overuse of ‘um’ and ‘ah’ = slow thinker. Of course these associations might not match your own experience, but they might match other people; people who are interviewing you for a job, or deciding whether or not they can help you in some way.

One way to change how you are perceived if you wish to do so in the first place of course, is to simply pause and be silent instead of using the dreaded, ‘um’ or ‘ah’. Silence is actually very effective when used in speech as it shows you are reflective.

If something is similar to something else, by all means say that this thing is like that thing in a comparative sense. However saying, “This apple is like amazing!” isn’t any more effective than just saying, “This apple is amazing!” The word, ‘like’ in this sense is unnecessary and inappropriate. Do yourself a favour and stop overusing it and using it in the wrong context.

The wonderful thing about your language skills is that unlike so many barriers to employment or promotions is language is entirely within your control to use and improve. Not only should you choose your words wisely, you can improve your skills in this area as you can with any other skill.

Then, you’d be like, totally amazing.

Avoid Writing Or Speaking These Words

Today I want to share with you some concrete examples of phrases people use in their daily language which betray a lack of confidence. By sharing these, it is my hope that you may benefit directly and watch your own choice of words when speaking or writing.

The word, ‘just’ when used to describe the kind of work you are looking for, can communicate your low opinion of both the job and by association, the people who perform it. “I’m just looking for a factory job”.  By including the word, ‘just’ in the sentence, it’s a self-put-down.  You might as well say, “I am not worthy of a meaningful job doing anything significant, I’m only capable of this job anybody could do”. Ouch! Remove the word, ‘just’ from the sentence and it becomes assertive immediately; “I’m looking for a factory job”.

‘Would like to’, is a phrase that I often see people use when writing a cover letter or perhaps in the opening few lines of an email. It’s often used in the sentence that goes something like, “I would like to apply for the position of…”  My question to people who use such a phrase is, “Are you applying or aren’t you?” to which they tell me, “Of course I am.” Well if you are in the very act of applying, then you no longer ‘would like to’, you are!

For example if you said, “I would like to visit Australia one day”, that’s an event that may happen one day in the future. It’s not something you would say as you boarded the plane to a fellow passenger. They’d say, “You do know this is the plane going to Australia don’t you?”, because they’d be confused by your choice of language.  So it’s proper then to change this opening to, “I am applying for the position of…” This becomes a factual opening; you’re applying for a job and identifying the position.

“I’m only” is much like the word, ‘just’. “I’m only an Accountant” reveals that low opinion you have, or belief the person you are speaking with has of those people who are Accountants. What’s wrong with being an Accountant? It’s as if you are revealing your inner value that the position you are describing is at the bottom of some commonly held job-ranking scale. If an Accountant happened to be listening nearby, don’t be surprised if they take offence and say, “I’m an Accountant. What’s wrong with Accountants?” I imagine you’d counter apologetically with something like, “Oh sorry I didn’t mean anything by it.” Ah but you’ve said it haven’t you? Drop, “I’m only” from your vocabulary.

Another common mistake I have come to see time and time again on cover letters is a failure of the writer to come right out and ask for an interview. Now isn’t the point of cover letter to introduce yourself, reference your resume and motivate the reader to extend an interview to you? So why dance around hinting at it, inferring it, implying it etc. instead of just stating with assertion, “I am requesting an interview”. It’s as easy as that and can be your opening line. “I am requesting an interview for the position of ______________. “

I am amazed at the number of people who counter this suggestion by saying, “Can I do that? I don’t want to sound pushy.” Pushy? It’s not pushy at all. It’s the thrust of your intent in an opening line which gets right to the point. The person receiving your resume and cover letter is busy and wants to know the purpose of this letter that’s landed on their desk. “Oh, you want an interview. Great, let me read on.”

One last language tip; replace the phrase, “Can I”, with the words, “May I”. I am often approached by clients when working in an Employment Resource Centre who wish to use a stapler or a pen for example. I understand they are being polite and asking for permission to use an item which is only good manners. When you ask, “May I?” you are correctly asking for permission. When you ask, “Can I?” you are asking for my assessment of your ability to actually use the stapler or pen. Presumably you have the required skills and know how to use the stapler, but maybe not. Are you asking for a demonstration first? I doubt it.

Now look, these might appear to be trifling, miniscule things that aren’t a big deal. They are however indicators of your both your self-esteem, your command of the language and by inference, your education level. In other words, the people listening to you or reading your words are going to form impressions of you – just as you yourself form opinions of others based on what you both hear and read. My intent by pointing out these few examples is to help you see how you may be perceived by others. You alone ultimately decide the choice of words you use and the impression you want others to have of you.

If you have no idea your choice of words is creating a poor first impression, it’s impossible to correct what you don’t know. So please take my suggestions as just that – suggestions. Do with them what you will. You’ll find more ideas to help you with your job search at   and please share your comments freely.

Activity: Listen To Your Words

Pay attention to the words you speak in the coming day or two and see if the words and phrases you use in everyday speech are revealing more about you than you had thought.

For starters, you should be cautious of the word, “just”. This word suggests you have a poor opinion of yourself; that you have low self-esteem, and you aren’t living up to your potential. All that from one single word? How is that possible you ask? Look at these two sentences:

  1. I’m a Receptionist.
  2. I’m just a Receptionist.

The first three word sentence is an assertion or statement of fact; I am a Receptionist. The second sentence on the other hand, with the insertion of a single word four letters in length, ceases to become a statement of assertion and pride. Now you are implying that the position of Receptionist in your view is a lowly one, and it almost comes out like an apology; “I’m sorry but I’m just a Receptionist.”

By the way, don’t get hung up on the title of Receptionist. This has the same impact if you say, “I’m just a Line Cook”, I’m just a Manager”, “I’m just a Musician.” You can’t utter the sentence with the word, “just”, inserted and not have it sound like you are downgrading both the position and yourself.

Another word that creeps in silently but betrays you if you use it is the word, “if”. Suppose you are job searching. You might catch yourself saying, “If I get an interview…”, “If I get a job…” The far more assertive statement is, “When I get an interview…” When I get a job…” Removing the word, “if” and substituting it with the word, “when” changes your sentence from a possibility to a certainty. “When I get an interview”, communicates your belief that it’s not up for debate whether you will or won’t get an interview, it’s just a question of time. The word, “if” suggests you might get an interview but you might not – you’re not sure.

Another word I see many people use in their cover letters that betrays them is the word, “believe”. Now if that word stood alone, it’s a good word, and has been used successfully by many people as their creed or motto. It implies that if you believe, then what you want will come about. Fine. However, watch the word in action in the following sentence and tell me now how it changes your perception of someone’s self-confidence: “I believe I am the right candidate for this position.” The way this could be read is that you believe it but it may not be the case. Remove the first two words of that sentence and you get, “I am the right candidate for this position.” That’s assertiveness – not aggressiveness or boasting; it’s a claim you’re making and you then back it up with examples of that market yourself positively.

There is a slang word that has slipped into everyday language so frequently, a growing number of people don’t even know that using it reveals them when they speak. They continue to use it which can suggest a limited vocabulary which in turn could suggest a low education – possibly less than grade 12. The word is, “youse”. “Youse have a great company”, “I’d like to work with youse guys.” The word doesn’t exist; stop using it.

Did you notice in the last example I used the word, “guys”? I find it amusing and interesting that someone can speak to a group of men and women, or indeed a group of women exclusively, and then say, “I’ll see you guys later.” Save the word, “guys” for males. Consider using, “people”, or “all”, or even just remove the word, “guys”. “I’ll see you later.”

The use of the word, “guys” indicates a familiarity or friendship when used in the context above. You may not find that using it in all situations is appropriate or welcomed. “I’d like to work for you guys”, doesn’t communicate a professional respect for the employees you are speaking with. It detracts from your self-marketing and you may actually create the opposite impact on your listeners where they want to distance themselves from you and the assumption of casualness you are making. Next you’ll be telling the interview, “I’ll be waiting for your call pal.” DON’T DO IT! I’M KIDDING.

Finally, try to catch yourself using or forgetting to say the words, “please” and, “thank you”.  When someone does something for you – anything from opening a door, being your reference or granting you an interview, express your thanks. No gushing suggested, no boot-licking, just common personal and professional courtesy. If you request something of someone, use the word, “please.” “Would you please stand as a reference for me?” Could we move the meeting to Monday please?” “Is it possible to have an afternoon interview please?”

Language skills are vitally important to how others perceive you; they are a part of your brand. Your use of words can accelerate your career or hold you back, prompt a job interview or keep you from meeting with an interviewer.

Listen to yourself and listen to others around you. Language is a learned skill. Work on getting some words out of your vocabulary and other words in. Like anything else, you can improve on your language skills with practice.

Help Yourself; Read

We are increasingly moving towards living in a society where we get our information in short bursts; and whether by design or by choice people are reading less and needing to be stimulated more often. If War and Peace burst were to burst on the world stage in 2015 for the first time I have to wonder if the general populace would have the stomach to even do more than flip through it in a bookstore let alone read a few pages and certainly not the complete vast book it is.

We do however an injustice to ourselves if we fail to read and it hampers us unknowingly when we express ourselves either in writing or verbal communication. I’m afraid when it comes to writing cover letters, resumes and being able to effectively market ourselves in job interviews, many find themselves handcuffed and unable to express themselves to the extent they would like to do. Many have lamented, “I know what I want to say, I just can’t get it out.”

Now I am not perfect with respect to written communication, and while seldom at a loss to verbally express myself, there are times when my vocabulary is tested. Yet while I admit such shortcomings, I still assert my communication skills to be a strength of mine in most situations. But this piece is not about me; it is directed at any and all who have lost or never had much interest or love in reading.

Here is the thing; when you read on a regular basis you get introduced to new words and discover their meaning. New words and the order in which they are arranged spark new thoughts, some of which may challenge your beliefs, and from that we grow and learn new things. Reading can spark change, take us to places we otherwise would never go, and even in reading non-job related pieces for sheer pleasure, our own vocabulary expands. The consequence of reading on a regular basis then allows us to better communicate ourselves when in the company of others, and so you come to my point in including this appeal in an effort to help readers of this blog in their job searching and career advancement.

Look around you and you’ll see a generation texting in 140 characters or less using social media. Instead of descriptive words that build a strong vocabulary it is essential to minimize and reduce words to their smallest denominator that still communicate the intended meaning. So words like, ‘you’ become, ‘u’. Phrases such as, ‘laugh out loud’ become, ‘lol’ to use some of the more well-known examples. Rather than berating Twitter and texting in general, for I acknowledge their appeal in marketing to the desires of people who want to say as much by saying less, I applaud on the one hand the skill it takes to communicate thought in those 140 characters.

Ask anyone who enjoys reading to share one of their favourite titles with you. When you ask them why it appeals to them so much, you will likely be told that the writing is vivid, the text rich, the words depict pictures and images in their head which they grasp, and they come to care about the characters, the fate of the protagonist. If it’s a job-related book, they will tell you how it impacted on how they go about their work, gave them pause to re-think the way they did something, or introduced them to new ideas and best practices.

Putting books and the printed word aside for a moment, think too of people you find interesting to listen to or conversely grow weary of as they drone on and on and on in some tiring address. Those of interest capture the listener with stories and examples sprinkled in their talk. Their voices vary in pitch, intensity and volume. When making a speech they need not shout to be heard but hold everyone’s ears with their content, mixing in humourous antidotes, getting serious when needed, and they can evoke laughter and tears with equal acclaim.

I would caution you too that you are in danger of revealing much about yourself whether you intend it or not just in your own choice of words which can limit you or serve you well. It’s true, for our vocabulary often reflects our education level, and in an interview you might wonder why some interviewers will suddenly ask you the name of the most recent book you’ve read. This is not a harmless, random question. It is designed to gauge your interests, your level of comprehension, your literacy and your general commitment to your own development. If you say you aren’t reading anything at present or the last book you read you can’t even remember the title of, well that’s telling on you.

Start with anything that interests you – but read. Be it a fantasy novel, a short story, a daily read of newspapers, blogs, news articles on the web – whatever you find motivates you to read more. Re-introduce yourself to a library if you can’t afford to buy books and have no library of your own. The more you read, the more you may find your spelling improves, your grasp and understanding of words becomes.

You may find in reading more that you gain a stronger ability to communicate and express yourself both in the printed word and in speaking to others. And selling yourself to a potential employer is all about communicating your value!