Avoiding Language Landmines

Do you have expressions you use in your daily language that others might find offensive? Here’s a list of some common phrases that might put others off, even if you have no ill intent.

Tiger Woods, who usually skirts controversy, generated plenty of bad press when he commented about his play at the Masters. Tiger said his tee-to-green play was fine. However, he felt, when he got to the greens he became “spastic.” By choosing that word, he meant to convey that his putting during the tournament was shaky, unreliable, and out of control. Immediately, individuals who cope with that malady, and their relatives, accused Woods of being thoughtless and insensitive.

That incident started me thinking about the common expressions we use daily which could become incendiary among certain groups:

  • “a basket case”–quadriplegics
  • “a lame excuse”–people on crutches and in wheelchairs
  • “shortsighted”–individuals with severe visual limitations
  • “asleep at the wheel”–relatives of those who died because they feel asleep while driving
  • “graveyard shift”–funeral industry
  • “stiff upper lip”–harelips
  • “lazy Susan”–women named Susan
  • “Mexican standoff”–Hispanics
  • “bent out of shape”–arthritis sufferers
  • “costs an arm and a leg”–amputees
  • “argument has no teeth in it”–denture wearers
  • “no backbone”–spinal cord injury victims
  • “sorry as a dog”–animal lovers
  • “not a big enough man”–short men
  • “jewed them down on the price”–Jewish people
  • “plain Jane”-women named Jane
  • “Chinaman’s chance”-China native
  • “Is the Pope Catholic?” -Catholics
  • “fat chance”–overweight people

You might protest, “But we use these terms without malice.” However, this brings us to one of the most important guidelines for communication: What’s vitally significant is not what we meant–the chief factor is how listeners interpret our words and terms. “The eye of the beholder” reigns supreme.

So I suggest, conduct an inventory of your favorite phrases, and eliminate those that might become language landmines. Then you will run a much smaller risk of offending your friends, coworkers, prospects and clients.

And here is an invitation: Please e-mail me any other common sayings that might unintentionally offend listeners: I want to build my list of offensive terms, so I can include them in a comprehensive collection when I direct communication seminars.

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