10 of the Most Offensive Things Said at Work — and What to Say Instead

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
April 16, 2024 at 11:28PM UTC
Maybe you didn't intend to be offensive, but there are some phrases people often say in the workplace that, point blank, are offensive. From phrases deeply rooted in racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices, to microaggressions that seem harmless from the surface, we have to be careful about how we communicate — especially in the workplace.
To give you some insight, here are 10 offensive phrases people commonly throw around at the office — and what you can say instead.

1. "The Peanut Gallery..."

We bet you didn't know that "the peanut gallery," which you might call your snooping coworkers who are throwing in their unsolicited two cents into an A-B conversation, actually has racist roots. The phrase dates back to Vaudeville-era theaters; it refers to the section of seats in the house where people of color were forced to sit.
What to Say Instead: "Nosey-Pokes"

2. "How'd You End up in This Field?"

Asking a woman especially how she ended up in a field could come off like you've made the assumption she doesn't belong there. Women already feel unwelcome in a large majority of industries, especially male-dominated industries like STEM.
What to Say Instead: Instead of asking how a woman ended up in the field, ask them about their experiences that lead them there and congratulate them for their hard work.

3. "You're Such a Spaz!"

Sure, this might seem like a harmless and even playful jab, but the word "spaz" is just as offensive as calling someone the R-word. It derives from its association with cerebral palsy, a disease once referred to as "spastic paralysis." Some people find the word "spastic" to be the second most offensive word to describe people with disabilities, according to a BBC study.
What to Say Instead: "Klutz"

4. "You're Like a Superhero!"

Sure, this might seem like a compliment. But when you say it to a working mother who is expected to be like a superhero to make ends meet, it's short-sighted. Working women are often forced to bear the brunt of childcare, elderly care and even irrelevant help around the office, all while working full-time jobs. They wouldn't have to be like superheroes if society started accepting an equal division of household labor and paid women fairly for equal work.
What to Say Instead: Just don't say anything. Lend a helping hand and, if you're in a position to do so, give the woman equal pay.

5. "You Hooligans!"

Again, calling coworkers a group of hooligans might seem playful, but the word "hooligans" was actually used in the 19th century to describe Irish immigrants struggling to fit in in London. The cartoons depicting hooligans were racists and painted harsh stereotypes of urban immigrants as buffoons.
What to Say Instead: "Knobs"

6. "You're Being Oversensitive."

While you might think you're helping someone better understand a situation by letting them know that you feel they're being oversensitive, you're actually making them feel as though their feelings are invalid. Everyone is entitled to feel how they feel, and some of us are just more sensitive than others. That's not a weakness; in fact, many would argue that it's a strength.
What to Say Instead: "I understand you're hurt/frustrated/overwhelmed by this situation. What can I do to help?"

7. "No Can Do..."

"No can do" is just a thing we sometimes say, but the broken English cropped up in the mid-1800s. During that time, Westerners were largely racist against the East and used this kind of broken English to mock Chinese Pidgin English. Using it today might seem silly, but its origin certainly is not.
What to Say Instead: "I can't do that."

8. "Our General Rule of Thumb..."

How many times have you called something a general rule of thumb at work? Did you know that it's believed to have derived from a 1600s English law that allowed men to beat their wives with sticks? Legend has it the stick had to be no wider than the man's thumb in thickness.
What to Say Instead: "The Rule"

9. "That's Crazy Talk!"

We've all called someone crazy at some point, especially for talking about a situation in a certain way — we like to call it "crazy talk." But referring to your boss or coworker or client as "crazy" is a dig at those of us who really do suffer from mental illnesses. And because mental illness isn't taken as seriously as it should already, this insult derails the progress for increased awareness, treatment and overall help.
What to Say Instead: "Why don't you look at this way instead?"

10. "You Look Exhausted."

Maybe you're just trying to sympathize with someone who really does look tired. But you don't know what's going on in their life, so you don't know what could be making them look so exhausted. Calling them out for it, especially without knowing the underlying causes, is rude. And it can be hurtful for someone who's putting on a brave face and trying their best to not look exhausted.
What to Say Instead: "Let me help you with..."

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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