When I started my first job, I was the youngest person in my organization. Every single one of my 300 co-workers was older and more experienced than I was.
I felt like the low woman on the totem pole—and worse, I probably acted like it. (Exhibit A: My email signature was hot pink and in Lucida Calligraphy font.)
But looking back, I shouldn’t have let it affect me so much. Here’s what I know now: It doesn’t matter how much experience (or grey hair) you have compared to everyone else. You were hired to do a job and to work together with the people around you. So, the more you can position yourself as an equal, the more you’ll be treated like one. While you shouldn’t go to the other end of the spectrum and act like you’re more important than the rest of your team, you should never feel afraid to present yourself confidently as a peer. (Oh, and this is true whether you’re in your first job or joining the ranks of upper management.)
How do you do that? Here are a few commonly used words and phrases you want to avoid since they instantly make you sound more inexperienced—plus what to say instead to ensure you come across as the capable, competent professional you are.
1. “I Don’t Know”
You certainly don’t need to have all the answers all the time. None of us do. But answering your co-workers’ questions with “I don’t know” (and a blank stare) can make you look like you’re not up to the job.
Some great alternatives such as offering up what you do know (“Well, I can tell you that the report went to the printer on Friday”) or responding, “That’s exactly the question I’m looking to answer.” Or, if you know you can get the information from someone else, try “Let’s loop Dennis in to confirm.”
2. “I Have to Ask my Boss”
It doesn’t matter what level you’re at in your career, there are certain things you’re going to have to run by your boss. (Even CEOs have to ask the board for approval on important matters.) But that doesn’t mean you have to end every conversation letting others know that you’re not the one who can make the final decision.
Instead, try, “This all sounds great—let me just run our conversation by a couple people on the team before moving ahead.” You’ll sound like a thoughtful collaborator, rather than the lowly subordinate.
3. “Is That OK?”
When you do have to run something by your boss? Skip this line, which sounds like you have no idea if your recommendation is a good one or not, and use something like: “Let me know by Friday whether I should proceed.”
4. “I Am the [Insert Junior-Level Job Title Here]”
Here’s a secret—if you have a not-so-impressive job title (and we’ve all had ’em), you don’t have to broadcast it to everyone you work with, particularly if you’re reaching out to potential clients or partners who are higher up than you are.
In your next cold outreach email, trade “I’m the Jr. Marketing Assistant at Monster Co,” for, “I work in Marketing at Monster Co, and I’m reaching out because…” It’s still honest, but it makes you sound a bit more experienced.
5. “Very,” “Insanely,” “Extremely”
It’s Professional Writing 101 to remove unnecessary adverbs from your language, not only because we all want shorter emails, but because these additional words tend to add emotion into what should be straightforward, fact-based communication. Quick: Which sounds like it came from a calm, cool professional: “I’m incredibly eager to get started, but I’m insanely busy this week—could we aim for next week when things will be way calmer?” or, “I’m eager to get started, but booked this week. Could we aim for next?”
6. “Hi, I’m Julie”
In a social setting, it’s perfectly fine (in fact, expected) that you’ll introduce yourself by first name only. But in a professional or networking setting, it can make you sound unsure of yourself, like you’re someone who just happened to walk into the room, rather than someone who was invited to be there. Instead, share your full name and why you’re there: “I’m Julie Walker, from the Marketing team.”
7. “I” and “Me”
As Aja Frost reported in this article: “Reducing your use of the word ‘I’ can actually make people view you as more powerful and confident… a psychologist from the University of Texas who analyzes how people talk for hidden insight, found that whoever uses the word ‘I’ more in a conversation usually has a lower social status.”
Consider these two statements: “I would be so grateful if you would consider meeting with me next month. I’m very interested in your work, and I would love to meet you in person,” and “Would you be available for a meeting next month? It would be great to learn more about your work and meet in person.” The former veers into fangirl territory; the latter sounds like one accomplished professional addressing another.
8. “I’m Available at Whatever Time Is Convenient for You”
Really, are you? If the person you’d like to meet with wrote back and said that 5:30 AM on a Tuesday morning was convenient, I’m pretty sure you’d disagree. (And even if you didn’t, you’d look like you have nothing going on in your professional life.)
Try “Tuesday and Thursday afternoons work well, though I’m happy to be flexible,” which sounds similarly agreeable, but also shows that you have an important schedule of your own.
9. “I Hope to Hear From You Soon!”
Ending your emails hoping and praying that you’ll hear from your recipient makes it sound like you think there’s a good chance you won’t. Instead, project confidence that the conversation will continue, with something like, “I look forward to discussing,” or “I look forward to hearing from you.”