10 little phrases that make you sound less intelligent than you are

Words are very powerful. 

Whether it be for admissions applications, dissertations, or even casual conversations, the words we choose to use can have a huge impact on how people perceive us and our intelligence. 

Regrettably, some well-worn phrases can make you appear less impressive.

In this article, we’re going to discuss 10 of the phrases that make you sound less intelligent than you are so that you can be aware of them and work to avoid using them. 

1) “I don’t know”

Imagine yourself in a meeting with your boss and they ask a tough question. Your face goes blank and you say, “I don’t know.”

That’s a reasonable response, right? Think again! 

A statement like this demonstrates a lack of critical thinking and a sign of weakness, which could elicit a negative response.

You see, there’s an expectation of basic knowledge for undergraduates and professionals. Even the most intelligent authors who use the most complex language and write dense books don’t know everything. 

Instead, say “I’ll find out and let you know.”

It shows a sincere commitment to your professional and personal growth that you are willing to learn and seek information.

2) “Basically”

When you want clear communication, using the word “basically” can actually hinder your message. 

Why is that?

For starters, this word is overused. It may sound condescending or dismissive of your audience’s intelligence.

Why settle for lackluster words when you can up your speaking game by choosing dynamic verbs and adjectives that accurately convey the meaning you intend? 

For example, if you want to simplify a complex concept, try saying “In essence,” or “To simplify.” This will give your explanation more depth and sophistication.

Additionally, you can also try breaking down your ideas into simple and concise language without relying on this overused term. 

Your audience will appreciate your communication style and perceive you as intelligent and thoughtful.

3) “I’m not an expert, but…”

When undergraduate students review dissertation abstracts, the complexity of their vocabulary and sentence structure can often be a source of pride. 

However, starting your sentences with “I’m not an expert, but…” can negate all that effort and undermine your credibility. Even if you find complex language alienating or intimidating, it’s better to keep your statements concise and factual rather than undermine yourself.

Waffling like this makes individuals sound less trustworthy.

Instead of saying “I’m not an expert,” try saying “Based on my understanding” “From my experience,” or “To the best of my knowledge.” 

These phrases indicate expertise without claiming to be an authority on a subject. Moreover, this will help establish you as someone with valuable insights to share.

Remember, complex words and the simplest language both have their place in communication. It’s important to use language that is appropriate for your audience and the message you want to convey.

4) “To be fair”

The main goal of using “to be fair” is to acknowledge the other side of an argument or situation. 

However, using this phrase too often or inappropriately can make you sound defensive or uncertain.

Instead of relying on “to be fair,” try saying “I understand your perspective,” “It’s important to consider,” or simply stating the facts without adding a qualifier.

This will help you come across as confident and objective, rather than unsure and overly conciliatory. 

Remember, it’s possible to acknowledge different viewpoints without weakening your own arguments or position.

Alternative phrases: Depending on the context, phrases like, “to be precise,” “to focus on,” or “I want to clarify” may work better.

5) “Like” 

The word “like” and even “um” are often used as filler words. It lacks sophistication and can be frustrating to listen to.

That’s because it boils down to grammar. 

The overuse of “like” can make you seem challenged to articulate your thoughts coherently.

Take a job interview, for instance. Filler words can distract interviewers from the content being communicated.

An alternative to using “like” would be to simply pause or take a breath instead. This can help you gather your thoughts and eliminate the need for filler words. You could also replace it with “For example,” “such as,” or “in the case of.”

The point is, to choose words wisely to control how others see you. Be mindful and aim for clarity and brevity in your communication.

6) “Irregardless” 

Frankly, if you give an impression of intelligence by using big words, then using “irregardless” will immediately diminish that image with your classmates or coworkers. 

That’s because this isn’t a real word.

Moreover, if you even mention that this word is slang, you’re still incorrect. It’s a double-negative and is a non-standard word that has no place in formal communication.

Don’t limit yourself to a basic vocabulary, but avoid sounding illiterate. Let’s aim for a happy medium that showcases your intelligence and leaves a lasting impression on your audience.

A good alternative is “regardless,” “nevertheless,” or “even so.” These phrases convey the same meaning while also showing that you have a good command of the language.

7) “It is what it is”

“It is what it is” is a cliché that’s often used when one’s at a loss for words or cannot find a solution. But in real life, it does nothing to provide direction, and it can sound indifferent or defeatist.

Different dictionaries show “it is what it is” as improper – lacking a verb and a subject. It’s more of a phrase used to express acceptance or resignation.

To avoid sounding passive, try offering solutions or suggesting alternative approaches. Use phrases like “let’s explore other options,” or “perhaps we can try this instead.”

Remember, how you communicate affects how smart others think you are.

By choosing your words carefully and thoughtfully, you can project an intelligent and competent image.

8) “I’m sorry, but…”

Often, people use the phrase “I’m sorry, but…” as a passive-aggressive tactic to disguise criticism or give bad news.

Why is that? 

It softens the blow and makes things less confrontational. Moreover, it helps people avoid feeling like they are attacking someone directly or being too blunt in their delivery. 

The thing is: if you use this phrase frequently or insincerely, it can backfire because people could feel you’re being insincere.

Instead, use phrases like “Thanks for your patience,” “To be frank,” or “Honestly.”

These can show how simple language choices can convey honesty and transparency without being unnecessarily harsh or confrontational.

9) “I died”

In this day and age where cognitive psychology is becoming increasingly popular, it’s important to be mindful of the language we use and how it affects our mental well-being.

One such phrase to avoid is “I died,” which is often used to express shock or surprise.

Let me explain further.

While using exaggeration can add color to a conversation, using “I died” is one of the phrases that make you sound less intelligent.

How? It’s an overly dramatic and unnecessary expression that doesn’t accurately convey the situation.

Instead, try using phrases like “That really surprised me,” “I couldn’t believe what I heard,” or “I was so shocked.”

These phrases still express your emotion without undermining your intelligence by using hyperbole.

You don’t only sound smarter, but you avoid any negative reaction that might come with using such an extreme phrase.

10) “Literally”

Do you hear people using “literally” all the time? It’s a commonly misused word, popularized by younger generations.

Let me explain further.

Using “literally” when it’s not necessary can make you sound less intelligent than you are. Why? Because it’s an unnecessary and exaggerated word that doesn’t really add value to a sentence.

When we use literally in a figurative sense, it implies that something isn’t true or—which is not only confusing, but can also make you sound uneducated. 

Saying “I literally died laughing” doesn’t actually mean you died. It just means you found something so ridiculously funny that you felt like you died! 

In fact, when something strikes you as particularly amusing, don’t hesitate to let the person know! You could consider saying, “Wow, that was hilarious! My sides are splitting.” Alternatively, you could say “I found that super amusing. How did you come up with that?” 

Providing extra detail can often take a compliment to the next level, making it more memorable and satisfying.

Final thoughts

As mentioned earlier, words are powerful. And the language we use shapes how we think and feel.

Choosing our words thoughtfully is essential to effective self-expression.

Replacing a noun or an adjective with some jargon or even the longest synonym possible doesn’t necessarily make you sound smarter. 

Moreover, if you think that using a third of those words above won’t make you sound any less intelligent, think again.

It can actually backfire, making you confusing and difficult to understand.

If you consciously avoid these phrases, you can project a more confident, knowledgeable image of yourself.

If you can do that, then you’re well on your way to positive impressions that last a long time.

Frankie Pascua-dela Pasion

Frankie was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. She is a graduate of Humanities from the University of Asia and the Pacific.

Frankie is a seasoned Customer Success and Human Resources professional. She is also a certified Life Coach and Career Strategist. She helps people young and young at heart to simplify their lives by creating emotional awareness. She also loves working with people who have a genuine interest in breaking their inner limits through their journey of self-discovery and authenticity in their personal and professional lives.

Frankie’s recent venture into writing is fueled by her passion for human connection and meaningful relationships at home, at work, and basically everywhere. She enjoys the research, discovery, and reflection that go into each article as much as she writes about them, in the hopes that her words resonate with, and give perspective to her audience.

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