10 words or phrases you should never use if you want to be liked, according to psychology

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It’s easy to overlook how much our words affect others. We often focus on getting things done quickly and forget that the words we choose can make a big difference. 

The truth is our everyday conversations are filled with words and phrases that might seem harmless but cause others to dislike us without us even realizing it. 

At least, I didn’t realize that a few of these phrases were so disliked until I dived into research for this post. Ever used “circle back,” for instance? 

I have, and I didn’t know it was annoying, but all the evidence says it is. 

There are more, too. 

Let’s get to them. 

1) “You’re just too sensitive.”

This is a huge one. 

Labeling someone as “too sensitive” is more than an offhand remark; it’s a subtle form of emotional dismissal. It devalues the recipient’s feelings, suggesting that their emotional response is not only excessive but unwarranted.

By saying it, you’re not doing yourself any social favors. 

Research backs this up. This phrase was highlighted as particularly detrimental in a Preply survey, where it was identified as one of the top passive-aggressive phrases to avoid. 

What to say instead

In moments when you might be tempted to discount someone’s feelings with this phrase, consider adopting a more empathetic stance. 

Open-ended questions like, “What’s making you feel this way?” or “I see this is affecting you deeply, can you share more about it?” can foster a more meaningful dialogue.

Questions like these not only validate the other person’s emotions but also encourage a shared understanding, moving the conversation from a place of judgment to one of mutual respect and empathy.

2) “Can I borrow you for a sec?”

According to research conducted by Reed, this phrase ranks highly among expressions “guaranteed to irritate your co-workers.” 

I can definitely understand why it is hated. I personally detest being interrupted, and as a result, this phrase. 

That ‘sec’ is rarely ever that, and even if it is a quick question, an interruption can cause us to lose focus for much longer than one might think. In fact, research from the University of California Irvine suggests it takes 23 minutes to recover from a distraction. 

Those seconds quickly add up, then. Interrupting people like this shows little regard for the value of their time. 

What to say instead

A more respectful way of approaching this is to send an email or message that they may review in their own time. 

Make sure to give them some details of what you need and how long it might take. There’s little worse than a mystery meeting with no time limit. 

This approach acknowledges the value of the other person’s time and contributions, offering them the autonomy to engage in the conversation at a time that suits their schedule and workload. 

It shifts the dynamic from an interruption to an invitation, paving the way for more positive and productive collaborations.

3) “Whatever.”

Ah, the classic “Whatever”. 

Unsurprisingly, it was identified as the fourth most detrimental passive-aggressive phrase in the Preply survey I mentioned, highlighting its widespread recognition as a conversation stopper.

We’ve all heard it slip out of our mouths from time to time, but unless you are a moody teenage girl, you need to delete it from your verbal arsenal. 

Its dismissiveness can abruptly halt any attempt at meaningful interaction, leaving the other person feeling disregarded and insignificant. 

What to say instead

If you find yourself leaning towards this dismissive retort, consider pausing and opting for a more constructive response. 

Phrases like, “I understand this is important to you. Can we explore this further?” or “I’m here to listen. Please share your thoughts with me” can dramatically alter the course of the conversation. 

These alternatives demonstrate an openness to dialogue and respect for the other person’s perspective, fostering a more inclusive and empathetic exchange. 

By choosing engagement over dismissal, you pave the way for more pleasant interactions. 

4) “If you really cared, you would…”

This is more than a phrase; it’s a potent form of emotional manipulation, setting a conditional premise for care and affection that can deeply affect personal relationships. 

By framing desires or demands as tests of affection or commitment, this phrase undermines the foundations of healthy relational interaction, which should be rooted in mutual respect, understanding, and genuine care. 

It shifts the focus from collaborative problem-solving and mutual support to a transactional view of emotions and relationships.

What to say instead

I know it can be tempting to say this in the heat of the moment but just don’t. 

Take a breath and ppt for phrases that encourage partnership and understanding, such as “I feel valued when you do this…” or “It’s important to me that we address this together. How do you feel about it?” 

Such expressions promote an atmosphere of openness and mutual respect, allowing for a healthier and more constructive dialogue that strengthens rather than undermines emotional connections.

5) “Circle back.”

Have you used this phrase?

I have, and until looking at the data for this article, I was unaware it was so offensive. 

In my research, however, this term repeatedly emerged as a no-go, cited in studies and articles by sources such as INC, Preply, and The Muse.

I suppose it’s because “Circle back” can inadvertently signal procrastination, evasion, or a lack of commitment to resolving the matter at hand. I’ll admit that these things are pretty annoying. 

Anyway, whatever the reason, the point is that people don’t like it, and if you want people to like you, you should avoid it. 

What to say instead

Consider specifying a time for revisiting the discussion, such as “Let’s schedule a time to discuss this further” or “I’ll review this and get back to you by [specific date/time].” 

Such alternatives convey a clear commitment to addressing the issue, providing colleagues with a concrete sense of progression and reliability. 

This approach not only minimizes misunderstandings but also reinforces a culture of accountability and responsiveness within the team.

6) “You never/You always…”

These may seem harmless, but ‘You always’ and ‘You never’ should be avoided at all costs. 

This is widely acknowledged by experts such As noted by Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, who stated in a Psychology Today Post that “such absolutes are hyperbolic and over-generalized and invariably put the receiver on the defensive.”

Why?

Well, such statements can make the recipient feel unfairly judged and that they are incapable of change. 

What to say instead

Instead of reverting to overgeneralizations, try to focus on specific instances and express your feelings and needs related to those events. 

For example, instead of saying, “You always ignore my texts,” you could say, “When I didn’t hear back from you about my message yesterday, I felt worried and unimportant. Can we agree on the best way to communicate in these situations?” 

This method encourages dialogue and mutual understanding, fostering a healthier interaction where both parties feel heard and valued.

07 “You should have…”

While it’s natural to want to highlight mistakes in the hope of preventing them in the future, using “You should have…” can be more harmful than helpful. 

It tends to evoke feelings of guilt and defensiveness, hindering the opportunity for constructive feedback and growth.

Moreover, this phrase overlooks the complexity of decisions and the fact that outcomes are often not as predictable as they seem when looking back. Hindsight is 20/20, after all. 

What to say instead

Shifting from a blame-oriented approach to one that focuses on learning and improvement is beneficial in personal relationships and professional settings. 

Instead of saying, “You should have…”, consider framing feedback in a way that encourages reflection and problem-solving, such as “In the future, we might consider…” or “Let’s think about how we can handle this differently next time.” 

This not only avoids placing undue blame but also promotes a collaborative approach to overcoming challenges and making better decisions moving forward.

8) “Just a friendly reminder”

While this workplace staple might be intended to convey a light-hearted prompt, it often carries an undercurrent of passive aggression. 

Why?

It implies that the recipient has forgotten or neglected their responsibilities, leading to feelings of being monitored or mistrusted. 

The subtle implication of oversight can undermine the recipient’s sense of autonomy and competence, eroding trust and mutual respect. Needless to say, these are foundational elements of a positive workplace culture.

What to say instead

It’s easy to default to this phrase. It is so common that we often do it without even thinking. But we could all do with considering the impact of our words more carefully. 

Instead, you might say, “I was reviewing our project timeline and wanted to check in on [specific task or deadline]. How are things progressing?” 

This approach avoids a condescending tone and also opens the door for a constructive exchange. It reinforces the idea of teamwork and shared goals rather than individual oversight.

9) “We’re a family”

This is one I personally despise. 

I used to work at a company where managers frequently used this line. It was presented as a warm, inclusive sentiment, but in reality, it served as a thinly veiled expectation that employees would commit beyond reasonable boundaries. 

As I see it, more often than not, this phrase aims to blur the lines between personal life and professional responsibilities, creating an environment where saying no or setting healthy work-life boundaries became increasingly difficult.

And it seems others would agree. A recent study found that 18% of interviewees see it as a red flag if the interviewer refers to the company as a family. 

If you hire people or are a manager, take note. 

What to say instead

Building a positive workplace culture is essential, but it should be grounded in respect, fairness, and clear boundaries. 

Instead of the misleading “We’re a family” rhetoric, emphasize the team’s shared goals and mutual support in a professional context. 

Phrases like “We’re a strong team, and we succeed by supporting each other” or “Our collective effort and mutual respect drive our success” can foster a sense of unity and collaboration without overstepping personal boundaries or implying unrealistic obligations. 

Encourage a culture where contributions are recognized, and work-life balance is respected, ensuring that employees feel valued as professionals and individuals.

10) “Think outside the box”

Despite its widespread use as a positive motivational tool, this expression also made Reed’s list of problematic office phrases. 

The issue lies not in the encouragement of creative thinking, but in the phrase’s overuse to the point of becoming a cliché. 

It has become a filler term that lacks substantive direction or inspiration, often leaving the listener unsure of how to proceed or what is specifically expected of them.

Moreover, the vagueness of “Think outside the box” can inadvertently signal a lack of clear vision or leadership. 

What to say instead

To truly foster an environment where innovative thinking is valued and encouraged, it’s more effective to provide specific guidance and clear examples. 

Instead of “think outside the box,” consider framing your encouragement around specific goals or challenges. 

For instance, “Let’s explore new approaches that challenge our usual methods in [specific aspect or project]” or “I encourage you to bring forward ideas that might defy our standard practices in [specific context].” 

This approach not only clarifies the direction of the creative endeavor but also makes it more tangible, guiding team members toward meaningful innovation.

The bottom line 

That’s it from me today, folks. 

The words we say have an effect, and we could all be more aware of the ones we choose. 

As always, I hope you learned a thing or two from reading this post. I certainly learned a thing or two from researching it. 

Until next time. 

Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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