We’ve all been there: that email you didn’t mean to send, that coworker you didn’t mean to upset, that situation you didn’t mean to make awkward. Kelly Williams Brown has been there, too—and she’s here to help you avoid 6 common work gaffes.

One of the hardest parts about transitioning from college to the workplace is that all of a sudden, most of what you’ve been taught about how to talk to people no longer applies. But there is good news: it’s not particle physics, or ancient Mandarin. You can master it, and you will master it! Beyond the obvious — no cursing, proofread your emails, always assume that Big Brother and your boss are reading every single thing you type — a few principles will go a long, long way toward making sure you’re heard.

When you start a new job:

Do not: Communicate using the frequency, volume, and types of communication that you are comfortable and familiar with.

Instead: This is a time for quiet observation. Imagine you are a private investigator, trying to get to the bottom of an extremely boring mystery. Wherever you work — whether you are at a start-up, white-shoe firm, or secluded Zen dōjō high in the hills of New Mexico — there are established norms for things ranging from when you take lunch to what, exactly, “casual Friday” attire consists of. Every workplace has its culture, and a really, really important part of that culture is how, when, why, and how often people talk to each other. There is no article that has the answers to these questions — the only way you’ll figure it out is to see how others do it. Is it a loud, collaborative workplace where people saunter over to ask questions? Are emails the default communique or only used for yes/no questions? Do check-ins happen daily, weekly, monthly, or never? Mirror the communication channels that are already in use.

When you are sitting in a meeting:

Do not say: “Going off what Megan said … exactly what Megan just said.”

Instead, say: “Megan makes a great point — and can we also consider …” Here is the problem with nearly any variation of the “going off what so-and-so said” construction: There is a 12 percent chance you are actually adding something important to what has just been brought up. There is an 88 percent chance you feel like you haven’t talked enough during this meeting yet. No one in this whole world spends their evenings wishing they were back in that conference room, hearing Dan’s 834th pitch for that thing that will never, ever happen. (Don’t stop believing, Dan!) But we need meetings, and so for meetings to be good for everyone, we must stick to the agenda and move swiftly through whatever must be discussed. Which means before you open your mouth, you must really be 1000 percent sure that what you are going to say contributes vitally to the current discussion and everyone present needs to hear. Remember the guy in lectures who would ask questions that weren’t actually questions, but rather statements designed to broadcast his own brilliance and impress the professor? Was the professor impressed? Was anyone impressed? No. Don’t be That Guy in a meeting. Help move the conversation forward.

When there is an office-related emergency:

Do not say: “So then, when I came back from lunch at around 1:30, I noticed that Megan was standing around and I asked her what was up, and she said her internet wasn’t working, so then I checked my internet and it didn’t seem to be working either. So then we checked with Todd, and his internet …”

Instead, say: “The server’s down. We’ve filed an IT help ticket and they think it will be back up by 3. Is there anything offline I could be working on right now?” When something is awry, it’s tempting to add a lot of backstory to soften the blow. Don’t do this. As they say in the news business, don’t bury the lead. Just start with whatever the most important fact is, then add a few bits of info about how the situation is hopefully getting better soon. If you can help fix things, fix them, but if you can’t, it’s OK. Most of us can’t help solve IT emergencies. But nearly all of us can impress our bosses by finding work-arounds and being productive even when something’s awry.

When there is an issue you need to address with your supervisor …

Do not say:


Instead: The next time you are talking to your boss, say that you’d like to sit down for 10 minutes at some point soon. “Nothing urgent, I just wanted to check in with you about something.” Email lacks so, so much — there is no intonation, no body language and so things that were meant to be perfectly pleasant can come off as curt. Because of this, email is especially poorly-suited for resolving conflicts or ambiguous situations in the office.

Side note: It probably goes without saying that you should not be going to your boss with interpersonal office problems, unless it rises to the level of harassment or a hostile work environment. In this situation, you are not going for a “I can’t deal with this person”-vibe, but rather a “I’m concerned about XYZ because it’s hampering progress in ABC ways, and I was hoping you might have some thoughts on how we can fix the problem.” It’s unpleasant but true: Workplace problems are problems only insofar as they apply to the continued health of the company and the workplace. If you frame the problem in terms of how it affects productivity and workflow — and indeed, if you think of the problem as not being about you, because it’s probably not — you’re much more likely to get a satisfying outcome.

When you have absolutely no idea what is being asked of you:

Do not say: “Got it!”

Instead, say: “I’m really excited for this project, and I want to make sure we’re on the same page. So if I understand correctly, you’d like four ideas for new widgets based on Megan’s new prototype in a PowerPoint by 3 p.m. Friday?” Yes, it’s embarrassing to ask your boss to go through the minute details. But you know what’s more embarrassing? Missing the mark completely and royally f-ing up an assignment you could have aced if you had a little bit more information. Taking the 30 seconds to be positive about what’s being asked of you will always pay off. It doesn’t make you sound stupid; it makes you sound like the capable, responsible dude or lady you are!

When composing an email:

Do not: Type in the address until you have proofread, checked it over, and are 100 percent sure you want to send it.


Instead: Type that address in last, once it is spell-checked and perfect and precisely what you want to say.

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this. We promise, it will save your life more than once. You can thank us later.

Kelly Williams Brown is an award-winning reporter, columnist, and author of Adulting: How to Become A Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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