10 words you use at work that make you instantly sound less intelligent

This article was updated on July 29, 2021.

Words have taken on a new weight with so many people working remotely. We now communicate all day via a slew of chat apps on top of email and texting. In the absence of face-to-face contact, sometimes what you say takes a backseat to how you say it.

Seeing how everyone lives on Zoom might have broken down some barriers, but like it or not, your coworkers and colleagues are judging your words more than ever. Here are 10 words and phrases that are at best, probably driving your colleagues nuts by now, and at worst, reflecting badly on you. 


“Literally” is the new “ironic” – nobody seems to know how to use it, but that doesn’t stop certain people from peppering it into almost every sentence. Webster defines literally as “in a literal way,” with literal meaning “free from exaggeration or embellishment.” So did you literally die of embarrassment at that last meeting? Was it literally the hardest project ever? Did you literally just have the best day of your life? Chances are overwhelmingly high that the answer is no.


Legit is literally’s weird, socially awkward cousin who tags along to a party uninvited and eats all the snacks. Legit refers to the validity and legality of something. You can have “a legitimate concern” at work, but you should not “legit go crazy.” In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If you are legit using this word as an adverb, please just stop it right now. 


“Take it offline” is a weird, nonsensical buzzphrase with neutral to negative connotations. While it’s come to mean having a private side convo, it essentially shuts down a conversation (sometimes in a pretentious way). When a machine is offline, it is not connected to the internet and cannot communicate. Do you really want to announce to your fellow coworkers (who are humans, not machines), that you’d prefer to continue the current conversation privately with a select group? Never mind the factual inaccuracy, given that your correspondence is and will probably continue to be “online” in some way.  


If your work environment is on the cutting edge of slang vocab, congrats! But lose “that’s fire” and “that’s lit” unless there’s a genuine emergency situation happening (in which case, please call 911). It’s too close to “fired,” which is never a good mental association. Plus, let’s be honest, there’s probably nothing fire about putting together spreadsheets and outreach lists for Q4. 


Nobody uses bandwidth in a positive way. (“I have so much bandwidth right now!”) The phrase is almost always either, “I don’t have the bandwidth for this right now” (as a polite way to express how busy you are) or alternatively, “Do you have the bandwidth for this?” (which is a way of saying “I know you’re doing way too much but I’m going to see what else you’ll agree to take on.”). If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we’re all human beings with ebbs and flows in our work (and home) lives. Burnout is real, and it happens to everyone. It’s time to stop comparing yourself to machinery. 


There’s nothing wrong with this word, per se, but it’s so overused that people will question if you truly understand the concept. You can technically pivot to email at some point in your day, but this term should be saved for a company-wide (often abrupt) about face. It’s reactionary, not just any old change. How many times can you truly pivot at work? And how can you say it so often without yelling it like Ross moving his couch in the stairwell on Friends


Listen, nobody likes unpacking. The immediate mental association is “baggage,” which… isn’t great, in any context. At work, unpack is jargon for “think about this more deeply.” Even if you aren’t conjuring up images of vacation when someone uses unpack, this buzzword raises some questions. What is there to think about? Why haven’t you already thought about it? What else can you possibly figure out? How long is this going to take? If you announce that you “still need to unpack” something at work, there comes a point where you’re just taking up space like that suitcase full of dirty laundry.


Unfortunately, we like like way too much and this word might never go away. It has infiltrated all aspects of life, despite the many studies showing how it makes a person sound immature and unintelligent. “Like,” “um,” and “you know” are all filler words that give the person speaking a moment to gather their thoughts (which indicate that they don’t really know what they want to say). As people now write more closely to how they talk and texting colleagues becomes commonplace like has re-infiltrated workplace correspondence in a big way. Removing like from your casual daily speech is difficult, but whatever you do, do not write it at work (and especially do not use it to start a sentence). 

Circle (as in back) 

Okay, admittedly, saying “let’s circle back” on something doesn’t make you sound dumb – but we all have a very clear image of “the ‘circle back’ guy” in our heads, and do you want to be that person? It’s just as easy to say, “Let’s reconvene” or “Let’s revisit that later.” There is only so much circling back people can do, even metaphorically. 

Out of pocket 

The modern-day origins of out of pocket came from the military, as either a substitute for out of the loop or as a phrase for when soldiers went on leave. Now it’s morphed into a convoluted, dutiful way of saying “unavailable” in a work context, usually in very logical circumstances (the weekend, vacation, an important meeting, while driving, etc.). Ignoring the fact that using too much military jargon sets a certain tone in an office (boots on the ground, looking at you), it’s just so much clearer to say you’ll be unreachable.