10 Things Professionals Should Never Say When They First Meet Someone
"You may remember the playground adage, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.' Unfortunately, this saying does not apply in the workplace, especially when you're meeting someone for the first time," says Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of "Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results." "Words, poorly and unconsciously chosen, can indeed hurt not only first impressions, but also your credibility, relationships, and opportunities for career advancement."
Unfortunately, though, we've all experienced the foot-in-mouth syndrome — when you wish you could click the "undo" key on speech, Price says. And there are at least three reasons this happens.
First, she says, nerves and anxiety often cause a "litany of 'no-nos.'" "When we're nervous, we speak without thinking, we speak much faster, and we say more than is necessary."
Second, unawareness of proper social and business etiquette leads us to bring up "traditional taboo topics such as politics, religion, and sex."
And third is egocentrism — a preoccupation with one's own internal world. "This prompts some people to talk excessively and even brag about the subject that interests them most: themselves."
Here are nine things you should never say or talk about when you first meet someone in a professional setting:
1. Anything negative: "My job stinks." "I hate this company." "My boss is a jerk."
Nothing tanks a first impression faster than negativity, Price says. "Even if these statements are true, they're best left unsaid in a social or business setting, especially when you're putting your best foot forward in a first-time meeting." If you have a genuine complaint about someone or something, communicate the issue with the person who can do something about it, such as human resources.
2. Anything about money: "What's your salary?" "How much do you make?" "What do you get paid?"
The amount of money a person earns is a very personal matter. "It's considered rude to ask, and unconscionable on a first encounter," she explains. "If you're really that curious, or it's important that you know, instead of committing this faux pas, do some research on sites like Payscale.com, Salary.com, or Glassdoor.com.
3. Anything political: "I'm a Republican/Democrat/Other." "Who did you vote for?" "What's your stance on abortion/immigration/capital punishment?"
As a general rule of etiquette, don't bring up politics — particularly around election time. "While you may feel strongly about your political party, candidate, or key issues, avoid campaigning at work," Price says. "If, however, the person or group with whom you're conversing launches into the topic, stick to the facts. Stay away from anything emotionally charged, controversial, too personal, opinionated, or judgmental." Instead, discuss the candidate's stance, what was said in the debate, and the latest headlines.
4. Anything about religion: "Do you believe in God?" "Are you religious?" "I'm a devout ____."
It may seem obvious to avoid this topic, but it happens. "Regardless of whether you're a person of faith or not, the first time you meet someone professionally is not the time to ask about their religious persuasion, unless perhaps you're a member of clergy," Price explains.
5. Anything about your sexual orientation: "I'm gay." "I'm straight." "I'm asexual."
"It doesn't matter, and it's no one's business other than yours and your partner's," Price says. "It's also likely to make other people uncomfortable, and may even border on sexual harassment."
6. Anything about pregnancy: "When is your baby due?" "Congratulations! I see you're expecting." "Are you pregnant?"
If you imply a woman is pregnant when she isn't, there is no recovery. It's a colossal insult. "Besides, this observation (whether true or false) is too personal to mention for a first time meeting," Price says. "Unless the woman brings it up, stick with professional topics that relate to your industry or business function."
7. Anything about their physical appearance: "I love your dress." "Who does your hair?" "Have you lost weight?" "You look so different in real life than you do in your LinkedIn photo."
"Avoid commenting on a person's personal appearance or belongings — even if it's positive — when you first meet them," she suggests. "It's too personal and out of place. Even after you get to know them, be careful what you say and why."
Because of varying power relationships and pecking order in the workplace, it's often the safest bet to avoid physical comments altogether unless you're certain how they will be perceived. "Instead, give sincere work-related praise such as, 'I really enjoyed your presentation.' Or, 'Congratulations on exceeding your sales quota.' Or, 'Your project management skills are a huge asset to this team.'"
8. Anything about your health or hardships: "I'm getting a divorce." "I have chronic fatigue syndrome." "I had to file for bankruptcy."
If you're going through something difficult, it may be tempting to share with your new colleague or client — but it's entirely inappropriate.
"Avoid mentioning personal adversity when you first meet someone, or in general business discussions," Price suggests. "If you do, you may give your coworkers and boss reason to doubt your ability." Of course, serious health issues must be discussed with your employer. But your clients and colleagues don't need specific details about your health or hardships.
9. Anything about your expectations: "You're shorter/taller, thinner/larger, older/younger than I was expecting." "You look different than you sound over the phone." "I would never have guessed you were _______."
Don't begin a conversation by implying you're surprised, disappointed, or puzzled by that fact that the person did not meet up to your predisposed expectations.
10. Anything that will make you seem self-centered: "I…I…I..."
Self-absorption should be avoided in any first conversation. "Dorothy Sarnoff reminds us that, 'I is the smallest letter in the alphabet, so don't make it the largest word in your vocabulary.' No one is impressed when a person dominates a conversation or talks too much about him or herself, especially the first time you meet someone," Price says. To avoid an I-centric conversation, show sincere interest in others by asking appropriate questions and actively listening. "How did you get into accounting?" "What brought you to Atlanta?" "What do you believe are the key challenges in our industry?"
"We all stand to improve our ability to craft a positive first impression, particularly in the words we say," Price explains. "If Emily Post is right, the most effective remedy is to focus on the best interests of the other person because, 'nearly all the faults of conversation are caused by a lack of consideration.'"
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