We all want to be seen as smart, articulate, and competent in conversations. But sometimes, even the best of us can say things that undercut that impression.
I’ve certainly been there — saying something I thought was harmless, only to realize later it gave off the wrong vibe.
That’s why I put together this list of 8 phrases that smart people avoid using in conversations.
These phrases might seem insignificant, but they can be damaging to how others perceive your intelligence and emotional intelligence.
So if you want to come across as the smart and thoughtful person you are, read on to find out what phrases you should definitely stop using.
1) “I told you so.”
All of us have at some point watched someone take a misstep that we warned them about. It’s tempting to say, “I told you so,” to validate our wisdom or even our concern.
I recently warned a friend about booking a trip through a third party website, and when she found out they overcharged her, those four words danced on the tip of my tongue.
But I held back. Why? Because saying “I told you so” doesn’t help anyone.
It doesn’t solve the problem, and it certainly doesn’t make anyone feel better. In fact, it’s just gloating in disguise and can make the other person feel inferior or belittled — which is one of the best ways to damage the relationship.
Smart people know that instead of rubbing in a mistake, they should offer a way forward, a solution, or at the very least, emotional support.
If you’re right about something, often there’s no need to proclaim it. Your insight will speak for itself, and people will trust your judgment in the future without you having to tarnish the present moment.
2) “That’s not my job.”
I remember one of my first jobs, working in a small theater as a bus person. One day I saw something spilled on the ground and went to get the mop, but my colleague stopped me.
“That’s not our job,” he said. That struck me as rather cold and self-centered — and the truth is, it was.
It’s true that everyone has their own responsibilities, and we can’t take on those of everyone else or we will never be able to get our own ones done.
There are also tasks maybe we’re not prepared or trained to handle, or where we would be stepping on someone else’s toes.
However, there are much better ways to communicate that than “That’s not my job,” which just puts up walls and sounds uncooperative.
And, sometimes we need to go above and beyond our official duties to create an environment of goodwill and look at the bigger picture — in my case, the comfort of the theater guests who were about to come out for intermission.
3) “You always…” or “You never…”
How many times have you been in an argument where someone throws out an absolute like, “You always forget to take out the trash,” or “You never listen to me”?
I remember an old friend who had a habit of using these phrases during disagreements. It escalated things instantly because it felt like I was being labeled, boxed into a negative trait without room for exceptions.
Smart people are careful to avoid these absolute phrases. Why? Because they’re rarely, if ever, true and they shut down productive dialogue.
They make the other person defensive, effectively killing any chance for meaningful discussion. Instead, the conversation becomes about the accusation rather than the issue at hand.
If you find yourself tempted to use “always” or “never,” pause and consider what you’re really trying to say. Opt for more accurate descriptions like, “I’ve noticed it’s been difficult for you to remember to take out the trash,” or “I feel like I’m not being heard right now.”
It’s a small adjustment, but it can make a world of difference in keeping conversations constructive and relationships intact.
4) “It’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair” is a lesson most of us learned as kids, but the phrase “It’s not fair” still slips into our vocabulary all too easily, especially when we’re feeling wronged or slighted.
I must admit I thought this all too often — when someone cut in line in front of me, when my order got lost in the mail, someone else grabbed the last pancake at a hotel breakfast.
And here’s what my therapist once told me — I was perfectly right. It wasn’t fair. But was it helpful for me to think about life being fair? It was only making me feel angry — and on the occasions when I said it out loud, it also made me look immature.
In a professional setting, it can also signal that you feel entitled to something you haven’t earned in the eyes of others, or not open to understanding the complexity of a situation.
If you do genuinely believe you’re being treated unfairly in a significant way, there’s a more strategic way to address it. Bring evidence to support your case and present it calmly.
Show, don’t tell, why a decision or action should be reconsidered. You’ll appear reasonable and rational rather than emotional and reactive.
5) “This may be a stupid question, but…”
I’m sure all of us, at one point, have asked a question by prefacing it with “This may be a stupid question, but…”
This phrase is meant to make us feel better and get understanding from others, but does a really poor job at doing both these things.
Why? Because it undermines your credibility right from the get-go. It’s like you’re giving others permission to dismiss your thoughts before you even express them.
Plus, most questions are valid and contribute to a deeper understanding for everyone involved.
Instead, just ask your question confidently. If you’re unsure about the context, you can set it up with something like, “I’m not sure I have all the details here, but could you explain…?”
This way, you’re acknowledging any gaps in your knowledge without labeling yourself or your question as “stupid.”
Remember, the only stupid question is the one that goes unasked. So go ahead, speak up — you might just be asking what everyone else is wondering.
6) “I’ll try.”
“I’ll try” sounds harmless enough — in fact, most people use it as a way to protect themselves. We can’t promise the world, so we say “I’ll try” with the best of intentions.
But I remember a time when I told a friend that I’d “try” to proofread something for them, and I ended up not doing it. Later on, I realized how my words had subtly but surely softened my commitment and cushioned my accountability.
Smart people know that “I’ll try” is often a cop-out. It provides an escape hatch, a pre-built excuse for potential failure.
If you’re not certain you can do something, it’s better to be upfront about what you can and cannot commit to. Use clear terms that set expectations.
For example, instead of saying, “I’ll try to get that report to you by Friday,” say, “I will get that report to you by Monday.”
Or, say “I’m sorry, I can’t commit to that right now.” That clarity not only makes you seem more reliable but also builds trust among those you interact with.
7) “It’s always been done this way.”
We all know that change can be uncomfortable. But just because something “has always been done this way” doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to do it.
Smart people cringe when they hear this phrase because it stifles innovation and growth. It’s a mindset that prioritizes comfort over progress.
In today’s rapidly changing world, clinging to old methods simply because they’re familiar is a fast track to irrelevance.
If you find yourself tempted to use this phrase, stop and consider why you’re resistant to change. Is it because the current method is truly the best, or is it because the new way is unfamiliar and requires you to step out of your comfort zone?
Instead of dismissing new ideas outright, consider saying, “That’s an interesting approach; let’s explore its benefits and drawbacks.”
This kind of open-mindedness not only makes room for improvement but also positions you as a forward-thinker.
8) “It’s not my fault.”
We’ve all been there, caught in a moment where something goes wrong and our immediate instinct is to deflect blame. “It’s not my fault,” we say, eager to wash our hands of any responsibility.
I remember a time when I was late to a dinner and my immediate reaction was to blame the traffic. But deep down, I knew I could have left my house earlier.
Smart people steer clear of this phrase because it’s a hallmark of avoiding accountability. Sure, there are situations where circumstances are truly beyond your control. But even in those cases, passing the buck doesn’t solve the problem.
Instead of pointing fingers, try taking responsibility for what you can control. If you’re late because of traffic, you might say, “I apologize for being late; I’ll plan better next time to account for potential delays.”
By owning up to your role, no matter how small, you come across as someone who is mature, accountable, and solution-oriented. People notice, and they’ll respect you more for it.
Now you know 8 phrases smart people never use in a conversation.
You know what to do next — slash these phrases from your vocabulary.
Since your words often determine your mindset, you’ll be sure to see a change not only in how smart you sound, but also in how you think and feel.