11 words you should stop using if you want to sound intelligent, according to psychology

“You should use used instead of utilizing utilize.”

That’s according to Daniel M. Oppenheimer, UCLA professor of psychology and co-author of a study focusing on purposefully choosing complicated words to look intelligent.

It turns out this strategy might do the opposite. 

But that’s not all you need to know if you’re looking to sound more intelligent. 

Psychologists suggest eliminating certain words and phrases from our speech to achieve that. 

Let’s check out 11 examples below:

1) Highfalutin words

Let’s go back to Oppenheimer’s study and dive a little deeper:

What Oppenheimer did was change regular words in college application letters with more complex ones.

He then asked undergraduates if they would admit these applicants based on their letters. He discovered that the letters that were harder to understand were the least impressive to the respondents.

In another survey, Oppenheimer asked college students to review modified dissertations and had them evaluate the authors’ intelligence.

It turned out that the authors who used simpler language were viewed as the most intelligent.

Of course, there are times when more complex and specialized language is called for, like in academic writing or when dealing in the professional context.

But generally and in everyday use, using hifalutin words can backfire and make you appear less intelligent. 

The harder your words are to understand, the less smart people think you are.

2) “Closure”

The term closure originated from Gestalt psychology and refers to the psychological process of perceiving something as a whole, even when the pieces are missing.

These days, we use it to define a definitive end or a period of emotional healing after a hurtful event – like a breakup or dealing with a loved one’s death.

According to psychology experts, the use of closure in this context may actually be inappropriate.

Here’s why:

Doing so oversimplifies and generalizes a complex and deeply personal process. 

While you could use it to define finding your own peace, you should not use it when describing someone else’s emotional journey.

Think about it:

Unless you’re the one involved, there’s no clear point when you can say that someone’s “totally over it now.”

3) “Brainwashing”

Brainwashing is another misleading word that experts warn us against using.

When we say ‘brainwashing,’ we mean someone’s being made to act or think without thinking for themselves.

I’m guilty of using this word more than a few times, until I learned what experts say about it:

If you want to sound more informed, brainwashing might not be the best term to use here.

They say closer analysis shows “brainwashing” is nothing more than well-known persuasion methods, including setting goals, proving trustworthiness, pretending agreement, and using convincing stories. 

Research and historical examples, like those of American prisoners of war, prove these techniques rarely cause lasting changes in beliefs.

So, when we use the term “brainwashing,” we risk oversimplifying the reality of how people can be influenced or persuaded. 

It paints a picture of mind control that’s inaccurate and ignores the complexities of human psychology and social influence. 

4) “Calm down”

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr Andrea Bonior says she has never seen an instance where the words “calm down” had its desired effect.

She points out that this phrase forces people to go on the defensive. 

Telling someone to “calm down” implies that their reactions are the problem. Or worse, it invalidates their feelings.

Instead, Dr. Bonior suggests saying things like, “I understand this is upsetting” or “How can I help us move through this.”

She says these statements not only validate their feelings, but it’s also offering help

It’s about using words that will create a helpful connection rather than accusation or separation.

5) “That’s irrelevant”

Saying things are irrelevant in the proper context, such as in legal proceedings, is appropriate and not the focus of this point.

What we’re looking into here is saying “that’s irrelevant” to someone offering their idea or opinion in the everyday context.

Experts make an interesting point:

Saying something is irrelevant says more about what you don’t know rather than the topic under discussion.

It’s a dismissive phrase – something that goes against the open-mindedness and curiosity of a genuinely intelligent person.

6) “You think too much”

This is another dismissive phrase experts advise us not to use if we want to sound smart.

Here’s why:

One of the hallmarks of genuine smarts is a growth mindset. Intelligent people love to learn, and they’re always looking to evolve.

But saying “you think too much” shuts this down by suggesting that there’s an endpoint to thinking and questioning.

The really intelligent people know that learning and thinking are endless, so they would never accuse themselves, let alone someone else, of overthinking.

7) “Never” or “Always”

words should stop using if you want to sound intelligent 11 words you should stop using if you want to sound intelligent, according to psychology

Psychologists believe that using extremes to describe others can cause all-or-nothing thinking.

This black and white thought pattern limits how smartly we tackle problems because it stops us from seeing all the possible solutions. 

Let’s look at Einstein as an example. 

If he didn’t explore a lot of theories and possibilities, we wouldn’t be benefiting from his big ideas now.

And that’s not all.

Psychologists also say using always and never can also hurt others.

It makes them feel attacked (like when you say, “you always do xx”) or it reduces the value of their contributions, such as in “you never”.

They suggest that the first step in controlling this issue is to limit the use of these words as much as possible. 

As Wendell Johnson said, “Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.”

8) Fetish

Fetish in today’s language has been stretched far beyond its original, clinical definition according to psychologists.

The term has become a way to highlight an intense interest or a weird preference that someone has without necessarily implying anything sexual.

For example, some people say they have a chocolate fetish, which means they love chocolate. Or some would say they have a shoe fetish when they really mean they’re into collecting shoes.

Using it in this context can make it sound like you’re not quite getting the true meaning of the word and this will make you come across as less knowledgeable. 

Fetish, in psychology, refers to something very specific. 

It’s a psychiatric condition where someone gets an unusual amount of sexual excitement from things that aren’t typically considered sexual, like objects (socks).

Or it could also refer to body parts not usually seen in a sexual way (like someone’s feet).

It may sound cute saying it, but we have to remember to use words accurately, especially when they have a specific meaning in areas like psychology.

9) “I don’t care how you feel”

Intelligence isn’t just about high IQs. It can also mean being attuned to your and other’s emotions, or what is otherwise known as emotional intelligence.

That said, our last three points will touch on things you should not say if you want to sound emotionally intelligent, according to Harvard-trained psychologist Dr Cortney Warren.

Let’s start strong with “I don’t care how you feel.”

This phrase is a telltale sign of your lack of empathy and, therefore, a red flag of your low emotional intelligence.

10) “I’m not changing”

Adaptability is a key trait of someone with high emotional intelligence. 

The opposite of it is being rigid and resistant to all efforts for learning and evolving. 

Dr Warren emphasizes that while sticking to your convictions is important, so is being flexible and open to new possibilities. 

Take it from the genius himself:

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” – Albert Einstein.

11) “It’s your fault I’m feeling this way”

Dr. Warren reminds us of two things:

(1) Our emotions aren’t someone else’s responsibility to fix. 

(2) People with strong emotional intelligence understand that how they feel is linked to how they see their circumstances.  

So when you go and blame others for your feelings, you’re essentially displaying your lack of emotional intelligence.

And more than that, you’re showing lack of self-awareness and personal accountability.

Shorter is smarter

Sounding intelligent isn’t about long words or complex phrases.

Instead, it’s about clear and effective communication.

Oppenheimer’s study, together with input from other psychological experts, has proven that simplicity, empathy, and self-awareness matter when it comes to choosing our vocabulary.

So, the next time you’re tempted to use highfalutin words or dismiss other’s emotions, stop.

Take a moment to reflect on how embracing simpler language not only makes you more relatable but smarter in the eyes of those around you.

On that note, let’s wrap it up with one last lesson from Einstein:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Picture of Sarah Piluden-Natu-El

Sarah Piluden-Natu-El

Sarah is a full-time mum, wife, and nurse on hiatus turned freelance writer. She is on a journey of diving deeper into life through life itself and uses her writing to share the lessons learned along the way. When not on her computer, she enjoys time with her family strolling along the Gold Coast's stunning beaches and captivating hinterland.

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