“I was wondering…” It seems like such an innocuous phrase, a polite segue into a question or request. Women tend to use this phrase a lot, said etiquette coach Barbara Pachter, and it has more of an effect than they might think.
"It's a phrase women use that takes away their power," said Pachter, who recently published a new book "The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat and Tweet Your Way to Success."
The subject came up when I was interviewing Pachter for a story about whether exclamation points are appropriate in workplace emails. During the course of our chat, Pachter offered to critique an email I'd sent to her asking for her help on the story.
Having your email style critiqued live over the phone is a rather nerve-racking process, but I was pleased to hear that much of my technique was spot on—I broke up my note in paragraphs to make it seem less dense, I had a strong signature block. But there was "I was wondering" glaring out from the screen.
The phrase doesn't project confidence, Pachter explained, and it isn't the only one. There's also "I'm sorry to bother you" and "Can I ask a question?" Together, they form a triumvirate of weak expressions that I use all the time—both in print and in person.
Pachter calls them "self-discounting language." And although men are certainly guilty of using them for time to time, women—myself included—are repeat offenders.
"A lot of us were raised as little girls to be sweet and polite and everything nice," Pachter said. "So it's easy to fall into that pattern."
The problem is that "all these things chip away at how people see you," she added.
"In some of them, you're putting yourself down," she continued. "You don't have to put yourself down to be polite."
Instead of "I was wondering," just ask your questions, Pachter advised. The same goes for "Can I ask a question?"
And "I'm sorry to bother you" has a perfectly polite alternative that doesn't imply you are innately bothersome: "Excuse me, do you have a moment?"
"Any one of these things can be no big deal, but if it becomes a pattern, it's easy to become invisible," she explained. "Whether you feel confident or not, you want to project confidence."
Ridding your vocabulary of phrases on Pachter's "Do Not Say" list takes time, and she recommends listening to your voicemails before sending them out to hear what you're doing wrong.
"A lot of these things people don't realize that they're doing until somebody points it out," she explained. "Once you know what you're listening for, it's easier to identify."
Pachter's complete "Do Not Say" list is included below:
· Can I ask a question? Not necessary, Pachter said. Leave it out.
· I'm sorry to bother you. Don't imply you're a bother, Pachter advised. Trade this phrase for "Excuse me, do you have a moment?"
· I was hoping that you could spare a few moments. Again, no need to beg for someone else's time, Pachter said.
· Thank you for listening to me. Your comments and opinions are worthwhile, Pachter said, so a simple "thank you" will do.
· I will be honest with you. This phrase implies you are not inherently honest, Pachter said, which is never a good impression to give.
· I was just wondering if perhaps. Too passive, Pachter said. Just cut straight to the question.