Whether you’re introducing yourself to someone at work or meeting a possible client over coffee, your opening words leave a lasting impression.
“Words, poorly and unconsciously chosen, can indeed hurt not only first impressions, but also your credibility, relationships, and opportunities for career advancement,” says Darlene Price, president of Well Said Inc., and author of “Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.“
Price says that when you’re nervous, you may speak without thinking, much faster than usual, and say more than is necessary.
While we’ve all likely experienced foot-in-mouth syndrome at one time or another, keeping these talking points in mind the next time you meet someone new can help you avoid saying the wrong thing:
‘I hate this company’ or ‘My boss is a jerk’
Nothing tanks a first impression faster than negativity, Price says. Even when what you say is true, it’s 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 — not your new contact.
‘How much do you make?’
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 says. “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 Glassdoor, PayScale, Salary.com.”
‘I’m sorry to be a bother’
Why are you saying you’re a bother? As Barbara Pachter, an etiquette expert and author of “The Essentials of Business Etiquette,” previously told Business Insider, if you are truly sorry about something you haven’t done yet, then why would you go ahead and do it anyway? When introducing yourself, “Excuse me. Do you have a moment?” works much better, she says.
‘What do you think of our prime minister?’
As a general rule of etiquette, don’t bring up politics.
“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.”
‘Do you believe in God?’
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 says.
“It doesn’t matter, and it’s no one’s business other than yours and your partner’s,” Price says.
Discussing sexual orientation can also make some people uncomfortable, she says, and it may even border on sexual harassment.
‘When is your baby due?’
If you imply that 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.”
Stating concerns and working to solve them is fine, but saying something is impossible is negative and shows a lack of conviction.
If comments and questions don’t reflect a positive, can-do, and confident demeanor, then it’s best to avoid them, Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job,” previously told Business Insider.
‘Did you hear … ?’
“Spread gossip, and you become labeled as a gossip,” Vicky Oliver, author of “Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots” and “Power Sales Words,” previously told Business Insider.
Spreading gossip will make you look worse than the person you’re talking about, Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, etiquette and civility expert and author of “Don’t Burp in the Boardroom,”previously told Business Insider. “And guess who will be the one who looks bad when it gets back to the person you’re talking about?”
‘I love your dress’
“Avoid commenting on a person’s personal appearance or belongings — even if it’s positive — when you first meet them,” Price 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,'” Price says.
‘I’m getting a divorce’
If you’re going through something difficult, it may be tempting to share with your new colleague or client — but it’s entirely inappropriate, Price says.
“Avoid mentioning personal adversity when you first meet someone, or in general business discussions,” she suggests.
Talking about your troubles gives people a reason to doubt your ability.
‘I think …’
Saying “I think” is sometimes acceptable, but only if you truly are unsure.
“Using ‘I think’ can make you appear wishy-washy,” Pachter says.
When you know something, state it directly: “The meeting will be at 3 p.m.”
‘I’m so beat’
It’s important to project high energy, Taylor says, especially when your attitude and work ethic are most visible and under the microscope.
‘You look different than you sound over the phone’
Don’t begin a conversation by implying that you’re surprised, disappointed, or puzzled by the fact that the person did not meet up to your predisposed expectations, Price says.
‘You’re cooler/prettier/nicer than I thought you’d be’
You also don’t want to imply that you had low expectations and they far exceeded them. This kind of statement will likely make the person feel uncomfortable.
‘How old are you?’
You should have learned this as a kid, but it’s not always polite to ask people their age.
Pachter says that drawing attention to your honesty at that moment can lead people to wonder, “Is everything else they’re saying not true?”
‘You probably heard X about me, but it’s not true’
Don’t draw attention to any rumors that may be going around about you. It makes you seem like you think you’re important (maybe you are — but you don’t want to give off this impression), and maybe the person hadn’t heard the rumor … until now.
‘Can you do me a favor?’
You just met this person. Don’t immediately ask for their help.
‘I … I … I …’
Self-absorption should be avoided in any first conversation, Price says.
“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,” she 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?” Price suggests.
“We all stand to improve our ability to craft a positive first impression, particularly in the words we say,” she says. “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.'”
‘OMG, I LOVE that! That’s amazing!’
You might want to tone your enthusiasm down a bit. Trying too hard to get people to like you usually has the opposite effect. Just be yourself.
Jacquelyn Smith contributed to an earlier version of this article.
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