Some Phrases You’ve Used Your Whole Life May Need to Be Retired

Something interesting happened to me earlier this week, a client apologized to me. We’ll just call him Mr. Big Wig — because he is — BW for short. We had our weekly meeting on Monday, discussing upcoming opportunities and plans to expand his brand, etc. After 30 minutes, we ended the call, and I was fine tuning the followups I habitually send after every meeting when my phone rang.

It was him, calling back to apologize for saying “work like a slave,” or something like that. I don’t remember. It didn’t even register when he said it on the phone, it’s so common a phrase. I think I may have laughed when he explained why he was calling, and told him don’t worry about it since, “I didn’t even notice.”

Still, he said, it was inappropriate, and he owed me an apology. I formally accepted it, and admitted that I recently discovered I made a similar mistake.

I write romance novels in my spare time, and while rereading one of my published works, I noticed the phrase, “worked like a Hebrew slave.” I cringed. Face, neck, shoulders, everything, and thought, “That’s not good.”

So, you see, I told this older, very successful, very capable white man, who I very much enjoy working with, and have learned quite a bit from in the past four plus months we’ve been working together, you’re not alone in repeating these legacy mistakes. I too will have to do some work to clean up some of the phrases I have used often in the past, phrases I now realize are inappropriate and potentially damaging.

It happens a lot. I read an article earlier today discussing the exact same thing. A white woman used “the itis,” to jokingly describe a medical condition she was suffering from on social media, and a Black friend reached out privately to gently inform her of the racial context behind that phrase. It was a lesson she appreciated, just as I appreciated BW’s apology.

Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have already forgotten what BW said on our call Monday, but I will probably remember that apology forever. Its fine print stated that: You have value. I care about your feelings. I am compelled to clear the air so that our relationship won’t be hampered by a throwaway comment with damaging undertones.

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