Laura Johnson on why you just don't use the word just
I’m not overly sensitive when it comes to bad language. Although effing and blinding doesn't come naturally to me, I’m fairly relaxed when it comes to others choosing more colourful ways of expressing their feelings. However, there is one four-letter word I wince at when used at work. ‘Just’.
I’m not alone in letting myself be bugged by the j-word. Ellen Leanse, a former Google and Apple employee, has spoken openly about her distaste for just. In fact she sent a memo to her people suggesting a ban on just-ing, which her team agreed to. I’m not sure how ethical such strict policing of colleagues’ language is, but I’m with her all the way on the damaging effect just can have on the conviction and clarity of our business conversations.
Let me pinpoint where my problem with just started. Fresh out of university and still finding my feet in the world of work, I enrolled on a course that’s become a rite of passage for any young office worker - assertiveness training. This was a little over a decade ago now so understandably (I hope) most of the content of this half-day session I’ve since forgotten. But what sticks with me is how passionate the trainer was about the damaging effect the usage of just has on our personal impact and credibility in the workplace. In the days following the course I realised how frequently I used the word.
“I’m just in marketing,” I’d utter with needless modesty when someone asked what I did for a living. “Just wondering if I could leave five minutes early today please,” I’d whisper as I nervously asked a superior for permission to go to the doctors. “I’m just following up on an email I sent you,” I would type to a colleague with unnecessary politeness considering my original message had been rudely ignored for three weeks. Looking back, I can see I was using just primarily for three reasons:
- To add unnecessary humility to a response to a question about myself.
- As a gentle precursor to a request for permission.
- To add an apologetic tone to a plea for help.
But however well intentioned my sloppy linguistic habit was, my persistent use of just wasn’t only softening what I was saying, it was muting it. So my battle to stamp out just began. “I work in marketing,” suddenly made me sound proud of my career achievement. “Could I leave five minutes early today please,” remains polite but suggests the reason for my request is infinitely more credible and justified. “I’m following up on an email I sent you,” gets straight to the point without diminishing the priority of my message (or the importance of what I was asking of the recipient in the first place).
The crux of the just issue is this; it’s a word that purposely trivialises anything it’s attached to. And this is not only a problem for nervous juniors like I was; it’s a common management fail too. “Could you just work an extra hour today,” hints at disrespect for your employee’s time. “I just need you to do a short presentation at a seminar I’m organising,” doesn't exactly make it sound like you value the person’s contribution. “I just need some extra input on a pitch I’m preparing,” really underestimates what you actually require. As managers, we justify using just as a linguistic tool to make us feel well-mannered but if we’re honest, we also know it makes it harder for whatever we’re asking for to be refused. It’s a polite gesture that says you know you’re asking someone to do something they don't have to, but at the same time carries a strong implication that the respondent would be being lazy or petty if they decide not to comply. So when on the receiving end, just isn't always seen as gracious, it’s easily perceived as manipulative, carrying a sugar-coated expectation of subservience.
This seemingly innocent four-letter word can cause a whole world of irritation. In particular when it’s amplified in the phrase, “it’s just business.” Usually preceded by the excuse, “it’s not personal” and followed swiftly by a plea for, “no hard feelings.” If you’re unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this particular just, beware you are about to be stabbed in the back. Because everyone knows, there is no such thing as just business.