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How to Unintentionally Diminish Others

The other day I met my friend Barb for lunch. She arrived at the restaurant first, and the server asked, “Just one?”

Barb often eats out alone, and she frowns when she hears that question. This time she replied, “Here is where I should have a snappy comeback, but I don’t.” Then she explained her issue with the question “Just one?” to the server.

When I arrived, Barb told me about the conversation. She explained that when she eats out alone, she does not want to be characterized as “just one.” She doesn’t appreciate the suggestion that there is something lacking in her experience. One should be plenty when dining out.

Of course, servers and greeters simply want to know the number of diners to expect. What could they ask instead of “Just one?” Which alternatives can you think of? I have a few below.




Instead of “Just one?” they might ask:

  • One for lunch?
  • Table for one?
  • How many?
  • Will anyone be joining you today?

Any of those options would sound better to Barb and would not diminish her dining experience.

Barb’s feelings as a solo diner led me to think about ways in which writers make their readers feel the same way, that is, as though they are lacking or insufficient. As a reader, have you had any of the experiences below?

The writer:

  • Emphasizes your mistake or forgetfulness, with a direct statement like “You have the wrong price” or “I told you that in my previous message.”
  • Leaves you feeling uninformed by using jargon or abbreviations you don’t know.
  • Asks a question similar to “Just one?” that minimizes your experience, such as “Is that the only item you want to order?” or “Is that your only feedback?”
  • Focuses on what you can’t do rather than what might work, with a statement like “You cannot open an investor class account with an amount that small” or “That ballroom is not available to your group.”
  • Introduces negative words to characterize your behavior, such as “I received your complaint” or “I understand your confusion.”

What’s your experience? Do you occasionally receive messages that seem to diminish you? Could you relate to Barb’s feelings? Or do you recognize how you might improve your own communication? I look forward to your comments.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

21 comments on “How to Unintentionally Diminish Others”

  • I love this, Lynn, probably because I am often “just” one. There’s a tip right there. The word “just’ often diminishes and I know I am guilty of doing it to myself – e.g., I just wanted to follow up. Sounds like I think I need an excuse. And, yes, I did read Ellen Petry Leanse’s Business Insider article about that word. 😉

    I’m working on it. 🙂

  • Hi Cathy!

    How funny! Just a moment ago I searched for and copied the link–only to see you had followed up. Thank you!

    Thanks for bringing in that other important weakness of “just”–its ability to diminish us (not only our readers).

    As always, I appreciate your valuable input.


  • Love this! I often feel diminished when I ask a question and get a reply that says, “I’m sorry you misunderstood” instead of “I’m sorry I was unclear.” It’s always good to assume the person with whom you’re communicating has good intentions and is not stupid.

  • Tommaso, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Jim, thanks for the wonderful example. “Simply” says to the reader “If it’s not simple for you, you’re a loser.”


  • Hi Sharon,

    Good question! In my example, I was not assuming that you had used the words “complaint” and “confusion.” If you had not, the writer would be characterizing you as a complainer or a confused person. If a customer service rep told me they understood my confusion, my reaction might be “I’m not confused–you are not making sense.” I would not write that, but I might think it.

    Even if you had used “complaint,” the writer’s use of it would emphasize and continue the negative feeling. Instead the response might be “Thank you for writing to us about your experience.”

    With “confusion,” if you had used it, there would be nothing wrong with the writer replying “I understand your confusion,” especially if the writer’s company had caused the confusion through its communication.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify my point. I changed the phrasing in the post to “Introduces negative words” rather than “Uses negative words” to make it clearer.


  • I work in IT. Besides the “just” word, another diminishing word is “simply.” Instructions using the word “simply” are usually difficult!

  • I am unable to understand why these two are considered negative words. If I use complaint or confusion in my sentence to them, why is the person using it back to me considered a negative?

    Uses negative words to characterize your behavior, such as “I received your complaint” or “I understand your confusion.”

  • Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you so much for sharing your example and your appreciation. From the email notification I received about your comment, I know who you are, and I am grateful for you as a reader.


  • Thank you Cathy, for posting a link to the article about the word ‘just’. I often question my use of the word in emails, usually deleting/replacing the word with a reframed sentence. I had that “feeling”, as though use of the word ‘just’ diminished the strength of my position. It is great to see my feelings validated.

  • I experience this all the time, from both customers, colleagues and managers. It can be frustrating and even hurtful, but I am grateful to have learned how to respond in a way that turns the situation around.

    I’ve removed the details here, but once a colleague who is senior to me sent me a one-sentence email saying, “You’ll need to tell me why you did that when you should have done this…” (complete with the ellipsis).

    Based largely on the influence and learnings I have taken from this blog over the years, I was able to write a concise, respectful email back at the time explaining why I took the action I did and stating, “I’m not sure how I would have been able to tell that I should have done this instead in this situation, but I am happy to learn.”

    My colleague then realized that I was acting based on the only info I had access to, and recognized that what I did made sense in that case.

    I am very grateful for this blog in helping me learn to diffuse tension and respond well in these kinds of situations.

  • Hi Tamara,

    Acronyms drive me nuts too. I find that when I have a new experience WITHOUT acronyms or a feeling of ignorance, I notice and appreciate it. I recently bought a new bicycle, a sleek “commuter” bike. I worried that at the hip Seattle retail store, Evo, they would speak a language I didn’t understand. But the entire experience was comfortable and educational.

    Thanks for stopping by with a comment.


  • Thank you, Lynn. The second bullet is a pet peeve of mine. I cannot stand to read an article where the writer doesn’t indicate what an acronym stands for. I like all of the comments on today’s post. Very engaging!

  • Dear Lynn,

    I totally understand how Barb feels. I am from Thailand and I often hear this question when I enter a restaurant alone. It doesn’t sound nice to me but I don’t know if I should tell that waiter/waitress or not.

    Ps. I learn a lot from your blog and my writing skill is getting better day by day.


  • Hello Wep,

    It took some tact for Barb to communicate her message to the server, but the server welcomed the feedback. If you are asked “Just one?” at a restaurant you visit regularly, it may be worth letting them know how you feel about the question. Or you might let them know the number in your party before they ask. You might greet them and then say “I would like a table for one please.”

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment on my blog. I am glad you have learned from it!


  • Hi Alex,

    Thanks for sharing your view. To me, the question “Will anyone be joining you?” seems neutral, whereas “Just one?” suggests a judgment.

    I too like “How many?” as a neutral option.


  • Hm, “Just one?” and “Will anyone be joining you today?” sound equally degrading. Though, I’m not native speaker.

    In my opinion, most neutral is “How many”?

  • Another word I often hear during training sessions is “obviously”. Yes, it may be obvious information to a trainer or subject matter expert, but not to learners receiving the information for the first time. It makes the audience feel dumb if something is not obvious to them, like they should have known!

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