CommunicationDifficult peopleWords

Shut up (and other terms that disconnect)

By July 23, 2019July 24th, 20192 Comments

I heard something the other day that surprised me.

We were out for dinner with some friends and the teenage daughter was talking about getting her hair highlighted … again. The father passed a comment questioning if she really needed to spend that much money on her hair, after all, she’s in high school. Her response was quick and without hesitation. She turned to her father and snapped back,

PHOTO CREDIT: Stock Unlimited

“Shut up”.

I was stunned. Wait until you hear what happened next …

The father said nothing.

One may argue that the term “shut up” has wormed its way into our vernacular and is commonly used. You might think, “Hey, it’s no big deal that someone says ‘shut up’ to anyone”. Perhaps that’s true … in most cases. Usually when it’s used in the colloquial sense, “shut up” means, “Are you kidding me? No way!”. This use is intended as an exclamation, a statement of surprise. This wasn’t the intended use of this teenager. Clearly, it was meant to be a slap of sheer defiance. There was no tone of friendly astonishment. If she meant to insult, mission accomplished.

Words matter.

That incident reminded me, with a vengeance, of one thing: words matter. They can heal or hurt. They can be flung out in anger or cooed as a soothing. Words make a difference in how we communicate. They can also be misunderstood.

There are certain words that I believe should not be used in the workplace: words that infer disrespect. To me, “shut up”, is one of those expressions to be avoided. The risk for misunderstanding is too high and you may end up distancing the very people with whom you want to connect. It’s not worth that gamble.

The challenge with words is that words alone are only part of the communication, albeit a very important one. To truly understand the message the words hope to convey, you need some other clues.

Have you ever been in a situation when you’ve wondered what someone really meant by a comment? Here are a couple of tips that will help you decipher the intended meaning beyond the mere words.

How to find the meaning beyond the words:

1) Look at the context.

In a face to face or voicemail message, you are able to garner a lot of information from the tone of the conversation. Is it aggressive, or lighthearted? Loving or hateful? Is there a relationship between these people and if so, is it a good one? The context provides the background and set-up for the communication. It provides insight.

2) Read the unspoken language.

Our bodies talk. In fact, at times, they practically scream. A raise of an eyebrow, a crooked smile, the tilt of a head all communicate messages. The tone, the pace, the pauses of the spoken word give hints as well. Someone’s action or refusal to do something shouts volumes. The unspoken language communicates the emotion behind the words, and that gives us a clearer understanding of the intent.

3) Ask for clarification.

When in doubt, ask the person what they mean in a non-aggressive tone (man, that can be difficult). You could say something like, “I’m not sure I understand. What did you mean when you said XYZ”, or “I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying”, and then be quiet, say nothing, and wait for his or her response.

It was based on these observations that I concluded that the teenage girl in my story was being defiant. Her “shut up” was not meant as a joke or an exclamation of disbelief. It was intended to end the conversation because she didn’t want to hear the protest and regrettably did not have the maturity to discuss it (hey, she’s just a teen).

Do you take action when someone uses words you don’t agree with?

OK, now comes the admission part. Being a communication person, I took the opportunity to express my perception (translation: I spoke up). I was compelled to say something at what I saw as such a flagrant display of disrespect to her father. I could tell by his reaction that he was reading it the same way, yet he said nothing. Probably he was embarrassed and in shock.

In the space of a second or two, I said, “Wow, don’t tell your father to shut up. (Pause). I know to you that using the term ‘shut up’ is no big deal. To your father and us, however, it sounds rude and pretty harsh.” I then allowed a saving face moment and added, “I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that, did you?”. That allowed for some dialogue and the conversation moved forward. Alright, maybe it limped forward for a minute or two. Awkward. I’m shocked not only by this young girl’s comment but equally so by her parent’s lack of response and reaction. Silence is heard as tacit approval and that’s the danger in both the workplace and home.

Final thought:

Do you find yourself using the term “shut up”? If so, be aware that it may be misunderstood by others. Conversely, if others are using it in your workplace or otherwise, now you have some tips to uncover and understand the real meaning of what’s being said. And hopefully you or another leader will speak up to shut it not up, but shut it down. Fast.

Until next time, here’s to …
Better communication, Better business, Better life!
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
Keynote Speaker / Corporate Trainer / Author

© 2011-2019 Marion Grobb Finkelstein
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete tagline with it: Communications expert, author, professional speaker Marion Grobb Finkelstein teaches individuals and organizations across Canada and beyond, how to improve their businesses and their lives by improving their communications. Chat with her Facebook  or sign up for her FREE weekly e-newsletter “Marion’s Communication Tips”

Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein helps leaders use their natural communication strengths to build resilient teams that talk.


  • Deb Kennedy says:

    All I can say, is good for you for saying something. It’s very disheartening to read that a Father feels that he has no voice or is too embarrassed to actually demand some respect. I hope your words stay with her for a long time.

    • Thanks, Deb, for your comment. I agree completely that it’s very sad this father thinks this behaviour is okay (it’s not). It’s important that we speak up when someone is being disrespected as silence is mistakenly seen as silent approval.

Leave a Reply