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On Unnecessarily Poor Language Choices

Tonight a telemarketer called my Mom’s house. The telemarketer began the call with this: “Can I please speak to the male head of the house?” My Mom hasn’t been married or lived with a male head of household (whatever that is) since 1974. She is a very successful entrepreneur that raised four kids without an ounce of help from anyone (which explains why she is my personal hero).

Fortunately, my Mom is super sweet and has a great sense of humor. But other people may not have been so forgiving. That sort of opening language did nothing to help the company that was calling. It did nothing to help establish a positive association with their brand. It did even less to help them gain a customer. It was an unnecessarily poor choice of words. It hasn’t been 1952 for a long, long time.

This is an example of why language choices matter. And it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the language choices that you make.


What assumptions are embedded in your language?

What beliefs or biases do your language choices reveal?

Are some of the words you choose unnecessarily provocative or insulting to some people?

Do you ask for the decision-maker? What does that suggest about how you are going to treat the real decision-makers whose consensus you are trying to gain? (as one example)



  • Leanne Hoagland-Smith

    Great point and one that is often not discussed in most traditional and even somewhat non-traditional sales training coaching. Language is directly connected IMHO to emotional intelligence. Years ago i adopted this personal motto – Change your words; improve your results.

    Thanks, Leanne Hoagland-Smith

  • Annie Pettit

    I simply hate the head of household question. There is no head in my household. We are equal partners. The person who earns more money is no more the head nor more important than the other person when it comes to making household decisions. As for decisions, they are all joint even when one person has to compromise more than the other. It’s a terrible question overall.

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  • Joseph Collins

    Are you sure it was even a “Telemarketer”. Usually a question worded like that is not a Telemarketer at all but rather a private research company conducting surveys on behalf of a commercial entity.

    They usually start by asking a question of that nature because the survey software randomizes the pool and tries to get an equal mix of malefemale and range of ethnicity. When the survey wants a Male they ask for Male head of household. When the survey wants a Female they will either ask for the Female of the house or Oldest female. However, the reason they try not to ask for oldest male, or oldest female is because the survey does not want the live in grandparents.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Honestly, I don’t know if it was a survey company. Regardless, they could choose much more effective language.

  • JLThomas

    As a female business professional I cannot count the number of times in the past 25 years a salesperson has asked me, “Honey, May I speak to the person in charge here/responsible for purchasing/decision making?”
    I would ask who they are and what they are selling and clearly write it down right in front of them or ensure they knew I was by asking for the correct spelling of their name if by phone. I would then politely reply that I was the person they needed to deal with but did not have time to speak to them now, nor in future.
    Once they recovered from that stunned look/silence (you know, the one where you can see/hear the wheels in their head working so hard to figure out what comes next) and asked why, I would confidently say:
    “You are asking me for my attention, time & money by approaching me with mistaken & outdated assumptions, last century beliefs & language and a surprising lack of preparedness. You want me to buy from you but you have done nothing to show me why I should. You are clearly about helpng yourself more than helping this business so stop wasting my time and I won’t waste anymore of yours.”
    Chose your words wisely, they matter more than you think they do.

    • Ross Quintana

      Good points, the thing is that what you proved is that people make decisions many times based on their mindset or reaction to the salesperson which in telemarketing is more about the words and script. This shows how important it is. You didn’t reject them based on their product being inferior, you rejected the product based on their words being inferior.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Yikes! Honey?

      • JLThomas

        Honey, Doll, Babe…I’ll spare you the rest of the list. I kid you not, but thankfully over the years it has gotten better.
        I’m with you though, you can’t go wrong with Sir, or Ma’am.
        Err on the side of respect.

  • Ross Quintana

    Good post, a friend of mine would sometimes use words like mam, or ask if it was a bad time. Though in his mind he was showing respect, many women would take it as an insult saying they were old. The words we use matter and even the tone that we use and things we think about when saying them. It impacts the direction of the thoughts of the hearer.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I still like “Yes, sir,” and “No, Ma’am.”

  • Keenan

    Way to get em riled up Anthony! Love the post.