The words we’re talking about are ‘only’ and ‘just’.
Not always, you understand, and not in every context. Phrases such as ‘it’s only a scratch’ and ‘it’s just a blip’ and ‘could you just pop on the scales’ are familiar ways of giving reassurance and minimizing anxiety (not sure if it works in the last situation).
But when we want to get our message across and be taken seriously, these words instantly undermine the strength of our meaning.
When you preface a request or an observation with ‘just’ or ‘only’ it’s as if you are apologising for the content of your message. It suggests that the other person need not pay too much attention to what you have said.
‘Just’ and ‘only’ are particularly pernicious when they are attached to descriptions of our position or accomplishments. Both gals and guys suffer from this usage, but no marks for guessing which gender is more prone to playing down their strengths and achievements.
The inability or unwillingness to make our good qualities public is one of the aspects of female behaviour which holds us back at work and diminishes our self-confidence in many situations.
‘Oh, I’m only responsible for one company’
‘I’m just the person who organizes things
‘I’m only the assistant’
‘I just look after the children’
It doesn’t sound charmingly modest, it sounds wimpy. The inclusion of ‘just’ or ‘only’ draws attention away from the nub of your message and focuses on your air of hesitation and self-doubt.
If you don’t sound as if you have confidence in yourself, how can you expect other people to have confidence in you?
People who speak with authority or in serious situations don’t use these words.
‘It’s just that it’s a crime scene’
‘I’m only interrupting to tell you there’s a fire down the corridor’
‘It’s just that we need to raise more money’
‘The President would just like to say’
Hear what a difference there is when you drop the offending word. Immediately, you sound positive and straightforward.
‘It’s just that I want to leave at five o’clock’ sends the message that your wish isn’t all that important.
‘I want to leave at five o’clock’ makes your wish clear.
Sometimes, though, it works the other way round. Rather than downplay what we say, ‘just’ and ‘only’ can send out warning flares.
‘Oh, it’s fine.’ Pause. ‘It’s just that…’
The listener knows they need to run for cover. What is about to follow won’t be a minor matter at all. And it won’t be good.
This little word, like its partner-in-crime ‘but’, often prefaces a load of built-up resentment, or something which has needed courage to say.
This usage is a tiny bit passive-aggressive, don’t you think? Time to stop. We can be braver than that.