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Marcus Blankenship
Marcus Blankenship

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The 4-letter-word word that makes my blood boil


It's one of the worst four-letter words I know. Whenever I catch myself using it, I stop and apologize. And when I hear it, I hold up my hand and stop the person speaking.

Let me give you some examples from last week…

  • “Just put a form up to collect their e-mail…”
  • “Just make it so they can login with Facebook…”
  • “I'll just throw it in a new database field.”
  • “We can just launch a new database server…”
  • “Lets just let them post notes, like Twitter does…”

A synonym I often hear is “simply”.

  • “Let's simply use Redis for this…”
  • “We'll simply spin up another AWS server…”
  • “It should be simple to reuse the Atlas library for that.”

If you use the words “just” or “simply”, you might have forgotten how hard the technical details can be. I cover how to fix this in Chapter 2 of my book, 7 Habits that Ruin your Technical Team.

Or, you might be pushing the team too hard, and glossing over the details. That's covered in Chapter 5 of the book.

What if you're not saying it, but you're hearing it?

Then it's time to stop the conversation, and politely ask for the missing details. This used to be hard for me, because it made me feel like I was asking “stupid” questions. For many years I felt that if I asked people to explain what they meant, I'd look dumb. Or unprofessional. Or I'd be wasting their time.

I finally realized that professionals aren't content with generalities or vague requirements. They stop and ask for specifics, even at the risk of looking dumb. They have the confidence to know they aren't dumb, and to not pretend to understand something they don't.

You can use phrases like…

  • “Let's pause so I can clarify what you mean. Are you suggesting that we…”
  • “Wait, before we continue, can you explain that feature more?”
  • “Going back to what you said, can you explain how you would implement that?”
  • “I might be a bit slow here, but can you explain?”

Lullaby Language

Gerald Weinberg calls “just” an example of Lullaby Language, which “lulls your mind into a false sense of security, yet remains ambiguous enough to allow for the opposite interpretation.”

He groups it with words like “should”, “soon”, “very” and “trivial”. All perfectly nice words that we see every day, but can carry a lot of hidden ambiguity an assumptions.

How I learned to stop the conversation

My boss, Milind, was great at this. When I was promoted to Team Lead I was brought into a whole new world of meetings and discussions, and I would keep my mouth shut when someone used the word “Just”, or spoke in vague terms. I didn't want someone to think I wasn't fit for the job, or that I was having trouble keeping up. Instead, I nodded and smiled, looking like I was tracking with them.

But Milind knew it was dangerous to accept generalities or misunderstandings. He would simply stop a large group conversation with the phrase, “Maybe I'm missing something here, but can you explain that in more detail?” Everyone would look at him, the speaker would pause, and then back up to cover the “just” part in more detail.

And low and behold, 90% of the time it was revealed that the person who glossed over the details had oversimplified something important. Or, was simply wrong about an assumption. That means 90% of the time we were able to correct the discussion in the moment, and move forward with better information.

And the 10% of the time there wasn't a problem? The explanation simply clarified everyone's understanding and we quickly moved forward. Or, it opened the door to other unspoken questions from the group.

Watching Milind do this made me feel confident enough to try it. Now I do it often, as really understanding what someone is telling me is the most important thing. It allows me to correct misunderstandings and assumptions in the moment, instead of wasting time working in the wrong direction.

Now it's your turn

How often do you hear the word “just” or “simply”, and just nod in agreement?

How could you pause the conversation and change the conversation to move in a different direction?

How often do you use these words, especially when setting expectations or defining requirements?

Top comments (31)

paceaux profile image

I read somewhere that "Just" is a four-letter-word that means, "someone else's job."

"Why can't you just get the color and compare it to one of our 6 brand colors, and if it is, output that brand color on our web page," was an actual thing asked of me. I had a client that wanted to just put a camera outside their HQ, just capture the predominant color that people were wearing, and just turn that color into one of their 6 branded colors that they could just put on a homepage, represented in an animated circle.

And because of that word "just", they thought the animated circle was the hard part. Because I could just compare one of 16 million colors captured in RGB to one of six... because color is just that simple.

"just" seems to be a mask that hides and summarizes a load of technical details. For the non-developer, they're details that are yet to be considered. For the developer, they're details yet to be vetted and validated.

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

I've been guilty of using this kind of phrasing passive aggressively to imply someone was overthinking a problem, while also feeling the sting of hearing it told to me under that context. In most cases, there were other issues at play providing a communication block that we had to overcome instead of slipping in generalizations that can be demeaning.

Thanks for a really illuminating article.

chrisvasqm profile image
Christian Vasquez

Could you explain some of those communication blocks you mention?

danidee10 profile image
Osaetin Daniel

Not too long ago. I heard it countless times in a week from a Data management staff one of my company's clients. He's grossly unaware of a lot of things and believes you can "Just" write code to make things work without taking a lot of things into consideration (He programmed briefly in the past some years ago and feels he knows a lot about software development).

Initially when i joined the company, Like you I'll always nod my head in agreement so i don't look stupid in front of everyone but then i started to realize that "Just" was really hurting me when no one was watching. Most times i'll spend long annoying nights trying to meetup with unreasonable deadlines that i created for myself because i accepted that this was "Just" a new feature that could be implemented "easily".

Now once i hear the word "Just", i do a quick analysis in my brain, If the feature is going to take more time than expected, I waste no time in speaking up and explaining why this isn't "Just" another easy task or new feature.

productbrett profile image
Brett Evans

I'm glad this is not only me that has a rage about this! My team have gone and created a chat bot called brettbot that has a small rage every time somebody uses the word "Just" on our team hipchat room.

marcuscreo profile image
Marcus Blankenship

Glad y'all found it useful. :)

I've been guilty of it, and had it inflicted upon me, more times than I can remember. If you liked this, Chapter 2 of my book 7 Habits that Ruin your Technical Team talks more about this sneaky problem, and other bad habits you might have seen.

codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald

Fantastic article! This is so very true...I've seen it many times, but never realized that the word "just" or "simply" were such reliable red flags of oversimplification. I'm going to be watching how I phrase things, and following your tips in my own job as a Lead Developer. Thank you!

aflashyrhetoric profile image
kevin oh.

At first I thought this would be sort of a nitpicky article on how to "communicate absolutely perfectly with your team for hyper-efficient productivity," but it makes really solid points on the role of embarrassment (or perhaps pride? or general unwillingness to interrupt?) in team communication.

I'm currently lucky enough to be part of a team that openly encourages interruption/discussion, but I've been in teams before where asking for clarification gave you the feeling that you were being a bother. This article should be read by everyone.

brambear profile image

Great write up. My Tech lead always uses this term and I literally cringe every time he says it in a conference call meeting. We're working on a monolithic application with a rigorous process - NOTHING is JUST or SIMPLE.

I kind of understand what he's trying to do though (and I hate myself for understanding it). Sometimes, you need to butter up management and try to convince them that the team is a competent bunch. Cringing doesn't stop there though, it's simply annoying when your lead says this and he/she himself/herself doesn't even see the complete picture and just stack up assumptions after assumptions.

I hope I didn't sound like I'm ranting. I really appreciate this write up.

alt_lv profile image
alt (Guna)

Good post.

I have noticed that I have used this word to belittle what I do/my thoughts. I almost used it while re-tweeting and suggesting a heuristic based on the insights in post and comments.

It's interesting how the usage and intention of the word was changed.

From this:

based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
"a just and democratic society"
synonyms: fair, fair-minded, equitable, even-handed, impartial, unbiased, objective, neutral, disinterested, unprejudiced, open-minded, non-partisan, non-discriminatory, anti-discrimination; More
"that's just what I need"
synonyms: exactly, precisely, absolutely, completely, totally, entirely, perfectly, utterly, wholly, thoroughly, altogether, in every way, in every respect, in all respects, quite; More
very recently; in the immediate past.
"I've just seen the local paper"
synonyms: a moment ago, a second ago, a short time ago, very recently, not long ago, lately, only now
"I just saw him"

To shrugging things, thought and even people around as "That's just somebody..."
Now that I think I've used it also when I tried to explain why I did the thing that went sour - "I just thought that this will be helpful" In blame/shame strong culture this most likely would sound as poor excuse. In healthy environment it could sound more like insecure answer.


I will be more conscious on this one. (:
Now I do wonder how often and with which meaning I use this word.

chadoh profile image
Chad Ostrowski

Hadn't heard the term "lullaby words" before, but 💯 – you can make anything sound simple, with the word "just"!

I've managed to almost completely purge "just" from my vocabulary, at this point. And "should", too! I wrote a whole blog post about that journey, when I first started it:

I love the idea of stopping conversations to get more clarification when this word is used. I'm gonna start using that technique. 👌🏼

legolord208 profile image
jD91mZM2 • Edited

you can make anything sound simple, with the word "just"

just with the word "just"* :P

bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

Yes, so true. Usually for each "just" or "simply" in a meeting, a new follow up meeting is spawned, where only the one involved decided how "just" will be implemented.

Time estimations from the original meetings ofc are multiplied by at least a factor of 3.

scottnonnenberg profile image
Scott Nonnenberg

Yes! There are quite a few problematic words! 'just', 'actually,' 'easy,' 'real,' 'true,' 'obvious,' even 'deserve.' I dig in here with some ideas for alternatives. :0)

chrisvasqm profile image
Christian Vasquez

Thank you Marcus!

This is, hands down, one of my favorite posts ever in this community.

We joke about the "just" word a lot at my current job because we have been burned by it multiple times in the past, so we always repeat it whenever one of us says it louder than them before they finish to remind them to be careful about that assumption and have a laugh at the same time.

enovision profile image
Enovision GmbH

Another one that gets my hair stand straight up: "very important". I have read and heard that so often in my carrier in business meetings and Powerpoint presentations that I often thought, "why would you tell me something unimportant and waste my time".

enovision profile image
Enovision GmbH • Edited

So I am not the only one that gets at least 2 times a day annoyed for this abuse of the English words "just", "simply" and "easy". It has cost me lots of hours, days sometimes, that although it was mentioned to be easy, the explanation was so limited that I have thrown much good stuff overboard because of this.

The hardest thing is to assume that things are not easy and that nevertheless one is able to explain clearly how to make it to look easy.

Currently I am learning ReactJS and man, so many packages (NPM) have such a lack of clear documentation and so much "easy" assumptions. Then I think, the developer has so much effort in building something where he believes in and in the end the documentation is so poor that people hesitate to use it. So much time and good effort wasted.

In the old days I worked on IBM AS/400 and there were a ton of manuals, where you always thought that IBM didn't explain enough to make it simple. But at least they took the trouble to do it.

Web world developments is the worst place to be when you want to find clarity and....standards. Everyone is doing it again in its own way...that easy.

Great article, your words, my thoughts.