4 Phrases We Need To Stop Saying: Exam Results Edition

Posted on August 15, 2016 by Lahna Pottle

For some it brings fear and anxiety, others excitement and anticipation, it surprises, brings the inevitable, and is the source of celebration or mourning. Exam results day for many is a time of heightened emotions, and the start of a new chapter. Those letters and numbers have the power to launch a young person into their dreams for the future, or in the same moment cause those dreams to crumble and dissolve.

As schools workers, youth workers and parents we have to stand on the sidelines watching, praying that at the end of those fateful minutes we can celebrate with our young people. Yet often, the case is, that there are at least some young people disappointed and grieving. Our intention in those moments is to try and cheer the young person up, to say the magical formula of words that will bring comfort and make everything ok. Sometimes those words are wishful and sometimes those words are full of truth that we just want them to be able to see. I want to recognise firstly that the most important thing we can do for our young people is to be there. To sit with them. To be present with them. Last year, Sarah Long wrote a powerful blog post about exam results day being a day for presence not platitudes. I really encourage you to read this if you have not. 

But there are moments where we want to offer words of encouragement and comfort, where maybe that can help. Though we always have the best intention, sometimes we end up saying phrases that have become a bit go-to, phrases that maybe someone said to us, but phrases that can actually be unhelpful. I have noticed over the years some of these phrases, that I really want us to rid from our vocabulary. So, without further ado, 4 phrases we need to stop saying (and 4 alternatives):

"At least..." : A few years ago I was listening to a remarkable woman speak who said something I had never heard before;  "we need to stop saying 'at least'". She had lost her child to suicide and in her grieving, many people aimed to cheer her up with an optimistic, "at least you still have another child", "at least he knew he was loved", "at least..." This is rather an extreme example, but highlights the error. Most of the time we use this phrase to show that things could be worse. Yet what that ultimately says to the griever is, your pain could be worse, cheer up. It minimises what they are going through. Phrases like "at least you got that B", "at least you can still get into a different uni", "at least you tried", need to stop. As Kay Warren says, "Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost." The same goes with results. Instead let's try "It is totally ok to feel sad", "Take your time, I will be here with you". 

"When I..." : Most of us know from seeing students now that pressure in school is getting higher and higher. This generation of young people are the most educated and highest academically achieving so far. The pressure to keep up, to battle for select places means that young people today are some of the most stressed and exhausted. The rules around education have changed, no longer can you wing it, no longer can a young person take time off during term time. Its not hard to see when we compare our education with theirs, that things are drastically different. Yet too often a go to phrase we use, with the intention to comfort, starts "When I was in school", "When I didn't get the grades I wanted", "When I was disappointed". We are hoping to highlight an example of when things didn't go to plan, but things were still ok. This is said with the best of intentions, but really it just doesn't help. We are speaking into a completely different climate, and our young people know it. Our comparisons fall short, and only highlight that they can't just rely on it "all being ok in the end". Instead try "I am here for you", "I will do whatever I can to help".

"Don't worry..." : Controversial I know. I'm not saying that we should tell our young people to worry, but too often we say those words, as an easy cheer up, without realising how useless they can be. To say "don't worry" to a student who has just failed a vital exam, is like saying "don't worry" to a person in a burning building as we stand on the outside. I could have picked a number of phrases here; "don't stress", "don't panic", "don't be sad". We are in 2 words, minimising the pain of the situation, and minimising the grandeur of the situation. It is them who will suffer consequences, them who may need to change their plan, and them who will be feeling the most amount of pain. The best way to help someone to stop worrying or stressing, is if they have someone to be there with them through it, offering assistance where need be. To help calm our young people let's use our actions not our words. 

"See, easy!" : Young people celebrating their results are almost immune to anything you might say, as they probably can't hear over the sound of relief. That said, there is one type of phrase in particular that really needs to disappear from our bank of things to say on exam day. The phrase that says "I told you you'd be fine", "walk in the park" "see, easy!". What we are intending to say here is; you are smart, you got grades that reflect that, congratulations. What we are really saying to our young people is, "You didn't have to try, the exams were easy enough, I told you so". Young people are working unbelievably hard to compete with every other students for grades and places. They are studying, revising, cramming, often at the cost of their social lives or health. The last thing they need to hear from us is the word "easy". We should recognise their hard work, recognise that they did well, not because we told them they would, but because they worked hard. Instead let's try "Congratulations", "I am so proud of you".

We all want the best for our young people, and we want to be there to support them on results day. Let's be careful with our words, value action over words, and knock some of these unhelpful phrases from our vocabulary once and for all.

Can you think of any phrases that we need to say bye to, and an alternative better option? Please share them in the comments below! 

Image courtesy of Brian Morrison