7 Phrases that Make You Sound Passive-Aggressive
Hopefully, you work in a healthy workplace culture and live in a strong, positive family where people are free to state their needs, opinions, and feelings directly and no one, including you, would ever dream of being passive-aggressive.
But over email and instant messaging communication can get a little muddy. Without the benefit of body language and facial expressions, words can easily be misinterpreted. And let’s face it—whether over email or in person, even the most direct and straightforward person you know (it could be you?) will occasionally avoid directly expressing thorny emotions and slip into passive-aggressive behavior or communication.
Difficult conversations can be, well, difficult, but addressing conflict in a straightforward manner leads to clarity and more secure relationships. When you are unwilling to acknowledge your true feelings, it causes a disconnect between words and behavior, which can be disorienting at best and toxic at worst.
Here are seven phrases that smack of passive-aggressiveness, and what to say or do instead:
1. “I’m confused/curious/sorry…”
If you are sincerely confused or curious or sorry, definitely say so. Accessing your curiosity is often a helpful way keep emotions at bay and nonjudgmentally get to the root of an issue. And making true “I” statements instead of blaming others generally makes difficult conversations go more smoothly.
But sometimes these phrases are just a nicer way of saying, “You’re an idiot.” For example, “I just don’t understand how you could think that’s a good idea” is not seeking to comprehend, but expressing judgment. Other examples include, “I’m sorry my email wasn’t clear enough for you” or “I’m confused as to why you think excluding me from the meeting was okay.”
The issue is sincerity. If you are truly seeking to understand, then those phrases are genuine and they work. If you’re making a veiled accusation or passing judgment, no amount of wordsmithing will make it right. Remember that any time the phrase, “I just don’t understand” comes to mind, there IS something you don’t understand. You’re missing a piece of the puzzle. Adjust your mindset to one of real curiosity. Then, if you choose to use these introductory phrases, at least they will ring true.
2. “I was only joking.”
I certainly have had the dreadful experience of teasing someone and realizing I hit a sensitive spot and hurt their feelings. Yikes! It’s awful. Sometimes you ARE only joking. In that case, give a sincere apology instead of trying to downplay the comment.
Passive-aggressive teasing, though, is when someone intends to hurt or mock or belittle another and then blames them for feeling hurt or angry. This also applies to backhanded compliments (“I’m impressed you did so well since you waited until the last minute to prepare”) and condescending praise (“Aw, I’m sure you did your best”). A digital example: putting a smiley or winky face at the end of a snarky or critical comment. In all cases, the message is, “I am purposefully going to be abrasive and you are not allowed to react.”
Just … don’t. Don’t use words to put others down. Give true compliments. Joke and tease when you’ve established the rapport to do so. Be straightforward with feedback. Use words to build up, not tear down.
3. “No offense, but…”
Don’t you just love it when you hear that? Once again, this is a way of saying, “I’m about to be offensive but you aren’t allowed to be offended.” Similar phrases include “with all due respect,” “don’t take this the wrong way,” and “I’m just saying this [hurtful thing] because I care.” I call BS! If you don’t actually respect or care about someone, don’t pretend you do. When you do, then find a respectful and caring way to share your thoughts.
Double-check your motives when you find yourself beginning a sentence with these phrases. Is what you’re about to say actually necessary and/or helpful? If so, are you saying it in a way that the other person can digest? Sometimes you do have to give feedback that can be difficult to hear. When that happens, avoid “no offense” phrases that trigger defensiveness, be direct with your verbal communication, and separate yourself from the message nonverbally (through appropriate use of a visual aids and eye contact).
4. “I’m fine.”
If you truly are fine, then … fine. But saying this while displaying anger, irritation, disappointment, or any other big emotion erodes trust. It’s dishonest. And when there is a mismatch between what you say with words and what you say with your facial expressions and tone of voice (or punctuation and emoji in email), people believe the nonverbals every time.
You don’t have to share your feelings with everyone. But it’s not fair to display them and then refuse to talk about them. You have a few of choices: You can set them aside to deal with later. You can let them go. You can excuse yourself to take a few minutes to calm down. Or you can acknowledge that you’re upset, but that this isn’t the time and place to talk about it. And then in all cases, calm your face, voice, and body so you no longer are broadcasting the feeling.
5. “I’m on it.”
Are you really? If so, great. But passive-aggressive behavior typically says the “right” thing, the thing others want to hear, and neglects to follow through. It’s, “We should do lunch sometime,” without ever intending to do so. Say what you mean. Do what you say.
6. “I wish you would…”
My daughter went through a phase when she wouldn’t ask for what she wanted. She would say things like, “I wish I could have some ice cream but I know you won’t let me.” She’d toss out the wish, without making a request, and then blame me in advance for not being able to have it. Thankfully, she grew out of that. But I guess not everyone does because this can happen in the workplace, too: “I wish you’d do this by the end of the day, but you probably won’t get to it until later this week.”
Take ownership of what you want. Be willing to say, “This is what I’d like.” Give others permission to also state what they want or what they can or cannot do. If you know what you’re asking is impossible or unreasonable, don’t mention it just to add pressure. But don’t make assumptions either. I had a friend who used to often say, “This is an outrageous request. You are welcome to say, ‘No.’” Another friend of mine is famous for making requests and following up with, “‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are both good answers.” When you give others permission to respond honestly, it frees you up to be more straightforward.
7. “Why don’t you…?”
I admit it. While I don’t generally use this passive-aggressive phrase in a work setting, I use it all the time at home, especially with my kids. Instead of giving a directive, I phrase it as if it is a suggestion or request. This leads to ambiguity, and eventually to resentment, because it gives the impression that you’re offering a choice when really there is no choice.
If you’re in charge, learn to simply say, “Do this.” You can say, “would you please” if it makes you feel better. And certainly, you can often involve the whole team in the decision-making process, model flexibility, give latitude, or offer suggestions … but when you’re giving a directive, be direct.
If you are on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior, here are a few things you can do:
- Stay calm. It’s not about you.
- Create safety. You can’t fix the other person or make them address their emotions directly, but you can create an environment or relationship where it’s safe to be honest.
- Communicate openly. Be clear on your own expectations and needs.
- Establish boundaries. Hold others accountable for their behavior.
If you find yourself slipping in to passive-aggressive behavior or using any of these types of phrases as a habit, well, welcome to the human race. You have emotions you are not expressing. If you’re in a toxic environment, it may truly be unwise to do so. But most of the time, people fall into these patterns simply because it’s easy. You might be insecure, or tired, or emotionally drained, or distracted, or too busy to have a straightforward conversation. It might be a bad habit or a holdover from a dysfunctional upbringing. Any number of these reasons can cause you to avoid being frank and open. When passive-aggressiveness becomes a pattern, however, communication and relationships break down.
To avoid passive-aggressive behavior and comments:
- Acknowledge your emotion. At the very least, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling: angry, frustrated, defeated, incompetent, overwhelmed…
- Express it. You don’t have to express it to anyone else, but you do need to get it out. (Check out this blog for ideas.)
- Be fully present. Just let the emotion be. You don’t have to share it OR stuff it.
- Communicate openness. Open body language and a grounded presence will help you be real, even if you choose not to reveal your feelings.
We can all fall into passive-aggressive behavior at times. Left unchecked, it creates hostility and resentment, not to mention enormous communication breakdowns. For healthy relationships and productivity, weed these phrases out of your vocabulary. Verbally and nonverbally, be genuine and congruent.