Speaking in passive aggressive: 5 innocent phrases that can turn a conversation into an argument

We tend to put a lot of significance into words spoken to us by others. At the same time, we often underestimate the importance of what comes out of our own mouths. Some very common responses can instantly alienate people you are talking to, while sounding perfectly harmless. Often these things lead to major recurring domestic fights, broken engagements, and soured friendships. Most of these things are triggered subconsciously, and evoke a subconscious response, turning the conversation the wrong way even before we realize it.

Here is my list of top 5 things never to say in a conversation, unless you want it to turn into an argument:

1. “What?”

Your friend just said a long sentence to you and you did not hear the last word clearly. An immediate–and quite natural–response is to say “What?”, so that the person would repeat the missing piece. However, this type of response is not only abrupt and jarring, it is inconsiderate. Your friend could not possibly know which exact word you missed, so you have just forced her to repeat the entire phrase, or more. Don’t be surprised if she sounds irritated the second time around, and if her next response triggers some irritation on your side. Things can quickly go downhill from here, without being intentional.

Instead, say something like this: “Sorry, I didn’t hear the last word. What was it?”

2. “You don’t understand.”

Chances are, if you feel compelled to say this, the person you are talking to is already aware of the misunderstanding. By saying this, you are reinforcing the fact that this person has failed considerably in this conversation. If you are talking to an insecure person, you will likely make him feel stupid and inadequate. Whatever the reaction, it will likely go far deeper than the topic of your conversation, and probably not in the direction you want it to.

Instead, consider skipping this phrase altogether, and just repeating the explanation–better yet, with some modifications so that the person might understand it this time around.

3. “Let me explain.”

Like the example above, but more subtle, this phrase is telling someone they must change their attitude and pay extra attention. It also suggests there is a long conversation coming, even if in your mind the ensuing explanation might take only one phrase. When used on the offensive, you are effectively telling this person: “She thinks I am stupid and need extra pointers to pay attention” or “Oh, no, she is going to be pushy and force me not just to listen but also to demonstrate full attention”. When used on the defensive, it means: “She is going to talk too long and I will have to drop everything and let it drag on.” Something like this is likely to make a person not want to listen, even if they felt compelled to just a moment ago.

I suggest never to use this phrase, unless you are 100% sure you want a person to drop everything they are doing and pay extra attention. If you do, say something like this instead: “This is very important to me. Please listen.” By doing this, you are acknowledging that this may be more important to you than to the person you are talking to, and you are asking this person to bear with you and do something for your sake. Most people would feel good doing that–unless, of course, you are already arguing.

4. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

If you are speaking the same language, chances are you do understand what this person is talking about, even if you may not have understood everything they just said. Sadly, this phrase has been far over-used in some action movies of the 1970s and 1980s, so for many people it readily pops to the tongue without even triggering a brain response. To the person you are talking to, this means: “I not only missed everything you just said, I also have no idea what is the topic of our conversation”, translated as: “we are not in the same plain of thought, so whatever you say about this is going to go right by me and I will make no effort to talk to you at all”; closely followed by: “go away, the conversation is over and I am not interested in anything you have to say.” You may not mean these things when you say it, but chances are it will subconsciously come through this way, quickly turning your partner’s attitude from friendly to hostile.

Instead, try saying something like this: “I am not sure I understand what you meant by <X>. Did you mean <A> or <B>?” Yes, it will be much more work for you to figure out this detailed response. But trust me, unless you really want the conversation to end right there, probably with hard feelings and longer term repercussions on both sides, it is worth it.

5. “How many times do I need to tell you this?”

Well, this one is probably obvious. Between the lines, it reads: “I already told this to you, more than once, and you are still too stupid to understand”. Saying something like this is bound to alienate a person right away.

Instead, it may be worth thinking: “if I said this so many times already and she still doesn’t do it my way, maybe she has her own reasons not to?” People have their differences, and they often don’t feel comfortable discussing them in detail. In some situations this is hard to accept, but there is nothing anyone can possibly do about it.


Does any of this sound familiar? Do you have any other common phrases in your collection that tend to inadvertently trigger a wrong response?


About Anna Kashina

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One Response to Speaking in passive aggressive: 5 innocent phrases that can turn a conversation into an argument

  1. Terry says:

    mine would be: ‘BUT, …’

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