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Six passive aggressive phrases - and what to say instead

Language is such a critical component of our personal and professional relationships. Used thoughtfully and respectfully, it can strengthen them. Used mindlessly or aggressively, it can have seriously negative consequences. A flippant quip of the lip can destroy what took years to build. Sometimes it happens unintentionally because we’ve gotten so used to certain common phrases that we don’t stop to listen to how they might land before uttering them ourselves.

So to preserve your relationships -- with family, friends, coworkers, customers and clients -- here are six phrases to avoid and what to say instead.

As per my last email… Sure, you laid it out very clearly in an earlier email, and maybe your coworker really is being dense, but adding a little “as per my last email” serves no purpose other than to indicate your frustration. Sometimes it’s okay to just copy and paste without getting passive aggressive. Alternatively, you can politely recommend referring to your previous message, where your coworker will find the information. Or you can resend it to them with a simple note: “Here’s the information you need. See below.”

You did great considering… This is usually followed by a statement that comes across as snide or judgmental, even if the speaker is genuinely trying to be supportive. Instead, choose to focus on the positive and stop right at “You did great.” In general, try to avoid adding negative qualifiers like “considering” “given” or “with.”

Just wondering… Folks sometimes use this phrase if they’re feeling shy or lacking confidence in some way. The problem here is the use of passive language and dancing around the core request: “Hey, I was just wondering, when are you going to do the dishes?” Hear it now? Try: “When can you get to the dishes?”

I guess not… People often quip “I guess not” as a way of sharpening an otherwise neutral-sounding observation. “I thought we were going to visit my mother today” becomes: “I thought we were going to visit my mother... I guess not.” Stop guessing so much! Guessing is for games of Clue and charades. This phrase doesn’t help anyone, so much as it serves as a release valve for the speaker. Drop this phrase from your vocabulary ASAP!

If you really want to… This reply may seem flexible or accommodating, but under the surface the speaker isn’t very enthusiastic for whatever reason. Try stating your own preference clearly and succinctly. You also can check in with a clearer, less passive query like: “Is that your top choice?”

But I know you’re so busy! This one is so sneaky! It could be a heartfelt concern for someone else’s schedule, or it could be us trying to state a desire but shift the ownership to the other party. Listen to how it sounds with an indirect request: “I could use a ride to the airport Thursday morning, but I know you’re so busy!” Maybe the person the speaker is asking really is so busy. Or maybe the speaker didn’t feel comfortable simply asking directly and resorted to passive aggression. You can ask for what you want in a straightforward manner. “Do you think you can drive me to the airport Thursday morning?” And let the other party tell you they’re busy! And who knows, you might actually get that ride you wanted in the first place.

When life gets busy (or stressful), it’s easy to forget that our words (and tone) really do matter. We need to take the time to reflect on the phrases we use in our daily lives. If they are not positive and productive, we need to practice incorporating clearer, more direct language. A little bit of effort can serve us well in helping us keep our relationships strong and thriving.


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