Have you ever left a conversation feeling vaguely uncomfortable?
On paper, there was nothing wrong with the conversation. In fact, everything they said was very nice and polite.
So what’s going on here? Are you overthinking things when there’s no real issue?
Or maybe you’re picking up on someone who’s only pretending to be polite.
How can you tell if that’s the case? After analyzing the people I know and interactions I had with them, I’ve narrowed it down to 7 key phrases.
If you notice someone using these a lot, there’s a good chance they’re only pretending to be polite.
1) “No offense, but…”
We’ve all heard this phrase. It’s a classic, typically used when someone is about to say something that they already know might offend you. Despite the preface, it’s rarely used in genuinely polite conversation.
A person using “no offense, but…” is, in effect, giving themselves a free pass to make a potentially insulting comment.
They’re acknowledging that their words might upset you, but instead of putting in effort to find a more compassionate way to say it, they’ve decided to say it anyway.
The irony of this phrase is hard to ignore. By claiming not to intend offense, the speaker shifts responsibility for any hurt feelings onto the listener, as if it were your fault for taking offense.
I heard this quite a lot in a recent online course I was a part of. During peer review, one member would start his sentences with “No offense, but..” and then he would give a rather harsh critique to another participant’s project.
It was rather uncomfortable for anyone involved. If you find yourself tempted to use this phrase, it’s a sign that there could be a kinder way to say what you want to say.
2) “I’m sorry you feel that way”
Ah, the pseudo-apology.
On the surface, it seems like an attempt at empathy and understanding. But in reality, “I’m sorry you feel that way” is often a veiled attempt at deflecting blame and responsibility.
Instead of offering a genuine apology for their actions, the person is merely expressing regret over your emotional response. It’s a subtle shift, but it places the responsibility of the conflict onto the receiver, not the issuer of the statement.
Basically, they’re saying, “I’m sorry that you’re upset,” not, “I’m sorry for what I did to upset you.” In other words, this phrasing suggests that the real problem is your feelings, not their actions.
At my previous job, I had a situation with a co-worker where we disagreed on a project approach. When I expressed my concerns over his method, his response was, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
That phrase did nothing to address the issue at hand. Instead, it left me feeling dismissed and unheard.
Remember, genuine politeness means listening, empathizing, and when necessary, owning up to our actions.
3) “Do you need any help?”
And now we come to the fake offer for help.
You’ve surely heard this from a seemingly nice passerby or stranger. I witnessed it just a few days ago in a grocery store parking lot.
A woman’s bags ripped and all the contents of it spilled onto the ground. A young man walking by asked, “Do you need any help?”
So here’s why this is often just someone pretending to be polite. The way it’s phrased practically encourages the person to politely decline.
Saying yes would make them feel like they’re inconveniencing the person asking, or having to admit that they need help, which can make them uncomfortable.
And in fact, the woman in the parking lot answered with “Oh I’m fine, thank you.”
A genuinely kind offer would sound like “May I help you?” or “Please let me help you.” Or, you would simply help without even asking — it’s pretty obvious the person could use a hand.
4) “Bless your heart”
Here’s a phrase that’s very popular especially in the south of the US.
While it can be a genuine term of sympathy or endearment, it’s often used as a passive-aggressive insult, typically when the speaker believes the person they’re addressing has done something foolish or naive.
Instead of directly stating their disapproval or disbelief, the speaker sugarcoats their criticism with this seemingly kind phrase. It’s polite mockery masquerading as concern.
Last year, during a family reunion, I suggested a new way to organize our yearly holiday gift exchange.
An elder cousin responded with a sweet smile, “Bless your heart, always trying to fix things that aren’t broken.”
At that moment, the phrase wasn’t a compliment to my initiative but a polite jab at my perceived naivety. It left an undercurrent of negativity beneath the polite veneer.
So remember, politeness isn’t just about the words we use but also the intent behind them. Truly polite people use their words to uplift others, not to subtly bring them down.
5) “It’s not for everyone”
This phrase can be tricky. On the surface, it seems respectful, understanding, even validating. It acknowledges that everyone is unique and different things suit different people.
However, in a certain context or tone, it can also be a way to express criticism or disapproval.
Someone saying, “It’s not for everyone” could really mean, “I don’t like this, and I’m subtly suggesting that you, or your work, doesn’t meet a certain standard.”
You can’t really challenge it because technically, it’s a fair statement. But the underlying message can feel dismissive or belittling, turning it into a polite put-down.
Not so long ago, I created a small art exhibition at our local community center. An acquaintance, after spending a considerable amount of time observing my work, turned to me and said, “Well, it’s not for everyone.”
I was a bit taken aback. The phrase was innocent enough, but the context and their tone suggested it was a thinly veiled critique.
They weren’t saying my art was unique or different – they were saying it didn’t appeal to them, or maybe most people.
When being truly polite, it’s important to communicate criticisms constructively and directly — or say nothing at all.
6) “You’ll do better next time”
Here’s something you may hear people say when you feel down because you didn’t do well at something.
At my previous job, I was very hard on myself especially when I was new. I would analyze every presentation or project I did and find dozens of mistakes in them.
There were two colleagues in particular I shared my worries with. And I noticed what a huge difference there was in their reaction.
One of them took the time to talk to me about what exactly I felt bad about, and how I could try to improve it.
And the other one just listened, nodded, and made a comment like “You’ll do better next time.”
Sure, it was polite on the surface, and maybe this colleague truly meant well. But, I had the impression like they were just trying to end the conversation and didn’t really care whether I did better or not.
Because there was no effort behind her words. When a person really wants to be nice, they’ll show it to you through action and not just nice-sounding phrases.
7) “That sounds interesting”
I have to admit something: I’ve used this phrase hundreds of times. In fact, I dare say I still do.
And to be honest? I try my best to always be a kind person, but the truth is that sometimes I do use this phrase just because it sounds polite.
I don’t have energy to think of something more thoughtful or specific to say, so I just fall back on phrases like this that work for practically any situation.
And sometimes I could tell it in the person’s face. They were expecting a comment with more substance, or maybe even just a more enthusiastic tone, and I disappointed them.
Since then I’ve made sure to avoid this phrase, and instead take the time to understand what the person is saying more deeply. As a result, I can always find something more meaningful to say in response.
How you can tell when someone’s truly kind and polite
Now you know 7 phrases that people use when they’re only pretending to be polite.
So now you might wonder, how can you tell when someone is genuinely nice?
It’s pretty simple. It’s not just about saying the “right” things — it’s about true consideration and respect for others.
This doesn’t depend on any specific way you word something, but through the way you approach the conversation, your ability to listen and empathize, and the care you put into the interaction.
It’s important to listen carefully and critically to what people say and how they say it. Because words can seem harmless on the surface, the real intention often lies beneath.
Let’s strive for a world where politeness isn’t a mask to hide behind, but a genuine display of empathy, kindness, and understanding.