7 phrases that sound nice on the surface, but are actually passive aggressive

In researching for this post, I came across a survey by Preply. I knew that passive-aggressiveness was everywhere, but the results still shocked me. 

73% of people encounter passive-aggressive communication in the workplace, with over half facing it on a weekly basis. 

Even more intriguing is that a whopping 82% of individuals admit to occasionally exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviors themselves.

Yes, 82%! 

Many of us probably use passive-aggressive language without even realizing it too. 

With this in mind, today, we explore some friendly-sounding but deeply passive-aggressive phrases to watch out for. 

Not only that, we will give you some guidance on how to handle these phrases and if you happen to be guilty of using them yourself, what you might say instead. 

Curious about which phrase tops the list of passive-aggressiveness? 

Let’s dive in. 

1) “You’re too sensitive”

Topping the list in the Preply survey as the most frequently encountered passive-aggressive phrase was “You’re too sensitive.” 

You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. We all have. 

This phrase is often used in conversations, both in personal and professional settings.

What it really means

When someone tells you, “You’re too sensitive,” it’s not just an observation; it’s a subtle criticism. It’s a way of deflecting responsibility and putting the onus on you for feeling upset or hurt, suggesting that you are overreacting.

How to handle it

A constructive approach could be, “I understand you might see it that way, but my feelings are valid. Can we focus on the issue at hand?” 

This response acknowledges their perspective but also reaffirms the legitimacy of your emotions. It’s important to steer the conversation back to the actual problem instead of getting sidetracked by a debate over your sensitivity. 

What to say instead

If you are guilty of using this one, it might be time for a change. Instead of dismissing someone’s emotions, try saying, “I see this is important to you. Could you help me understand why you feel this way?” 

This response shows respect for their feelings and opens the door for a more meaningful and constructive conversation. It shifts the focus from judging their emotional response to understanding their perspective, which can lead to a deeper, more productive dialogue.

2) “Just a friendly reminder”

Have you ever received a message that starts with “Just a friendly reminder”? 

We all have. It’s all too common in corporate environments nowadays. It seems helpful, but it’s often a cloaked, aggressive nudge. 

What it really means

This phrase is a classic in the passive-aggressive playbook. It’s used to imply that you might have forgotten something or are not giving it the attention it deserves. 

It carries an undertone of criticism, suggesting negligence or oversight on your part.

How to handle it

When you encounter “Just a friendly reminder,” the key is to respond with grace but assertiveness. 

Acknowledge the reminder with a simple “Thank you for the heads-up!” and then clarify any actions you have already taken or plan to take. This approach shows you’re on top of things without getting defensive. 

If the reminder was unnecessary, a polite but firm response can subtly indicate that you were already aware and in control of the situation

What to say instead

If you find yourself on the verge of using “Just a friendly reminder,” consider a more direct and respectful approach. 

Try saying something like, “I wanted to touch base about [specific task or deadline]. How is it coming along?” 

This approach opens up a dialogue and offers an opportunity for the other person to provide updates or discuss any issues they might be facing. It’s about fostering a cooperative environment rather than one where reminders feel like veiled accusations.

3) “No offense, but…”

Back when I worked in finance, I had this manager who would always preface her critiques with “No offense, but…” 

It seemed like a cushion for the blow, but the truth is, it usually signaled that something offensive was about to follow.

What it really means

This phrase is a classic red flag. Many of you will know this. It’s so common that it came as the third worst passive-aggressive phrase in the survey I mentioned previously. 

The intention is usually to soften a blunt or critical statement, but paradoxically, it tends to highlight the offensiveness of what’s being said. 

It’s like a disclaimer that attempts to absolve the speaker of responsibility for any hurt feelings or backlash, even as they deliver a potentially harsh critique.

How to handle it

When someone says “No offense, but…”, brace yourself for the possibility of a less-than-pleasant comment. 

If the statement is genuinely offensive, address it calmly. You could say, “I appreciate your candor, but the way you’re presenting your feedback is a bit harsh. Can we focus on the issue more constructively?” 

This response acknowledges their point but redirects the conversation to a more positive and productive tone.

What to say instead

If you find yourself about to use this phrase, pause and reframe your words. Rather than saying “No offense, but…”, try a more direct and empathetic approach. 

For example, “I’d like to share some thoughts that might be useful,” or “I have some feedback, and I’m aiming to be constructive here.” 

This way, you’re being honest without undermining the validity of your point or pre-emptively invalidating the other person’s feelings

4) “You’ll learn”

Anyone remember that interview where a young Tiger Woods was confidently told, “You’ll learn,” by an interviewee? Well, if not, check it out here:

Needless to say, it didn’t age well. Woods would go on to become one of the most, if the most, celebrated and successful golfers of all time. 

What it really means

This phrase, especially when used in response to sharing personal experiences or opinions, can come off as patronizing. 

It implies a certain superiority in knowledge or experience from the speaker. Essentially, it suggests that your current understanding or approach is naive or limited and that, eventually, you will come to see things their way. 

It diminishes the validity of your perspective and subtly positions the speaker as wiser or more experienced.

How to handle it

A response like, “Absolutely, I’m always open to learning and growing. What specific insights can you share from your experience?” turns the table by showing you’re receptive to growth while subtly challenging the speaker to offer something of real value.

What to say instead

If you’re considering using “You’ll learn” in a conversation, it’s important to tread carefully to avoid sounding condescending. To communicate your experience or perspective without diminishing the other person’s views, try a more inclusive approach. 

You could say, “I’ve had a similar experience, and here’s what I found helpful…” or “That’s an interesting point. In my experience, I’ve also learned that…” 

These alternatives offer your insights as a part of a shared learning process, not as a definitive judgment on the other person’s current understanding. It transforms the conversation into a mutual exchange of knowledge and experiences, fostering respect and collaboration.

5) “If that’s what you want to do”

Okay let’s get a bit personal on this one. 

In my early twenties, I dated a girl who was grea – generally really nice. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, she would often respond to my ideas or plans with a nonchalant, “If that’s what you want to do.” 

Initially, it sounded supportive, but over time, I realized there was more to it.

What it really means

While it sounds like acceptance, it often carries an undertone of doubt or disapproval. It’s like saying, “Go ahead, but don’t expect me to agree or be there when it falls apart.” 

As many of you will know, this phrase can subtly undermine your confidence in your decision and leave you second-guessing yourself. 

How to handle it

When you hear “If that’s what you want to do,” it’s crucial to recognize the underlying tone. 

Respond with confidence in your decision, like, “Yes, I’ve thought it through and feel it’s the right choice for me.” This reaffirms your autonomy and decision-making skills

It’s also helpful to ask for specific concerns if you sense there’s more behind the comment: “Do you have any specific concerns about my decision?” This invites open and honest communication rather than leaving things unsaid.

What to say instead

If you catch yourself using this phrase, pause and consider your intentions. Are you genuinely supportive, or are you harboring doubts? 

Instead of a vague response, be more direct. 

If you support the decision, say so clearly: “That sounds like a great idea, I’m behind you.” If you have reservations, express them constructively: “I understand your choice, but have you considered…?” 

This way, you’re being supportive while also sharing your perspective in a straightforward and helpful manner.

6) “Why are you getting so upset?”

Where do you think this one ranked in the Preply survey? 

It came in second. No surprises there, it’s a classic too. 

What it really means

This phrase subtly implies that our emotional response is excessive or unwarranted. Instead of addressing the actual issue, it shifts the focus to our reaction, suggesting that we are the real problem. 

This tactic not only minimizes your concerns but also can make you feel guilty for expressing your emotions, thereby deflecting from the original topic.

How to handle it

When confronted with “Why are you getting so upset?”, it’s important to remain calm and not let the comment escalate your emotions further. 

A good response might be, “I’m passionate about this topic, and I feel my concerns are valid. Let’s try to focus on the issue rather than how we’re reacting to it.” 

This approach maintains the focus on the subject at hand and reinforces the validity of your feelings without escalating the situation.

What to say instead

If you find yourself tempted to use this phrase, instead of questioning someone’s emotional response, try to understand their perspective. 

You could say, “I can see this topic is important to you. Can you help me understand your concerns better?” 

This shows that you are open to dialogue and genuinely interested in their feelings, fostering a more constructive and respectful conversation.

7) “Whatever”

This is a huge one and so, so common. I don’t think you need any convincing of this, so let’s get to the meat of it. 

What it really means

“Whatever” is the verbal equivalent of a shrug. It often signals indifference, but beneath the surface, it can convey frustration, resignation, or disagreement, albeit in a teenage-like way. 

It’s a way of dismissing the conversation or topic without engaging constructively. Essentially, it can be an indirect way of saying, “I disagree or I’m upset, but I don’t want to discuss it.”

How to handle it

When someone hits you with a “whatever,” it’s tempting to respond in kind, I know. But don’t allow yourself to be so immature. 

A more effective approach is to address the underlying issue directly. You might respond with, “It seems like you have a strong opinion on this. I’d really like to hear your thoughts.” 

This invites open communication and shows that you value their perspective, encouraging them to share more openly.

What to say instead

If you disagree or are upset, express that clearly but respectfully. Instead of “whatever” you could say, “I’m not sure I agree with that, can we discuss it further?” 

If you’re feeling indifferent but want to remain engaged, you could say, “I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but I’m interested in your perspective.” 

This way, you’re staying engaged in the conversation and fostering a more open and respectful dialogue.

The bottom line 

Mastering the art of communication means being aware of the subtle shades of passive aggression. 

By recognizing these phrases and understanding their impact, we can foster more genuine, respectful, and effective interactions in both our personal and professional lives. 

As always, I hope you found this post valuable. 

Until next time.

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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