17 phrases you don’t realize are actually quite passive-aggressive

We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable and emotionally intelligent people. And for the most part, that may well be true!

But there are certain phrases that pop up during conversation which are actually very passive aggressive, even when we don’t realize it. 

The key is to become more self-aware of the way you’re speaking and choose other ways to phrase things that won’t be taken the wrong way. 

In this article, I’m going to go through some of these passive-aggressive phrases to avoid. 

1) “I’m not upset”

This is usually the kind of thing somebody says when they are upset but they want to deny it. 

If you say this a lot, it tends to show a certain inability to express difficult emotions. 

If you’re upset, it doesn’t mean you need to shout and cry, to be sure, but at the very least admitting you’re not feeling great is a good way to begin being more emotionally transparent

2) “Okay, whatever”

This is a classic passive-aggressive phrase. 

On the surface it’s pretty easy-going and chill, but the way it’s said and the implication is much more in-your-face. 

It indicates anger disguised as indifference, and is the kind of thing that’s usually a loaded statement. 

3) “I’ll do it soon!”

Promising to do something soon is perfectly fine, if you’re actually going to do it soon. 

I know that in my case I often say this as a way to buy time when I don’t actually intend to take out the garbage, wash dishes or help out. 

When you say you’ll do something, make plans to do it at a definite time and place, or else it can come off as very passive.

Meanwhile, on the more aggressive side… 

4) “Does it have to be right now?”

This is something that you may say when you’re very busy or stressed.

It can also be a way of avoiding getting down to work or helping out a partner, friend or colleague. 

But it can come across as kind of aggressive and almost gaslighting, because you are inherently portraying the other person as being overly demanding. 

Maybe they are being too demanding or pushy: if so, say so directly, rather than phrasing it as a mock-question. 

On that note… 

5) “Why are you so demanding?”

This is the type of thing that also asks a question instead of just being direct. 

By putting it as a question, you send mixed signals and put the other person on the defensive, indicating something is wrong with their behavior. 

Maybe something is, but it’s best to be direct and ask somebody to stop pushing instead of focusing on what they’re doing wrong:

“I need a moment, please. Thanks.” 

6) “I already told you”

This may indeed be true. 

But it can come across passive-aggressive because it shows that you’re getting sick of this person and feel like they should already understand what you said. 

If you’ve already told somebody a lot of times and they aren’t listening, it may be necessary not to continue contact with them. 

7) “I thought you already knew”

If somebody already knew, then they either forgot or weren’t listening. 

Admittedly, the latter isn’t great. 

But by phrasing it this way, it can come off quite passive-aggressive. 

Even if a person is failing to understand what you keep repeating, it’s best to move slower and phrase it in a way that doesn’t come across as accusatory.

8) “You did…surprisingly well”

This can come across as passive-aggressive because it indicates that you expected someone to flop. 

If this is delivered with just the right hint of a joking tone, it can come off well. 

But in general, it’s better to avoid these kinds of phrases because they can be taken the wrong way, especially by someone who struggles with self-esteem or self-image

9) “I was just joking, calm down”

The “just joking” line is a bit immature and can come across in a passive-aggressive manner. 

It belongs more on a grade school play yard, and even there it’s already a fairly frustrating remark. 

To be fair, maybe somebody is overreacting and you were just joking. But if your joke isn’t received well, it’s usually most effective to just apologize without trying to emphasize that it being a joke means somebody shouldn’t be upset. 

People get upset all the time, and we’re not in charge of that.

On a similar note…

10) “You’re getting way too upset”

This could be true, but it’s a passive-aggressive thing to say. 

The irony is that it almost always leads to somebody getting more upset when it’s said to them, too. 

If somebody is overreacting to something, it’s usually best to try to let the interaction sit for a moment and come back to it later.

Telling them that they’re overreacting comes off as controlling and passive-aggressive and usually just leads to more drama.

11) “OK, I’ll just keep my mouth shut then”

This can be taken very much the wrong way by people and come across as passive-aggressive. 


Because it indicates that you have something you really want to share or believe is crucial for somebody to hear, but you’re not going to say it because the other person won’t believe you, understand you, or respect you. 

If it’s true they won’t, then let them know the interaction is making you upset and you’re done contributing. 

But don’t throw out a barbed comment like this, mainly for the fact that it’s just going to antagonize a difficult person even more.

12) “That’s kind of a crazy thing to say, but OK”

This is passive-aggressive because it combines shock and opposition with a throwaway note of relaxation. 

The “but OK” is just not necessary. 

If someone is saying something that you find crazy or extremely upsetting, be direct about that. There’s no need to say it’s OK or send mixed signals on it. 

13) “It’s your life, man”

This is a passive-aggressive statement because it mixes disapproval with false detachment. 

If you don’t approve of what somebody is doing, it’s best to be direct with them. 

Saying something like “I can’t stop you, but I do strongly advise against doing that,” is a fair statement. 

But the “it’s your life” line is quite passive-aggressive or at least comes off that way. 

14) “I know you aren’t going to listen to what I say, but…”

This is the type of thing that can get said when a person is being very stubborn or frustrating. 

You may have a very good reason for saying it, but the reason it’s not the best choice is because it’s self-defeating. 

If somebody really isn’t going to listen to what you say, then why say it?

Better to go with something: “Please, please listen to what I’m saying, which is completely for your own good.” 

15) “You might not like hearing this, but…”

When you’re delivering a criticism or unpleasant news to someone, it’s fair to assume they might react badly. 

But at the same time, using the phrase above has some really passive-aggressive vibes. 

The reason is that it implies that people are soft or unable to take disappointing things you say to them. 

16) “I wish you could just understand…”

This is passive-aggressive or comes across that way, because it indicates that somebody doesn’t understand and can’t understand for some reason. 

The person who hears this is likely to feel reinforced that they’re not smart enough or have some knowledge gap that can’t be filled. 

Even if you’re not trying to be condescending at all, it can come across that way. 

17) “You would be so amazing if you just…”

This is a very passive-aggressive statement because it tells somebody that there is something wrong with them. 

Let’s be honest:

Maybe there is something about someone’s character or personality that really is frustrating or upsetting. 

But setting them up as needing your validation or to achieve a certain thing to be worthy can come across as demeaning instead of believing in them. 

A better way would be to say something like “I believe in your potential and every day you’re becoming a better person, it’s awesome to see.” 

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