Passive-aggressive behavior isn’t always intentional. As a speech and communications expert, I’ve found that people who have these tendencies often just struggle with being honest about their emotions.
But when you send mixed messages by failing to be straightforward, problems and tensions can go unresolved and people make assumptions about how you feel. It may even make people respect you less.
The most successful communicators get to the point and avoid these phrases that only serve to irritate the listener:
I call this one a “throat clearer” — an indirect attempt to demand attention or a faster response. Other phrases to eliminate: “Per my last email…,” “Not sure if you got the memo, but…” or “As I mentioned before…”
These phrases only camouflage your request and make the other person think you’re trying to nag, blame or be bossy.
What to say instead: Be direct. If you need a quick turnaround, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, I’m sorry to bug you again, but I need a response.”
This phrase almost always prefaces something annoying or offensive.
The lazy, self-serving logic behind it is that if you tell people in advance that you’re going to be rude, it’s okay to go ahead and do so. Wrong.
What to say instead: Legitimate criticism is necessary and even helpful, as long as you’re not a jerk about it. Think before you speak: Are you focusing on the problem you want to solve?
If so, it’s fine to say: “Is this a good time to talk? There’s something that’s been bothering me” or “I’m concerned about your performance. Let’s talk about it.”
Sometimes, this is just another phrase for “Yep, okay.” But the sarcastic version means something different: “Shut up, I heard you” or “You’re annoying, leave me alone.”
Sarcasm is the most obvious form of passive aggression, and possibly the most hurtful. Your audience may have no idea that you’re upset, much less why you’re upset. You’re just dumping your feelings on them with little context.
What to say instead: Examine why you’re upset. Then try saying, “I’m sorry if I seem annoyed. I’m having a hard time with this assignment” or “I’m stressed because I already have two deadlines today.”
Softening a request might seem polite, but it can also be a form of passive aggression. Think of other “softeners” like “Thanks in advance” or “Hey, what’s our ETA looking like?”
If you’re asking for something as a boss or colleague, don’t pretend like you’re being a pal. It’s fine to be explicit and state what you need and when.
What to say instead: Be upfront. Remind them of the deadline, then explain the stakes of missing it: “I really need this by tomorrow or the client will be very upset.”
This phrase implies disapproval. Other passive aggressive judgement signals include “Just so you know…” or “For future reference…”
Your listener hears a common refrain in each of these phrases: “I don’t agree. Don’t you know who I am? You messed up again.” None of these messages are helpful to anyone.
What to say instead: People don’t usually make decisions to upset you. If you disagree, speak up. But lead with the benefit of the doubt. Is your input required? Is this the right time to say something?
If so, be polite and direct as you advocate for what you think is best: “What if we take this course of action for this benefit?”
Remind yourself that you will get to make lots of decisions in your life. If you don’t have a say in this one, the world will keep spinning.
John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of “I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection.” He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney’s, This American Life, and many others. Visit his website here and follow him on LinkedIn.
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