We’ve all heard them, and most likely, we’ve all used them a time or two: That certain brand of phrase that automatically puts the listener on the defensive, the ones that (kinda, sorta, but not really) try to ease the blow of something the other person might not want to hear. These vehicles of auditory ickiness can be everything from mildly annoying to frightening; passive-aggressive to just plain rude. Here are eight conversation phrases to avoid.
No offence, but…
If there is “no offence,” why would we be worried about potentially causing it? Ohhh, because we know perfectly well that what we’re about to say will probably cause the other person to be offended. Instead of using this disingenuous cliché before offering feedback, try, “I noticed that…” or “I’m not sure if you’re aware…”
Don’t take this personally
No offence’s ill-mannered cousin, “Don’t take this personally” is another phrase people use to get themselves off the hook before saying something that is likely to hurt or anger the other person. Designed to protect the speaker, it manages their own anxiety that your relationship will be in jeopardy if they say the thing they’re about to say. When confronted with the urge to say this, stop and re-assess: Can it be reframed as genuinely kind, positive, constructive feedback? If not, be prepared for a less-than-optimal reaction.
We need to talk
If the goal is to send the other person into a panic spiral, carry on. But to avoid launching them into a toxic pool of what-if scenarios, try replacing this with, “When’s a good time to reach you? There’s something I want to chat about in person rather than over text” or the even less threatening, “When can you meet up? I’d like to chat in person.”
Per my last email
While (we hope) people don’t actually say this out loud in a conversation, in electronic communication, this common trope is used a thinly-veiled cover for, “Why the hell haven’t you acknowledged what I already said?” Instead of putting co-workers in a snit with faux-politesse, try the more direct, less charged “I’m following up on the below…” or “Please send me your input/feedback by…”
With (all due) respect
This phrase is the Big Bad Wolf of locution; while it pretends to be courteous, it’s hiding a can of whoop-arse under its cloak. Said in a business setting, it often precedes disagreement, negative feedback, or criticism. When used more colloquially, it can be the wind-up to a litany of F-bombs. To sound less smug, replace it with a simple, “As far as” or “With respect to,” or, if you’re feeling bold, “In my opinion…”
Is there a more passive-aggressive word in the English language than fine? Not as in an old-fashioned, “What a fine day” or even “Yep, that’s fine” to signal indifferent acquiescence, but rather the standalone, apathetic “I’m fine” or (worse) the monosyllabic “Fine” that is a death knell to all agreeable conversation. The other F word signals we are the opposite of fine, and are determined to make getting to the bottom of our malaise the other person’s job. Alternatives to this avoidance of self-expression include everything from: “That’s not quite what I had in mind” and “I was hoping we could do something different” to the more direct, “I’m feeling angry because…”
It sucks to be on the receiving end of an, “I guess…if you really want to.” Whether it’s used as a lukewarm, disinterested response to a question or a tepid, uncertain precursor to an idea (I guess we could…go home?) an unequivocal “yes” or “no, thanks” works wonders. If we’re feeling unsure and could use some input, “What do you think about…?” is another alternative. I guess. I don’t know. You decide.
It’s just a joke
“It’s just a joke” is a concise, expert way to gaslight people for their legitimate reactions to something that may (or may not) have been said in jest, but was not, in fact, funny to them. This juvenile way to “get out of” addressing the impact of things we say must be exterminated. Because — let’s be honest — if we have to say this, we likely already know the “joke” in question didn’t land. Instead of dismissing the other person’s feelings, start with a genuine, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that” and go from there.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of any of these discomfiting gems, feel free to calmly state, “Can you explain what you mean” or “This is making me uncomfortable. Perhaps we can talk about this at another time.”