15 Passive Aggressive Phrases That Are Ruining Your Work Relationships

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Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k
May 20, 2024 at 8:43AM UTC

Attempts to water down criticism or shutdown awkward conversations can end up doing more harm than good. Whether done intentionally or not, using passive aggressive phrases – even via email – can impact more than personal relationships. A silly sentence can impact your working relationships, your career, and even your business.  

Don’t let unintentional passive aggression damage your career. If you find yourself turning to any of these phrases, think of alternative ways to express yourself that are more straightforward and clear:

1.“Do what you want.”

While on the surface it may seem that this phrase is being used to give someone the freedom to make their own choice, being on the receiving end of this statement can feel like a trap. What people actually hear is "do what you want, but it better be exactly the thing that I want you to do that I’m just not saying.”

2.“Thanks in advance.”

Using this phrase makes it seem like you’re pressuring someone into doing what you’re asking them to do. It strips the appreciation from the thank you  and changes the tone from one of gratitude to one of expectation. Save the praise until after the task is complete.

3. “If you really think that’s what’s best.”

If you use this phrase, clearly you believe there’s a better course of action, but you’re withholding it. If an idea is presented to you and you have another solution in mind, save someone the time and frustration and let them know what you think the best course of action is.

4. “Whatever works for you.”

This phrase undermines the plan of action that the person you’re working with suggested. It implies that what they want to do is somehow incorrect without really addressing why.

5. “It’s fine.”

This phrase may be meant harmlessly, but the tone can make it seem like you’re holding something back. ‘Fine’ can connote base level ok-ness, but still implies that something is lacking. This can leave the recipient wondering why things aren’t at least ‘good.’

6. “Whatever you want.”

Like many passive aggressive phrases, this puts the ball in the other person’s court at first glance, but there’s an undercurrent of hostility. The phrase doesn’t actually offer support for their suggestion, it just suggests you're mad that they have power over the situation at hand. 

7. “Are you serious?”

This phrase is more aggressive than passive. It can make even the most thick-skinned person walk away feeling at least a little offended.

8. “Wow, ok.”

Is there an appropriate response to a ‘wow, ok?’ These two short words pack a major punch and really serve no constructive purpose.

9. “I’m not mad, but…”

Rather than prefacing a statement with this phrase, just come out with what you want to say. That way, the person you’re speaking to knows to do things differently the next time around.

10. “I hope that was worth it.”

Saying that you hope something was worth it can make it seem the the opposite is true. The phrase leaves the air heavy and can make something small seem like a much bigger infraction.

11. “I’m just saying.”

This phrase drips with disdain. Rather than trying that identifying the cause of the issue, saying this reveals underlying condescension that makes people less likely to want to contact you when issues arise later.

12. “Like I said…”

If you need to reiterate a previous point, then by all means make sure your message was received. But prefacing your statement with this phrase can inject unnecessary tension into the interaction.

13. “That was a just a joke.”

If something you’ve said landed in a way that left whoever you're talking to feeling upset or uncomfortable, downplaying the situation adds insult to injury by making it seem like they’re at fault for their discomfor. Just own up to your mistake. 

14. “You’ve really never heard of…?”

Even if you’re surprised to learn that someone you work with isn’t familiar with something, this should not be the phrase you respond to their lack of knowledge with. While there may be no malice behind your question, it can imply that the person you’re addressing is ignorant.

15. “Well, actually…”

When you open a statement with the phrase ‘well, actually,’ it makes people actually want to push you down a well. It comes off as snide, and no one gets excited about having to work with a know-it-all.


Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.

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