No Offense? Professor Lederer Discusses Those Passive-Aggressive Sayings We Can Do Without

Tuesday, November 07, 2017
Black and white photo of Jenny Lederer

HOW STUFF WORKS -- Even if you don’t know someone’s specific reason for acting passive-aggressively, you can usually spot the behavior immediately, particularly when it plays out in speech. “In linguistics, being ‘passive-aggressive’ is related to a speaker’s semantic, syntactic and pragmatic choices,” says Jenny Lederer, Ph.D., assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. “A passive-aggressive speaker will often frame their commentary as polite, while actually conveying negative sentiment.”

“Not to sound racist, but ... .” No, nope, stop — literally anything you say after those words will sound racist. Prefacing offensive statements with qualifying language does nothing to soften the impact of the words. “Passive-aggressive discourse is a way of masking criticism, negativity and noncompliance by linguistically distancing ourselves from the slander or critique,” Lederer says. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.

Photo by Hannah Anderson