Defending Against ‘I’m Just Saying’ and Other Verbal Annoyances
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Lately the annoying expression “I’m just saying” keeps coming up in everyday conversation. We cannot escape. But we can be onto the hidden dynamics that make this and other such figures of speech so irritating, and we can prepare ourselves for the next time.
Brooke was chatting with her sister Ashley and provocatively remarked, “Don’t you think you should stay longer when you visit your family? You’re so selfish.” “I’m doing my best. You’re pressuring me,” Ashley replied. “I’m just saying!” Brooke retorted.
Oh, well. In that case….
Brooke used the expression “I’m just saying” after making an off-putting remark, conveniently absolving herself of responsibility for the affront. This tagline is a handy conversational tool. It serves as a free pass for the speaker to say anything and then negate any ill intent.
Often the remark preceded by “I’m just saying” is unsolicited and provocative. “I’m just saying” creates a confusing interpersonal dynamic. The speaker unconsciously attempts to trick the listener into believing an altered reality in which he or she is blameless, and the listener is implicitly accused of having an unfounded reaction. In this altered reality both are supposed to pretend that:
• The speaker didn’t really say anything upsetting. • “I’m just saying” magically neutralizes any negative reaction. • The speaker can say whatever he or she wants as long as it’s followed by “I’m just saying.” Then, noone can hold the speaker accountable.
Still, this phrase may also be used more literally, without any hidden agenda, when someone has an unexpected negative reaction to a truly innocuous remark which leaves the speaker feeling unfairly attacked or exposed. In such cases “I’m just saying” expresses honest frustration and is intended in rightful self-defense, conveying: “That was an innocent comment – so chill!”
A similar ingenuous use of the phrase is when someone says something and then feels exposed. For example, Cathy raised a suggestion to which her friend said sarcastically, “Like we didn’t already know that!” In this case, Cathy took a risk to contribute to the conversation, and then felt foolish when her friend reacted as if her idea were stupid. “I’m just saying!“ Cathy replied. Here Cathy used the tagline in an attempt to save face.
The trickier situation is when people use “I’m just saying” to disclaim an offensive comment. The next time someone uses the “I’m just saying” scam, be armed and shoot back: “I know – and I’m not sure you recognize that what you’re ‘just saying’ is actually offensive.” (And depending on how irritated you are, you can always add, “Hey, I’m just saying.”)
From the same family of taglines is the phrase “I’m just teasing” or “I’m just joking ” where responsibility also is disowned for one’s actions and their effects. In some instances, however, the “joker” may, in fact, have trouble reading people, or may have miscalculated the other person’s reaction, believing she is going to laugh along with them. Such cases are easily recognizable because the recipient’s hurt is treated with more concern and sensitivity, not invalidated.
Typically, however, the “I’m just kidding” tagline is part of a passive-aggressive, unconscious dynamic in which anger is sneakily expressed and then defended against. The perpetrator of the remark denies responsibility for jabbing anyone, accusing the recipient of the jab of being “too sensitive,” and mocking her for feeling the sting. People who use this defensive style frequently accommodate others, are afraid of conflict and anger, feel misunderstood in relationships, and believe they never get angry. Not surprisingly, they are befuddled when others are put off by actions or remarks that, unbeknownst to them, transmit hidden hostility.
Stacey is a stay-at-home mom whose husband resents helping out when he comes home. When she asked if he could drive their son to hockey this time, Steve said, mockingly, “Why, because you’ve been working so hard all day?” When Stacey became upset, he said, “Honey, I’m just kidding. Where’s your sense of humor?” Oblivious to the covert hostility in his “playful” comment, Steve was indignant when Stacey reacted with offense, creating a cycle of hurt and misunderstanding for both.
So if you’re the misunderstood “joker,” and you’ve unwittingly hurt someone and want to make things better, be smart and own up to it. Consider soul-searching for the unconscious resentment you may be harboring so it won’t leak out surreptitiously. Hey, I’m just saying…
Tips for misunderstood "jokers" or "teasers":
• Step back from being caught up in whether the other person’s reaction is justified. • Don’t defend yourself or argue about the validity of the other person’s reaction. • Take seriously the other person’s feelings and experience of you. • Take responsibility: acknowledge that you hurt the other person. • Apologize. • Consider that you may have (unconscious) resentments that are leaking out. Think about possible resentments you may be harboring toward the person you’re teasing, in other areas of your life, or from your past.
Empowering comebacks to: "I’m just saying":
• “I know – and I’m ‘just responding’ to what feels like an insult.” • “I know – but the fact that you are ‘just saying’ something offensive doesn’t make it less offensive.” • “I know – and what you’re ‘just saying’ is offensive. Hey, I’m just saying.” • “I know – and I’m not sure you recognize that what you’re ‘just saying’ comes across as critical, hurts my feelings, is insulting, etc.” • “I’ve thought this through and I’m comfortable with what I’m doing. I’m not seeking input on this.” • “Thanks for your input, I’ll take it under advisement.” • “Thanks for your input. I’ll let you know if I need any additional opinions on this.”