How to Be Passive-Aggressive on Both Sides of the Atlantic


Say it with a greeting card. (

A table came out recently to help translate common British phrases; apparently we’re too polite to say what we really mean. This, in itself, is worth a discussion because in my two-plus decades in the U.S. I find Americans to be far less direct in many situations. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come out of a meeting with no real clue as to what went on. Surprisingly though, I also saw many similarities between Brits and Americans when reading the table. Yes, we can be passive-aggressive on both sides of the Pond.

“I hear what you say…”
The table says that in the U.K. it means, “I disagree and do not want to discuss it further.” In the U.S. in my corporate experience at least, it is often said by the power wielder, who pretends to listen to all sides of an issue but in reality has already made up his/her mind; it means, “Nice try, and now I’m going to ram my decision through anyway.”

Here are a few more American sayings that are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

“Just checking in…”
Depending on the relationship, this can mean, “Why is it always me checking up on you? Are you aware that I’ve been lying in bed half dead with flu for the last week?” or (from a co-worker) “I asked you to send me the report three days ago. If you haven’t been half dead with flu, I want to know why it’s late.” Whatever the situation, you’re not being “checked up on.” You’re being guilt-tripped, and a certain level of groveling is expected.

“It’d be great if you could… “
…spontaneously combust before the end of the sentence because this request is actually a fait accompli! Whether it’s a work situation, a school volunteer project or a neighborly favor, there’s no getting out of it. I mean, what are you going to say? The better part of your nature is being appealed to. Warning: while you think you can come up with an excuse, you will already have been trapped into publicly establishing that your schedule is wide-open.

This quite often follows the above trap and ends the discussion before you can extricate yourself. The speaker is saying “Great, she has no idea how much work is involved/how much less she could have paid; let’s get the heck out of here before she realizes.” In meetings, notebooks will be snapped shut and chairs pushed away before the word is fully enunciated. Another fait accompli.

The next two are interchangeable and often directed at us expat Brits:

“I love it! You just don’t CARE, do you?”
This usually follows a fairly huge cultural faux pas. Loosely translated, it means, “What the hell did you just do? I’m dying of embarrassment here. Don’t ever do that again.” This can be after you’ve left a meager tip, stuffed your handkerchief up your sleeve or announced that children should be seen and not heard. It is also used when Americans aren’t quite sure whether you’re joking or not (as with the children comment above), and is accompanied by a nervous laugh rather than barely disguised outrage.

“Oh, you can get away with it, you’re British.”
This means that an American wouldn’t be seen dead wearing what you’re wearing or doing whatever it is you’ve sunk to, and what’s more, s/he is also going to make sure everyone within fifty yards knows you’re foreign and therefore haven’t a clue. This was first said to me twenty years ago in Dallas when I’d stepped out in white shoes a couple of weeks after Labor Day.

And, if you’re in the South, the real zinger…

Bless her heart!
We’ve discussed this before (in the comments section here), and although it is sometimes benign, the general consensus is that, in the South at least, it’s a bit of a put-down, effectively allowing the speaker to slag someone off without recrimination. “Bless her heart, she always looks like she’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.”  I mean, how can you infer spite when the victim has been blessed prior to annihilation?  As writer and blogger Heather Rainier says “Truly evil Southern women can do this with a smile and walk away leaving you hemorrhaging.”

Which country do you think exhibits more passive-agressiveness? 

See More:
10 Common American Expressions That Baffle Brits
10 Things Americans Don’t Realize Are Offensive to Brits
Five Ways Americans Ruined the English Language


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Karen Brown

    I am a southern woman and often use Bless your heart as a true expression of sympathy, but often it is used with a slight shake of the head and basically means Poor thing you are just too stupid to live.

    • MontanaRed

      It’s all in the context… 😉

  • Kay Kelley

    The “bless your heart” thing has been grossly overstated. Some of us mean it as an expression of sympathy.

    • expatmum

      And that was acknowledged in the post, but if you Google it, most of the stuff is about its passive aggression.

      • Kay Kelley

        I can respect you find that information when you Google the reference, but researching the reference on the internet and living it are two different things. Occasionally, it is used tongue in cheek, but I wouldn’t say its use is typically passive aggressive. Perhaps because of its connotation, it is actually considered bad manners to say it without sincerity. I realize that manners were not the intention of the article, but I’d hate for someone to infer an insult where one wasn’t intended.

        • expatmum

          Point taken, although when you Google it, the results are largely blogs and articles written by Southerners who themselves, use it in a passive aggressive way. Their point would be – Don’t assume a benign statement when something else was very subtly intended.

  • Guest

    I don’t recognize any of these (except ‘bless your heart’ which I use sympathetically) but I don’t tend to be passive-aggressive either. I usually say exactly what I mean. I usually take things said at face value as well and don’t read into them so maybe that’s why

  • empeejay

    What about this one, “Ain’t she somethin?” It’s more prevalent down south. It’s so sugary vague, you can’t quite tell if it’s a slam or a compliment. Please and thank-you were so ingrained in my British upbringing that I still bristle, and sort of pause when they are missing from an exchange or conversation.

  • Natalie

    I have just returned to my native Northeastern United States from a year of living in England. I had never heard the expression “bless her heart” in America, but in England people used it all the time with the same air of contempt mentioned. Often it would just be shortened to “oh bless.” Or is this just a misinterpretation?

    • expatmum

      Bless (short form of “Bless him/her” rather than Bless their heart) can indeed be used in a similar way, – it’s more like a patronizing pat on the head though. Often used by wives when husbands do incredibly stupid things. It is just as often used for example, when someone (usually a child) does something really sweet and innocent.

  • Jwb52z

    Another Southern expression that should be added to this list is “God love ya”, which is almost the same thing as “bless your heart”.