What You Really Mean When You "Don't Mean To"

What You Really Mean When You “Don’t Mean To”

Have you ever found yourself in a heated discussion or serious gossip session with a friend (or stranger even), getting truly worked up by the subject matter and feeling the pit of annoyance in your stomach start to bubble up until you’re ready to erupt?

After a valiant effort to keep your opinion to yourself, you simply cannot hold it in any longer and the words “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” fall out of your mouth.

Let’s be honest for one hot minute. When you say “I don’t mean to be [rude, aggressive, offensive, etc.], you mean to be just that, but you don’t want to be perceived as such.

Let me be clear, I have whipped out this phrase on plenty of occasions and followed it with some truly atrocious remarks.

I’m not proud of those moments, but it wasn’t until days before writing this post that I put any real thought into the meaning of this phrase.

Here’s the problem; the structure of this sentence is contradictory. The second part of the sentence is typically something quite offensive and/or hurtful, while the first part of the sentence aims to mitigate the impending offense under the guise that we didn’t “mean” for it to be so.

Puhhhhlease – we aren’t fooling anyone.

As a Canadian, I am no stranger to the passive aggressive sentence structuring. In fact, I’m fairly certain that 50% of all my sentences start with some derivative of “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me.” However, after some deep reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there is truly nothing more passive aggressive than beginning a statement with “I don’t mean to be….”

So what’s the deal?

Looking back on all the times I have said this phrase, it’s pretty clear that I was using it for one of two reasons; when I was looking to get a free pass on a particularly heinous statement or when I was poorly communicating feedback.

The number one reason I have used this phrase in the past was because I wanted to soften the blow of a mean comment. Though I’m not proud to admit this, I have used it to be judgmental or stereotypical of others on many occasions. I have used it to be snarky about someone’s outfit, new business venture, significant other… the list could go on for days.

More often than not, I didn’t use this phrase to the person in question, but rather to a friend, which means I was just being a gossipy wanker. More importantly, I didn’t want the person I was gossiping with to think that I was in fact, being a gossip. I wanted to rationalize what I was saying with the “I don’t mean to be mean” sentiment.

Unfortunately, just because you say you don’t want to be mean, doesn’t make what you’re saying less harsh. As blogger Amber Osbourne most aptly put it, “these phrases are not verbal sunscreen and the bottom line is that someone is usually going to get burned.”

Do us all a favor and own what you’re saying or don’t say it at all.

The second reason I stated – communicating feedback poorly – is where I really want to focus.

As a copywriter, my work undergoes some pretty heavy editing. Outside of spelling and grammar errors, the glorious team of writers at Craft Your Content often catches me on confusing paragraphs, open-ended statements, and many other writing crimes. I do my best, but on the rare occasion that my work really stinks, they need to call me out on it.

Imagine if the editors were unable to communicate constructively how bad my latest article was and instead said “I don’t mean to be rude, but that was by far the worst piece of ‘writing’ I have ever read before.”


We tend to use this phrase when instead we should be offering constructive criticism. Instead of being helpful, we are being hurtful.

The good news is, there are a few ways you can improve how you communicate your criticism without using the “I don’t mean to be…” phrase. When you find yourself about to say that phrase, stop and instead do this:

  • Start with a compliment, even if it’s a small one. There’s no better way to make someone receptive to feedback than by kicking it off with kudos. Sticking with my previous editor example, you could say something like “Love where you’re taking this article, but…” or “You made some fantastic points in your latest article, but….”
  • After you compliment, lead in with your criticism. Make sure to keep your focus on the situation or scenario rather than the person. And be specific. For example, “You could really expand on some of these areas. Share a personal example or find more supporting evidence to really build it out, etc.”

The best way to offer criticism is by touching upon things that are actionable. You can offer your own suggestions on how to improve and chances are, the recipient will be much more receptive.

Close with another compliment, or simply repeat the original compliment, and you’ll find there’s really no need for passive aggressive phrasing.  

Confrontation and criticism are unavoidable in life and business, but how you handle these situations will speak volumes about the type of person you are. Don’t want to be perceived as an asshole? Then don’t be one and find better ways to convey your thoughts.

After all this introspection, I’ll definitely be reconsidering the use of “I don’t mean to be XYZ, but….”  Next time I catch myself forming that thought, I’m either going to own it or I’m going to quickly reevaluate what I’m about to say. If I’m unwilling to be perceived as that rude, offensive, or mean person, then I’m going to zip my lips because as Mama always said, if you have nothing nice to say then say nothing at all.

So tell me, have you used a variation of this phrase in the past, and if so, will you think twice about using it in the future?

About the Author Sabrina Taylor

Sabrina Taylor is a sassy writer and online manager with an inappropriate love for Buzzfeed, pizza and CrossFit. She has over 5 years experience working with businesses helping them build effective communications and marketing strategies. She is currently living in the hot and humid mountains of Northern Thailand, dreaming of hoodies, snow and Canadian bacon (first world problems, amiright?!).

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