“Don’t Take It Personally”
I think a lot about human communication. From my academic inquiry into bullying to my obsession to memes to my fascination with languages, I’ve learned one universal truth: people suck at communication. Witness these common sayings that drive me up the wall for their lack of efficacy, tact, or, you know, truthfulness.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
See also: “You make your own destiny” or “God has a plan.”
Who Says It: Your life coach, your pastor, your friend who has the world on a silver platter.
Typical Usage: After you’ve experienced a major setback or traumatic event and you dare to express your displeasure with the situation.
Why It Sucks: They’re meant to be comforting, but these sayings basically take you out of the equation. They also subtly encourage you to be accepting of all the crap that happens to you in the name of “personal growth” yadda yadda. Worse, they ask you to distort trauma to suit a personal agenda.
Yes, you can learn valuable lessons from bad stuff that happens to you, and you should own up to your mistakes, but you should never feel at fault for, say, abuse, assault, theft… the only “reason” those things happen is because someone decided to be an a-hole.
How to Respond: People who say this are (usually) trying to be supportive, so try not to throw that back in their face. Just ask them what the reason is.
“You need to be a team player.”
See also: “No one else feels this way” and “You have an attitude problem.”
Who Says It: Your boss, your well-meaning mother, your know-it-all coworker.
Typical Usage: After you complain that you’re unable to finish your work because someone else on the — ahem—team isn’t finishing theirs, or after you expressed an opinion that someone else didn’t like.
Why It Sucks: Being a team player is good, but condescendingly telling someone else to be a team player is, ironically, not what a team player does. It’s also mild gaslighting, implying that you are the one doing something wrong just because you “rocked the boat.” You are not solely responsible for the success of the team. That defeats the purpose of the team!
How to Respond: You are a team player. (Right?) Unfortunately, if you say literally anything in response to this, it will sound defensive. So your best tactic is to simply smile and say, “Okay, thank you.” (I know, it hurts.)
“It takes two to tango.”
See also: “I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding” and “Some people bring out the worst in each other.”
Who Says It: Your ex’s best friend, your counselor, your friend who thinks her life is perfect.
Typical Usage: After a nasty breakup or spat with a coworker. Or worse, after you’ve escaped an abusive relationship.
Why It Sucks: The flip side of “You need to be a team player” isn’t much better. It insists that you need to accept responsibility for other people’s bad behavior, while not-so-subtly implying that you did something to cause it.
How to Respond: It’s tempting to break out the charts to show exactly how the other person definitely contributed 90% of the crap to the situation. But a more effective response is to be honest and say “I don’t feel that I contributed much to this situation.”
See also: “Chill out” and “It’s not that bad.”
Who Says It: Typically, someone who’s mistreating you. On some occasions, someone who hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to talk to someone who experiences clinical anxiety.
Typical Usage: After you express the slightest amount of discomfort or annoyance. Or again, on some occasions, after you have a panic attack.
Why It Sucks: There’s nothing more obnoxious than someone riling you up and then telling you to calm down. It’s Emotional Manipulation 101. If you have clinical anxiety, it sucks because you literally can’t calm down on your own.
How to Respond: If you’re not experiencing clinical anxiety and this is what they say when you’re upset, especially if they caused the stress, I would recommend you explain exactly what they did to make you upset. If you do suffer from clinical anxiety, and this is their response, wait until you are recovered and then let them know a constructive response that works for you, e.g. “How can I help?” or “I’m here for you.” People can be educated.
“It’s nothing personal.”
See also: “Don’t take it personally” and “It’s just business.”
Who Says It: Anyone who’s just rejected you, that friend who likes to tear others down to build himself up, that colleague who hides behind their job.
Typical Usage: After someone has just insulted your intelligence, integrity, or passion.
Why It Sucks: Obviously, it is personal, and telling you it isn’t strikes you as odd because your gut is telling you differently. This is Peak Gaslighting.
How to Respond: Honestly, not much you can do here. I recommend avoiding further interaction with this person. Anyone who feels the need to say it isn’t personal, is indeed making it personal. Do publication editors say “It’s nothing personal” when they reject your pitch? No. That’s because in that case, it’s not personal.
In general, listen to your gut. Toxic people come in all shapes and sizes, and these sayings are often used by them. Of course, non-toxic people may use these sayings in a well-meaning way, and it’s up to you to identify those situations and respond accordingly.
And if you’ve used these sayings, ask yourself if there are more constructive things you could say. Make it specific to the person’s situation and use “I” statements. But please, don’t tell a victim of abuse that “it takes two to tango” or a victim of clinical anxiety to “calm down.” That’s just rude.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.