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"That's an Ugly Shirt. I'm Just Saying..."

Be armed the next time you get a jab followed by “I’m just saying.”

 Nina Paley/Mimi and Eunice, CC-BY-SA
Source: Nina Paley/Mimi and Eunice, CC-BY-SA

We’re all familiar with annoying expressions like “I’m just saying” that some people use in everyday conversation. But why are such verbal tics so irritating, and how can we be prepared to respond the next time with some comebacks of our own?

Madison was chatting with her sister Anna 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,” Anna replied.

“I’m just saying!” Madison retorted.


“Dude, that’s the ugliest shirt I’ve ever seen! Just saying…”

In these examples, people used the tagline “I’m just saying” after making an off-putting remark, conveniently absolving themselves of responsibility for the dig. It’s a handy conversational tool, giving the speaker a free pass to say whatever they want if they use this phrase afterwards to deny the negative tone of their comment. A more innocuous self-protective use of “I’m just saying” is when someone says something and then feels exposed or wrongly attacked.

Jenna raised a suggestion to which her friend said sarcastically, “Like we didn’t already know that!” “I’m just saying,” Jenna replied. Here, Jenna used this tagline in a self-protective way, to save face, when her friend reacted as though her idea was stupid and made her feel foolish.

When we can articulate what’s happening in conversations that leave us feeling manipulated—it can be grounding, especially now, as denial of the truth and lack of accountability seem to be more acceptable. This can also embolden us to be prepared with comebacks of our own.

The unconsciously manipulative use of “I’m just saying” creates a confusing interpersonal dynamic. When this happens, the remark is preceded by a provocative, or unsolicited negative comment. Then, the speaker unconsciously shifts the blame, accusing the listener of having an unfounded reaction while proclaiming their own innocence. In this altered reality, both people are supposed to pretend that:

  • The speaker didn’t really say anything upsetting.
  • “I’m just saying” magically neutralizes the negative intent and effect.
  • The speaker can say whatever they want, as long as it’s followed by “I’m just saying.”

Because the speaker issued a disclaimer, it’s as if they no longer are accountable.

A cousin of the “I’m just saying” tagline is the phrase “I’m just teasing” or “I’m just joking,” used in the same way to disown responsibility after a hostile comment causes a negative reaction. In some instances, however, the “joker” may be awkward socially, have trouble reading interpersonal cues, or may have miscalculated the other person’s reaction, believing they will 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” or “I’m just saying” figure of speech is part of a passive-aggressive, unconscious dynamic in which anger is sneakily expressed and then defended against. The instigator of the remark denies responsibility for jabbing anyone, then accuses the recipient of being “too sensitive,” ridiculing them for feeling the sting. People who use this defensive style are not necessarily scheming to hurt you but tend to avoid conflict and anger, which is why it leaks out. Because they are typically not on to themselves and believe they never get angry, they may feel misunderstood in relationships. Not surprisingly, they are befuddled when others are put off by actions or remarks that, unbeknownst to them, transmit hidden hostility.

Jill 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, he said, mockingly, “Why, because you’ve been working so hard all day?” When Jill became upset, he said, “Honey, I’m just kidding. Where’s your sense of humor?” Oblivious to the covert hostility in his “playful” comment, Jill’s husband was indignant when she 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 hung up on whether you think the other person’s reaction is justified.
  • Don’t defend your innocence or argue about the validity of the other person’s reaction.
  • Take seriously how you came across to the other person, rather than focus on whether you’re “right.”
  • Take responsibility: acknowledge that you hurt the other person.
  • Apologize for saying something that was insulting, hurtful. (This is different from “I’m sorry you feel hurt,” which is really a fake apology and another instance of disguised blame and failure to own up, more like, “Sorry, not sorry.”)

Consider that you may have unconscious resentments that are leaking out. Think about possible resentments you may be harboring either towards the person you’re teasing, in other areas of your life, or from your past.

If you’re the person at the other end of these expressions, be armed for the next time.

Empowering responses to: “I’m just saying”:

  • “I know—but the fact that you are just saying something offensive doesn’t make it less offensive.”
  • “I know—and I’m not sure you are aware that what you’re just saying comes across as critical/insulting/obnoxious/ hurts my feelings, etc.”
  • “I’ve thought this through already and am comfortable with what I’m doing. I’m not seeking input on this.”
  • “Thanks for your input, I’ll take it under advisement.”
  • “I know—and what you’re just saying sounds to me like a dig. Hey, I’m just saying.” (Here, the use of “I’m just saying” is a strategic decision to play on the same battlefield and make a point by example. This is different than reacting unconsciously and then disowning what you’re doing.)