“I’m just saying…”

Passive aggression has a currently popular byword – or byphrase: I’m just saying (sometimes I’m just sayin’). It goes into the pantheon of disingenuousness with “Don’t get me wrong,” “Don’t get angry but,” and “present company excepted.”

A person who says something that they then proclaim to be “just sayin’” is giving a point of view that they clearly think should be acted on – advice that they feel the other person needs to hear and heed. But conversational interactions have an economy of status exchanges and give-and-take. You can’t say just whatever you want to whoever you want in whatever way you want; some utterances can only be said to those who are of lower status, or on whom you have some claim, or who owe you something, or who have given you permission to demand things of them.

If you recognize that your attempt to influence a person’s behaviour approaches them too much from above, as it were – you don’t really have the right to give them such bald instructions on how to live their lives – and that they may take umbrage to your positioning of yourself in their regard (and perhaps already have), you have to acknowledge that you don’t have the right to expect them to follow your dictates. This is why we use indirect forms for politeness: “Would you mind closing the window?” rather than “Close the window.”

So you may say “I’m just saying” to pretend that your utterance is nothing more than an act of speaking with no directive effect implied. Sort of like “No, of course you can take as long as you want. I’m just drumming my fingers.” The point is to pretend that you’re not doing what you’re doing, because you both know you don’t actually have the right to do it. It’s an entirely unnecessary disclaimer for those who actually do have a claim: it would be odd for a parent to say to a child “Your room looks messy. I’m just saying,” and odder still for an officer to say to a private “Soldier, your tie needs straightening. I’m just saying.”

It’s not out of the realm of reason, of course, for people to make suggestions for other people’s behaviour when they have no real claim on the others. We expect as much from our friends. We often give them the explicit right to say such things as “Don’t wear a bowtie! You’ll look like a dork!” But this is something that is negotiated individually, and sometimes you just don’t have the right to give the directions you want to give. There are various ways to disclaim, to adjust the status position, to make an even exchange in the conversational economy:

“Interesting. You’re wearing a bow tie!” [expresses surprise, implying that it is unusual in your experience, but not giving any direction]

“I wouldn’t have thought you would wear a bow tie for this.” [a statement of opinion, but without elevating the opinion; it leaves an opening for response]

“Are you sure you want to wear that?” [puts the speaker in the response-requesting position, which is a deficit stance and gives control to the respondent, while at the same time implying an instruction]

“May I suggest a straight tie for this evening?” [requests permission, putting the speaker in the lower-status deficit position, and gives the option of a negative response]

But of course each of these has its clear implied direction, its tug. The hearer knows very well what you’re doing when you say them. There is the ostensible deniability, which preserves the ostensible status relations and balances the economy, but you’re saying it for a reason. Even if you pretend you’re not.

The hearer knows this very well because we all know very well that all saying is doing. Every act of utterance is an act, an action. You are doing it because you have something you want to accomplish, an effect you want to produce, in response to a need or a stimulus. Even the simplest bit of abstract information is shared because you feel it will be useful to the other person, or it will make you sound smarter, or it’s your turn to fill a gap in the conversation, or you want to recruit affirmation of your interests for personal validation and/or social bonding, or or or… You no more “just say” anything than you “just punch” or “just kiss” someone without any implication or expectation of effect or response.

There are, thus, the following points of disingenuousness in I’m just saying:

I’m – The speaker is attempting to disclaim any real personal action, involvement, or effect, but of course he or she is directly involved.

Just – There is no “just saying” in the sense of “only saying,” and when you pretend there is, you are not saying justly, i.e., rightly and righteously.

Saying – Words are not physical force, but they exist precisely so that a person can have an effect on another person without physical involvement. They also allow us to cover more abstract topics in our quest to increase and consolidate our intellectual mastery of our world. Saying is doing.

So. Why am I saying all this? Just so you know…

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2 responses to ““I’m just saying…”

  1. Yes to this, yes. My general response to “I’m just saying” these days is “I’m just punching you in the face,” a statement which hasn’t (yet) been followed by its action. One day, though.

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Banned Books Week, grammar wars, and more | Wordnik

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