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Gasoline-On-The-Fire Phrases

A friend told me that one word guaranteed to infuriate his teenage daughter during any disagreement is “relax.”

Riders on New York City’s subways were for years irritated by the phrase “Please be patient” at the end of announcements about subway delays.

And the quickest way to get a rise out of me is to tell me, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Oooh, that burns me up.

What makes phrases like these so incendiary?

Some phrases are guaranteed to turn a disagreement into a fight, or make a benign situation toxic. They’re not blatantly insulting, so why are they so irritating?

For one thing, phrases like these are demanding. They order you to relax, to be patient, to stop being ridiculous.

Don’t tell me what to do, buddy. I’ll be pissed off if I want. Or tense. Or even ridiculous, although I probably don’t think I’m being ridiculous at all.

And that’s another problem: These phrases make negative assumptions.

Nobody likes to be called ridiculous, of course. Telling someone to “relax” is also saying “you’re overreacting.” And when the MTA, the authority over New York’s public transportation, tells riders to be patient, however politely, it implies that they are being impatient. Granted, they are New Yorkers and assuming they’re impatient is not exactly a stretch, but at least give them a chance to feel impatient before you tell them to stop it. (Not to mention the fact that subway delays are frustratingly common, as are service changes, which are announced with long, loud, garbled, and often incomprehensible announcements. So New Yorkers often board the subway pre-aggravated.)

These phrases also foist responsibility onto their targets. “Please be patient” puts responsibility for action on the riders when, in fact, the problem is the MTA’s. “Relax” says “change how you feel,” even if the unrelaxed person is responding appropriately. (Not always the case with a teenage girl, but you can assume she believes she is.) “Don’t be ridiculous” demands that you accept someone else’s point of view rather than that person attempting to understand yours.

Finally, these phrases are patronizing. They negate the other person’s feelings and put the speaker in a position of calm authority, the target in the role of cranky tot.

After years of aggravating New Yorkers, the MTA recently changed its announcements. They now apologize for the delay and conclude with “thank you for your patience,” effectively taking responsibility for the problem and praising the forbearance of its customers, who then get to feel stoic and long-suffering rather than petulant.

Would “don’t be upset” be less annoying than “relax”? My gut says yes but I’m not sure why.

However, I can think of no way to redeem “don’t be ridiculous.” That’s just name calling, isn’t it? Or am I overreacting? Maybe I should just relax.

Gasoline-On-The-Fire Phrases

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Gasoline-On-The-Fire Phrases. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Nov 2011
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