Archive for August 2012

Why offering to get out of my way is passive-aggressive

August 29, 2012

“I’ll be out of your way in a minute.” On the surface of it, you’re being nice. You’re saying “hey, I get that you need to do your thing in this space, so I’m going to move myself in order to give you room to do it.”

Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this expression used in anything other than a passive-aggressive sense. What “I’ll be out of your way in a minute” really means is:

Wait. I acknowledge that you need to do your thing in this space, and that you’re trying to share this space with me so we can both get on with our thing, but what I’m asking you to do is to wait until I’ve finished my thing, because I want control of the space now.

It means “Look, we can both get our respective tasks done faster if we could each get to use this space without the other person. So it makes sense that one of us either leaves the room or stands aside to take up as little space as possible while the other one finishes. And I’ve decided that the person who leaves should be you, because I don’t want to wait. But I’m telling you this in a way that sounds superficially submissive and as if I’m doing you a favour, so it’s hard for you to argue.

I’ve only ever been told “I’ll be out of your way in a minute” by someone who wanted me out of their way, rather than the other way round.

When you realise that it’s often used by someone doing an identical task to you, you realise just how rude it is. I was once in a changing room at the swimming pool when the room was flooded with women who’d all just finished the same aquarobics class. The room was really too small to accommodate everybody without lots of small, subtle negotiations over space-sharing. Several women decided they didn’t want to play that game, so they pushed past their peers to grab the showers, the lockers, the bench space first. Inevitably this pushing was done with the words “I’ll be out of your way in a minute.”

Why would any one of those women be out of the way of the others any more quickly than they would be out of her way, given that they all finished the class at the same time and they all had the same task (getting dressed) to do? Inherent in the concept of being “out of your way in a minute” is the idea that you’re naturally quicker and more efficient at doing whatever it is the other people are trying to do, which means that you somehow deserve to be fast-tracked by being given more of the space to yourself. You need to get stuff done and get out of there! You’re a high achiever! Your time is more important!

At work, if two people walk into the kitchen at the same time, both wanting to prepare their lunch, the one who says “I’ll be out of your way in a minute” is the one who’s asserting dominance. It sounds like it should be the other way round, but it isn’t. It’s even ruder and more dominant if the person who says it actually arrived in the room after you.