Four most dangerous words? 'I told you so'

Posted10/26/2012 2:34 PM

Some words should seldom be used. A good example features four words strung together to create the sentence "I told you so."

Separately these words are fairly harmless. We use them all the time with relatively few adverse consequences. But together they become an exceptionally dangerous weapon that can wreak havoc in even the most benign situations.


Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Let's say we want to go out to dinner with some friends across town. We make the plans, but forget whether we told our friends to meet us at the restaurant at 7 or 8 p.m. Our spouse suggests we call them back, but we decide we're reasonably sure we said 8.

Of course, when we get to the restaurant at 8 we find our friends have been sitting impatiently since 7 waiting for us. We apologize and sheepishly admit, "I guess I should have double-checked."

And our spouse chimes in with, "I told you so."

That is not what we need to hear. We are already feeling embarrassed, guilty and angry at ourselves for screwing things up. Being reminded that we didn't listen to what turned out to be some sound advice just doesn't help.

Chances are, we respond to our spouse's little dig with an angry stare, or we mutter a less than congenial "get off my case." We also probably wind up sulking the rest of the night. And it's almost guaranteed that, once we are alone, we will have a major argument about: 1) our mistake, 2) our spouse's remark and 3) our response. All in all, this has not turned out to be a fun time.

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As I suggested, those are four dangerous little words. They can easily turn a minor irritation or misunderstanding into a major argument. Yet almost all of use them. Why?

What we need to remember about "I told you so" is that it is a way of saying something indirectly that we are afraid to say directly.

For example, let's say we are hurt and angry because it seems to us that our spouse never listens to us. Instead of confronting our partner with our view of things, we sit on our feelings for a while. Then a well-placed "I told you so" can be a way of getting out our anger later without having to say what we are really thinking.

Or sometimes we can use an "I told you so" in one situation to express feelings that are rooted in another. We might be disappointed with our teenager because he failed math again. Instead of talking about it, however, we find some unrelated opportunity to throw in an "I told you so," perhaps when he accidentally lets the dog get out even though we've told him a thousand times to close the door tightly.

We aren't really all that upset about the dog (she always comes back after about 10 minutes). We're just letting off some of our anger about his math grade without actually dealing with the real reason we are upset.


We also might use an "I told you so" with people with whom we feel inferior. If we are convinced our thoughts and feelings are not as valuable as other people's, we can add to our own sense of importance with a good "I told you so." We are trying to build ourselves up by tearing them down.

"I told you so," then, is almost always an indirect way of expressing frustration, anger, envy or hurt. And it also can be a fairly effective way of getting even with the people we feel wronged by. Most of us know what we are doing when we aim an "I told you so" at somebody, even if we can't put it in words.

And, of course, the targets of our attacks know what we are doing as well. They get our message quite clearly and are often quite angry about it. Yet because our "I told you so" does not deal directly with our feelings, other people are not able to directly express their feelings either. And we have just about guaranteed we will have another angry exchange about something or the other in the near future.

There are other words we might use. "I'm a little frustrated because it seems to me like you're not listening to me." Or, "I'm really worried and angry about your poor grades." Or even, "Sometimes your mistakes actually help me feel better about my own."

Plug these into the examples we discussed earlier. They do seem to do a better job of communicating than "I told you so." And if we are going to wind up having a fight anyway, at least it will be an honest one. It will probably be shorter and more constructive as well.

So give it a try. If you don't, though, and things just get worse, remember, "I told you so."

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