“I hate when people say ‘don’t take it personally,’” my boyfriend, Mikhail, vented to me about a critique he had received at his job that included the phrase. “Like, what does that even mean? If you’re talking to me about something that involves me, then it’s personal. Am I wrong?”
I thought for a second. The answer seemed obvious, but then again, maybe not. The expression “don’t take it personally” is almost cliche, used in songs, movie lines, book titles, and tumblr memes. A Google search of the phrase delivers a cache of articles that portray its use in a variety of contexts, from dealing with clients, to applying for jobs, to breaking up. In every situation, however, the conditions are unfavorable; no one ever says “don’t take it personally” after giving a compliment. Rather, it is alway a remark intended to buffer some form of rejection, criticism, insult, or even betrayal.
Mikhail was visibly vexed at the task of reconciling his boss’s comments with the accompanying command to not take it personally. “Does that mean that I just ignore it? Do I pretend like nothing happened?”
“Maybe what she meant was that you shouldn’t let it affect you emotionally, or take it to mean that she doesn’t like you as a person,” I offered. “Maybe she said it to help you separate your performance and demeanor at work from your private sense of identity and self-esteem.”
“But aren’t they intertwined?” Mikhail pressed. “My sense of identity and self-esteem drive everything I think and do. How can I just separate that from my work? I don’t get it.”
From a transactional perspective, it made sense to me why Mikhail’s boss would use the common saying; we tend to rely on it when trying to gain maximum value for ourselves without necessarily trying to hurt others’ feelings. It’s just the way the game is played. Relationally, however, the message can be problematic.
It lacks clarity
While there may be specific value to be gleaned from the intention behind it, the generic refrain of “don’t take it personal” lacks substantial meaning, particularly for individuals like my boyfriend who take pride in their character and search for personal relevance in every situation they encounter. Unless someone is so emotionally detached from their daily experiences as to be almost robotic, it is nearly impossible for most of us to completely divorce the ways we interact with others from the way we view ourselves. Knowing this, more clear and constructive feedback in this kind of professional situation might instead sound like:
“There’s no need to beat yourself up; this happens to a lot of people when they first start out. You’ll get the hang of it.”
“That approach may work in some settings, but this is how our company prefers for employees to interact with clients.”
“That accident was out of your control. You needn’t feel guilty about it.”
“You have a unique style, but that outfit doesn’t comply with our dress code.”
Being very clear and gently honest with others about their shortcomings, especially if you are in a position of power over them, can help avert potential misunderstandings and define the context of the comments so they are not construed more broadly than is useful or necessary. It also gives the person in question an opportunity to self-improve in a way that is beneficial to themselves and people they are involved with.
It deprives others of their self-determination
Saying “don’t take it personally” discredits others’ feelings and dismisses the fact that the way we behave almost always does affect other people personally, whether it is our intention or not. It is a command that dictates how someone should or should not process actions or comments directed toward them, denying their right to internalize or react emotionally if they so choose.
Instead, with the understanding that how we engage with others almost always affects how we feel about ourselves, it is kinder to recognize others’ feelings instead of rejecting them. Doing so can open a dialogue that cultivates better mutual understanding and uproots feelings of fear or weakness, planting in their place seeds of connectedness and empowerment.
It masks bullying
It’s easy to resort to rude or uncaring impulses under the assumption that the consequences can be dismissed by simply telling someone not to take it personally. Paradoxically, doing so can come across as a way to deflect responsibility for someone else’s pain back onto the victim, thereby inflicting a deeper emotional wound.
Transactional models for social interaction train us to view others primarily as competitors in the pursuit of self-interested success. When the goal is solely personal gain, it becomes easily justifiable to act in a way that diminishes the needs and emotions of those around us for the sake of “winning.” Only by reframing our objectives to incorporate a common desire for mutual well-being do we gain a genuine incentive to treat others kindly, in the same way we would want to be treated.
Despite all the negative underpinnings associated with the phrase “don’t take it personally,” it still does carry an admonition of truth. Being centered and grounded in our awareness of ourselves and of the world allows us to reflect objectively upon our interactions without becoming too easily swayed or disgruntled by them. It reminds us that how others treat us is more of a reflection of who they are than it is of who we are. Sensing a deeper significance, when met with vague remarks we have the power to engage, probing for clarification without succumbing to feelings of fear and inadequacy. Acting consciously and deliberately in this way can transform uncomfortable confrontations, which may otherwise be perceived as a personal attack, into opportunities for better mutual understanding.
Photographer: Ryan McGuire