Failure To Communicate

It's not just the words that are said...

It’s not just the words that are said…

Captain, Road Crew 36: “What we have here…is a failure to communicate” – Cool Hand Luke

I’ve come to realize, that when it comes to extended family issues, so many times it comes down to communication breakdown. A failure to communicate…at least so all the parties involved understand what’s going on.

Specifically, I’m referring to passive-aggressive, or manipulative comments. Or, as more commonly known, ‘bitch speak’. (I know, I know, I don’t normally swear here, but as creative as I can be, I just can’t think of another term that fits it so clearly and so well)

Let’s face it, more women than men are masters at the passive aggressive comments. We just are. The tone of voice, raise of an eyebrow, pursing of the lips, it’s so, so much about how something as said, more often than what is actually said. I’ve sat there, in bug-eyed, slack-jawed stunned amazement at comments that have been made, while Wolf was blissfully oblivious. Because comments are made in a nice tone, with a smile, they fly under his radar. It’s not until later, when I break it down for him and explain why what was said was so offensive, that he realized the undercurrents of the conversation.

Let me explain what I mean:

Scenario One

Mother-in-law comes for a visit. She gazes around the home, lips pursed, and then says to her daughter-in-law in a snarky tone, “Well, I know what to get you for Christmas. A gift card for housekeeping services. That way you’d be ready for guests.”

DIL is offended. She’s just spent hours making sure the house is perfect for her MIL. Her husband, however, thinks, “Wow, that’s a great idea! That would give my wife some time to take it easy and relax!”

Later, husband and wife argue over what his mother meant. Hubby thinks his mom is trying to help, and wife thinks her MIL was employing bitch speak.

Who’s right?

Scenario Two

MIL complains about her health, aches and pains, and that she has a hard time managing her grocery shopping, or managing her usual household chores. MIL suggests that her son and DIL could drop off their eight month old, crawling baby for her to baby sit, and go run errands for her, and even go out for lunch while she babysits.

DIL replies, “No thank you, MIL. If you’re having so much trouble around the house, I don’t think you could manage a busy baby.”

MIL is offended, demanding to know why DIL doesn’t trust her.

Was DIL using bitch speak?

Scenario Three

MIL likes to drop in, without warning, when she’s in the area.

DIL hates uninvited visitors, and has asked that everyone call ahead, to ensure that it’s a good time.

MIL is offended that she ‘has to make an appointment to see my own grandchild!’

DIL refuses to answer the door if she’s not expecting visitors.

MIL calls from twenty minutes away, to announce she’s coming over.

DIL tells her, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me.”

MIL calls her son, upset, “I did what she asked! I called, and she told me no!”

Who’s right?

Scenario Four

“Oh, DIL! My friend, Zsa Zsa? She just lost 200 lbs on this wonderful diet! She ate nothing but chicken broth and watermelon! I brought you her book, because I know it could help you too!”

DIL refuses the book, and when she discovers the book on her counter after MIL leaves, tosses it in the garbage.

DIL is angry, but MIL claims she was just trying to help.

Scenario Five

“My kids were potty trained by their first birthday.” “My kids knew their alphabet by the time they were two.” “My kids were reading at three.”

No matter what her baby is doing, MIL’s children did it sooner, faster, better.

DIL feels like this is a competition that she’s forever doomed to lose, that she not only didn’t want to be competing in, but didn’t know she was expected to compete in, and feels like MIL is insulting her as a mother.

MIL says she’s just sharing her children’s milestones.

Is DIL just being oversensitive, or is MIL using bitch speak?


Being able to recognize, decode, and call out bitch speak as it happens is probably the most effective, if not the only effective way of dealing with it. One of the most commonly recommended reactions is, “Interesting. What did you mean by that?” and wait for the other person to explain. Too often, those that are used to being able to fly under the radar with their passive aggressive, or manipulative comments are completely unprepared to have them commented on, or put on the spot to expain them.

I would love to have your answers to the scenarios in the comments! What do you think?

Have you used bitch speak? Have you had it used on you? What was your reaction?

Click To Vote For Us @ Top Mommy Blogs. A Ranked & Rated Directory Of The Most Popular Mom Blogs


Failure To Communicate — 9 Comments

  1. I grew up with four sisters so I learned to recognize some of the ‘signs’ and I think I am better than most men at doing so. But even so much goes over my head because I just don’t pay the same amount of attention to facial expressions and tone as women do.

    And truth be told I find I have fewer issues that way because there is less analysis on my part of what just happened.

    • I hear you! Wolf never sits around, dissecting conversations for what someone actually meant. “Nice dress” to him means, she liked your dress. To another woman, *how* that is said, it’s either a compliment or insult.

  2. Disclaimer: If I were an expert at this stuff then my family wouldn’t be in the mess it is!
    1. Definite Bitch Speak by MIL
    2. DIL is a little snarky, but right. MIL overreacted.
    3. DIL totally right…I hate this! It is your house, your time.
    4. MIL is bitchy, but DIL overreacted
    5. DIL overreacted.
    Thanks for the great post!

    • No disclaimers needed! That’s part of why I asked, and didn’t offer answers, is b/c everyone’s interpretation is based on their own experiences, and not everyone is going to see it the same way.

  3. Like Wolf I tend to be oblivious to these things, but there are some things that I’d immediately pick up on as “bitch speak”.

    1-Offering a “gift card for cleaning services” is incredibly rude. It’s not even subtly rude. I would think anyone would pick up on that as a very thinly veiled way of saying, “You’re a bad housekeeper.” Or maybe I’d pick up on it because I do things like vacuuming, dusting, and laundry.

    2-It sounds like MIL was really asking for help and offering to babysit in exchange. I know pride is a powerful thing, but it’s only beneficial if swallowed.

    3-It’s your home and it’s your life. I’m assuming MIL is retired. She needs to keep in mind that not everyone else has as much free time as she does.

    4-DIL could have gracefully accepted the book, but MIL could have handled this more gracefully. At the very least she should have only offered if DIL said “I’m trying to lose weight”.

    5-A lot of this depends on tone, but the way I read it MIL is being unnecessarily critical. She needs to back off. And if she raised such accomplished children maybe she should offer some parenting tips–but only if DIL asks for them first.

    • One thing I’ve learned: Unless asked, do not EVER offer parenting tips. What a friend can say, that has a strong positive history, can go sideways, let alone w/someone that there is a history of tension with.

  4. Since I have the same kind of competitive relationship with my MIL, I’ll have to root for the home team here. Especially popping in without warning and giving you a gift card for housecleaning, those would rankle me. I feel your pain in all these scenarios. All I can say after 35 years of marriage is keep your space. If you don’t want outright war, keep your distance as much as you can. It gets easier as the kids get older. This made a difference for me and was the only true defense I had against a very domineering MIL. Good luck!

  5. 1: MIL should immediately be removed to a hotel and never invited into the home again. This is not how you speak to people who are gracious enough to open their home to you.

    2: This sounds more like bitch speak on the MIL’s part. She’s trying to claim her health is too fragile for chores she doesn’t find fun, but not all too fragile for a privilege she covets that requires the same physical abilities. So she’s proposing that she only do fun things and other people do her chores, but trying to pretend this is “helpful” on her part.

    3: This is such abusively hostile behavior, that it is defined as illegal and a form of stalking in many jurisdictions.

    4: This is not how you speak to an adult you want to gain a friendship with.

    5: This is not how you speak to an adult you want to gain a friendship with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *