There's a long list of words and expressions you probably don't want someone to say to you. But aside from this list's obvious insults (which have the benefit of actually being insults, so you are justified in immediately getting angry!) and the pure, disgusting affronts to humanity (even angrier!), and then the corrections of a sort (which perhaps you deserve but still don't feel nice), there are a not insignificant number of under-the-radar, insidious phrases used by the skilled manipulator, and sometimes by the oblivious person who thinks he's saying something okay.
I'm talking about phrases like "Don't take this personally," against which my hackles immediately raise. (Why, suddenly, is the person who's simply had feelings to blame for the fact that they have feelings?). Related, there's "You need a thicker skin" — oh, do I? Perhaps you need to actually think about what you're saying, and how it affects the person you're talking to! We all know how ragey we get when people tell us to smile, as if our normal faces weren't just fine, as if we needed instructions on how to compose them to be more to someone else's liking. What about "Calm down"? I'll tell you to calm down! And "No offense, but …" is just a way of saying "prepare to take offense."
Then there's "Relax."
Of all of these expressions, this is my most hated. I like relaxing! I want to do more of it! Relaxing is a good and wonderful thing. But being told to relax is something very different.
"Relax" should only be used by a trained masseuse or a pilot advising the people on board that the plane is not, indeed, crashing. "Now you can relax, you're safe," said in a soothing tone by someone who cares, is acceptable. If you are Frankie, you may say "Relax." The word is fine when used by a hairdresser after you have asked specifically for such a treatment. "Relax your grip" is okay when uttered by your personal trainer when you are clutching a barbell too tightly, or a driver's ed instructor when you're white-knuckling the steering wheel.
But the random command to "relax" — an invocation to chill when you're just getting started on the opposite — is where we have a big, big problem. If you're commanding someone else to relax, you're very likely telling them to stop objecting to whatever they're objecting to, and that objection very well includes you.
"Relax" is inherently self-serving, in that case. It cuts you to the quick, putting the blame on the person who is "not relaxed." But why in heaven's name would you relax when someone is telling you to relax!?
Here's how it works. You're out with friends and a guy bumps into one of your friends, who says, "Hey, please don't touch me," or "Ouch! That hurt," or "Watch where you're going, buddy." The person who did the bumping immediately becomes offended, and out of their mouth comes the terrible, rotten, no-good word: "Relax." No one is happy with that — not the person who was bumped, not you and your other friends, and certainly not the bumpee. What's just happened is that the entire situation has escalated.
Now, it's not that people are using "relax" wrong, not technically anyway. Relax has several meanings, as do most English words. There's "to make less tense or rigid," "to make less severe or stringent," "to deprive of energy, zeal, or strength of purpose," "to relieve from nervous tension," and "to treat (hair) chemically in order to relax curls." Any one of the first three meanings is what's usually getting thrown at you when a stranger tells you to relax after you get slightly annoyed that he bumped into you. It's not that he wants you to feel better. He instead wants to make you "less severe and stringent" and to deprive you of your strength of purpose.
No can do, pal. Yes, a loved one may say "relax" (tone is important!), especially when paired with a shoulder rub, or perhaps a gift card for a spa treatment. But a stranger can't tell you to relax when what they're actually saying is "stop making my problem your problem, even though I've made it your problem in the first place."
Here's how that plays out: "Did you just tell me to relax?" "Did you just tell our friend to relax?" "YOU'RE THE ONE WHO INJURED THE INJURED PARTY!" "RELAX, ALL OF YOU!" "Don't tell us to relax!" And so on until it gets very ugly and the person who told your friend to relax leaves the location after shooting you all the bird and screaming that you've ruined his good time and how dare you.*
Before your mouth says relax, ask yourself who really needs to relax and why. Is it the person you're telling to relax, because they're telling you something you don't want to hear? Or is the person who should be relaxing YOU?
Here's a good tip: Don't say "relax." There's this other word that's so, so much better. It's "sorry."
*This actually happened.