Dropping Hints Instead of Communicating Harms Relationships

Constantly dropping hints is synonymous with perverse communication. It's a kind of subtle psychological abuse.
Dropping Hints Instead of Communicating Harms Relationships
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

People commonly drop hints instead of saying what they really think. However, dropping hints on your partner, family, or friends on a daily basis can lead to tension. Because those who say one thing and deep down mean the opposite distort the communication process and exert a very subtle type of abuse, especially if they focus on pointing fingers and turning the blame around.

People often overlook the power of speech and end up adopting very dangerous habits. In this sense, we sometimes tend to admire those who are able to use sharp sarcasm and those who have the curious and undeniable wit of making us understand something in an indirect way.

It’s obvious that it all depends on the context, the situation, and the moment. However, we can’t deny that there are people who just love to communicate in this ineffective, harmful, and sneaky way.

The question is why people keep doing it if it’s so harmful. People do this for two main reasons. The first, which we mentioned earlier, is that it’s “original”. The second is that it’s a way for the person who’s talking to hide and protect themselves. This way, they can justify themselves with phrases such as “Oh, I didn’t actually mean that”.

Through this “linguistic game” of manipulation, people can tell us something that means a whole different thing. Maybe it can be enriching in a certain context, such as seduction, but it isn’t in many other situations.

“The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man.”

-Sigmund Freud-

Wife dropping hints at husband instead of effectively communicating.

Dropping hints and perverse communication

Dropping hints is something passive-aggressive people tend to do. They’re used to insulting others in a subtle way, turn the blame around, and act distant whenever things don’t go their way. Yes, people drop hints when they’re joking around. However, we should know when this kind of behavior is inappropriate.

Psychology professor Jim K. McNulty from the University of Florida calls this dynamic “indirect hostility”. It’s a deliberate communication flaw characterized by a lack of coherence between what we’re saying and what we intend to communicate.

Also, when people drop hints, they do so with a non-verbal language that can turn out to be very revealing. In it, we may identify gestures and attitudes that convey different emotions such as anger, conflict, and contempt.

In most cases, the non-verbal communication people use is much more sincere than the verbal one. That’s why the victim first processes the other person’s tone and demeanor before the words themselves.

If this dynamic of dropping hints with the purpose of mocking or humiliating becomes the order of the day, it can turn into psychological abuse. Therefore, dropping hints is synonymous with perverse communication and can severely affect the victim.

A woman with a headache.

How should you react to someone who’s constantly dropping hints?

Professor McNulty, whom we mentioned earlier, is a remarkable expert in the field of affective relationships. In a study he carried out in 2016, he described the most adequate communication strategies in romantic relationships, strategies that can help resolve conflicts.

One of them is avoiding double binds. This term, which was coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, defines the use of hints or ambiguous messages that sabotage and suffocate affection and, most importantly, respect.

Now we know that we shouldn’t drop hints. But what if we’re on the receiving end of the hint-dropping dynamic? How should we react to someone who always drops hints on us?

Here are some strategies that can help.

Head-shaped trees showing how communication should be.

Keys to help you deal with someone who’s always dropping hints on you

  • Demand effective communication: Once you realize that someone is dropping hints on you, you should demand that they communicate clearly. If they say that you’re not “smart” enough to understand, you can demand to have someone “smart” by your side when it’s time to talk.
  • Identify the passive-aggressiveness: Many people who constantly drop hints instead of saying what they really mean have a passive-aggressive personality. In these cases, it’s of utmost importance to set boundaries as soon as you can. Make sure that they understand that you won’t accept their attitude and demand they treat you right.
  • Also, try to be the best example of what you expect from the other person. If you want sincere communication, communicate sincerely yourself.
  • Avoid being controlled: You should remember that there’s a hidden need for control behind this practice. Hints, sarcasm, and mockery are ways of sabotaging other people’s self-esteem, thus making it easier to control them.
  • That harmful language can also be a gateway to other unhealthy dynamics that you must identify and put a stop to. Set boundaries as soon as you can.

In conclusion, although it’s true that hint-dropping can be tolerated (and even appreciated) in certain situations, they’re synonymous with perverse communication. Always remember that healthy communication is honest.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • McNulty, J. K. (2016) What Type of Communication during Conflict is Beneficial for Intimate Relationships? Journal of Experimental Psychology https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.03.002
  • McNulty, J. K. (2010). When positive processes hurt relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science19(3), 167–171. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721410370298
  • Baker, L. R., McNulty, J. K., & VanderDrift, L. E. (2017). Expectations for future relationship satisfaction: Unique sources and critical implications for commitment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General146(5), 700–721. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000299
  • Long, N., Long, J., and Whitson, S. (2017). The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace and Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.