Ever noticed how frustrating “just” can be?

I’ve been noticing the use of the word “just” in conversations lately. Here are some examples:

“I just wanted to get this off my chest…” (Meaning: What I am about to say is pretty much guaranteed to upset you, but it will make me feel better and that is really what matters to me.)

“How about we just have a conversation at the meeting, rather than have an agenda?” (Meaning: I don’t really want to take control of this meeting, with four alpha personalities… and besides, I am too lazy. I prefer mayhem. Oh, and by the way, this only a rhetorical question. I do not particularly care what you think.)

“I was just feeling a little…” (Meaning: I am overwhelmed by these feelings, to the point of near collapse, but I do not want to admit weakness, so I use the word “just” to indicate that I am much saner than I might be diagnosed…)

“I just want to get on with it!” (Meaning: I am not really interested in your feelings. Shut the heck up and let’s do our job.”)

Dictionary.com defines the word “just” in these ways:

Just  [juhst]

  1. guided by truth, reason, justice and fairness: We hope to be just in our understanding of such difficult situations.
  2. done or made according to principle; equitable; proper: a just reply.
  3. based on right; rightful; lawful: a just claim.
  4. in keeping with truth or fact; true; correct: a just analysis.
  5. given or awarded rightly; deserved, as a sentence, punishment, or reward: a just penalty.


  1. within a brief preceding time; but a moment before: The sun just came out.
  2. exactly or precisely: This is just what I mean
  3. by a narrow margin; barely: The arrow just missed the mark.
  4. only or merely: He was just a clerk until he became ambitious.
  5. actually; really; positively: The weather is just glorious.

I am guessing that when “just” is used in the examples above, it is either intended to mean “only or merely”. The sub-text seems to often indicate a deeper meaning that is often rooted in frustration, fear or anxiety. I have begun to wonder why we don’t talk about the sub-text?

Lately, I admit that I have been frustrated by the use of the word “just” in conversation, particularly when it is preceded with the word “I” or “we”.  Sometimes, the word “just” indicates a distinct lack of interest in what the other person is feeling or thinking and centers the conversation around the speaker’s wants and desires.

Sometimes, there is much more going on… There’s a difficult conversation to be had. Often, the conversation is worthwhile and valuable… but it is more difficult, so we avoid digging deeper and engaging one another in a dialogue that calls for deep listening, empathy, negotiation and ultimately, finding solutions to whatever the problem might be.

Take a moment this week to notice how “just” is used in conversation around you. What is the person really saying?


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


2 Responses to Ever noticed how frustrating “just” can be?

  1. Guus says:

    Ha, I hadn’t looked at it that way. From now on, just is going to set off alarm bells, whether used by me or anyone else!

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