Why Receiving a Surprising Platonic ‘I Love You’ Is so Common (and so Awkward)

Photo: Getty Images/Kentaroo Tryman
Right after getting off the phone with my 70-something-year-old landlord about a leaking toilet, my boyfriend burst into laughter. “Did you just say ‘I love you' to your landlord?” he asked.“What? No. Did I?”“Yeah, you did. You said ‘Okay, I love you, talk to you later.’” Um, well, whoops—that's awkward.

I love yous can feel unpredictable, random, and tricky to digest when you're the surprised recipient of one. And when the source is a platonic, possibly fresh relationship, the strangeness can feel even more magnified. Hey, you might just not have that bond with Karen in accounting, who says she loves you after you did her a quick favor. NBD! Still, why is it that hearing “I love you” from someone new-ish to your life can be so jarringly weird?

First things first: It's not a phrase to be taken lightly. There are roughly 14,000 episodes of teen dramas dedicated to those three words and eight letters on the CW alone. In short, it's a high-stakes thing to say, which helps explain why our first reaction is often of the “???” variety. That awkwardness arrives when we don’t feel the same way about the loose acquaintance or third-tier work friend. Or, perhaps more precisely, it's awkward when we don’t feel about the person how we assume they feel about us, courtesy of the “I love you.”

But before you offer a return “I love you” out of politeness slash horror slash shock, take a hot sec to identify what's really happening in the situation at hand. Relationship expert Susan Winter says to analyze where the "I love you" is coming from, especially if it's said in a nonchalant manner, like when quickly getting off the phone with someone whom you're, quite simply, not on track to share romantic love. (Like, um, me and my landlord.)

“Did you help a co-worker complete a project that wouldn't have gotten done in time otherwise?… [This scenario] could be rewarded with an ‘I love you’ that stems from excessive gratitude rather than romantic intentions.” —Susan Winter, relationship expert

“Did you help a co-worker complete a project that wouldn't have gotten done in time otherwise?” Winter asks. “Did you offer to take your neighbor and their sick puppy to an animal hospital in the middle of the night because they were too upset or scared to drive? Were you the person who took time to visit someone in the hospital that you hardly knew? Any one of these scenarios could be rewarded with an ‘I love you’ that stems from excessive gratitude rather than romantic intentions.”

Okay, so in this case, even if the “I love you” feels…off when accounting for the reality of the relationship, the sentiment can at least be explained and contextualized. Such is not the case when I’m talking to, say, my partner’s friend (who I’ve met twice before) and they spout a spontaneous “I love you.” That, at best, feels inherited via osmosis to me through their relationship with my partner. At worst, it’s this scene from Wayne’s World.

In reality though, it may just be a miscommunication in value derived from language. Winter says some people have likely become casual with “I love you” because of the ways we’ve reconstructed our very understanding of relationships themselves, and even the mediums through which we communicate—making it even more difficult to know how soon is too soon to say I love you. “We live in an era where thousands of people we don't know are called 'friends' on social media. Is it really that surprising to hear ‘I love you' reduced to a throwaway line? If we judge our level of closeness to a person by their likes and clicks, is it so far-fetched to assume 'I love you' isn't the new verbal emoji for ‘hey, thanks?’”

Before I even had the chance to disregard Winter's notion, I remembered all the times I typed “LMFAO, SCREAMING” while staring grimly at a screen, eyes as dead as Benjamin Franklin. Hyperbolic language has indeed changed the landscape of communication, and that helps explain the arguably unwarranted “OMG I love yous” we receive on Slack, in texts, at happy hour, and any other place where humans who aren't our one true love, closest companions, or relatives exist.

Still, one mystery remains unsolved: Do I love my landlord? Well, since I have to Google her name whenever I cut a check, it seems likely that my romantic-sounding verbal tick is an impulsive reaction based in a habit I have of saying "I love you" when I hang up the phone. (I pretty much only talk on the phone with family members these days.) Winter backs me up here: “I'd gone on a couple of dates with a man I knew from my gym. Upon saying goodbye one night, he left me with a quick, 'I love you.' It was out of alignment for where we were in our relationship at that point. But I remember thinking he'd recently ended a long-term relationship. I think his parting response was a kickback to his former partner, done on autopilot.”

So, yep, sounds my landlord was simply the recipient of the same get-off-the-phone-quick tactics I use on my mom every single day. Then again, she has blessed me with affordable rent—and in New York, that may well be a worthy spark for those three little words.


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