Yesterday I attended a meeting for a local organization and we were discussing business as usual when a colleague of mine made the comment that someone’s “nose was out of joint” because of a certain interaction that had occurred earlier in the week. That got me thinking. What was the origin of this idiom and what actually happens when someone’s nose is out of joint?


It turns out that the earliest form of this idiom was first recorded in 1581, and the description is to “be upset or irritated, especially when displaced by someone”. Your “nose is out of joint” when the look on your face and the way you act shows other people that you are upset. Although a nose cannot actually be “out of joint”, a person who is upset may have a strange look on their face until they recover.

So that leads me to another question. How do you react when you are upset with something that someone did or said to you? Does your nose get “out of joint” or are you able to clearly communicate verbally why you are upset?

I think we tend to suffer in silence. When someone says something to us that upsets us, we internalize it and don’t verbally respond, at least not right away.  Later when another person asks us why we are upset, we might share what happened and how the particular incident affected us. If we follow this course of action, however, we miss the opportunity to give feedback to the person who caused us pain or irritation. Often they hear it from a third party and you know how that goes. Just like the old game of telephone, the communication gets mixed up and muddled.

This leads me to another question. Why don’t we give immediate direct feedback about how we feel to the person who upsets us? Why do we rely on body language to convey our message when it can be so easily misinterpreted or even overlooked?

I can offer some theories:

  • We are fearful of the reaction of the other party.
  • We lack the confidence to express our feelings directly.
  • We don’t understand how assertive communication can benefit a relationship.
  • It’s much easier to be passive aggressive and tell everyone else how upset we are than confront the other person directly.
  • A combination of all of the above

What about you? How do you react when someone upsets you? Do you communicate directly to the other person how you feel or do you get your “nose out of joint”, make a little grimace and move on?

If you don’t assert yourself and communicate directly, you miss an opportunity to build or strengthen a personal or professional relationship.

I would love to hear your thoughts.