What Does It Mean 'To Push Someone's Buttons'?

06:12 October 8, 2022

What Does It Mean 'To Push Someone's Buttons'?

And now Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

The world is filled with buttons! Some buttons we press -- such as the ones needed to operate a vehicle or machinery.

Some buttons fasten our clothes. They keep are shirts closed and our pants from falling down.

In English, the word “button” is found in many useful and common expressions.

Let’s talk about the kinds of buttons you press or push. Young children like to push buttons – even if nothing happens. There is something very satisfying about pushing a button.

Well, did you know that people have buttons too? However, these buttons are not physical things. Our buttons activate or trigger our feelings. They are things to which we feel sensitive.

So, some unkind people may find it satisfying to push people’s buttons. If you push someone’s buttons, you do something or talk about something that upsets them.

Button-pushers like to upset people by bringing up sore subjects. For example, a woman I used to know always tried to push my buttons by bringing up an old boyfriend. But then finally, I told her I did not not care. After that, she stopped trying to push the old boyfriend button.

However, pushing someone’s buttons can also happen accidentally. Sometimes we don’t mean to, but we can bring up an issue that is touchy to someone else.

Now, let’s talk about the kind of buttons on clothing.

As you know already, buttons are fasteners on our clothes. They keep them shut. Well, imagine if our mouths had buttons. We could fasten them shut to keep silent.

And that gives us some impolite expressions. They all mean to be quiet.

If I tell someone to button their mouth, button their lip or to simply button it, I am telling them to shut up. Like I said, the expressions are rude.

But there is another way we use “button” in our conversations.

For a button on our clothing to work, it needs a buttonhole. Otherwise, you can’t fasten them. A buttonhole traps the button. So, if you buttonhole someone in a conversation, you trap them. Like a button that has slipped into a buttonhole, they cannot escape.

Now, you can buttonhole someone with a fun topic. But usually, we use this term when someone talks to you for a long time about something you don’t want to hear. If you are buttonholed over an unpleasant topic, you can also say that someone had you cornered.

Now, let’s hear some of these terms used between two friends.

A: Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. Have you tried the cake? It is SO good.

B: I haven’t had anything to eat or drink yet! Jen had me buttonholed for an hour about her work project.

A: Not cool. A party is NOT the place to corner someone about work.

B: And she knows I wanted to work on that project.

A: Really not cool! She just wants to push your buttons. And you’re too nice to tell her to button it. Are you still upset about the project?

B: No, I’m over it. And I told her. I also told her that I don’t want to talk about work anymore at a party.

A: Good. Not caring is the best way to deal with a button-pusher. Uh-oh. Look over there. Now she’s got David buttonholed.

B: Poor guy. But he can take care of himself. Now, where is that cake you were talking about?

And that brings us to the end of this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


fasten – v. to fix firmly or securely

satisfying – adj. producing pleasure or contentment by providing what is needed or wanted

trigger – v. to cause an intense and usually negative emotional reaction in (someone)

sensitive – adj. easily hurt or damaged

sore – adj. causing emotional pain or distress

conversation – n.

corner – v. to catch and hold the attention of especially to force an interview


We want to hear from you. Do you have a similar expressions in your language? In the Comments section, you can also practice using any of the expressions from the story.

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