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 this 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?” 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 the time to visit someone in the hospital that you hardly knew? Anyone of these scenarios could be rewarded with an ‘I love you’ that stems from excessive gratitude rather than romantic intentions.”

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