I have noticed lately in my life that many people describe behavior they find distasteful as “passive aggressive,” whether the behavior actually is passive aggressive or not. So, rather than confront them directly about this inaccuracy, I have decided to write an article about it under a pseudonym.
The better to illustrate my point, my dears.
But actually, no. It doesn’t illustrate my point. Passive aggression is passive, docile, calm behavior that a person employs to mask her/his aggressive, angry feelings, often resulting in or marked by subtle acts of sabotage or manipulation.
Here are a couple of examples from the advice columns:
Dear Abby received a letter from a woman whose husband sneers at her, treats her with derision and hostility, and flat out dislikes her and is open about it. Abby calls the husband’s behavior passive aggression. I call bullshit. When a person is being directly unkind and abusive, that’s not passive aggression (even if he is remaining in the marriage, his behavior has no passive element at all). It’s just aggression. Boo, Abby. You got it wrong.
Dear Coke Talk received a letter from a person who took issue with another piece of advice she gave out earlier on and pads her disagreement in smiley faces and “I’m not trying to be mean” pleas while being kind of insulting and condescending at the root of her message. This is definitely passive aggression. Good for Coke Talk calling that one out.
Passive aggression is often caused by the person who employs it feeling afraid of confrontation but being incapable or unwilling to address the negative feelings they have for a given idea, person, event, or action.
Another thing I often see labeled as “passive aggression” is a person’s refusal to begin an argument. Let’s say, to use an example from my own life, you live with roommates, and one of the roommates is extremely messy. Is it passive aggressive to decide not to confront the roommate about it? Maybe. It’s not in the decision to avoid confrontation that your behavior becomes passive aggressive: that decision on its own is merely passive. (There’s nothing wrong with that, I’d like to point out: that is the peaceful approach which, while maybe not super important when we’re talking about dirty dishes, can be important when situations are more escalated.) The behavior not to confront the messy roommate becomes passive aggressive when, after not asking the roommate to be tidier, you then clean up after the roommate in an angry way (slamming the dishes around while you wash them, grumbling about taking the trash out under your breath, dropping their dirty laundry in front of their door without comment).
See the difference?
Another example of passive aggression: let’s say you are in school or at work, and you have to work with someone else on a project, and let’s say that other person isn’t holding up their end of the bargain. You’re pissed, right? The aggressive response is either to confront the person directly about their participation in the project, sharing your concerns with them and explaining your frustration, or (if that direct confrontation doesn’t work) to report their lack of participation to your supervisor or instructor. (Nope, that isn’t passive aggression, either, as long as you’re up front about the fact that you report them. Skirting around it and pretending you didn’t is passive aggression, though, and it’s dishonest, to boot.) The passive response is simply to say nothing, possibly even doing that person’s share of the work for them. (Or not. But still.) The passive-aggressive response is when you feel upset, pretend that you’re not, and then probably end up doing that person’s work, but doing it poorly, thus sabotaging the element of the project for which he or she was responsible.
Convoluted, I know. But passive-aggression is by nature convoluted.
So, to recap: a person who disagrees with another person is not passive aggressive. A person who chooses not to confront another person is not necessarily passive aggressive. A person who is aggressive is not passive aggressive. A person who takes the high road is not passive aggressive. Oui?
A person who pretends or feigns passivity or happiness or kindness or complaisance while slipping in manipulative, sabotaging, or (my favorite) martyr-ish thoughts or actions – that person is passive aggressive. Feel free to call them on it. They won’t like it.