Is it Passive Aggression?

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.

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Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

12 thoughts on “Is it Passive Aggression?”

  1. Hi Ruby!

    Great piece. I find that people who are conflict adverse are the most passive-aggressive. I’ve come to believe it’s because they don’t know how to address a problem at all; they don’t know how to express themselves and sometimes don’t want to look too deeply at their feelings, sometimes feeling that they don’t have a right to them. It can be so frustrating. I really believe it’s quite dishonest!
    The I don’t mean to be mean but is CLASSIC!!!! Ugh! On line you’ll find the “I agree with you but” , “I don’t mean to be disrespectful but”, Not to make you feel”– then the person goes on to write out a two paragraph disrespectful menaspirted rant on everything that they believe you’ve said wrong. LOL!!!

    When it comes to the written word and the internet, I see a lot of passive-aggression!!!
    I think woman, taught to be “good girls” and that anger is not lady-like have this problem a lot. And boy are you right, when you call them on it, then they really get passive-aggressive!!!

    I’m always sitting back and thinking, why don’t people say what they REALLY mean!!!!!

    1. Yeah, I definitely think you can be averse to conflict and still know how to make a rational argument, state your opinion clearly and directly, and not make every disagreement an emotional blackmail scenario.

      Those qualifiers you pointed out (I don’t mean to be rude BUT, etc.) are pretty much always a signal that someone is about to be exactly what they claim they don’t mean to be. And yep, it’s passive-aggressive. Blerg!

      My concern is always that people think they’re being direct and honest when they’re really sugar-coating direct communication with the kind of saccharine platitudes that confuse their message and belittle their recipient; conversely, I get concerned when people who are genuinely just trying to avoid conflict altogether get labeled “passive-aggressive” for refusing to engage an unpleasant scenario. Blessed are the peace-makers, except when they get mislabeled and treated like jerks. And, if I can amend that beatitude, blessed are the people who know the difference between peacemaking and manipulating people to still be on their team after they act like a jerk.

      1. Mislabeling! Ugh, don’t you hate it?

        You know what I forgot to mention, passive-aggressive people always think they know what other people REALLY mean. Since they are being dishonest and not saying what they really feel, they always assume other people are doing it to them too!!!!

        I heard you but this is what you really mean!!!!
        Everytime I hear someone say this, makes me wanna scream!!!

  2. Ug. I’m very careful to make sure I’m not behaving like that. The problem is that I am very uncomfortable initiating confrontation in my personal life. I am the opposite at work– I am very direct when I communicate, will openly disagree if necessary, and I can say no if someone asks me to do something far outside my job description. But I am much more passive in my relationship. Part of it is just a lack of experience. I’ve been in my job for 9 years and in a serious co-habiting for only 1. Part of it is that we haven’t had many problems worth arguing over. But I need to learn some better communication skills because there will come a day when there will be something important enough that I need to address as a problem. P-A seems to stem from resentment, and that’s awful all around.

    1. That’s a great distinction to point out, Scarletwine – that P-A stems from resentment more often than not, that is.

      I too often see people extolling the virtues of being confrontational about everything, just to avoid P-A behavior; sometimes passivity and peacemaking have a role, though, you know? (It’s my friends I’m passive with the most, by the way – my partner and I have finally figured out how to fight fairly, so we do, when we need to.) :)

  3. Love it.
    I learned all about P-A from my roommate from hell. That was fun.
    So now, whenever I feel that “tone” creeping up in someone’s voice, I’m ready like a ninja to block the arrows and throw down. In a non aggressive sense though. I’m not eye-for-eye here.
    Example from a few months ago: I had to get a storage unit for a couple months and the place had a website that said I could handle most everything online. Apparently one of the staff is unaware of this convenience. After setting up my reservation and date of move-in, I get a call while at work. I don’t take it, it’s a number I don’t recognize and well, it’s 11am, I’m working. I let it go to voice mail and check it later. Someone from the storage unit place would like me to call them back and I think, “Sure, I’ll call them when I get home.” (I don’t need this unit for another month, I’ve got time.) Well, I forgot to call – I was busy. Boxes to pack, dinner to eat, a class to study for. So, the next day I get another call. “M, this is D from Storage. Please call me back regarding your unit. I have called several times and would like to hear back from you.” “Wrong,” I think (ninja moves activated), “You have called me once and I forgot to call you back. I’ll call when I can.” So, I call when I get home and say, “Hi, this is M regarding the new unit. I got your message but was unable to return your call yesterday. ” There is no tone, there is no blame. I go straight into my ‘chem lab’ mode of facts only. Sure, I’m fuming inside that this woman made it sound HORRIBLE that I didn’t call back IMMEDIATELY but seriously. Everything was set up online, this call was pointless. I was annoyed but just kept that bit of emotion to myself.
    Part of what I see as P-A is the tone. The emphasis of certain words that don’t necessarily need to be emphasized. Sure, if you wrote it out it might look all nice and full of pleasantries but the way it’s spoken is not. (Now, for Passive Aggressive Notes, it’s usually the inclusion of additional information like going out of one’s way, explaining the error made or just how inconvenient the whole thing is. Would a note without P-A really be that long? Nope.)
    Maybe ninja isn’t the best way to describe the counter attack. I’d say Borg is a better image. Be Borg. They’ll be more annoyed and you can take pleasure in annoying them, again.

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