We’re all familiar with this most frustrating of behavioural quirks. Think of the sensitive friend who sulks quietly over totally imagined slights. The self-righteous colleague who barely pulls their weight. The elderly relative who is “so pleased you have such a fulfilling life, even if it does mean you never have time for [them] anymore!” When someone in your life seems to get under your skin without ever being outright rude or hostile, chances are they’ve got some passive aggressive tendencies.
So how do we recognise passive aggression?
The authors of Angry Smile asked a simple question to help participants in their studies identify passive aggressive behaviour in others.
“Is there a person in your life who irritates and frustrates you in insignificant and endless ways, so that over time you have a spontaneous urge to choke this person? If a name comes quickly to mind, the chances are you have identified a person with passive-aggressive behaviour.”
Though this behaviour is a characteristic of some personality disorders, it’s not considered a disorder in itself. Passive aggression is a subtle (and often habitual) form of hostility expressed through pointed comments, stubbornness, sarcasm, sullenness, seemingly harmless gossip, and a tendency to play dumb or be deliberately unhelpful. It’s pretty common for a person who behaves this way to resent being asked to perform perfectly reasonable, menial tasks. They’ll often retaliate with what Signe Whitson calls “compliant defiance” – meaning half-assed effort or a certain amount of procrastination. For example, you might ask your flatmate to catch up on some housework, and they do – but they leave the vacuum in the middle of the floor and forget to do the mopping. You’re frustrated, but you can’t exactly fault them because they did do as you asked. If it comes to confrontation, you’re being unreasonable and they’re simply a victim of your unrealistic standards.
Passive aggression is maddening and exceedingly common, but it can be difficult to confront because it’s as indirect as it is insidious.
Sure it’s irritating, but is it really such a big deal?
Not always! A little passive aggression can occur in even the healthiest relationships. It’s a habit; a way to avoid fighting with someone you genuinely care about. But gone unchecked, it can do real damage to your relationships. A passive aggressive person feels misunderstood and put upon. They don’t feel secure in expressing their grievances, so they subtly incite anger in the other person as a way to create the necessary, cathartic conflict while securing their own status as the victim they believe they are. In turn, the subject of the passive hostility becomes confused and uncomfortable with the dynamic. They have to walk on eggshells because they’re never quite sure what they’ve done to cause upset and so don’t know how to avoid it in future. When you try to address tension with a passive aggressive person, they will tell you there is none – once more making you seem like the unreasonable or overly-sensitive party. The communication is stilted, so inevitably one or both parties become fed up.
Ick. Well how can we even begin to confront invisible hostility?
Well, my suggestion would be to pointedly link the offending party to this post. (I’m totally joking, do not do this). In all seriousness, the worst way you could respond to this behaviour would be to be meet it with that same brand of sugar-coated resentment. Whitson (who, as you might be realising, is a definitive authority on the subject) explains that “your goal is to make overt the anger that has been covert, stuffed inside and kept secret for so long.”
This means not engaging. If you feel that swell of irritation at their seemingly innocent behaviour, you need to talk yourself down. Remember that when you lose your temper they can assume indignity, and so their attitude achieves the desired result. Instead, you can calmly and matter-of-factly point out the reason behind their suppressed anger when you recognise it. In the scenario imagined above with a slovenly flatmate, you might say: “You seem annoyed that I asked you to clean up.” Their instinct will be to deny any feeling of anger or frustration, and you need to be just as calm in accepting their denials. Over time they should realise that they are suppressing their feelings – and not very effectively, either. Hopefully this will lead them to re-examine their handling of conflict, but keep in mind that this is a massive learning curve for anyone.
Oh crap. What if I’m passive aggressive?
The Angry Smile authors had a second question for their participants:
“Do you get pleasure and satisfaction from consciously thwarting and quietly getting back at others? Do you find yourself habitually procrastinating, sulking, forgetting, being intentionally inefficient, plotting hidden revenge or even spiting yourself just to hurt others? If so, you probably have identified yourself as a person with passive-aggressive behaviour.”
Obviously there are varying degrees of this behaviour. You may actually be a person who is generally comfortable asserting yourself, yet still suppress your hostility in some scenarios. This is because being a passive aggressive person and using passive aggressive behaviour are not mutually exclusive. I know I can be guilty of expressing my irritation underhandedly. As Cristen and Caroline of SMNTY point out, anger is not generally seen as socially acceptable (particularly for women) which is why this behaviour is so widespread. Everyone does it from time to time, because let’s face it, there are certain people you just cannot lose your temper with: your boss or your grandmother or someone who might not know any better, like a child. It’s as difficult to control as it is to confront, but it is possible to address your own passive aggressive behaviour. The most important thing is to understand and recognise it. Your attitude is probably born of a desire to please other people, because you don’t want to come across as rude, hostile or unpleasant. The thing is, you have a right to your feelings and expressing them doesn’t need to be an angry confrontation. Get comfortable with assertiveness – it is not the same thing as aggression. Learn to recognise when you’re struggling with your temper (your language is a good indicator to begin with – phrases like “Whatever” or “I’m fine” are pretty classic signs). When you realise that you are being passive aggressive, take a step back and think about what’s bothering you. Then think of a way to articulate it calmly.
If you’re really struggling, one of the best things you can do for yourself is talk to a professional. They can lead you to the root of the behaviour and help you to manage it in a way that will benefit your relationships and your stress levels. After all, we all know that bottling everything up isn’t exactly good for you.
Featured images by Wildfox.