Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Passive aggression is underrated

Today I wrote on Twitter that passive aggression is underrated. I was mostly kidding/being contrary for the sake of it, but I think that's one of the best ways to find out what you think -- just say something, figure out if you mean it or not later. Seriously, everyone else is doing it.

It's not that I think being passive-aggressive is an attractive quality. As @marstall responded, "civil + direct" is best. I agree. But it doesn't always work. Sometimes when you've tried directness and then active aggression and not gotten the desired response, passive aggression, as a last resort, totally works. And as Gillian noted, there are situations in which other strategies will get you reprimanded or fired.

This came up recently when I described a friend as "maybe a touch passive-aggressive sometimes" (when asked, based on her sign, if she's vindictive). I didn't think this was a mean or insulting thing to say (I can certainly be passive-aggressive at times, though I think I only do it in the comfort of my own home), but I guess a lot of people put passive-aggressive at the top of their Shittiest Traits list. I think vindictive is way worse. Manipulative sucks, but there are worse ways to be manipulative -- passive aggression is generally so transparent, the most I can do is roll my eyes. I'd also choose passive aggression over overt anger and a lousy temper.

So my point is not exactly that it's underrated, more that it's panned disproportionately. Let's pick some other mildly annoying trait to blow up like it's on par with "given to fits of rage." How about "has a catchphrase"? Or "sends 'I miss you, what's up, we haven't talked in so long!!!' emails and then never responds to your response."

17 comments:

  1. I think people sometimes mythologize the gaps they create when candor seems disingenuous, or the gaps left from a lack of direct communication.

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  2. One of the traits that would be high on my irritant scale these days is "includes insipid words of wisdom in e-mail signature."

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  3. Passive aggression is one of the basic modes of bureaucratic behavior; that is, a way of attacking when direct attack is prohibited by protocol (and rank).

    I'd be interested in knowing how you define passive aggression. Passive aggression is often a form of attack that then denies that any attack has been offered. I'd like to know when you think that such a thing works--I'm not saying it doesn't, but I'd like examples. I can see someone saying that it's a good way to get back at people who control you, for instance--but I still wonder if it is. Still, stealing office supplies is a perfect example of perhaps worthwhile passive aggression.

    And now my play-acting enactment moment: I hope you don't think any of this is an attack on you, because even when you say things that are really unhelpful to me, I'm not the kind of person who would ever let you know.

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  4. Here's how I define it: When somebody does something that pisses you off, instead of telling them that they're pissing you off, you find an indirect way of letting them know. Here's an example:

    - Person X frequently offers to wash the dishes, but leaves them sitting in the sink for hours, saying he/she will get to them later. Passive-aggressive response: Instead of asking X to wash the dishes promptly, Person Y just washes them him or herself.

    Assuming that Y has tried directly asking X to wash the dishes more promptly in the past, and not gotten the desired response, the PA maneuver can be an effective way of communicating that you don't get credit for extending an offer, you get credit for actually doing the deed.

    Besides, in a way, offering to wash the dishes and then waiting so long to do it that the host/roommate/whoever just does it themselves could also be seen as passive aggressive or at least manipulative -- a way of appearing generous while doing nothing. So maybe passive aggression works best when you're fighting fire with fire.

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  5. That's interesting--because I would say, in agreement with your last paragraph, that it's Person X in the above who is being passive aggressive, by agreeing to do something and then not doing it and therefore indicating either carelessness or an attack on the request--the point being, that Person Y can't really tell, but still feels attacked/annoyed.

    I don't see the aggression in Person Y cleaning up the dishes; that seems to me more like what I'd think of as "enabling." Because in this case, there's no adverse feeling for X.

    I guess I'm saying: if you don't feel attacked, it isn't passive aggression--or at least passive aggression that works as such. Failed passive aggression maybe.

    So it may be less surprising to me now that you think of passive aggression as underrated, since your version of what it is seems like it may be significantly nicer than my version of it.

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  6. Ah, semantics. The source of so many blog disagreements.

    I think Y's move is passive aggressive if and only if the intention is not merely to get the dishes washed, but to make X feel guilty. In my experience, X would probably feel guilty -- relieved, too, maybe, that he/she got out of washing the dishes, but a bit like a shit nonetheless.

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  7. one of my FAVORITE (not) forms of passive aggression is the insult wrapped in a compliment. Like when someone goes on and on bitching about a mutual friend, then wraps up with, "but I love him." "he's a complete douche, which i adore." "she could care less how she looks, which i admire." etc.

    i'm wondering how this interacts with the whole EQ question. is passive agression a sign of high or low EQ?

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  8. Ha!

    Good question. It's probably considered low EQ, since I had a whole slew of supposedly low EQ characteristics.

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  9. Yes, I agree with what you say above, Elisa; the goal has to be to make X feel guilty (or bad in some related way). And it's successful passive aggression if the action does get X to feel guilty. I think there's also a fair amount of unsuccessful passive aggression, in the sense that the person at whom it's directed doesn't notice or feel the way they're supposed to. Sometimes it's not until I've looked back at something significantly in the past that I realized that someone was trying to make me feel bad about something at the time, but I never noticed.

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  10. Yeah, I think most passive aggression goes on between couples, and probably fails to get anyone anywhere.

    It probably works *too* well on John, and then I feel really bad for making him feel bad. Luckily we quickly forgive each other such maneuvers.

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  11. I wanted to add that for the really developed passive aggressive person, plausible deniability is essential. If the person you've attacked/criticized calls you on it, you have to be able to claim that you weren't intending to do any such thing, and that works best if you really believe yourself.

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  12. Absolutely! I think I'm always aware I'm doing it, so I guess I'm not truly developed yet. When I indulge in passive-aggressiveness it's just to make myself feel better, like eating raw cookie dough.

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  13. I tend to be forthright. It's why I'm not popular. I don't care.

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  14. OMG. I'm completely passive aggressive and I didn't even know it. Now to get a job, so I can afford therapy.

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  15. Sorry, J. I'll buy you a drink sometime?

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  16. whoever said "he's a complete douche, which i adore" is my hero

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