Monday, May 6, 2013

Things That Make You Go Aaugh! - The Passive Aggressive Ones Among Us

Years ago, a friend pointed out to me a passive-agressive trick I had - she called me on it fair and square.  She stopped me dead in my tracks.  What had I done?  I wanted to ask her to babysit so I called and asked her what she was doing tonight.  When she said nothing, I then asked if she could baby-sit.  I was actually thinking that I didn’t want to ask her if she already had plans, but she went off on me a bit, pointing out that I was trapping her (or trying to) into a yes answer, by getting her to commit beforehand that she was available.  It was a valuable lesson and I haven’t forgotten it.

I don’t know why it took that moment to point out to me the necessity to simply ask for what I wanted and allow the other person the freedom to agree – or not.  I didn’t think I was manipulating, but I was.  That, I think, lies at the heart of passive/aggressive behavior: the attempt to manipulate the outcome and in the process, denying the other person the freedom to be the other, separate and distinct from my wants, desires, whims and even needs.

I am grateful to the woman who taught me to stop it – truly.

If you knew me now, you’d hardly credit that I was ever anything but direct in my dealings with others.  Even then I usually was.  But when I reflected more, I realized that when I was uncertain of response or particularly vulnerable, I would retreat into this indirect kind of manipulating behavior.  I hate it in others and I hated to find it in myself.  I think I can safely say that I left that bad habit behind long ago.  I sure hope so.

For the fact is that the passive/aggressive personality is the most defeating type for me to encounter.  I simply do not know what to do with them.  And if we’re in a stressful situation, their passive interactions heat me right up into aggression, which makes me even more frustrated and then more angry.  Calm and direct communication does not work.  Restating the situation does not work.  Reflective listening does not work.  Even agreeing with everything they say doesn’t work.  Believe me: I’ve tried.

So what to do?  Darned if I know.  All I can do is help you identify if that’s the kind of person or situation you’re in.  Once you know that, the only advice I’ve got is to keep your sense of humor.  Either that or beat a hasty retreat.

Things that make you go aaugh!:  How to recognize a passive/aggressive person or situation (questions they’re likely to ask and what they
really mean – I think):

1. Are you hungry?  (Fix my lunch.)
2. Where’s the butter?* –or– What did you do with the butter?  (Get me the butter)
3. I’m too tired.  (I don’t want to do it with you.)
4. I need more time.  (I don’t like it because you suggested it.)
5. Let’s consult an expert.  (You couldn’t possibly know anything about that.)
6. That hat would look great on Jenny.  (Who is, of course, taller than you by a foot.  Translation: you look like a mushroom troll, dear.)
7. Changing the television channel during a show you’re watching and then saying, “Oh, were you watching that?”  (Translation: I want to watch something different, but figure you won’t agree, so I’ll just act like I didn’t even know you were in the room.)
8. I thought you liked Chinese.  (Translation: I like Chinese; you hate Chinese, but guess what?  We’re eating Chinese.)
9. [and perhaps my own personal favorite, she said sarcastically] “Nothing.”  (In answer to the question, “What’s wrong?”).  Something is clearly ‘wrong’ or the other person would not have asked.  The denial of the reality sitting right there between them is of no moment to the p/a – “pay no attention to the big ugly on the table because there is nothing wrong!”

*Hats off to Nora Ephron in her book Heartburn.  Definitely worth the read for her take on the passive/aggressive type and the recipe for mashed potatoes is a nice bonus.

And yes, I know sometimes people genuinely need more time, feel the need to consult an expert, or are just plain tired.  In the p/a folk I encounter, generally these are not their first lines of defense but rather operate as fall-back positions when nothing else has worked – after all, who can argue with “I’m too tired” or “I need more time”?  And that’s really the point for the p/a, isn’t it?  To stop the conversation or head it off from going where they do not wish it to go for whatever reason.


  1. We need to be careful with our "label guns"...sometimes they do more damage than
    the ones with bullets.

    1. True enough, perhaps (although the damage of real bullets is hard to compete with) but I admit to being mystified in this context, given that (a) I confessed to my own tendencies/bad habits in this arena of manipulation by indirection and (b) (I am assuming, of course, that by "our" labels, you mean mine in the post above) is it not okay to speak about our bad behaviors and the impact they have on others? and (c) the 'gun' reference truly takes me by surprise - does all criticism or observation equate to violent attack? Or was it something in the way I did it? If so, I sure would appreciate having that pointed out as I'm not intending to wound but had hoped (with what I thought was a light-hearted touch) to point out how our tendency to manipulate can be experienced on the receiving end. I never thought of naming bad behavior as labeling, so help me out on that one. Peace out, Beth

  2. "How to recognize a passive/aggressive person or situation (questions they’re likely to ask and what they really mean – I think):"----you have labeled someone and therefore assume you know what they mean--- I don't think so!

    What you think I mean and what I really mean may be two entirely different things. Everyone doesn't fit in your mind-box.

    1. No one fits into my mind-box - not even me.

  3. "the attempt to manipulate the outcome and in the process, denying the other person the freedom to be the other, separate and distinct from my wants, desires, whims and even needs."
    Definitely passive aggressive.