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Getting Along by Lawrence J. Cohen - A bi-weekly column in The Boston Globe

1/2/2003 - Passive-aggressiveness often used a a weapon

The other day at the store, I chose the shortest checkout line, but it turned out to be the slowest. The problem was a conflict between a rude customer and a slow cashier. As the customer grew angrier, the cashier slowed down further, which made the customer nastier, which made the cashier slower. A classic case of aggression versus passive-aggressiveness.

What is passive-aggressiveness exactly? It seems as though people use the term to mean different things, so I asked some of my friends and relatives for their definitions and examples. I got a lot of responses, maybe because I threatened that it would be very passive-aggressive to ignore my request.

''Passive-aggressive means feeling anger, unhappiness, or frustration in a situation, but lacking the assertiveness or confidence to show or voice that feeling,'' said one person, adding that this is a characteristic of her whole family. ''They elevate it to an art form.'' I asked what she did with these feelings that couldn't be expressed. ''Although I'm getting better at dealing with anger, I normally seethe inside and let the feelings fester. Then I either act out the anger in a childish way or explode, usually about something unrelated, and in a disproportionate degree.''

Passive-aggressiveness is often seen as hostility expressed through inaction, such as ''not watering my mom's prized orchid while she is away and hoping it will die, because of some slight she did to me, or because she didn't ask me nicely, but just assumed I would do it.'' Or ending a relationship by simply not calling the other person anymore (''I was a cowardly jerk,'' recalls the fellow who offered that example). Other people admitted to giving (or getting) the silent treatment, dragging their feet, always being late, or never saying what they want to do, and then acting all sulky at what the other person chooses.

One friend suggested ''passive-aggressive means inertia being used as a weapon, often a very effective one.'' It is a weapon usually used by someone who is in a less powerful position, at least on the surface, such as children with their parents, employees with their bosses, or soldiers with their commanding officers. The idea of a ''passive-aggressive personality disorder'' originated in the military during World War II, when this diagnosis was introduced by psychiatrists to help officers understand uncooperative enlisted men who followed orders but with barely disguised hostility and resentment. Like all personality disorders, they made other people miserable, as opposed to being miserable themselves. Officers, bosses, and parents can barely contain their own rage and frustration at the passive-aggressive behavior aimed at them.

Soldiers or low-level employees, resentful at being ordered around, might follow instructions to the letter, thus bringing everything to a grinding halt. Ordered to pick up every scrap of dirt in a courtyard, they might keep finding microscopically smaller pieces to clean up, making the task last indefinitely. That way, they can deny that they have done anything wrong. The cashier, for example, could easily deny that her slowness was revenge for the customer's rudeness, claiming that since he was accusing her of making mistakes she had to check everything thoroughly.

This ''plausible deniability'' is a crucial part of passive-aggressiveness. It's hard to get mad at someone about something you can't prove, like if you suspect that someone with a grudge against you has arrived late on purpose. Another hallmark of passive-aggressiveness is the lame excuse, made famous in a Steve Martin comedy routine, where he explains how to make a million dollars and not pay any taxes. First, he says, make a million dollars, then, when the IRS asks you why you haven't paid any taxes, just say, ''I forgot.''

For people who prefer direct words and open conflict, the lack of a sparring partner is particularly aggravating. How do you fight against someone who won't even take responsibility for being angry, much less for acting on it? Furthermore, though passive-aggression can sometimes be a deliberate act of retaliation or protest against being controlled by some authority figure, it can also be completely unconscious. Sometimes people really do just forget, or work very, very slowly.

What do you do if you are passive-aggressive and want to change your ways? Begin by acknowledging your anger and resentment, and learning to express it assertively. Be direct. Stand up for yourself. Practice other ways to control situations.

Of course, it's much easier to see passive-aggression in others. I'm sure more people will recognize their spouses in this article than themselves. You've probably already tried yelling at them, punishing them, or working harder to control them. You've also probably discovered that those responses just make them even more passive-aggressive. Instead, try accepting them exactly as they are, supporting and encouraging them to speak their mind, to have their own opinions, and to get angry - even at you. Also, remember that most people engage in passive-aggression only when they feel controlled or powerless, so you might want to look at your own behavior if someone is treating you passive-aggressively.

This story first ran in the Boston Globe, page H4, on 01/02/03.
Copyright 2003 Lawrence J. Cohen
Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com