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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
''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.''
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
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.
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
This story first ran in the Boston Globe, page H4, on 01/02/03.
© Copyright 2003 Lawrence J. Cohen