Being Passive-Aggressive, or Being a Civilized Dick






There is an evil creature lying deep within my subconscious. It lies in wait for the right opportunity to strike those around me. It is cunning, deceptive, manipulative, and its only weakness is direct confrontation. I’m talking about my passive-aggressive behavior, of course.
If you don’t know what it means to be passive-aggressive, the definition can be found here. Or I’ll be direct and tell you that it means being indirect when expressing negative feelings. You might have experienced this when someone asked you to do something you didn’t want to do. Sure, you can make excuses: “The weather looks bad; I don’t think I can go.” You could completely ignore the request until the last minute, saying, “Sorry, I didn’t look at your text in time.” Or you could be like me and add “I guess” to the end of your sentences, hinting at your unwillingness without saying, “No thanks, I don’t want to do it.” Most of the time, my method ended with me…well, doing something I didn’t want to do.
To be frank, being passive-aggressive is terrible behavior. Many people do it in order to get back at people or unleash their frustration. A classic setting for passive-aggressive behavior, sadly, is within the work environment. Coworkers put on their smiling masks among their peers only to remove them at the water cooler to unleash juicy gossip. People backstab, withhold information in order to sabotage others, give false praise, give the silent treatment, or just hide under the “I’m just kidding” sarcasm shield. It’s a way to let out your anger without going on a homicidal rampage, but it hurts emotionally rather than physically.
Take for example an incident that happened at one of my places of employment. Names have been changed for obvious reasons:
Joe and Jill sat by each other during work and enjoyed discussing their favorite TV shows. There is no rule against talking in the work place, otherwise their work would be rather dull. However, their coworker Betty couldn’t stand hearing them talk. Did it distract her from her own work? Maybe. Did she not like the topics they discussed? Maybe. It’s hard to say. The logical thing would be to ask Joe and Jill to lower their voices or to keep their discussions work appropriate, right? Yes, but in a work environment, that isn’t the case. Betty remained quiet, Joe and Jill oblivious to the irritation they caused.

Later that day, Joe and Jill heard through the grapevine (oh that poisonous grapevine) that Betty had been talking about them behind their backs, wishing they would shut up and do their work. Joe and Jill were, of course, frustrated because even though they talked to each other a lot, they were still hard workers. Furthermore, they wished Betty had been direct with them rather than slandering them and spreading false rumors.

So what happened next? Direct confrontation? An epic battle to end all battles? What happened next was…nothing. Joe and Jill took the hint and spoke less. Betty never admitted anything about her frustration, and Joe and Jill never confronted her about it. The situation was somewhat resolved, but the hostility remained. Anti-climactic, no? It’s pretty much an everyday situation in a work environment, and count yourself lucky if you don’t notice events like this (stay away from the grapevine!).
On a personal level, passive-aggressive behavior to me is trying not to be a dick…and failing miserably at it. In my mind, I have used passive-aggressive behavior in order to avoid upsetting people. The word “no” can be devastating given the right context, and that’s why I would take any other route imaginable in order to avoid the pit trap that is “no.” But even if I think I’m using this behavior in the best interest of a friend or family member, I’m only being selfish and avoiding confrontation. Take for an example a very mundane, passive-aggressive argument I shared with my brother the other day:

Bro: I did half of the dishes, but I couldn’t finish the rest. If you want to, you can do the rest. Or I’ll do them later. Or you can just let the water out and leave them.
Me: Oh, well, maybe. I did have plans, but I guess I could.
Bro: You don’t have to.
Me: Oh, no, it’s cool, if I have time.
Painfully awkward, I know, but it was an amusing example (in hindsight) of passive-aggressive behavior in action. Instead of just asking me to do the dishes directly, my brother went in a roundabout fashion to tell me to do them while giving me a ticket to the guilt trip express. I, on the other hand, said I’d do it but threw my guilt trip ticket right back at him by stating I had plans (I honestly did, no lie, but I shouldn’t have used that as an excuse). Here’s how it should have went down:

Bro: I did half of the dishes, but I couldn’t finish the rest. Do you mind doing the rest when you get home?
Me: No problem.
Quick, painless, and to the point.
I feel as though I use passive-aggressive behavior because I don’t want to burden anyone, but the behavior itself is the actual burden. The behavior burdens the recipient with guilt, shame, anger, and a whole slew of negative emotions. You aren’t making them any happier than if you said “no” instead, and sometimes passive-aggressive behavior comes off as manipulative and underhanded.
In the end, being passive-aggressive is dishonest and really a waste of time. But what should I and countless other people do to destroy the behavior completely? Be honest. If you have good friends and family, they will understand if you don’t want to do something. If they don’t, that’s their problem, right? Problems should be handled directly, even in the work environment, that way they can be handled quickly and efficiently. Don’t be afraid to admit your own faults, but also don’t be afraid to point out that you are right. If you see someone else being passive-aggressive, drag them into the light of confrontation, even if they are kicking and screaming (okay, maybe don’t follow this sentence literally). I’m not advocating rudeness or complete aggression; honest, mature discussion is possible, but you have to start it. There are more good examples of strategies here.
I’m not perfect, though. I’ve been trying to follow this advice, but it’s tough. I don’t want to disappoint people, but I know I upset people more when I act passive-aggressively. It’s like I smoke five packs of cigarettes a day and hope beyond hope that it doesn’t affect my health. Every day is another challenge to be better than the person you were yesterday. Sometimes I’m worse; sometimes I kick that old version of me’s ass.

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