Backhanded Compliments and Angry Smiles: Passive Aggression Defined
What do insulting gifts and backhanded compliments have in common?
Posted September 30, 2009
People ask me time and time again, "So, I think I kind of know what you are talking about, but what exactly does "passive aggression" mean?" Too often, the term has been overextended to include aggressive behavior that stops just short of a direct punch to the jaw.
Passive aggression, as defined in The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd edition, is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger.
Couched in backhanded compliments, insulting gifts, hostile sticky notes, and behind angry smiles, passive aggression involves a variety of behaviors (hence, the overuse of the term) designed to get back at another person without the passive aggressor having to own up to or articulate their true feelings. Passive aggression is motivated by a person's fear of expressing anger directly.
Passive aggressive people take genuine pleasure in frustrating others. They are masters at getting others to act out their angry feelings--to explode and appear crazy--while the passive aggressive person sits back and watches the emotional outburst with satisfaction, total control, and always with their own poise intact.
Once they have the proper definition, it seems that most people have a tale or two to tell about a passive aggressive relative, friend, co-worker, spouse--or all of the above! The examples abound and while my day job is to take passive aggressive behavior as a serious pattern that is disruptive and destructive to relationships, even I have to admit that some of the stories are really just plain funny when you think about the lengths people go to to avoid expressing anger directly.
Here's one of my favorite examples of passive aggressive behavior:
"Cash, check or charge?" I asked, after folding the items the woman wished to purchase. As she fumbled for her wallet, I noticed a remote control for a television set in her purse. "So, do you always carry your TV remote?" I asked. "No," she replied, "but my husband refused to go shopping with me and I figured this was the most evil thing I could do to him legally."
Do you have examples of passive aggressive behavior in your own life? Has your mother-in-law given you an unwanted gift with a very clear, but unstated message? Is your spouse a chronic sulker when asked to help around the house? Does a member of your staff conveniently use sick days before important deadlines? Do YOU (gasp!) ever add whole milk and whipped cream to your skinny friend's non-fat latte?
There's nothing like a "Diary" to unload your own passive aggressive sins and to document the entertaining offenses of others. I invite you to share those stories here. Share with us who you are or remain anonymous if you'd prefer. (Just think how passive aggressive it would be to anonymously post a story about someone else's bad behavior!)
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Thanks, in advance, for the stories, the laughs and the honesty!