No, really, it's FINE.
December 12, 2016 2:27 AM   Subscribe

Is this always a bad thing? Tight-lipped, frosty and fake, the passive-aggressive person never quite takes the blame.

When we act passive-aggressively, we are attempting to convey something that we believe is offensive. Passive-aggressive people, then, can hardly be unwilling to cause offence. Our willingness to be passive-aggressive at times when we’re unwilling to [overtly offend] can be attributed to two factors. First, we realise that we are more likely to get away with passive aggression than with swearing. Second, passive-aggressive behaviour appears to be inoffensive and justifiable according to one interpretation, and this interpretation enables us to comfort ourselves with the self-deluded reassurance that we’re doing nothing objectionable.
posted by I_Love_Bananas (80 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
The article assumes there are only two answers to effective communications: Passive aggression and a “sweary response.”

What if there were a third way? Something along the lines of developing an emotional maturity. Remaining aware of your own feelings, but stopping a second to consider that you’re dealing with another human being who might be coming at this from a different perspective.
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:15 AM on December 12, 2016 [45 favorites]


Read the article to the end, it does deal with that: "Meanwhile, saying: ‘I’m jolly angry with you’ allows me to be inoffensive but at the expense of effectively expressing my feelings."
posted by Dysk at 3:23 AM on December 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Plus, it's jolly. 'Tis the season and all that.
posted by No-sword at 3:39 AM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


IMO the binary assumption is correct, per the article's clearly stated premise. It's asking if being passive-aggressive is objectively wrong, all the time ("Is this always a bad thing?") and goes on to offer commentary to support the conclusion that yes, it pretty much is. Being P/A is a choice to be self-serving, dishonest and manipulative; essentially the antithesis of open, honest communication.

The article isn't proposing that there are multiple communications styles, and passive-aggressiveness is an alternate viable option that might be considered, and when and where one might deploy it.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:33 AM on December 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


It's asking if being passive-aggressive is objectively wrong, all the time ("Is this always a bad thing?") and goes on to offer commentary to support the conclusion that yes, it pretty much is. Being P/A is a choice to be self-serving, dishonest and manipulative; essentially the antithesis of open, honest communication.

I mean, I guess so, if you put it that way.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:41 AM on December 12, 2016 [48 favorites]


What happens when the other party isn't open to honest communication, and yet is in a position of superiority? There are direct economic consequences to telling her to fuck off. She's just clever enough to possibly detect if I'm being supercilious. The best response is one in which I appear to be ego-stroking her, but to the cognoscenti I am calling her a dumb fuck to her face (shading). Yet this is a response which rarely occurs to me in realtime (and most often, to be honest, only happens in fiction).

(Gendered pronouns in the above are chosen in response to one real-life example, and are not intended as a generalization.)
posted by oheso at 4:51 AM on December 12, 2016 [9 favorites]


IOW, what I_Love_Bananas said. (Or not, as I'm not trying to put words in your mouth ... )
posted by oheso at 4:58 AM on December 12, 2016


I have been dreading, for years, a return to the days when everyone was accusing each other of being "passive-aggressive". It was a very popular category of criticism about 25 years ago.
posted by thelonius at 5:06 AM on December 12, 2016 [11 favorites]


As a resident of the state, it's interesting how people (both of the state and from elsewhere) sometimes like to claim that Minnesota Nice equals passive-aggressive behavior.

"Sure," I tell them, "That's a smart assertion for someone with your education level."
posted by mr. digits at 5:12 AM on December 12, 2016 [36 favorites]


haha - that opening hit me right in the gut. My sister actually tried to pull a stunt on me the other day, and normally I'd have had some sort of passive (aggressive) reaction and then carry on. But this time I didn't though I didn't swear either. I told her to quit the drama, come on board or leave the party, and then I left. And I felt so good afterwards.

The thing is, my normal earlier reaction was informed by a sense of superiority. I felt smarter, more mature and more open-minded than my sister. So I also felt I could live with her drama-mongering in spite of going around with a feeling of resentment. But nowadays my motto is: don't do the same and expect a different reaction. I've been through a terrible work-place drama with gas-lighting that has left me on sick-leave with anxiety, and I need to change my ways. I need to make space for my emotional understanding of reality rather than my cerebral analysis.

Ironically, at the core of the drama I've experienced at work are two colleagues who felt and still feel they are smarter than me in spite of me being their superior, and that they had a real moral obligation to undermine every single action of mine. Now reading some of the comments above, I can see how that may feel. But for every single measurable parameter, they were/are wrong. They definitely are smarter at doing their jobs, but I am much, much better at doing my job, which is completely different from theirs.

Whatever, taking on the fight wasn't dangerous at all. It was energizing. And I bet my relationship with my sister will be better, going ahead.
posted by mumimor at 5:21 AM on December 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I feel like any discussion of passive aggressiveness that doesn't take into account relative power levels is not a full conversation.
posted by corb at 5:21 AM on December 12, 2016 [52 favorites]


While passive-aggressive behaviour is relatively polite according to one interpretation, invariably there is another interpretation according to which it is offensive, insulting or otherwise objectionable. The passive-aggressive person intends that her audience apply the latter interpretation to her behaviour, but its ambiguity allows her to insist, if challenged, that the inoffensive interpretation is the correct one. Passive aggression, as a result, is duplicitous in a way that more straightforwardly offensive behaviour, such as swearing, is not.

Read the whole article waiting for her to mention the fact that women and others with less power in society are socialised not to express strong emotions, particularly anger, lest they be seen as histrionic or dangerous, and so passive-aggressiveness is one way that people manage to negotiate being seen as polite and acceptable while dealing with inevitable anger in a society full of assholes. She didn't mention it once, which, you know, whatever. I'm sure she's really good at what she does. The gaping hole in her hand-wavy, judgy article didn't bother me in the slightest!

I actually dislike passive-aggression, especially since I deal with it on a daily basis with a boss who could teach seminars on doing it properly. I also really disagree with her premise that expressing your anger explicitly is somehow less evidence that you are truly angry than smashing your phone. But I still think an examination of why it can seem like the most viable strategy rather than assertiveness (or actual aggression, which white men are allowed to express more easily) is called for.
posted by billiebee at 5:24 AM on December 12, 2016 [20 favorites]


On preview, what corb said more succinctly...
posted by billiebee at 5:26 AM on December 12, 2016


"Speech act". That's a useful term that I haven't heard. I spend a lot of my time talking about communication, as a person with mental illness in a serious relationship with another that has mental illness, and in general as part of my core belief system about community and honesty.

I've always had a hard time explaining how truly torturous it is to talk with someone who doesn't communicate their feelings, and instead uses "speech acts" to try and elude to how they feel. I know this is the norm, but it's exhausting and insincere. It's also how a lot of arguments are started. If I had a dime for every time I said "Well, if you had just told me!" in an argument. This article explains what is happening rather well.

Other than that I find the article a bit.. irritating in it's assumptions. Nthing what both corb and billiebee have said. Someone there must recognize that gender and power dynamics play into it, seeing as they chose the most prosaic option as the subject for the banner.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:59 AM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


The author's use of one narrow circumstance as an example really limits the potential uses for passive aggressive responses in a way designed to support their claim, without examining broader uses where it indeed may be more useful or acceptable or just desirable for the person engaging in the behavior. As has been mentioned, power differentials sometimes make expressing anger more forcefully unwise, as might being caught in a circumstance beyond anyone's direct control, but where you experience anger.

For example, if a company would somehow do something that bothered you deeply, but the representative for the company wasn't directly involved, expressing forceful anger or swearing would be counterproductive since the person you are engaged with is only a representative, not the one who caused the problem or the one who could most fully answer for it. Nonetheless your anger in this situation may be seriously felt and as such that you aren't interested in letting it dissipate for the sake of the representative lest that remove some of the impetus for whatever redress you are seeking. A passive aggressive response in that instance signals the continuing anger without either having the conversation halted by use of profanity or excess expression of anger or in allowing the attempt at redress to be minimized due to either party failing to communicate the proper emotional attitude desired. It allows for communication of dissatisfaction while not directing it at the wrong source.

Even in the author's example, if Fleur hadn't noticed she was being cut out of the communication about the party, there would have been less chance of potential harm to the relationship than a more directly aggressive charge. If the situation was slightly different and it was Fleur planning the party and she somehow annoyed and the author had simply withdrawn out of anger and claimed to be otherwise busy or some such, then the dynamic would be even more likely to potentially favor a quicker rebound back into mutual good feeling than a more forceful response might. These are individually directed communication strategies, that fit or do not fit depending on the history of the people involved and the desired response. In these sorts of events, the "better" communication strategy is simply the one that best achieves your desired ends when considered in the appropriate time frame. Being passive aggressive can be a way to allow the major force of anger to recede some before trying to communicate it effectively. It allows for some venting of anger on your time frame so one can collect themselves and then address the issue more fully once one has fuller command of one's emotions.

Like other forms of "questionable" communication, passive aggressiveness has uses that more direct forms or more easily understood emotional states do not share. There are of course times when it may not be the best strategy for your desired ends, like where the other party needs should be better considered or where lack of trust in their ability to accept you or handle your more bluntly expressed emotional state makes passive aggressiveness a wedge that blocks more effective communication. Passive aggressiveness in itself is just an emotional tool, it can be used effectively or poorly. Aggressive passiveness, or the Bartleby stratagem, on the other hand, is totally underrated and should be used more often.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:06 AM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


I could calmly say to Fleur: ‘The way you have behaved towards me has left me feeling contemptuous, angry and hostile towards you.’ But this doesn’t do a good job of expressing my feelings if they are strong feelings. Often, strongly negative feelings are more effectively expressed when they are not explicitly described. (We’d consider a person who accidentally smashes her expensive new phone and screams a number of four-letter words to be angrier than a person who instead calmly says: ‘I am very angry about this.’) If I must express my contempt, anger and hostility to Fleur, and I want it to be satisfying, then swearing at her is as good a way as any. Sometimes we have to choose between expressing ourselves effectively and being inoffensive. We can’t always do both.

I enjoyed reading this, but I found this step pretty puzzling. Certainly I can't convey my anger really vividly by saying, "I am angry"; smashing a window may do a better job of evoking and representing my anger. But so what? Why would I want to evoke and represent my anger, as opposed to merely communicating the fact of it, in ordinary social life? Assuming Fleur is a minimally competent listener and listening in good faith, saying "you made me very angry" will do the job of getting her to reflect on how her behaviour caused my anger. (If she is not competent, or not in good faith, screaming will not induce self-reflection either.) Why should I express my feelings more vividly than is necessary to give her this information and induce this self-reflection?
If my aim is to make art - to present to an audience a vivid picture of what anger looks like - I can understand why this would be a failing. But why should I have this aim in normal social life, where my goal is to maintain or end a relationship or change the behaviour of the other person in the relationship? "I am angry" does the job adequately, without doing additional harm (no window repair costs), in any relationship worth preserving. I just didn't get what the supposed merit of "effectively" expressing your feelings is - or what she means by effective in this context.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:07 AM on December 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


This isn't always about performative speech acts though. I feel I get in a lot of trouble in situations like so:

PERSON: [offends or hurts me]. Oh, sorry.

ME: [accepts apology but am still sad and it shows] It's alright.

PERSON: Really I'm sorry.

ME: It's fine.

PERSON: Why haven't you switched back into instant cheer like nothing ever happened? Don't be passive aggressive.

I can deploy passive aggression if I want but many things are actually about people dealing with their real emotions, not "punishing" the other to "make a point".
posted by Hypatia at 6:25 AM on December 12, 2016 [25 favorites]


While there may be perfectly good reason to respond passive-aggressively to whatever life throws at you, it really sucks to be in a situation when no one will tell you how they feel (until way after the fact) and you're left to figure out what you've done and why someone is angry/hurt and try to fix the situation, all while not referring directly to the offense (because that would be impolite/inappropriate/because "you should know what you did"/etc). Passive-aggressive behaviors are not particular to the powerless and disenfranchised. Quite the contrary, depending on your culture/family/millieu, and when directed at you the effect can be brutal, even (especially) if the always-polite attacker smiles slightly and speaks softly while unleashing the final soul-crushing blow. It is weaponized guess culture. And it's just about gross and cruel and dishonest a means of avoiding talking about what's really going on as throwing a punch. I'd tell you more about it, but I'm too busy reviewing my Machiavelli for family events over the holidays

I'm sure the grass is always greener, but as an adult, I've vastly preferred people who come right out and tell me they hate my haircut and think my career choice is befuddling, rather than those who subtly, indirectly force me into thinking those things about myself.
posted by thivaia at 6:26 AM on December 12, 2016 [24 favorites]


I can deploy passive aggression if I want but many things are actually about people dealing with their real emotions, not "punishing" the other to "make a point".

And, ironically enough, people who accuse others of passive aggressiveness can sometimes be trying to punish that person for making them aware of their own transgressions.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:39 AM on December 12, 2016 [9 favorites]


I am curious to know how fans of the emotional labor discourse square their fandom with the various demands that genuinely hurt people articulate and pantomime their emotions in a clear, calm and universally accessible way and patiently recount and recap the various transgressions they perceive, because the alleged transgressors cannot be expected to know or remember what they have done (after all, the very suggestion that "you know what you did" is a passive aggressive cliche extraordinaire.) Definitely do not betray your actual feelings with an unguarded facial expression if you are not prepared to lecture your friend or partner as if they were a grade-schooler and keep at it until they both understand and agree with you.

there is one simple explanation, which is that the people who find "emotional labor" to be a useful construct and who decry the pressure on women to perform a lot of it, and the people who find "passive aggression" to be a useful construct and who decry the tendency of the emotionally controlled and relatively powerless to perform a lot of it, are not overlapping groups of people. maybe there are other explanations as well. I know there is also a school of thought that says passive aggressive people can't be seriously hurt and reacting naturally, they're just performing to make you feel bad. this is a lot like the belief that women cry to manipulate, not because they are sad.

but the great beauty of passive aggression is that it can be ignored. Taking someone at their word that everything is FINE, it's FINE, when you're pretty sure you didn't do anything to make it not fine, is actually one of life's small pleasures. or greater pleasures, if you dislike the person. You can always leave it till the next morning to deal with, which I would like to see anybody try to do with a punch in the face.

anyway I will never be any good at passive aggression because the sheer control required to artfully leave things unsaid and refrain from repeating your grievances ten thousand times is an ability I will never, ever have. but I will never not admire the ability to be subtle.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:57 AM on December 12, 2016 [8 favorites]


This is definitely an ask culture vs. guess culture thing, isn't it? Thivaia, I'm with you.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:16 AM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


guys it's yes

the answer is yes
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 7:25 AM on December 12, 2016


very suggestion that "you know what you did" is a passive aggressive cliche extraordinaire

I'm not sure that saying "You know what you did," is necessarily passive aggressive (or do you mean just suggesting it by pointedly saying "It's fine," and not explicitly stating it?).

I've had a few conversations with people who say "I don't know why A is so mad," and I or another third party have gone "Really?" because standing on the outside looking in it was quite obvious. The "just don't know" person frequently amends their statement to "Fine, they're mad about X, but they shouldn't be!"

So "You should know" (even if it's directly from the injured party) can be a direct call out in situations where someone is playing dumb.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:27 AM on December 12, 2016


Yeah, I feel like any discussion of passive aggressiveness that doesn't take into account relative power levels is not a full conversation.

Yes, I think this is true, and I've noticed it especially for the women in my (super WASPy) family (Dad's side). Often being passive aggressive is the only way women are allowed to express themselves (less true as some people have died which sounds super awful but I think the family dynamics are much healthier now). The other option is sneaking off into another room to cry and returning with red eyes and everyone just Not Talking About it.

Also, sometimes being open and honest just really isn't worth it. I look back on when I was a teenager and I felt like my mother was being passive-aggressive, and she was! But she was also frustrated because she needed my help but asking for it was going to be more exhausting than just doing the work herself which was totally unfair to her. How was she supposed to express that? If she said "I need your help" or "please do this" I was going to be a huge fucking pain in the ass, just the Goddamn worst, whiny and exhausting. It's really draining to ask for help from someone who's going to react like that! But it's also unfair to have to do everything by yourself because someone has made asking them such a chore.

I don't think being passive-aggressive is great, but I also thinking accusing women of being passive-aggressive when no one is willing to engage in honest conversations with them is a way of blaming them for being frustrated that they are being asked to do work in which other people aren't helping and don't appreciate.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:37 AM on December 12, 2016 [17 favorites]


Oh hell of course billiebee made this point super well before I did. That's cool billiebee, whatever, we're totally not enemies now.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:39 AM on December 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


Previously
posted by eye of newt at 7:53 AM on December 12, 2016


I am curious to know how fans of the emotional labor discourse square their fandom with the various demands that genuinely hurt people articulate and pantomime their emotions in a clear, calm and universally accessible way and patiently recount and recap the various transgressions they perceive, because the alleged transgressors cannot be expected to know or remember what they have done (after all, the very suggestion that "you know what you did" is a passive aggressive cliche extraordinaire.) Definitely do not betray your actual feelings with an unguarded facial expression if you are not prepared to lecture your friend or partner as if they were a grade-schooler and keep at it until they both understand and agree with you.

I'm a fan of the emotional labour idea, but I also think there is a good case for saying that people should clearly articulate their own feelings, to the best of their ability, when they want someone else to change their behaviour. These seem like consistent positions to me, since the emotional labour problem is one of taking on and managing the emotions of others, not one's own. If I am sad or angry, and I want you to help me be less sad (or stop doing the thing that makes me angry), I may tell you that and ask for your help or for the change I need. In this case, I haven't performed any emotional labour for your benefit; I'm doing a thing for my own benefit. If, on the other hand, I don't do this but instead watch you closely, intuit your sadness or anger, and spontaneously do something to fix it, I am doing a lot of emotional work for your benefit, not mine. That's emotional labour.

In a healthy relationship, it seems that some emotional labour can be freely undertaken for the other person's benefit, provided there is no gross imbalance. So maybe neither has to constantly articulate how she feels, because each is watchful and careful and works it out. If so, "let me tell you how I feel" will only come up on special occasions where the reaction is hard to deduce or the other person is tired or distracted and doesn't spot it. That seems ideal to me. Something is wrong only if Person A is constantly doing all the work, both for themselves and Person B, and Person B neither bothers to articulate their own emotional needs nor makes any attempt to figure out Person A's.

Of course, articulating hurt is hard. So is finding out how someone else feels and ensuring you do what you can to make them feel good. But the first seems like the kind of hard thing that comes with the territory of being an adult who wants her own needs met. The second goes beyond that and takes on the needs of someone else. I think it's reasonable for me to expect others to tell me how they feel if they want me to change my behaviour in some way; conversely, it would be unreasonable for me to expect them to constantly intuit my feelings and change their behaviour accordingly. The first is expecting people to perform their own emotional labour. The second is accepting the responsibility to perform my own.
posted by Aravis76 at 8:05 AM on December 12, 2016 [14 favorites]


Also
posted by eye of newt at 8:08 AM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


When she mentions this to me and asks if I cut her out because I was still upset, I say: ‘Don’t be silly. I didn’t cut you out. There must have been a Facebook glitch.’ She is confused: part of her is certain that I deliberately cut her out, while another part of her wonders whether she’s being over-sensitive.

I found this example confusing. It sounds like she effectively disinvited her sister from her birthday party. Yes, she did it in a passive-aggressive way, and it was obfuscatory too, which Facebook is ideal for. But her account left me wondering what the upshot was. Did she reinstate the invitation or not? If not, in a lot of families, I think that would be relationship-ending and it would actually be an aggressive act and only the Facebook omission would be passive-aggressive.
posted by BibiRose at 8:15 AM on December 12, 2016


I mean, I guess so, if you put it that way.
posted by Huffy Puffy...
something something colon
posted by y2karl at 8:27 AM on December 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


"The way you have treated me leaves me feeling passive-aggressive towards you. But really, that's ok I'll just deal with it."

Recursive-aggressive.
posted by spitbull at 9:00 AM on December 12, 2016 [10 favorites]


I grew up around passive-aggressive behavior, and still deal with it regularly when I visit family. I think it is far more insidious than most people realize. The person who behaves this way wants everything their way without having to work to make it happen. Convincing someone to do something for you, or even just asking them, is the work to be avoided. If you never ask anyone for anything, you never have to hear no. If you never tell anyone you're irritated with them, then you don't have to confront the rationality of of your anger, or work towards resolving anything. You can just be angry and never say anything about it, and get angrier when someone doesn't make amends for the thing you've never told them you're angry about.

It is ultimately incredibly self-centered: it is essentially expecting people to read your mind. It is also ultimately self-destructive. Sooner or later, people get sick of this behavior and stop paying attention to it, and to you.

I think the worst part about growing up around it is the constant struggle not to behave in the way you observed in your youth.

Obviously this hits close to home for me, literally. Just speak your mind, people. Say what you mean, mean what you say. It's easier for everyone.
posted by Cranialtorque at 9:01 AM on December 12, 2016 [19 favorites]


Passive aggression is one of my major pet peeves, but I think the concept is applied way too sloppily. Women get accused of it much more often than men, but I don't see a huge gender disparity in the actual behavior.

One thing I've noticed pretty consistently is that there's this dynamic where straight, conservative men in relationships with regressive gender roles call their wives 'passive aggressive' when they're obviously angry but don't want to talk about it. But a lot of the time, it turns out to be this dynamic where their wives have told them something repeatedly and they've repeatedly ignored it. So their wives are left with the option of either continuing to 'nag' them about it, or giving up and accepting it, either hoping they'll remember it themselves this time, or maybe just lowering their expectations permanently because there's obviously no point. I've heard that story enough times, from both sides, that whenever I hear a man complaining about his wife being passive aggressive in that way, I figure there's a 90% chance that's what happened. And I don't consider that to be passive aggressive, really. That's just someone giving up on you.

And we also tend to overrecognize passive aggression in women, and underrecognize it in men. That thing where men pretend they don't hear what you're saying? They're not literally deaf to women's voices. They're being passive aggressive. That thing where they do all these awkward dominance moves, like trying to tower over you* or backing you into a corner? That's passive aggressive.

On the other side of that, I've been accused of being passive aggressive for, as an example, telling a guy to shut up because he didn't know what he was talking about. As though I'd have to actually punch someone in the face to get credit for being actively aggressive.

Passive aggression is a fear response. Sometimes, it's justified because of a power imbalance of some sort. Either the recipient has some power over the other person, or some third party does. The latter is why heavily moderated forums are a breeding ground for passive aggression. Other times, though, the passive aggressive person is just incapable of articulating or defending their hostility, but they're also incapable of not expressing it. That's the cowardly kind.

* I used to work with this super passive aggressive little turd who was always trying to pull these dominance moves, but was super bad at it. He'd sometimes come into my office, walk up behind me, and rest his foot on my desk so his crotch would be in my face. But he was a) not tall enough to pull that off casually, and b) not in the best shape, so he'd walk in and try to look nonchalant as he was raising is foot up, going OOF UNGH the whole time. A different guy in the same office used to loudly ask me questions about domestic stuff while I was working. Like how to do laundry or make a sandwich or buy groceries.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:14 AM on December 12, 2016 [20 favorites]


Often being passive aggressive is the only way women are allowed to express themselves ...

Exactly. It is hard work for a woman in many cultures to be openly angry. She has to balance her reaction with the ripple effect she knows it will cause and the emotions that she knows that she will be expected to sense and repair. When I am truly angry, I don't feel like exploding outward, in a stereotypically masculine fashion. I feel like my chest is collapsing inward with the weight of a poorly maintained tanker truck, because I am a woman and I was raised to believe* that open anger will only bring me more responsibilities, and I can imagine them all.
----
* Well, not deliberately, my folks didn't mean to but these things just happen
posted by Countess Elena at 9:23 AM on December 12, 2016 [9 favorites]


I've always had a hard time explaining how truly torturous it is to talk with someone who doesn't communicate their feelings, and instead uses "speech acts" to try and elude to how they feel.

Literally any way of communicating a thing is a speech act - if they did effectively, explicitly, and clearly communicate their feelings directly, that would also be a speech act.
posted by Dysk at 9:46 AM on December 12, 2016


While there may be perfectly good reason to respond passive-aggressively to whatever life throws at you, it really sucks to be in a situation when no one will tell you how they feel (until way after the fact) and you're left to figure out what you've done and why someone is angry/hurt and try to fix the situation, all while not referring directly to the offense (because that would be impolite/inappropriate/because "you should know what you did"/etc). Passive-aggressive behaviors are not particular to the powerless and disenfranchised. Quite the contrary, depending on your culture/family/millieu, and when directed at you the effect can be brutal, even (especially) if the always-polite attacker smiles slightly and speaks softly while unleashing the final soul-crushing blow. It is weaponized guess culture. And it's just about gross and cruel and dishonest a means of avoiding talking about what's really going on as throwing a punch. I'd tell you more about it, but I'm too busy reviewing my Machiavelli for family events over the holidays

I'm sure the grass is always greener, but as an adult, I've vastly preferred people who come right out and tell me they hate my haircut and think my career choice is befuddling, rather than those who subtly, indirectly force me into thinking those things about myself.


I just had a friendship end with a woman who I would guess holds views like this about other people's behavior, given how many times I've seen her shut people out of her life for incredibly spurious reasons and the methodology she uses to drive them away. I've been going through a pretty rough patch with severe depression, to the point that all I can handle is doing the bare minimum to manage my responsibilities at work, at school, and in taking care of my grandmother. As a result, my communication with people has also been minimal. I'm not engaging in long, heartfelt, intimate chats with anyone, I'm basically just trying to keep myself alive. Unfortunately, this friend took offense to me being quiet and interpreted it as me being mad at her, even though when she texted me to say "hey lady, tell me all the things that are going on! or don't, it's up to you!", I replied honestly that I'm feeling pretty meh and just plugging along. Instead of talking to me any further at all, she turned to my best friend, a mutual friend of ours, and said that I'm shutting her out, I've been really mean and snippy to her, and she can't figure out why I've suddenly started rejecting her. Evidently she's decided that my being quiet means that I secretly hate her and everything about her. But... instead of even trying to talk to me at all, she goes to my best friend and starts spinning a wild tale about how awful I've been.

Bear in mind that all I'd done to her, at this point, was to be kind of quiet for about a week.

Incredibly long, ugly, painful story short, this whole thing snowballed into a huge, dramatic fight. My friend told me that while she has no personal experience with mental illness and really doesn't understand what I'm going through or how I feel, she, and I quote, "talked to a bunch of my friends who are actually honest and good at communicating and they all said I was a great help to them, so I don't know what your problem is. I know you're trying to make me into the bad guy here but that's just your shit." Like, she's not even offering me any actual help in the first place, she's just going straight to "you are a bad person and it's your fault that what I'm doing isn't working for you."

Anyway, now we're not friends anymore, and it took a month of coping with her habit of using pop-psychology self-help language to distance herself from the situation she created before I could get my belongings back that she had borrowed. By the end of things, she was making her new partner talk to me about when to drop my things off instead of talking to me herself -- a tactic I've watched her employ with her soon to be ex husband and a mutual friend she cut off last year for similar infractions to my own. She even handles her own six year old daughter this way.

I'm still a little gob-smacked that me just engaging in the self-care I needed to manage my own mental health issues was interpreted by her as passive aggression, given her devotion to the flavor of self-help book that really promotes self-care and taking time for oneself to heal. It's especially galling that she responded to my depression not by actually trying to talk to me, but by engaging in extremely passive-aggressive behavior that ramped up into holier-than-thou aggressive behavior when she didn't get her way, when I wouldn't drop everything and drive to her house to have her partner mediate a talk between us.

At this point in life, I'm really wary of people who accuse others of passive aggression. Because it always seems to come from people with so little self-awareness that they don't see that they are what they accuse others of being.
posted by palomar at 9:54 AM on December 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think it is far more insidious than most people realize. The person who behaves this way wants everything their way without having to work to make it happen. Convincing someone to do something for you, or even just asking them, is the work to be avoided. If you never ask anyone for anything, you never have to hear no. If you never tell anyone you're irritated with them, then you don't have to confront the rationality of of your anger, or work towards resolving anything. You can just be angry and never say anything about it, and get angrier when someone doesn't make amends for the thing you've never told them you're angry about.

It is ultimately incredibly self-centered: it is essentially expecting people to read your mind. It is also ultimately self-destructive. Sooner or later, people get sick of this behavior and stop paying attention to it, and to you.


Quoted for motherfucking truth. This was a huge part of the failure of my marriage. My husband would not ever, ever voice an opinion or a desire or a complaint, even when I asked (or begged or demanded) to know what he wanted, what was the problem, what would make things better between us. He just got more and more disengaged, cold, disdainful, and spiteful, but felt morally in the right because he never "did anything". It was incredibly hard for me to make sense of a situation where he proclaimed that he loved me and wanted to stay married, but treated me with such underhanded contempt. Eventually through a lot of therapy and personal work he finally revealed that he derived a sense of power from denying my requests, watching me suffer emotional pain, and be provoked into my own anger, which he of course denigrated. It was unbelievable to finally understand how his passiveness allowed him to feel justified in being so self-centered and sadistic. I stuck with it way too long and suffered some serious trauma from the misbehavior, which I'm finally healing now that we are divorced.

A friend of mine works in mental health and introduced me to a concept that was a turning point in my understanding of my marriage (and indeed, I think helped convince my husband that his upbringing had been dysfunctional an the had personal work to do.) She said, abuse and neglect are considered equally detrimental. However, neglect is more insidious and harder to identify and remediate because it's all about what's absent, what didn't happen--compared to abuse, which is about active transgression. Passive aggression is a particularly malignant variant on neglect because it's neglect aided and abetted by lying, gaslighting, manipulation.

Somewhere up there someone said that passive aggression is "weaponized guess culture". Absolutely.
posted by Sublimity at 9:56 AM on December 12, 2016 [35 favorites]


...abuse and neglect are considered equally detrimental. However, neglect is more insidious and harder to identify and remediate because it's all about what's absent, what didn't happen--compared to abuse, which is about active transgression.

Now I get to quote you for speaking motherfucking truth. That was really amazing to read. It puts clearly a lot of thoughts that have been bubbling around in my mind half-formed.

There's this constant guilt about complaining (or acknowledging) neglect I experienced, because it wasn't abuse. I tend to preface it with "I was always fed and clothed and housed and my parents never hit me, so I shouldn't complain..."

But that's basically a description of the bare minimum of parenting, isn't it? Not exactly commendable.
posted by Cranialtorque at 10:56 AM on December 12, 2016 [11 favorites]


Cranialtorque, you may find the concept of emotional neglect developed in this book useful? It's very clear about this idea of things that didn't happen, when they should have, as forms of harm and how that shows up in adult memory as strange emotional flatness or alienation. I've found it very helpful.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:18 AM on December 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


The problem I have with the OP piece is that it's identifying "swear angrily" as the method of effectively expressing the author's feelings. Swearing angrily at someone is a gratifying way of indulging anger by attempting to hurt that person through verbal abuse, but it need not have anything to do with the purported offense. I've known people who will swear at me angrily simply because they're having a bad day and are using something I did or said as a pretext. Or not even that, I'm just the nearest target.

Saying "I’m jolly angry with you" or better yet something more like "I’m jolly angry with you because of x" is a more effective way of expressing, of communicating the anger. As would be a whole spectrum of other reactions like "I really wish you'd done y instead" or "I do not believe the sincerity of your apology and that is enraging me even more."

I'm not saying those reactions are possible or advisable in any given situation, just that swearing angrily is definitely not an effective way of expressing yourself or communicating. And in fact when you're targeting a person rather than a smashed phone you are gratifying your feelings at the other's expense in lieu of communicating, like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Only in the era of Donald Trump could anyone consider a toddler an effective communicator.

(All of the comments in this thread are fabulous btw, I'm not disagreeing with anything anyone has said here. And the passive aggression behavior is a way of indulging one's feelings at the expense of others as well, of course.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:22 AM on December 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


Aravis78, thanks for the recommendation. I will check it out.
posted by Cranialtorque at 11:45 AM on December 12, 2016


I dislike passive agression, and have always read people who deploy it as weak and not worth my time.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2016


I think the odd thing here is that the two options appear to be passive aggression or aggression. Passive aggression is horrible, but in my experience, aggression is worse. A lot of the people in this world who think shouting and swearing is "harmless" and a way of "putting things on the table" have no idea how frightening they can be to the people around them.

Also, actual aggression is no easier to respond to than passive aggression, in my experience. If a person is shouting, a logical response ("actually, the scissors are right next to you on the counter") doesn't help any more than it does with someone who sighs over "no one ever putting things back in their proper places".

It seems like the difference between the two is the type of performance the person likes best, rather than an attempt to seek a resolution. Which is the approach I actually prefer, but don't get to dictate to people around me who prefer shouting or sighing.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:37 PM on December 12, 2016 [8 favorites]


I could be off base on this, but I've always had the impression that people who are regularly and unnecessarily passive aggressive do it because they don't actually have a legitimate complaint, and at some level they realize it. Maybe they're envious, maybe they're insecure, and maybe they just don't like your face. They have to try to maintain some deniability because they don't actually have a grievance that they could defend or maybe even articulate.

In those cases, they may not have much to actually communicate beyond, "Fuck you."
posted by ernielundquist at 1:17 PM on December 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm generally pretty direct -- and I have smashed a number of relationships into tiny pieces in a single confrontation.

I sure miss some of those people.
posted by jamjam at 1:31 PM on December 12, 2016


Yeah, it sounds like some people aren't familiar with the excessiveness sometimes present in the "we gotta talk about this right now" side of things. That can be as annoying and deadly to a relationship as not wanting to talk depending on the people involved.

There are, of course, emotional needs that should be met in any close relationship of choice, but those needs are not the same among all parties at all times. If you think of it, for comparison's sake, like a sexual relationship where one person wants intimacy much more often than the other, placing blame wholly on the one who is more reticent isn't a great way to look at things. Passive aggressive behavior can be a way to step back from expressing emotions directly when the person is not yet comfortable in talking about them for reasons of uncertainty over where those emotions are coming from, knowledge of the emotions being in excess of the cause that sparked them yet they are present nonetheless, or just a feeling that the present moment isn't the right time to talk about them, among other possibilities. Demanding emotional communication on either "your" schedule or at any given moment is a lot to ask from some people and isn't intrinsically fair. It of course may be something "you" need, and turn out to cause a more serious split in a relationship where that need can't be met, but it isn't somehow lesser to not want to address an issue at any given moment.

That leaves out a lot of other reasons for passive aggressive communication, like simply not feeling the person creating the negative emotions is worthy of your sharing your actual feelings with, which in the case of some acquaintances is a perfectly fine technique for not overly damaging any necessary or regular interactions you may have with them or in a shared area. People where you work or regularly go for coffee or a drink do not necessarily need to have your whole story and inner life made available to them just because they somehow irritated you and would want an explanation and involved discussion about what happened. Emotional privacy can be important too, even if people can guess you're upset, they don't have the right to demand you share any larger context for the upset if you feel it is in your best interest not to share.

Passive aggressiveness rubs some people the wrong way no matter what the context because, it seems, that there is a belief that sharing is always a good thing and I simply can't agree with that at all.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:11 PM on December 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


Although the article doesn't cover all or most contexts for passive aggression, to me it really nails the (probably common?) one between relative equals that it does discuss. I'm definitely frequently guilty of it myself - in the moment where I can't express the emotion itself, for better reasons - being caught of guard, being in an inappropriate situation - and worse, like being too petty or childish to deal fully, or a subconcious(ish) realisation that one is in the wrong. It's something I'm working on, and the article was quite illuminating as to the harms it causes, so I appreciated it a lot for that.
posted by ominous_paws at 2:14 PM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


I mean that sure, often open and earnest emotional sharing is *not* appropriate, and the article only concerns itself with contexts where it *is*, but I still found that useful and interesting, I guess?
posted by ominous_paws at 2:21 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I agree with the posts directly above that going to far in the other directions--outright aggressiveness, heightened immediate demand--is also problematic. But I disagree that those are the only other choices rather than passive aggression.

Relationship skills around boundaries and cooperation are actually learned skills, and it can be hard to bring them to bear in really charged situations. But it is possible to be assertive (communicative in a firm and calm way) rather than aggressive, and it is possible to negotiate the terms of engagement (time, place, medium of communication) even when one is really upset.

In my experience with a passive-aggressive spouse, conflict of any type activated his shame response so profoundly that there was truly no mode of message delivery or terms of engagement, where he was willing or able to be engaged or accountable or, indeed, vulnerable as a result of opening up.

It would be easier to be compassionate about those personal wounds and struggles if this behavior pattern didn't drive his disengagement from so many responsibilities to his family (me and kids) as well as me as his wife. Hence the charge of selfishness: if he became upset in this way, truly nothing else could supersede the withdrawal, blame, and passive anger.
posted by Sublimity at 2:29 PM on December 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


Passive aggressiveness rubs some people the wrong way no matter what the context because, it seems, that there is a belief that sharing is always a good thing and I simply can't agree with that at all.

Or it could be that some of us have had dealings with people who behaved passive aggressively for what seemed to be no good reason at all. And that's part of the problem with trying to have this kind of discussion — you may be thinking of somebody you've interacted with in circumstances where passive aggression seemed like the only way to deal with things, while I'm thinking of how it was next to impossible to get my grandmother to express a restaurant preference ("anywhere will be fine, you know me, I'm easygoing") but if we didn't guess right it would be a meal full of sighs and "… no, no, it's fine. Really. I know I can't expect… anyway, I hope you're enjoying your meal."
posted by Lexica at 3:16 PM on December 12, 2016 [11 favorites]


Relationship skills around boundaries and cooperation are actually learned skills, and it can be hard to bring them to bear in really charged situations. But it is possible to be assertive (communicative in a firm and calm way) rather than aggressive, and it is possible to negotiate the terms of engagement (time, place, medium of communication) even when one is really upset.

Yes, definitely. A good working relationship will develop ways to meet the emotional needs of all those involved. Negotiating a time and method of communication that fulfills those needs is something that needs to be addressed in moments when tempers are even as a plan for times of upset. Not communicating at all really isn't an option, so in that sense one can't completely withdraw and expect a relationship to remain healthy.

I think some of this too is in what gets labelled passive aggressive since the term itself is often used as a pejorative, thus tainting certain behaviors if they broadly get thrown under that heading. It seems some have a stronger set of negative connotations to the term than others, and some of that seems to come from personal experience where passive aggressiveness is used to control a relationship or assert power in ways meant to cause ongoing pain, which is something different than thinking of it as a coping method in the moment, intended to preserve the one feeling the emotion and any relationships potentially affected by those larger emotions.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:18 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am curious to know how fans of the emotional labor discourse square their fandom with the various demands that genuinely hurt people articulate and pantomime their emotions in a clear, calm and universally accessible way and patiently recount and recap the various transgressions they perceive, because the alleged transgressors cannot be expected to know or remember what they have done (after all, the very suggestion that "you know what you did" is a passive aggressive cliche extraordinaire.)

I should like to say that as someone who quite likes the concept of emotional labor and finds it very useful that... I don't see these things as irreconcilable? (I confess, actually, I'm finding it difficult to process this comment more broadly, but I figured I'd respond anyway.) I don't see passive aggression as inherently bad, although I do think it is inherently frustrating for me to deal with--and I try to structure my relationships with people in such a way as to minimize it.

See, the thing is, passive aggression is a form of aggression--of expressing anger--that insulates a person from the potential consequences of expressing that anger. That's an important technique for many of us, especially people who hold less social power and social capital, because those consequences are often pretty sharp. I'm naturally a very direct, blunt person, and I frequently get pushback at work and in my family from saying things like "Your understanding is incomplete" or "You have failed to train the people you're responsible for, and they are damaging my ability to work"--even if I only use those techniques around specific people who have repeatedly demonstrated inability to hear and respond to subtler, more polite forms of expressing disagreements.

The positive aspects of Guess culture and of more passive approaches to making requests of people revolve around not forcing people to acknowledge those requests, especially if they aren't being accepted. That's because a) explicitly denying requests can be very loaded for people with less social status and b) people who make an explicit request are usually more upset by having those requests denied (in my experience) than people who make implicit requests. I certainly am--asking for something explicitly draws my attention to how much I want the thing, and having to consciously and verbally respond to disappointment and then talk about it stings much more than inquiring whether the thing is even possible and edging around it, before I've devoted attention to asking. Worse, if you ask for something that is consistent with a strongly held belief about a person's self, and they don't want to or can't give it, you might induce enough cognitive dissonance in their heads about their willingness to grant your request and their belief that they're a generous person/not a racist/not sexist/helpful/etc. to trigger anger at you for calling their positive self image into question. That can open you up to worse consequences, too.

And of course we tend to be more direct about things which are important to us--a lot of this power differential is about who feels comfortable being direct and demanding about what level of value they place on requests. So if you're asking for something that matters very much to you but don't feel you have enough social capital or status to ensure your request is granted, well, if you ask very directly and still get shut down, that is incredibly painful. Guess culture lets you avoid that pain, at least unless the request matters very much.

So that's a positive aspect of Guess culture: it's easier to deny and be denied if you don't have to bring the disappointment of the denial into the front of people's minds. If your requests, then, are more likely to be denied on average (because you have less social status; because you're a woman and used to people dismissing you; because you're a marginalized person; because you're speaking to someone higher than you on your work hierarchy; etc), then asking passively becomes a very attractive and comfortable thing. It keeps you safer than being direct and open does.

And, well, do it enough and it will become a habit. It takes more effort to execute well, certainly--it requires more energy to watch for and more energy to communicate subtly and indirectly than directly--but it will keep you much safer in threatening times. Under threatening circumstances, especially if you have a long experience of having even small requests that matter greatly to you rejected, it can become very scary to ask directly because the anticipated disappointment both hurts more and makes asking that much less likely to work. So while passive aggressive expressions of frustration or dissatisfaction are more emotionally laborious (if they are targeted at someone the complainant actually hopes will listen, anyway), they're also more likely to get you what you want without making you a target.

(Where passive aggressive expressions aren't directed at a particular person, my experience is that they are attempts to loudly signal unhappiness in general in the hopes of drawing attention and change without.... actually.... risking consequences. My usual response is to either remove the person if I have the power to do that, address them directly about what it is they want out of the situation, or else just straight up ignore them. It works pretty well and has left me feeling a bit less resentful about the whole situations.)

Anyway, my position regarding emotional labor and discussing emotional labor isn't actually that emotional labor isn't worth doing. My position is that it's labor and that labor which is being performed ought to be acknowledged and honored, at least implicitly. That's actually a very Guess attitude to take about it, because my experience is that healthy Guess culture is all about quietly acknowledging the unspoken things that facilitate communication and relationships, usually via strengthening of those relationships. It's my impression that explicit, direct Ask culture is the one which is really clueless about the level of work that emotional labor really entails, because it demands less of it and devalues it where it encounters emotional labor being discussed.
posted by sciatrix at 3:51 PM on December 12, 2016 [15 favorites]


I don't do passive aggression well, on either side. When people do it to me, I am in some superposition of accidentally and purposefully ignoring their behavior. And as far as giving, I tend to be more aggressive-aggressive.

This attitude really fails in some situations though - including as a customer. Today British Airways made a couple goofs* - when I complained to a rep and asked her to fix it, and she was unable to, she seemed really unhappy that I was unwilling to pretend that everything was ok, even though I remained calm and simply firmly stated that I was not satisfied with their non-resolution.

That she kept trying to make me pretend to be happy (without actually fixing anything) actually only made me more unhappy with the company (not with her) - they call someone a customer service rep but don't empower them to do anything to fix mistakes, and then possibly punish them when a customer is still unhappy. (Why else would she not want to let me leave until I was satisfied?) Ugh, what a bind! And it really made me want to be able to pretend that I was satisfied.

So yeah, little white lies like "everything is fine" have their place. Or perhaps this was some culture clash? She was British after all, so if the article's stereotype holds, maybe my direct statements were worrisome to this guess-culture person?

*Their goofs were entirely unrelated to my own coat-related goof mentioned in my last ask me. My coat is in Iceland, I am in Chicago, but that really isn't their fault.
posted by nat at 4:41 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


The problem with passive-aggression is that it really only works well when the other person cares about you and your feelings. True jerks, or people who just don't feel responsible for the other party's emotional state in a particular situation, are either unaware or can pretend not to notice. So, the behaviour can end up disproportionately hurting people who care about you, and letting everyone else off the hook.
posted by rpfields at 6:05 PM on December 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I don't do passive aggression well, on either side. When people do it to me, I am in some superposition of accidentally and purposefully ignoring their behavior. And as far as giving, I tend to be more aggressive-aggressive.

I'm pretty much exactly the same way. I grew up in a family where people were either quiet and easygoing, or had loud, explosive tempers that also quietened down just as quickly. My husband's family (his mom and dad) are the exact opposite and it was really quite honestly completely weird to me. My mother-in-law would suddenly get mad at my husband for something stupid (such as not spending enough time exclusively with her when on holiday, or not paying attention to her in some way). But she wouldn't just bring it out into the open like my own mother would and have a nice argument - she'd just suddenly refuse to talk to him (for days!). My own response to stuff like that is to just shrug. Of course, she's not my mother - so I understand that my husband apologizes and gets back on her good side as quickly as possible (when she's not being passive aggressive like this, she's actually quite fun to be around and overall a good mother-in-law, believe it or not). It's just so beyond my experience - that I think I just end up ignoring the behavior, because frankly, I'm not going to dignify it by acknowledging it.

My father-in-law pulled something similarly the last time he visited (for a conference). My husband told him not to leave his hotel to come see us until 3 pm, since we would be busy until then with other family friends who were also visiting from out of town. He also told him to call us before he actually left, so that we could make sure we would be ready to pick him up. Ignoring all this, his father left the hotel well before 3, made his way to about 5 minutes from way we were staying and then called us. We were not even home, being busy dropping off the family friends. We had also planned to pick up groceries to cook dinner before picking him up. My husband lightly chided him on the phone - nothing like what I would have said if my parents had done that, but obviously we went to pick him up immediately. I said we should probably stop for some food, as there isn't much at home (and there is a specialty store on our way back) - but he said that he would be happy with anything, even pasta.

We go back home, have some tea and cookies and I am starting to think about what to cook for dinner. But I think he was growing increasingly annoyed with the fact that we were not prepared enough to greet him as he thought he should be greeted, and he abruptly left after a couple hours, well before dinner time. Later it turned out he was unhappy with his reception and felt that his son should have been more prepared. I'm really not sure what to do with that. I just completely ignore it when we talk, he and his son have worked it out without me in the conversation, I'm as bright and cheery as ever when we talk. If he wants to feel slighted because we didn't roll out the red carpet in exactly the manner he expected, that's entirely his prerogative and I'm not inclined to do anything about it. One thing I'll say though - thank god my parents never instilled in me any sense that I should feel guilty about things like hospitality or if my home isn't perfect - I know a lot of women struggle with that, but I don't personally. So I can really shrug things like that off - it's my husband's problem too, and he know it.
posted by peacheater at 6:30 PM on December 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think it's possible to say that sometimes people have incompatible communication styles without demonizing either party. I personally don't enjoy people with passive-aggressive tendencies. However, I'm not saying they're bad people, just that I don't like them.
posted by panama joe at 10:12 PM on December 12, 2016


The problem with passive-aggression is that it really only works well when the other person cares about you and your feelings. True jerks, or people who just don't feel responsible for the other party's emotional state in a particular situation, are either unaware or can pretend not to notice. So, the behaviour can end up disproportionately hurting people who care about you, and letting everyone else off the hook.

Yes, and that goes the other way round too. If someone does passive-aggressive at me, it doesn't register at all (before someone tells me, months later). Whereupon that person feels un-appreciated and un-seen and becomes even more angry. It has happened to me before, but as mentioned above, recently, it has developed into a nightmare, because those passive-aggressive people had no other ideas about how to address the issue than to conspire and create "traps" they imagined they could catch me in. Just plain talking with me was not on the table ever.

Because of this rather big issue in my life, reading this thread led to me dreaming a really cathartic dream this morning, where many of your reflections were enacted by the people from my personal situation. So thanks everyone
posted by mumimor at 1:48 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


The problem with passive-aggression is that it really only works well when the other person cares about you and your feelings.

That's true if the passive aggressive behavior is a feint intended to draw out people to keep soliciting information and emotions from the person performing, but not all passive aggressive behavior need be thought of as performative in that manner. It can simply be a desire not to talk about something at the moment or at all, and therefore be an honest show of the desired response, which is none.

From the other side too, in cases where personal connection is not particularly strong, sharing emotional states more forthrightly can act as a burden on those with whom those emotions or reasons or history is asserted. If I don't know you well, asking me to take care of your emotional issues can be an attempt to remove the onus on you to place it on me as something I need to deal with. This can be as annoying and unreasonable in its own way as reticence to divulge personal information regarding feelings or history or reasons.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:08 AM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


From the other side too, in cases where personal connection is not particularly strong, sharing emotional states more forthrightly can act as a burden on those with whom those emotions or reasons or history is asserted. If I don't know you well, asking me to take care of your emotional issues can be an attempt to remove the onus on you to place it on me as something I need to deal with. This can be as annoying and unreasonable in its own way as reticence to divulge personal information regarding feelings or history or reasons.

But is refusal to indulge others in their emotional needs passive aggression, when those others are strangers or loose connections? If the person at the checkout station at my local supermarket doesn't want to answer my cheerful greetings, I just think she is having a bad day, not that she is passive-aggressive. To imagine she's being passive-aggressive would IMO be to give me far too much importance in her life.

Whereas, if my boss asks me to do something stupid, and that happens, I have the choice between saying/doing something passive-aggressive and still doing what she wants, or complaining and still doing it, or even complaining and not doing it. To me, the first option puts the emotional burden on me, not on her. I may feel intellectually superior to her, but the emotion (bitterness for instance) is all on me. By telling her how this is not going to work, I give her something to worry about: what if I am right? While I can go home with the good feeling that I told her it might go wrong, so now that burden is off my shoulders, and if she is eventually right, good for her, and respect!

In familial relations, there are power struggles being played out, and they are not innocent. In my family, the people smashing the tableware are trying to control the situation through drama, and those (including myself) who use passive agressive actions are trying to control the situation by creating a sense of moral or intellectual superiority for themselves. Neither strategy is ultimately succesfull or joyful and they are not at all the only too possible strategies. But I do think it makes sense, in the article, to juxtapose the two because they often happen together in a destructive stranglehold.
posted by mumimor at 2:50 AM on December 13, 2016


But is refusal to indulge others in their emotional needs passive aggression, when those others are strangers or loose connections?

No, it isn't necessarily. It depends on how one responds and on the continuing circumstance surrounding the event. You can certainly adopt a variety of ways to deal with differing situations from feigning interest in something you aren't interested in, to telling them you aren't interested, to trying to become interested and so on. Each will have different effects on you and the other person, sometimes unpredictably so. The point wasn't that someone over-sharing leads to passive aggressiveness necessarily, but that over-sharing too can be a burden like that people find from passive-aggressive behavior.

In some instances there just aren't going to be methods that satisfy everyone, either due to the circumstance not having a mutually agreeable solution or due to differing emotional styles and needs. In a confrontation with a boss, for example, the power situation can make any response short of full agreement potentially difficult depending on how the boss views the situation. So in those circumstances all you can do is what seems best for you at the time, which may mean taking on more of the burden than is fair if that helps keep a needed job.

With passive aggressive behavior generally, the usual best course, from my experience, is after ascertaining that the person doesn't want to talk about something directly, then don't push it. If they are engaged in a performative act of PA, then they are usually just looking for attention which can be given around things not connected to their show of PA and still satisfy to some degree with a little time and effort if that is worth your while. If the person just wants some emotional space, then prodding them on the source of their upset is more likely to provoke an unnecessary fight than solve anything. In either situation, if the upset is serious enough, the person feeling it who was being PA can address it if needed, or it can be brought up at a later time to see if it was indeed something of serious importance, which it is often not, at least not in a direct sense, and then be addressed when emotions have subsided and it can be talked about more calmly in a manner more suitable.

A lot of times it seems that PA comes some something unconnected to the immediate events, which the person who is acting PAly recognizes which is why they are acting as they are. It is often something either bigger to their emotional history, but difficult to address given its centrality, or something seemingly insignificant which is recognized as not worth talking about since its focus would be too easily dismissed. PA is a indirect response to events that is often used because the events are indirect triggers to other confounding issues that the person has experienced and recognizes as being orthogonal to the activity at hand, yet none the less emotionally real despite that. Beyond that, PAness is sometimes chosen because the person isn't entirely clear on the emotional core of the problem and not being able to identify that makes the response too generalized to be formed more accurately or shared since clarity is lacking around the feeling. I just think people ought to be careful dismissing passive-aggressiveness since it is often used for "good", albeit often not conscious, reasons from the perspective of the one engaging in it.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:37 AM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


It can simply be a desire not to talk about something at the moment or at all, and therefore be an honest show of the desired response, which is none.

I don't think this is passive-aggression because it's not aggression at all. The OP defines aggression, I think quite sensibly, as a matter of intent: you are being aggressive when you want to communicate your negative feelings to another person, presumably with the aim of having some impact on them (whether that is getting them to behave differently in the future or just making them feel bad as punishment for some past bad act). An intention not to communicate your feelings at all - to quietly process them by yourself before taking any steps - is not meant to have any impact on any other person and so is not aggression of any kind, passive or active. If they happen to notice that you are unhappy and ask you about it or react in some way, that's not because of your deliberate intent but because of their own sensitivity to emotion. "I don't want to talk about this yet," is a perfectly straightforward and honest thing to say in this context and not an aggressive response.

My impression is that passive-aggression differs from introversion and quietness precisely because it doesn't try to be quiet or unobtrusive. When I am just being quiet about my emotions, my aim is mostly to seem normal and get some space and privacy to address my emotions by myself. When I'm being passive-aggressive, on the other hand, my aim is not to seem normal, but to loudly flag - by sighs, expression, tone of voice, and choice of words - the fact that something is wrong without telling the other person what that thing is. It's an intentional display and the other person fails to understand what I'm trying to communicate if they don't realise that I am upset. The trick is that when they do realise I am upset and ask me about it - like Fleur in the example - I then deny that I am upset at all and so string out their opportunities for guilt and unhappiness while saving myself the trouble, and the risk, of actually explaining my own feelings, desires and expectations. That's the central case of passive-aggression, as she seems to define it, and I think it is a real thing that people do and a deeply problematic strategy for dealing with conflict for the reasons that she gives.

Of course the problem is that this strategy looks similar, on the outside, to the case where the person has no aggressive intent at all and is just trying to manage their emotions by themselves but is unsuccessful in hiding what they feel. "I don't want to talk about it" can be a honest statement as well as a passive-aggressive strategy. So diagnosing other people as passive-aggressive, when you don't have special insight into their motives, is a probably a mistake. I still think, though, that the category of passive-aggressive behaviour is a good tool for thinking critically about one's own behaviour. I know my own motives and my own disappointment when my elaborate sighing or curtness has apparently gone unnoticed by the person I am trying to signal my upset to. In these situations, I can use the concept of passive-aggression to point out to myself what I am doing and work out a morally better strategy for getting what I want.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:40 AM on December 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


Everyone says they prefer people to just be straightforward rather than passive aggressive, but then if they ask you what you think of their work/clothes/child/music, it always turns out they'd rather you had gritted your teeth and said "it's fine!" than actually be honest.

(Their work/clothes/child/music always sucks, or they wouldn't need to ask for your opinion.)
posted by Dysk at 4:23 AM on December 13, 2016


A lot of times it seems that PA comes some something unconnected to the immediate events, which the person who is acting PAly recognizes which is why they are acting as they are. It is often something either bigger to their emotional history, but difficult to address given its centrality, or something seemingly insignificant which is recognized as not worth talking about since its focus would be too easily dismissed. PA is a indirect response to events that is often used because the events are indirect triggers to other confounding issues that the person has experienced and recognizes as being orthogonal to the activity at hand, yet none the less emotionally real despite that. Beyond that, PAness is sometimes chosen because the person isn't entirely clear on the emotional core of the problem and not being able to identify that makes the response too generalized to be formed more accurately or shared since clarity is lacking around the feeling. I just think people ought to be careful dismissing passive-aggressiveness since it is often used for "good", albeit often not conscious, reasons from the perspective of the one engaging in it.

This makes a lot of sense to me in understanding both my own and my surroundings' passive-aggressive actions. I'd like to add that sometimes those underlying emotions are either perceived as illegitimate or actually illegitimate, and that the passive-agressive acting person knows this and thus cannot handle those emotions in any more appropriate manners. If the author feels she hates her sister when the sister acts out, that feeling would be illegitimate in most families, and indeed, if she had screamed "I HATE YOU" at her, the situation would have escalated and maybe their relation would have been permanently damaged. I've seen that happen. For many people, the only conceivable solution to the situation is the passive aggressive action, because you have to learn to handle conflict. It isn't a genetic trait and it is difficult to learn if you don't learn it from early childhood. I'm over 50 and I'm still in beginner's class. I hope I'm better at teaching it to my children.
(The solution to the problem of the sister is to address what she does, rather than who she is, my therapist tells me).
posted by mumimor at 4:24 AM on December 13, 2016


With passive aggressive behavior generally, the usual best course, from my experience, is after ascertaining that the person doesn't want to talk about something directly, then don't push it. If they are engaged in a performative act of PA, then they are usually just looking for attention which can be given around things not connected to their show of PA and still satisfy to some degree with a little time and effort if that is worth your while. If the person just wants some emotional space, then prodding them on the source of their upset is more likely to provoke an unnecessary fight than solve anything. In either situation, if the upset is serious enough, the person feeling it who was being PA can address it if needed, or it can be brought up at a later time to see if it was indeed something of serious importance, which it is often not, at least not in a direct sense, and then be addressed when emotions have subsided and it can be talked about more calmly in a manner more suitable.

My impression is that passive-aggression differs from introversion and quietness precisely because it doesn't try to be quiet or unobtrusive. When I am just being quiet about my emotions, my aim is mostly to seem normal and get some space and privacy to address my emotions by myself. When I'm being passive-aggressive, on the other hand, my aim is not to seem normal, but to loudly flag - by sighs, expression, tone of voice, and choice of words - the fact that something is wrong without telling the other person what that thing is.

I think these views makes sense when you're thinking about "performative PA" as a form of social drama, like about fairly light or subjective topics--that acting-huffy-but-unwilling-to-talk mode. I disagree that that is Passive aggressiveness, because huffy behavior and protestations that everything is FINE are in fact, actions. Drama laden maybe, clumsy maybe, perhaps a decent way to gain some personal space in an uncertain situation. But it's not passive.

I assure you, the really nasty strain is people who make sure you will have no idea whatsoever that they're upset, and who enact their revenge through literal inaction, not disavowed displays of drama. If you can't imagine how that would work, think of it in the vein of passive resistance in civil disobedience (going limp as the cops cart you off) or a work stoppage protest at a factory. Passive aggressive understand what their victim wants and get satisfaction from watching the upset that arises when they don't do it. That can be minor (putting the seat down, washing your glass instead of leaving it by the sink), or it can be major (not getting a job, cutting off sex entirely) , and it can often be very, very personal and cruel.

One characteristics of a relationship with a PA is that when you ask for something, it essentially guarantees that you will not get it--even though you won't ever hear a refusal. It's bewildering and very cruel. PAs are all about power. When a PA person hears what you want, they know where your weakness is, and they refuse to give you the power by showing you where their weakness is.

I belabor this point because PA is so often used to describe the light social disclaimed huffiness stuff and it muddies the water a lot for those of trying to make sense of the clinical dysfunction type.
posted by Sublimity at 4:36 AM on December 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


Everyone says they prefer people to just be straightforward rather than passive aggressive, but then if they ask you what you think of their work/clothes/child/music, it always turns out they'd rather you had gritted your teeth and said "it's fine!" than actually be honest.

But you really shouldn't be honest in this case, if you dont have anything nice to say. And it is certainly not passive aggressive to say something nice, if non-commital. It's polite. I feel a lot of comments in this thread confuse PA actions with politeness. They are very different things.

Sublimity makes it much more clear:

I assure you, the really nasty strain is people who make sure you will have no idea whatsoever that they're upset, and who enact their revenge through literal inaction, not disavowed displays of drama. If you can't imagine how that would work, think of it in the vein of passive resistance in civil disobedience (going limp as the cops cart you off) or a work stoppage protest at a factory. Passive aggressive understand what their victim wants and get satisfaction from watching the upset that arises when they don't do it. That can be minor (putting the seat down, washing your glass instead of leaving it by the sink), or it can be major (not getting a job, cutting off sex entirely) , and it can often be very, very personal and cruel.

One characteristics of a relationship with a PA is that when you ask for something, it essentially guarantees that you will not get it--even though you won't ever hear a refusal. It's bewildering and very cruel. PAs are all about power. When a PA person hears what you want, they know where your weakness is, and they refuse to give you the power by showing you where their weakness is.


This. This is how what began as minor passive aggressive actions at my workplace escalated into actual gas lighting. There were no bounds on their side, and they clearly found sadistic pleasure in confusing and humiliating me.
posted by mumimor at 4:43 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


But you really shouldn't be honest in this case, if you dont have anything nice to say.

That's why I didn't volunteer an opinion! Asking for one in a context where it is clear from lack of comment that this is the case is asking for me to lie, or be honest with someone. The easy option was already proffered. The passive aggressive action here is asking for the opinion.
posted by Dysk at 4:56 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


The passive aggressive action here is asking for the opinion.

Really? Isn't it just insecurity and general human behaviour? You know in Danish: det er da bare noget jeg vil springe op og falde ned på - nothing serious to engage in. If the next step is then to pout for two weeks about your polite decline to comment, that would be PA behavior, I think.
posted by mumimor at 5:09 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


My impression is that passive-aggression differs from introversion and quietness precisely because it doesn't try to be quiet or unobtrusive. When I am just being quiet about my emotions, my aim is mostly to seem normal and get some space and privacy to address my emotions by myself. When I'm being passive-aggressive, on the other hand, my aim is not to seem normal, but to loudly flag - by sighs, expression, tone of voice, and choice of words - the fact that something is wrong without telling the other person what that thing is.

In the example given by the author, they cut out Fleur from conversation on their birthday due to upset over something Fleur had done. Now, in hindsight, the author can claim they really would have preferred to discuss the emotions in the moment, but the actions would have been exactly the same had they not wished to discuss them then or even any other time.

Even were that not so, from my own experience I can assure you that I've been plenty passive aggressive at moments where I wanted nothing so much as a little distance from a situation and people involved.

The trouble with assuming passive aggressive behavior is demanding of immediate attention is that it goes much too far to fitting both a negative assessment of the behavior as essentially dishonest and it puts the right for interpretation of the behavior on anyone present who can then choose to ignore what is actually occurring, a purposeful distancing of emotion, in favor of asserting the "real" issue is that the person actually wants to talk. That's not ideal, especially given that refusal of others terms can be an empowering act for those regularly facing demands for their time and emotional attention.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:46 AM on December 13, 2016


Great discussion here folks, just wanted to say thanks -- I wish I could favorite some of these comments 100 times because there's some excellent stuff being articulated here in ways that are far more concise and well written than anything I could pull out of my own brain.

I particularly found the "weatherization of guess culture" angle liberating, as it put into context something I've experienced before: Passive-agressive "asking", when successfully deployed to the asker's ends, can be easily dismissed down the line when convenient by saying "But I never ASKED you to do X". So you did X because the passive-aggressive manipulation seemed to indicate that X was being asked for, then later on, when it turns out X wasn't a stunning successs, the passive-aggressive asker cannot be blamed in any way because they never, officially, on the record, ASKED for X, so X is now all YOUR fault if/when it goes wrong.

I hope this makes some kind of sense.
posted by some loser at 5:54 AM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Really? Isn't it just insecurity and general human behaviour?

It depends on context obviously, but there are absolutely situations where decorum demands that no negative opinion can be offered, so where comment is notably absent, an inquiry has the effect of saying "stroke my ego, dammit, say what I want you to and deny your self" only passively, without confrontation, by deniably manipulative circumstances to force you into that position.

I encounter it a lot more in the UK than Denmark - Danish culture creates far fewer of these contexts, in no small part because there is more frank openness in general, and acceptance thereof.
posted by Dysk at 6:22 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


To clarify - a large part of the context is the presence of third parties. It's one thing to say "oh sure, that was nice" to someone privately, quite another to make a public judgement which may well reflect on you personally and professionally.
posted by Dysk at 6:23 AM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


That makes sense - also for understanding my personal situation.
posted by mumimor at 6:58 AM on December 13, 2016


The trouble with assuming passive aggressive behavior is demanding of immediate attention is that it goes much too far to fitting both a negative assessment of the behavior as essentially dishonest and it puts the right for interpretation of the behavior on anyone present.

Yes, that's why I suggested that the concept is only useful in cases where you already know the motive behind the behaviour (usually, that is, when it is your own behaviour or that of someone you are so intimate with that you feel justified in believing you have access to their intentions). I think the author is only writing about this scenario where you know about motive and are not just guessing it from behaviour; it matters that her example is first-person and she tells us not only the bare facts about Fleur and the Facebook invite, but also the intentions with which those acts were done.

Ultimately, I suppose the difference is that I think she is doing ethics, not behavioural psychology. Her work doesn't look, to me, like an explanation of the real motives for a given behaviour based on what it looks like from that outside. I would agree that, if she was offering that kind of analysis, it would be a pretty uncharitable and potentially self-serving approach to understanding behaviours like silence and absence and apparent emotional distance. But I think she is only offering an ethical analysis of a particular behaviour when motivated by a particular intention. Since she is writing a book about swearing, I would guess that she is thinking about the ethics of aggressive acts generally - IE acts undertaken with the intent of aggression - and is dismissing passive aggression as a particularly unethical kind. (Why she then says swearing is the best alternative, as opposed to calm description of one's feelings, I don't know; that's the part of her argument that baffled me.) But I don't think she is intending to provide any tool for diagnosing passive aggression in the wild - only a tool for critiquing it when you definitely know it is happening.
posted by Aravis76 at 7:57 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


I just now had to search for examples of passive aggressive behaviors because I am realizing that a lot of the descriptions don't jibe with what I consider passive aggression.

For the record, when I'm complaining about passive aggression, which I often am, I am not talking about someone saying everything is fine because they don't feel like discussing something. I'm talking about things like people who say they'll do something and then not (which is how a passive aggressive asshole caused my pipes to burst), someone always getting in little backhanded compliments and other little digs, or other intentional insults couched in plausible deniability.

If refusing to engage in emotional discussions about everything is passive aggressive, I'm not only OK with that, but I suspect I probably do it pretty regularly. I don't feel a need to air out every minor grievance I have, and would be horribly annoyed (not to mention overbooked) if someone felt entitled to an explanation every time I was irritated with something. And from the other end, I'm not especially interested in hearing about the feelings of most of the passive aggressive people who've annoyed me in my life. Like, I don't have any interest in the emotional landscape of the sexist entitled dudes I've had to work with. Their grievances are not valid, and that's why even they know better than to air them.

"THANKS," everyone, for providing me with this learning opportunity and getting me to go read about passive aggression a bunch while I'm still just waking up. It's not like I had other stuff to do, so that was really helpful for me, and it's always nice mentally going over some of the most annoying people I've encountered in my life. Also, I am very impressed with your typing competence. Good job!
posted by ernielundquist at 10:11 AM on December 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yeah, passive aggressiveness is tricky to discuss since people do tend to have very specific connections or ideas to how they think of it, but those ideas may not match precisely from person to person. I've been accused of it a lot myself, and I agree naming my behavior as passive aggressive in those moments fits. It isn't so much just politely refusing to engage, though that can lead to it, it's more the match of that refusal to an obvious show of displeasure, hurt or anger of some sort that you do not wish to talk about, but which can't or won't be hidden. (This is speaking of just that one area of PA, others have been mentioned above and can vary in their intent to disrupt or hurt others.)

For me, the times I'm most apt to be passive aggressive are those where I feel trapped by circumstance into a situation that, for various reasons, is causing me some discomfort. Unable to bow out more gracefully and unwilling to actively assert my emotional situation, I withdraw and can become curt and bitter in conversations or just notably "cold" in demeanor overall. The occasions usually come from something not entirely connected to the events at hand. Enough so that the emotions arise, but not enough so to justify placing blame on anyone were I even to consider that a good idea, which I do not. The decision to withdraw and take the "blame" for being grumpy from the group is a way to minimize my interactions so as to best allow the others to continue on as they will, even as I know my attitude might still affect them if I can't absent myself more fully. Better that than a fight or otherwise pointless outburst is my figuring.

My friends are well used to this behavior now and don't pay it much heed when it happens, which is exactly what I want and allows it to pass fairly quickly. Sometimes it just takes a little space and some engagement in new unrelated topics to snap me back out of it, other times it can linger. Mostly it just arises when feeling overwhelmed by people's differing emotional demands or exhibitions which feel unintentionally oppressive to me since I'm much more of a loner in habit than most other people I know, so "groupness" can quickly wear me down at times, even around people I care about. From what I've observed n others, there is a similar dynamic, though the causes aren't usually the same. It's too much or too little being sent towards the person who becomes PA for them to handle directly, so they adopt a way to avoid dealing with it or increase the demand to varying degrees of annoyance or satisfaction.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:42 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh, boom! I do that sort of thing too. I'm not trying to actually project annoyance or aggression or anything, but sometimes, I'm just generally irritated by things that I recognize are perfectly normal and acceptable. Essentially, my preferences in a lot of areas are far enough off that I understand that I am the one who needs to adapt and compromise, but I can't help being a little tetchy.

So for example, I'm unusually sensitive to sensory input. I am unreasonably annoyed by people making completely normal amounts of noise or doing other normal and acceptable things, like if someone is watching the TV or listening to music in another room, or they're turning on more lights than I like. Sometimes, it's even things that I do too, and it only annoys me when other people do it. But that is totally unreasonable. I do not have a legitimate grievance, and I'm not mad at the person doing the normal thing. It really is fine. Not fine-fine, like I'm totally at ease obviously, but it's not something I want to impose on my family and friends, and it's also not something that's necessarily anyone else's business. If I'm just kind of irritable, I'm not trying to get anyone's attention. I don't want people grilling me about why and offering advice or hot takes. I know what to do about it, and it all involves me managing my own tolerances and accepting some tradeoffs, including some low level annoyance sometimes.

So maybe that should be a PSA. Not everyone who's being a little cranky is trying to make you guess what's bothering them. Whether that's passive aggression or not, I don't know, but at least in my case, it's not that I'm actually angry with anyone.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:22 PM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I am in recovery passive aggressive, and I will say that a.) I think it tends to run in families (let me tell you about my mom!) and b.) ernie lundquist nailed it upthread with this "a lot of the time, it turns out to be this dynamic where their wives have told them something repeatedly and they've repeatedly ignored it. So their wives are left with the option of either continuing to 'nag' them about it, or giving up and accepting it, either hoping they'll remember it themselves this time, or maybe just lowering their expectations permanently because there's obviously no point." Because X is such a stupid thing to get mad about. Clearly, I should be over it! Except it's X times one million because IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN. Again!! Argh! But I didn't say anything about X the first ten times (because, hey, it could happen to anyone, right? Don't be petty), and then the next twenty times I tried talking about it rationally, and now I just grit my teeth and try to talk myself out of letting it bother me, alternating with trying not to be grumpy and bitter.

It's a journey, yo.
posted by instamatic at 6:22 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't think this is passive-aggression because it's not aggression at all.

This! Passive-aggression is not the same as not automatically or always doing what someone else wants, or not being willing to talk about a subject or give (emotional) information as and when requested. Accusing somebody of being passive-aggressive has become a popular insult that can be used to manipulate the person, and it muddies the waters a lot. If there's no aggression, it's not passive-aggression, just an instance where two people don't want to do the same thing, or maybe even just plain passivity.
posted by rpfields at 7:43 PM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


I recently realized that "you know what you did wrong" is gaslighting par excellence. Not only does it tell the listener that her perceptions of reality are crazy, it says that her perceptions of her own perceptions are lies.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:25 PM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


I recently realized that "you know what you did wrong" is gaslighting par excellence. Not only does it tell the listener that her perceptions of reality are crazy, it says that her perceptions of her own perceptions are lies.

The mirror image of this interpretation is a woman saying it to a partner who DOES know what they did wrong, and that is the person who is actually indulging in gaslighting by pretending not to. (There is something very eerie about watching this as a child-- one adult pretending not to know why the other one is mad, but who is simultaneously showing off that he DOES know why she is mad, but is vindictively eager to pretend otherwise. Or vice versa.) ernielundquist mentioned that men often pretend not to be able to hear women-- it isn't a rare behavior.

I think part of the difficulty here is that some of the most classic "passive-aggressive" phrases are not always indicative of passive aggression at all. "No really it's FINE" can be a completely fair and emotionally healthy thing to say, in certain circumstances. "You know what you did wrong" can be gaslighting, or a plea (for the other person to pay attention), or the absolute truth. Context matters.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:56 AM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


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