Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Passive Aggression Anyone?

One of my dearest and closest friends - my children call him Uncle Shawn - is hands down our favorite guest. He is a great storyteller with a bit of the devil in him. Quite a bit, actually. He makes us laugh until we cry.

Shawn lives in New York City. After teaching for a few years he is currently working on his Ph.D. For as long as I have known him, Shawn has suffered from two great shortages in his life, one being spendable cash and the other is patience with his mother. This very proper lady flew into JFK one day for an impromptu visit with her son, and very naturally expected him to come and fetch her from the airport. Shawn, like most New Yorkers, does not own a car. Resenting her visit in the first place, and minding very much the cost of a round trip cab fare in the second, he settled his inner conflict by picking her up in a U-Haul - the cheapest option available to him.

This is the only funny instance of passive aggression I know of. However, his mother didn't think it very funny at all, which of course was his point.

A familiar passive-aggressive scene (perhaps all too predictable to some) is the husband who does not want to visit his in-laws this weekend, according to the long-standing plan. We will find him sitting in front of the TV until his wife and children are fully dressed and ready to go. His wife, having learned from experience that he will make them late again, had shouted reminders to him in regular intervals, while working on the kids and her own outfit. Not hearing any movement from the TV room, her shouts become more angry. At the door a furious argument ensues, or she may be crying about his indifference to her feelings. Either way, he is content. Making her miserable was the price she had to pay for “making him go.”

Passive aggression can often be seen in young children who are told to share their toys with siblings or other children. They will throw the wanted toy in the opposite direction, or hand over some less attractive substitute.  Or, among adults, it can be the recently cooked meal - now sitting in the trash can- waiting for the hungry person who forgot to warn he would be late. Or the colleague at work who drags his feet, because he doesn't like to work on a team.

All these different behaviors occur when the perpetrator knows he or she really ought to do a specific thing or go to a previously agreed-upon place, because it is the right thing to do. Now they just resent having to do it. They will hold someone responsible and make them pay.  Payment can be extracted by making you late for something important to you, through digs and low-blows to your self-esteem, or even by deliberately embarrassing you in front of others. P**sing on your parade in some way will make things even!

The closeness of your relationship to someone who behaves this way toward you, the frequency with which it occurs, and the extent to which they will go, will be the deciding factors in your response to it.

For the valued long-term relationship where this behavior is infrequent and only annoying, I recommend simply ignoring it.  Don't take the bait! If you don't give them the satisfaction they seek, they will eventually see it as a fruitless endeavor.

In other, more serious situations, ask yourself, "What is at stake here?"  Ignore it, or take a permanent walk?


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  2. It is P-A when you abandon trying to help someone (they have even asked for help) after your efforts are taken personally? (I feel betrayed.)

    ((And I now how to wonder if procrastination - of the 'I don't want to' form - is some form of P-A attempt against everyone, that is, 'if you're not going to ask me join in or to offer me the job or tell me I'm good and worthy then I'm going to punish you by not interacting with you'?

    As a result of this article I'm now looking at the Wiki entry for P-A as well as 'learned helplessness' (never heard of it before).