Why passive aggressive behavior thrives in families, schools, relationships and offices
Frustrating. Confounding. Relationship-damaging. Effective. Passive aggressive behavior is all of these things…and more. It is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008) that occurs among both men and women, in all civilized cultures and at every socioeconomic level. Why is this dysfunctional behavior so widespread? This article details seven reasons why passive aggressive behavior thrives in families, schools, relationships, and the workplace.
1. Anger is Socially Unacceptable
Anger is a normal, natural human emotion. It is, in fact, one of the most basic of all human experiences. Yet from a very young age, many of us are bombarded with the message that anger is bad. During a period in our emotional development when we are highly susceptible to social pressure from parents, caregivers, and teachers, we learn that to be “good” we must squash honest self-expression and hide angry feelings.
2. Sugarcoated Hostility is Socially Acceptable
When people learn that they cannot express anger openly, honestly, and directly within relationships, the emotion doesn’t just go away. Rather, many of us learn to express it in alternative, covert, socially acceptable ways, often through passive aggressive behaviors.
3. Passive Aggressive Behavior is Easier than Assertiveness
In this day and age of common core, standardized tests, and Race to the Top, social skills instruction is often edged out of a young person’s formal education. Yet study after study shows that specific instruction in such “soft” skills as assertiveness, emotion management, and relationship building are as essential to a young person’s development as any “hard core” math and reading skills.
Kids are not born knowing how to communicate their feelings in direct, emotionally honest ways; rather, assertiveness is a skill that needs to be taught and is best mastered though repetition. On the other hand, passive aggressive behaviors such as sulking, emotional withdrawal, and indirect communication are much more the mark of immature, untamed emotional expression.
4. Passive Aggressive Behavior is Easily Rationalized
A young girl doesn’t feel like cleaning her room. When her parents insist, she pouts first, procrastinates second, and then shoves all of her earthly possessions under her bed. When her father becomes irritated by her behavior, she feigns indignation: “I don’t know why you’re so upset. I was going to do it as soon as I finished my homework.” When her mother shows exasperation at the alarming pile of dirty clothing peeking out from below her comforter, she plays the victim: “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you, Mom. You just want me to be perfect!” With both parents, the girl rationalizes her string of compliantly defiant behavior, casting herself in the role of victim and blaming her parents’ “unreasonable” demands and standards as the real problem.
5. Revenge is Sweet
Passive aggression involves a variety of behaviors designed to “get back” at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. Jason feels overworked and under-acknowledged in the office. He calls out sick on two consecutive days, thereby missing a key deadline that sabotages his department’s productivity and ultimately reflects poorly on his boss. The boss is overlooked for a promotion; Jason’s mission is accomplished.
As in this example, passive aggression is often a crime of omission; it is what Jason did not do that indirectly caused a major problem for the target of his unarticulated anger. Because it can be difficult to “catch in the act” and often impossible to discipline according to standard HR protocols, passive aggressive behavior often exists as the perfect office crime.
6. Passive Aggressive Behavior is Convenient
Not everyone who uses passive aggressive behavior is a passive aggressive person. For example, a husband who typically communicates directly and honestly with his wife may not have the wherewithal on a particular weekend day to say “no” to her request to fix a leaky faucet, so he promises to do it while making endless excuses to put off the task. The man is not passive aggressive across the board, but on this day when relaxing and avoiding a fight with his wife are his top priorities, he chooses passive aggression as a convenient behavior of choice.
7. Passive Aggressive behavior can be Powerful
By denying feelings of anger, withdrawing from direct communication, casting themselves in the role of victim, and sabotaging others’ success, passive aggressive persons create feelings in others of being on an emotional roller coaster. Through intentional inefficiency, procrastination, allowing problems to escalate, and exacting hidden revenge, the passive aggressive individual gets others to act out their hidden anger for them. This ability to control someone else’s emotional response makes the passive aggressive person feel powerful. He/she becomes the puppeteer—the master of someone else’s universe and the controller of their behavior.
In the short term, passive aggressive behaviors can be more convenient than confrontation and generally require less skill than assertiveness. They allow a person to exact revenge from behind the safety of plausible excuses and to sit on the sofa all weekend long rather than complete a list of undesirable chores. So, what’s not to love? Truth be told, while momentarily satisfying or briefly convenient, in the long run, passive aggressive behavior is even more destructive to interpersonal relationships than aggression. Over time, virtually all relationships with a person who is passive aggressive become confusing, destructive and dysfunctional.
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Ages 5-11 to Cope with Bullying, How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens and The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.
She is the Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute, a nationally recognized, professional training and certification program for turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for children and youth with chronic patterns of self-defeating behaviors. Please visit www.signewhitson.com for more information on LSCI and to schedule training in your area.
Signe presents customized professional and parent training workshops nationwide on topics related to girl bullying, anger in children, changing passive aggressive behavior, crisis intervention, and child and adolescent mental health.