Definition: Passive-aggressiveness is the indirect expression of hostility.
Symptoms: Passive aggression happens more often than one might think in sports, especially in team sports. When an athlete is sidelined by the coach, his or her personal feelings toward the player who took the athlete’s place can easily portray passive-aggressiveness. The aggressor may ignore the player instead of showing support. Menacing looks may be directed toward the athlete without saying a word, knowing that the coach would not approve. Passive aggression primarily works against the aggressor and can be exhibited beyond sports as a generalized negative response pattern.
Solutions: Signe Whitson, L.S.W., in her article “10 Things Passive-Aggressive People Say” at www.psychologytoday.com, says that there is a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without him or her recognizing the underlying anger. The following ten phrases from The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008) can serve as an early-warning system to help you recognize hidden hostility.
1 – I’m not mad. – Denying feelings of anger is classic passive-aggressive behavior. The passive- aggressive person insists that he or she is not angry, while seething on the inside.
2 – Fine. Whatever. – Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the passive-aggressive person who holds the belief that expressing anger directly will only make life worse.
3 – I’m coming! – Passive-aggressive persons are known for verbally complying with a request, while behaviorally delaying its completion. This is the passive-aggressive tactic of “temporary compliance.”
4 – I didn’t know you meant now. – Passive-aggressive persons rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.
5 – You just want everything to be perfect. – When procrastination is not an option, a more sophisticated passive-aggressive strategy is to carry out tasks in a timely but unacceptable manner. When confronted, he or she defends the work, counter-accusing others of having rigid or perfectionist standards.
6 – I thought you knew. – Passive-aggressive persons may express their anger covertly by choosing not to share information if they perceive that such an omission could prevent a problem. By claiming ignorance, the person defends inaction, but actually takes pleasure in a foe’s troubles.
7 – Sure, I’d be happy to. – Have you ever been in a customer service situation in which a seemingly concerned clerk or very polite phone operator assures you that your problem will be solved? On the surface, the representative is cooperative, but behind the scenes, he or she may be filing your request in the trash or stamping your paperwork as denied.
8 – You’ve done so well for someone with your education level. – The backhanded compliment is the ultimate socially acceptable means by which the passive-aggressive person insults someone to the core. Saying, “You can still get braces at your age” or “There are a lot of men out there who like plump women,” shows just how much “joy” a passive-aggressive compliment can bring.
9 – I was only joking. – Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of the passive-aggressive person who expresses hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways. If offense is expressed in the face of such sarcasm, the hostile person plays up his or her role as a victim by asking, “Can’t you take a joke?”
10 – Why are you getting so upset? – The passive-aggressive person is a master of maintaining calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his or her indirect hostility, blow up in anger. In fact, delight is taken in setting others up to lose their cool and then questioning their “overreactions.”
The passive-aggressive person needs to recognize that the attitudes and behaviors described herein will stand in the way of all meaningful relationships and interpersonal communications. Change is possible only when the self-destructive consequences of passive-aggressiveness are faced.