Passive-aggression is typically wielded as a reflexive response when we get upset. Direct aggression comes about when force or threat is used. It’s obvious to all parties involved and the cause and reason for the aggression are communicated in a forthright manner.
So then, what is passive-aggression?
It’s a behaviour that employs indirectly addressing unhappiness, rather than overtly articulating or communicating one’s genuine feelings. It deliberately makes you feel terrible about something you shouldn’t feel guilty for, insidiously breeding and amplifying your thoughts of negativity.
Why do people exhibit passive-aggression?
Such behaviour is usually unintentional. Research in emotional psychology puts forth “the appraisal theory of emotion”. Simply explained, our brain has a two-pronged approach to dealing with conflict and difficult situations.
The first (i.e. immediate) response is to appraise a situation. Changingminds terms this “primary appraisal”. It is fundamentally “an assessment of how significant an event is for a person, including whether it is a threat or opportunity”.
The second response is the “secondary appraisal”, where we consider “one’s ability to cope or take advantage of the situation”.
But when the first and second responses are misaligned and elicited in vastly different extents, the overall behaviour becomes passive-aggressive.
An illustration would be as such: if I get really angry at a friend and belatedly realise that I had misunderstood him, or if I had been wrong to get upset, then my secondary appraisal kicks in. I’ll tone it down and appear less emotional than I had been. I could also try to compensate for the fact that my initial emotions were unfounded. I could, for example, say: “I’m fine, don’t worry about it”. It comes across caustic and sarcastic, but that’s because my primary and secondary appraisals are in conflict. The other person would probably be able to detect the discrepancy between my body language and tone.
Another example that hits closer to home: subtweeting people, leaving texts unanswered, Facebook messages that indirectly “arrow” a friend, the list goes on. You know where this goes.
Who is more prone to such behaviour?
It’s hard to say – we’re all culprits one way or another.
But, research suggests that women are more likely to be guilty of such approaches. Power imbalances exist everywhere. When a person feels that he/she is in a compromised relationship, they are more likely to turn to passive-aggression. (Of course, the research dates back to 1994 and there are always limitations in studies. So take with a pinch of salt!)
It reinstates the idea that both giving and receiving parties need to take responsibility for unpleasant behaviour. If we mindlessly assume a dominating role in a relationship, it could be a potential catalyst for the other person’s passive-aggression.
How then should you deal with passive-aggression?
- Don’t give in to passive-aggressive behaviour. The biggest mistake you can make is to be soft-hearted and give way because you’ll lose your freedom of choice.
- Stand your ground. Make it clear to that person and yourself that you will not tolerate being bullied.
- Talk specifically. When confronting a passive aggressive person, be clear about the topic of the matter. Call a spade a spade. Don’t say generic things like, “You’re always like this” – because it won’t get you anywhere. Point out the exact action that you wish to deal with and explain in specifics.
- Be assertive. Which means being nonreactive and respectful at the same time. It will show that you choose to be the bigger-hearted person and that you want to resolve the problem and to have a win-win situation. Acknowledging the person’s feelings doesn’t mean you agree with them, it means that you are determined to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner.