You’re Being Passive Aggressive

Posted August 16, 2013 by Amanda Shofner in Musings. Disregard unless interesting. / 6 Comments


Passive aggressiveness in Minnesota is a way of life. I grew up passive aggressive, not even truly understanding what it is and how detrimental it is to healthy communication.

Being passive aggressive is not an effective communication strategy. Ever.

It wasn’t until I started grad school that I learned linguistics and context and meaning and subtext and all that language jargon. And it wasn’t until I started my own business that being direct and honest became a matter of being successful or not.

You don’t get shit done when you’re passive aggressive. Period. Unless, you know, your job is to shame people and piss them off without solving the problem. Because that’s all passive aggressiveness accomplishes.

I’ve come to value direct and honest communication because that’s the only way to move forward, grow, and solve problems. And dude, it’s hard. It’s tough being direct and honest because the potential of fallout is there and it’s ugly.

But sometimes you just have to say what’s on your mind and own it.

No seriously. Just fucking say it. You’ll feel better. Holding onto negative thoughts and feelings won’t do anyone favors.

One of my “favorite” examples of passive aggressiveness–and the only real-life example I’ll use here–is what a college student said to me after I’d let my students go for the hour.

He walked into the room and upon seeing the desks haphazardly placed around the room from group work told me, “The polite thing to do is move the desks back into rows.”

Ah, passive aggressiveness at its finest.

Here’s why it’s passive aggressive:

The meaning of the spoken words and the subtext are vastly different (usually the opposite)

So though he said: “The polite thing to do is move the desks back into rows,” what he really meant was, “You’re being rude because you haven’t moved the desks back.”

Likewise, if I were to tell a blogger, “A productive blogger would have finished her post already,” I’m really saying, “You’re not a productive blogger and you need to step it up.”

If I were to say, “Go close the door,” the spoken words and what I mean are the same. You know I want you to close the door because I want the door closed. Direct communication involves having what you say and what you want in agreement.

It involves an element of shame

By telling me what the polite thing to do was, he attempted to shame me because I hadn’t done the polite thing.

If I tell a blogger what a productive blogger would do, I’m shaming her because she’s not living up to my definition of a productive blogger.

And all this does is make the person feel terrible. Shame is not an effective motivator.

And it does nothing to solve the problem

The college student could have asked, “Can you make sure you move the desks back into rows? We spend a lot of time moving them back.” THIS was the real issue, not what the polite thing to do was.

And you know what I would have said? “Of course. Sorry I’ve left you with my students’ mess.” And then I would have made sure my students did it.

If a blogger is struggling with her posts, I could ask, “How can I help you?” or “What are you struggling with?” to see if there’s a way to solve the problem. Telling her she’s not productive doesn’t.

Right now, there’s a commercial for a news station on that starts off, “We say what we mean” and all I do is laugh. I cannot take it seriously. Because we don’t say what we mean–we’re passive aggressive.

If you’re in a situation that causes you stress or annoyance, ask yourself “How can I fix this?

Seek to be the problem solver. You won’t be effective otherwise.


6 responses to “You’re Being Passive Aggressive

  1. Ack. Definitely going to watch my speech because of this. Like you said, when it becomes inherent, it becomes easy to miss. I think at a certain point, people think that being passive aggressive is more polite because it’s not a direct confrontation. I’ve played the Post-It note with roommates. I understand. But, yeah, like you said, it doesn’t actually help anything.

    • I totally agree: passive aggressiveness seems polite–and it is, on the surface. But there’s a lot going on underneath the surface that’s bad. Confrontation sucks, but it’s healthier in the long run. I also think avoiding passive aggressiveness helps to determine WHAT REALLY MATTERS. Because if it’s not worth confronting someone about, it’s probably not worth my time to bitch about, either.

  2. Daphne

    Fantastic post. I am sometimes guilty of being passive agressive, but you have to ask yourself if the way you are approaching the situation has effectively accomplished what you needed to say and wanted to have done. I prefer to be blunt and honest, but we need to be straight foward, because irritating someone that you are trying to get something from is hurting your position. Say what you mean!

    • Oh, I am guilty of being passive aggressive sometimes too. But I’m working on it. And that’s what counts, I think. It really is better for everyone if you say what you mean.