You’ve undoubtedly had the experience of dealing with someone who was acting passive aggressively toward you. Such encounters are rarely pleasant, and if you’re not careful you might react reflexively, rather than wisely. With a little education you can prepare yourself for such encounters and avoid the cyclical traps which often get started by passive aggressive ploys.
Passive aggression typically has its roots in unresolved fear or anger. I found a great list of passive aggressive behaviors, listed in increasing order of pathological severity, in an article called “The Five Levels of Passive Aggressive Behavior” in Psychology Today.
Level 1: Temporary Compliance, in which the passive aggressive person verbally complies with a request, but behaviorally delays acting on it. Temporary compliance is the most common form of passive aggressive behavior and sounds something like, “I’m cooooooming!”
Level 2: Intentional Inefficiency, in which the passive aggressive person complies with a request, but carries it out in an unacceptable manner. Intentional Inefficiency looks something like my husband unloading the dishwaser by putting everything out on the counter and claiming, “I wasn’t sure where these went!”
Level 3: Letting a Problem Escalate, in which the passive aggressive person uses inaction to allow a forseeable problem to escalate and takes pleasure in the resulting anguish. Passive aggressive kids are at this level when they return a car with an empty gas tank, even when they know their parent will be late for work if they have to stop for gas.
Level 4: Hidden but Conscious Revenge, in which the passive aggressive person makes a deliberate decision–and takes hidden action–to get back at someone. This more serious level could involve stealing field trip money from the purse of a teacher who they feel has mistreated them, sabotaging the presentation of a colleague who they feel was unfairly promoted over them, or slashing the tires of a resented step-father’s car.
Level 5: Self-depreciation, in which a passive aggressive person goes to self-destructive lengths to seek vengeance. From the teenager who dyes his hair blue before a college interview to the girl who starves herself to get back at her demanding father, this level is the most pathological…and usually not great fodder for “funny” stories.
Learning to recognize passive aggression is a good starting point, but you cannot stop there. What good is it if you can only point out the behaviors, but then do nothing constructive with the observation?
Given that passive aggression is “a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger” (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009), it is important first and foremost to refuse to return the favor. From there you have the opportunity to engage with the other person in a productive way. I believe this quote is often attributed to Einstein: “You cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness which created it.” Whether he said that or not, it remains an excellent point. Don’t fight invisible fire with invisible fire, or any fire for that matter.
You might find it useful on occasion to let the other person know (kindly, but firmly) that you see the tactic they’re using. Don’t make it a witch hunt or a blame fest, just point it out with as little emotion as possible. This works great with children. They’ll smile and often change their approach right away, or like a dog seeking the right trick for the desired treat, they’ll try the next card up their sleeve. Either way you’ve made progress.
Adults are often a little bit more stubborn. They’ve had more time to practice, after all. Be ready for a barrage of denial. When denial does rear its ugly head, don’t feel like you need to go all “Roger Chillingworth” on them. Wait for the right moment and let them know you hear and understand them. Enfolding another in unperturbed love can have the most remarkable effect on buried feelings, but you have to give it time to work its magic.
You needn’t suffer at the hand of another’s passive aggression. Offense must be received to be taken. Learn not to take the bait. You’re bigger than that, and you know it.