At the counseling office where I recently worked, I liked to play Columbo. Not because I wanted to trick people but because I find that people are more apt to enter into a profound discussion if I feign ignorance. This goes for both staff and clients. I fit the part most excellently as my hair is always a mess and I usually have one side of my collar turned up. One day I asked my colleagues what “Passive-Aggressive” meant. Here is the Merriam dictionary on the topic: “being, marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness.)”
My co-workers gave examples of many ways people dealt with problems which were in no way passive but outright amazingly active and creative. In the therapy world, where verbal communication is lionized and cognitive processing glorified, I adore the unconscious power of the crazy action to communicate more clearly than appropriate language.
Here is a personal example – At my new job yesterday morning I began to tape together some luggage tallies to make it easier for me to read on a clip board. A co-worker asked if I could not use so much tape and use the tape in different areas as it is more difficult for her to remove. Since I was doing the tally and would be removing the tape, I thanked her and stuck a larger than necessary piece of tape across the entire paper. She replied something to the effect, I deserve that, sorry. We got over it very quickly as it was 5:45 am and we are not all at our best. Was this passive-aggressive – NO! It was a clear non-verbal communication. Even stubbornness, staying in the house when asked to leave is a clear non-verbal communication.
People who have an experience of disempowerment, people who are more emotional than verbal, people who have a sense of humor and whimsy are amongst the folks that one might label “passive-aggressive.” Kids that don’t do homework because they don’t want to probably know that it is hard to give a rational reason for this dread of towing the line. Why did they say they would take out the trash and not do it? Believe me, it’s probably not because they want to piss you off. It’s probably something they don’t really understand either. Power issue? Obsession with sex? Feeling like they see no point in arguing? Who knows? It may appear passive-aggressive but it is really just a mystery like the sort Columbo pursues.
I had so much anger at a roommate who had money issues that I thought about placing a $10 bill in a glass of urine to see if she would fish it out. I did not do so but I thought about it in a resentful, angry way. I knew that I couldn’t change her and that is why I didn’t bother. It turned out her issues were very deep, having had to support her parents for many years. If you live with a mental illness yourself or live with someone else who has one, you can understand the creativity necessary to deal with the frustration at not being able to eradicate your condition or that of your friend/relative. Acting like a dumb Columbo has served me well even though it sometimes feels like I am laying a trap line for people. I had to use my anger to come up with creative solutions while I patiently waited for the answer to be delivered.
Gossips are considered to be passive aggressive. I believe they are nothing of the sort. They may be people who feel fear around the person they are talking about. They may be people who feel little worth in talking about themselves. They may be entirely worried about their place in the world and have to make others look bad.They may need allies badly. Are they any more negative or less effective than the person who let’s their boss know how they feel verbally? Are they any worse than someone who picks their nose? Is there anyone who does not pick their nose?
Is note writing worse than the oral confrontation? Is Facebook bashing boorish venting or is it dangerous slander? It has been legally established that Facebook venting and threats are not a crime in themselves but that doesn’t mean that the FBI might not find a way to friend you. I have come to the understanding that negativity in all its varied faces is to be expected as a symptom of stress. And for you folks who always “use your words” correctly. There is a special place in hell for you filled with passive-aggressive people and mimes.
I would like people to show me how they feel rather than tell me. Everything gets lost in the telling especially amongst me and my verbally defended friends. Draw me a picture of how mad you are. Give me a gift that expresses your dismay! This is far more entertaining than using your practiced syrupy “I” statements. I highly endorse so called passive aggressive actions ( an oxymoron if I ever heard one) over directly hitting me or screaming obscenities at me. I will be more likely to compliment you on your cleverness and laugh at my own stupidity for not recognizing the clues. Thank you Peter Falk.