William rushes to Social Studies class so that he can sit next to Ellie. He has had a crush on her all year but seems to always miss out on opportunities to talk to her. When Mr. Conway instructs him to return to his regular seat in the back of the room, William is humiliated and angry. He moves his seat without verbal protest, but spends the rest of the class period sharpening his pencil, asking to use the bathroom, having uncontrollable coughing fits, and waving his hand in the air to comment on every point made by Mr. Conway.
Passive aggressive behavior exists in varying degrees, ranging from normal to pathological, and can differ in its impact. William's adolescent antics, inspired by his crush on Ellie, are disruptive to the social studies lesson and undoubtably irritating to Mr. Conway that day, but represent a single incident of annoying defiance, easily traced to a cause. More damaging passive aggressive behaviors are those that exist as part of a consistent personal pattern, spread across most situations, that leave a trail of academic impairment, relationship damage, and workplace disruption in their wake.
In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd edition, we identify four reasons why individuals behave passive aggressively:
1. Situational response to adult demands
2. Developmental stage
3. Characteristic of a cultural norm or ethnic group
4. A way of life
In the next several Passive Aggressive Diaires Blog posts, I will describe each of these four reasons and make the critical distinction between the first three, which represent passive aggressive behaviors chosen by individuals to achieve specific ends, and the final reason, which is indicative of a pathological and pervasive passive aggressive personality style.
PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR AS A SITUATIONAL RESPONSE TO ADULT DEMANDS
Most of us have been in situations where a parent, teacher, spouse, or boss makes a demand or sets an expectation that we are unwilling or unable to do at the time.
A. "I want this room cleaned up now!"
B. "If your assignment is not in by the end of this class, you will get a zero!"
C. "Would you mind hanging the shelf in the upstairs hallway today?"
D. "Have that sales report on my desk by 9am tomorrow."
Instead of expressing our anger openly, we may choose to respond to these demands and expectations in a passive-aggressive manner.
For example, we may feign confusion:
A. "What do you mean, mom? It's not even dirty. I'm using all of those pieces to build my fort!"
Or we may pretend not to see, hear, or remember the assignment:
B. "Oh, I totally forgot about it! Can I get it to you tomorrow?"
Or we may procrastinate:
C. "I was planning on hanging it right after dinner, but I didn't have the bracket I needed. I ran to the hardware store to get it, but now the kids are asleep. Are you sure you want me hammering the wall at this time of night?"
Or we may behave in ways that will delay and frustrate the standards of the evaluating authority:
D. "I'll have that report to you first thing tomorrow, sir" says Leanna. The next morning, she calls in sick with a "sudden flu."
In the examples above, as well as the one that is to follow, the person's intent is not to argue with or confront the authority. Their goal is to behave in a socially acceptable way while also defying or getting back at the authority figure--the essence of situational passive aggressive behavior.
Richard liked to relax at night when he got home from work. He loved his family, but when it came to the evening hours, he wanted time to himself. And for the month of January, he had had it this way. In helping their two-year old daughter, Hayley, adjust to a "big girl bed," his wife Kelly had taken full responsibility for the bedtime routine. By February, Hayley was able to settle down within 15 minutes and stay in her bed to fall asleep. One night, Kelly asked Richard if he could put Hayley to bed. Richard agreed with the request and went upstairs with Hayley.
From downstairs, Kelly could hear squeals of laughter. She thought to herself, "How nice that they are getting some playtime together!" After 20 minutes passed by, she heard the loud slam of a closet door, and wondered if Hayley needed a new diaper or change of pajamas. When 30 minutes had gone by and loud music started to play from Hayley's room, Kelly could feel her anger rising. 45 minutes after she asked Richard and Hayley to go upstairs for bedtime, Kelly went up to the room and opened the door. Hayley was out of her fleece pajamas and into a bathing suit, sun hat, Dora the Explorer sunglasses, and a pair of brand new, too-big, hot pink water shoes.
Hayley ran to her mother with a huge, wide-awake smile! "Bedtime so fun!"
Kelly glared at Richard and exited the room quickly. When he returned downstairs another 35minutes later and faced Kelly's angry barage of questions about what he was thinking and why would he defy the soothing bedtime routine she had worked so hard to create, Richard simply said, "What? We were just having some fun!"
The situation was clear; Richard didn't want to be bothered with bedtime routines. Rather than tell Kelly this fact and risk an argument over sharing childcare responsibilities, he chose a passive aggressive response to the situation. The cunning of his personal choice was unmistakable: if Kelly had argued with his stated intention of having fun with his daughter, she would surely have appeared as an uptight, no-fun mother and overly controlling wife. Richard's strategy in the situation was a winning one for both he and Hayley. Hayley thoroughly enjoyed bedtime that night and thought her Daddy was the coolest in the world and Richard was not called upon to help with this evening responsibility for months to come.
While these responses are clear examples of passive-aggressive behaviors, they do not represent an individual's only way, or even their typical way, of responding to frustrating requests and situations. In other situations, these people may choose to behave in a manner that is assertive, humorous, aggressive, regressed, dependent, or diplomatic.
Healthy individuals know a variety of ways of responding to difﬁcult situations and expressing anger. For them, passive-aggressive behavior is a personal choice and not a habitual or predictable response to an authority ﬁgure. This kind of passive aggressive behavior is a function of the situation rather than an ingrained personality trait.
Please use the Comments section below to share your own examples of situational passive aggression, temporary blindness, and procrastination. Visit back whenever new examples occur.
Stay tuned for my next posting on passive aggressive behavior as part of normative child and adolescent development.