Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

Socialized for Good: When You are Taught that Expressing Anger is Bad

When cultural expectations interfere with healthy communication

This Passive Aggressive Diaries blog posting is Part Three of the four-part series on why individuals behave passive aggressively. In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd edition, we identify these primary triggers of passive aggression:


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 previous Passive Aggressive Diaries blog posts, I described passive aggression as a situational response to everyday requests and as a predictable part of child and adolescent development. Here, I will describe passive aggressive behavior as a characteristic of a cultural norm or ethnic group.
As a reminder, in this series of blog postings about the four reasons why people behave passive aggressively, I make a critical distinction between the first three reasons, 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 AGGRESSION AS AN ETHNIC OR CULTURAL NORM

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Some cultures and ethnic groups set absolute standards for the need to be polite and charming regardless of internal feelings. Perhaps the concept of "Southern hospitality" comes to mind, especially as it has been immortalized in literature and film. Consider portrayals of characters-most often females-who are held to absolute standards of cordiality and congeniality in all social situations, and required to inhibit and control any negative or confrontational interactions, even when they are merited.

Certain ethnic groups also expect children to show respect for their elders and authority figures. For example, many traditional Asian families teach their children to honor the status of their elders and to be submissive and obedient to their wishes and demands. Even if children are upset by the judgments or decisions their elders make, they are taught to swallow their anger and never to debate, argue, or confront their elders. Any overt expression of anger toward one's elders is labeled undesirable and results in losing face in the family and community.

The suppression of aggression toward elders may create a level of civility and politeness that is admirable. It also creates for some children and youth a reservoir of unexpressed hostile thoughts, a long memory of personal depreciation, and the development of passive-aggressive behavior toward select people at select times.

Julia was the third child born to Japanese-immigrant parents. Both of her parents were medical doctors and her two older siblings were both enrolled in pre-med courses at Ivy League universities. Julia's parents expected her to follow the same pathway. Although just as intelligent as her family members, Julia preferred the performing arts to the sciences and wanted to attend art school rather than a traditional four year college. During her senior year in high school, Julia followed her parents' wishes and submitted applications to eleven top-ranked universities, including both of her siblings' schools. What none of her family members knew, however, is that in each of her essays, Julia asked admissions committee members not to accept her application to their school.


Customer service employees may also represent this third reason for passive aggressive behavior. Many service professionals, including restaurant workers and salespersons, are expected to demonstrate hospitable behaviors. When faced with demanding patrons, customers, and citizens, however, these individuals may demonstrate passive-aggressive behaviors, as in the case below:

Sharon went to the Customer Service counter of a local Supercenter to return a pair of brand-new, never-worn shoes she had purchased on Clearance the previous day. The tags were still on the shoes and Sharon had her receipt in hand. After waiting in line for what she felt was an unreasonable length of time, Sharon's exasperation was apparent to the customer service representative. "I'm in a hurry!" she barked when it was her turn in line. "I want a refund on these shoes."

The young woman behind the counter smiled graciously and took the shoes from Sharon. She began to inspect them.

"There's nothing wrong with them!" said Sharon.

"No problem, Ma'am," said the worker. "I just have to check. Do you have your receipt?"

Sharon threw the receipt at her. "I just bought them yesterday. I never wore them. They are the wrong color. And they look so cheap. Everything in this store is hideous."

The worker, continuing to smile, looked at the receipt carefully and replied, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but these shoes were purchased on Clearance. We have a no-returns policy on Clearance Items. All sales are final."

"I want to speak to your manager!" yelled Sharon. "This is ridiculous! How dare you?"

"Certainly, Ma'am. All referrals to management are handled at that counter" she said, pointing to a line, ten people deep, across the aisle.

Fuming, Sharon grabbed her shoes and walked out of the store.

The next customer in line overheard the loud scene created by Sharon. As soon as she approached the counter, she politely explained that she too had a Clearance item for return and would move on to the other line. The Customer Service Representative stopped her, saying, "No problem. I'd be happy to take care of that for you right here."

In the cultural, ethnic, and group-specific dynamics represented here, passive aggression is used as a behavior of choice within a particular situation. Both Julia and the customer service representative made choices to behave in a passive aggressive manner to achieve specific, desired outcomes. This is an important distinction: the conscious decision to behave in a passive aggressive manner in a particular situation or within a certain group setting is distinctive from passive aggression as a way of life.

Please use the Comments section below to share your own examples of passive aggressive behavior within an ethic or cultural norm or within a customer service industry. Visit back whenever new examples occur.


Stay tuned for my next posting on passive aggressive behavior as a chronic and problematic "way of life."

 

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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