Confronting Passive Aggressive Behavior on Social Media

How one teacher effectively intervened to stop the spread of online gossip

Posted May 07, 2018

Taking public jabs at others while avoiding personal confrontation is a hallmark of passive aggressive behavior.  For many young people, it is also a new norm made possible by social media.  Passive aggression, a deliberate but masked way of expressing feelings of anger, is carried out online though such actions as posting embarrassing photos as well as through in-actions, such as failing to stop the spread of online gossip.

In this real-life example* described below, you'll get a birds-eye view of an incident of unchecked, online passive aggressive behavior that humiliated a student (Brittany) in a suburban middle school.  Then, we’ll look at how one astute teacher stepped in to confront a frenemy’s (Kristy) passive aggressive inaction.

The Situation

A seventh-grade student snapped a cell phone photo of his classmate’s rear end and then texted it to six friends with the caption “Big Ass Brittany.” Kristy received the photo on her phone and laughed out loud at the pose in which her friend had been caught leaning over the water fountain at school. Her first thought was a sense of duty—she knew she should delete the photo immediately and tell the sender to do the same. But this rational thought was quickly countered with a hostile sense of satisfaction at Brittany’s body being publicly ridiculed, since Kristy was tired of Brittany always talking about her own beauty.

As Kristy was weighing her thoughts on the situation, Brittany walked up to her and asked why she had been laughing. Instead of telling Brittany about the humiliating photo that was now traveling around their school, Kristy quickly replied, “Nothing!” and put her phone in her bag. As she glanced across the room, Kristy realized that others in her class were looking at the same photo and already sharing it—making her job unnecessary. “Ready to go to lunch?” she asked Brittany and ushered her friend out of the room where the viral shaming was just getting started.

The Skill of Benign Confrontation
For many, confrontation is a scary prospect. Passive-aggressive individuals know this. They bank on it. The bad news for those who shy away from confrontation is that without directly addressing passive-aggressive behavior, the dynamic will be played out again and again. The good news is that con­fronting passive aggressive behavior need not be an in-your-face, anger-inspiring, make-them-admit-what-they-did kind of authoritarian tactic, but rather works best when it is done through respectful and reflective verbal communication. The skill of Benign Confrontation (Long, Long & Whitson, 2016) is effective when used to directly but respectfully unmask the hidden anger of a passive-aggressive person and help that person gain insight into the destructive nature of his/her behavioral pattern.

Below, we look at how a teacher steps in to benignly confront the way Kristy let the problem escalate by not taking action to stop an embarrassing photo from being forwarded online.

Step 1: Recognize the Pattern of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

By the end of the school day, the “Big Ass Brittany” photo had made its way around the seventh grade and caught the attention of Mr. Peterson, a popular social studies teacher who noticed that several of his students were hovering over a cell phone in the school hallway.

Mr. Peterson approached the kids and asked what they were looking at. “Nothing!” was the synchronized response of the crowd of students. Mr. Peterson asked to see the phone that was in the center of the activity. Because he was a very well-liked and relatable teacher, Kristy handed her phone over to him without protest.

Mr. Peterson saw the photo and its humiliating caption. He quickly dispersed the crowd of kids, encouraging them to get to their buses, but instructed Kristy to stay. Mr. Peterson knew that Kristy and Brittany were normally friends and thought it was strange that Kristy would be in possession of this kind of photo.

Step 2: Refuse to Engage in the Passive-Aggressive Conflict Cycle

When Mr. Peterson asked her about the photo, Kristy quickly downplayed what was happening, saying things like:

  • “It’s just a joke, Mr. Peterson.”
  • “It’s no big deal, seriously.”
  • “I’ll just delete it from my phone.”
  • “I wasn’t the one who took the photo! A whole bunch of people have been sharing it all day!”

Mr. Peterson carefully avoided getting into an argument with Kristy about her excuses. He listened to her explanations, while simultaneously reminding himself not to respond angrily or with sarcasm at her justifications.

Step 3: Affirm the Anger

Mr. Peterson: Kristy, I appreciate you letting me see what everyone was looking at on your phone. That took a lot of trust for you to show me what is going on. I do have to tell you that the photo I am looking at—the one that you called a “joke”—really does not seem funny to me. In fact, it seems embarrassing to Brittany and just plain mean. I know that you and Brittany are normally friends, so what I have to wonder now is, what would make you keep a picture like this on your phone and share it with so many students in the hallway. Are you angry with Brittany?

Kristy: No, Mr. Peterson. I’m not angry. I told you it is just a joke. It’s not a big deal at all. Everyone takes pictures like this nowadays.

Step 4: Manage the Denial

Mr. Peterson: Kristy, I hear you telling me that this photo is a joke and that the kids find it funny. I am just wondering if Brittany finds it funny, however. As her friend, it is your responsibility to stop photos like this from being forwarded and shared—not to participate in spreading it around. It’s also important that you know that there can be serious legal consequences for having this type of image on your phone and for forwarding it. I want to make sure that whatever is going wrong in your relationship with Brittany is not going to make her life—or yours—very unpleasant.

Kristy: I said I’d delete it. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.

Mr. Peterson: I will delete it for you right now. I’ll also make sure the rest of the class knows what to do with the image. I’m glad to know that you would never engage in this kind of cruelty online, and I want to make sure you know that if you ever receive this type of photo on your phone or online, it is your obligation to never, ever forward or share it. Your only job is to immediately bring it to an adult in the school who will take care of the problem from there.

Kristy: Okay. Fine. 

Step 5: Revisit the Thought

For adults living and working with 21st-century kids, teaching standards for treating others with dignity and respect while online will never be a once-and-done process. Expectations for kids’ behavior via technology must be stated, restated, reinforced, reviewed, rehearsed, and reiterated over and over again. It will be critical for Mr. Peterson and other adults in the school to follow up with Kristy, with Brittany, and with other students about this type of passive-aggressive behavior that technology has made so easy.

Today’s technology allows youngsters almost endless access to infinite networks of peers. Within all of this communication, kids are bound to use poor judgment from time to time. When adults use knee-jerk punishments such as banning all social media or taking away cell phones for an extended period of time, they send a message to young people about what not to do—or how not to get caught—but they fail to teach kids skills for how to use technology respectfully. In contrast, when authority figures make time to teach kids positive, fun, respectful ways to use technology and social media, they cultivate digital citizenship (not to mention empathy and compassion) in the coming generation of cyber-natives.

*All names and identifying details have been changed.

Signe Whitson is the Director of Counseling at an Independent School in eastern Pennsylvania and the co-author of the book, The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. For more information on recognizing and responding effectively to passive aggressive behavior online or in school, please visit www.lsci.org and click on The Angry Smile links.

References

Long, N., Long, J., and Whitson, S. (2016).  The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online.   Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute