Passive Agressive? Really?

Something deep and bizarre is going on with the accusation of “passive aggressiveness.”   I hear all the time that an entire city of people or region of a country is “passive aggressive.”  Here is the pattern I am detecting: if you are new to a culture, a subculture, a region, and you are having trouble with the communication of expectations, things go awry.  And when they do?  You just go ahead and call your host culture “passive aggressive.”  That just about takes care of the whole problem right there. You asked and didn’t get. Or you didn’t ask and weren’t told.  Or you wanted to ask, but didn’t know how, and no one helped you out.  Hell, they’re all passive aggressive.


Are they?  What is passive aggressive?  Don’t ask me, because even though I have a PhD in Psychology, I never took a single course in Clinical Psychology. I didn’t want to be a therapist, I wanted to be a scientist (actually, you can be both but I didn’t want to be). So, because I do not really have an informed definition for you, I looked up “passive aggressive behavior” in Wikipedia. The site told me that the behavior involves “obstructionist resistance to following through with expectations in interpersonal or occupational situations.” On the “Counseling Directory” website (which appears to be from the UK) some familiar examples are listed:

“Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed you may instead bottle the feelings up, shut off verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in behavior, be obstructive, sulky or put up a stone wall. It may also involve indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue.” 

Creating confusion around the issue?  This is what happened each and every time I had to call the Ministry of Education, Research and Technology in Paris over the last many years.  And yes, I pronounced the people at the Ministry “passive aggressive.”  I surely did.  The people who answered the phones were often sulky and though I couldn’t see the stone wall, I could hear it plain as day.  Angry looks carried down the phone line too.

Are the poor civil servants at the Ministere de l'Education Nationale de la Recherche et de Technologie really more passive aggressive than some other set of public workers?  Actually, I think they are, but maybe I am wrong and it is another one of those cases of people creating their own reality (okay, me creating my own reality), something that I have written about before.  Maybe it is the most natural thing in the world that when interacting with someone who is “different” in any way – from another culture, region, or just not playing the game according to what we consider to be the accepted rules – people shut down and become “obstructionist.”

This simple account makes many claims that I have heard much more understandable.  So, although individuals may engage in clinical or at least severe levels of passive aggressive behavior, I doubt that we can rank order the world’s countries and the regions of countries according to passive aggressiveness as a trait.  Or if we can, each of those many, many behaviors listed on the “Counseling Directory” website may differentially exemplify average behavioral reactions of groups of people, which, perhaps for historical reasons, are somewhat more acceptable responses to challenges than are others.

The moral is, then, that if you feel that a whole group of people is passive aggressive, first try playing the game by their rules.  Then, failing everything else, move.

Paula NiedenthalComment