Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In Defense of Passive Aggression


It is now common knowledge that passive aggressive behavior is unproductive, self-defeating, and should always be avoided. In Wikipedia, passive aggression is defined as:
... the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behavior, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.
Avoidance of being passive aggressive is so instilled into us, that it is used as something as an insult. "You're being real passive aggressive" translates roughly into "you're being a wimp."  It's the behavior of people who are too spineless to confront their problems directly. We are told that, instead of passive aggression, we should always be direct. Not aggressive, but assertive. Assertiveness is always the path of the emotionally mature.

And yet I always have to wonder about advice that seems to run counter to our nature. Can we really say that some evolved behavior is inherently flawed? Why would the behavior arise to begin with if it is harmful to the individual? It reminds me of my time in Air Force basic training, where hydration is an institutionalized obsession. "If you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated," they would preach. Dehydration was seen as the source of all ailments. While I indulged the notion at the time, I now reject it on principle. Does it really make any sense that thirst would occur after dehydration? It does not; such a feedback mechanism would not bode well for a species that arose on the plains of Africa. It may be the case that thirst follows dehydration in some cases. For instance, Air Force basic trainees are placed into a physically active routine in hot & dry southern Texas. So they may in fact need to overhydrate until their dehydration / thirst loop normalizes. So we see the advice is not a generality, but does hold in specific circumstances.

I suspect that the same is true for passive aggression. There are times when it should be avoided, but that doesn't mean it's always a bad strategy. Passive aggression gets a bad rap because there are some people who are painfully passive aggressive. These are the irritable wimps who are almost incapable of being either direct or passive. They can't accept things how they are, nor are they capable or courageous enough to evoke the change they want, so they default to passive aggression always. These people are annoying as hell to deal with.

Also, as so many of us work in organizations, we see what passive aggression can do to efficiency and productivity. If a person responds passive aggressively to some policy change, we see that, not only does the policy not get fixed, but that person's foot dragging may start making things difficult for us, not to mention killing the profitability of the business we rely on for our paychecks. Thus we become annoyed with passive aggressive behavior, and believe the hype that it's always bad. We know that ideally the disgruntled worker would channel his angst productively, and would be direct, assertive, and evoke positive change rather than adding to the drag of the organization.

But idealism is problematic. Idealism lends us to obsessing on how things should be. And the word should leads invariably to frustration, which often leads to depression. We all know, intuitively, that being direct and assertive can backfire, especially when the recipient of our directness is insecure or has a chip on his shoulder. We cringe when we see the new guy who is convinced "as long as I'm correct and honest, my directness will be appreciated." That naivety can get otherwise top performers put on the chopping block. The advice "always be direct and assertive" is a dangerous trap!

Intent of hostility, and signaling of response

So far this discussion has come to two conclusions:
  1. Passive aggressive behavior is suitable sometimes
  2. Passive aggressive behavior is not suitable all the time
That doesn't help much for normal humans who live somewhere in the middle. We still don't know much about when passive aggression is a fair play. I'll put forth here a very simple model which might provide some rubric for success. We'll define and qualify two terms. Stimulus is the input; it is whatever is being responded to. For instance, maybe our company blocks music streaming ports (looking at you DMP). That is the stimulus.

Stimuli that might evoke passive aggressive behavior can be categorized as intentionally versus unintentionally hostile. In the case of the streaming audio, the decision to block the ports was financial; the bandwidth use was costing a lot of money. However, the same action could have been intentionally hostile: the boss is just ego-tripping or whatever. Like all things in behavior, the line is blurred, and it can be difficult to tell what is intentional. Paranoia can cause us to falsely flag stimuli as intentionally hostile, and naivety has the opposite effect.

An individual's resulting behavior is the response. Responses can be qualified as signaling or nonsignaling. Signaling behavior is intended to be noticed by the source of the stimulus. We anticipate that not only will the behavior be detected, but that the receiver will also make the connection between the stimulus and the response, while still giving some protection of plausible deniability. Think of the wife annoyed by her husband, who suddenly has a pseudo headache come bedtime. Her intent is to send a signal to her husband that she is annoyed with him. But, as so often happens, the husband may not pick up on the signal, thinking she is actually ill, or maybe doesn't care for intimacy any more. The response is only signaling if the recipient picks up on it. Yet it must also be subtle enough for some plausible deniability, otherwise it is merely direct communication. We can never be entirely sure how people will respond to us, but to engage in signaling passive aggression means to respond in a way that has high probability to be interpreted by the recipient but still provide plausible deniability.

The woman's headache gives her plausible deniability. The husband may call her out. "You're just mad because I tracked mud in the house!" Not wanting to proven as spiteful, she can always respond, "No dear, I really have a headache." The husband may suspect she does not, but can't know for sure.

Nonsignaling responses are those which we don't intend to be caught doing. No one wants to get caught sabotaging production; they just want the boss to look bad before his superiors. Or maybe just to inflict some suffering.

As a rule of thumb, passive aggression can be permitted as illustrated:
Passive aggressive chart. Don't tape to desk.
  • Intentional / Signaling: If someone has intentionally irked you, signaling passive aggression is probably not your best card. They know they bugged you. They're waiting for a response. Passive aggression will only display weakness. Not only that, but they are likely to turn your passive aggression around to attack you with. Perhaps you can be so overt in your passive aggression that there is no chance for the recipient to miss it, or for any plausible deniability. But as I said before, that is closer to direct communication that passive aggression. Call it indirect assertiveness.
  • Intentional / Nonsignaling: If someone is purposely annoying you, and you have no other option, then nonsignaling passive aggression is your ticket to sanity. If you know directness will only lead to punishment, and you have no other ideas to outmaneuver your adversary, then by all means pee in your boss's coffee. Just don't get caught.
  • Unintentional / Signaling: The best use of passive aggression. If someone has accidentally inconvenienced you, the best and most efficient route is to be direct. But for many reasons, it may not be plausible. Maybe the recipient is too sensitive for critique, or too anger-prone. Maybe you're in a culture where pushing back on the boss isn't tolerated, like a strict military unit. Maybe you have a friendship with the person you don't want to alienate. In these cases signaling through plausibly deniable passive aggression is your best tactic. Hopefully they get the message, with minimal risk of blowback.
  • Unintentional / Nonsignaling: This is the worst, and is what gives passive aggression such a bad wrap. If someone doesn't know they've wronged you, a nonsignaling passive aggressive response achieves nothing. There is no way for the other person to get any feedback to correct the mistake. By being the only one intentionally causing harm, you become the bad actor. You might be tempted to do this if you have an incompetent supervisor. The idea being that you'll drag your feet so they'll look bad, and maybe get replaced. But, you're just as likely to make yourself look like the incompetent one. If your boss is incapable, you need to move somewhere else, or outshine the bastard and replace him.


Passive aggression is not inherently immoral, and can often be your best approach. Understanding when the approach works best, as shown here, coupled with some basic human intuition, will keep you safe from the pitfalls of using it. If you've enjoyed this article please like it and share it, or I might quietly start some rumors about you behind your back ;)

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