Ah…the Passive Aggressives. We have all met them. They open their mouths and what comes out is meant to sound like a compliment but is actually a veiled put down.
Before you can reply they have moved on to a new subject. Like a silent assassin they strike then dare you recover from the blow. If you point out “Hey, would you like that said to you?”, they look back in horror asking “Why are you so sensitive darling? It’s a positive”, shaking their head as if they have been a victim of #PassiveAggression.
From “I do admire how you keep going when others would have thrown the towel in ages ago, so brave”, to “You know that outfit suits you, don’t let others put you off whatever they say”.
My personal favourite came from a friend who had actually been part of introducing me to my now best male pal, telling me: “So glad it is going well with you two…you shouldn’t care what others are saying about you both”.
Let us not forget “You cannot tell anyone I told you this, but so and so said xyz about you”. My answer is always “Why were they so comfortable telling you?”
Now, much passive aggression can come from strangers, but those that actually deliver the hard blows are people we love or spend a lot of time with or – worse – family members. Madeleine, a dear friend of mine, cannot help herself!
The trouble is that I love her and kind of put blinkers on her comments. Having dinner with a group of friends as she tells a story: “Oh darling, we were sitting up in premium class when Steven was way back in economy squashed in between two people”. Everyone laughs and looks at me with sympathetic faces. In reality, she was also in economy – true, a distance from me but in the same class. Why make me the fall guy in her tale? I don’t correct her because to be honest I am speechless, and who wants to play #PassiveAggressive tennis? I know she loves me, really.
Another agent pal of mine with a great sense of humour is Antonia, and her loyalty overcomes a lot. I was so looking forward to having lunch with her as she was just back from New York where she had been promoting her girlfriend’s record, and we were going to pop into a gallery event afterwards where one of her friends had been showing their artwork. But it does not take long before the first hit: “Darling Donna [her girlfriend] and I were just saying you forget what a great writer you are -pause- as you’re just such an appalling speller”. Another pause followed, and she added “Does someone help you?”, munching on a root vegetable as if she was discussing the weather.
Now, having been writing for over 20 years and published in several papers and magazines worldwide, and also having written two books – it is true, I have dyslexia and spelling is not my strong suit. If it were not for journalist and presenter Jane Moore asking me to write for her, my writing career may never have happened. When I explained my problem, she told me “You have the voice and the rest will come – just do it”. With modern technology, hard work and mentors like Jane, my writing career was carved. It’s an honour that people rate me these days, because it hasn’t been easy. So, I just smile back and explain that obviously I have editors and subs and that technology has come a long way. Before there is time to finish, Donna hitting the charts in the US takes centre stage in the conversation.
If there is any way I may be mistaking this as #PassiveAggressive, my doubts are laid to rest as, when we arrive at the packed event, Madeleine introduces me to a small group of people and announces “Everyone this is Steven, he is a great writer but can’t spell”. They look at me bemused but Madeline has hit and moved on, leaving me standing there hoping that these people don’t start a crowdfund for me in aid of spelling lessons.
Real life is not like the movies when you’re hit by the passive aggressive gang. Most people report that they feel like a rabbit in the headlights, unlike Dames Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith in “Evil Under the Sun”. Here’s Maggie as Daphne Castle on meeting Diana’s character Arlena Marshall:
“Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could compete. Even in those days she could always throw her legs in the air higher than any of us – and wider!”
Arlena retorts, “Kenneth this is such a surprise when you told me of an island run by a quaint little land lady, I had no idea it was Daphne Castle”.
There is a fine line between intentionally bitchy and passive aggressive. A great friend of mine’s mother-in law, on being taken backstage after a show, hugged the leading man who was a friend of ours and congratulated him saying how amazing he was. Unexpectedly, the leading lady popped in to say hello and she turned to her and said “I thought you were great…don’t listen to those reviews”. And there was silence. The actress smiled, made her excuses and left. We all wanted a hole to open and when it was pointed out a little later it was a line straight out of “The Feud” starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davies, she was mortified and clearly had not meant to be cutting. It was hysterically funny in retrospect.
Mother in law
The day before the visiting, the mother-in-law had overheard me chatting to a famous pop star. “Who was that?” she asked, and I have no idea why I even replied. If it was my mum the reply would have been “Mind your own business” but you know what they say about other people’s parents.
Her reply left me gobsmacked: “Why would they want to talk to you?”, somehow older people get away with more and she is really a lovely person.
As part of the LGBTQ community, we are constant victims of passive aggression and it can be tiring. Attending a wedding in Guernsey, you would have thought that as the bride was twenty years senior to the groom, it may have been a liberal crowd. However, it was not long at the reception before an excitable woman came running up saying “Oh, you two must be Mandy’s gay friends from London”.
She went on to say she had heard all about us, grinned from ear to ear and looked for all the world as if she was expecting a magic trick or at least the chorus of “I Am What I Am”. I politely introduced myself to make some small talk as it’s not my wedding.
Of course, that’s not enough and she blurts out that “David is gay, from EastEnders.”
“Really? Amazing. I will look him up in the book” I reply. Her eyes widen with almost a childlike excitement, “There is a book?”
“Yes, we are all registered. I’ll bring you a copy when I next come over to see Mandy” I respond.To be honest, I may have been passive aggressive towards her.
From “Oh I don’t mind the gays, in fact my hairdresser’s one”, to “Oh I am all for it, but don’t you mind the fact you can’t have children?” We have all heard those at least once or twice.
Let’s not get started on the bitchy one-liners dished out by those who label themselves queens: “Don’t mind me it’s all in jest I am just a bitch – you’re waiting for them to produce the apple, hurry up and bite dear.”
When handling passive aggressive people, all experts advise “do not react.” Self-help expert and psychologist Dr Pam Spurr (@DrPamSpurr) says:
“People can be passive aggressive for many reasons however usually it’s because they have a manipulative streak. If they want to put you down a bit then the easiest way is to do so is with a backhanded compliment. It wrong foots you and makes you wonder what they really mean. That’s them having manipulated you emotionally!
“Passive aggression often flags up people who carry a lot of resentment, often envy and jealousy too. Sometimes they don’t realise they’re carrying this emotional baggage around and are surprised when someone points out how passive aggressively they’ve acted.
“Others know full well that they’re being passive aggressive. Because the target of their behaviour often doesn’t know how to respond, the passive “aggressive person feels they’ve “scored” some points against that person.
“The best way to handle such behaviour is to calmly and confidently pull them up on it. This is important if you have to deal with them regularly. On the other hand, if it’s someone you don’t have much to do with, simply ignore it. Put it in perspective and realise it’s more about them and their personality and issues, than about you.”
According to learningmind.com, passive aggressive behaviour does not stop at the one-liners or bitchy comments. It can range from people being late constantly in order to make themselves the centre of attention or manipulating the event to the way they want it showing no respect for others’ time. It can also include going behind a person’s back in order to undermine them, pretending there is not a problem with a person when in fact there is, and gossiping or playing victim. All of this fall into the passive aggressive category.
Psychology Today recommends similar steps to Dr Pam:
- Recognise that it is passive-aggressive behaviour
Passive-aggressiveness is all about subterfuge and dishonesty. You have to be a detective in order to unravel the behaviour for what it is. Therefore, identifying and recognising the behaviour is the first step in dealing with passive-aggressive people.
It is a kind of battle in which one side is using underhand tactics to be hostile. Once you see it as a battle, it empowers you to act. The minute you start to show leniency you’ve lost. Passive-aggressive behaviour is all about power struggles between two parties. Like a tug-of-war. Give an inch and you’ll lose ground.
- Do not take it personally, it is often not about you.
According to the experts this is the worst thing you can do, there could be a good reason a person is using passive aggressive behaviour, perhaps to avoid conflict.
- Stay calm if you let the PA gang into your head you could end up going nuts. But do confront their behaviour in a calm fashion.
I have to say they all look like such simple instructions. However, being someone who does not confront people often when it comes to challenging even in the kindest way, I get a look of horror followed by tears and that is the ultimate emotional blackmail as I’ll do anything to stop there.
Growing up, I learnt that pointing out that people are wrong met with a meltdown. Even to this day when recently pointing out to a someone something they had said that upset me, the face of horror came on quickly followed by “I can’t say anything right”, moments later adding some emotional blackmail claiming that they had a terrible childhood. Let’s face it, in the UK from the 1960s to the 80s and – even now – talking about feelings can be tantamount to a deadly sin.
According to Signe Whitson L.S.W. in Psychology Today:
“The bad news for me and those who shy away from confrontation is that without directly addressing passive aggressive behaviour, the pattern will be played out against them again and again. For lasting results and real behavioural change, benign confrontation of passive-aggressive behaviour is necessary.”
She adds in her article that being confrontational is nothing to be afraid of, which is a nice thought on paper. She has a point that the sooner we learn to say “Sorry that’s offensive to me” if people care enough, they should listen with empathy and not instant rage.
As Doctor Pam says, “Sometimes they don’t even realise what they are doing”. My feeling is it would be great to teach kids at a young age that, if someone has said something they think is hurtful, and even if it is a person they love, it is ok to say how they feel about it.
Dr Pam Spurr