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The Problem with Passive Aggressive Communication: How and Why to Change Part 1

         I believed that my passive aggressive speech or behavior was my mode of expressing how I felt.  Even my way of taking a stand.

       In my continued growth as a person I have begun to evaluate and revamp how I deal with other people and how I handle my own thoughts and communication.  Perhaps the biggest decision I have had to make was to leave passive aggressive speech and behavior behind.  For many years that was typically how I would interact in situations that required some expression of opinion. I believed that my passive aggressive speech or behavior was my mode of expressing how I felt.  Even my way of taking a stand. This could be in a situation of correcting someone that I was in authority over, responding to those in authority over me, or dealing with peers in situations outside the realms of normal friendly activity.

I genuinely believed that how I was interacting was my form of communication that best portrayed how I chose to interact with others and communicated my message clearly.  I mean, I understood clearly what I was expressing so shouldn’t everyone else?  Other people got their messages across in their own way and this way my way.  I honestly believed it was a better way of crafting my message because I felt I saw so many holes in how everyone else crafted theirs.  All of the jobs I have ever held were based almost entirely on my communication with others so I saw the pitfalls of human communication.  Too harsh, too general, too weak, too complex, too unclear.

    Now I’m not saying that I sat down and wrote a manifesto about my choice in communication but, like everything else in our lives, I developed my own way of communicating over time.  My communication always felt natural even as it evolved into the passive aggressive words and actions that it eventually developed into.

My communication always felt natural even as it evolved into the passive aggressive words and actions that it eventually developed into. 

At least it felt natural until I had to start seeing a counselor to deal with my anxiety and depression.  It only makes sense that we all communicate differently but we aren’t always aware that we communicate differently.  At the most basic level we all tend to think that others communicate like we do.  The next step is realizing that we communicate differently but thinking everyone should communicate like I do, and the final step is realizing that we all communicate differently and using that knowledge to dissect and understand our communications.  So in all my communicative wisdom, I thought when people were being direct they were just being flat-out mean.  In my way of thinking, having a direct conversation that was not frequently interspersed with “I hope you don’t take this wrong” and “I’m really sorry to have to talk about this” was just someone’s way of trying to manipulate you with their harshness.

  That became an awful burden on me and it caused a lot of resentment.  I viewed myself as receiving aggression and, because I was nice and being direct and aggressive is not nice, I returned passive aggression as my way to handle these scenarios.  I thought I was handling the situation well.  I thought this was me being an evolved communicator until I realized I wasn’t actually communicating at all.  I was quelling my desire for rebuke/response but I was not communicating anything at all because passive aggressiveness falls short as a means of communication for three main reasons.

  1. The message is never clear. Passive aggressive is an oxymoron.  That means it is two words used to describe something that appear to be contradictory terms used together as a descriptor.  Here’s the interesting thing about oxymorons: they are almost always confusing unless you dissect them to the tiniest level.  A jumbo shrimp makes sense when you say that a jumbo shrimp is far larger than a normal shrimp.  But at first glance the phrase jumbo shrimp is contradictory to the point of confusion.  The same is true of passive aggressive speech or action.  Your message is not direct and clear and is thus dependent on how the recipient receives that message.  All of the sudden something you intended to come across clearly as a response is now no longer up to you because of an unclear message.  You may have tried to send the message but you never truly said what you meant so you can’t be sure that your message was received.  Often, the message that is received is about an entirely different subject than what you intended to be received.
  2. In order to truly express the message you intend by way of passive aggressiveness you wind up appearing to constantly be talking down to other people. This comes in the form of condescending rhetorical questions, constant I-told-you-so type comments, etc.  In reference to actions you can appear aloof, detached, or even not present either physically or mentally.  In this instance your message is, once again, not the main message that is portrayed.  Instead your viewed superiority and/or absence is portrayed as opposed to the message you were trying to send.
  3. The basis of passive aggressive words and actions is to avoid conflict while still creating a situation in which your words and actions cut deeply when the message is received as you intended it to. This was and still is the most difficult for me to accept.  Not because I don’t agree with it, but because I see this as the most relevant issue with passive aggressiveness.  In my life this played out by attempting to be non-confrontational while still seeking to create an emotional response in someone else.  Giving sharp, one word responses to a spouse as opposed to discussing the issue and working through potentially difficult problem with openness is possibly the most prominent example in many of our lives today.

Moving out of passive aggressiveness is not an easy task.  It’s very uncomfortable and requires a major shift in how we approach our thoughts towards other people, our concerns over how others view us, and how we view ourselves.  I’ll be addressing the move away from passive aggressive words and actions next week.

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