Recently, a woman was complaining about how an ex-boyfriend was badmouthing her around town because she broke up with him. The friend she was talking to replied: “Oh, he’s just being passive-aggressive.” In fact, in his anger the boyfriend is deliberately trying to hurt this woman by smearing her reputation. You can call it passive-aggressive, but this game of indirect get-back is anything but “passive.” I also frequently hear people use the term passive-aggressive to describe all sorts of subtle, hard to detect aggressive tactics that people sometimes use to emotionally brow-beat others into acceding to their demands. This kind of behavior is also not “passive.” In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I point out that this behavior is very active, albeit carefully veiled or “covert” aggression, and it’s generally the culprit in manipulative behavior.
So, just what is “passive-aggression?” Well, as the name implies, it’s aggressing through passivity. It’s passive-resistance to cooperating with someone you don’t feel like cooperating with (generally because you’re angry with him or her for some reason). It’s not talking or pouting when someone is trying to engage with you. It’s not-so-accidentally “forgetting” to do something for someone who you didn’t really want to do that something for in the first place. In extreme forms, it can take the form of a sit-down strike, hunger strike, or some similar act.
Passive-aggression is not a very effective strategy generally speaking (a notable exception would be the passive mass resistance of Ghandi and his followers in their nonviolent opposition to British rule) because it usually inflicts a higher cost on the person resisting than it inflicts on the person who is the target of the resistor’s anger.
Lay persons are not the only ones who misuse the passive-aggressive label. Professionals often misuse the term, also. In fact, there is a particular personality type, the passive-aggressive personality, which was removed from the official diagnostic manual in large measure because of the often contradictory and unclear descriptions clinicians in the field provided. Most of the time, when people use the term “passive-aggessive” they’re generally trying to describe someone’s active but covert-aggressive behavior. In Sheep’s Clothing provides a comprehensive definition and makes a very clear distinction between passive-aggressive and covert-aggressive behaviors and passive-aggressive (ambivalent, negativistic, and often self-defeating) personalities and their covert-aggressive (deceptive, conniving, and manipulative) counterparts.
So remember, if someone’s trying to hurt someone else, get the better of them, or play “get-back,” and is deliberately trying to conceal their intentions, there’s nothing “passive” about their aggression. Remember also that getting to know all of the subtle, hard to detect ways people can beat you into submission without you knowing how they managed to do it (i.e. learning the tactics of covert-aggression) is the secret to never being manipulated again. You can find the most common manipulative tactics and the best ways to respond to them discussed in my book In Sheep’s Clothing.