Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And Steve writes a self-help book. Chapter 1.

In anticipation of the arrival of 2010, I've been thinking a lot about life. In particular I've been thinking about my relationships with other people (that is, back when I actually used to have them). Based on that introspection, it occurs to me that the most destructive character trait known to man (or woman) is passive/aggressiveness. This is true no matter the bond between the parties: whether it's parent and child, coworker and boss, friend and friend, lover and lover. Further, passive/aggressiveness is unsatisfying to both perpetrator and recipient. To the recipient, p/a comes across as whiny and childish. Half the time you don't even know what you did "wrong," and before too long you find yourself responding in kind, still not quite sure why you're doing it. (In the world of NLP, this dynamic is referred to as a "calibrated loop," or at least strikes me as a form of one. In the Flatbush of my boyhood, it was known as dinnertime.) Meanwhile, for the perpetrator, though there may be some temporary joy in getting your "digs" in, ultimately one cannot escape the frustration of having had to drive your real emotions underground, limiting their expression to a processed, "socially acceptable" format. Because let's face it, what the passive/aggressive individual really wants to be is plain old aggressive.

I suppose it would be better for humankind if we all could learn to be passive
just let most of life, certainly all slights and other minor annoyances, roll off our backs. Learn to ignore the various slings and arrows that come your way during the course of an average day at work, at home, at play, in bed, whatever. Shrug it all off. Trouble is, I don't think that's realistic for most of us. We're not wired that way, and the culture doesn't reinforce such an approach. If we tried to affect passivity, we'd merely end up driving those natural destructive emotions even deeper underground, thus risking (a) a catastrophic explosion one of these days and/or (b) an utter descent into depression and self-loathing.

That's why I recommend that people who know they have a tendency to be passive/aggressive instead do exactly what I hinted at in that last sentence of my opening graph: BE AGGRESSIVE.

To be clear: I'm not suggesting that we go around dismembering the folks who upset us (though if that's really what you think needs doing, hey, who am I to judge?) I do think we need to be more direct, more often. If someone says or does something that hurts or angers you, don't simply pretend to be "OK with it," then spend the balance of the day (1) making an elaborate show of moping or snubbing that person, (2) saying obliquely nasty things and/or (3) devising pathetic little ways of pissing that person off. That just drives everyone up the wall and, as noted, leaves you feeling like something of a pussy anyway. Rather, say you're hurt or angry and demand an explanation (because sometimes, once you hear the explanation you realize that you had no reason to feel hurt or angry in the first place; many longstanding familial feuds are outgrowths of simple misunderstandings). Worst-case, do what you think you need to do to get redress, and do it right then and there. If you truly feel it's warranted, double-down on the pain factor, exacting your revenge in no uncertain terms. I have to feel it works out better that way in the end. At least both people know where they stand right away. And at least one person, the aggressor, goes home feeling good and vital and strong. He may go home with a pink slip, but he goes home feeling good and vital and strong.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. BUT...

...DISCLAIMER: This advice comes from a man who has no friends and cannot function in a 9-to-5 environment, and whose close personal relationships throughout adulthood have been almost uniformly disastrous.... So maybe just forget the whole thing, then.

P.S. Just heard an inspired line in a TV movie that's on in the background. Girlfriend A asks Girlfriend B, "What's wrong? You sound great..." Classic. Reminds me of the canny Gene Hackman line from The Firm: The trouble with his marriage, he tells the Tom Cruise character, is that "my wife understands me."


Elizabeth said...


Steve, can't wait for chapter 2! ;)

PJ James said...

I think John Mayer said it best with the refrain in "Say" - uh, "just say what you need to say."

It's as simple as that. Or not.

Anonymous said...

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"
"Come, we shall have some fun now!" thought Alice. "I'm glad they've begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that," she added aloud.
"Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?" said the March Hare.
"Exactly so," said Alice.
"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know."
"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "You might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"
"You might just as well say," added the March Hare, "that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like'!"
"You might just as well say," added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, "that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!"

(Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7)

NormDPlume said...

Amen, brother! Passive aggressive people are, above all else, aggressive, but in a spineless, manipulative way.

So it's time to call the weasels out.

Back when I was in the corporate world, I would occasionally find myself targeted by a spineless weasel, and I would boldly say "Steve, I sense that you are hesitant - indecisive about this decision. Please state your position now, or we will move on." And that pretty much knocked them off the fence and prevented second-guessing down the road.

Passive-aggressive people rarely give their opinion when the decision needs to be made; instead they choose to Monday morning quarterback. Passive-aggressive types love to criticize after the fact. It was my job to let them know that indecision on their part removed all of their legitimacy as a critic.

The previous tactics did not help me in my married life - my Polish mother in-law thought she should make the major decisions in my marriage. But she literally died trying. I guess I'm difficult to manipulate.

Henriette said...

There must be some collective unconscious, because I was just thinking about how much I hate this quality too. My ex-husband could have one an award for being the best passive-aggressive I ever met. You know WHY people are passive-aggressive? They do not want to appear "not nice." I remember when I caught my ex-cheating and I asked him why he never told me he was unsatisfied with our marriage. He said: "it would have broken my heart to tell you I was unhappy." I said: "What? It was better for me to be unfaithful?" Yep, passive-aggressiveness is a piss poor way of being human.

Yekaterina said...

I was always an extremely passive person, didn't much like to make waves, a good girl, and then one morning I woke up and decided I had had enough. I went from black to white and became quite aggressive, called people on their manipulative, advantage-taking behavior and just generally called a spade a spade. Best move I ever made. Most of my friends and family no longer speak to me of course, (Did I mention that it was the best move I ever made) but the ones that stuck around are worth their weight in gold.

Sounds like a good self-help book to me. "How to Alienate the Jerks in your Life in Ten Days or Less"

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, Henriette! Piss poor way of being human.

RevRon's Rants said...

Henriette, your ex-husband sounds a lot like my ex-wife. I thought that being separated by 20+ years and about 5,000 miles would be the end of the little digs. Then someone went and invented FaceBook. I naively assumed that when you "friend" someone... :-)

Jenny said...

Hey, Steve! I wish you had been a mediator at our Christmas family dinner. ;)

Happy New Year!! I hope 2010 is your best yet.

chriscrosdale said...

Great point, but I think the more accurate way of putting it might be: "Be Assertive".

The big problem is that overt "aggressiveness" can be as damaging and problematic as covert or passive-aggressiveness. If the main point is let someone else know that you're angry because of something they have done, in being "aggressive" you run close to the line of possibly giving someone a feeling that THEY have now been wronged.... And then the yelling really begins.

A skill, not easily achieved, is to inject enough diplomacy that you are not overshooting the mark.... Not saying that I do it a lot, but it works wonders. Something along the lines of "I know that (insert empathetic statement regarding the other persons negative actions), but (insert statement of how it makes you feel)."

Anonymous said...

"Great point, but I think the more accurate way of putting it might be: 'Be Assertive'.

I think I read that in a bad self-help book somewhere. That is all semantics, because one person's aggressiveness is another person's asseriveness. To be quite frank, I cannot really tell the difference.
Sure, I maybe saddened if someone says: "hey, museums suck and I hate going." Yet that is preferable to someone who "grins and bears it" and throws it in your face how much he or she HATED going. You cannot change anything or work on anything without the other person clueing you in.

Duff said...

Made me think of the high school cheer:

"Be...aggressive. B-E Aggressive.

Gooooooooooo RAMS!"