Tight-lipped, frosty and fake, the passive-aggressive person never quite takes the blame. Is this always a bad thing?

You deserve it... | source: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters Rebecca Roache

You deserve it… | source: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
Rebecca Roache

Imagine the following. I’m planning a birthday celebration, and everyone’s invited. I start a group chat on Facebook to discuss the arrangements. While all this is going on, my sister, Fleur, does something to upset me. Genuinely remorseful, she later apologises and I tell her – a little frostily, perhaps – that it’s fine. Then she notices she’s been dropped from the birthday chat, and the celebration goes ahead without her. When she mentions this to me and asks if I cut her out because I was still upset, I say: ‘Don’t be silly. I didn’t cut you out. There must have been a Facebook glitch.’ She is confused: part of her is certain that I deliberately cut her out, while another part of her wonders whether she’s being over-sensitive.

Let’s say that Fleur is not being over-sensitive, and that I did cut her out deliberately. I did this because, despite her apology, I was angry about her behaviour. In fact, I was so upset that what I would have most liked to do really was swear angrily at her. Had I done so, she would have been offended and we would have probably had an argument, after which I would have felt more like accepting her apology (and I might have owed one myself). But, since I am oppressively British, I couldn’t contemplate giving vent to my negative feelings so directly. We don’t like confrontation. We prefer to keep hold of our resentment until we have to get it out somehow, and then we quietly do things like drop people from birthday party lists and vote to withdraw our country from beneficial political organisations.

This sort of behaviour has a name: passive aggression. It’s not just the British who are passive aggressive; to varying degrees, everyone is, sometimes. Scott Wetzler, a New York psychiatrist whose research focuses on passive aggression, calls it ‘sugar-coated hostility’. While the term has its roots in psychology and psychiatry, it has entered the public vocabulary, where it is used disapprovingly to describe expressions of hostility, resentment, contempt, etc, that are indirect and – at least on the surface – not impolite.

We don’t like to be on the receiving end of passive aggression. But is there anything wrong with it? And is it really any better than saying straightforwardly offensive things, such as ‘Piss off!’?

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