There is a famous saying:
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
No truer words can be spoken about aggression and people who exhibit aggressive behavior. In these situations the ‘Duck Test’ works.
You can see it a mile off, it’s easy to spot and so we can all give these folk a wide berth. On the hopefully rare occasion where we are forced to interact with them, we can at least be crystal clear of what we are dealing with and what the consequences of this might look like. Gird your loins and brace yourself for bruised feelings or, worst case, a split lip.
But what about those people who seem to have the same effect on your emotions but you just can’t explain why, or give an example of what they did?
We all know them, the people who smile to your face, offer compliments and seemingly show willing, whilst your gut is screaming ‘Alert! Alert!’ They are everywhere: in your social circle, at work and even in your family.
Just like air, we know it’s real, that it exists and that we are surrounded by it, but it’s virtually impossible to show it to another human being.
Passive-aggressive people don’t quack or swim like a duck, but we sure as hell know that they are one.
Welcome to the world of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
There is no doubt about it, passive-aggressive behavior does not look like a duck. You sure don’t see it flapping around a pond, squawking for bread. Yet, no doubt about it, it is a duck. A BIG duck.
Passive-aggressive behavior is much harder to qualify than straight-up aggression, yet our guts let us know when we are in its presence.
It’s that woman at work who says “You look nice!” as she looks you up and down with a phony smile; it’s not being invited to the party, despite the seemingly remorseful host swearing blind that they sent you the email; it’s that guy at work who gushingly thanks you for your “amazing” report that he never read a single word of; it’s the hug that feels as cold as the Arctic wind.
Sometimes it can be even more obvious than this: the partner who tells you they are “fine”; the friend who tells you “you’re beautiful for someone your size“; and the office colleague who blatantly ignores your cheerful “Good Morning!”.
A Passive-Aggressive Example
Passive-aggressors are the masters of subterfuge.
They insulted you and you didn’t even realize until after they had left the room. They leave you reeling with frustration and pent up rage that would be hard to justify to someone else.
You’re a nice person for God’s sake! Even when you feel it in your gut, and despite the alarm bells being sounded by your limbic brain, you question your feelings and try to rationalize them and think positive thoughts. Yet, no matter how nice you try to be, you just can’t get rid of that feeling. You might not be able to explain it to someone else, but you know you’re under silent attack.
Listed below are five different examples of passive-aggressive behavior that will help you get some clarity on that ‘Duck’.
Meet Pamela: The Passive-Aggressive Queen
Meet Pamela. She works in an office with the lovely Debbie. They have worked together for 3 years.
Monday: The non-compliment
Debbie, who has been feeling a little under the weather of late, decided to treat herself at the weekend and get her hair done. She went all out, took a morning for herself and went to the salon alone. She read a magazine, drank coffee and enjoyed some ‘me’ time whilst the artful and very talented hairdresser coiffured and teased her greying hair into a sleek, beautiful piece of art. She looks great. She feels great.
Monday morning comes, she gets up 10 minutes early to use the straighteners to get her hair just like it was in the salon. She arrives at work on time. Colleagues in the elevator on the way up to the third-floor comment and say how great she looks. She has a spring in her stride! She arrives at the office she shares with Pamela and two other colleagues. The latter both smile at her and say how fabulous she looks.
Debbie looks up, and with a faux sweet smile says: “It looks great! I didn’t know that they could hide so much grey — you can hardly tell at all!”
Pop. Bubble burst.
Yes, that really was an insult. No question about it.
The passive-aggressive expert is the master of the non-compliment. Like hiding a Brussel sprout inside the best chocolate and wrapping it in shiny gold paper, they can pretend to compliment you when all they are doing is referring to your weaknesses or vulnerabilities.
Why do they do it? Well usually because it makes them feel better about themselves.
Debbie is an all-round good egg and likes to think the best of people. She decides to forget Pamela’s barbed comment from Monday morning. She buys coffee and arrives at the office. Pamela is already sat at her desk working.
“Hey everyone! Coffee!” She shrills cheerfully as she walks into the office. Her two coworkers are appreciative and thank her for her kindness.
Pamela sits there and doesn’t say a word. She is hammering aggressively on her keyboard.
Half an hour later, she comments on the cold coffee on her desk “Oh? Where did this come from?”
Debbie replies with a smile “I brought it in for you earlier.”
“Oh.” replies Pamela with a sigh “Thanks.” At this, she turns back to her computer, leaves the coffee, and doesn’t speak again for the morning.
Yup. Passive aggressors are big fans of the silent treatment and the hidden message. No one is clear what the problem is. When asked, they usually reply: “Problem? I don’t have a problem! Nothing wrong with me.”
Strenuous denials ensue.
The passive-aggressive person thrives on the power of silence. It’s a great way to chuck in a whole load of negative energy without being the culprit. It sows the seeds of conflict, yet it cannot be traced to anything that was said or done.
Wednesday: The victim
The whole office team is working on a report that needs to be circulated to the Board on Friday. Everyone has a section each to complete. This was agreed two weeks ago.
Debbie has almost finished her section. She worked late on Monday and Tuesday to get ahead, as she knew she had to leave on time on Wednesday to take the kids to the dentist.
As the clock turns to 5 pm, she begins to pack away her things and log off her computer. From across the office, Pamela calls:
“Enjoy your evening. I’m going to be stuck here for hours.”
“Tell me about it,” replies Debbie “I did that for the last two nights.”
“Oh don’t worry about me.” Pamela says, “I’ll just stay here until it gets done. It’ll probably be midnight and no dinner again for me!”
Debbie leaves feeling guilty.
Passive-aggressive people are adept at making others feel guilty without good reason. They play a compelling victim and their shameless abuse of people’s emotions is staggering.
Do not be fooled or drawn into their web of lies and deceit. Resist, resist, resist.
Thursday: Power and control
Debbie arrives at the office half an hour early. It’s her job to ensure that the report is pulled together and submitted on time. She has been checking in regularly with the team all week and has been assured that everyone in on schedule to get it completed. She has requested that it be ready for the end of the day on Thursday so that it can be checked and submitted well in advance of the deadline on Friday afternoon. She wants the team to look good and is confident in their abilities.
She works methodically at her desk as the other members of the team arrive — apart from Pamela. By 9.30 Debbie is worried about Pamela. She calls her at home. There is no answer. 10 minutes later Pamela arrives at the office, flustered and clearly in a bad mood. “Sorry, I overslept” she grumbles.
“No problem” smiles Debbie. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Yes! Write my section of the report!” Pamela snaps.
It transpires that Pamela left shortly after Debbie last night and didn’t stay to finish the report.
“I figured it was unreasonable that people should expect me to work so late. So I’m not doing it!” She says stubbornly.
Frustrated, Debbie and the rest of the team try to reason with her. They discuss the plan that was made over two weeks ago, the frequent offers of support and the non-negotiable deadline that they were given.
The team are worried. The Board will not look favorably on the whole team for failing to turn in a completed report it.
Debbie and a colleague decide to stay late and complete Pamela’s section for her. Pamela is uncompromising and stubborn. “It’s your choice if you stay late. I’m not doing it and they can’t make me. It’s not in my T & C’s!” She quips.
Passive aggressors will often complete tasks to 90%. It’s all about making a subtle statement without causing too much of a ruckus. They like to throw a spanner in the works. They will stubbornly defend their position, often with some semblance of a reasoned argument that, irritatingly, cannot be easily dismissed.
Deep down you know this is actually about power. It’s about them causing a problem and being difficult, thus demonstrating the control they have at their disposal.
Friday: The dark cloud
Debbie submits the report to the delight of the team. Everyone is pleased and the feedback is great. They now have the afternoon to work at a leisurely pace. One colleague goes out to buy donuts and coffee.
Throughout this Pamela sits silently at her desk. Like a wet weekend, a dark cloud hangs over her and she is clearly in a bad mood. She does not respond to the light-hearted banter from team members.
By 2 pm her mood has not improved and it’s starting to take its toll on the others. Despite this, the others joke and chatter as they work. Intermittently, Pamela lets out an audible sigh. She even asks the others if they can quieten things down as she is trying to work.
By 5 pm the rest of the team are thoroughly hacked off with her mood. Although she says nothing, the rest of the team feel fed up and leave for the weekend in a funk, the previous light mood now evaporated.
Passive-aggressive people revel in silent sullenness. It’s incredibly powerful and communicates a strong message that directly impacts on everyone else. It’s hard to ignore and often wears others down. At the same time, people get frustrated that they are impacted in this way. They feel annoyed at themselves for letting it get to them.
Later on, they wonder if it was something that they did or didn’t do.
The answer is ‘no’ — it’s not about you. It’s all about them.
What Can You Do About It?
Whilst this article focusses on passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace, it’s really common to see it in our personal lives, amongst both friends and family.
You know the drill; no, it’s not you. It really is them. You may need to remind yourself of this often.
So, what can you do about it?
Have a read of this article here to gather some pointers. However, your approach should be quite simple.
Of course, try to be understanding. Is there a reason for their behavior? A cause that has made them this way? People who have experienced emotional distress or trauma can sometimes exhibit these traits. Their aggression hides their vulnerability and struggles with power.
However, you have to look after yourself. Try and distance yourself as much as you can, don’t seek to blame. Make sure you are crystal clear about what you are dealing with — this isn’t your doing.
If you are the aggressor, be honest with yourself and reflect. Be clear of the impact your behavior has on others.
Don’t be like Pamela. Ask a colleague, friend or loved one to be honest with you. Start by taking small steps to notice your behavior and correct it. Seek support from a specialist like a coach or a therapist. Grappling with your issues (your Duck) really will make you a whole lot happier in the long run.