Honestly, it’s fine!

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You deserve it… Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters (image edited by Web Investigator)

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

Rebecca Roache is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, and currently writing a book about swearing. She lives in Oxfordshire.

I 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!’?

Let’s begin by noting that there is a sense in which what I do using my passive-aggressive response is the same as what I do when I yell something offensive. In each case, I convey to Fleur my contempt, anger and hostility. In the terminology of linguists and philosophers of language, both responses are ways of performing the same speech act.

The thinking behind the terminology of speech acts is that, when we talk to each other, we’re not merely using language to communicate information. We also use it to perform actions. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is a way of apologising. Saying ‘Look out!’ is a way of issuing a warning. Saying ‘I promise to feed the cat this evening’ is a way of making a promise, and so on. In most cases, we can perform a speech act in various ways, including by not speaking at all. For example, while I can issue a warning by saying ‘Look out!’, I can also do it by saying ‘Danger!’, or even just by holding up a hand.

So my acting passive-aggressively towards my sister and my yelling profanities at her are two means to the same end. Both these responses convey to Fleur that I have not accepted her apology and that I have strongly negative feelings towards her, both of which have the potential to be offensive, regardless of how I convey them to her. Attempting to convey what is potentially offensive – or, at least, what the passive-aggressive person believes to be potentially offensive – is common to all instances of passive aggression. Indeed, our wish to convey something potentially offensive, and our fear of experiencing the discomfort and risking the confrontation associated with doing so, are the reasons why we express our negative feelings and beliefs in a ‘sugar-coated’ way in the first place…







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