The professional workplace requires us to behave in a polite and civilised manner. There is nothing wrong with that but often that comes in the way of honest expressions of inevitable disagreements. We nonetheless end up demonstrating our displeasure through behaviours that is now come to be known as ‘passive aggression’. This is a brilliant essay on the subject by Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Passive aggression is the surreptitious, indirect and often insidious means by which we express antagonism or noncompliance while ensuring the plausible deniability of any such intentions.…Though it may be practised at home, passive aggression flourishes in the workplace, where more direct expressions of frustration and resentment are considered unprofessional.

We can all think of examples: the resentful time-server who, when asked about an overdue report by his line manager, mumbles that “in the mass of your requests, it got forgotten” – not accidentally, the passive voice is usually passive aggression’s preferred verbal form. The colleague who is reliably generous with “compliments” such as “Your presentation was surprisingly good.” The boss who wonders at hometime whether his employee might want to stay a little late for the call with California.”

The author talks about why passive aggression shouldn’t be construed as a personality trait let alone a psychological disorder. Indeed, it is a natural behavioral instinct that we all are guilty of at some circumstance or the other:

“In a culture in which complex human traits become fodder for simplistic moral judgments, passive aggression is always going to be a problem of another, maladjusted individual. But perhaps it makes more sense to think of it as a dynamic within relationships, a current that passes between friends, colleagues, couples and families rather than a quality of particular personalities. One consequence of thinking about it this way is that we are made to recognise passive aggression is lurking in all of us.”

Indeed, it is a result of anger or disagreement to not being given an outlet: “Psychoanalysis understands aggression as a drive, an internal force that is constantly exerting pressure on our minds and bodies to discharge itself. According to a narrow definition, this might mean shouting or squaring off or even a physical blow. But it would be better to characterise aggression as any form of self-assertion, whether in word or deed. We cannot, for example, insist to a parent, teacher or boss on our right to speak without summoning up some aggressive energy.

…But a fear of directly expressing oneself does not put the aggressive drive out of service….The drive is altogether more wily and flexible. If it can’t find satisfaction through the direct route, it will find an indirect one through which it can assert itself while evading detection….Aggression can disguise itself in many ways, but undoubtedly the most effective in societies governed by intricate behavioural codes is to appear as its opposite.

The author takes us through the dynamic using an interesting case study.

“Passive aggression is almost always a language unconsciously shared between unspoken adversaries. Instead of having stand-up rows which each sought to win, Aaron and Jim seemed to fight for the status of more worthy and ill-treated victim, the winner being whoever extracted more guilt from the other. As society has elevated the status of victims past and present, it is unsurprising that passive aggression has become one of the dominant social dynamics of our age.”

How do we deal with it?

“If we think of passive aggression less as a pathology in others and more as a common expression of fear of dependency, latent in us as well as family and colleagues, we might respond to it more humanely.
…Can any of us claim never to have disguised a criticism as a compliment or “forgotten” to fulfil a request from someone we were secretly angry with? We do this not because we are power-crazed and manipulative, but because we retain a childlike fear of our own aggression and the terrible consequences it might entail for us.

…Psychotherapy offers an essential example of this balancing act, by providing a space for curiosity about how the other person feels without the pressure to adjudicate who’s in the right.”

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