Ever since the first human learned how to hold a pointy spear, other humans have been rolling their eyes and purposefully failing at simple tasks to make that first human angry. Passive aggression is as old as time itself, but the first organization to give it a name was the U.S. military.
“Just Making Sure You’re Aware…” A Brief History of Passive Aggression
Colonel William Menninger was a psychiatrist and World War II veteran whose writings helped change how the United States viewed medical disorders. Menninger created the phrase ‘passive aggressive’ to describe the behavior of American troops on the front lines.
According to U.S. War Department Technical Bulletin penned in 1945, Menninger observed soldiers using “passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism” to get back at their superiors.
Menninger surmised that these “immaturity reactions” were caused by “routine military stress” and a need to reassert their independence. The most passive-aggressive troops were the ones who chafed under military leadership. Willful incompetence was their only way to express their feelings without retribution.
In 1952, the APA adopted phrases from Menninger’s infamous memo and logged them in its diagnostic manual. Suddenly, the medical community had a phrase to describe the annoying way their underlings take six days to do a 30-minute task.
“Whatever.” How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Today, people resort to passive-aggressive behavior for many of the same reasons those soldiers did in WWII. They feel like acting outwardly angry is unacceptable, or that being open about their feelings will get them in trouble with their superiors. It also gives them an avenue to channel their anger in a way that will indirectly harm someone else.
You don’t need to take this behavior sitting down, nor do you have to shout to resolve your problems. Here’s a handy guide:
1) Recognize passive aggression. It can be tough since it is usually indirect and no one likes to point fingers, but if your gut is telling you something isn’t right, don’t be afraid to call out manipulative behavior.
2) Evaluate your behavior first. Taking stock of how passive aggression affected you and whether or not you contributed to it will help you figure out where to go next. It might also help you stay collected during a confrontation.
3) Approach the person first and initiate an open conversation. Emphasize that you are willing to talk things out if they come to you first. Just make sure you do this in person. Notes and texts can make the PA cycle worse.
4) Accept victory on the moral highground. Assuming this person doesn’t have additional issues, a conversation should stop the snipes and jabs. But be wary. People don’t change overnight, and your problem might rear its ugly head again.
As always, let us know if you have any additional insight in the comments.