It is striking how often this kind of debate crops up. In 2020, a Guardian columnist wrote on Twitter that many young people found it off-putting when someone ended a text with a full stop. They saw it as a veiled micro-aggression that implied the writer was judging their sloppy lack of punctuation, and that it made them question the whole interaction (otherwise, why the full stop?).
It is a similar story when it comes to the use of ellipses. If someone writes, “I can do it…”, the three full stops at the end of the sentence are not friendly; instead, they imply “but I don’t want to”.
At that time, the concept of the passive aggressive had somewhat fallen out of fashion. The American Psychiatric Association, which has long been the most important authority on classifying personality disorders, had removed the syndrome from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which lists everything that can go wrong in a person’s mental health. The description of passive-aggressive traits was no longer deemed sufficiently clear-cut.
Couple therapists' favorite diagnosis
Passive aggression was first diagnosed during the Second World War by a military psychiatrist named Karl Menninger, who noticed that some soldiers rebelled against their superiors by pretending not to understand orders or to have forgotten them, making sarcastic comments, or complaining about what they perceived to be unjust treatment. Menninger believed these actions were not a sign of understandable annoyance, but an immature reaction, which he named passive-aggressive behavior.
Passive aggression is not only commonplace, but often understandable.
For a few decades, it was a commonly diagnosed personality disorder, especially by couples therapists. The term was used to describe a common form of emotional sabotage in relationships, a way of undermining the conciliatory, accommodating kind of love that couples therapists held up as the ideal.
People behaved in a passive-aggressive way partly so that their partners had nothing concrete to reproach them with. They replied with a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah”, sighed, rolled their eyes, were so uncommunicative that their actions didn’t even amount to an insult, and refused to engage without giving a clear reason for this refusal. For those on the receiving end, it felt like they were permanently being given the middle finger, but they couldn’t do anything about it because their partner didn’t say anything outright.
Of course there was a significant flaw in diagnoses of passive-aggressive personality disorder: they can also be applied to behavior that is entirely normal. Anyone who has any experience of family relations or romantic relationships knows that being passive aggressive is not only commonplace, but often understandable. How else are you supposed to react to demands that come at an inopportune time, petty criticisms, or the constant whining of children, if not by letting them go in one ear and out the other, or saying “Sure, whatever”?
This kind of behavior is pure self-defense. And it is actually very restrained: as the name suggests, passive aggression is passive, it doesn’t injure anyone, doesn’t even involve shouting at the other person. It is only psychologists and couples therapists who believe that people should always be willing to immediately, exhaustively talk through any minor conflict until it is resolved. Most people have neither the inclination nor the time to do so.
"For millennials, a thumbs-up could be just as hurtful as a condescending “yeah whatever”."
Staying put instead of running
So over the years, the classification became less important – unlike narcissism, which became more prominent. Another factor was that as more opportunities began to open up, especially for younger people, it became much easier to sidestep acts of passive aggression.
When promising start-ups are springing up on every corner, and the exponential growth of dating apps offers myriad possibilities for romantic relationships, it is easy to change your situation instead of continuing to put up with a passive-aggressive workplace or relationship.
In relationships, passive-aggressive behavior never died out – in fact, it took on new forms with the advent of ghosting – but it is clear that fewer people were prepared to struggle through the emotional drudgery of marathon sessions with couples therapists in order to repair their relationships. They’d rather embark on a new one.
But times have changed. As the economic crises began to bite, more people felt they had no choice but to stay where they were. It’s not a good idea to quit your job during a recession when there are not many jobs around. Ending a relationship doesn’t feel as liberating as you’d hoped if you’re then faced with finding an apartment that costs twice as much to rent. So people stay where they are. And they try to assert their self-worth and autonomy by expressing how they feel about staying put, but without going far enough to give someone a reason to throw them out.
I would prefer not to
That is not easy to cope with, especially for young people who haven’t yet had a chance to build up their resilience. At some point, even much-touted self-care tips no longer do the trick.
Quiet quitting, quiet firing
So, in the end, maybe all people are left with is passive aggressive responses.
The problem is that the people you are trying to protect yourself from through passive aggression are often more skilled at playing the game. For every exponent of “quiet quitting”, someone who puts in the least possible effort, there is a boss who understands the process of “quiet firing”. That means leaving employees out in the cold, bombarding them with nonsense, not considering them for more advanced roles, but leaving them where they are instead of firing them, which might mean having to offer them a severance package.
The words of Herman Melville’s scrivener Bartleby when faced with a request from his employer – “I would prefer not to” – may have attained cult status, but outside of the literary sphere, they may not prove so effective. Although at least he maintains his dignity.
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