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Yeah, Whatever: In Defense Of The Passive Aggressive

Passive aggression gets a bad rap. It was once even classified as a personality disorder. But in today's world, it can serve a distinct purpose.

Image of someone looking at an eye rolling emoji on an ipad.

A user on the platform Reddit said that he found it passive-aggressive when someone used a thumbs-up emoji in a text conversation.

Peter Praschl

BERLIN — Passive aggression is the disease of our times — even if it hasn't been listed as a personality disorder for quite some time. You can recognize passive aggressive behavior from patterns, ways of speaking, gestures and even emojis. But a mild case is no cause for concern. In fact, quite the opposite.

It’s one of those debates that seem to break out every so often on social media. A user on the platform Reddit said that he found it passive-aggressive when someone used a thumbs-up emoji in a text conversation. He received a flood of responses agreeing with him, saying it was a habit among older people who simply didn’t understand that, for millennials, a thumbs-up could be just as hurtful as a condescending “yeah whatever”.

Many media outlets immediately seized on this as proof of a lack of resilience among the younger generation. Journalists are always ready to comment on this kind of situation, especially when it allows them to write articles that pit the generations against each other while pretending to be objective.

Great — thumbs up.

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.

Image of someone texting on their phone.

"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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Russia's Dependence On China Is Deep And Wide — It May Also Be Irreversible

Russia is digging itself into a hole as it becomes increasingly dependent on China, as a result of international sanctions and isolation. This shifting dynamic, analysts argue, is bound to have ripple effects around the world

Photo of ​China's Xi Jinping giving a speech while Russia's Vladimir Putin is sitting down, as they meet in Moscow on March 21

China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin meeting in Moscow on March 21

Vazhnyye Istorii


Russian President Vladimir Putin has scored a "huge own goal" with the war in Ukraine, according to CIA Director William Burns.

He was referring to Russia's losses at the front, international sanctions, the expansion of NATO and Russia's growing dependence on China — something that has escalated in recent years and may well become one of the enduring challenges Putin's government has created for Russia.

The risks associated with this final point, the deepening dependence on China, are substantial — and breaking free from it will prove to be a formidable task.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Russia's evolving relationship with China has become a focal point in international geopolitics and economics. This transformation has been catalyzed by a combination of factors, including Western sanctions, Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and China's meteoric rise in the global economy since the early 2000s.

The shift in Russia's economic alignment toward China began in earnest in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict and the resulting Western sanctions. Prior to this, Russia had maintained strong trade ties with Europe, particularly in energy exports. But as sanctions took hold, Russia turned to China as an alternative trading partner and a source of investment.

These hopes for increased commerce between the two countries come as Moscow seeks continued support for its war on Ukraine. China's top diplomat Wang Yi is currently visiting Russia for security talks, which Russian media say could pave the way for Vladimir Putin visiting Beijing soon.

Yet despite attempts to gain diplomatic punch from such a visit, Putin would arrive in the Chinese capital weaker and more beholden to China than ever.

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