Origins of the term
The term passive aggressive first originated at the end of World War II, when a Colonel from the U.S War Department used it to describe the immature and difficult behaviour of some of the young soldiers. These soldiers would become intentionally unresponsive and carry out tasks they didn’t want to do sluggishly or ineffectively. They did this in order to preserve an element of independence in an incredibly uniform environment.
Passive aggressive disorder was once a widely accepted form of personality disorder (personality disorder: A mental health problem characterised by long-term, deeply ingrained behavioural patterns which significantly affect how a person thinks, feels and interacts. having a personality disorder can make socialising difficult and prevent a person from forming stable, long-lasting relationships with anyone.) and it was even included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM IV), the globally recognised catalogue of all medically accepted disorders.
A number of years ago, experts decided that passive aggression was so common and so strongly related to a host of other mental disorders, that it didn’t warrant the status of disorder by itself. Passive aggressive disorder has since been edited out of the DSM and is now commonly referred to as passive aggressive behaviour instead. Most of us are guilty of displaying passive aggressive behaviour occasionally in our day-to-day lives. It is, after all, a simple way of avoiding conflict.
Observe the following situation: Your housemate persistently leaves his dirty washing up in the sink for other people to clean up. There are four different ways to approach the situation:
Option 1. Ignore it, do nothing and hope he stops.
Option 2. Talk to him about it, let him know you don’t like it.
Option 3. Shout at him, threaten him with eviction and generally intimidate him into doing it.
Option 4. Accidentally break his favourite mug. If he cares that much about it, he should wash it up and put it away.
The option you choose will differ according to the kind of person you are.
1. The passive person off-hands powers to others, steps back and allows him or herself to be directed by other, more assertive people. Option 1. is a good example of passive behaviour. If you choose this option, your housemate is unlikely to ever change his habits because he has no idea how you feel about the situation. You will simply have to learn to live with his dirty crockery.
2. The assertive person maintains a good balance between understanding his or her own needs, and accommodating the needs of others. Option 2. is a good example of a fair, assertive and effective approach to the situation. If you are firm and fair, your housemate will be more likely to listen to you, respect you and make the effort to change his habits.
3. The aggressive person is power hungry and ego-centric. He or she has little or no regard for other peoples desires or opinions and wishes to meet goals forcedly, regardless of any hurt feelings. Option 3. is a good example of aggressive behaviour- if you adopt this approach you will be likely to get what you want, but you will also jeopardise the relationship you have with your housemate, as well as putting yourself at risk of future retribution.
So where does passive aggressive behaviour come on the scale? Don’t be distracted by the passive element of this term. Passive aggression is more often than not, even more destructive than plain old aggression. Sometimes a quick, impulsive punch on the arm can be more easily forgiven than twenty years of quietly brewing resentment.