Part 2 of 3: The Hidden World of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors Online —
How has 24/7 access to technology changed the way that you communicate:
With your coworkers?
With your spouse or significant other?
With your children?
(Editor’s Note: “The Angry Smile” covers many scenarios at work, home, school, and more. For the purposes of this article, we are focusing on workplace scenarios. This article is adapted from the book “The Angry Smile”.)
The truth is that for as much as modern technology has made possible round-the-clock communication, it has also lessened the amount of time that human beings look each other in the eye and say what they are thinking or feeling. There can be no doubt that for most people — especially those who have spent a lifetime purposefully and skillfully avoiding direct confrontation — it is far easier (and more convenient!) to be cruel from behind a keyboard. Today’s technology affords anyone who want to mask their anger or aggression a perfect front. For the passive-aggressive (PA) person, the relative anonymity of screens and apps has become an ideal Get-Out-of-Guilt-Free card.
Here are some ways that covert anger and hidden hostility play out on a daily basis through the always-available, always-on channels of technology. There are 5 distinct levels of PA behavior; a couple of them are explored in this article.
In traditional person-to-person conversation, when 2 people are together in the same physical space or even talking with each other on a phone, one person speaks while the other demonstrates his or her listening by nodding, facial expressions, nonverbal cues, and verbal responses. Technology has completely altered with immediate back-and-forth dynamic. By their very nature, texts, emails, instant messages, and online posts, lack the elements of human communication that convey the most meaning: facial expression and tone of voice. The act of typing a message, rather than delivering it verbally, creates all new possibilities for the message receiver to comply in insincere words, without every following through in actual deeds.
Level 4: LETTING A PROBLEM ESCALATE
In a recent Angry Smile training, one participant said to the group, “Truthfully, passive-aggressive behavior is just plain fun. Getting back at other people in socially acceptable ways is just so easy to do these days now that so much of what we say and do happens through a keyboard instead of person-to-person.”
Indeed, taking jabs at others while eluding direct confrontation is the immediate gratification afforded by today’s technology. At this level of behavior, PA persons are content to engage in crimes of omission, such as failing to stop the spread of online gossip or posting photos in which key players are conspicuously absent.
“How Does Your Salary Compare?”
Example: Last month, my company was planning layoffs that resulted in dozens of workers losing their jobs, right before the holidays. As the assistant director of the HR department, I had been warned to maintain strict confidentiality of the list of names of employees who were slated to be laid off. This directive put me in an awkward position, however, as the name of one of my own supervisees was on the list. I had fought to help her keep her job but was rudely dismissed by the HR director.
When the friend came to my office and asked me face-to-face if her job was safe, I made a decision to not lie to her. Instead, I changed the conversation to the subject of equal pay in the workforce and told her how glad I was that our company had a written policy that guaranteed parity in pay between men and women. I then asked her if she knew that the annual salary of her mail counterpart in the department was more than 8% above hers, even though their education was comparable and she had been with the company 4 years longer.
I left her with this thought as I excused myself to use the bathroom, but not before angling my computer screen, which displayed the list of employees scheduled for layoff, precisely toward her as I got up from my desk. Needless to say, my supervisee raised the question of wage discrimination to the HR director the next day. In his fear of her filing a lawsuit, she not only was removed from the slate of layoffs but also scored an 8% wage increase during our company’s tough times.
Level 5: SELF-DEPRECIATION
At this level of PA behavior, people are so determined to get back at someone else that they are willing to sacrifice their own reputation, happiness, health, and even job security. Through online behaviors that leave a permanent digital footprint and bring about real self-depreciation, the Level 5 PA person goes to the extreme to assert authority and seek vengeance.
“You’ll Be More Attractive Someday”
My boss had been confiding in me about his displeasure with 3 members of our department. At first, he made some legitimate observations about unprofessional behaviors such as chronic lateness and missed deadlines. But then, his attacks on them began to be personal. I started to grow tired of being his sounding board and was increasing uncomfortable with his vulgarity. Yet I knew that he and I were a package deal in our department, and if he wasn’t around, my job would cease to exist.
On day, when I felt that his comments about a female colleague’s weight had crossed the line, I said to him, “I think we should just focus on things related to actual work.” He looked at me with surprise, t hen nodded in agreement and said, “Your right. Thanks for keeping me in line,” and then walked out of my office.
Later that afternoon, I received a nasty e-mail from my boss, filled with personal attacks on all 3 of the colleagues with whom he was displeased. He asked me how I could possibly stand up for any of them. Then, he crossed the line again. He asked me if I was standing up for my female coworker because I had struggles with my weight as well. He assured me that I would lost by baby weight eventually, and “become more attractive again”.
That. Was. It.
For about 5 minutes, I cried. His words stung. Then, I racked my brain for the professional way to handle this very personal insult. But ultimately, my anger kicked in. With fierce determination and a complete disregard for my own job security, I clicked “Forward” on my screen and sent his e-mail to the 3 colleagues who appearance, intelligence, mannerisms, and even family members he had been insulting. While I was at it, I included our company’s HR director so they could also see the kind of behavior that was being carried out during work hours. My boss was fired on the spot for using obscene language about employees using a company computer.
In the 3rd and final article, in an upcoming issue of ISE magazine, we’ll learn how to change PA behavior — including learning about Benign Confrontation and the skills needed to stop PA behavior.
About the Book and Author: This article contains excerpts from the book The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online, by Nicholas J. Long, Jody E. Long, and Signe Whitson. The Angry Smile brings together 5 decades of research and study of passive aggressive behavior. Learning from the book and online training from the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute (LSCI), you can learn the powerful skills of Benign Confrontation, and begin to recognize the patterns, refuse to engage, discover how to channel and express your own anger appropriately, and more. For more information, please visit https://www.lsci.org/