What to do when people say passive-aggressive things, or do micro-aggressions?
Mathilde proposed this as a potential topic for a blog post (speaking of which—click here if any of you have ideas or suggestions of your own!), and I thought it was a great idea. Passive aggression and microaggressions are, unfortunately, both things that we're all likely to encounter in one context or another. They can vary from the insignificant, petty annoyances to the more seriously irksome offenses.
If/when you find yourself faced with this kind of behavior, knowing how to respond can be no easy thing, particularly as the ideal course of action usually differs depending on the specific circumstances. However, as a general rule, I can think of a few different possible types of reactions to passive- or microaggressions, some of which may be better than others and some of which may simply depend on the situation.
This strategy is probably best applied only in relatively trivial situations, as opposed to ones in which there's something of more consequence at stake, or involving something that's seriously offensive or otherwise harmful. As a general rule, disregarding problems won't make them go away, and I don't reccomend it.
However, in some instances, ignoring passive aggression can actually be a fairly effective tactic. You can't control what people say to you, but you can control how you respond. Try to act as if you're assuming the best of the perpetrator (if you can succeed in actaully doing so, that's better yet!), and interpret their comments in positive ways even whether they don't seem intended as such. For one thing, it's always possible that something that come across as passive aggressive wasn't intended in that way in the first place, in which giving the benefit of the doubt is an excellent idea.
Unfortunately, many people who may deliberately engage in this type of thing are doing it for the express purpose of getting on your nerves—in which case responding angrily can actually just end up reinforcing their behavior. On the other hand, if you're able to let the little jibes roll off your back instead of rising to the bait, you're preventing them from getting what they want in a completely non-aggressive way (come to think of it, I suppose this sort of response could perhaps be considered passive aggressive in and of itself, in a sense, technically speaking... xP). If someone finds themselves unable to get a rise out of you, they may back off trying or even give up on their goal entirely.
Both of these points are sometimes reasons why deliberately not rising to the bait can be be a smart, effectual strategy. Often, though, simply ignoring problems isn't enough; they may just continue regardless, or even grow worse. There comes a time when it's important to take a somewhat more active approach to the issue.
One tempting response can be to retaliate with your own passive (or active!) aggressions. Unfortunately, though, this is typically not the best idea—while there are certainly certain cases in which a witty comeback can improve the situation, I find that in the majority of circumstances giving tit for tat is likely to just end up making the conflict escalate further, with one retaliation leading to another retaliation leading, in turn, to another retaliation... and so on. No one wants that.
So how can you react without triggering this vicious cycle, but also without letting the perpetrator of the passive aggression or microaggressions walk over you? One option is to address the passive aggressive individual to their face about the problem. Passive aggresssion, in its very nature (and, to an extent, microaggression as well), is a method on the part of the perpetrator of avoiding direct confrontation. Instead of openly saying what they think, many people may resort instead to the little, snide comments that drive us up the wall without being blatantly inappropriate.
So don't give this type of avoidance its gratification. Confrontation doesn't need to equal hostility; it's quite possible to be respectful but assertive. (For some tips on the Dos and Don'ts of Confrontation, check out this great blog post, written by former S2S mentor Jen!) If the person behaving in the problematic way is someone you know well enough, one good option could be to bring up your concerns up semi-casually. (Preferably, at a peaceful time, as reacting in the heat of the moment can sometimes lead to escalating the situation, as mentioned earlier—although the best way to bring up a topic will almost always depend on the people in question.) Don't be too accusational, but it's okay to say that your feelings were hurt by a comment, that you're worried that something is getting in the way of your friendship [assuming the person in question is your friend, that is] and you want to make sure you have the opportunity to talk about it openly and respectfully, etc. (Of course, try to avoid falling prey to the usage of microaggressions yourself—it can be rather too easy at times, especially when you're upset about something but trying not to start a fight. :P)
Depending on who the person is and what your relationship is, you may or may not feel comfortable initiating this type of communication, but if you can bring yourself to do it, it's typically a good idea. Ideally, the person realizes that what they've been saying or doing hasn't been the best (believe it or not, it can be surprisingly easy to resort to passive aggression unconsciously, without even noticing it in yourself), apologizes if applicable, and modifies their actions in the future so that it's no longer a problem. If there's something deeper going on behind their behavior (not just pettiness), then the conversation may give them an opening to bring it up, and you can go from there—at the very least, in that case you've made progress towards figuring out the underlying cause, which is one step closer to being able to do something about it. If nothing else, the person will at least be cued in to the fact that their attitude, what they've been doing or saying, hasn't been going unnoticed, and may prompt them to think a little more before letting another micro-aggression slip out.
- Get help
Sometimes, such problems can spiral out of control. If this happens (or if you suspect it is going to happen), there's nothing wrong with seeking help from someone else. There's a difference between good-humored teasing between friends and hurtful comments or behavior—although, sometimes, one can easily turn into the other (or the same thing may even seem good-humored to one person but hurtful to another). If it gets to the point where you don't feel you can handle things anymore on your own, or if it seems to be approaching bullying, it may be time to think about talking to another person; if it's an issue between friends, you could try asking a mutual friend or peer for backup (don't put too much pressure on them, though—it can sometimes be quite uncomfortable for someone to act as intermediary between two friends, and you don't want your peer to feel that they have no choice), but it can also be good to go to an adult... a parent, teacher, counselor, any trusted adult. (Ideally, it could be someone who also knows the perpetrator of the passive- or micro-aggressions, as they may be better equipped to help you, but even if not, an adult may still be able to provide some useful advice and help you figure out what to do.) While you don't neccessarily need to run to a parent about every little thing, asking for help when you need it isn't "tattling"—it's only common sense.
Have you ever had to deal with someone who was using microaggressions or saying or doing something passive aggressive? Or have you ever found yourself slipping into passive aggression yourself? (It can be all too easy, as I know first hand!) What do you think about this phenomenom, and what do you find helpful in reacting to it? (Or, on the other side of the coin, what do you find unhelpful?)
As ever, please share your thoughts, experiences, opinions, and/or advice in the comments section below!