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It infiltrates all parts of modern life, but how to deal with passive aggressive behaviour?

The phenomenon was first recognised as a pattern during the Second World War

In my younger years, I don't remember passive aggressive behaviour being a recognised character trait. Did we simply not carry on like that in those days? Or did we just not recognise it? Once you know what it is, however, it is a very difficult thing to handle. In some ways, you'd rather be on the end of a right hook than a psychological strategy that's cowardly at best, and calculated to drive you bonkers at worst.

I was thinking about all this the other day when a friend of mine told me about a text message he'd just received from a superior at work. “I've been watching your back for ages,” it said, “resisting pressure from all sides.” My friend was about to lose his job, by the way. Apart from the fundamental dishonesty of the message - if he'd really had my friend's best interests at heart, he certainly wouldn't, at this point, have felt the need to tell him how unpopular he was - there's an insidious, passive aggressive edge to the sentiment that is designed to enrage the recipient. The unspoken inference is that it's not my friend who's been wronged: he should feel sorry for his colleague who has gone to all this trouble protecting him from those who want rid of him. It's all right for you, but what about me?

If nothing else, this exchange is on the same pernicious scale as that other example of hostility dressed as support that comes straight from the playground: “I always defend you when everyone else is saying how much they hate you”. On any level, it's wrong, and possibly evil. Anyway, it inspired me to investigate the origins and nature of passive aggressive behaviour, and I discovered that it is, in fact, a relatively modern syndrome.

It was first recognised as a pattern during the Second World War when soldiers, though not openly defiant, expressed their antagonism in passive ways, using tactics such as obstruction and procrastination to avoid complying with orders. It has a wider application now, and we can experience it quite regularly in everyday exchanges, whether we are listening to a politician on the radio explaining why it's our fault that we haven't understood what he said, or dealing with a builder, for instance, who nods obligingly at our instructions, but has no intention of carrying them out. And, of course, there's that often-heard imprecation: “No, no, you go ahead. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.”

It's also a common phenomenon in the workplace. An ex-colleague of mine told me that his former boss would preface every ounce of malevolence with a pound of praise. For instance, he'd say of someone: “Very talented, a brilliant mind. Best before lunch, but entertaining afterwards.”

Which brings me back to my friend. One of the problems with passive aggressive behaviour in a professional setting is knowing how to deal with it. That is, passively, or aggressively? I passed on a bit of homespun advice I once heard for dealing with such situations: “Big smile, short memory.” And on that deeply philosophical note, I'm going to disappear on holiday for two weeks. But don't worry about me. I really will be fine.