I don’t mind that you don’t really understand the term “passive aggressive.”

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Or … What I had for breakfast.

I just got the Caribou Coffee trivia question wrong. I got it so wrong that the Barista stared at me in disbelief for a moment, then blurted out the correct answer with audible snark and disappointment. If I told you what the question was (and that is not going to happen) you would be embarrassed for me as well. This was especially bad because I usually answer the question by adding some additional fact, or spice things up by answering the question in Classical Greek or Latin, or at least provide one or two scholarly references. But this time it was a dumb-ass question with a dumb-ass answer and I simply got it wrong. Good thing I wasn’t trying to impress anyone.

Then I realized it is all a trick. Why would I know the answer to such a simple question before I’ve had my coffee? And this is a question being asked in a coffee shop, where I have gone to get my coffee. But they don’t let you answer the question after the coffee. They demand to know it before you get and drink your coffee. So it is really their fault.

Oh, wait, I think I’ve just accidentally absorbed and implemented the utterly mind blowing conversation happening at the next table over. An older individual, clearly the leader of the group (they seem to work together at a nearby health care facility, in administration) has been giving the others a lesson in how to be passive aggressive.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to be passive aggressive. One is the original way, the way that it was first defined by US Military psychiatrists who were trying to explain a common type of incident that seemed to be occurring among the ranks. The best way to explain this is probably by giving an example. It’s also a funny story, so why not. I’m just sitting here in the coffee shop trying to live down getting the answer to that question wrong.

So I had this in-law. Never mind the details. He’s gone now. It was the holiday season, and I was at my parents’ house and so was he and much of the rest of the family. It was getting time for him and his wife (my relative) to leave, but first he was going to tell me a story.

“I hated the Navy. The Navy totally sucked. I was always getting into trouble. But the biggest thing I did, they never caught me for. I almost sank a ship.”

Oh good, I thought. I’m now going to be accessory after the fact to an act of war. But then again, this dude was so totally FOS that it would be reasonable for me to assume that anything he tells me is made up.

“I had duty on an oiler, the worst kind of ship to pull duty on. I hated my OD and he hated me. He put me in this one part of the engine room, all by myself, and told me to watch this one dial and if the needle moved to the red zone, to call. He told me that I should be able to handle that, and called me a stupid fuck.”

I could tell already that this was not going to end well.

“So I watched the dial and it never went to the red zone. But the dial next to it, for something else, did go into the red zone.”


“But that asshole never told me to tell him about that dial, did he? He only told me to look at this one other dial. That second dial, that was not my job.”

The story ends with the ship being abandoned, but I don’t think it sank. The story-telling ended less dramatically but also in disaster. The whole time he was telling me the story, he was holding (and ignoring) his fussy baby. He had been paying an inordinate amount of attention to the six month old over the previous half hour, carrying it around with him as he wandered about the house, and refusing to let anyone else hold him.

But when it came time to leave, my mother insisted on picking up the baby one last time, and simply took it from him. Right away it became apparent that something was different … the baby was much much heavier than it should have been. And as my mother held the infant under it’s arms, the bag-like baby slip-cover thingie it was wearing began to sink lower and lower, as though being pulled to the earth by the force of some great weight, and eventually came right off the child and started to crash. No one understood what was happening, but they did understand that there was a baby, and there was something falling, and there was an effort to grab and hold and stop and support and it all happened very quickly and at the end of it all my mother was holding a diapered baby with it’s legs kicking in mid air and the baby’s mother was holding a full one-gallon bottle of vodka. Stolen from my dad’s liquor cabinet.

Had someone snapped an image of that moment, it could be used as an illustration in the American Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language for the word “Awkward.”

But I digress.

The behavior of this young man in the Navy … causing a very bad thing to happen by simply doing nothing, even though it was clear that something needed to be done but having no indication to take any action by the despised authority … was passive aggressive. That is the behavior that a lot of troops were engaged in, that was identified as a pattern of behavior by a military shrink, the behavioral pattern they studied, and the type of behavior that they named “Passive Aggressive.”

Technically, the original form of this behavior was mainly manifest as not following orders and similar in-activities, but that to me is an unsatisfying description of things. The orders were being followed, in some cases, too literally. Intentional inefficiency is one of the terms used to describe it. That sounds right.

Subsequently, the “personality disorder” has been further studied, redefined, and is probably better understood, while in the meantime the term “passive aggressive” has become a commonly used vernacular term for behaviors (not behavioral traits, necessarily) that have certain characteristics.

I’m not going to define the current use of the word. I’ll just let you read the entry in the Urban Dictionary and think what you will of it:

Formerly associated with a particular psychological disorder stemming from years of percieved underappreciation and bitterness. A character flaw brought on by a person’s inability to deal with their own bitterness, anger, or resentment in an assertive manner, thus, becoming a more passive form of hostility.

See: petty, little bitch, worthless turd.

Note: This entry in urbandictionary is passive-aggressive because it was brought on by a coworker’s passive-aggressive action against myself, and thus, is my form of counter attack. It is unlikely that the passive-aggressive asshat will see this, rendering such an action unassertive on my part, but it is highly probable that this will be seen by some more trustworthy coworkers and they will immediately empathize and agree that my definition (including the synonyms: little bitch and worthless turd) fully apply.


Note: The note in the above definition indicates that the person who made this definition is probably very good at something other than understanding the social world in which she or he lives.

The most common form of passive aggressive action in day to day conversation is the hidden insult. The best hidden insults are where you get a choice between the insults. I recently said something that elicited a response that was supposed to be sympathetic but that ended up being similar to this: “Is that because you don’t know what you’re doing, or because you are deluded about what you think you know?” or words to that effect. In this case, I was given a choice between which flaw I could associate myself with. It was very obvious to everyone else that the person who said that was being a jerk. So I just let it stand.

At the next table over in the coffee shop, the younger and lower level administrators were getting a lesson in how to be passive aggressive with emails. You send the first email and follow it up very quickly with the second email demanding why the first email was not responded to, and in that second email you demand that the recipient provide information that will take some time to assemble. If possible, contradict your first email to add confusion. Almost certainly, if the person was going to respond to the first email in one day, it will take them two or three days to respond to the second one. This gives you enough time to send a certified letter putting on record that the person has not responded to prior requests for information. Each email or letter should have a phone number linked to it that you don’t answer and for which you check messages once a week or so.

If, at the end, the person is really mad at you, there is not much you can do about it because you were just sending out the required notices. An act of aggression has occurred, but you were just doing your job. It’s nice to know that my neighbors are traditionalists when it comes to passive aggression.

How many zeros are there in a trillion? It’s not my fault that I said what I said.

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