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The difference between “passive aggressive” and “passive”.


Hey folks! Today’s post is going to be on the difference between “passive aggressive” and “passive”.

The advice of Wil Wheaton (his initials are WW too!) is really good! Two weeks ago, he wrote on the benefits of making it a point to sit down and write something everyday–no matter how tired you are! Making yourself sit and write something daily forces you to reflect on your life, and I do think I’m reflecting quite a bit these days!

This post is divided into four parts:

  • (A) My definition of “passive aggression”;
  • (B) The difference between “passive aggressive” and “passive”;
  • (C) Why being passive aggressive is strategic; and
  • (D) Deciding what sort of human being you want to be.

Okay let’s start!

(A) My definition of “passive aggression”.

I define “passive aggressive” as “insisting on not doing anything you don’t want to do“.

In my previous post, I mentioned that prior to Finland, I’d never done anything passive aggressive before. The way I deal with tricky life matters has always been active–I’d always insist on doing something actively to get something else done.

Then I came to Finland, and I realized that people in general here are:

  • (1) Smart;
  • (2) A handful can even do whatever they want, and have the ability to justify these controversial behavior very well;
  • (3) Some Finns can be really passive aggressive.

In contrast, Singaporeans tend to be

  • (1) Book-Smart;
  • (2) A handful cannot do whatever they want; or can do whatever they want but can’t really justify well;
  • (3) Is likely to be openly hardworking and aggressive.

Complaining is our national hobby, but we have a well-functioning government and an economy that recently ranked No.1 in the whole world by Legatum Institute.

(B) The difference between “passive” and “passive aggressive”.

Now, let’s differentiate between being “passive” and being “passive aggressive”. The difference between the two is that people who are passive can be easily coaxed/forced into action with the appropriate motivators. People who are passive aggressive, on the other hand, cannot be easily coaxed, if coaxing is even at all possible. Even though both passive and passive aggressive people do not do anything on the surface, passive aggressive people insist on non-action.

Being passive is a political choice, just as silence is. When one is passive/silent, you make zero progress, but you also don’t regress. Nobody can fault you for something you don’t say, or don’t do because it is not within your job scope.

Being passive aggressive is also a political choice. However, it is a choice made to aggressively progress your own ideologies, ideals and agenda, by insisting not to do some things under certain conditions. Passive aggression follows a consistent vision and plan, and is therefore predictable.

So you see, contrary to popular belief that you can’t easily tell between passivity and passive aggression, I believe you can. The way is simply to test the waters by coaxing. Passive people respond to coaxing, but passive aggressive people do not.

The pros of being passive aggressive is therefore that you are focused on what you stand for, and refuse to do everything you don’t stand for. This is excellent because whatever tasks you undertake, you are productive and can afford to spend less time on noise, or things that don’t matter.

In some cases, passive aggression is also a great non-verbal way to say, “Fuck niceness”, and by extension, “Fuck you.”

For example, if your passion is medicine, and you really don’t give a damn about the mandatory accountancy course dictated by the school, a passive aggressive action would be to skip all the accountancy courses. This is an absolutely a smart choice because (1) you are sure it won’t affect your future; (2) you have zero interest in it, (3) with the time saved, you can advance what actually interests you and be better at these things that you’re interested in.

In addition, in the scenario when you know that helping someone isn’t going to benefit you any way in your career, you can be passive aggressive by insisting not to help at all. This is what I term a “jerk behavior”, because you will just accept the person’s struggle in front of you as none of your business, in spite of knowing you can make his/her life much easier by going the usually effortless extra mile.

But remember, the goal of being passive aggressive is not to appear/be nice. The goal is to be focused on what you stand for, and refuse to do things that contributes to what (even positive things) you do not stand for.

The cons of being passive aggressive is that if you have to work with several groups of people who are also passive aggressive, there can be no effective compromise and your organization is effectively screwed. I think this was what happened with the previous Finnish cabinet (a 6 party coalition party which unsurprisingly failed), and I think it will also happen in this current 3-party coalition cabinet.

My point is, when you are working with different groups of passive aggressive people, think properly and pick a side. Compromise is never possible, and once you compromise the tendency of ending up in a lose-lose situation is extremely high.

Another possible downside to being passive aggressive is that you need to have a clear idea of what you stand for, and do not stand for. However, because the modern world is so complex and changes so fast, it’s really difficult to navigate when you don’t know what you don’t know. Therefore, passive aggression requires an open mind–when you are passive aggressive, you need to be aware that this set of things that you stand for and do not stand for can change, too. Obviously, you can be passive aggressive and severely mistaken, and this is going to be destructive for yourself and the larger groups of people around you.

(C) Why being passive aggressive is strategic.

“The value of a thing sometimes lies not in what one attains with it but in what one pays for it–what it costs us.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

The simple answer is this: When you insist on not doing anything you don’t feel like doing, or insist on not doing anything that doesn’t contribute towards your vision, you force the “asker” to reevaluate how much he/she values your action.

This is a genius strategy in negotiation, because you get rid of people who take you for granted. And for people who want you to make the additional effort, they have to coax you into doing the action for them. Being passive aggressive greatly raises your negotiating power.

In addition, if being passive/passive aggressive is an accepted norm in Finland, passive aggression will work even more effectively as a strategy! Because passivity is accepted, and every action you actually do reveals either a real intrinsic interest, or you can actually get great compensation for it.

This explains why labour unions in Finland are so damn powerful. I think they are really passive aggressive, and this is widely accepted because Finns are used to passive aggression in the name of “democracy and freedom of expression”. “Give us what we want, or our workers will insist on not going to work.” <– This is the sort of thinking, and it works!

Obviously the economy doesn’t progress with such behavior, but that’s not the job scope of the labour union, is it?😛

(D) Deciding what sort of human being you want to be.

So with this post, I’d leave it up to you (and myself) to decide what kind of human being you want to be.

Is obstinately sticking to your job scope really okay, when you know clearly that going the (usually effortless) extra mile for someone will help them in more ways than you think?

In a rapidly complex and changing world–my personal answer to this question is “No”. I will still go the extra mile for anyone who asks for my help, even if it is out of my job scope. I see this as being human.

Having said that however, I do acknowledge that Singaporeans tend to undervalue our worth because we are not passive aggressive enough, if at all. Therefore, I strongly believe that we should really take the time to learn how to be passive aggressive too, and not be nice enough to do everything for everybody and anybody.

This also includes the giving and sharing of information and time. The bible has this verse:

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6)

More Singaporeans got to learn how to only give important things to important people, and refuse aggressively to allow unimportant people access to our time, resources and intelligence.

Let’s learn to be passive aggressive sometimes too, my friends!😉


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