In Defense of Passive Aggression

David Heap’s temporary BCC reign of terror continues.

But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father?

(Matthew 21:28-30)

I first learned of passive aggression from K-Lynn Paul’s article in Dialogue, “Passive Aggression and the Believer.” K-Lynn Paul’s article is excellent and, I daresay, timeless. I commend his piece to you. I do not think a lot has changed since then.

While passive aggression is not limited to the Church, I think our Church structure, teachings and culture make it a fertile ground for passive aggression. In our Church culture, sometimes I think the second son in Jesus’ parable (the slacker) might be considered the better son–he who accepted the assignment, but did not carry it out. This would particularly be the case if the slacker had a defensible reason for not carrying out the assignment, but it might even be the case if the son’s reason was not so good—i.e., he “forgot”, “lost track of time” or “something came up.” The first son, who eventually carried out the assignment, would, in the minds of many, be viewed harshly, because he at first openly and directly refused the assignment That is, it is better, in the Church, to be a slacker than a rebel.

Suppose a bishop asks ward members to “set a date” to invite someone to their home to hear a missionary lesson (I recall the days when that was a program of the Church in some areas). A member who flatly declined might be considered a rebel, or someone with insufficient faith. A person who accepted and set a date, but never even tried (or did not try hard), well at least they did not directly refuse. A person who flatly refuses a church visiting assignment is a rebel, an idler—but a person who accepts the assignment but rarely visits—well that is just normal.

I do not think passive aggression is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only thing one can do in difficult situations in the Church, at work, in the family or community, particularly when it is too risky to state our position openly. We can vote with our feet.

Many members opposed to Proposition 8 in California and Proposition 102 in Arizona did so publicly (including many in the Bloggernacle). But the majority of members I knew who did not support the propositions were careful to voice their concerns very privately and outside of Church. In Church settings, many were silent, or even allowed others to think that they were “following the Brethren” and supporting the propositions. Some may have taken signs to post in their yards, but passive aggressively did not post them. Or may have accepted an assignment to walk the precinct, but forgot or handed out both pro- and con- materials.

What do you think? When is passive aggression a “healthy” way to respond? When we serve as leaders, how can we be more open so that members do not feel passive aggression is the only way to disagree? What are the benefits and drawbacks of passive aggression?

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  1. The way you’ve depicted passive aggression brought two images to mind:

    1) Around 12 people raising their hand in EQ meeting when volunteers are needed to help a family in the ward move.
    2) Around 3 people, none of whom volunteered in the first place, showing up to help said family move.

  2. David,

    You point out why passive aggressive behavior is, for practical purposes, required by the church culture. However, to me this is just an indictment of the church culture. It is abominable that it is more acceptable to say you’ll do something when you have no intention of even trying than it is to say that you won’t do it.

  3. Those are interesting questions, David, and I’ll be happy to answer them. Give me a minute, please. I’ll get back to you.

  4. StillConfused says:

    I would much rather have a rebel than a slacker. At least with the rebel you have a chance of the goal being met. I get really irritated at people who say they will do something and then do not. I view it as a lack of ethics and self respect on their part.

  5. (2.) In a world in which there is clear absolute truth, and only one source of judgment, I agree. Actually, I always agree if we limit ourselves to “saying we will when we won’t”, but David referred more to simply not saying anything–thus allowing people to assume whatever they want.

    However, in the political examples David used there are more issues at work. Members had to consider not only judgment by God–which we all believe will be just–but judgment by our fellow man. While we shouldn’t care about the judgments of men, the fact is, we do–and if such social judgments are wholly uninformed and unfair, as they often are, we may see permanent and unintended consequences. This could include creating an environment in which certain people feel unloved, unwanted, and unneeded in the Church, and may result in driving a person out of the Church, when time without such judgments would have healed many wounds.

    In other words, many things we do and don’t do in the Church exude powerful signals–to God, yes, but also to our horizontally gazing neighbors. Passive aggressive approaches–saying nothing–could conceivably be a way for an uncomfortable person to minimize, if only temporarily, that discomfort.

    (I can’t believe I’m defending passive aggressive behavior.)

  6. Scott, if it makes you feel better you’re doing a terrible job (grin).

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but what I don’t like about p-a behavior is the dissimulation. People pretend like they’re not upset and then do all they can up to some undefined social boundary to exercise their outrage. That’s just falsity, met with cowardice.

  7. Steve,

    I think that (5.) is clearly the result of my normal tendency to be a contrarian. While this serves me well in many instances, I’m finding here that it has led me to defend what I now think is an indefensible (sorry, David) thesis.

  8. lolz.

  9. Mark Brown says:

    Sigh. I guess it falls to me defend p-a.

    The small duplicities are the price we pay for community to function. When people ask me how I’m doing, I understand that they are trying to be sociable, and that they probably do not want me to unload my ton of bricks du jour onto their heads. Do we really want to live with people who are always scrupulously honest and forthright? Imagine what a ward would be like if everybody told you exactly what they were thinking, all the time. Heck, think of what your marriage would be like if your spouse never held back or bit his/her tongue.

  10. I hate to be a nay-sayer here….(do my best to keep this comment out of the PA arena), but passive aggression has little to do with slackers or doers. It has to do with people who want to shred someone, but are too psychologically impotent (or “politically correct”) to fess up with their action. True, the person may appear as a slacker, but the underlying motive is assault, ergo…the term “aggression.”

  11. Anonymous says:

    As someone who has gone to counseling at LDS Family Services for Passive Agressive Behavior, this is all a little shocking.

  12. Jonathan Green says:

    I guess I don’t accept the premise that we prefer people to say yes and then not fulfill the commitment. Try arranging for a substitute teacher sometime. Heck, try arranging for a regular teacher. Trust me, people who don’t show up after saying that they will do not get extra credit points.

  13. Eric Russell says:

    David, interesting that you frame your comments in terms of a defense of passive aggression while the Dialogue article you praise is clearly an assault.

    In any case, discussions such as this are difficult when definitions are blurred. As the article takes note of, there’s a difference between situations where one declines to publicly object for the sake of civility and genuine passive aggressive behavior. I think it’s a big difference. Passive aggression is not holding your tongue out of politeness. There are many situations, in and out of the church, where that’s the wisest choice. But when it comes to real passive aggression, I don’t see that there’s any defense for it.

  14. Rebecca J says:

    I’m with PsyDoc. I don’t think most slackers intend to undermine the work of the church, but for those who do, I really don’t think their methodology is more morally defensible than the person who just comes right out and refuses to do x, y, z. It’s often about social protection, of course, which I completely understand. That’s a mitigating circumstance, perhaps, but I still think the person who refuses outright has the moral high ground (if there’s any such thing in this context), or at least they’re exhibiting some moral courage (even if they’re wrong).

    Perhaps I’m harsh on the passive-aggressive because I tend that way myself.

  15. It may be well to distinguish between passive aggression as a behavior and as a disorder:

    “Merely being passive-aggressive isn’t a disorder but a behavior — sometimes a perfectly rational behavior, which lets you dodge unpleasant chores while avoiding confrontation. It’s only pathological if it’s a habitual, crippling response reflecting a pervasively pessimistic attitude.”

  16. “When is passive aggression a “healthy” way to respond?”

    It’s probably never healthy, but it may be the only alternative, or the prohibitive favorite alternative, when people perceive that they are given ro real alternative.

    “When we serve as leaders, how can we be more open so that members do not feel passive aggression is the only way to disagree?”

    Tell people you want to know how they really feel, and mean it.

    “What are the benefits and drawbacks of passive aggression?”

    Benefit: Less confrontation, things appear to go more smoothly.
    Drawbacks: You never get to hear what people actually think, and it’s harder to actually get anything done because you can never trust any verbal commitments.

    I think this kind of thing is rampant in the Church and is tolerated. If we actually wanted to get rid of this kind of behavior, we could do so, but the price would be high in terms of open conflict. We would rather keep appearances peaceful and have the problems we currently have where the same 10 people are doing everything than try to root out PA behavior and have to actually confront people.

  17. The person who refuses outright does not always have the moral highground.
    Take the person who agrees and has every intention of trying to do the task but then other more important tasks keep coming up, or the person wants to do it and would like to but isn’t organized and forgets or ends up working overtime and having marital problems and a sick child and just can’t seem to get it together to do the task.
    Then there is the person who says no, but then they happen to be at the right place at the right time and so then they go ahead and do it last minute without any preparation or thought because nothing else was occupying their time.
    I also think there is a difference between actively saying no and just not volunteering.
    I think that the church tries very hard to teach integrity (do what you have committed to do, live what you believe) as well as help others, help build the kingdom, fulfill your callings so we can keep these situations to a minimum.
    On a side note, my friend attends a ward with a very high convert membership (different cultures too) and there seems to be an above average rate of saying yes and then not following through. Anectotally I think that Mormoms are people you can count on, although not all of them.

  18. Nuts!!! People who say they will go and do not, are lazy and/or liars and/or something came up last minute and/or ???, but they are not automatically behaving (thank you for the distinction DavidH) in a passive aggressive manner.

    And when is it a “healthy” way to respond? Personally I think some people need shredding and the Shreddee does not need the Shreddor to be criminalized because that minimizes the shredding.

  19. How often is disagreeing or speaking our true thoughts considered “contention”, and makes us look like we’re free riders, and not full fledged members of the community?

    This is a deeply ingrained cultural problem in the church, I believe. I especially see this in home teaching, along with temple or welfare assignments, or the EQ moving projects.

    However, casual consideration says that things are different for the relief society sisters. Is passive-aggressive behavior more a gender linked problem, he wonders?

  20. While passive-aggressive behavior as defined here might be easier for the individual, it is poisonous for the organization because ineffective methods of communication and assignment are allowed to continue. I personally don’t see that choice between slacker and rebel, but maybe my leaders are more enlightened.

    If we want to reduce this, we shouldn’t use shame as a motivator.

  21. So, prevarication pays! It is much better to intend to volunteer and not show because volunteering is done in public while not showing is done in relative privacy.

    So, here is an example: When regular people were 70s, I was an ad hoc president. While they were considering who was going to be one of the new presidents, the senior president called a goal setting meeting and asked how many baptisms each ward was going to get next year. Everyone around the circle set at least double the number of last year. (This is the act of volunteering!)

    I was last. I knew what last year’s number was and how many investigators were on the book and how many were already baptized. I added a few more commensurate with the rate of last year and came up with about a 20% increase. I was questioned sharply and ultimately was replaced by a more optimistic brother. Of course I was right on when the numbers came in. The grossly exaggerating were way off, but they were presidents and I was not.

    I was acting actively aggressive. Better I should have lied and promised at least triple?

  22. Peter LLC says:

    You call is passive-aggressive; I call it choosing my battles.

  23. passive aggressive behavior is never good.

    I can tell you, that my number one pet peeve on this earth is people who will not say what they really feel or mean. I cannot stand it.

    At work, it keeps absolutely anything from getting done, ever. And after work, it makes it so we can never choose a restaurant. And in RS (that is, when I used to go) it made it so you absolutely never could get to know someone for real because everything stays on the surface. Everyone tries to be nice, tries to go along while the one person in the group with an actual opinion who is not afraid to actually voice it, gets their way. Meanwhile, everyone who doesn’t have the huevos to say what they really mean, go about trying to subvert the person who did.

  24. I don’t see anything in your entry that indicates room for a valid opposing opinion or even independent thinking.

    I guess that’s why there’s passive aggression and will be for a long time to come.

  25. I hate passive-aggression. I much prefer people who are honest, even blunt, than those who “go along” and do not openly state their opinions/concerns/intentions. But I have to say, as someone who has, on occasion, agreed to do things and then not performed well (visiting teaching), that there are other reasons for that type of behavior, like just being disorganized and lame, in spite of good intentions.

  26. TA the confessor says:

    I know little psychology, but as a practitioner of borderline passive aggressive behavior I’ll share three scenarios and my justifications:

    My Elders Quorum Presidency recently presented some goals in quorum meeting. One of the goals is for ever member to go joint teaching with the missionaries x times a quarter, which I’m very unlikely to do. The presenter asked for comments, and I remained silent. Expressing dissent would have led to an unsatisfactory and unproductive public discussion. I won’t sign up, so the damage from my silence is limited to the presidency not knowing my aversion to joint teaching.

    At work I’m in the habit letting my office door swing shut when there are loud conversations in the hall. One of my officemates has suggested this is passive aggressive. (He doesn’t appear to be using the clinical definition, but this usage seems to be gaining popularity.) I think closing the door reduces the problem and is the most civil way to signal my annoyance as well.

    I’m not comfortable calling strangers and inviting myself into their homes, so my home teaching lists contain members that I won’t visit. I once told a quorum president this; the results were a pep talk and no change in my assignment. I see little reason to pay the confrontation costs if it will not change anything.

    I’ll gladly abandon these behaviors if I find a more effective alternative.

  27. There’s also this. What some people consider passive aggressive is actually just a cultural difference from their culture. Let me give you an example. You can read Miss Manners to check this, if you have any doubts that it’s a genuine cultural difference. In the South, by which I mean the southeastern U.S., if someone asks you on a date and you don’t want to date them, they ask for a specific time and activity, and you turn down that specific time and activity. After three times at the very most, if you have turned them down for specific activities, they should get the message and not ask you again. It’s not lying. It’s a very well-understood code that’s considered to be common courtesy here. Saying, when invited once to a movie, “I really don’t want to date you” would be way rude, because the person didn’t ask for any commentary on their personality. They didn’t ask you to marry them. They just asked if you wanted to see a movie with them. Does that make sense? If you don’t want to, you say “sorry, I can’t that night”. I know this isn’t how it’s done in other parts of the country. (Please don’t argue with these things and say they’re bad or wrong. They’re just how polite society works here.) To us anything else seems in-your-face aggressive and rude.

    Another example: an Asian friend was asked by another friend to give blood. The Asian friend said okay sure, agreeing to meet at a certain place and time. Later when he didn’t show up he was like “I didn’t see you”. He hates needles so wasn’t ever intending to give blood, but always it’s some technical glitch or other that prevents him doing what he’s agreed to do. It’s just his way, and I’ve heard that’s true in many Asian cultures. It’s not lying, it’s stating clearly in a non-rude way exactly what you intend to convey.

    A third example: A friend who was born up north and moved down here about 25 years ago hasn’t learned how it is down here. She works as a nurse in a doctor’s office. Sometimes patients call up to ask for samples instead of filling their prescriptions and paying money. Occasionally the same patient will call over and over to get samples. My friend directed the receptionist to tell such patients they won’t give them any more samples. Instead the (native born) receptionist told the patients they are all out. My friend grew impatient with this. She told the receptionist to just tell them. Still the receptionist continued to tell the patients they didn’t have any samples of their drug. I explained that the receptionist is telling the patients very clearly that they can’t have any more, just in a way that isn’t considered rude down here. I told my friend that she with her bald-faced “no you can’t have any more” probably came across to her receptionist as an awkwardly rude blunt and offensive person. The receptionist was doing my friend a favor by phrasing that answer in a more diplomatic way. Again, to my friend this seemed passive aggressive, but in the cultural context it was a clear message couched in polite terms.

    So one culture’s passive aggressive is another culture’s basic diplomacy and tact.

  28. So, in order to bring up something potentially (or definitely) contentious we have to trust that those we are bringing up our conflict with will do “the right thing” with that conflict, or at least listen and then not retaliate. Some leaders are very good about that; others, not so much. I find the “don’t criticize the Lord’s anointed/any leader” rhetoric detrimental to the establishment of the kind of trust necessary to bring up most conflicts, which doesn’t leave room for anything besides passive aggression, or passive disassociation. I think of passive aggression as something distinct from saying you’ll do something and then failing to follow through–to me it involves some level of deceit, not just laziness.

  29. Another example of why people might choose the “passive-aggressive” route:
    Multiple years ago, my sister wasn’t doing very well mental-health-wise and was hanging onto church activity by the tips of her fingernails. Her husband was also semi-inactive. When he received an assignment or challenge, he always said, “sure, sure” with no intention of ever following through. My sister, knowing that she couldn’t handle anything extra, turned down callings and assignments. She was the one called into the bishop’s office and told she needed to buck up and repent and try harder. Even after she tried to explain her circumstances, she was still rebuffed. If church members can’t accept others’ limitations, then I don’t think we can expect people to be straightforward about their choices.

  30. So one culture’s passive aggressive is another culture’s basic diplomacy and tact.

    When that sort of thing extends to outright dishonesty and misrepresentation of material facts, I would say that is a first class cultural pathology. In the wrong circumstances it can get you sent to jail. In others it can get you branded as untrustworthy for life. I wouldn’t want anything to do with a vendor who lies to me, for example.

    If I am in church and someone asks me to commit to something I am not prepared to commit to, I simply refuse. Saying you hope to be able to come, or you plan to come, and then are unable to is one thing. Saying you will come, and then failing to show absent a first class emergency demonstrates a marked lack of integrity. Even saying you plan to come without a 75% or better track record of showing up when such an assurance is given is pretty questionable.

  31. TA the confessor (#26) – You are exactly the type of home teacher I need – my wife and I hate having people call up and invite themselves over. We would much rather just know who our home teacher is, and have them make brief contact at church.

    Personally, I have never had a problem telling my leaders ‘No.’ Lately, it’s even become a game. It’s fun to watch their mouths hang open, speechless, when you flat-out refuse a request. Seriously tho, on a personal level I find it preferable to say ‘No’ than to commit and renege. I may be a rebel, but at least I won’t be an oath-breaker as well.

  32. Doing my best to help says:

    No to requests, yes to callings. There are chances I just don’t want to take.

    I always thought passive-aggression resulted in manipulation of the recipient of the passive-aggressive act. The examples I have read here don’t seem to include that. It really sounds like most of this behavior is simply dishonest. However, many times I have said yes to things when I pretty much knew that whatever I agreed to probably wouldn’t happen. Perhaps I manipulated the person in leaving me alone by doing that.

  33. that exerpt is supposed to show passive aggressive tendencies? Wow. I guess I severely misunderstood those kinds of stories. I thought the one I’m thinking of was about forgiveness.

  34. My Elders Quorum Presidency recently presented some goals in quorum meeting. One of the goals is for ever member to go joint teaching with the missionaries x times a quarter, which I’m very unlikely to do. The presenter asked for comments, and I remained silent. Expressing dissent would have led to an unsatisfactory and unproductive public discussion. I won’t sign up, so the damage from my silence is limited to the presidency not knowing my aversion to joint teaching.

    In my ward they instituted a similar program, only we don’t get the luxury of signing ourselves up, the ward mission leader assigns us a night, and if we can’t make it its up to us to find replacement. Passive aggression meets Totalitarianism I guess.

    My wife is not a member of the Church, but has been the Activities Committee Chairwoman for several years. She’s told me a few times that the thing she’s learned most about Mormons is that “they aren’t very reliable, and they have a hard time keeping their word”. I told her she should already know that since we’ve been married longer than she’s been on the Activities Committee.

  35. Scott B., hopefully that will be added to the approved equipment list for all new Church buildings.

  36. i can’t say I ever read it quite like that

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