The first recorded instance of passive-aggressive behavior took place shortly after the invention of fire.
A man named Grog sat stoking the new fire, cackling with glee as he piled giant logs into the flames. Eventually, he’d created a raging inferno. Nearby, Thunk snarled at Grog for making the cave too hot. Annoyed, Grog hurled Thunk into the fire. For the rest of the night the other tribe members sat tugging the collars of their fur suits and loudly asking each other “Are you warm, or is it just me?”
The above story is obviously false, but it presents an important truth: Passive-aggressive behavior serves a perceived purpose with the specific goal of survival. Rather than tackle the Grogs of the world head-on, people in fear of their lives come at problems from the side, striking with varying levels of comments and pointed behaviors in order to achieve their desired outcome.
No one wants to be Thunk, burning to a crisp from an ill-timed confrontation. But some folks take this too far and avoid all confrontations, or become so cruel in their sideways attacks that they shred the bonds of their tribe and drive everyone out into the dark to escape the flying barbs.
Passive-aggressive behavior is most common with insecure people. As I wrote in my book Slaying Your Fear, people with attachment issues believe they are innately unlovable. In social settings and confrontations this means they also believe no one will ever listen to their concerns, and the tribe will never side with them during disputes. Their brains perceive potential rejection or abandonment as threats against their very lives, and their fight-or-flight system activates. This creates a tense situation when the insecure person is forced to confront others for even the most minute of infringements on their space or expectations.
Imagine a group of friends seated around a table playing a card game. When Grog accidentally takes up too much elbow room, a passive-aggressive person with attachment issues is unlikely to say, “Hey Grog, give me some space.” The insecure person’s primal brain believes Grog will hurl them into the fire as the rest of the tribe chants, “YOU HAD IT COMING, YOU HAD IT COMING.”
Instead, the passive-aggressive person is likely to take small jabs at Grog. Stepping on his foot and commenting, “Oh, I’m so sorry, it’s so cramped at this table!” If verbal comments are too frightening or fail to work, the person may simply sigh pointedly over and over, in a veritable hurricane of frustrated breaths. Eventually Grog will get why you’re puffing like a locomotive, right?
The point is to avoid obvious behaviors which Grog could get angry about. Plausible deniability is key here. If Grog gets angry and turns to demand, “What’s up with the sighing?” the insecure person needs to be able to say, “Oh, was I sighing? Sorry,” or the evergreen, “Nothing.” The same goes if the rest of the table notices and confronts the passive-aggressive person. If the insecure person hasn’t had time to win every member over with generosity, to earn their love through works, they don’t believe anyone cares enough to listen to their problems. “Into the fire you go, loser!” Full deniability about the sly behaviors is key to survival and avoiding the flames.
Most common of all, though, is a social behavior called triangulation. The passive-aggressive person is likely to pick someone else in the group they think will be receptive and complain to them. They feel other members out with gossip about Grog and his thoughtless table etiquette. They work to slowly turn their chosen ally against Grog, making sure the ally is solidly against Grog (and owes the insecure person for all the favors they’ve done in the meantime, by the way!). The insecure person may go on to shift several group members, forging a secret alliance against Grog and his nightmarish table brutality.
Eventually, half the group thinks Grog is a deadbeat who eats too many of the snacks, talks about things no one wants to hear, chews too loudly, shows up too early, takes too long to place his cards, and oh, by the way — he takes up too much table space, like some sort of monster!
“HURL GROG INTO THE FIRE,” they chant together, and the passive-aggressive instigator leans back in their chair with a smug grin. Justice has finally been served.
Grog sits there confused. Where did all this come from? “Why didn’t you just say something?” the big dope asks.
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” is one rationalization passive-aggressive people use. If Grog were really a good person, after all, the entire triangulation wouldn’t have been necessary! He’d never infringe on the space of others in the first place!
Maybe Grog gets angry that his friends have been systematically turned against him, so he punches the instigator in the nose. The passive-aggressive person has spent all their time creating a web of deniability. “I wasn’t even doing anything wrong!” they cry. “Not once did I complain, and yet this huge brute attacked me!”
The rest of the group gangs up on Grog. He’s obviously in the wrong for attacking, right? Nothing the passive-aggressive person did was really rude. They kick Grog out into the dark. Good riddance!
Only, it doesn’t stop with Grog. Human interaction is full of frequent collisions between personalities. We get along by talking them through and finding ways to live in peace.
Passive-aggressive people wound the fabric of social coexistence by refusing to engage in peaceful talks. They go for the jugular while maintaining full deniability. The group doesn’t catch on until several key members have been outcast and refuse to ever return as they nurse emotional wounds. Relationships are severed, leaving the group with only the passive-aggressive instigator as their friend.
And do you really want to be their next target? Better stay in line and not speak up against the instigator, because they’ll dance away from your attacks with full deniability and turn the tribe against you. Better not play the triangulation game either, Grog, because you’re far outclassed.
This is the cycle which tears apart social groups and leaves healthy members scratching their heads. The insecure person enters the group, does a bunch of favors to make people like them, perceives a slight from another person in the group, gathers allies to rescue them from the cruelty of their tormentor, turns the group on their adversary and drives them out, then enjoys elevated status and attention as the remaining group members seek to console the secret instigator in the wake of their struggle. Repeat over and over until the group is absolutely shredded.
Eventually, after the cycle happens a couple times and they’ve repeatedly seen the confused looks on every Grog’s face, the remaining members of the group wake up. Maybe they rally around one last surviving member with some leadership skills who rises to oppose the instigator. Together, the survivors drive out the instigator, who shrieks and wails in the darkness about how unfair it all is. “I never did anything wrong! You all turned on them yourselves!”
The instigator then heads to a new group, usually a rival for the first group. “You’ll never guess how they treated me,” the instigator sobs, and the new group takes them in with open arms and comforting words. Things are peaceful until Grog 2.0 accidentally takes up too much space at the table. Then the cycle repeats.
Passive-aggressive behavior is designed to help the insecure person avoid perceived threats against their life, but in modern settings, we rarely need to fear being hurled into a raging inferno for making a request. Direct confrontation at the outset is really the best option if any individual seeks to maintain their group’s cohesion.
And confrontation does not have to be bad! All collisions are confrontations. Asking your partner to pick up some milk because they drank a bunch so you’re running low. Telling your boss you need a day off to manage stress. And yes, even asking a friend to shift over and give you more space at the table.
We humans tend to adore those around us who confront directly, so long as they use just a hint of tact and consideration for us as well. We say such people exhibit confidence and leadership skills, but in reality, they’re using healthy skills which maintain the fabric of a trusting social group. By openly declaring a concern, the person offers everyone else a chance to vent their own worries and find a peaceful solution. Trust is maintained, and the group continues with a healthier understanding of each others’ needs.
When you encounter the Grogs of the world, start using direct confrontation to maintain social cohesion in your social groups. People will trust you more as a result. And be on the lookout for passive-aggressive instigators working to triangulate you and shred your tribe for their own comfort.
If you recognize passive-aggressive tendencies in yourself, check out my book Slaying Your Fear to learn how to confront directly and stop the cycle of constant worrying.