How do I deal with passive insults?
December 24, 2013 11:24 AM   Subscribe

I always run into these types of people at work and life. Hopefully someone can understand what I mean.

I work with this co-worker who shares a decent amount of interests with me. Initially I thought he was cool guy but as I worked with him more - I started doubting whether or not he was being a genuine person. This started when he began to make unprovoked passive insults at me. I'd be in a joking mood and I'd make a joke about something and he would just outright say "End that bad joke as soon as possible" or just straight "Was that a joke? That wasn't funny" - in the most serious way. I'd be pretty surprised by it because I'd think it was kind of dickish to say that. We went out for a couple of drinks after work with another co-worker, and whenever I got around to talking about what I wanted to do (being a cartoonist) - he'd make backhanded comments like "Seriously, what do you want to do?". The thing that bothers me the most is that almost everyone is oblivious to this. He acts like such a nice guy to everyone. Also, we share pretty obscure tastes in music and movies and whenever I bring up anything I like, he retorts with elitist comments. Or puts me on the spot in front of other co-workers. Overall, I get pretty disingenuous vibes from this guy. Almost like he gets threatened whenever I come off pretty confident.

I've met numerous people like this at my old jobs. Co-workers, superiors - who all would insult me and laugh at my expense. Do these people like taking advantage of shy, quiet people who don't socialize often? It feels like I've never learned how to properly deal with them. I can't react to their passive insults with anger or with insults otherwise I come off as the jerk. It's also pretty depressing how I keep running into them too.

I know it seems petty to complain about this, or that I should just simply brush it aside (which I will) but I have a feeling I'm going to run into a lot more people like this in the future. And would feel better if I knew there were other people out there who can sympathize.

posted by morning_television to Human Relations (30 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Personally I'd keep this co-worker at arms length emotionally. Find yourself someone at work that you trust and who supports your dreams. A good friend who doesn't like the same music or movies is much better than someone who undermines you as a person. Continue to trade movie recommendations with the douche - but don't confide in him or emotionally invest in him.
posted by Kalmya at 11:29 AM on December 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

These people might think they're being funny. I've known lots of people with sarcastic bitchy senses of humor. Not that it's an excuse, but maybe they're not purposefully trying to hurt/insult you.
posted by katypickle at 11:33 AM on December 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

A lot of this sounds terrible, but I feel like I have to ask -- what are your jokes about when he shuts you down? Is it possible they could be seen as insulting, or targeting a certain group, or something like that? The answer to this very well might be no, but there are a lot of questions on here from people whose coworkers make insensitive jokes, and they don't know how to deal with that, and the sort of things he is doing (e.g. deadpanning "That wasn't funny") is often what is recommended as a response.

That doesn't excuse any of the other things he does (elitist comments about your tastes, not taking your chosen career seriously -- though that is a weird thing to talk about with your coworkers), but I do think you should examine it.
posted by brainmouse at 11:37 AM on December 24, 2013 [14 favorites]

I kind of have to ask, too. I have a supervisor who is genuinely sweet, but often talks faster than she thinks. I do illustrations for work on occasion in addition to my main role, and the CEO asked me to do one for a presentation. My supervisor's response: "I LOVE it! I told [the CEO] it was almost as if we'd brought in a real designer!"

She meant well. I just have to keep reminding myself that she's being kind, even though their words don't always reflect it.
posted by mochapickle at 11:50 AM on December 24, 2013

Do these people like taking advantage of shy, quiet people who don't socialize often?

I have no window into the minds of these people so I'm not going to say they like it, but shy, quiet people who don't socialize often can easily become the targets of jackasses like this one, because they know you won't respond with "what's your fucking problem?" And, as you realize, there's always jackasses like this one around.

So, assuming you're not telling offensive jokes or misinterpreting his sense of humor or somehow giving him a reason to resent you, it just sounds like this is a guy to avoid and ignore rather than "deal with."

If your confidence threatens him, then threaten the shit out of him with it.
posted by griphus at 11:58 AM on December 24, 2013 [26 favorites]

Response by poster: I make the least offensive jokes. I'm a fan of dumb jokes or pun jokes because of how horrible they are. I never joke about anything that could be thought of as insensitive.

There have been times where it's obvious that he clearly picks on me. So it doesn't seem like he'd be one of those people who just can't control what they say. It all comes out as malicious. I don't see why nobody else sees it.
posted by morning_television at 12:00 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was vaguely on the "wait, so what's an example? What did you say?" Train until bullet point #2. Because that's just being a penis.

Maybe he thinks he's "funny", in his head, but there's just no way that's funny. He just hasn't encountered enough people who just completely deadpan him in silence when he pulls that crap.

Maybe he was the popular kid in highschool and beyond or the sports star in college and no one ever challenged him on being a prick and just slurped it up, who knows. But I have definitely encountered the exact kind of prick you're talking about here more than once, and I'm not fixin to jump on the "well if you encounter the problem several times maybe it's you" bandwagon.

Basically, what I'm saying, is I believe you. I've worked with someone like this multiple times.

I tried going down the path of probing out "what, doesn't anyone else see that this guys an asshole?"with several people a couple times and only really undermined myself. The only thing that ever worked was waiting to see if they flamed out by being like this to the wrong person repeatedly.

No one I've ever met like this was actually nice at their core, or happy. This is an unhappy mans game. They were actually angry, on some simmering level. One guy had a total toddler rage meltdown finally after months. The other guy was really mean to someone in an adjacent office for no reason when he was having a bad day... And then someone flattened his tires. Both times it was like the best sex of my entire life to watch, and also gave me a beautiful opportunity to comment to a couple people I trusted at that place "see? Look, total penis".

I don't really know what to say with relation to weathering it, but just that I believe you and I believe this isn't a "you" thing, or that you're being oversensitive or anything like that. This guy is like a bad sitcom character and you have to live with it.

Take solace in the fact that there's no way you're the only one he treats like this, and he probably has a sad fucking life in some way.
posted by emptythought at 12:01 PM on December 24, 2013 [19 favorites]

You may be on to something. If you are usually quiet and not very social, then people like your coworker see you as their wingman/sidekick, not as your own person. So then when you get vocal or confident enough to upset that apple cart, they Knock you back down.

So your job is to recognize it early & not get attached. Don't put your eggs in other people's baskets. Don't focus on that one rare person who shares your obscure interests. Instead, broaden your interests, and/or befriend people in spite of that & be the guy in the group who has that obscure interest.

I can identify with being more of a one-on-one person than a group person. But those relationships come with their own challenges, among them being vulnerable to the other person's less-than-perfect behavior.
posted by headnsouth at 12:13 PM on December 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

Have you ever asked these people, "Hey, what is it about that joke that wasn't funny to you? Was it offensive at all or is it not your kind of humor?" Just start putting it back on them to see what's up. You might discover that your jokes are much more annoying or offensive than you think. Many people think their jokes are innocuous and I can't tell you how often they're wrong.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:17 PM on December 24, 2013

I'm with @emptythought, and I believe you, too, OP. You've described a pattern here. There's a word for "a person who undermines others socially" and that word is "Bully." He sucks - trust your instincts that this guy is no good.

But see how even on an anonymous-ish internet forum here, folks are immediately reluctant to see your side of it? They need proof. That's why there's benefit to bringing this "passive" conflict out into the open when there is an audience.

"I can't react to their passive insults with anger or with insults otherwise I come off as the jerk."

I'd like to respectfully challenge your thinking on this point. I'm a sensitive introvert, and I've been working on being more assertive for years. I'm 37 and I successfully dealt with a same-aged female bully in my social circle recently by just refusing to engage. I refused to answer an unsolicited, ammunition-seeking kind of question about my sex life that she rudely asked me in front of a group of women (a bit similar to the way your coworker tries to undermine you with his questions): I said in a calm tone of voice, "Why would I tell YOU that?" Silence. She was really caught off guard, and immediately stopped all attempts at bullying me (to my face anyway). That was months ago and it has worked out really well for me. Anyone who thinks I'm a "jerk" for defending myself and not engaging with her, well, do I honestly care about their opinion?

One really great example of politely pushing back against social undermining in pop culture was Russell Brand's legendary appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe, where he starts off being undermined by the announcers mocking him for "being a big deal"… I love how he handled himself and stood up for his own dignity by asking "What's wrong with your manners?"
posted by hush at 12:21 PM on December 24, 2013 [17 favorites]

I think that headnsouth is onto something. Possibly because you might have a need to feel connected to someone, the people most open to being "latched on to" are people who like the attention and enjoy having a sidekick they can keep around as a subordinate. Your love of dumb jokes and bad puns probably serves to fill out your role as the "little kid" that people feel they can kick around.

People with mean streaks are as good at self preservation as anyone, so they carefully pick targets to lash out at.
posted by deanc at 12:22 PM on December 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

It sounds to me that he is insecure and trying to build himself up at your expense. He is uncomfortable whenever you "outdo" him with either a joke or some new band. It is easy for me to say, don't let it bother you, but if you let it roll off you, it is the best way to get past these jokers.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:26 PM on December 24, 2013

Sounds like he might have had early success with ribbing others (good-natured or otherwise) and now it's his only schtick. Like frat boy trash talking he never grew out of. You need to defend yourself, but subtle may be best to not make an uncomfortable work situation worse. Maybe give him an incredulous vaguely critical look along with a "Really?" Then look away and give your attention to someone who deserves it.
posted by cecic at 12:35 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of dumb jokes or pun jokes because of how horrible they are

and he would just outright say "End that bad joke as soon as possible"

dude, maybe he just isn't a fan of dumb horrible jokes. It kind of sounds like you're getting the exact reaction you're inviting.

I've met numerous people like this at my old jobs. Co-workers, superiors - who all would insult me and laugh at my expense.

So, I don't know you of course, but I do know someone who constantly complains that people are picking on her or secretly laughing at her behind her back, and I've been out with her and people are really genuinely not doing that to her. I don't know what it is, it's like in her mind it's still the worst part of junior high: she just constantly over-interprets normal human interactions as insults or as jokes at her expense.

If this were just one guy, then okay, everyone runs into an asshole now and then; but if this is a long-running pattern for you you might consider whether that pattern is in your thoughts rather than in their actions. Maybe I'm wrong in your case but it's worth considering as a possibility.
posted by ook at 12:51 PM on December 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

For a quick way to deal with comments like this on the spot, just call out the insult in a straightforward manner: say something like "That was a rude thing to say," in a normal tone of voice, then continue the conversation as though they hadn't said whatever mean thing.

It communicates that you don't like the thing they said (which they might not know rubs you the wrong way), it's a way to assert yourself (in case they are picking on you to establish confidence or what have you), and it puts up a little flag for others to notice these comments (since you said everyone else is oblivious to it). Then, you can ask other acquaintances about it, for some insight from the sidelines.
posted by Pwoink at 1:08 PM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

If he says something like that to you, just insert a "dude". That's what it's there for.

Anyway, the reason why he does this - there are some people who like to be special snowflakes. He likes all these obscure things and they define him, you know, they make him who he is and that is special and obscure. So then you come along, with your interests sharing and desire to connect. This dude doesn't want to connect. This dude wants to be special. And you've just walked all over his turf. So he's got to put you in your place, he was the first one with those interests and you've come in and thought you could be like him. Oh no - he's the special one, you got that?

And you are going to keep running into people like this because there are a number of them out there. And there's nothing you can really do to prevent them from doing it because it's not about you at all. It's about the perceived threat of you that they have to shut down. More than likely, on some level, he actually likes you, but is so utterly consumed by his overwhelming desire to be special and "worthy" and his feelings of inferiority (that are highlighted now that he/you/other people might know that he 's not special) that he simply cannot connect with you and treat you decently.
posted by heyjude at 1:21 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Is he trying -- and failing -- to flirt with you? Dealing poorly with a same-sex attraction that he doesn't really know how to manage?

As for you, just brush him off. Make Coco's mantra your own: "I don't care what you think about me. I don't think about you at all."

Whatever his reasons are, assign him a little bit of your mental sympathy for having problems that make him feel like he needs to be a dick to other people to feel better about yourself. Then move along and start making an effort to find friends and acquaintances who build you up and encourage you. This will be your buffer for other asshats you'll meet in your future.
posted by mibo at 1:24 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I re-read some of your previous questions . . . could there also be just some plain old competition for the attention of your lady coworkers at play here?
posted by mibo at 1:28 PM on December 24, 2013

"The thing that bothers me the most is that almost everyone is oblivious to this. He acts like such a nice guy to everyone." and "I don't see why nobody else sees it."

That is extremely frustrating, and I totally sympathize. WHY DOESN'T EVERYBODY ELSE SEE THE OBVIOUS DICKISHNESS?

For a lot of reasons, they can't say so. Don't mistake silence for agreement. I bet someone else actually sees it, but they are barred by the proverbial social contract from outwardly bringing it up with you. Doing so might embarrass you, or they might not know how just much this undermining upsets you - unless maybe you were to bring it up privately, one-on-one and ask for their support?

The last time you saw someone else being socially undermined, what was your own response? Oftentimes words fail me in the moment, I don't know what to say, I wait too long, I'd like to help but then - the moment's gone. But believe me, I saw it. I have filed away in my mind not to trust the aggressor. If I know the target really well, I might follow up with them privately: "I didn't like the way Dickhat spoke to you back there. Are you ok?" If I don't know them well, I might not say anything. Still, I saw it and I get it.
posted by hush at 1:46 PM on December 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

There's a word for "a person who undermines others socially" and that word is "Bully." He sucks - trust your instincts that this guy is no good.

I came here to say exactly this. We like to think when we grow up and get an office job it will be "mature" and "professional" - it's a beautiful dream. In reality, very little has changed since the schoolyard. Some kids act like assholes because it makes them feel big, or because they have a bad home environment, or just because they enjoy it.

Regardless, there's no excuse, and you don't have to put up with it. You can try being honest about how hurtful it is, or just avoiding people like this as much as you can, but you don't have to put up with it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:47 PM on December 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Stop trying to be friends with this guy. He doesn't want to be your friend, he's not insulting you he's rebuffing your attempts to create a more intimate relationship. This is not a reflection on you, no one here has any way od knowing what's going on insidehis head or why he doesn't want to be more friendly but he clearly doesn't. Dont take it personally just move on amd find a new guy to be friends with.
posted by fshgrl at 2:31 PM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

In this case I would fight snark with snark.

"Was that a joke?"

Mime-pat him on the head, speaking in a slow "you're stupid" voice: "Yes, yes it is."

Then ignore him, as everyone else has suggested. The best way to deal with backhanded shit like that is to fire off a bitchy retort. It tells them that you're no wimp to be stepped on.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:44 PM on December 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

The best way to deal with backhanded shit like that is to fire off a bitchy retort. It tells them that you're no wimp to be stepped on.

I agree. Sounds to me like this guy doesn't like you. Just communicate to him that he shouldn't screw with you (also with sarcasm/frankness, since those are his weapons of choice -- for what it's worth, I like St. Peepsburg's retort, you don't want to go so angry/confrontational that stuff escalates), and otherwise ignore him.

Other people realize he's shutting you down. Maybe they aren't saying anything because they're scared of him turning on them, or maybe they like him better than you and are willing to cut him extra slack, or maybe they also don't like you and are happy he's shutting you down. No way to know and probably each one of these people has a different opinion anyway, they're random co-workers, they're not a monolith.

Not everyone is going to like you, just form the basis for a truce (communicate through your behavior/interactions with him: don't mess with me and I won't mess with you) and disengage. Also, don't talk trash about this guy to any co-workers, it'll backfire and make you look like a gossip or petty or like a jerk in your own right. That's breaking the truce, too, albeit in a backdoor way, and it'll make everyone uncomfortable and make him feel like he needs to assert himself with you again.
posted by rue72 at 4:04 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Are you female? Is this just a dickish gender dynamic, where the guy feels like it's his job, as a guy, to put you down? Is he negging you?
posted by alms at 8:51 PM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

He sounds like an asshole. Don't hang out with him, limit interaction at work to basic work stuff. It's not wort the hassle to learn the verbal debate techniques, and he'll just make you feel bad, and undermine you with others. It's not just you - assholes are pretty much everywhere. Some people are good at ignoring them, or are not so sensitive.
posted by theora55 at 2:33 AM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I... don't think he's being insulting, and wouldn't read his comments as you've reported them as insulting. "End that bad joke as soon as possible" and "Was that a joke? That wasn't funny" said seriously would be deadpan humour to me. "Seriously, what do you want to do?" would not to me be a "backhanded" comment, it would be a legitimate question given that the odds of being a self-supporting cartoonist are only slightly better than those of being a self-supporting astronaut.

Obviously, some of this is how you decide to interpret and take it, but just because his personality rubs you the wrong way doesn't mean he's targeting you for insults, is all I'm saying. By all means, decide he's an asshole, but it doesn't necessarily follow he's picking on you.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:45 AM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've had friends like this. Especially in high school. Constant one upsmamship, constant needling and patronizing teasing...acting as though they're doing you a favor by letting you bask in their presence. If you both like comics he likes better ones. If you both like a band he liked them first. Etc etc ad nauseum.

Here's what I've come to learn...fuck that guy. He's an ass. You don't say how old you are but in my experience...all those people that are oblivious to it? They aren't, they just aren't as sensitive to it. My guess? They find him just as rude as you do.
posted by ian1977 at 7:59 AM on December 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sounds to me like someone who's watched too many snarky sitcoms, that's all. He's imagining the laugh track in his mind when he puts down the sick burn.

Some people just haven't figured out yet that in real life, sarcasm and put-down comedy are funny for the viewer, but not for the subject.

I'd just reply to those kind of "really, what do you want to do?" jabs with a simple "quit being a dick." If that doesn't work, be openly unfriendly* with him. He'll inevitably ask why, and then your answer is simply, "you're a dick."

* which is possible while still being professional.
posted by ctmf at 2:15 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

May not be your style, but I fight fire with fire, and I really, really, no really hate passive aggression with the fire of a thousand suns, so I almost enjoy going after people that use it. If he'd said "End that bad joke now" to me I'd have said "End that bad sense of humour now" right back at him, or something like it. Or even "End your passive-aggressive put downs now, arsehole", if I'd had enough beer. Passive-aggressive people behave that way largely because they're snarky bastards who are too chickenshit to be actually aggressive, or genuine, or amusing (and sarcasm etc. can be amusing when applied with style and humour). They don't deal well with having their crap thrown right back at them.
posted by Decani at 1:53 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's tempting to reply "Thank you, Lady Sneerwell," but this picks a fight. It's better to give the smallest possible sign (such as a raised eyebrow), turn your back and talk to someone else.
posted by KRS at 6:49 AM on December 26, 2013

« Older What unnamed theme do Top Gun, Batman & Robin...   |   Christmas goose problems! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.