Passive Aggressive, or Not?
December 13, 2005 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Please help me identify and address a specific negative workplace behavior. Is this person being passive aggressive?

There is an individual I work with that is making things a little difficult for me. I would like to find ways to deal with them constructively, so I want to find some resources - so I'd like to make sure I'm identifying the behaviour properly. At first glance, I'm sort of tempted to say it's passive aggressiveness, but some initial googling is indicating that maybe it isn't (it's not really saying they'll do something, and then not doing it, or breaking rules if they don't get their way). Maybe this person is just being a non-defineable sort of jerk?

Example: I post dates and times for two workshops, and I accidentally post the wrong location for one. This person notices the error and lets me know. I make the correction, thank them for pointing it out. Then for the next meetings that are scheduled, the person calls me each time to "make sure the location is the one that's actually posted", "ooookkkkkk, just wanted to be sure I wasn't going to the wrong place".

Example: Instead of simply asking me to make a correction to something written about their role (before it was published), tells me the role title is incorrect, saying "someone must have changed it". Knowing that I'm the only person that has edited it.

There are others, but these are the examples that are really grating on me lately. I'd like to deal with this person in a way that will ideally get them to be more direct and less backhanded - less ideally, help me stop being bothered by this attitude.

If this is passive aggressiveness, any good resources that people would recommend for dealing with this behaviour would be welcome as well (google's been a bit hit and miss). If it's not passive aggressiveness per se, but people can relate some similar war stories with a successful outcome, that would also be great.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your co-worker might just be a socially inept wierdo. Or just a creep of your garden variety sort.
posted by baphomet at 11:01 AM on December 13, 2005

I find a good old-fashioned, "Are you always going to talk to me like I'm an idiot?" works just fine.
posted by jon_kill at 11:04 AM on December 13, 2005

Sounds like he's just a jerk who doesn't like you. Just be extra super duper nice to him and keep a written record of every comment he makes like this to you with date, time, and context. If he doesn't knock it off, maybe bring it to the attention of your/his boss or HR?
posted by booknerd at 11:05 AM on December 13, 2005

When someone is passive-aggressive to me, or when I interpret their behavior as such, I do it right back to them.

This is definitely not the mature way to deal with it, but I sort of think of it as a reverse golden rule.
posted by elisabeth r at 11:07 AM on December 13, 2005

As far as I'm concerned, passive-aggressive is close enough. In my experience, it's best to deal with this sort of smarmy BS with direct/curt but civil confrontation. As in: "Hey, Bob, you know what? I did make a mistake X days ago which you caught, and I appreciated the feedback on that occasion. That mistake does not make it necessary for you to waste my time verifying every detail I post, moving forward." Or: "Why don't you stop pretending this is someone else's mistake and just ask me to fix it? I'd really appreciate the courtesy of that directness."
If you keep the tone just the civil side of crabby, it will work wonders for people who try to exploit everyone's fear of confrontation so they can get away with needling others.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 11:08 AM on December 13, 2005 [2 favorites]

It's not necessary to label the shitty things people do. Just call him/her on it the next time it happens. The next time he says, "Oh, well, I just want to make sure the location is the one that's actually posted," say something like, "I know I made that mistake that one time, but I'm working to make sure that doesn't happen again. Please don't double check with me every time, because I'm finding it annoying." Stay calm, state exactly what he's doing to annoy you and say clearly that it's bugging you.

Even if the moment passes, mention it later casually if you can. You don't have to make a huge deal out of it.

I had someone very much like this in my last office experience. You'll feel tons better if you say something (calmly), rather than nothing.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Just tell him to stop, and check in with him everyday to see if he has, indeed, stopped. That would be fun.

"So, Bob, gonna ask me any stupid questions today? No. Good."
posted by jon_kill at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2005 [2 favorites]

Are you sure they're deliberately being backhanded? From what I've read of your question, it may simply be that they're awkward at being direct.

Example: Instead of simply asking me to make a correction to something written about their role (before it was published), tells me the role title is incorrect, saying "someone must have changed it". Knowing that I'm the only person that has edited it.

They may simply not want to get into a confrontation with you or they may want to subtly point out the error without pinning it on you, no? Some people who are awkward with social situations will do things in this manner, and while it seems rude, they often have no bad intentions.
posted by wackybrit at 11:23 AM on December 13, 2005

Wackybrit writes: "Some people who are awkward with social situations will do things in this manner, and while it seems rude, they often have no bad intentions."

That can be true in many situations, but when you see it in the context of this perpetrator's other behavior, it's part of a pattern of negative conduct.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 11:28 AM on December 13, 2005

what wackybrit says - those examples don't strike me as particularly terrible (and since i'm british, i'm wondering if this is a cultural thing - my initial reaction to this question was you needed to take a walk outside and get over it).
posted by andrew cooke at 11:29 AM on December 13, 2005

BLB - are you anonymous? otherwise - wtf?
posted by andrew cooke at 11:30 AM on December 13, 2005

tells me the role title is incorrect, saying "someone must have changed it". Knowing that I'm the only person that has edited it.

wackybrit has a good point. I do exactly that thing because I don't want to sound accusatory, and until this thread I had no idea that it might come off as passive-aggressive. So maybe you're co-worker's in the same situation?
posted by schroedinger at 11:48 AM on December 13, 2005

Example one doesn't sound like trying to be subtle.
posted by lunkfish at 11:58 AM on December 13, 2005

Doesn't sound like passive aggressiveness to me, just sounds like annoying power trips. With folks like this, I'm just as direct, clear, simple, and straightforward as can be. For question one, I would just say, "Yep, it's correct." and not say anymore. For number 2 I'd say - "That someone would be me" and just leave it at that. After she doesn't say anymore, just say, "Ok, see ya" or if she's at your office, just turn back to your computer and keep on working.

Take a deep breath, and when you exhale, have an image of water flowing off a duck's back. Don't hold onto it - stay present - move on.
posted by jasper411 at 12:25 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think there will always be people who will remember that one little mistake you made a million years ago. Some people don't let things go--they assume you'll mess up every time if you messed up once. I don't think it's anything in particular--a little passive aggressive, a little anal-retentive, a little know-it-all-ish, and a little overly sensitive.

These types of folks tend to be even more obsessive with their own mistakes, especially when others notice them. Maybe try pointing out the next small mistake he makes (WAY more politely than he does yours) and see how he reacts. Could be that he's insecure enough to switch his focus. Or he could start making self-deprecating jokes about his mistakes every time he continues to mention yours, which could end up being twice as annoying.

Probably the mature thing to do would be to be nice about it and try not to let it bother you. If you continue to do your job well, you can rest assured his dwelling on your mistakes is unjustified.

Oh, and yes--check your anonymity.
posted by lampoil at 12:31 PM on December 13, 2005

The first example sounds to me like it could be someone who's OCD and really is worried they'll go to the wrong place. Or maybe they're not OCD at all, but you honestly confused them and now they're paranoid they'll fuck up and look like a fool.
posted by raedyn at 12:43 PM on December 13, 2005

That's definitely a little passive aggressive. It also seems to me like the kind of thing that shouldn't really bother you enough to take action unless it's happening ten times a day. My first thought when I read your examples was that you probably don't have enough to do at work and are overvaluing the importance of the stuff that you do have control over, but what do I know?
posted by MarkAnd at 1:00 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

> less ideally, help me stop being bothered by this attitude

Sorry, but I think this is really your best bet. I suggest you think about why this bothers you so much. It sounds like your coworker is just a bit of a pain in the arse and there's no point letting it get to you. Try to cultivate the same attitude you would to an annoying dog, or an annoying two-year-old. Responding with warmth and friendliness is your best defense and if you're lucky might improve things a bit.
posted by teleskiving at 1:01 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

I agree with Uncle Glendinning, just give it back. My boss is very similar and there is no point reasoning with them and they will probably never change but you can put an end to each situation as they arise. For example my boss mentioned my late timesheets to me more than 3 times in about 10 minutes the third and last time she mentioned it was in a meeting so I said " You have mentioned that before and I told you I will complete them" . Try the same thing with the location thing "I am glad you pointed that out the first time and since then I have been really on top of making sure that the location is correct so it is really not necessary to remind me any further". Just dish it back. Be firm but not rude, try and keep it on the level they are playing except maybe a little nicer, but not to the point of being a pushover or apolgetic for their behavior.
Also I used to keep a single Xanax on my desk. I knew it was there for me (even though I never used it) and it helped me keep things in perspective.....
Like you I am not so good at "just don't let them bother you"
Good Luck!
posted by TheLibrarian at 1:23 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

IMO, this person thinks you're not very detail-oriented. After all, to them, you've made two mistakes and now can't be fully trusted.

Is that a little OCD? Maybe. Is their response a little passive-aggressive? Maybe.

So, you can either say something to them, or not (really, that's your only two options). I'd say not, unless as others have pointed out, this is a constant problem that happens multiple times a day.
posted by frogan at 1:30 PM on December 13, 2005

my not-very-mature response is sarcasm, as in announcing to the group: "and I'll leave a little extra time so that Janet can make snarky comments about the last time I fucked up."

So far I've gotten away with it.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:44 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Alternate explanation (easily dismissed if the other undescribed examples contradict it): the person has the hots for you and doesn't know how to approach you directly.

In your first example, the calls are not about the meeting place, they're simply an excuse to talk to you. In the second example, the "maybe someone changed it" is an attempt to avoid angering or embarassing you.
posted by forrest at 2:22 PM on December 13, 2005

"Hi Bob! I've just completed [insert menial task], and I'd really appreciate it if you could cast that eagle eye of yours over it for bloopers. Thanks, pal!"

"Hi again Bob! I've just wrapped up [insert another menial task]. Here, look it over for me. You're great at that stuff. Cheerio, buddy!"

"Heya, Bobby, how's tricks? I've been asked to [insert yet another menial task], but I'm afraid I'll just fuck it up like I always do. You're a winner, and I hope to be like you some day, so why don't you prepare an outline of how I should proceed? By 2pm will be fine. Toodles, champ!"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:56 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

the person calls me each time to "make sure the location is the one that's actually posted", "ooookkkkkk, just wanted to be sure I wasn't going to the wrong place"

Perhaps something like the following?

You: Fred, what percentage of the time do you think I'm going to be wrong about the location?

Fred: [Not answering the question, but saying something like] Well, you were wrong on XXX occasion, and I just want to be sure. [or whatever]

You: Fred, I made one mistake, and I've done it right more than 20 times since. So I figure my error rate is 5% and decreasing. Does that sound right?

Fred: [Some response - isn't following, what's the point, agrees with you, whatever]

You: Okay, how about this? You pay me a dollar every time you check with me and the location is right; I pay you twenty dollars every time you check with me and it's wrong. Deal?

Fred: [Agrees, gets huffy, whatever]

You: [Assuming he's still there, and isn't willing to gamble]. Fred, I'd like some compensation for the extra time it takes when you call. If 20 to 1 odds isn't good enough for you, then it sounds like we can both agree that you should stop calling me about this, because I'm not making that mistake often enough for it to be worthwhile for you to call.

Alternatively, the telemarketer approach:

Fred, hold on a moment, let me check ... [Set phone down,do something else for a full minute]

Fred, still there? Sorry, got caught up in something. Can I put you on hold for a minute or two?

Fred, things are kind of busy here. Can I call you back?

[Call back an hour later] Yup, it's okay. [Hang up immediately.]

Repeat as necessary. The goal is to turn this into an unpleasant process for Fred, who presumably hates being put on hold, ignored, etc. He'll stop.

And this works just as well if he visits in person - ask him to wait in your cubicle while you go run a brief errand that just HAS to be done. Or pop in to talk to your boss. (Or whatever.) Sorry, really would like to help, but you were just on your way out, but you'll be back as quickly as you can. Offer to give him a call.

Email (save your text, you may want to reuse it next cycle): (1) Is there some reason you think this is wrong?; (2) okay, I'll check and get back to you; (3) [Some hours thereafter] Just to let you know that I'm double-checking to make sure I get it right; (4) Yup, it's okay.

Note that because the concern is so trivial and pointless, Fred really can't complain to anyone that you're uncooperative, since that would simply illustrate his pettiness.
posted by WestCoaster at 3:30 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Passive Aggressive? Sorta. Maybe. Depends on your work hierarchy with the person.

Your first example is Passive Aggressive in my book.

I know I made that mistake that one time, realistically...I'm a human being, and y'know, on occasion everyone makes. I certainly respect what you're trying to do, but when you assume that everything that I say/do requires double checking, I have to say, that's a sin worse than a mistake, it's condescenion. And although, it might be an attempt at humor - I have to say, it feels more like you're
just being mean. Now, I'm sure you'd never be so thoughtless as to behave as such, but I have to tell you, it's beginning to grate on my nerves, and above all else, it's unnecessary.

B is dicier.
They may have assumed that someone else might have been involved. They may be trying to be polite.
But I might say, hey, I wrote it, I got the information from XYZ. Is it incorrect? You may need to speak to that person to have it corrected.
posted by filmgeek at 5:15 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

First example. He asks if the location is correct. Play along - say - "yes - why wouldn't it be?", putting him on the spot. Either he'll be embarressed, or more likely, he'll point to a single error made aeons ago, at which point, you have the upper hand, and can make a show of being surprised that he cannot tell the difference between typos/trivial errors, and persistant problems. Or he is unable to accurately evaluate risk (one error out of lots of accurate cases and he turns paranoid), which is more likely to drive the point home if he's at the geek end of the spectrum. Or that it seems odd that he would be so persistantly afraid of spending a few seconds discovering ending up at the wrong place when it's never happened to him and isn't a big deal to normal people - they just find the right place.
Perhaps even joke "have you ever been tested for Asperger's syndrome?", etc.

Basically, he's drawing attention to your flaws. If you use his behaviour (which is, let's face it, a pretty big flaw of his own) to make his efforts make him look more flawed than you in your eyes, (ie, make it seem to him like his efforts appear to be convincing you that you are superior instead of him) he's either going to quit, or try harder. In my experience, he'll initially try harder, which, when that doesn't work, he'll quit, or at least ease back.

Be nice, be friendly, just leave the impression that his actions are making you start to think he's got some pretty significant flaws - instead of it all putting you in your place, it's making you think you're better. (and that's probably exactly what his actions are doing anyway).
posted by -harlequin- at 5:50 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Note, the example reponses I gave are not subtle as written, but can be hinted at. Use tact, basically, it's looking for a tactful way of saying "your behaviour is weird, if you want to impress me or keep me in my place, you'll have to fix that", so it is friendly, or at least genuine, not passive agrressive :)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:59 PM on December 13, 2005

I vote obsessive-compulsive. I could see myself doing either of those behaviours-I doublecheck my husband for things like setting our alarm and it drives him nuts but I need to check for my own sanity. So basically maybe you could just chalk it up to your coworker's insecurity.

As to the second example I would think it would be that he or she doesn't want to come right out and say you screwed up.

People like me try so hard to bend over backwards to be polite that sometimes we can be annoying as heck. We try too hard. I'm getting a little better with it (and seem to have plenty of friends anyway.)

Do other people in the office find this person annoying? Perhaps that could also be helpful for you to know.
posted by konolia at 6:52 PM on December 13, 2005

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