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Wednesday, 21 June 2006 00:00

Use Eagles if Necessary, Chapter 12: Gotcha

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Rush hour traffic is heavy in all directions as you come to a red light. You are in the left lane with one car in front of you. The driver signals for a left turn, which is what you are going to do. When the light changes to green the car in front does not move forward into the intersection. The man doesn’t budge until the light goes to yellow then slowly makes his turn. It is now red, leaving you sitting there forced to wait for the next change of lights. He “gotcha” — adding at least a minute and maybe more to your trip home. He also got you by raising your blood pressure and making you say bad words. You have just been the victim of “passive aggression.”

Passive aggression is one of the negative personality traits that is rooted in the anal phase of emotional development. (The car’s ass end was in your face.) Throughout the day we see and experience it frequently. Passive-aggressive personalities are everywhere and if they weren’t so aggravating it would be fun to observe them, knowing that below their often pleasant, conscious persona lies anger, frustration and a need to control that irritates their family, friends, co-workers and strangers. Passive aggressive people are not persnickety about who they “get.” Everyone’s fair game.

The distinction between active aggressive behavior and passive aggressive behavior is obvious. Active aggression is overt, simple and straightforward, such as a punch in the nose or a slap to the face. Passive aggression is subtle, done unconsciously, and can take an infinite variety of forms. Defending against it is often impossible.

People who regularly engage in acts of passive aggression are consciously unaware of what they are doing and, in some cases, think they are being extra nice. “Would you like chocolate, strawberry or vanilla ice cream with your birthday cake, Aunt Penelope?”

“Oh it doesn’t matter, dear, whatever you have the most of, and if there’s not enough cake I don’t really need any.” Nice, huh? Thoughtful, generous and self-sacrificing?

No. Penelope is now forcing you to make the decision for her, and you can bet she’ll let you know it was the wrong one. “Oh my, chocolate ice cream on chocolate cake! That’s different.” Sweet little old Aunt Penelope got you. If only for a minute, you were under her control.

Just as none of us can avoid passive aggressive people, we “normal” people will, from time to time, engage in it. For instance, my wife, Barbara, and I took a two-week trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, staying in hotels and sharing a bathroom. (We each have our own at home.) During the first few days I was driving her nuts by forgetting to put the toilet seat back down. At first she got angry but then decided to make a game of it. “Every time you leave the toilet seat up you owe me $5.” I agreed.

We had 10 days left on the trip. I quickly did the math and calculated I could lose about $350. I am proud to report I only owed her $45 when we got home.

Passive aggression, like all personality faults, can be judged by degrees of severity. Recently I asked Barbara to rate my passive aggression on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst. I was writing this chapter and felt it appropriate to ‘fess up to whatever she said. (I figured it would be around a four.)

She thought about it for a moment and said, “When we were first married I’d have called you a five. But after all these years I don’t see it any more except for the toilet seat when we travel. So I’ll call you a one. Which reminds me, you owe me $45. Are you ever going to pay up?” I really should pay her the money but I keep “forgetting” to get cash at the bank. (Forgetting is another form of passive aggression.)

Let’s look at some more passive aggressive examples like, say, not paying your debts. I do not mean your mortgage payment, the electric bill, or the car payment. You will pay those, or else. I mean the debts from toilet seats left up, your lousy golf game, the Super Bowl wager, the 20 bucks you borrowed from a friend, the money you promised to chip in for Sally at the office who’s having a baby, etc. Little things.

Last year I had a friendly $10-dollar bet with a guy regarding the outcome of a football game. He lost but didn’t pay me and he’s a millionaire. I suppose he’s waiting for me to “remind him,” which is an additional way to control me, but I won’t. I simply won’t bet with him again. He got me.

Remembering that passive aggression is an anal trait, perhaps the classic passive aggressive act is using the last of the toilet paper and not getting a new roll for the next person. If he doesn’t check to see there’s toilet paper before doing his business, you really got him good. As beads of sweat appear on his forehead, he frantically looks around for paper towel, tissue, newspaper, the wrapper from a bar of soap, the leaf of a house plant, anything! Eventually he’ll open his wallet praying that there are one dollar bills in there. Perfect.

Time is a commodity that we all have a finite amount of so, being late is another way to passively aggress. When people are waiting for someone there is nothing else they can do but wait. Five minutes, 10 minutes, a half hour or more of a person’s time can be consumed. The goal of a passive aggressive personality type is to subtly control other people.

Being too early also works well. Show up a half hour before a party is supposed to start as the host and hostess are scurrying around attending to last minute details. They’ll be so happy to have their attention diverted by you. And be sure you insist on helping. That will even further distract them.

If you want to practice being passive aggressive, grocery stores are full of possibilities. Frequently leave your shopping cart to go hunt for an item, parking it in the middle of an aisle or up tight next to those items that most people need — the milk or hamburger sections are good. If there’s a Take-a-Number dispenser at the deli, leave your cart right in front of it. At the check-out counter be sure you question the clerk about the prices of certain items. Drag out a fist full of coupons and ask her to match them up. Be sure some are expired. Oversee the bag boy’s loading of your purchases. Make him rearrange the cabbages and the cans. Don’t begin writing your check until you get the total and take time to balance your checkbook before moving on. The people behind you will wish for your death.

There are, obviously, hundreds of ways to passively aggress. (The only good thing about the behavior is that it beats the alternative — that punch in the nose.) Talking during movies or plays. Interrupting conversations. Mumbling. Asking a question then not listening to the answer. Leaving your incessantly barking dog outside — morning, noon and night. Walking it off the leash. Not cleaning up after it. Wearing perfume that overwhelms. Not bathing. If your kid cries in church or the movies, don’t take him outside. Take your unruly children to expensive adult restaurants. Let them run around.

Talk loudly, and sound important, on your cell phone in public places. The invention of the cell phone has been one of the greatest booms in history for passive-aggressives. With it they can make and receive calls to interrupt conversations, to disrupt meals and to ignore friends and family members. Their cell phones give them a new found source of power, importance and means to control.

I was in a crowded departure area in the Tampa airport waiting to board a plane. Also there was a young corporate type who started making calls on his cell phone reminding people about a meeting. Rather than removing himself to a secluded area he remained smack in the middle of the crowd talking much louder than necessary and reminding his callers that, “The dress is business casual.” He repeated this over and over. Obviously the asshole just learned a new phrase. None of us could concentrate on our magazine articles, books or even our thoughts. With his cell phone and loud voice, Mr. Business Casual was able to wipe out 20 minutes of many people’s lives. We wanted to strangle him. We should have.

The seeds for passive aggressive behavior are planted at about 2 years of age, but to really get good at utilizing it you need to get into your teens. Teenagers are the undisputed masters of passive aggression. My psychoanalyst friend, Veryl, now retired, still consults with up-and-coming therapists. Veryl has a gift for getting to the core of an issue. Once we attended a seminar with members of the local analytic community and several religious leaders. We were asked to find the commonality, if any, among Jesus, Freud, Buddha and Jung, and the discussions were beginning to get heated. Veryl piped up and said, “Excuse me, but I think there is one thing we can all agree on: Teenagers are the devil.”

A teenager will drink all of the milk out of a bottle, put the cap back on, and return it to the refrigerator. They’ll borrow the car and return it on empty, keeping the radio volume turned up to the max, so when you start the car in the morning you’ll think a bomb went off. How big is your water heater? Just big enough for one teenager’s shower. The rest of the family will have to “wait” until the water warms up again.

A man got me pretty good a few years ago. I walked into his store and this 30-something owner, whom I had recently met, said, “Hi there, young man.” He had attempted to be clever, but he hurt my feelings. He made me feel like a man who looks old, so that calling me young was humorous. Forgiveness is good, as you’ll recall, so I let it pass and after briefly deciding to boycott his business I chose instead to just chalk it up to his inexperience, youth and poor breeding.

I saw him a few weeks later at a meeting and he introduced me to a lady telling her I had written a “really interesting” book that was recently published. The lady was duly impressed, and I was pleased with myself for having forgiven the man’s previous passive aggression. But then he told the lady my book was about my experiences in World War II. He was not trying to be funny, it was an “honest” mistake. (The book is about my experiences in Vietnam). I went home and examined my face in the mirror to be sure I still looked 60 and not 85, and now I’ll definitely be boycotting the bastard’s store.

Not long ago a truly old guy got me. I was standing at the paint counter at Lowe’s waiting for my paint cans to finish vibrating when I heard, “I don’t have to paint anymore. I figure 61 years is enough years to work. I started working when I was 11.” I turned to see a man on my left talking to me.

“That’s nice,” I said and went back to staring at the jiggling cans.

“I think it was in 1957 or 1958,” he continued “’57 I’m pretty sure. I was building houses and I asked this young kid to hand me a level and he didn’t even know what it was. Kids today don’t know half of what we knew. But later I heard he became a carpenter. Ain’t that a good one?”

“Yep,” I replied still staring ahead. (Kids today. 1957?)

He continued, “The trim on my house is gray. Always has been and always will be. I don’t like change. What color’s the trim on your house?”

“White,” eyes straight forward. (Don’t let him suck me in.)

“That gets too dirty. You ought to make it gray.”

Now I said nothing.

Yep, it’s silly to have white trim. You ought to change to gray.”

I looked at him again and said, “I don’t like change,” figuring surely that would shut him up. Not a chance.

“What kind of paint do you like best?”

What do you mean?” (He had me.)

“You know, the brand. I never buy paint here at Lowe’s. Sears has the best. What kind of paint are you buying?”

Mercifully my paint was ready. I took the cans, looked at him and said, “I buy whatever my wife tells me to buy. She does the painting. I don’t know how.” And I walked off. (Got him back.)

There’s two ways of looking at that encounter: 1. A lonely old man tried to engage a stranger in conversation and I was semi-rude, or 2) A passive aggressive old peckerhead saw an opportunity to verbally torture a stranger who was trapped in a place from which there was no escape, and I was semi-rude. I, of course, think it was mostly the latter.

Controlling by making noise is a great way to passively aggress. Hear the ear-splitting bangs and pops from the motorcyclist’s tail pipe? He’s vicariously using the bike to blow farts. Hear the ear-splitting noise from the young punk’s car radio? For some moments you can’t hear yourself think. But the noise itself is not totally anal. Part of it is oral. The boom, boom, boom in the background are farts but the melody is the baby crying for attention. It’s a “two-fer.”

Passive aggression is one of the most difficult personality disorders to treat because it comes from the anal phase of development, which is pre-verbal. People who are passive aggressive do not suffer from it because they have no idea what they are doing. Thus they never seek treatment for their malady.

Marriage counselors do see passive-aggressives, however, because it is often one of the causes of marital meltdown. Living with a severe passive-aggressive can be a nightmare. They leave their “shit” all over the house; they are always forgetting to do things promised; they are invariably late, and they pester — “Where’s this? Where’s that?” Cleaning up “behind” themselves would never cross their minds. They are pains in the ass.

Other pains in the ass are those who go on diets. I love to cook, but I have a son (you know who you are) who does not eat certain food groups. Cooking for him is not fun, it’s irritating. How can someone eat a steak without baked potato? Ludicrous. What good is spaghetti without the pasta? Foolishness. Pork chops without rice and gravy? Ridiculous. Bacon and eggs without toast? Sacrilegious. If he cooked for himself that would be fine, but he can’t boil water so he expects me, or his mom, to cook - all the while he’s controlling the menu. Dieters have ingeniously found a way to passively aggress under the guise of being “good.” Their dieting addictions are unconsciously used to control others. Haven’t they heard of portion control? How about self control? And don’t get me started on vegetarians or (God help us) vegans. Let’s move on.

Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at, and may be ordered through bookstores after May 31.

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