The pointlessness of passive aggressive voice

I have been organizing a large retirement function for my boss who retired September 30. It is the end of a 35 year career, the last 20 of which he spent in the position I was then given. I have known the man for 25 years. He invited me here seven plus years ago expressly to replace him. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to him both for that and on a personal level because he and I are first and foremost, friends.

This function includes upwards of 75 people, involves renting a swanky hotel ballroom downtown in my city, and facilitating a sort of roast. Its been a lot of work, work that I do not have spare time for nor am I good at, yet I am glad to do it.

I coordinated the date with the man’s wife awhile back. Lets just say hypothetically the function is on the 1st of a month (it isn’t). Her and I have collaborated on various things and its been a shared joy to do this for her husband after we discussed setting a date so as to assure his availability.

Then I get a text message from the woman the other day. It reads (somewhat redacted) like this:

Empath, you had originally told me the party was on Tuesday the 2nd but the invitations you sent say its the 1st.

That’s it. Nothing more.

Here is the problem. I had sent invitations to maybe a hundred people a month ago. I had not sent one to her house for obvious reasons and only recently shared one with her because it may be scrap book material. There are still several weeks remaining before the function. Given that….what was she trying to say in that text? Is she asking me if I made an error on a hundred invitations?It doesn’t say that either date is a problem or that there is a conflict. It doesn’t say anything functional or operative about the situation. It doesn’t even grouse, directly, about the confusion (whether I had told her that or not). It just lays out a statement in passive aggressive voice. It is pointless.

I choose this topic because it was if, as I read that from her, I realized more vividly than I ever had before how much of this kind of thing I have heard from various women in my life over my five decades. I think because it was in text form, it was about something I had invested countless hours over many weeks in,  and I could run it through my mind yet have no obligation to go into it with her, that it struck me as it did. When this is done in face to face discourse and you must respond, it invariably frustrates the receiver.

Passive aggressive voice is useless for communication. Women, “the superior communicators”, are masters at this voice.


26 thoughts on “The pointlessness of passive aggressive voice

  1. That sounds frustrating. It’s true that women are more passive aggressive, I’ve been noticing it recently myself.
    I am not an aggressive or confrontational person, I can be a little over-passive..but I have considered myself to be “passive-aggressive” when I feel taken advantage of, or don’t agree with something.
    But I’ve noticed nobody but me seems to pick up on that passive aggression from me in those situations, so maybe it’s more “passive” less aggressive.

    Women are said to be better communicators, but sometimes it almost like something is said in code, and they say only 10% of what they mean and expect you to read their mind for the other 90%. It is frustrating, I don’t know why it’s like that. I think with myself I speak like that if I’m unsure of how the reaction to my words will be, so I kind of strategically tip-toe around it.

    Anyway, I hope the function goes great! 🙂

  2. I think with myself I speak like that if I’m unsure of how the reaction to my words will be, so I kind of strategically tip-toe around it.

    That’s part of it, yes.

    We also like leaving things open to interpretation.

    Then when you misinterpret we can be rightfully offended or if you get it right, we can spin if need be.

    I work hard at not being that way once I recognized how useless it is.

  3. Also notice the pluperfect tense: “You HAD told me….”. Not, “You told me….” Do you hear customer service people say, “Did you want fries with that?” Not “DO you want fries with that?” or “WOULD you like fries with that?” Using the past tense is an acknowledgement of low status, because the present tense is for assertions, therefore intrinsically risky. Translation, “Remind me what you said about fries with that.” or “You forgot to say if you wanted fries with that.” It’s like cringing with words, and it bugs the living daylights out of me.

  4. “Women as the superior communicators…”

    Women in our culture believe that they are superior to men in every way. That’s part of the problem here, I would surmise. You were in charge of doing something, and because you are a male, she HAS to feel superior to you. Women today cannot emotionally stand being led by a man in any way, shape or form.

    You should write her back and say: ‘No it’s on the first. So you’d better get busy in the kitchen, because that many people are going to be hungry. P.S. Be sure and wear a dress.”

  5. I have to compliment the ladies who posted here so far–owning up to the fact that this is a tendency women have. When we recognize our weaknesses we can learn to be more faithful and become stronger and wiser; when we pretend we don’t have any we’re like a house with a rotten foundation.

  6. The other thing Empath, is that she didn’t want to come right out and say you were wrong. She wasn’t sure if you were wrong, or if she was. So she left it for you to straighten out.

  7. Caspar, can you explain how the use of the past tense, and especially the pluperfect is a sign of low status, and how you came to realize this. I know you gave a reason in your post, but I’d like to hear more on this. Also, how does this relate the passive aggressive voice?

  8. @JD

    [i]Caspar, can you explain how the use of the past tense, and especially the pluperfect is a sign of low status, and how you came to realize this. I know you gave a reason in your post, but I’d like to hear more on this. Also, how does this relate the passive aggressive voice?[/i]

    I first noticed myself about thirty years ago using the past tense instinctively as a way to soften discourse; it felt more comfortable somehow, yet it didn’t ring right with me, so on purpose I quit doing it. I saw it mentioned elsewhere once — a relationship expert© named Leil Lowndes pointed it out in one of her newsletters a long time ago without explaining it.

    In using the past tense, you are protecting yourself by removing the assertion to another time already gone by, with an outcome already determined. If it’s already determined, then you can’t be responsible for it if it’s unfavorable, can you? Although you could plausibly take credit for it if it is favorable.

    “Do you want fries with that?” means, “Fries are my idea.”
    “No” means “I reject your idea.”
    “Yes” means “I accept your idea.”
    It’s assertive and risky.

    “Did you want fries with that?” means, “Fries would have been your idea.”
    “No” means “I reject my own idea.”
    “Yes” means “I accept your idea.”
    It’s nonassertive and low risk.

    It’s analogous to asking “What are you doing tonight?” rather than “Join me for dinner.”

    As for the pluperfect, aka past perfect: the pluperfect is just more past than past, for when the context is already the past. The context of the lady’s e-mail is the past, but the she needed to go further back, thus the pluperfect. I suppose it could be debated, but I would have written the entire e-mail in the simple past. (Actually that introduces another thing: “you had told me” means “you had told me before something else happened”, but the something else doesn’t exist in the same independent clause. When there’s no past tense to get back of, the phenomenon is even more glaring.)

    “Passive-aggressive voice”:

    Not speaking for the Host, I take the term passive-aggressive voice to be a neologism/jeu de mots coined by Empath, presumably for the purpose of this post, and I like it. It’s a play on passive voice, which is the grammatical construction wherein the subject is recipient of the action, and it can be used [passive voice right there] without a subject altogether for whatever purpose, often to avoid identifying a responsible party (“A mistake was made.”) Its use in writing is considered weak, as opposed to the stronger active voice, which clearly identifies the subject as performing an action and resonates with the Anglophone rhythm of subject-verb-object.

    Passive-aggressiveness is a way of getting in jabs while retaining plausible deniability. Take this passive-aggressive facebook post from Britney: “Some people!!”

    When Whitney sees it, she thinks, “OMG she’s talking about me standing her up at the mall” and responds “OMG Britney i’m like so sorry i couldn’t go do nails with you i got like totally swamped with homework and i dropped my phone in like the goldfish bowl and couldn’t text you.”

    To which Britney responds “Like, that wasn’t even about you; I was like just sayin’… But like since you brought it up your rite it was like pretty sleazy not to let me know and stuff but i’m cool”

    Britney FTW. As with many things, the proper response to passive-aggressive is to answer the tone and not the content, if you have to respond at all.

    Both these things are related, or at least similar, in that they are “safe” ways to communicate. “What are you doing tonight” gives plausible deniability to avoid rejection. “Washing your socks tonight? Oh, just curious.” Pastive-aggressive, perhaps?

  9. Elspeth. I know this woman. She knew she was correct in her recollection and was telling me I had told her wrong. She is a piece of work.

    Well in that case, I see your point. Better that she just come out and say that you told her wrong and be done with it.

    It is more like a woman though to say it without just saying. I can’t say I would have done it any differently. Actually I would have done it differently but only because my husband has trained me not to play word games like that.

  10. As for “the pointlessness of passive-aggressive voice”, I assert that passive-aggressiveness is full of pointlessness-lessness — accomplishing plenty of agenda items for the perpetrator: seizure of the moral high ground, martyrdom, sarcasm, free hits, putting you on the defensive but making them look like a victim. It’s low status behavior that creates a perception of higher status. It’s toxic waste.

  11. Caspar that is an excellent summation of what it ist. I only that to your statement of what it accomplishes, that it makes her FEEL those things (which is what you meant anyway). She feels morally superior (she being generic,not the women in my example), gets to bask in martyrdom, takes pleasure in a sarcastic zinger and in putting you on the defensive while having plausible denial, etc.

    Elspeth I am pretty sure my wife would have at least been moved to say it this way, its reflex not calculation.

  12. Empath & Elspeth:
    “Its reflex and not calculation.”

    The reflex though is brought about by calculation—a calculated way of educating women to behave this way. Until women understand that their hatred of men and desire to feel superior to them is artificially programmed into them, you can expect them to behave like this.

  13. No Eric. It isn’t about women hating men. It’s about women being women and the ways we communicate. It’s deceptive but often not intentional.


    Yes, I would have probably said it that way or at least considered saying it that way.. But my husband would ask me what I was trying to say.

    One of the things you think I’d be used to after nearly 20 years still makes me crazy irritated. I say something that could lead to a misunderstanding and he says nothing at first. For like 20 seconds. It feels like minutes though, and I want to scream, “Answer me dangit!” every time he does it.

    So yeah. I’ve been taught to think before I speak to him. I’m still the same passive aggressive female like all the rest when conversing on the fly.

    No snowflake here, except maybe my husband.

  14. Caspar, Thanks for the expanded explanation. I like your analysis of the “Did you want fries with that,” and where that is coming from. I’m answering emails this morning and I’m noticing a lot of passive aggressive voice from female clients, with a lot of, “the project would be for” instead of, “the project is for,” when asking for estimates. (We know it’s just an estimate, but do you have to be so categorical, through the use of the subjunctive, that it is not something you’re committing to and we all know it’s just quote? But the overall reaction I have is feeling annoyed at being talked to this way and having to deal with people who use this kind of language. There is more to it than what I’m saying here, it’s also in overall context of what these people are like, etc.)

    What about the use of “then” in statements by passive aggressive people? For lack of a better word, I’ve always called them tag-backs, because the person is saying, I’m doing this because of what you did, or, you’re making me do this. Example, “Well, then, I’ll have to stay home.” Or, “I’ll just do X, then.”
    Not that you can never talk like this, but some people do a lot of it.

    “Did you want fries with that, then?” LOL.

  15. Elspeth:
    I would think that deception was a symptom of hatred. If women truly loved men, they wouldn’t try and deceive and dominate them. Where is laid down anywhere as a biological dictum that women are supposed to lie to men? The fact is, that is NOT natural behavior for women; although it may seem so, because misandry is so deeply rooted in Western female psychology that any abuse of men comes on like a reflex, with the justification ‘that’s just how we’re made.’

  16. I would think that deception was a symptom of hatred. If women truly loved men, they wouldn’t try and deceive and dominate them. Where is laid down anywhere as a biological dictum that women are supposed to lie to men?

    I would agree with you except lying necessarily implies intent to deceive, Eric. Do you agree? In most cases there is ni intent at all to deceive.

    Most women communicate this way as a reflex, a subconscious attempt to get the other person to figure out what you meant so that you don’t have to say it outright. This is something women do in communication with each other as well. It doesn’t only occur in male-female communication as Caspar’s example above illustrated.

    It actually has nothing to do with hating men.

  17. Elspeth:
    I think in most cases, the deception is intentional. How many men have heard, during a break-up or a divorce, the truth really coming out? For example, “I never really loved you at all” (though how many times she said so before) “Having sex with you sucked” (Although the man was told repeatedly how hot and sexy he was). And then there are the numerous false accusations where men were intentionally set up.

    Hatred of men is totally at the root of this problem. Women might communicate among themselves as Caspar pointed out, in a passive aggressive way; but the average woman sees no more problem with lying to a man than a Moslem feels guilt or shame about lying to an infidel. Think back to the recent post here about the newlywed who pushed her husband off a cliff: ‘she did what most women only fantasize about doing’ was how reporters spun it. I don’t doubt that’s the truth for one moment—to most women men are utterly expendable and no more than useful idiots to be discarded the moment they are of no further use.

  18. Im not going to go along with the idea, simply, that women hat men. That is far to much a throw away idea. Too simple.
    The bit about him being disposable though has lots of merit. It will not manifest in murder but I sense it on occasion from my wife and daughters. This means that the dad working like hell and full of stress is not him giving a sacrifice for them. He is not considered sacrificing until he, exhausted and stressed, still does a bunch of extra stuff on request. Otherwise he may be called selfish.
    Elspeth, I know you rein this stuff in, but tell me you do not have these flash notions, if not coherently at least in some form.
    Men are assumed to be steadily working and providing as a norm, average. He is judges on the emotional well being of others, not their physical well being…..unless he falls short.

    This is ambivalence, not hatred.

  19. How many men have heard, during a break-up or a divorce, the truth really coming out? For example, “I never really loved you at all” (though how many times she said so before) “Having sex with you sucked” (Although the man was told repeatedly how hot and sexy he was).

    That’s a completely different issue from the passive-aggressive voice issue that Empath raised here,

  20. I think we are getting back to the postmodernist premise that women are without original sin. Of course unregenerate women “hate” men and want to rule over them (and everyone else). Of course they are greedy and selfish and self justifying. Passive aggression is the weak way of manifesting those traits, the low risk way. We all know how women tend to be more risk averse than men. Some would have us believe that passive aggression is less “sinny” for that reason alone.

  21. Empath:
    But wouldn’t the ambivalence also stem from at least an anti-male bias? I realize that women today have become narcissistic to the point of being nearly amoral sociopaths, so whether the hatred is conscious or not is difficult to say. But still it’s inculcated into them.

    God is Laughing:
    That is the argument a lot of femRAs and ‘Red Pill’ women make; they try and claim that these attitudes are only of ‘unregenerate’ women. Christian and Red Pill women typically hate men just as much if not more so than feminist women do.

  22. Elspeth:
    It is NOT a completely different issue. Passive-aggressive behavior is only aggressive behavior waiting for a chance to express itself.

  23. Eric, red-pills and churchianity do not a regenerated heart make. Unregenerate men are no better no matter how many red-pills they eat or churchian services they attend. Men have their own selfish and greedy way of doing things.

  24. God Is Laughing:
    But sin is a condition of willful disobedience to God; it exists on an individual level. Women in our culture are trained to be anti-male bigots from their youth. Men, as a class, are not brought up to hate.

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