I’m an asshole
Passive aggression…how could I have blogged so many posts without dedicating an entire one to this phenomenon of the modern workplace? It’s quite a fascinating phenomenon, actually. It’s such a widespread tactic that people employ and where I have the pleasure of working, I can think of at least a quarter of my team who regularly employ it as a means of dealing with things they don’t like.
How does it manifest itself? Well, we have the use of the global email as one strategy. An initiative comes down from on high and we are expected to be seen to deliver it. Colleague X disagrees with the initiative and so sends sanctimonious emails to one and all that always stop short of saying, “I hate this initiative and don’t want to do it.” Instead, they say things like, “I’m sure I’m speaking for everyone when I say…” or “We all know that the real reason behind this initiative is…” or, a classic of educational passive aggression, “My students want…” Global emails are a right royal pain in the arse. They serve to allow people a soapbox and the general disinterest with which they are met is often taken as a silent stamp of approval. If you are one of those people who sends an email to more people than need to read it (or who nastily copies in senior managers thinking that you are gaining their authority to fight your crusade), let me say this to you: you are not the voice of a generation; you have no right to co-opt the opinions of other people; your empty rhetoric makes you look like a bit of a loon. Ease up. If you think that something is wrong, talk directly to the person you need to talk to. Enter into these talks in a spirit of compromise – not with the sole intention of getting your own way. If this is simply not an option, have the gumption to put in a proper complaint and have it investigated by an independent third party.
How about loud, ironic comments? Another strategy that passes for acceptable communication within our workplace. These are often just made “as a bit of fun”, but this fun is the kind that would have people going off sick with stress if a manager chose to have it at the expense of a member of the team. “No! But I’m not saying…I didn’t mean…” and so on. Yes. That’s why it’s called passive aggression. You did say…you did mean.And the thing is, you lack awareness to see that your comments make people feel uncomfortable. You think the silence that ensues is because people want you to carry on. But look more closely. Try to listen to the people you work with as well as speak for them. And you will find that there are quite a few people who don’t share your outlook on life or on work.
Assigning dubious intent to others. This one is often directed at us middle managers. It’s a workplace expression of my favourite cognitive bias, the fundamental attribution error. For those of you who may not have heard of this, it is the bedrock of all miscommunication, misunderstanding and misanthropy. Basically, it says that every arsehole has a reason. More scientifically, it says that when we look at our own behaviour, we know the complexities that led us -perfectly nice, rational, well-meaning people- to behave in ways that are not compatible with this view of ourselves. We were tired, provoked, disturbed, angry, overly emotional, dealing with too much right now etc. However, when we see the errant behaviour of others, we attribute it to the plain and simple fact that they are arseholes. OK, this is only slightly more scientifically expressed. It is summed up in a jibe by George Carlin who once said words to the effect of “Did you ever notice how everyone who drives faster than you is a lunatic and everyone who drives slower is an idiot?” At work, I get this a lot from one particularly toxic individual – this person is fully convinced that I place new students in the wrong classes because I want to fuck with people’s minds. That or because the diktats of the God Mammon demand that I defecate over any pedagogical principles that might exist. In reality, I place students according to their level of English as measured by one and the same placement test administered to all. It’s not great and occasionally it throws up errors. Anyway, the fundamental attribution error would point to how this individual believes that they are always right or justified (the every arsehole having their own reason theory) while others are invariably wrong because they are not good people (the everyone else is an arsehole theory). What a world within which to live…
Here is my long and detailed justification for everything. This I find inexplicably tedious. One initiative that we are currently dealing with at work is o ill thought out and poorly designed that it really sucks ass, as the Americans say. To avoid any suggestion of passive aggression on my part, let me be unequivocal: I detest this initiative and happily shout it out to one and all as often as I can. I point to its defects and explain why I think they are wrong. I offer alternative suggestions. I am as overtly aggressive as it is safe to be without incurring a jail sentence. In response to my objections, I get lots of platitudinous emails that are filled with unsatisfactory explanations of why this poor design is the only design that there can be. It’s like someone has gone through my email and decided to respond to each and every point with a detailed rebuttal. Have you ever sent an email like this? My advice is type it then don’t send it. Because it has the effect of making the reader feel that you have completely overlooked the constructive side of their critical feedback and that you are happy to continue blindly in a status quo that cannot ever be escaped. I don’t give a shit why you thought it better to cut and paste a spreadsheet into the body of an email so that I then have to cut and paste it back into a spreadsheet in order to work with it. That was a really fucking dumb idea. Here’s a simple solution: leave it in the fucking spreadsheet. Whassat? Other people “fed back” that they don’t feel comfortable operating in a spreadsheet? Right. And what makes those computer illiterates so important that we give their views priority over the views of those of us who do feel comfortable in managing data using the most rudimentary features of Microsoft Excel? Hmmm? Eh? Quite!
Fake smiles and repetitive insistence. There is a whole team of passive aggressive colleagues where I work. They are quite frightening really. We recently had the misfortune to have to work with them and the experience was far from edifying. One conversation went something like, “I hear what you’re saying, but I know that you are a fucking liar. You are talking shit because you are a lazy, good-for-nothing malcontent who hasn’t got a clue. You are so low that you lie to me and insist upon something I know is wrong.” But the actual words used were, “I hear what you’re saying, but other people are telling me something else.” The implication was “…and I choose to believe them over you.” Because they chose to disbelieve me, it also meant that they then got critical about one thing and another, all of which were contingent upon their assumption that I was wrong and the third party was right. So, I say, “Yes, but that’s because we were told X,” and they say, “Well, actually, you were told Y.” And they are smiling all the time. The face said, we love you, the words said we love you, but the message was you are a fucking lizard.
Not participating in meetings. As you will know if you have read (and can remember) earlier tirades, I am not a big fan of meetings (and have yet to meet anyone who is). However, I am also an adult and have come to accept that they are an inevitable part of my working life. Others are still struggling with that and choose to spend the meeting sitting silently with a bored face on them while they doodle or try to engage in humorous dialogue with the person sat next to them. If they are still coming out of adolescence, I can be more tolerant, but when they are actually middle-aged parents, I wonder how healthy home-life is.
And no list of passive aggressive behaviour would be complete without the old chestnut of simple being rude to others. We have a colleague at the minute who can brook no suggestion that their work is less than beyond all reproach. Which makes things difficult when students complain continually about their poor teaching skills. But if you talk to this colleague about such things, they simply clam up and only speak to you through clenched teeth. They show utter disdain for you and your cowardly kowtowing to students. They then proceed to ignore everything you say or do and even stop saying good morning or other niceties. If you ask them to do something, they won’t go beyond a terse response and you are lucky to even get this. When other people ask them for help, they won’t actually be helpful, because this will stop other people from knowing how outraged they are. Instead, they give just about enough to allow them to say loudly and exasperatedly, “LOOK! I SAID IT WAS THERE!” Great…someone asked you for help and you essentially replied, “Look fuck off and get help from over there.” That isn’t being helpful, it’s being rude.
Of course, this whole blog is built upon passive aggression. I hide behind a Secret moniker and I bitch about my colleagues. I’m not so far down the wormhole of the fundamental attribution error that I can’t see my own follies. I’m as much of an arsehole as anybody and nobody is more of an arsehole than me. But I don’t send global emails and always think twice about whom I copy in on emails; I make my loud, ironic comments quietly and in a private place; I remind myself that people-usually-try-to-do-their-best and also that people-invariably-believe-that-their-actions-are-justified; I don’t offer justifications unless I am asked to do so; I participate fully in meetings; and I try to avoid being rude to people. Even if I can’t bloody well stand them.
To my passive aggressive colleagues, I would say this: there is quite literally nothing at work that is worthy of stoking your fires of discontent. Do your job, get your money, try to avoid making other people’s day more unpleasant than it may already be. Be clear about how you’re feeling and express your unhappiness or dissatisfaction clearly and with respect – when all is said and done, you are passing it on to another person who may already be dealing with things that would cause you to lose sleep at night. Be compassionate.
We are all arseholes. We all make mistakes and we are -by nature- blind to our biggest shortcomings. When you are criticised, don’t take it as a rejection of who you are; take it as validation of your humanity. Errare humanum est…sed perseverare diabolicum.
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