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Deal with passive-aggression by wilfully assuming the best intentions

McKinley Valentine — 2 min read
Deal with passive-aggression by wilfully assuming the best intentions
Photo by Manja Vitolic / Unsplash

This is something my partner does - he just refuses to read sinister subtext into things. If you want him to know you're pissed off, you have to tell him. (I don't mean that he refuses to notice any communication that isn't words, which would be gross, I mean specifically passive-aggression.)

I am not like this. I analyse tiny not-said things to see if I've hurt someone's feelings and they're avoiding telling me. I really don't like it when people don't tell me if I've hurt their feelings, but I can't bring myself to take the approach of just cheerfully assuming they're not hurt if they won't say.

There's a lot of privilege in being able to do that of course - if you're in any kind of vulnerable position whatsoever, someone's hidden anger can get you fired, deported, beaten, etc, so you need to be good at reading all the unspoken signals and placating people before they make you suffer for it. There's actual studies that have shown women, poor people and people of colour are on average better at reading emotional cues than rich white men: they have to to survive.

Still, just because something's a privilege doesn't mean it's not a good idea. I think this is very much a "sometimes" approach - not always optimal - but what I especially like about it is that it grants the other person a small space of grace. That is, if you're unjustifiably angry and lash out with a tiny underhanded remark, and someone acts like they haven't noticed it, you get a chance to regroup and be the better version of yourself. That's a nice gift to be able to give someone. It's a luxury, but, well - luxuries are nice by definition. Sometimes we're hurt by really petty things, and it can be nice not to have that pettiness drawn out and exposed, but to have a second chance to be less petty.

It reminds me of a blog post by Andrew WK (guy who sung Party Hard). In it he was celebrating good manners. Good manners is another thing that gives you a second chance. Let's say you meet someone. And you think they're an asshole. Manners gives you a way to interact with them that isn't untruthful but doesn't reveal that you think they're an asshole. And so half an hour later, when you find out their sister just died, you don't get filled with shame at how you treated them. (Something like this happened to Andrew WK, and he was like: thank god i was polite. thank god i had that mode of interaction available to me.) Good manners creates a buffer from acting on your original judgement of a person.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #35 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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