How to Handle the Passive-Aggressive Post-It In Five Steps

The wind was under my sails yesterday, around 3:45pm, as I walked to my car in the underground parking lot at the McMaster University Children's Hospital.  I had just finished the long-awaited licensing exam, a requirement for residency, and was feeling pretty good about having just become a physician.  

I got to my car, opened the door and sat down to start driving.   That's when I noticed the yellow post-it stuck under my wiper:


For context, when I parked in the morning, I backed into a tight spot beside a massive concrete pillar.  The car on the other side of me parked front first so, by backing in, it made it easier for me to open my front door without impinging on her space. Win-win. 

Then I got this stupid post-it telling my that my efforts were useless and this person had a hard time getting out of their car. 

I was angry in principle: my efforts were not recognized. 

I was angry in fact: This parking lot is like Fight Club (First rule, you do not talk about the MUMC Parking Lot...Third rule, if someone says "stop" or goes limp, taps out the fight is over).  There are no "usual spots" and if you think there are, you haven't been here long enough, my friend.  And, no, I can't park "so as we all can fit" because we can't all fit.  That's why life sucks for the moments of your day you are in that parking lot.  We are all in this chaotic horizontal high-stakes Jenga game together. 

I was angry because of the moment: This was such a good junction, a milestone, for me and look how you had to bring me down like that! What is wrong with you?

Passive aggressive behaviour makes me crazy.  It is inauthentic in principle.  But is that note passive-aggressive?  What is passive-aggression?  We say this phrase in our popular culture all the time, but do we know why?  And is there a better way to deal with it than just being angry and snarky back?

Passive-Aggression has been around in the medical literature since WWII when soldiers were described as petty or pouting when they didn't want to follow orders.  Their internal emotion was being channeled negatively into these more acceptable, though still negative, behaviours.  This channeling is called displacement and it is considered an immature defense mechanism.  Anyone who has ever shared an office refrigerator knows displacement.  For contrast, using humour in uncomfortable situations is considered a mature defense mechanism.  

Mad Men is chock-a-clock with passive aggression.  In Season Three, Don makes Peggy stay late at work to help with the Samsonite campaign.

 She is angry at him for this, but she can't show it because Don is her boss.  It happens to be her birthday and her boyfriend has planned a secret surprise birthday part with her whole family.  By the time she's an hour late, her boyfriend is angry that she hasn't shown up at the restaurant and he has to break the surprise to convince her to finally leave the office.  She decides to stay, to commit to Don and the work, and calls her boyfriend at the restaurant.  

Then Peggy, who is actually mad at Don, behaves very petulantly and mean to her boyfriend.  They break up over the phone.  Now Peggy is mad at Don and the entire situation.  She goes back to Don's office to start working and she channels that anger into another fight with Don about something completely different.  In turn, he channels anger about another completely different angst to fight back against Peggy's displacement.   

This is prime time passive aggression on Mad Men and they eventually resolve it in typical Mad Men fashion: cigarettes, scotch, tears and misogyny.  

We have all had a Post-It Note experience.  And it usually arises because someone is angry about a behaviour but it is hard to say "I am angry about this behaviour, could we please find a solution?" So they insinuate snarkily that I don't apparently care that we can't "all fit" in the parking lot.  Passive aggressive behaviours include the "silent treatment" and "stonewalling" which is the refusal to admit something is wrong.  In a fascinating 2015 conflict management study, passive aggression was found to lead to emotional exhaustion.  For emotional exhaustion, see Peggy and Don above. 

Exhausting Silence: Emotional Costs of Withholding Complaints Esther Liu and Michael E. Roloff, Volume 8, Number 1, Pages 25–40, International Association for Conflict Management 

Exhausting Silence: Emotional Costs of Withholding Complaints
Esther Liu and Michael E. Roloff, Volume 8, Number 1, Pages 25–40, International Association for Conflict Management 

So how do we deal with passive aggression?  Like a good scientist, I reviewed the literature on the topic.  The literature is sparse mostly because the discussion on passive aggression has been around the Personality Disorder which went out of vogue around 2009.  It was subsequently removed from the psychiatric manual, the DSM-IV.  Turns out, passive aggression is so common that it became hard to tell where normal ended and pathological began so they just stopped diagnosing people altogether.    

My habitual response to passive aggression is "ok, what's your problem?" which just escalates the situation and introduces even more hostility and negativity into the scene.  This is assertive of me, and that's good.  There is absolutely a well-established link between assertiveness (saying what you mean) and well-being.  But what if I could be assertive in these situations and also remain positive, all in the hopes of a constructive outcome?

The work of Julien Mirivel, including the 2014 book "The Art of Positive Communication: Theory and Practice" provides possibly the most realizable approach to introducing positivity into a negative situation without sacrificing assertiveness.  Inspired by Mirivel's research, the other positive communication literature and my own experience, I've created an "Approach to the Passive Aggressive Post-It Note."  The Approach is a mental exercise to try out the next time you get a post-it like the one above and would like to elevate the situation. 

Why does it matter that I try to make this situation better?  It was crappy of this driver to leave a note, but what if the extra seconds it took to slowly eek her car out of the parking lot mattered in the overall scheme of her day?  What if she was trying to make it to a train to make it into the city to see a show with someone who later turns out to be the love of her life?  What if she was trying to make it to an appointment with a specialist or to a job interview?  What if my close-park was actually catastrophic for her in some way?  If she was that late, she shouldn't have taken the time to write the note, perhaps.  But the point is that I have no idea what is going on for her nor how I made things worse. 

Passive aggressive behaviour was first diagnosed by a General in WWII who said that routine stress of war was causing some soldiers to behave terribly.  I don't think there is anything routine about the stress of war.  What if passive-aggression is just a way of asking for help, albeit an immature way?  What if it could be the beginning of some real healing?

I would love to know how the Approach worked out for you.  Please comment below.  I will be using it alongside you because this is an area of real personal development for me.

I leave you with a mind map image of my research for this post. I mind map with Mindly.