I have a friend who chooses to stay at home in spite of the fact that all her children are now in elementary school. She was a former professional, prior to the birth of her children. But following the birth of her second last child, she decided she no longer feels called to work outside the home, choosing instead to fill her days with a variety of volunteer work, errands and household management. As I live a very different life than her, I have often wondered quietly to myself, “What does she do with all that time on her hands?” And at times, I have wished for the ability to switch places with her, as her life appears to me to be so uncomplicated, minus work and professional concerns.
The other day, we were both attending our children’s after-school soccer game when a mutual friend of ours came up to her and asked her what life was like in ‘that big house without all the children all around’. And they added to that refrain, ‘are you bored?’, as if to add salt to injury.
My friend prickled a bit under the direct inquiry, and even though the question was asked in a light-hearted, fun way, I could tell that she felt she was being scrutinized and critiqued for her very personal decision to stay at home with or without children in the house. Her response was also light-hearted, with just a bit of edge to her tone: “Maybe you should spend the day with me sometime and follow me around.” To which she added that she was anything but bored with her very personal choice to stay at home.
For all our understanding of social graces, political-correctness, manners and etiquette, women have a long way to go in understanding the role that passive aggression plays in damaging self confidence and undermining one’s self esteem. And let’s not forget to add- passive aggression drives a wedge between women who are otherwise good friends. And whom could be closer without the presence of ‘the cutting remark’ in their relationship. It is far too easy for an otherwise mannerly, considerate person to throw a little passive aggression into conversation, and thus introduce an underlying element of tension into the mix. And all this done without said aggressor even realizing the damage done, resulting from what they’ve said in casual conversation.
There is a running joke in our family that I am always moving and that I cannot relax. And this is very true- I lean a bit toward the hyperactive side of the activity scale. However, when all others around you are relaxed, calm and stationary, it is hard to feel normal when you are not like them. When others are sitting, I am in motion. “I like to move it, move it,” to quote Madagasgar’s theme song. So, as I was busily moving around, the comment was made to me, “Sit down! Relax! You can never sit still!” As I was anticipating this response, for I have heard it said of me many times before, I snapped back a quick response that would defend my hyperactivity. But much later, I tried to analyze why these innocuous comments bothered me so much.
And what I realized is the fact that I cannot sit and relax is a sensitive touch-point for me. I am aware that I differ from the rest of my family in this area. And when this touch point is given attention, I feel defensive and I act in ways to self-protect. Which got me thinking about this topic of passive aggression. Often passive aggression in friendships arises when we make note of, in casual off-hand ways, the differences between ourselves and others with the intent to subtly criticize that other person. In other words, we are making note of what we find odd and curious about another person, but we say it in a nice, polite tone so that it doesn’t come across as being critical.
Let me say from personal experience. Killing someone with kindness is no favour, in particular when cutting words come smothered in honey-like sweetness. Tone of voice counts for something, but it does not mask underlying bitterness. I remember years ago trying to give a friend advice about potty-training her three-year old boy, all the while thinking to myself that my personal examples of how easy it was for me would help motivate her to get her little guy trained. I guess my lack of understanding came through loud and clear on our conversations. Years later, she told me how hurt she had been by my superiority complex and that my advice had not been what she was looking for at that particular time. All she had wanted was caring, supportive friendship. A friend that listened more than she talked.
Point well taken.
I think there are ways that we can avoid the trap of reverting to passive aggressive comments. For starters, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Until we understand the other person, and have ‘walked a mile in their shoes’, we really cannot pass judgement on why they do what they do. No matter how close we feel we are to that friend, they have reasons for their behaviour that even the closest of friends may not always have prior knowledge about. And when you have been on the receiving end of cutting remarks, what better way to learn from first-hand experience how passive aggression can wound and pick away at self-confidence and self-esteem.
When in doubt, don’t. Good practical advice for anything in life. When in doubt about your motives, don’t. When in doubt about your wording, don’t. When in doubt about how it might be received, don’t. And let heartfelt understanding be your guide to all questions and judgment calls you make.