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'Can't You Take a Joke? Whatever!' Six Passive Aggressive Phrases to Recognize (and Run From!)

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Call it hostile cooperation. Recognize it as compliant defiance. Feel the sugarcoating on the hostility. Label it what you will, but know it when you see it -- passive aggressive behavior is a deliberate and masked way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). Passive aggression involves a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without that person readily recognizing the underlying anger.

Teachers who encounter passive aggressive behaviors from their students often report this behavior to be more frustrating and confounding than outright aggression. Worse, highly-trained and competent professionals often find themselves mirroring the student's behaviors and responding in uncharacteristic, angry ways. Being able to recognize passive aggressive behavior early on, before conflict begins, is an educator's first step -- and best friend -- in learning to effectively respond to this behavior. Here are six classic passive aggressive phrases that should raise a red flag in every teacher's mind:

"Fine. Whatever!"

Passive aggressive students commonly sulk and withdraw from disagreements as their fundamental way of coping with rising anger. Rather than put their angry feelings into words and express emotions honestly, they use phrases like "Fine" and "Whatever" to shut down direct communication.

"I'm Not Angry."

The passive aggressive student believes that his life will get worse if authority figures know of his anger, so he relies heavily on denial when it comes to his emotions. His angry smile often betrays his words, however. Whenever there is a discrepancy between a person's actions and his words, trust body language to reveal authentic feelings.

"I Didn't Realize You Wanted It Done Now"

Temporary compliance is a passive aggressive strategy in which a student verbally complies with a request, but behaviorally delays its completion. While everyone procrastinates from time to time, the passive aggressive student habitually puts off chores to infuriate his teacher.

"I Didn't Know You Wanted It Done Like That"

A slightly more sophisticated strategy is that of intentional inefficiency. To those passive aggressive kids for whom procrastination is too subtle, complying with requests in timely, but unacceptable ways offers more satisfaction -- and greater destruction. When a student turns in a written assignment with handwriting so illegible that the teacher can't discern the responses, she ensures the frustration of the grader. If confronted about her sloppy standards, the passive aggressive student plays the role of victim, claiming that "your standards are too high" or "you just want everything to be done your way."

"Can't You Take a Joke?"

Most of the time, the passive aggressive student offers a backhanded compliment that doesn't sting until later or makes a sarcastic comment that can be laughed off in public, but privately wounds. Every once in a while, though, their cruel jokes and barbs are just over the top enough that their hostility is revealed and the adult confronts them directly. When this happens, the student's knee-jerk reaction is to, again, play the victim and wonder aloud "why you are getting so upset over something that was obviously meant as a joke?"

"I'm Just Saying" (IJS)

Just as their sarcastic humor sometimes reveals more of their anger than they'd care to acknowledge, at times a passive aggressive student must defend his hostile words with, "I'm just saying," a phrase designed to deny angry feelings verbally while affirming hostile intent.

Do you have a student who wears an angry smile and makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? How do you cope with sugarcoated hostility? Do you tend to mirror the student's passive aggression and end up behaving in uncharacteristic, conflict-fueling ways or are you more likely to respond with anger, blowing up and proving the passive aggressive child's theory that anger is a dangerous emotion?

Signe Whitson, LSW is the author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, For more information on recognizing and responding effectively to passive aggressive behavior, please visit www.signewhitson.com.