Tag Archives: passive

Presuppositions and Passive Agressives

I was just abused, by someone I care about and they live approx 16000 km away. I now have a headache and a nasty stressed feeling. I’m scribbling about it here as a bit of self-therapy to diffuse my anger at this (which in part is being angry at myself for letting me get so affected at a distance), particularly because confronting the person would not be effective. Also, you may recognise this type of incident and find the post of use. Comments are most welcome.

First, let me clarify what a presupposition is. Consider the sentence “Even Fred could pass that exam.” Those proficient in English will note additional information that is conveyed as there are two presuppositions in there:

  1. Fred gets classified as not being particularly bright/competent
  2. The exam is classified as easy, not challenging

Consequentially, the sentence is actually quite nasty in particular towards Fred, but also conveys a clear negative opinion about the exam.

Passive-aggressiveness is obviously a coping mechanism. It’s frustrating for others, and confronting it in whatever way tends to (at least in my experience) be a waste of time as it just triggers more of the same behaviour. Since it’s just an observable symptom of something else, it’s up to the person themselves to hopefully figure it out over time and deal with the actual issues. Unfortunately and again very frustrating, you can’t fix other people or their problems, you can only affect your own behaviour or responses.

Did the person phrasing a sentence such as the above actually say something nasty, or can they validly claim innocence? I’ve come to regard being offended as a selfish act, as the person triggering the offense tends to not have spent specific effort on offending you. Makes sense? But even with that in mind, I don’t believe sentences with nasty presuppositions are innocent. If you say stuff like that, you should take responsibility for what it means as well as for what it literally says.

Now, back to my own experience. The email I received went something like this: “Since I haven’t heard from you about the gift package, I’m presuming it didn’t arrive and thus will not send any more gift packages in the future, which is a great pity for X.”

It’s astonishing how many snakes are in there, there’s absolutely nothing I can say or do. If indeed the package hasn’t arrived, future consequences have already been decided, to someone else’s detriment (that tosses a guilt-trip on me, I’m now guilty for X not getting gifts). If the package has arrived, then it’s clearly my fault also (disregarding other circumstances) to not have communicated in the preferred manner (essentially a quick email would not do, a phone call is required taking time zones and other factors in to account). If I object to the message, I’m causing trouble. It’s a complete no winner.

Possibly you see another way to respond or handle this, and I’m quite happy to see suggestions – of course the sentence was simplified, and there are many other aspects as well as a long history in play and it’s not suitable to post all that here.

If you’d like to read more about this type of verbal nasties, see Suzette Haden Elgin’s
Verbal Self Defense
home page. Her books are excellent, specifically “The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense” which while a few decades old now is still very usable. It doesn’t teach so-called put-downs, it really teaches understanding and skills to diffuse and avoid triggering problems.