Also, I get that when people communicate passively it is also informed by their socialization and experiences and that they are also wanting to feel love, belonging, safety…totally. Just another perspective here…
I also know that being hypersensitive to critique, slights, threats provides fertile ground to interpret many interactions as a “threat” even if they are not intended as such (ie it could genuinely be that a person is not bothered by something, but because they don’t respond in a way that I would or a way that was overly accepting or effusive, then I interpret it as passive aggressive and once I have made meaning of an interaction in that way, then that is the way that it is experienced by my body and integrated (further) into my narrative of myself, that person, “other people” generally, etc. And all of the ways in which communication happens is simply us making meaning out of our experiences. We are the stories that we tell about our lives, for sure.
And also, I just had this on my chest and so here is a stream of consciousness diatribe about passive communication and how it makes me bananas!
Connecting ideas of:
Early life and historical experiences of “silent treatment” and all of the un/said/nonphysical ways that people use words or not to harm, manipulate, etc. when we are young and into adulthood and the ways in which people now passively communicate and the trauma response that can be embodied and activated from that. Passive communication brings up all of the insecurities of knowing that “something is happening,” but not knowing what; but knowing that there is threat of alienation there. I heard on a podcast tonight (Ezra Klein show) that when people scowl, only 30% of the time they are actually angry, and yet, likely when we see someone scowling, we make meaning from that (based upon all of the previous experiences that we have had of seeing that affect/body shape) and interpret it as “this person is mad,” and lots of other research suggests that if one is “primed” to interpret even less suggestive or overt affects/body shapes/mannerisms as a threat, then they would EXTRA interpret that scowl as “that person is mad.”
Adding onto this pile of crumminess that can happen from passive communication is that if you have an experience and interpret it as a threat, given that the communication was unclear, and thus, by its very nature “CANNN” be interpreted in a number of ways, if you bring it up “hey, is something going on because you see annoyed/upset etc.?” The response is often some version of “oh no, nothing…” or some other way to not own and name that experience. And thus, this is a kind of gaslighting…what is says is “what you think you see/know/interpret is not real.” This serves to diminish one’s own capacity to trust their intuition and experiences. That is one of the most harmful and pernicious impacts of passive communication; individual experiences collectively serve to diminish one’s one capacity to trust themselves. So each person who passively communicates both individually a. may not get their needs met (because it is a guessing game) b. contributes to an unease and “something is wrong so I better stay vigilant and try to figure it out and make it right” mentality that many who have experienced psychological aggression or child abuse or bullying describe b. participates in the gaslighting of someone and c. contributes to a culture that assumes that we can’t have needs and expect to get them met and that we “can’t handle” discomfort that can come from saying what those needs are or that the relationship is not solid enough to “handle” those feelings/needs. Those assumptions come from a place that assumes that people are or should be taking things personally. Give people credit! We can trust one another to handle discomfort! We can be ok recognizing needs, desires, fears, whatever and saying it directly!
People need love, safety and belonging. Physical and emotional pain (from not belonging or not feeling safe) is “read” by the brain in the same ways and our experiences are the meaning that we make out of things. Emotional pain and fear of loss/abandonment (which is present with any threat to a relationship…not in a “real” sense, but needing to feel like we are a part of something is threatened when we struggle in relationships. Thus, feeling connected is vital and, alternatively, feeling alienated and ostracized is a survival threat that has lasting psychological, neurological, metabolic, and immune system impacts. Thusly, people (especially those who are already embodying the epigenetic affects of historical trauma and also those with sensitive nervous systems such as people with ADHD) become hyper-attuned to any sign of alienation and possible dis-ease within relationships. This is triggered with passive communication “something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is…”.
Some of the ways in which this is gendered: women are not supposed to be self-interested so if I have a need and communicate that to you, well, then I am breaking a gender stereotype. The “only way” that this is Ok is if it is done in the name of justice for others (so, its “ok” if it benefits you, but it must be a part of a larger justice project). For example, I do this all the time with ADHD; getting upset about and “fighting the system” in the name of folks who have ADHD and who are not in the same social position or with the same capacity/positionality that I have. Also (#realtalk), I am sure that this informs my research-I am pissed about patriarchy and gender norms bc I am so hurt/angry/confused at why we tolerate horrible shit happening to women bc I am a woman and close people in my life have experienced harm by men and I feel SSOOOO sad about that and its affect on my life that I channel that into my research thinking (misguidedly) that intellectual understanding could somehow bring healing.
Recognizing and sitting in discomfort is not a skill for anyone, and especially not cis boys/men, thus stating directly what is happening for them as it is relevant is not a practice and thus, they are crummy at it. Also, complicating this is that being able to discern the difference between a demand and a request and then managing their own emotional experiences (not relying on Mom, sister, girlfriend, etc) is a practice for cis men and also for the women in their lives who have been socialized to ensure that “everyone is comfortable” and that entails doing the emotional labor of both/all parties.
Also gendered: given the constant threat of violence that women/femme people are subject to and which has been normalized, coupled with the non-response from that violence (misogyny as acceptable and “no one is coming to save you”), women/femme folx, in particular are trained to be highly attuned to subtle cues of tension in relationships. That shows up in passive communication techniques and certainly further enabled by all of the ways in which we can subtlety communicate and don’t have to be accountable to that communication (social media talk),so don’t “have to” show up for the discomfort that comes with directly communicating and, as a result, don’t have to “flex that muscle” and practice having difficult conversations so they don’t get better at it. And passive communication becomes more normalized and ubiquitous when we enable and allow for it by responding to it by either ignoring it or “doing the thing that *I think* this person wants me to do.”
There are a zillion other ways I am sure…
It is extra interesting thinking about how this may manifest in everyday life. For example, I have for many years worked in very women/femme heavy workplaces. That is MEANINGFUL in terms of the ways in which dynamics, cultures, politics, and certainly manifested communication happens! There are lots of lovely things certainly about working with nearly all women/femme folx, and there are also so real implications (via socialization) for expectations of communication. Further, since many of them are highly highly educated, that also matters in so so many ways (white middle-class, educated “womeanhood”=waiting for permission, ensuring the “everyone is comfortable,” not advocating for self or being self-interested, highly achievement oriented, perfectionistic maybe(?), somehow “got to the top” so possibly think that “gender norms did not really “work” on me, having a strong attachment to both “being right” and also “being a good person” etc. Also, class (often correlated to education) is so integral to being able to even imagine a world in which you could go to school for that long (ie not get paid) and do a job that doesn’t make much money. Like I needed to have some level of financial stability to even imagine a world where I could be a social worker and not have my decisions based entirely on pragmatics (“well, I’d love to be social worker, but I am going to business school instead because I don’t have the luxury of choosing something that I will only make $40,000/yr at”).
Also, if you are an assertive communicator within a culture (office, family, book club, etc.) that is not assertive or has normalized passivity, you can easily be interpreted as a “bitch” or “demanding” and this is SOOOOO gendered! And then absolutely reinforces itself…so frustrating!