This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
If you’re like me, raised on snarky comedies and Animaniacs in the 80s, 90s, or 2000s, you stumble through life by making passive-aggressive demands.
Now, we like to dress up our demands in nice clothes and pass them off as innocent requests. We often sound polite, but our body language screams, “Gimme what I want, or I will bludgeon you with this here Louisville slugger.”
In some cases, we take an even more indirect approach. Our words and body language are polite, but when the other person says, “No,” we plot revenge.
And revenge, sweet revenge, comes in many flavors. Sometimes it’s a guilt trip, e.g., “You never help me with anything!” Sometimes we ignore them for weeks or months. Other times we’re malicious and put their car keys in Jello, coat their bedsheets with Corn Nuts, or slash their tires.
Any way you slice it, the goal of passive-aggressive demands is to get our way but not appear to do so. Our earnest desire is to look like an angel but behave like a devil.
But here’s the problem: passive-aggressive demands ruin relationships. We all know this. And yet, we stagger through life, making the same mistakes.
So how do we escape the trap of making passive-aggressive demands? There is a way, a path forward. It all begins with understanding the difference between a request and a demand.
What are requests?
Every request is simple and has two elements:
- An appeal for help
- A promise to not punish if they say, “No”
Promises not to punish are exactly what you think: You won’t retaliate if they say, “No.” You won’t get angry, guilt-trip them, badger them, or write their phone number on bathroom stalls with the words, “Free motorcycle parts.”
For example, last Saturday, I asked a friend to help me update my home media server. This was a simple request, and we both understood that he could say, “No” without fear of a cold shoulder or Molotov cocktails thrown at his house.
What are demands?
Like requests, every demand has two elements:
- An appeal for assistance
- A promise to punish if they say, “No”
Punishments come in many varies, including angry words, snubs, or plots of revenge. But the most common demand is passive-aggressive.
These demands masquerade as requests. They appear as sweet and benign as Grandma Shuree’s walnut cake. But just like day-old donuts, you’ll spot fractures in their sugary coating. Maybe their smile is fake. Maybe their voice’s pitch is too high. Or maybe they append elements of politeness as an afterthought, e.g., “Would you refill the bacon dispenser? Please, and thank you!”
Or perhaps the demand was perfectly polite, and the threat of retaliation went unspoken. These types of demands are sinister. Our conscious mind interprets them as harmless requests, but our subconscious registers them as threats.
A way out
The simple way out of this mess is to stop making demands of people. Before you ask a friend to help you recarpet your bomb shelter, ask yourself, “Will I be OK if they say, ‘No’?”
Personally, I want to be OK with people saying, “No.” But I’m often not. The selfish part of my brain manufactures reasons why a friend should help me. It fabricates pretexts of how I deserve help and how they owe me. Whenever this happens, I try to catch myself and consider three truths:
- I’m not the center of the universe.
- Others are busy meeting their own needs.
- No one owes me anything.
These help me maintain a proper perspective.
Another thing that helped me is to build my tribe. I cultivated a network of friends and acquaintances who can help me meet my needs. (This is especially helpful in the workplace where my success depends on cooperation.)
Now, some readers will say this feels like manipulation. They’re not completely wrong. I befriend people who may help me in the future. But modern-life is incredibly complex, and no one can be an expert on everything. No one can do everything by themselves. In addition, I try to be a genuine friend and help people meet their needs. These connections are free of coercion and are reciprocal in nature.
Furthermore, I’ve observed that people make who make passive-aggressive demands have small social networks. My hunch is that they resort to demands precisely because their networks are so small. And their demanding style keeps their networks from growing.
When you demand something from another, you are in effect saying, “I want this thing, and if you don’t comply with my demand, then it will hurt our relationship.”
Threatening to harm your relationship if you don’t get what you want is the nuclear option. Reserve this for rare occasions.
A request is the opposite and says, “I want this thing, and you may say, ‘No’ without fear that I will endanger our relationship or firebomb your house.”
When people know you’re making requests, they feel free to say “No” without fear of reprisal. And when they say, “Yes,” you know that they genuinely want to help you.
Be mindful of how you ask for things from other people.
Beware of people around you who make more demands than requests.