Active aggression and passive aggression

For the record I’m most often actively aggressive. I believe passive aggression is a waste of energy since not only do you end up fighting but you also end up trying to second guess the other party, which leads to suboptimal outcomes. This post is a justification of that.

Let’s say you and I are trying to decide the price of something I want to sell you. There are two ways we can go about it. One way is for us to have a negotiation. I can name my asking price. You call your bid. And if the two meet, well and good. Most often they won’t meet. So one of us will have to budge. We start budging slowly, in steps, until a time when the bid and ask are close together. And then we have a deal.

In most situations (except exceptional cases where there are very few buyers and sellers – read the first chapter of my book. This is within the Kindle sample), this will lead to an efficient outcome. Even if the final price were a little too close to the bid or to the ask, both parties know that under the circumstances they couldn’t get better. And the transaction takes place and the parties move on.

The other situation is where one party publicly states that they are unwilling to negotiate and will do the deal if and only if the counterparty comes up with a good enough offer. If the offer is not good enough, there is no deal. This is similar to the ultimatum game popular in behavioural economics. In this case you are also required to guess (and you have exactly one guess) what the counterparty’s hurdle rate is.

When there is a liquid market, there is no issue with this kind of a game – you simply have your own hurdle rate and you bid that. And irrespective of whether it gets accepted or not, you get the optimal outcome – since the market is liquid, it is likely that your quote will get accepted somewhere.

In a highly illiquid market, with only one buyer and one seller, the ultimatum setup can lead to highly suboptimal outcomes. I mean if you’re desperate to do the sale, you might bring your price “all the way to zero” to ensure you do the deal, but the thing is that irrespective of whether you get a deal or not, you are bound to feel disappointed.

If your ask got accepted, you start wondering if you could’ve charged more. If you didn’t get your deal, you start wondering if reducing a price “just a little” would have gotten the deal done. It is endless headache, something that’s not there when there is an active negotiation process.

Now to build the analogy – instead of a sale, think of the situation when you have a disagreement with someone and need to resolve it. You can either confront them about it and solve it “using negotiation” or you can be passive aggressive, letting them know you’re “not happy”. Notice that in this case the disagreement is with one specific party, the market is as illiquid as it can get – no negotiations with any third party will have any impact (ignore snitching here).

When you express your disagreement and you talk/fight it out, you know that irrespective of the outcome (whether it was resolved or not), you have done what you could. Either it has been resolved, which has happened with you telling what exactly your position is, or you have given it all to explain yourself and things remain bad (in this case, whatever happened there would have been “no deal” or an “unhappy deal”).

And that is why active aggression is always better than passive aggression. By expressing your disagreement, even if that means you’re being aggressive, you are stating the exact extent of the problem and the solution will be to your satisfaction. When you’re passive aggressive, nobody is the winner.

PS: I realise that by writing this post I’m violating this own advice, since this post itself can be seen as a form of passive aggression! Mea culpa.


This post is not about any statistical analysis. Neither is it about people’s sensitivity about others, which is associated with empathy. This post is about what I can, incorrectly but more specifically, call “self-sensitivity”. About people who are really thin-skinned and who are likely to “feel bad” at the drop of a hat. I argue that as far as social impact goes, it is no better than arrogance. For purposes of the rest of this post, the word “sensitivity” is to be read in this context – about sensitivity towards one’s own feelings.

A number of people see sensitivity as a positive trait. “Oh, she’s such a sensitive person” is usually bandied about as a compliment to the sensitive person. One is supposed to feel some sort of sympathy to the sensitive people, and remain sensitive (!) to their feelings while interacting with them. It somehow so happens that, more often than not, sensitive people also happen to be nice, and it is as if in return for this niceness you need to take extra care of them.

Thinking about it, sensitivity arises thanks to some deep-rooted insecurity, or some kind of inferior complex. This insecurity means that the person is more likely to associate some kind of malevolent intent to the counterparty’s words or actions, leading to much disagreement and tears and loss of trust. While it is okay for a sensitive person to expect counterparties to be sensitive to their sensitiveness (!), it needs to be understood that over the long run, this could cause friction and be counterproductive to the cause of the relationship.

The problem with both sensitivity and arrogance is that it increases the effort involved in talking to a person. If you talk to an arrogant person, you need to put up with his/her arrogance and the possibility that he/she might put you down for no fault of yours. You need to be always prepared for the conversation to go unpleasant, and thus overall your costs of conversation go up, which as a student of economics, you will understand, decreases the total amount of conversation.

While arrogance is a well-known cause of friction in conversation, less understood is that sensitivity can also have a similar impact. While dealing with a sensitive person, you may not be required to be prepared to be humiliated, or for the conversation to go really bad. However, at all points during your conversation, you will need to keep in your head that the counterparty is extra-sensitive, and that means you have a constant background process that censors your speech, and makes sure you don’t hurt the counterparty. This can again have an adverse impact on the conversation itself, and might tire you out quickly. Again, simple economics tells us that it affects quantum of conversation adversely.

While in the short run, it is okay for sensitive people to ask people around them to be aware of their sensitivity, expecting similar support in the longer run, while making no effort on one’s own part to get rid of one’s insecurities or inferiority complex, is not fair on the part of the sensitive person. Like arrogant people, sensitive people need to understand that their sensitivity is a cause of friction and it can affect their relationships in the longer run; and they need to work on it.

Unfortunately, sensitivity is seen as a largely positive trait, mostly by people who are unaware of the friction it can cause. More importantly, how do you tell a sensitive person that he/she should be less sensitive while at the same time not hurting him/her? In that sense, dealing with arrogant people is simpler – you can speak your mind to them without much long-term impact, and the general understanding of arrogance in society means that it is easier for you to at least make an attempt to tell an arrogant person to be less arrogant.

But how does one deal with sensitive people? Who will bell the cat?