By Christopher Cudworth
Having worked with (and for) a number of passive-aggressive people over the years, and noticing how they somehow succeed in this world despite their ugly behavior, it occurred to me that being passive-aggressive might actually be a competitive advantage in the world of running and riding. Or is it?
For example, when you’re on the starting line in really great shape and someone standing next to you asks, “Are you ready for the race,” you can reply with a cryptic little aggressive answer such as, “I don’t know. Why do you want to know?”
Of course they’re generally asking you the question just to be nice nice. But that weird little guilt thing that drives passive-aggressive people kicks in and you find yourself saying something a little more passive in response like, “Actually I’m not really here to race. This is really just a training effort.”
That’s a fucking lie of course. Because in fact you’ve trained your ass off for this race of 8 months and all you can think about is the joy of kicking the ass of everyone that has wronged you in some way the last 12 months.
Don’t lie. We’ve all been there.
Passive-aggressive behavior is basically the line down the middle of the yin and yang symbol. You want to achieve inner balance but your brain engages in these perambulations in which your passive side, the part of you that is not so confident, gets in an argument with your aggressive side, which makes you want to run down old ladies with your $10,000 Cannondale carbon fiber road bike with sharpened front forks.
Yes, you know that state of mind, don’t you? You love to run and ride because it helps you achieve that carbonic bliss in which you are in tune with the whole universe. But on that way to exhausted Nirvana there are just a few too many things to work out in your head. So you go passive in some brands of thinking and aggressive in others.
Not laid back
It begs the question, why be passive at all? But there are answers to that question. If you are engaged in an event like a marathon or a half marathon, it simply does not pay on an average day to go out at a pace you cannot sustain for 26.2 miles. So you use your passivity in a constructive manner.
Only when fatigue sets in should you release your aggressive side. And even then you need to process it through the filter that does not allow you to drop down to a pace that is 30% faster than your target pace. Not unless you are named Meb or Rono or some other constructively African name should you allow your aggressive side to completely rule the day.
Given the very clear value of balance in events like running and triathlon, where a mindful approach is always best for success, it makes you wonder why so many people in the workplace seem to get away with passive-aggressive behavior.
Well the answer there is simple. The workplace is not a just place. It is a concept as well. By comparison with running and riding, where judgment is based on empiric values such as finish time and place, the workplace is full of ugly little nuances of personality and politics. So being passive-aggressive is not a bad strategy for some people. They actually value keeping everyone else on edge because competition in the workplace is like that. Having a way to keep your friends and enemies off kilter as you compete for recognition and ownership of key projects really can function as a competitive advantage. That’s why so many bosses seem to be passive-aggressive. It works. And it makes hell for other people.
In the epic existential play No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre the opening scene begins with hints of passive-aggressive exchange between two of the characters:
GARCIN: (enters, accompanied by the VALET, and glances around him): So are we here?
VALET: Yes, Mr. Garcin.
GARCIN: And this is what it looks like?
GARCIN: Second Empire furniture, I observe…Well, well, I dare say one gets used to it.
VALET: Some do, some don’t.
See, it’s all about being cryptic. Of course Garcin has no idea he is being enrolled in an eternal scenario in which hell is other people.*
When we’re not sure about the future or the present or the past, it is somewhat natural to engage in passive-aggressive behavior. It helps us calculate the odds and the risks of any given situation. P/A behavior is like sticking out your antennae to see which way the social wind is blowing. This is done out of uncertainty and fear.
Passive-aggressive. It’s the ugly truth of modern politics where people cry loudly or pretend to cower when you question their opinions. Then they come back with full force in a personal attack in order to put you on the defensive or try to crush your hopes. It’s an almost institutionalized political method used by people like Karl Rove and other psychopathic personalities. Passive-aggressive behavior is currently crushing America’s soul, in case you haven’t noticed. It’s not only the big players in politics. It’s also all over social media sites such as Facebook where people beg compliments daily or post egregiously partisan content and then get angry when people debate those posts with rational arguments. They call you intolerant if you do and uncaring if you don’t. It’s a really fucked up passive-aggressive world we live in.
Fortunately those of us who run and ride actually can achieve some clarity.
Because by contrast it helps to just jump to the point of the matter. It helps everyone involved. Rather than engage in some sort of passive-aggressive banter, just cut to the chase and tell it like it is. You’ll be surprised how nice it feels. While the honesty may hurt a bit at the start, people either deal with it or recover. That’s the world of running and riding. Most of the time.
For example, during the opening mile of a 5 mile race I was once asked by a fellow competitor what pace I expected to run. I glanced over at him for a half second and replied, in earnest: “Faster than you.” Then I took off and won the race by 35 seconds in a final time of 24:49. Kick ass. Talk later.
Oh, but were the world world so clean and honest at times.
Sure, I could have stuck around and chatted with this passive-aggressive sort for a few minutes. And perhaps he might have convinced me to run along at his pace for a while as he gauged my strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps his language could have raised some small doubt in my head at which point he could have taken the lead with me left believing that I did not have the fitness to counter his objectives. And that is how passive-aggressive behavior works. It can really be a manipulative advantage if the victim allows it to be.
Are all competitive cyclists passive-aggressive pricks?
Unfortunately cycling is by nature a passive-aggressive sport. You can’t just ride off from other people like you can in running. The power of the group of peloton can just reel you back in. So you have to play the game of passive-aggressive behavior by riding in the group for the most part. This means sucking wheels for miles at a time in hopes that you can find the merest advantage at the end of a race or ride.
I always find it a bit ugly and yet amazing that sprinters can ride all that way in a Tour de France stage and then sprint it out at the end. Talk about your passive-aggressive instincts come to life. They sit behind a mass of teammates for 100 miles or so over the mountains and through the wind for the opportunity to dial it up for three minutes and try to grab victory without crashing the entire race by running into someone sideways as you literally throw the bike forward. All to “win a stage.” Sheesh.
So it’s not surprising that a lot of cyclists are pricks of one sort or another. They love the concept of a free ride and hate their fellow competitors and riders for having to rely on it. The peloton is really like the hell in No Exit in a lot of ways.
Sometimes you can’t even get your fellow riders to agree what their purpose is on a given day. Or they state something passive like, “Let’s go easy today.” But then they’re the first ones to one-wheel you for 10 miles, or do long aggressive pulls that leave everyone exhausted and angry. One rider with whom we ride would rather gutter the group the entire ride than move to the center of the lane and allow everyone else to use the draft to keep up. That’s passive-aggressive bullshit. But when you’ve got the legs, you’ve got the license.
Of course even those P/A riders get their lunch handed to them sooner or later. If a pro shows up for the group ride the bully gets dropped just like the rest of them. There’s always someone willing to kick the ass of those who make life hell for others. But was Jesus even passive-aggressive? Some people ask that question.
Beware the tarsnake of passive-aggressiveness
So passive aggressiveness is not a useless behavior even if the people who engage in it are often snarky, disgusting creeps at times who try to alternately cajole and scare you into agreeing to whatever madness they want to foist upon the world.
So be aware. Don’t be a passive-aggressive jerk even if it is a tempting way to win a race, lead a training run or achieve some other form of pyrrhic victory. You may win the day, but you lose in matters of character.
Being passive-aggressive in relationships is wrong, controlling and evil. Don’t do it to your spouse or partner or even your biggest competitor.
Find a way to be honest with them and yourself in the process. And when you’ve learned the lesson about how not to be passive-aggressive when you run and ride, remind yourself and hopefully others that being that way in the world of work and relationships is wrong, wrong and wrong again.
Or is it? Do you really think so? I’m just going to go off and think about that and let you decide.
But when I get back you had better have an answer.
It never ends.
*Want to read an interesting bit of theology about the concept of hell, and how it was never meant to be presented as we think of it today. Read this piece about it.