November 17, 2016


Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness. By Tim Murphy, Ph.D., and Loriann Oberlin. Da Capo. $15.99.

100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By without Even Trying. By Sarah Cooper. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Draw What Success Looks Like: The Coloring and Activity Book for Serious Businesspeople. By Sarah Cooper. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Given the dysfunctional nature of American politics, it is reasonable to think that U.S. legislators would know something about passive aggression – the use of indirect means rather than directly aggressive ones to further one’s cause, by employing techniques such as procrastination and buck-passing. The new edition of Overcoming Passive-Aggression (hyphen in the original) lends credence to this notion: the primary author, Tim Murphy, is not only a psychologist but also a congressman from Pittsburgh. But he and Loriann Oberlin, a licensed therapist, do not turn their insights on passive aggression toward Congress – they are concerned with the everyday effects of this approach to conflict and the way it harms career, family and other interpersonal relationships. The watchword here is, “It’s sometimes okay to be angry, but it’s never okay to be mean.” But passive aggression, like any behavior that likely originates in childhood and in any case becomes ingrained into a person’s everyday life, provides psychological benefits that make it difficult to confront or overcome: “Passive-aggressive people slickly brush off blame. You react, and they are the misunderstood victims. They win on two counts, so they gain attention twice and dump anger on you, to boot.” This is a powerful set of motivations. Furthermore, as the authors point out, passive aggression stems from hidden anger, and “as long as anger remains hidden, we can’t change it.” So Murphy and Oberlin explore the topic of anger – in part by using a list of characteristics taken from a previous book coauthored by Oberlin – and discuss reasons that anger may become hidden and thus express itself in a passive-aggressive manner. This is all well and good, although some of the formulations of Murphy and Oberlin are a bit too pat – for instance, their blanket statement that anger represents pain in a Troubled Family, stress in a Frantic Family, power in an Angry Family, and desire in an Indulged Family (capitalizations are the authors’). The subtitle of this book is ambiguous: is it directed at people who are passive-aggressive and looking for ways to change their behavior to improve their lives, or is it intended for people trying to cope with other people’s passive-aggressive behavior? Given the reality that people are not even necessarily aware of being passive-aggressive, it is likely that most people who pick up this book will probably not see themselves in it – they will see others’ behavior as being passive-aggressive, and will be looking for ways to cope with it. Murphy and Oberlin do not make this particularly easy, because they offer scenarios in which passive aggression may be at play and then ask readers to consider whether the problem may be in themselves rather than others. This is not unreasonable, but it may be frustrating (and may even seem like authorial passive aggression). Regarding workplace issues, for example, the authors have readers take a 25-question self-evaluation test to determine their performance style, with an eye toward finding out whether their own foundational approach and their likely reactions to colleagues and subordinates may be the source of significant difficulty at work. They warn against becoming too much of a people pleaser, saying that “the one healthy route…means taking a stance for what you believe,” and that you have only yourself to blame if you feel remorse when you agree to take on additional tasks. There is a streak of utopianism here that does not match reality particularly well: “Angry people need to express themselves, but they need to do so when it’s appropriate and find ways to surface their frustrations without venom. They need to give others feedback without attacking them.” Comments like this are unexceptionable, but not, ultimately, very useful. However, there is much that is useful in Overcoming Passive-Aggression, especially in identifying the topic in the first place and showing the many ways in which being passively aggressive can be harmful. And this updated version of the book (the first edition appeared in 2005) includes some brief but potentially helpful suggestions regarding social media, texting and other contemporary forums in which passive aggression may appear, although the specific comments tend to be old-fashioned: “You have one opportunity – only one – to influence your child, so don’t squander it comparing your path to anyone else’s progress. Live your values, and value the lives you have!” The prescriptive elements of Overcoming Passive-Aggression are, on the whole, less valuable than the descriptive ones; but as an introductory overview of one element of what seems often to go wrong in everyday life (including political life), the book does offer some worthwhile analyses.

     There is nothing funny about passive aggression, but if you want to harness something along the same lines in at least a semi-humorous way, you can – that is the message of Sarah Cooper’s 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and, for those preferring the material in digest form with some connect-the-dots and coloring opportunities, Draw What Success Looks Like. It does help to have a sense of humor about the excesses and sillinesses of the typical corporate workplace – Scott Adams has taken advantage of that reality in Dilbert for a quarter of a century – but Cooper comes at the material from a different angle. Her underlying assumption is that the workplace is inherently competitive in ways that prevent overt undermining of colleagues but allow the use of passive-aggressive techniques (not that she exactly calls them that) to get the better of one’s fellow sufferers. Since meetings at work are, if not a necessary evil, an omnipresent one, the ability to excel in meeting performance is crucial to one-upmanship and career triumph. One could, of course, excel by calling meetings only when necessary, attending only ones that are important, preparing thoroughly for each of them, and presenting one’s material clearly, concisely and with openness to the contributions and team-oriented success strategies of your equally well-prepared and helpful co-workers. That would be great in Cloudcuckooland. Here on Earth, Cooper says, what works is to seem to have done all that good and important stuff while in reality behaving in ways that appear to be smart and productive but in reality are a mixture of Dilbert­-style jargon with Murphy-and-Oberlin-style passive aggression, suitably adapted for meeting protocol. For example, Cooper explains, “Like most women, I’m not a man,” but because she must work with and among men, she has “8 favorite tricks for dominating the male-dominated workplace.” They are using sports metaphors, giving good high fives, learning how to talk about cars, making everything you say sound like a forceful statement, complimenting men’s socks, laughing it off if asked to do something because they need more women doing it, playing pranks frequently, and finally, quoting “The Big Lebowski. Or Animal House. Or Rudy. Or Hoosiers. Or whatever stupid movie they can’t stop talking about.” Cooper has plenty of advice for men, too – most of her suggestions are gender-neutral. Among her recommendations are to sit next to the person leading the meeting so you look sort of like the co-leader; suggest taking a topic offline when you have no idea what everyone is talking about; start sentences with “objectively speaking” so they seem factual even when they are opinions; make fun of yourself; learn how to draw meaningless diagrams (Cooper provides 21 examples); and adjust your techniques depending on where you are – for example, in the Northeast, show up late for your own meeting, while in the South, always say “bless his heart” after bad-mouthing someone. Cooper even has meeting-success suggestions for around the world, including, in Canada, “apologize after everything you say,” and in Japan, “when you need to say no, say maybe instead.” The passive-aggressive nature of 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings is pervasive and obvious, but the odd thing is that the techniques can work even if you recognize them and even if they are being used on you. Cooper explains the strategies to employ when a meeting starts, when it ends, and afterwards; and for a sense of history, she explains famous meetings of the past: the Second Continental Congress was “one of the earliest-known instances of a team that decided to apologize later instead of asking for permission first,” while the Last Supper involved Jesus getting “full approval for a lavish dinner from his CEO. Shortly thereafter, he received the highest promotion.” Sometimes silly, occasionally tasteless, periodically spot-on in its observations and its mixture or wry wit with outlandish fun, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings is the sort of book that you will want to carry into meetings just to see if anyone reads the title.

     Or you can bring along Draw What Success Looks Like and do the activities in it while trying to appear involved in the meeting (trying to appear involved is a lot of what Cooper’s notions are all about). In this book are activities such as “design your secret sauce bottle and list the ingredients,” with drawings of two basic bottles provided – since everyone knows a company must have a “secret sauce” to set itself apart from other companies doing the same thing. There are two otherwise blank pages called “What does success look like?” and “What does failure look like?” – you are supposed to draw each one. There is a page of 25 addition problems to be used as practice for adding value. There are to-be-colored pages built around buzzwords such as “disruption,” “innovation,” “traction” and “transparency.” There is a page of “Meeting Speak: match the common meeting phrase to what it really means.” There is a suggestion to “Make an Impact: hit this page as hard as you can.” There is even a page called “Get on the Same Page: Get all of your coworkers to look at this page at the same time. This will be a huge accomplishment.” Just as snarky as 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and just as overdone – Cooper does like to belabor her points – Draw What Success Looks Like is a compressed and more-visual presentation of the high (or low) points of Cooper’s ways-to-appear-smart book. Neither book has the pithy silliness or surrealistic peculiarities of a Dilbert cartoon, but for anyone wanting to channel his or her workplace passive aggression actively instead of passively noting it by posting comics on cubicle walls, Cooper offers plenty of ways to be successful in a meeting-dominated environment. It all comes down to calculating methods of being sly and snide with sufficient subtlety so your co-workers will not quite be able to pin down why you are so incredibly annoying but always seem to come out on top.

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