Passive Style: How to Overcome The Doormat Syndrome

passive communication style meme

The passive communication style, sometimes also referred to as “submissive style”, is a specific approach to interpersonal relationships characterized by a pattern of weak boundaries, unassertiveness, and submission.

As an overview of the passive style:

passive communication style chart
Based on Randy Paterson work (Paterson, 2000)

The Traits of Passive Individuals

Among the most salient traits of the passive communication style is a fear of confrontation.

The passive individual:

  • Gives in to unreasonable demands

Another weekend in the office for extra unpaid work? Uhmm, OK. No, no trouble at all.

  • Goes along with the crowd

You all want to go to McDonald’s? I don’t mind that I’m on diet, it sounds great

The passive individual also fears the spotlight, so “going along with the crowd” always had the added benefit of making it easier for him to blend and disappear.

  • Withholds opinion out of fear 

What do I think of cannabis liberalization?

What do you guys think about it? All stoner should be imprisoned for life? Yeah, I can agree with that…

  • Withhold any feedback that might come across as criticism

Yeah, I had to redo your budget report, but I don’t mind some Excel work, you’re doing fine

  • Over-Apologize

Oh, I’m sorry I was standing here, you bumped into me, and that I spilled my full glass of wine over my new suit

From a social exchange point of view, with their over-apologies passive people end up inflating their own social debt.

Apologizing if you’ve done a mistake is what you should do.
But avoid over-apologizing if you’ve done nothing wrong, or if someone else is at fault.

PRO Tip: If you have a tendency for over-apologizing, a quick fix can be to switch from “sorry” to “excuse me”.

  • Never take proper credit, always minimize one’s own contribution

Nah, it was OK, I was already awake at 3am, so no problem getting dressing and come pick you up

Passive people struggle mightily to collect their fair social credits and devalue their own contributions.

This important information for us since our goal is to make you successful socially, and in life:

Passive individuals struggle to enter win-win exchanges and are more likely to remain stuck in win-lose exchanges, as well as in manipulative relationships.

This is embedded in the very “fabric” of the passive style.
Not being able to say “no” makes you an easy picking for the bullies and manipulators of this world.

The Strategic Uses of Submission

At first blush, there might seem to be no upside to submission.

But that’s not correct.
The same thing we said for aggression applies to submission as well.
If submission didn’t provide at least some benefits to at least someone in at least some environments and circumstances, it likely wouldn’t have evolved and it wouldn’t be omnipresent in the world today.

So let’s see what are the strategic uses of submission:

1. Submissive people stay alive 

The most obvious one.

Probably the main reason why submission and the passive communication style evolved is that they saved lives.

Keep a low profile, do as you’re told, don’t voice your concerns, show submission… And you’ll survive.

Of course, the problem with “staying alive” is that there is a big difference between “surviving” and “thriving”.
And this is not the website for those who seek to “survive” :).

But still, there are more upshots of submission and passiveness than purely staying alive.

Let’s see:

2. Passivity Can Save Time & Energies

Letting someone else take the lead, and potentially also let them lead you and/or your group, can save you time and resources.

Taking the lead can be a hustle, and since you often can’t make everyone happy, you have to deal with the usual ballbreakers who complain about this or that.

Plus, once you become the leader, you also take on a responsibility, and you can’t always just freely bail.

That’s why, depending on the situation, I sometimes like to sit back in groups and let someone take the helm.
If I don’t like the direction things are taking, I speak up.
And if people still want to go the way I don’t like, I either change my attitude and go along, or go my own way.

Note: this point does not apply to individuals who are “stuck” in passive and submissive mode.
These folks are often overburdened with other people’s work because of their inability to say “no”.

3. Submissive Women Can Finish First Win At Dating

In dating, female submission can get men chasing and investing.

This is an exaggerated example of course, but the “damsel in distress” can be an extremely effective dating technique:

On average, men prefer more submissive women.
And women who can (selectively) send out submissive signals get both more men chasing for short-term, and more long-term providers to choose from.

4. Men Approaching Risk-Averse Women, In High-Risk Settings

Imagine a woman is:

  • Walking in a dimly lit street at night
  • Waiting for a night bus around lots of drunk guys 
  • Looking for her car in a rundown parking lot

In these cases, a smart man will make sure to send out strong and obvious friendly signals.
And friendly signals overlap with submissiveness, since they say “I’m not here to dominate you, I’m a friendly guy”.

Going in too high-power or aggressive can make her recoil in fear, and then he’d have to invest a lot to overturn those dynamics.

Then later, once she knows it’s all good, he can switch gears and start acting higher power.

The same holds true in sexual marketplaces where women are very risk-averse, like Korea or Japan, and it’s especially true for foreigners residing there.
The same holds true for men who look more “dangerous”, or imposing. Either because of their physical size, or because of how they look.

Skin color can also frame men as higher danger.
Whites can be seen as higher risk in Asia, and black men can also gain with a more friendly approach, and focusing more on comfort than on dominance.

5. Submission can help rebalance relationships after you wronged someone

When you abused or hurt someone, you’re high-power.

But you’re high power in a negative way.

And since good relationships are more or less balanced in terms of power, it’s a good idea to not just say sorry, but also to give them back some power.

As David J. Lieberman correctly points out, if you hurt someone a “sorry” might not be enough (Lieberman, 2000).
Lieberman says that quickest -and the deepest- way to mend the relationship instead is to give them the power to punish you.

Giving them power to punish you, of course, is for more extreme cases.
But giving them power back with a big heartfelt sorry, a lowering of your head, and even letting them get angry at you, can be all good to re-establish a good relationship.

And if you pull this move well, they won’t even want to get angry or punish you, since giving people power back is a high-quality behavior, and people like high-quality folks in their lives.

6. Submission can help avoid punishment when you’re out of options

This is a more strategic subset of the “submission to save lives” approach.

In some cases, a (sneaky) way of avoiding punishment is by strategically playing low-power, clueless idiot.

This is can be most useful when you have no leverage whatsoever and the costs of the punishments would be huge -if they’re not huge, then you can just take it in strides-.

Example:

A friend of mine had been called by the finance office for tax return misrepresentation, a potential criminal offense if prosecuted.
My friend had (stupidly) “tried his hand” and he knew he was guilty.

While some advised him to contact a lawyer, my friend showed in the office with broken local language, saying it was the first time he tried to file his own tax returns, which was true, and playing the “sorry I messed this up” role.

He then asked, “OK, what should I do now”.
Asking “what should I do now” asks the officer to direct his behavior -a sign of submissiveness-.

The tax officer admonished him to be careful because that mistake could be a criminal offense.
My friend acted with restrained shock and muttered it was probably the last time he would file his own tax returns (nice move).
Then they fixed the mistake together, the tax officer explaining in the teacher role and my friend playing the ignorant student (the subservient position).

Result: he got away scot-free.

Now I don’t necessarily recommend you try to use submissive behavior to break the law or to avoid punishment, but this is an example in which submission most likely worked better than any higher-power alternatives.
If my friend had shown up with an attitude (or with a lawyer), chances are that the situation would have escalated.

7. To Appease Someone

Similar to the above two points.

Submissive body language gives away power.

And, sometimes, you might want exactly that.

Why so?
Because people feel good about getting that power.
It can be a great strategy to give power to someone who has already power over you, since you’re not actually losing anything, but you’re improving your odds by making them feel good.

In short: submitting to someone who has already ultimate power over you can sometimes only improve your situation.
After all, they already can do anything to you, so your submission does not really change anything practically, but only seeks to make them feel good emotionally.
I know, it’s not our favorite strategy here at The Power Moves, but it can work.

Example 1:

Imagine you f*cked up something big time, or you harmed someone.

And now you’re in a court of law.

If you maintain a high-power pose you show an unrepentant attitude, and judges always go down harder on unrepentant convicts.

See an example here

Prosecution lawyer: I’d like the record to note of Mr. Koppenhaver laugh

Judge: (with angry inflection) I’ve seen him laughing

Great job Mr. Koppenhaver, just gained a few more years behind bars, one of the most expensive smiles in history.

Example 2:

This time you’re just trying to get out of a traffic ticket.

Some signals of submissiveness towards the traffic cop send the message that it was an honest mistake, that you’re sorry, and that you accept their power over you.

Dutton ran a small test showing cops two different videos of a traffic stop: a confrontational guy, and a guy giving out more submissive signals.
95% of cops said they would give a traffic ticket to the confrontational guy, but they’d let the “nice” guy go (Dutton, 2014).

NOTE: 6 & 7 not recommended!

Albeit there is a time and place for almost anything in life, The Power Moves does not recommend these methods as your go-to behavior.
Least of all, as a mindset!

These are low-power, small-timer manipulative behavior. And, most of all, appeasing others to get out of problems is a bad mindset.
It’s the mindset of the small-timer cheat.

This is “scratching with the turkeys” type of behavior. And we want you to soar with the eagles here.

8. As a Tool of Control

Yes, submission can also be a tool of control.

Pleading, begging, guilt-tripping, pouting, crying… They are all submissive expressions that can work wonders to make people act the way the manipulator wants.

Psychologists Friz Perls argued that in close relationships the submissive party often ends up controlling the most aggressive party.
Frankly, that’s a generalization and it’s not always true.
But it would be wrong to think that the aggressive party always controls a relationship.

In truth, when an aggressive and a submissive have a relationship, it’s a war for control that neither wins.
It’s a lose-lose, toxic relationship.
So of course we recommend you don’t resort to these tactics.

9. To Signal Appreciation / Respect

Some cultures use submissive body language as a “thank you” or as a sign of appreciation.

If someone holds the door open for you or gives you directions to go somewhere, you can say thank you and bow your head slightly.
In a different context, bowing could be a sign of submission, but a slight bow as a “thank you” can simply be a symbol of a polite and prosocial attitude.

10. To Keep The Support Coming

The signs of submission we mentioned above make people feel good.

They feel valued for their help, and that helps to keep the help coming.
Submission can be effective, for example, when you’re a beginner with a mentor who is very high up.

Why Constant Submission Backfires

OK, there are strategic uses for submission.

Still, the rule of thumb is that you want to avoid sending too many submission signals unless you are doing it on purpose and for a specific purpose.

I quote Robert Bolton (Bolton, 1979):

Submissive people do not express their honest feelings, needs, values, and concerns.

They allow others to violate their space, deny their rights, and ignore their needs. Some submissive people do express their needs but do it in such an apologetic and diffident manner that they are not taken seriously.

What Bolton is referring to is submissiveness as a lack of capability in defending one’s needs and rights.

In short, submission is bad when you do it not because it’s good to do it, but because you lack the capability for assertiveness.
If that’s the case, submission has the following harmful consequences:

  1. Bottling up of anger and frustrations
  2. Potential for sneaky, passive-aggressive behavior as an outlet for that
  3. Falling (extremely) short of one’s life potential
  4. Opening the door to possible abuse
  5. Lowering of one’s own social status

You also can’t have an empowered mindset if you never stand your ground when people trample your rights or treat you rudely.
Overall, for people who overdo submission, the “advantages” of a submissive life pale in comparison to the disadvantages.

Overcoming Submissiveness: The Beliefs

passive style meme
I need to make it easier for them to step all over me

Beliefs are crucial.

People can change their behavior, but without changing faulty beliefs, they are fighting an uphill battle.

When people perceive themselves as unequal, they also accept unequal treatment (Shaw, 2020).
But when they see themselves as equals, they automatically expect and, almost automatically, demand equal treatment.

So in this now we examine both the faulty beliefs -in red- and the correct ones -in green-:

  • I am less important than others 

I am equally as important as others

  • I’m less valuable than others 

I might be less valuable to achieve certain outcomes in certain specific areas, but as a person, I am as valuable as anyone else.

Plus, I can always become more valuables, which I am indeed doing right now, and I can also be more valuable than some other person in some other areas where I have higher expertise and efficiency.

  • It’s important to be nice

Yeah, why not.
Being passive is not being nice though. Being passive is being mean and value-taking… To yourself first, and to others when you don’t tell them the truth.

Being assertive and honest is far nicer.

  • I’m not entitled to having control over my life

Of course I am entitled to control over my life!
If not me, who else?

  • I cannot do things as effectively as others

I might not do things as effectively as someone else in certain areas, and even then, I am still equal to them.
Plus, I can always get better and I can get better than someone else in other areas..

  • My role is to serve

I might serve, and I might happy of doing so sometimes.
But it is not my role to serve.
If anything, it’s my choice whenever I choose so. And I can also choose not to serve, as I will do every time I feel someone is undeserving of my support.

  • The way to be accepted and appreciated by others is to give and give

In some situations, giving is a good thing, IF and WHEN people are also giving back.
Giving and giving to those who take and take without giving back is stupid, it’s a waste of resources, and it also makes the world a worse place, since it teaches people that it’s OK to not contribute anything.

  • If others disagree with me, then I must be wrong

Pretty much the same chances of others being wrong.

  • It’s impolite to disagree

No, it’s impolite to agree even if you don’t.
Polite is to be honest enough to let people know what you really think.

  • Passivity is the way to be loved

Passiveness is the way to be taken advantage of, attract bullies and abusers, and remain stuck scratching with the turkeys.
Passiveness makes the world a worst place because I hold back my contribution and my value-giving to worthy and deserving people, while I enrich the undeserving bullies and value-takers who take advantage of passive folks.

SUMMARY

The passive communication style is a pattern of communication and behavior characterized by weak boundaries, social tentativeness or withdrawal, and general submissiveness.

It’s sometimes accompanied by social fears, as well as low self-esteem, and it’s often supported by poor beliefs about life, socialization, and self-worth.
This article addresses values and beliefs to help submissive people become more assertive.

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