Passive Aggressive Behavior: Signs, Examples & Fixes

hiding a knife

Passive aggression is one of the four modes of communication, comprising:

  1. Passive
  2. Assertive
  3. Aggressive
  4. Passive-aggressive

Passive-aggression combines elements of both passive, such as the fear of confrontation and the difficulties in speaking up, with the drive, anger, and hostility of the aggressive style.

In a society that encourages competition while looking down on aggression, passive aggression might be on the rise.

Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself and, if you are passive-aggressive, to cure yourself.

This article explains how.

chart explaining the passive-aggressive communication style

Based on Paterson, 2000

What’s Passive Aggressive

This is a definition of passive-aggressive behavior:

Passive aggression refers to types of behavior where resistance, criticism, anger or resentment are hidden or verbally denied.

The passive-aggressive individual can potentially express that anger in indirect, covert or subversive fashion.

For example, he might verbally agree on a course of action but then either fail to act in accordance with the agreement, or act in ways that lead to opposite results.

Signs of Passive Aggressives

Some traits of the passive-aggressive:

1. Passive Aggressives Project Their Anger Onto Others

Passive-aggressive people often project their anger onto the people around them.

They feel like the world is out to get them, and that everyone else communicates anger like they do: in sneaky and covert fashion. 

The other person might not be angry at all, but that can change as they keep interacting with the passive-aggressive.

What happens is that the passive-aggressive eventually succeeds in annoying the people around, finally provoking real anger.
Once that anger finally turns into an argument, the passive-aggressive feels validated in their feelings of unfairness and external aggression.

2. Passive Aggressives Deny Their Feelings

Passive-aggressives are poor communicators:

passive aggressive in communication styles quadrant

The people around eventually catch up to the passive-aggressive covert anger, and they might ask them what’s going on.

But the passive-aggressive is always on the defensive.
They feel like the world is out to abuse them and they don’t feel like sharing their true selves.
And when people keep asking, they feel violated.

What’s the solution?
Before you keep asking and asking, make sure you have a good relationship first, and make sure the passive-aggressive feels safe with you. Or don’t keep demanding “how they truly feel” once they first denied.

3. Passive-Aggressives Take Everything Negatively

Passive-aggressives like to take things negatively (Williams, 2020).

Why?

Because they often have repressed anger and like to be on the attack, so taking things negatively justifies their anger as well as subversive machinations against you.

This is another great reason why you want to avoid passive-aggression at all costs: it poisons your interactions as well as your mood.

4. Passive-Aggressives Fight Without Fighting

Passive-aggressive can be quite Machiavellian.

When you make a mistake, they indirectly win without having to do anything, so they may withhold information that leads you to miss a deadline.

Or they could be the coworkers who “forget” to CC you in the customer email, so that you don’t stay in the loop.

Why do they do this? Usually, it’s a form of punishment or perhaps a subtle way of making you do things without directly asking you to do it. A good example would be a family member who leaves his dirty clothes on top of the washing machine. If you do the laundry and later confront them about it, then they can defend themselves by saying they never asked you to do it.

5. Passive-Aggressives Do Things Sloppily

Their work is half-assed.

It’s as if these passive-aggressive is daring you to get angry at them -which is exactly what they want sometimes-.

And if you end up redoing the work yourself, they’ve just won.

5. Passive-Aggressives Remain Non-Committal

Passive-aggressive individuals are masters of ambiguity.

It can be very hard to pinpoint whether they’re telling you yes or no, and it’s often premeditated.
That way, they keep their options open and do whatever they please.

And when it comes to telling what you should do, they also often keep it ambiguous, so they can always accuse you later.
You know, “you don’t have to if you don’t want to”, they’ll say. But if you don’t, they’ll sulk.

6. Passive-aggressive murmur threats or profanity

The passive-aggressive might be seething with anger, but:

  • He is afraid of his own anger
  • He is afraid he will be punished if he expresses himself fully
  • He is afraid of the confrontation, of the consequences, of engaging and “losing”

But when the anger is so strong, it can seep out at the seams. Save to put it all back in behind a fake smile if confronted.

Here is an example:

Him: (irritated and fighting his own irritation, now speaking louder, getting aggressive) Ma’m! I answered your question
Her: I’m sorry sir?
Him: (now changes tack, moves back to passive, tries to smile more) Ma’m, I answered your question. I answered. I’m cooperating here, and there is no… (mutter)
Her: (going on the offensive) Sir, you have no call in getting snippy with me, I’m just doing my job here
Him: (retreats even further)

She was also not being fully assertive, though.
A more assertive response from her would have been:

Assertive Option: I understand this is frustrating but this is my job and I intend to do it properly. And to do a proper job, I need you to cooperate with me sir

7. Passive-Aggressives Have Weak Boundaries

Passive-aggressives, often fearing confrontation even with disrespectful people, often fail to erect and enforce their personal boundaries.

Here’s how a passive-aggressive deal with boundaries:

  • Doesn’t protect personal space
  • Reveals too much
  • Get caught up in other people’s troubles
  • Neglect own needs for others
  • Tolerates abuse
  • Easily persuaded by one religious creed or another

8. Passive-Aggressive Are Extremely Indirect

Instead of asking you to do your part of the cleaning, they might clean only their side of the flat.

You know, “sending you a message”, instead of speaking up.

Or they might leave their dirty laundry on top of the washing machine. And when you complain that you had to do the work for them, they’ll say they “never asked you to”.

9. More Signs of Passive-Aggressives

More signs and behaviors typical of a passive-aggressive personality include:

10 Techniques Against Microaggression

Signs of Passive Aggressive at Work

Here are some typical signs of passive aggression at work:

  • Questioning colleagues or reports in front of others
  • Refusing to grant holidays or bonuses without proper explanation
  • Removing a colleague from email communication
  • Making very difficult questions after a presentation
  • Arriving late or taking longer lunch breaks
  • Using notes or e-mail to avoid face-to-face confrontation
  • Complaining about policies & procedures, but doing nothing to change them

Passive-aggressives rarely attack directly.

But they might be doing so when they feel strong enough or when the pay-offs are particularly big.

A vengeful boss for example might “punish” a report for what the boss perceives to be a slight or disrespect, but the employee will never know because the boss will use some other excuse for his punishment.

Colleagues can turn passive-aggressive out of competition, or sometimes just out of envy.

Also read:

8 Types of Toxic Employees & How to Deal With Them

Causes of Passive Aggression

What causes passive aggression?

Almost always it entails a submissive personality or a conflict-avoidant personality.
Clinical Psychologist Jordan Peterson also lists “high in agreeableness” as a possible cause of passive aggression.

There can be other causes though, including:

  • Underlying personality disorder
  • Medication
  • Envy / Jealousy
  • Sense of powerlessness / low self-esteem
  • Fear of losing our partner (can be a sign of anxious attachment style)
  • Nurture (learned the pattern of behavior from a parent)

Let’s now dig deeper into the childhood as it’s one of the least understood causes:

Learning Passive Aggression At Home

Some present a relationship dance composed of a dominant partner and subversive, passive-aggressive one.

If one of the parents is dominant and the other subservient, then some children are likely to develop some passive-aggressive personality traits.

Why?

Because the children learn that powerful people shouldn’t be approached directly.
Here’s a key sentence with which people learn passive-aggressiveness:

Mother: OK, but let’s not tell your father

With that, the child learns that people should not deal directly and honestly with authority, but are instead best served with underhanded tactics and going behind their backs.

mother unwittingly teaching passive aggression
The child learns to form coalitions against authority instead of honest conversation

Passive Aggression Techniques

Passive-aggressive people use similar techniques which are at the same time signs of passive aggression and, sometimes, their weapon of choice to attack others.

Here are the main ones:

1. Deny Feelings

I’m not mad..

Passive-aggressive people don’t embrace and admit their feelings.

When you question a passive-aggressive type about their apparent anger or dissatisfaction, they will deny their own anger -see again the video above from the movie “Fargo”-.

2. Delay Execution

Passive-aggressive people resist change internally, but they will always give you the appearance of complying and getting along.

That’s why they will often say yes while delaying the execution as an act of subversion and/or to get out of tasks.

This is how many couples get locked in perennial infight. See here an example from the movie “The Breakup”:

Her: Well, I’m gonna go do the dishes.
Him: Cool
Her: It’d be nice if you helped me
Him: No problem. <- passive aggression
I’ll get them a little bit later. I’m just gonna hit the streets here for a little bit.

Note: passive aggression is a type of communication and pattern of behavior. But it doesn’t mean necessarily “being wrong”.
The fact that he’s passive-aggressive doesn’t mean that she’s right in asking to do the dishes right away.

Her: Gary, come on, I don’t want to do them later. Let’s just do them now. It’ll take 15 minutes.
Him: (..) If I could just sit here, let my food digest, and just try to enjoy the quiet for a little bit.

He keeps being passive-aggressive because, very likely, his intention was never to do the dishes.

Note that he’s not really hoping the issue will go away. Deep down he knows that it’s only likely to escalate.
But he’s going for what he perceives to be the path of least resistance.

3. Sulking While Faking Resolution

Fine!

Sometimes the passive-aggressive can stonewall, hide behind silence, and refuse to answer.

But stonewalling is might even be too direct for some extreme passive-aggressive types.
So he prefers to verbally agree while actually sulking and building resentment on the inside.

Him: Fine. I’ll help you do the damn dishes <- passive aggressive: complies while arguing even harder
Her: Oh, come on. You know what? No. That’s not what I want
Him: You just said that you want me to help you do the dishes

Typical of passive aggressive, he is pretending not to understand. Of course she’s not gonna be happy with his “resolution”, but he fakes total ignorance to keep getting back at her.

Finally, note that this is also a common female behavior.
See “how women control relationships“.

4. Substandard Execution

I didn’t have time..

Sometimes procrastination is not an option, in which case the passive-aggressive may decide to carry on the task… In the most sloppy way, he can manage.
Examples:

  • A student half-bakes his paper project
  • A husband overcooks the pasta while knowing fully well his wife likes it al dente
  • Overspending while pretending he didn’t realize there was a cap
  • Complying with an attitude

See an example from “Raging Bull”:

Her: You want your steak?
Him: Yeah, right now!
Her: Good. There’s your stupid steak. Can’t wait for it to be done?
Him: No, I can’t wait.
Her: Good. Okay? Happy? Happy? <- fake friendliness 

When a passive-aggressive is confronted about his sloppy execution, he sometimes accuses back. For example, he could undermine the decision for the task, saying it made no sense.
Of course, they don’t realize they should have said that before the event.

How to Stop People Undermining You

5. Purposefully “Failing” to Help

I thought you knew

The passive-aggressive, especially when behaving out of bitterness and envy, can be happy to see you fail.

That’s when they will not help you avoid a mistake, even it would have been easy for them.

Of course, when you confront them, it will be an excuse-fest:

  • I thought you knew it
  • I didn’t notice
  • Oh I’m sorry, I thought you were doing it on purpose to test things

6. Defending Themselves

I was just…

Her: I was just going to buy some groceries

In the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, the passive-aggressive will try to look innocent. And might try to frame you as overly abusive, strict, or paranoid.

7. Silent Treatment

Sorry I didn’t see you..

Looking into someone’s eyes and not saying hi is rather direct. The passive-aggressive behavior is sneakier.
They might pretend to look away, and when confronted they might say they haven’t seen you.

8. Aggressive Body Language

OK (rolling her eyes up)…

Sneering, behind the back gestures and other nonverbal signals of disapproval are another typical passive-aggressive behavior.

In this example, De Niro’s facial expression is a split of a second, but it communicates “you’re talking smack”.

Preference For Nonverbal Attacks

Why do passive-aggressive people rely more on nonverbal attacks than verbal ones?

First of all, because it’s less likely to cause confrontation.
And second, because they can always deny their action. You cannot deny a clearly stated verbal disagreement that everyone hears (unless you’re Trump).
But if you just make a facial gesture and the recipient confronts you, you can always say: “it’s not true I’m undermining you, where did you get that from“.

9. Back-Handed Compliments

There are two types of backhanded compliments:

Offensive Compliments

Offensive compliments deliver an attack right next to a compliment.
For example:

  • You landed a great job for your level of education
  • Not bad for your actual skills

Complimenting someone else

Complimenting someone else, especially if the target has just failed, is a great way for the passive-aggressive to demote the target socially (also read social climbing).

Here’s a great example from “Meet The Parents”:

She: The airline lost his bag.
Mother: Oh! They didn’t!
She: Yeah, they did.
He: What about you, honey?
She: No, l carried on.
He: That’s my girl! <- indirect assault on Greg

10. Sarcasm

I was just kidding…

Sarcasm is another popular tool to hide real feelings of bitterness and, sometimes, hatred.

And if someone calls the funny joker on the inappropriateness of the “joke”, of course, they were just kidding (read here how to respond to inappropriate jokes).

Here it is Billy Batts using passive aggression on the wrong fella:

Billy: He’d make your shoes look like fuc*ing mirrors. Excuse my language. He was the best. Made a lot of money too.
Tommy: No more shines. You been away a long time. They didn’t tell you. I don’t shine shoes anymore.
Billy: Relax. What’s got into you? I’m breaking your balls a little, that’s all. I’m only kidding with you. <- dang! Passive aggression, hiding his hand
Tommy: Sometimes you don’t sound like it. There’s a lot of people around. <- great move! presses on, forces him to apologize again
Billy: I’m only kidding. We’re having a party.

As you can see from this example, passive aggression does not always mean “submissive”, “afraid”, “beta male” or however you associate it with.
Sometimes it can just be part of a larger social assault, and it can be used smartly.

Notice though that in the end, Batts snaps out of passive-aggressiveness to being purely aggressive.

11. Tentative Aggression

Sometimes it’s not just employees but also bosses who avoid direct confrontation.

They avoid direct confrontation, but they still want to make sure they throw their weight around.

Here is an example from “Office Space”:

This video example is a feast of passive aggression.

If the two bosses feel the employee’s mistake is really that important, they should address it properly.
And if the employee feels he is unjustly targeted, he should be a bit stronger in his replies. Shaking his head instead is a typical sign that he is building resentment for what he perceives is unfair nitpicking.

Passive Aggressive Examples

In this section, we present passive-aggressive scenarios and how to address them.

Passive Aggressive Justice

Eva and Christie live together and they do grocery shopping every week when they drive to a mall: it’s cheaper there.

In the morning Eva goes for the milk only to find there’s nothing inside.
Eva doesn’t drink milk, so she inquires her:

Eva: What happened to the milk
Christie: oh my boyfriend was over yesterday, he probably had some, sorry!

Depending on her personality, Eva can answer in three ways:

Aggressive: well, you should try thinking, if you can figure out how. . Is your boyfriend contributing to the household budget now? I hope he enjoyed my milk.
(as she throws the milk carton out)

It’s impulsive and emotional: anger is highly visible here.

PassiveThat’s OK, I’ll get coffe on the way to work. Have a good day.

This is passive because she doesn’t express her needs or protect her rights. It might be because of low self-esteem: she is single. Her flatmate must be “better” for having a boyfriend. She feels unworthy of even complaining.

Assertive (takes a deep breath): We have to rethink our shopping list I suppose, or shop at the local market when supplies are running low. But let’s talk it over tonight.

The breath is to release some anger. She makes an effort to be reasonable, but their needs have collided and it’s time for a discussion. This is a responsible and sensible approach.

Passive Aggressive: Ahm, that’s OK, I’ll find something else for breakfast.

Then she sees of Eva’s yogurt, the last on the shelf. She feels a pang of anger and self-righteousness and takes it when Christie doesn’t see her.
Typical passive-aggressive behavior: doesn’t say anything directly to her face, but evens the scores behind her back.

When Christie will ask about her yogurt Eva might reply that “she had to have something for her cereals”. How could Christie be angry?

Passive Aggressive Over Time

Lucia hates waking up in the morning, and her mother has to call her over and over again.

Lucia replies she will get up soon, but her mother always has to walk to her room to make sure.

With time, Lucia developed an understanding for when her mother reaches the door and gets up right before she enters.

By complying with a delay, Lucia creates anger in her mother, who eventually tells her she’ll call only once, and then she’ll have to walk to school.

Now Lucia gets up right on time, but “makes her mother pay” by taking a lot of time in the bathroom.
When she finally comes out, she says:

Lucia: Sorry, I guess it takes time when one is still sleepy

Notice what she’s doing there? She is indirectly blaming her mother for waking her up.

Years later Lucia is in college.
She buys the latest version laptop on her parent’s credit card because she feels entitled to it. After all, her parents could not send her to the first pick of school.
When her father asks, she replies that it’s almost mandatory for students to have a good laptop. But deep down, it was probably a bit of a vendetta for her.

Passive Aggressive Relationships

This is a typical dialogue in a relationship with a passive-aggressive personality:

Him: I won two tickets for the football match, not that you would ever care to join though? <- implies she never wants to accompany him
Her: Sure, why not <- She disregards her own needs and reservations. Maybe to prove him wrong
Him: Really? I thought you didn’t like football
Her: Not much but you won the tickets
Him: Then why you said yes. You always say yes and then find some reasons to back out. Will you really go this time?
Her: Well sure… Unless it’s too cold, I can’t sit outside in the cold
Him: Christie it’s November, it’s going to be cold. Forget it!

Passive aggressiveness in relationships can lead to vicious circles and breakups.

Effects of Passive Aggressive

Passive-aggressive behavior takes a heavy toll on relationships. Both on the side of the passive-aggressive and of their victims.

Effect on Others

Passive-aggressive people can often get under the skin of their victims.

It happens because the passive-aggressive keeps calm and pretends to be shocked when the others blow up in anger.

As a matter of fact, some passive-aggressive types take pleasure in seeing others overreact and blow up. Especially if in front of others.
The effect can be similar to gaslighting, as we saw some cheating partners using it in their relationship.

This is how a blow-up through sneaky passive-aggressive maneuvers would look like:

Notice her face, eyes rolling, his sneaky comment “who talks like that”, which implies that she talks in that low register, not them.

Effect on the Passive Aggressive

As we’ve seen in the beginning the passive-aggressive is not always in control though.
As a matter of fact, most of the time the passive-aggressive is as much of a victim.
He often suffers in silence indeed, under the belief that he is the one being unfairly treated. He builds up resentment inside because he has no other safety valve to vent and doesn’t have the strength and skills to stand up for himself.

It’s not uncommon for passive-aggressive to wish ill fate on their mostly made “enemies”. Or to imagine of assaulting them.

Passive-Aggressiveness at Work

Passive aggression is commonplace at work for a number of reasons:

  1. Display of emotions is frowned upon
  2. Hierarchy makes it difficult for employees to communicate assertively to bosses
  3. It’s not easy for bosses to give candid feedback without violating policies
  4. There’s a natural competition among peers, but it often must be kept under wrap

That means that workplaces are hotspots for passive aggression. Both up and down the chain and, of course, laterally with your lovely colleagues.

Here’s an example of passiveness out of strong hierarchies:

Him: It’s the way we prefer to handle it, Gerry
Gerry: (passive, but plots on how to screw them behind their backs)

Looking at the scene only, this is passive.
But within the whole movie, it’s passive-aggressive because he goes beyond everyone’s backs to orchestrate a kidnapping to get it his way.

Passive Aggressive in Relationships

It’s difficult to solve issues when you’re in a relationship with a passive-aggressive partner.

If you can’t have a direct, honest conversation, how can you go to the roots of the problem?
Well, let’s see what you can do about it:

1. Become the Leader

Andrea Brandt says that a long-lasting relationship with a passive-aggressive needs an enabler (Brandt, 2013).
The enabler has weak boundaries and is usually the follower in the relationship.

To fix it then, you must drop your follower position and either raise up to the level of your partner or become the leader.

2. Enforce Boundaries

You must stop allowing your partner to get away with their sneaky aggression tactics.

Enforce your boundaries, call them out on their behavior, and lay the rules on what’s proper communication (of course this means that you must first understand what proper communication is).

3. Listen to Them

This is important when you’re the de facto leader but are not being receptive to your partner. More on this below.

Dealing With Passive-Aggressive People

Here are a few ways to deal with passive-aggressive behavior:

1. Ignore It

Ignore, or at least don’t overreact.

When you rage, nag, or criticize, you escalate conflict and give the passive aggressor a reason to keep up the covert operations.
It’s possible they might drop the behavior if they see it doesn’t get through to you.

2. Distance Yourself

Stay away from passive-aggressive people whenever you can: they’re not healthy relationships and you have very little to gain from them.

3. Use the Same Strategy

Robert Greene in the 33 Strategies of War recommends you never attack back directly but use their same game back on them.
This is especially useful if you are indeed dealing with someone who’s using passive aggression as a power move.

4. Confront Them

If you are going to confront them, do it exactly when they display passive-aggressive behavior and explain to them exactly what they’re doing.

Once they understand you know their game and can explain it in detail, chances are they will stop.
People fear those who can call them out -potentially publicly-.

5. Empower Them

Some passive-aggressive individuals resort to indirect communication because they feel powerless.

In those cases, it can help to actually empower them.

Tell your partner that you are listening, tell your colleague you care about their opinion, and give them credit.
Once they will feel heard their need for passive aggression will disappear.

Look at this example from Elon Musk’s life:

She’s being passive-aggressive undermining his authority.
My guess is that she doesn’t feel “important” enough next to him so she feels the need to back-stab him.

Stopping Your Own Passive Aggression

Here are a few ways to stop being passive-aggressive if you are one:

1. Embrace Conflict

Don’t be afraid of conflict.

As a matter of fact, overcoming your fear of conflict will go a long way towards making you a strong communicator and overcoming passive aggression.

2. Make Your Own Agenda

Some passive-aggressive follow people they don’t want to follow because they don’t have their own goals and dreams.
Decide what you want out of life instead and go for it. And stop following bosses and leaders that you don’t respect.

3. Accept Your Feelings

Anger is a fair feeling. Even in romantic relationships, Gottman has long proven that anger in itself is not dangerous.
Embrace it and channel it productively instead.

4. Practice Assertive Communication

This is a great article on how to communicate your grievances properly in a romantic relationship.

And this article gives you the five best books on communication.

5. Compassionate Assertiveness

Why compassion?

Well, sometimes passive aggression stems out of self-absorption. We think others are out to get us, out to annoy us, or we make everything about us.
We need then to see the situation from the others’ point of view as well (read how to overcome entitlement).

Using Passive Aggression

If passive aggression evolved in people… It probably served a purpose.

There are indeed strategic uses of passive aggression, as well as some limited situations in which passive or covert aggression can be useful, or even high-quality options.

Read more on Power University on how to strategically use passive aggression.

SUMMARY

Passive-aggressive behavior is common and there are some rare use cases for passive-aggressive.

But in general, too much passive-aggression, or a general passive-aggresssive attitude, tends to undermine your social effectiveness, your relationships, and your own health.

When dealing with a passive-aggressive, it’s very easy getting frustrated because they will not express how they feel and when you are overstepping their boundaries.
So they build up lots of resentment that they never let go of. Except for their passive-aggressive, sneaky ways, that is.

Whether you are on the receiving end or you are passive-aggressive yourself, you must eradicate it from your life.

This article explained how.

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