This article deals with passive aggressiveness. What it is, what causes it, examples of passive aggression and how to fix it.
It’s longish, but it’s the only article you will need to understand and address the phenomenon.
- What’s Passive Aggressive
- Signs of Passive Aggression
- Causes of Passive Aggression
- Passive Aggressive Behavior
- Examples of Passive Aggressive
- Effects of Passive Aggressive
- Passive Aggressiveness at Work
- Passive Aggressive in Relationships
- Dealing With Passive Aggressive People
- Stopping Your Own Passive Aggression
What’s Passive Aggressive
Passive aggressive is a type of behavior where resistance, criticism, anger or resentment are expressed in indirect and sometimes covert and sneaky ways.
It often happens when people don’t want to comply but are afraid of conflict, don’t know how to say no or cannot say no.
Passive aggressiveness is characterized by denial, evasiveness and blaming.
Passive Aggressive people often project their anger onto other people. The other person might not be angry at all at the beginning. But that can change as the passive aggressive actually provokes anger in them to then justify their feelings.
Eventually, if anger finally explodes, it leads to a major argument. At that point the passive aggressive feels validated in their feelings of unfairness and defensiveness.
The passive aggressive is often on the defensive.
That happens especially when people ask them about their feelings. Since sharing feeling and emotions in the open is often tabu, he feels as if he is been violated.
Signs of Passive Aggression
Passive aggression manifests in many different ways.
Some of them are:
- Ambiguity and avoiding responsibility
- Doing less than agreed, doing it late or doing it sloppily
- Negativity (pouting, resisting influence or creating arguments)
- Withholding important information
- Back handed compliments
- Weak boundaries
- Using notes or e-mail to avoid face-to-face confrontation
- Complaining about policies & procedures but doing nothing to change them
- Arriving late or taking longer lunch breaks at office
Passive Aggressive Power Moves
When passive aggressive risk a direct assault, they will usually do for bigger pay-offs. When that happens, you can safely guess that their passive aggressive behavior was because of envy and competitive spirit.
Here are some examples:
- Questioning friends, partners or colleagues in in public settings
- Removing a colleague from large email communication
- Demoting a colleague to the CC field
- Making a very difficult question after a presentation
Passive aggressive, often fearing confrontation even with disrespectful people, often fail to erect and enforce their personal boundaries.
Here’s how a passive aggressive deals 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
Causes of Passive Aggression
The causes of passive aggression are varied.
Here are some of them:
- Underlying personality disorder
- Sense of powerlessness
- Conflict avoidant tendencies
- Fear of losing our partner (can be a sign of anxious attachment style)
In my experience though, most often, it’s fear of conflict and low self esteem.
Conflict avoiders and people low in self-esteem and confidence tend to be passive aggressive.
Brandt also observe that passive aggression is higher in societies where anger and emotional outbursts are frowned upon.
If one of the parents is dominant and the other subservient, then children are likely to develop some passive aggressiveness personality traits.
It’s because the children learn that powerful people shouldn’t be approached directly. Here’s a key sentence with which people learn passive aggressiveness:
OK, but let’s not tell your father
Passive Aggressive Behavior
Here are some types of passive aggressive behavior with descriptions and examples:
1. Denying Feelings
I’m not mad..
Passive aggressive don’t embrace and admit their feelings. And when questioned about their apparent anger or dissatisfaction, they will deny it.
It’s not uncommon for passive aggressive to say “I’m not mad” while they are actually raging on the inside.
What a fantastic example of passive aggressive behavior out of insecurity and low confidence.
But he’s not arguing there :).
2. Delayed 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 (of course the best option would be to directly refuse or address the issue).
Her: Well, I’m gonna go do the dishes.
Him: Cool <- LOL 😀
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 aggressive is a type of communication and patter 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 is not to the dishes at all not and not to “just sit there for a few minutes”.
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 last resistance.
3. Sulking While Faking Resolution
Sometimes the passive aggressive can stonewall, hide behind silence and refuse to answer.
But stonewalling is quite direct.
Most of the times he prefers to verbally agree while actually sulking and building resentment on the inside.
If you kept watching the video above you’ve seen another example of passive aggressiveness.
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 pretends that he is complying, so everything should be fine.
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.
- 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
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 on a sloppy task, he 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.
I thought you knew
The passive aggressive, especially when behaving out of bitterness and envy, can be happy to see you fail. That’s whey 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. Body Language Subversion
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 facial expression is a split of a second, but it communicates “you’re talking smack”.
Why do passive aggressive behavior relies more on nonverbal than verbal?
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 back handed compliments:
Offensive compliments delivers an attack right next to a compliment.
- 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:
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
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.
Notice thought that in the end Batts snaps out of passive aggressiveness to being purely aggressive.
11. Tentative Aggression
Sometimes it’s not just reports but also bosses avoid direct confrontation.
This is a feast of passive aggression. If they two bosses feel it’s really that important, they should address it properly.
And if he 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.
Examples of Passive Aggressive
This section will describe a few typical examples of passive aggressiveness -and how we can correct them-.
Passive Aggresive 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.
Passive: That’s OK, I’ll get coffe on the way to work. Have a good day.
This is a passive because she doesn’t express her needs or protect her rights. It might be because of 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 even 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, whom 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:
Sorry, I guess it takes time when one is still sleepy
Notice what he does 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 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 times 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 reason:
- Display of emotions is frowned upon
- Hierarchy makes it difficult for employee to communicate assertively to bossess
- It’s not easy for bosses to give candid feedback without violating policies
- 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 passive aggressiveness out of strong hierarchies:
Passive Aggressive in Relationships
It’s difficult solving 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:
Become the Leader
Andrea Brandt says that a long lasting relationship with a passive aggressive needs an enabler. 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.
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).
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 details, chances us are they will stop.
People fear those who can call them out -potentially publicly-.
5. Empower Them
When passive aggressive individual resort to indirect communication because they feel powerless it can help to actually empower them.
Tell your partner 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.
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
5. Compassionate Assertiveness
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).
Passive aggressive behavior undermines your relationships and your own health.
It’s very easy getting frustrated with a passive aggressive 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 you how.