Passive aggression is one of the four modes of communication, comprising:
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.
Based on Paterson, 2000
- What’s Passive Aggressive
- Signs of Passive Aggressives
- 1. Passive Aggressives Project Their Anger Onto Others
- 2. Passive Aggressives Deny Their Feelings
- 3. Passive-Aggressives Take Everything Negatively
- 4. Passive-Aggressives Fight Covertly
- 5. Passive-Aggressives Do Things Sloppily
- 6. Passive-Aggressives Remain Non-Committal
- 67. Passive-aggressive murmur threats or profanity
- 8. Passive-Aggressives Have Weak Boundaries
- 9. Passive-Aggressive Are Extremely Indirect
- 10. More Signs of Passive-Aggressives
- Signs of Passive Aggressive at Work
- Causes of Passive Aggression
- Passive Aggression Techniques
- Passive Aggressive Examples
- Effects of Passive Aggressive Behavior
- Dealing With Passive-Aggressive People
- Stopping Your Own Passive Aggression
- Using Passive Aggression
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 an 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 as they do: in a 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 feel validated in their feelings of unfairness and external aggression.
2. Passive Aggressives Deny Their Feelings
Passive-aggressives are poor communicators:
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 are first denied.
3. Passive-Aggressives Take Everything Negatively
Passive-aggressives like to take things negatively (Williams, 2020).
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 Covertly
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 are 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.
6. 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.
67. 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 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
8. 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
9. 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”.
10. More Signs of Passive-Aggressives
More signs and behaviors typical of a passive-aggressive personality include:
- Undermining others
- 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
- Frenemy-type of behavior
- Backhanded compliments
- Microaggression or covert aggression & covert power moves
Signs of Passive Aggressive at Work
Passive aggression is commonplace at work for a number of reasons:
- Display of emotions is frowned upon
- Hierarchy makes it difficult for employees to communicate assertively with bosses
- 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 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.
Example of Passive Aggression Against Authority
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.
Make Friends, Not Enemies: Power Protect People to Prevent Passive-Aggression
This example also serves as a stark reminder to bosses and managers.
When it comes to politics and smart social strategies: to avoid turning employees into backstabbing enemies, you want to power-protect them, instead of dominating them and making them lose their face.
This is also part of our higher social strategy of “make friends, not enemies”.
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
- 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 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 a 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.
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.
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.
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
Sometimes the passive-aggressive can stonewall, hide behind silence, and refuse to answer.
But stonewalling 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.
- 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.
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 other typical passive-aggressive behavior.
In this example, De Niro’s facial expression is a split 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, 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 deliver 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 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
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 as 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:
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 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 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 of when her mother reached 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 Behavior
Passive aggressive behavior is highly harmful to relationships.
And it takes a toll on “both sides”: both the passive-aggressive and their victims fail.
Effect On Others: Stoking Anger & Hostility
Generally speaking, people don’t like passive-aggressive types.
Passive aggressive come across as sneaky, underhanded, and weak but mean-spirited at the same time.
With their sneaky and underhanded tactics, 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 relationships.
This is how a blow-up through sneaky passive-aggressive maneuvers would look like:
Notice her face, eyes rolling, and his sneaky comment “who talks like that”, which implies that she talks in that low register, not them.
Victims of passive aggression are also likely to become hostile and more aggressive.
Says clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker:
Passive-aggressive actions actually incite your partner to greater hostility. Your passivity combined with the denial of your own deeply buried aggression becomes intensely frustrating to your partner.
Your passive-aggressive behavior makes you a participant in an interactive pattern of behavior that enables your partner to continually become angry with you.
Effect on the Passive Aggressive: Emotional Anguish, Low Status
As we’ve seen the passive-aggressive is rarely in control.
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 assaulting them.
Generally speaking, if he comes across as sneaky and not strong enough to speak directly and openly, people view passive-aggressive types as weak and cowardly.
That means that passive aggressives stay stuck at the bottom of social hierarchies, and rarely rise to the top of any social groups -and especially so in “high-power circles”, where people tend to have the courage to be direct and open.
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 the 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
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 other’s 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.
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-aggressive 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.