Do you have an aunt who reigns supreme at the underhanded remark? Or a snarky teammate who pouts through your presentations? We all have that person in the office, that family member or acquaintance who can be, to put it nicely… difficult. 

Welcome to the world of passive-aggressive behavior!

These behaviors can be just as draining and damaging as direct aggression. Dealing with negative behavior that sneaks under the radar is tricky. But there are tips to survive amid a passive-aggressive shake-down. 

In this article, we’ll look at passive-aggressive behavior, how to deal with it, and tips for the workplace. Read on for help reclaiming your sanity when dealing with their crazy-making demeanor.  

What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior is “behavior that is seemingly innocuous, accidental, or neutral but that indirectly displays an unconscious aggressive motive,” as defined by the American Psychological Association

Fun Fact: The concept of passive-aggressive behavior originated in World War II. Colonel William C Menninger of the U.S Military noticed non outwardly aggressive behaviors from soldiers to avoid their duties. 

Why are people passive-aggressive?

Passive-aggressive behavior often stems from:

  • Insecurities
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • A tactic to avoid direct conflict
  • Fear of rejection

To indirectly manipulate, intimidate or control, passivity can be used as a loophole to avoid blame for questionable behavior. 

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Examples of Toxic Passive-Aggressive Behavior 

Passive-aggressive behavior can be toxic to workplace relationships, friendships, and family ties.

Here are 7 examples of passive-aggressive behavior you’ve most likely experienced.

Silent Treatment and Ghosting

Silent treatment is a form of avoidance and happens when someone hears you or receives your message but ignores you for some time. People who often give the silent treatment might do this to avoid head-on conflict (even if it’s the mature thing to do).

Ghosting is when the person cuts someone off for a while, or sometimes forever, with no explanation of the purpose for cutting contact. People who ghost completely avoid confrontation and expressing their feelings.  

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Sure, procrastination can stem from laziness. But it can also be a form of indirectly refusing to complete a task. Passive-aggressive people may consciously put off a task to get an emotional response from you and as a show of power. 

For example, as a spiteful act, a passive-aggressive housemate may procrastinate instead of helping with chores, which they know will annoy you. 

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Backhanded Compliments

Backhanded compliments are a form of manipulation designed to affect your behavior and feelings. For example, “Your outfit is great. You look a lot better than you usually do.” Or “You are so much nicer than you look!” 

The backhanded compliment is a veiled attack. Sometimes these compliments can be so covert you don’t realize their intent until you mull it over later. 

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Sarcasm, Cynicism, and Patronizing Comments 

Chronic use of sarcasm, cynicism, and patronizing comments spreads negativity and is a sign of passive-aggressive behavior. 

Some examples are:

  • The sarcastic retort: “Your idea is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.” 
  • The cynical viewpoint: I’m sure THIS idea is going to work…” 
  • The patronizing comment: “Do you want me to explain what that means? Someone of YOUR age probably doesn’t understand.”

Your reaction can be deflected by saying, “It was only a joke; you’re overreacting,” which is a form of gaslighting

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Unsolicited Negative Comments 

Making unsolicited negative comments about someone’s personal business, such as their age, appearance, and relationships, is uncalled for. It is often used as a form of manipulation to affect your self-esteem and behavior.  

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Body Language and Facial Expressions 

Pouting, arms folding, eye-rolling, recoiling… Body language can tell a thousand tales without the person uttering a word. 

These are cues of social rejection. Vanessa Van Edward’s latest book, Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication, identifies these as Danger Zone cues. They are the nonverbal and vocal cues that signal negative emotions. It is crucial to be aware of these negative cues.

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Control and leverage the tiny signals you’re sending—from your stance and facial expressions to your word choice and vocal tone—to improve your personal and professional relationships.

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Making Excuses

If someone is avoiding a situation or task with a stream of constant excuses, this can be considered passive-aggressive.  

Similar to procrastination, it can be a way to avoid completing a task that is hiding spiteful intent. 

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How to Respond to Passive-Aggressive People

The following 4 strategies are effective ways to deal with passive-aggressive behaviors. 

When starting this process, remember to be patient with yourself. It can take practice and courage to confront a passive-aggressive person. And it can take time for their behavior to shift if they are willing to change. 

  1. Bring Attention to the Behavior in a Clear, Concise Way

Passive-aggressive behavior can be a learned default behavioral pattern. Highlighting poor behavior can sometimes encourage the person to reflect. Or it can make them look elsewhere for a target.

You have the right to have your thoughts and feelings heard. Ignoring poor behavior can encourage it to continue. 

Action Tip: For example, you could say:

  • “I felt that comment about my appearance was inappropriate.”
  • “That’s not very kind.”
  • “Please do not comment about my parenting style.”
  • “I felt that comment was patronizing. When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel undervalued.” 

Another way you can bring attention to their behavior is to ask, “Was that passive-aggressive?” This might cause them to stop and re-orient. 

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Remain Calm, Respectful, and Don’t Engage

People with passive-aggressive traits are expert button pushers. Often, their goal is to elicit an emotional response from you. But reacting to their behavior overly emotionally can encourage it to continue and escalate. 

Action Tip: When communicating with a person who displays these behaviors, remain calm. Take a beat, count to 3, breathe, and/or take a walk. Respond when you feel you can do so without “taking the bait.”  

For example, you could say, “I’m taking a walk to gather my thoughts, but I’d like to discuss this matter later when tensions have decreased.”

Preventing an emotional reaction can be challenging. When someone takes a swipe at you with a rude remark, the temptation to engage in snark mode is real. But you never know where the behavior comes from, so assume empathy. Coming from a place of compassion can prevent you from reacting to the provocation.

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Open a Dialogue 

After highlighting the behavior and expressing your feelings, open up a dialogue. 

Passive-aggressive people often harbor insecurities around direct communication. Providing them with the opportunity to be heard and express their feelings may encourage behavioral improvements.

Action Tip: For example, you could ask:

  • “Is there anything you wish to speak about?”
  • “Is there a reason why you’re avoiding me? If so, let’s talk about it.” 
  • “Are you ok? Are there any specific issues which have caused you to speak/behave in this manner?” 

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Set Boundaries 

Set boundaries by telling the person that you would prefer the behavior didn’t continue. It’s preferable to do this after bringing attention to specific behavior and how it makes you feel. This provides clarity.

If the behavior doesn’t change after using the above strategies, limit contact. If the problem continues, you may need to cut contact for an extended period or even completely. It’s not an easy decision, particularly when the family is involved. 

Side Note: As with all problematic behaviors, some outliers won’t respond well to even the most mature and thoughtful response. 

Each situation is as individual as the people involved. Use what strategies resonate with you, that you feel comfortable using, and that will work best for your situation.

Speaking up for yourself can be challenging to do. This TED Talk on how to speak up for yourself, by Adam Galinsky, a negotiation researcher, could give you some extra pointers.   

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Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace 

“As per my last email…” We’ve all received one of these, usually, with five colleagues CC’d in for good measure.

Your workplace should have a code of conduct to ensure it’s a pleasant place to be. But even with this measure in place, it isn’t always so. Power plays, workplace stress, and competitive environments can breed bad behavior. 

The following are tips for dealing with the added complexities of passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace. 

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The Passive-Aggressive Boss

The passive-aggressive boss may use vague requests to confuse you on purpose. This type of boss may be overly critical of their team and blame others. Passive-aggressive bosses can also be dismissive of your suggestions, ignore your successes and take projects and responsibilities off you as covert “punishment.”   

Try and build a better relationship with your boss by decoding their personality. This can give you insight into how to effectively communicate with them, which may decrease their passive-aggressive behavior. You can learn more about this in our article How To Deal With Your Bad, Mean or Difficult Boss.  

In addition to the strategies outlined earlier, seek clarity around their directives by following up in writing. That way, if things go south, you have a documented case.

If things don’t improve, it may be time to move on. Make sure you secure references from other colleagues to ensure your boss doesn’t derail your chances of future employment. 

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The Passive-Aggressive Employee 

The passive-aggressive employee may resort to gossip, negative comments, taking credit for the work of others, and constant complaining. It can ruin the vibe of a workplace, create conflict and cause a dip in morale. 

Passive-aggressiveness in the workplace often stems from employees feeling unheard. Make sure you regularly express appreciation for your employees and all the hard work they do. Also, adopting an open-door policy or arranging regular one-on-one meetings may diffuse passive-aggressive behavior. 

Arrange for fun team-building activities to foster goodwill and connectedness between your employees. It may be the thing to “break the ice” and allow for friendlier behavior in the office. 

Ensure all directives and communication are followed up in writing. This provides transparency, another chance to open a dialogue and documentation should the issue continue. 

If you’re after more tips on dealing with bad behavior in the workplace, check out the article: The Toxic Coworker Survival Guide

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Self-Care for Coping with Passive-Aggressive People

Dealing with a passive-aggressive person can be stressful. Removing yourself from the person or situation is not always feasible. You may need to hang onto your job with the toxic supervisor. And waving goodbye to a passive-aggressive family member is easier said than done.

When you can’t get away, you need to ensure your mental health and well-being are nurtured. The following tips can help you manage the stress caused by coping with passive-aggressive relationships. 

  • Know your worth – Passive-aggressive people often want to tear you down. Don’t let them! Have your walls be so strong that they can’t take them down. Own your strengths, pump yourself up and know your worth.
  • Exercise – Regular exercise releases feel-good endorphins that relieve tension. Get some fresh air and take a walk outside. Or, access thousands of free at-home workouts on YouTube. Try something new and fun, like Zumba or barre. Be creative!
  • Make Time for Things You Enjoy – Take your mind off the situation by practicing things you enjoy. Read a book, hang out with friends, play an instrument. Do something that brings joy into your life regularly. 
  • Talk to Someone – Whether it’s a trusted friend or a family member, talk therapy can help you vent your frustrations and see problems from another perspective. 

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Takeaways for Dealing With Passive-Aggressive People 

Passive-aggressive personalities disrupt relationships and workplace environments. The hurt caused by veiled hostility and manipulation can run deep. 

To summarize, the best way to deal with passive-aggressive behavior is to:

1. Bring attention to the behavior clearly and concisely. Highlighting passive-aggressive behavior empowers you and may encourage the behavior to stop.

2. Remain calm, respectful, and don’t engage – pause and breathe before responding. You may not be able to control how people choose to behave, but you can control how you react.

3. Open a dialogue – transparent and open communication is the foundation of a good relationship. Allow the person a chance to explain their behavior. There may be an issue you’re unaware of. 

4. Set boundaries – healthy boundaries protect your health and well-being. If you need to, limit contact or cut contact completely. 

Hopefully, this article has provided you with helpful strategies to deal with passive-aggressive personalities. Dealing with difficult people is an unfortunate reality of life. But having the know-how to deal with these personality types is a valuable skill to have both in your daily life and the workplace. 

For more tips and insights into confronting toxic behaviors, check out this article: 4 Types of Difficult People and How to Deal With Them

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