You know the signs.
The silent treatment, backhanded compliments, sulking, sarcasm and withdrawal. Or wanting you to be a mind reader.
This subtle, toxic behavior is known as passive-aggression. “It’s the demonstration of negative feelings, resentment and aggression in a discreet or passive manner,” according to Justin Bariso, author of the book, “EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.”
“It’s characterized by subtle comments or actions that indicate a person disagrees or is displeased with a course of action.”
We’re faced with passive-aggressive behavior in all walks of life. Think about your work colleagues — or disgruntled service workers you encounter while running errands. You might even face it at home, from your partner or child — especially if they’re having a bad day. Or from a friend or relative who doesn’t return your calls or texts.
A passive-aggressive person may appear to be polite, friendly, kind and well meaning. However, manipulation could be taking place underneath.
How Does it Show Up?
According to Bariso, (www.eqapplied.com), passive-aggressive behavior may exhibit itself in a variety of ways:
1. The silent treatment
After agreeing to do things a certain way, the other person avoids you as much as possible. They refuse to engage or turn a cold shoulder.
2. The sulker
We’re used to this behavior in kids, although plenty of adults do it, too. When the passive-aggressive person doesn’t get their way, they can become sad and bitter, sucking the joy out of any room they enter.
3. The forgetter
Your coworker, family member or friend may agree to help with a task, but then they don’t follow through. They may claim they “forgot” when they had no intention of helping out in the first place, according to Bariso. Or, they simply procrastinate to the point that you (or someone else) has to take over.
4. The low performer
Instead of completely failing to follow through on a task, this person carries it out but does so sloppily. On the outside they pretend like they’re being supportive. By performing below expectations, though, they let their true feelings shine through.
5. The needler
This person uses sarcasm or backhanded compliments to try to undermine your sense of self-confidence – or eat away at your nerves. They may seem like they’re being vague, but they know exactly what they’re doing.
10 Things Passive-Aggressive People Say
These 10 common phrases, compiled by licensed social worker, Signe Whittson (www.signewhittson.com), can serve as an early-warning system, helping you recognize hidden hostility when it’s being directed your way. Whittson is the co-author of the book, The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces.
1. “I’m not mad.” (denial)
2. “Fine, Whatever.” (shutting down direct communication)
3. “I’m coming.” (verbal compliance; failing to follow through)
4. “I didn’t know you meant now.” (using procrastination to frustrate others)
5. “You just want everything to be perfect. (inefficient compliance; dragging one’s feet)
6. “I thought you knew.” (claiming ignorance)
7. “Sure, I’d be happy to.” (falsely appearing to comply; secretly sabotaging efforts)
8. “You’ve done so well for someone with your education level (backhanded compliment)
9. “I was only joking.” (sarcasm)
10. “Why are you getting so upset? (setting others up to lose their cool — and then acting shocked at their overreactions)
What are the causes?
So, why does the passive-aggressive person resort to these tactics? Why not communicate directly? Well, it’s complicated.
The person exhibiting this behavior may not even be consciously aware he or she is doing it. Maybe they’re “people pleasers” who have a difficult time dealing with conflict, so they resort to these indirect methods.
Anger and resentment rear their ugly heads here as well. A passive-aggressive person may have so many layers of negative feelings built up — by not dealing directly in the past — that it exhibits itself in a number of other ways.
The website, verywellmind (www.verywellmind.com), points out some of the potential triggers:
Upbringing — If a person was raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged, he or she may carry this prohibition of feelings into adulthood — and resort to other ways to channel their frustrations.
Situational characteristics — When you’re in a situation where direct communication that may be confrontational is not socially acceptable, you might be more inclined to respond in a covert way.
How to cope
When confronted by a friend, co-worker or romantic partner wo regularly engages in passive-aggressive behavior, what can you do?
“The first step is to recognize the signs of such behavior,” according to verywellmind. “When the other person engages in sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination and withdrawal, try to keep your anger in check.”
Instead, point out the other person’s actions in a non-judgmental way. Most people deny their anger anyway, so it’s a good idea to step back and give them time to work through their emotions.
Looking in the mirror
If some of this is sounding familiar, don’t worry. “We all engage in some of the above behaviors from time to time,” says psychotherapist Andrea Harrn (www.andreaharrn.co.uk) “Passive aggression is when the behavior is more persistent and repetitive, with ongoing patterns.”
Take a step back and look at your own behavior, advises verywellmind:
- Improve your self-awareness
- Recognize when you’re avoiding, sulking, procrastinating or using sarcasm.
- Practice expressing yourself
- Conflict is an unavoidable part of life. Knowing how to assert your feelings before a sticky situation can go a long way.
- Give yourself time to make changes
Start paying attention when you’re triggered by people and situations. Become aware of the impacts of your behavior – and how your desire to get back at others or annoy them creates uncomfortable feelings for yourself.
Clearly, a lot of our communications can get lost in translation. That’s why it’s even more important not to add layers of deception.