Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

Deafening Silence

Is there an intentional insult hidden in your passive aggressive gift?

In The Angry Smile, we talk about backhanded compliments, unsolicited advice, and unwanted gifts as classic examples of how adults engage in passive aggressive behavior. Appropriate-ish on the surface, these "gifts" let the recipient know that under the neatly-wound bow lurks a deep dig, an intentional insult, and a barely hidden act of bitterness.


At a neighborhood cook-out this weekend, I was told this great story about an elderly mother, the daughter she lives with, and a heartfelt birthday gift:

My mom is a widow who got herself into financial trouble after my dad's death. About five years ago, we invited her to come live with our family. Since I have four children and my husband works a lot, I thought that she could help us and we could help her. We've had our ups and downs over these last few years and while we love each other, there is a lot of resentment brewing on both sides about our living arrangement.


Last week, it was my birthday. I was busy cooking and getting the house ready to have about 15 family members over. The house was a wreck and above all, it was just so loud, with all of the kids playing noisily, the TV on, music playing, the dog barking, etc. When my mom walked in the kitchen and started talking endlessly about something she had just seen on TV, I glared at her.

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"What?" she asked. "What do you want?"


"Silence!" I pleaded. "Just 10 minutes of silence, please."


My mother stormed out of the kitchen and proceeded to give me just what I had asked for-the silent treatment for four straight days. Not a word. Not a peep. A few icy stares, but no sounds.


My birthday came and went, without her saying a thing to me. I didn't really mind. It was sort of peaceful.


The day after my birthday, my mom decided it was time to speak to me again. She asked, "Can I talk now?" After the momentary awkwardness, I thought we were back on track. Until about ten minutes later, when I heard the most horrendous, shrill squeaking noise coming from my family room. I rushed in to see my mom tossing a brand-new, squeaking plastic bone to our dog. "Look how much he loves his new toy!" she said with her best angry smile.


She was right-he loved it! Played with it all day. Through the night as well! I've never in my life heard a doggie-toy with a pitch quite as high as this one. She got me! I wish I had enjoyed her gift of silence more while I had had it!


Have you been the recipient of any good passive aggressive gifts-someone trying to prove their point and express their hostility wordlessly? Do tell!

 If you are interested in reading more about passive aggressive gifts, backhanded compliments, an unsolicited advice, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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