By Carlin Flora, published on March 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 6, 2012
In the satiric movie Office Space, smarmy boss Bill Lumbergh is desperate to be liked by his underlings. He even fears them. He tells horrible jokes to ingratiate himself with his charges yet infuriates as he arbitrarily wields power, forcing employees to come in on Saturdays and comply with meaningless bureaucratic policies. Controlling but wimpy, Lumbergh is a comic passive-aggressor.
"When someone punches you in the face, you sure know that's aggression," says Tim Murphy, a psychologist and coauthor of Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger From Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness. "But passive-aggression is very sneaky behavior that people can hide and deny."
From the wife who secretly saturates her husband's food with pepper to the smiling assistant who chirps, "Sure, I'll have that report to you by Friday!" but then—on the brink of the deadline—says the timing is impossible, passive-aggressors are manipulative.
Passive-aggressors express anger indirectly, typically by resisting perfectly reasonable requests. A sad paradox underlies their behavior: They desire approval and cultivate a dependence on others, but then chafe at being locked into such a relationship. They act out their frustration by procrastinating, forgetting and intentionally acting inefficiently. "The underlying message is 'Don't control me,'" says therapist Beverly Engel, author of Honor Your Anger: How Transforming Your Anger Style Can Change Your Life.
But because they perceive overt anger—both their own and others'—as invariably dangerous, they are loathe to confront anyone and cause a scene. They anxiously mollify their victims if the possibility of truly setting them off strikes. And they're quick to pass the blame for the catastrophes they spark.
Some people are escape artists, forever slipping out of the responsibilities they resent having to fulfill. Others are sulkers: They happily agree to go out for Ethiopian food—rather than risk upsetting their dinner date—but then pout over the menu before ordering nothing more than a glass of water.
About half of passive-aggressors are fully aware of what they are doing, Engel estimates. The rest act (or don't act) unwittingly and then wonder why they get people's blood boiling.
In either case, a true passive-aggressor is not always easy to spot. It can be difficult to distinguish between a careless mistake and a passive-aggressive attack, says Murphy. Lingering dirty dishes, lost house keys or a tendency to give obviously inappropriate presents could be signs of a failing memory or poor judgment. "Your husband could forget to put gas in the car when you have a job interview across town," he says. "But if things like this keep happening over time, hidden anger is clearly at work."
Passive-aggressive adults likely grew up in a home where anger wasn't expressed, or where they were severely punished for standing up to their parents. Or, mom and dad may have passed on inconsistent messages about appropriate behavior: One time they praised their daughter for being funny and entertaining in front of guests, but when she hammed it up at the next party, they scolded her, telling her to stop showing off. A child who receives such mixed messages will start hesitating before she acts, says Engel, and will consequently fail to assert herself effectively.
As a young adult, she may begin to feel misunderstood. Worse, she may lose touch with her true desires and come down with a case of chronic indecision, marked by wishy-washy attitudes toward friends and career plans.
If a boss overlooks passive-aggression on the job, Murphy says, the syndrome can spread like a disease as employees learn that underhanded behavior can actually get them ahead.
If you're stuck with a coworker who neglects to give you critical information or, even worse, dispenses misinformation, carefully document your actions and communications to protect yourself. Encourage your passive-aggressive subordinates to set their own deadlines and take more ownership over their assignments so their anti-authority buttons aren't pushed. Whereas a temporarily confused or perpetually incompetent colleague will say, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand," after a mishap, a passive-aggressive person will somehow manage to pass the buck, says Engel. "Even if he apologizes, you'll end up feeling manipulated and you'll sense his insincerity."
People elicit passive-aggressive behavior. If you are gullible, a natural caretaker or a peacemaker who will go to great lengths to smooth conflicts, you can become a safe dumping ground for indirect rage, Murphy says.
And if you can't tolerate honest feedback, you may be provoking passive-aggressive behavior in colleagues or family members who normally express themselves in healthier ways, says Murphy. Encourage them to speak up, or don't be surprised to find yourself quietly thwarted, yet again.