Most of us are good at spotting overtly aggressive people. While it doesn't feel good when someone insults, criticizes, or belittles you, at least you know why you are hurting. But sometimes the people around us, including our close family, friends, and colleagues, make us feel uncomfortable, but we cannot quite put a finger on why. For example, your colleague may fail to greet you in the hallway for the third time in a week. You make yourself believe that it is probably a slip, yet you feel that something is amiss.
If this happens frequently with one or more people in your life, you may be dealing with passive-aggressive behavior, which is much harder to detect than overtly aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressiveness, as the word indicates, is a tendency to engage in indirect expression of hostility through acts such as subtle insults, sullen behavior, stubbornness, or a deliberate failure to accomplish required tasks.
Because passive-aggressive behavior is implicit or indirect, it can be hard to spot, even when you're feeling the psychological consequences. To help you identify this type of behavior, I describe five instances of it below. These are not all of the ways a person can be passive-aggressive, but they are the most common.
(Although passive-aggressive behavior can occur in all aspects of life and be committed by people of any gender, for simplicity's sake I describe here the case of a passive-aggressive male colleague.)
1. The silent treatment.
In its standard form, the silent treatment consists of completely ignoring another person, refusing to answer any questions from the person, and perhaps even refusing to acknowledge their presence. This type of silent treatment is not especially passive-aggressive, as it is very explicit. But there are more subtle ways that a person may subject you to the silent treatment. For example, he may "accidentally" fail to acknowledge you in the hallway at work. Only it happens at random so you have trouble knowing whether it is deliberate or accidental. The same thing may occur in meetings or during other interactions. Your colleague may purposely ignore your comments, yet do so inconsistently, so you cannot really tell whether it is deliberate or not.
2. Subtle insults.
Most of us recognize when we are overtly insulted. But subtle insults can be harder to recognize for what they are. A colleague may pretend to give you a compliment, yet when you get a chance to think about it, you realize it's really an insult in disguise. For example, you turn a report in to your boss. He reads it and tells you that you did a good job (a compliment), but then adds that the report was "almost as good as Jamie's" (a subtle insult).
A subtle insult may also consist in a hidden or semi-hidden reference to your weakest points. Let's say that a colleague earned his degree from Princeton and you received yours from (the fictive) Miami Beach Junior College. If your colleague frequently makes irrelevant references to where you got your degree—and implies that it's not a good school—it's likely a subtle insult.
3. Sullen behavior.
It's uncomfortable being around people who are subtly grumpy, sulky, gloomy, sour, or moody. It's almost as bad as being around people who behave like this explicitly. For example, a person—if he or she feels like answering you at all—may choose to reply to your innocent comment, question, or remark in a slightly negative way. A sullen person won't smile, not even when a colleague tells a joke and the rest of the office is laughing out loud. People who exhibit sullen behavior may subtly complain about everything around them, making everyone in the workplace feel uncomfortable and sad without quite knowing why they feel that way.
Being stubborn can be a beneficial personality trait in some situations, especially when taking a stand and holding onto your position are important. But sometimes stubbornness is merely a way to punish someone. The indirectly stubborn person will typically defend his position or viewpoint rigorously and have good arguments, so you cannot simply dismiss what he is saying on the basis of a lack of reasoning. At the same time, it is clear that he defends his position only because he knows that it will annoy you or the others who have to listen to him.
5. Failure to finish required tasks.
Most of us are familiar with stubborn children. When kids reach a certain age—the terrible twos, the teens, or some other time during childhood or adolescence—they refuse to do what they're told. But kids are kids. It is less easy to comprehend when a grownup behaves in this way. You might have a colleague who almost always finds a way to avoid the tasks that he needs to complete. They leave the full responsibility to others or take on an assignment and then do not finish it on time. If this is a result of work-related stress, problems at home, or a procrastinating personality, then it might not be a case of passive-aggressive behavior. But if it is frequent and not obviously attributable to independent, external factors, it may be deliberate and count as passive-aggressive behavior.
Dealing With Passive Aggression
I've focused on colleagues who are passive-aggressive, but the same behavior is often seen in relationships and friendships. It can be caused by envy, jealousy, an underlying personality disorder, or a medication that produces passive-aggressive behavior as a side-effect—the wrong dose of an anti-psychotic medication, for example, can have this result.
What's the best way to deal with someone who is passive-aggressive? It typically doesn't help to tell them: On some level, they already know what they are doing, and may escalate their bad behavior to get back at you if you bring it up.
The most effective approach is to ignore the behavior and pretend you don't notice it. If it doesn't appear to affect you, there is not much in it for them, and they may stop the behavior because of your lack of a reaction.
When ignoring passive-aggressive behavior is not feasible, perhaps because it strongly affects you psychologically, the best you can do is to maintain distance from the person as much as possible.
If the aggressor is a colleague who works near you, ask if you can be transferred to another space in your workplace so you don't have to be around the person all the time. That might take care of the problem. If you cannot be moved, you can do your best to interact only minimally with the individual. Every interaction should be professional and to the point, which will deter the aggressor from escalating.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind.