How Technology Paves the Way for Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Four reasons why passive-aggressive behavior thrives online.

Posted Apr 02, 2018

Source: HBRH/Shuttertock

Smartphones, email, and social media connect us in new ways but can also be blamed for muddling human connection like nothing before them. Indeed, the same technology that makes real-time contact and around-the-clock communication possible has, in many cases, drastically lessened the amount of time that human beings spend actually interacting. For the passive-aggressive person, who prefers to mask their anger and avoid direct confrontation, this technology paves the perfect path for their hidden hostility. 

This post explains four reasons why passive-aggressive behavior thrives online:

1. Technology takes the human out of human communication. 

In a traditional conversation, when two people are together in the same physical space or even talking with each other over the phone, one person speaks while the other listens. Facial expressions, tone of voice, nodding, affirming vocalizations, and verbal responses are typically matched with eye contact and proximity to effectively communicate meaning and connection. Texts, emails, and social media posts, on the other hand, lack these elements of human communication that convey meaning most effectively. Without them, meaning is much more difficult to interpret correctly. For a passive-aggressive person who thrives on covert hostility and masked meaning, online communication is an ideal medium.

2. Trolling happens.

Like the passive-aggressive person, who maintains strict control over their overt expressions of anger, while covertly provoking frustration and anger in others, internet trolls are known for anonymously sowing discord online. By posting upsetting comments, instigating conflict, and provoking inflammatory discussions, trolls and passive-aggressive people capitalize on the fact that it is far easier to be cruel from behind a keyboard. 

3. Keyboards and screens allow for guilt-free jabs.

Recently, as I spoke with a colleague about the phenomena of online passive aggression, he casually remarked, “Being passive aggressive is just plain fun. Getting back at other people in socially acceptable ways is so easy to do these days now that so much of what we say and do happens through a keyboard instead of person to person.”

“What an honest comment,” I thought, “about such a dishonest way of communicating.” Indeed, taking jabs at others while eluding direct confrontation is the Get-Out-of-Guilt-Free card dealt by today’s technology. As such, it is also the path of least resistance for a passive-aggressive person.

Source: StephanDale

4. The audience is unlimited and endless.

Typically, aggressive behavior occurs as a person-to-person encounter. While there may be witnesses, the size of the audience is restricted to those who happen to be physically present in the moment. With online passive aggression, however, the potential audience is virtually unlimited. Texts, emails, and social media sites allow for endless forwards, shares, and “Likes.” No longer is someone the object of one person’s anger. Rather with technology, a person can become humiliated worldwide. What’s more, passive-aggressive behavior carried out online has the potential to wound its victims endlessly, as embarrassing photos, anonymous posts, and innuendo remain on the internet indefinitely. 


Long, N., Long, J. and Whitson, S. (2017).  The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriages and Close Relationships, in the Workplace and Online.  Hagerstown, MD: LSCI Institute.