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6 Telltale Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

How to pick up on the signs of sugarcoated hostility and compliant defiance.

Call it hostile cooperation, sugarcoated hostility, or compliant defiance. Call it all of the above. Along with these synonymous phrases, the term passive aggression is an oxymoron. Passive-aggressive behavior does not alternate between passive behavior and aggressive behavior, but rather combines them simultaneously into one behavior that is both confounding and irritating to others.

Passive-aggressive behavior exists around the world and at every socio-economic level. It is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. Passive aggression involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. In the long run, passive aggression can be destructive, as relationships with a person who is passive-aggressive become confusing, discouraging, and dysfunctional.

Passive aggression is often motivated by a person’s fear of expressing anger directly. The passive-aggressive person believes life will only get worse if other people know of his anger, so he expresses anger indirectly. Six of the most common behaviors people use to express their anger indirectly include:

1. Verbally denying anger. When asked, "Are you angry?" the passive-aggressive person will almost always say, "No." Because they don't feel comfortable with anger or conflict, they verbally deny these emotions as a way of life. Yet their outward behavior often betrays what they are holding inside.

2. Withdrawing and sulking. Though admitting their angry feelings outright feels too uncomfortable, the passive aggressive person shows their true emotions through behaviors such as withdrawal, sulking, and use of the silent treatment. Passive aggressive persons are often described as 'brooding' or 'quietly manipulative' for how they control the emotional climate of a room without uttering a word.

3. Causing others to eventually blow up. While the passive-aggressive person does not want to tell you how they are feeling, they do want you to know how they are feeling—firsthand. A hallmark trait of a passive-aggressive person is their ability to create in others the feelings they experience internally and to get others to act out that anger for them. Case in point:

Mother: It's time to turn off the TV and start your homework.

[No answer]

Mother: (Mother walks into the room and makes eye contact with her daughter) Honey, did you hear me? Your 15 minutes are up. It's time to turn off the TV and start your homework.

Child: OK.

Mother: (5 minutes later, re-enters room and sees child hasn't moved from her spot) I'm turning off the TV. Please go start your homework.

Child: Fine. I will.

Mother: (Another 5 minutes later, re-enters room and sees child scrolling on her phone. Mother begins to yell). How many times do I have to tell you to start your homework? Now hand me your phone and don't come back downstairs until all of your work is done. I'm sick and tired of having to remind you to be responsible!

Child: Geez, mom. Calm down. Why do you always get so worked up about things? I finished my homework at school.

4. Being overtly cooperative but covertly uncooperative. As in the all-too-common example above, passive-aggressive persons often verbally comply with a request (e.g. "OK, I will") but behaviorally delay carrying it out. When they do comply, the passive-aggressive person tends to carry out tasks inefficiently or below acceptable standards (e.g. illegible writing, a half-emptied dishwasher, clean laundry left to wrinkle in the dryer, missed deadlines at work).

5. Using email, texting, social media, and other forms of technology to avoid direct communication. Because the passive-aggressive person seeks to avoid direct confrontation, they love to utilize electronic communication methods that allow them to avoid face-to-face interaction. Hostile emails, evasive texts, vague social media posts, and a never-emptied voice mailbox are all ways passive-aggressive people evade direct contact.

6. Making endless excuses. One of the most frustrating things about interacting with a passive-aggressive person is their endless list of (barely) plausible excuses for their behavior. For example, the hostile employee who resents being tasked with a project he feels is beneath him often misses deadlines, explaining to his boss that he is unable to complete work due to caring for his ill, elderly mother. To question the employee's reasons would be harsh and unseemly—though the boss is aware that the employee seems to have plenty of free time for happy hours with colleagues each week. Passive-aggressive persons are often expert at getting out of the things they don't want to do, using reasons that no one would dare question.

Learning the warning signs of passive-aggressive behavior is the first line of defense in managing our own reactions and avoiding getting caught up in no-win cycles of conflict.

Facebook image: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock


Long, J., Long, N., & Whitson, S. (2016). The Angry Smile: Effective Strategies to Manage Passive Aggressive Behaviors at Home, at School, in Marriages and Close Relationships, in the Workplace and Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.

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