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Passive aggression is a way of expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, indirectly instead of directly. Passive-aggressive behaviors are often difficult to identify and can sabotage relationships at home and at work.

What Is Passive Aggression?

Instead of getting visibly angry, some people express their hostility in passive-aggressive ways designed to hurt and confuse their target. Most people will have to deal with passive aggression from others in their personal and professional lives at one time or another: a roommate who leaves a sweet-yet-scolding note about the one cup that was left unwashed, for example, or the report a colleague keeps "forgetting" to finish.

Nagging or getting angry only puts the passive-aggressive person on the defensive—often resulting in them making excuses or denying any responsibility. Recent research shows that there are healthier ways to confront passive aggression and handle relationship conflict.

What causes passive aggression?

Passive aggression stems from deep anger, hostility, and frustration that a person, for whatever reason, is not comfortable expressing directly. When dealing with passive-aggressive behavior, it’s important to understand that beneath all of those snide remarks lies a deep unhappiness and sadness.

What are some examples of passive-aggressive behavior?

Some common forms of passive aggression include avoiding responsibility for tasks, procrastinating and even missing deadlines, withholding critical information, and frequently underachieving relative to what one is capable of producing. This type of behavior can cause problems at home when the family cannot depend on a passive-aggressive individual to follow through on their promises. Passive aggression at work can sabotage group projects, resulting in unachieved goals.

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How Do Passive-Aggressive People Act?

While passive-aggressive behavior can be hard to pin down, experts agree on the most common signs, which include refusing to discuss concerns openly and directly, avoiding responsibility, and being deliberately inefficient.

The passively aggressive person often leaves a job undone or “almost” complete. They frequently run late and are masters at subtly sabotaging others when they disagree with a course of action. They often resort to the silent treatment or the backhanded compliment to get their point across.

How can you tell if someone is being passive-aggressive?

These individuals will hide their anger instead of expressing it directly. Passive-aggressive behavior can take the form of words (e.g., blaming others or making excuses) or actions (e.g., giving someone the silent treatment). Some subtle but insidious kinds of passive aggression are diminished eye contact, persistent forgetting, and ignoring the targeted individual during a group conversation.

Are people aware when they’re being passive-aggressive?

Not always. Some people are so used to pushing their anger deep down that they don’t even realize it’s there anymore. One major sign that someone engages in passive-aggressiveness in their relationships is if they don’t think they’re an “angry person” and don’t believe they experience anger with any regularity. They may find themselves saying “yes” when they mean “no” or using the role of the victim or martyr to gain attention.    

How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive People

Passive aggression often stems from underlying anger, sadness, or insecurity, of which the person may or may not be consciously aware. Passive-aggressive behavior may be an expression of those emotions or an attempt to gain control in a relationship.

Bearing that in mind can inform how you respond. Although it can be tempting to react by being passive-aggressive yourself, expressing anger or frustration will likely spur the person to continue behaving the same way. Demonstrating that you value the passive-aggressive person's perspective may help if you are thereby addressing an underlying sense of insecurity. But you should not apologize for unfounded offenses or otherwise placate them.

If at all possible, the best solution is often to limit the time you spend in their presence. But if you determine that confrontation is the best path forward, avoid being accusatory as you calmly explain how the behavior makes you feel.

What can you say to a passive-aggressive person?

When dealing with a passive-aggressive person, hold them accountable for their bad behavior. Stop apologizing if you’ve done nothing wrong. Try putting your needs first, for a change. They likely want you to blow up or counter with passive aggression of your own—don’t play their game. Instead, calmly and directly address the issue at hand, being specific about what they do or say that upsets you.

How do you respond to passive-aggressive behavior?

Managing your own emotions is key when you’re responding to passive-aggressive behavior. Take a few deep breaths or temporarily remove yourself from the situation before responding. Try to address the person’s concerns directly. Set clear boundaries and, if necessary, limit the time you spend with the passive-aggressive person.  

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