5 Ways That Passive-Aggressive People Thrive Online

How virtual bystanding becomes an aggressive act.

Posted Nov 01, 2015

Peter Bernik/Shutterstock
Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

It’s a fact of the 21st century that most of us, adults and kids alike, are connected to each other 24/7. The question is: Can all of this technology leave us more disconnected than ever before?

As much as modern technology has made round-the-clock communication possible, it has also lessened the amount of time that human beings actually look each other in the eye and directly say what they are thinking or feeling. 

For the passive-aggressive person, the relative anonymity of screens and apps is ideal. 

By definition, passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). Motivated by a fear of expressing anger directly, the passive-aggressive person employs a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. Today’s technology—through which anyone can share cruel jabs and humiliating photos behind the cover of a screen and through the remoteness of a mouse click—provides the perfect medium for the passive-aggressive person who seeks to express anger definitively, yet indirectly. 

Following are 5 ways that covert anger and hidden hostility play out online on a daily basis:

1. Compliance Without Follow-Through

In traditional person-to-person conversation, when two people are together in the same physical space or even talking on the phone, one person speaks while the other demonstrates his or her listening through nodding, facial expressions, non-verbal cues, and verbal responses. Technology has now completely altered this back-and-forth dynamic. By their very nature, texts, emails, instant messages and online posts lack the elements of human communication that convey the most meaning—facial expression and tone of voice. The act of typing a message, rather than delivering it verbally, creates all-new possibilities for the message receiver to comply in insincere words, without ever following through in actual deeds.

For example, a mother texts her teenage daughter, "Make sure you finish your homework before I get home from work because we are going to your sister’s show tonight.” Annoyed that she can’t just relax for a while after a long day at school, and tired of attending her little sister’s performances, the teen replies right away, “OK, Mom.” She then proceeds to text her friends, listen to music, and procrastinate on her school work. When her mom arrives home from work, the teenager has not yet even unzipped her backpack.

2. Making a Mockery of Standards

The passive-aggressive person often uses technology to defy rules in covert, yet purposefully infuriating ways. In the example that follows, a group of high-school students follow the letter of the law in completing a video project for school, while flagrantly violating their teacher’s unspoken standards.

No one in my 11th-grade Spanish class liked our teacher. He was extremely strict and distant from the students. He maintained a very formal atmosphere in the classroom, never allowing any laughing or joking around. I was a very conscientious student and usually very respectful, but something about Senor Lewis brought out the passive-aggressive prankster in me. When we were assigned to make a video in his class, my group members and I conspired to follow the precise criteria outlined in the syllabus…and then to add raunchy humor that did not violate any of the written rules of the assignment. 

In several scenes, there were random farts and burps along with fake weapons. In one scene, I appeared in nothing but a pair of very, very small pink boxers. We did everything wrong, while still doing everything right, according to what Senor Lewis required in the syllabus. It actually ended up being one of the best-edited and most-liked videos in the whole class. On the other hand, every few minutes I would look at Senor Lewis’ face and anyone could tell he was clearly not amused at all. 

3. Guilty Bystanding

Passive-aggressive people can use the digital world to covertly express their hostility by taking online jabs at others while eluding direct confrontation. Through this behavior, passive-aggressive persons are content to engage in crimes of omission, such as failing to stop the spread of online gossip. 

For example, in a suburban middle school, a seventh-grade student snapped a cellphone photo of his classmate’s rear end, then texted it to six friends with the caption, “Big Ass Brittany.” A student I’ll call “Kristy” received the photo on her phone and laughed out loud at the pose in which her friend had been caught leaning over the water fountain at school. 

Kristy's first thought was a sense of duty: She knew she should delete the photo immediately and tell the sender to do the same. On the other hand, she also felt some satisfaction at having Brittany’s body mocked, since Brittany was always talking about how pretty she was. Just as Kristy was about to forward the text to other friends, Brittany approached and asked why she was laughing. Instead of telling Brittany about the humiliating photo traveling around their school, she replied, “Nothing!” and put her phone in her bag. As she looked across the room, Kristy realized that others in her class were looking at the same photo and already forwarding it—making her job unnecessary. “Ready to go to lunch?” she said to Brittany, and ushered her friend out of the room where she was being wordlessly, virally, mocked.

4. Cyberbullying

Most typically, aggressive behavior occurs as a person-to-person encounter. While others may witnesses the cruelty, the size of the audience is restricted to those who happen to be physically present in the moment. Via technology, however, the potential audience is virtually unlimited. As you read in the previous example, texts, emails, tweets, and posts allow for almost endless forwards and shares. No longer is someone the object of just one person’s anger: He or she can become humiliated throughout his or her community, school, workplace—even worldwide. Mere keystrokes can create instant, almost unimaginable damage (Whitson, 2014).

Moreover, we know well the 21st-century truism that “what happens on the internet stays on the internet.” Passive-aggressive behavior via technology has the potential to become viral, as embarrassing photos, anonymous posts, and cruel innuendos remain on the internet indefinitely. As we have all seen, cyberbullying is a toxic force in schools and communities that can profoundly impact students on social, emotional, and academic levels, all at once.

5. Forwarding Without Regard for Oneself

At the extremes of passive-aggressive behavior, some people are so determined to get back at someone else—yet so uncomfortable with expressing anger directly—that they are willing to sacrifice their own reputation, happiness, health, and even job security. Through online behaviors that leave a permanent digital footprint and bring about real self-depreciation, some passive aggressive persons go to the extreme to assert authority and seek vengeance, as in the workplace example below:

My boss had been confiding in me about his displeasure with three members of our department. At first, he made some legitimate observations about unprofessional behavior, such as chronic lateness and missed deadlines. But then, his attacks on them began to be personal. I started to grow tired of being his sounding board and was increasingly uncomfortable with his vulgarity. Yet I knew that he and I were a package deal in our department and if he wasn’t around, my job would cease to exist. 

One day, when I felt that his comments about a female colleague’s weight had crossed the line, I said to him, “I think we should just focus on things related to actual work.” He looked at me with surprise, then nodded in agreement and said, “You’re right. Thanks for keeping me in line,” then walked out of my office.

Later that afternoon, I received a nasty email from my boss, filled with vitriol and personal attacks on all three of the colleagues with whom he was displeased. He asked me how I could possibly stand up for any of them. Then, he crossed the line again. He asked me if I was standing up for my female co-worker because I had struggles with my weight as well. He assured me that I would lose my baby weight eventually and “become more attractive again.”

That. Was. It.

For about five minutes, I cried. His words stung. Then, I racked my brain for the professional way to handle this very personal insult. But ultimately, my anger kicked in. With fierce determination and a complete disregard for my own job security, I clicked “Forward” on my screen and sent his email to the three colleagues whose appearance, intelligence, mannerisms, and even family members he had been insulting. While I was at it, I included our company’s Human Resources Director, so they could also see the kind of behavior that was being carried out during work hours. My boss was fired on the spot for using obscene language about employees using a company computer. Unfortunately, I was let go as well just one month later. 

There can be no doubt that for most people—especially those who have spent a lifetime purposefully and skillfully avoiding direct confrontation—it is far easier (and more convenient!) to be cruel from a behind a keyboard. Today’s technology affords anyone who wants to mask their anger or aggression a perfect front. And yet the fallout from the indirect expression of anger cannot be disputed—friendships destroyed, reputations ruined, careers halted, and digital footprints that never go away. 

For more information on the red flags of passive aggressive behavior and how to change this behavior in the long term, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces or visit www.lsci.org