Overtly aggressive people may be hard to stay clear of, but they are not hard to miss. Passive-aggressive people, by contrast, use much more subtle tactics to aggress against you. But passive aggression can be just as insidious and hurtful as its overt sibling.
Passive aggression can be extremely upsetting because we are very good at picking up on even the most subtle forms of hostile behavior, even though we are not always consciously aware of what it is we are picking up on.
Your unconscious brain can detect barely noticeable changes in facial expression, body language, body posture and direction, and changes in behavioral patterns. Once your unconscious brain detects hostility in another person, it activates the amygdala—an area of the brain that processes fear—or other brain regions associated with a fight-or-flight response. This physiological change can make you feel anxious, fearful, worried, stressed out, or just ill at ease.
The special problem that passive aggression poses is that you often cannot put your finger on what is wrong. Your unconscious brain is telling you that the other person has negative feelings toward you. Yet because of the subtly of how the aggression is manifested, it’s easy to write it off as normal behavior, especially if the other person insists that nothing is wrong. For example, you feel that your partner is acting more distant toward you than they normally would. When you ask them, they say nothing is wrong. But the feeling that something is off doesn’t go away.
If you are continually exposed to passive-aggressive behavior from the same person, and they keep denying that anything is wrong, you may start to question your own judgment and ultimately your own sanity. However, the truth is that if you repeatedly feel that something is wrong, probably something is wrong. Although we are unusually adept at detecting passive aggression unconsciously, it takes more careful attention to consciously spot it. The following are a few examples of fairly common but exceptionally subtle forms of passive aggression.
Diminished Eye Contact
If a person you know fairly well isn’t making as much eye contact with you as they usually do over an extended period of time, then that’s a signal that something is wrong but that they are unwilling to tell you for whatever reason. Instead of talking to you, they choose to deal with their negative feelings by distancing themselves from you, which can manifest itself in subtle ways, such as diminished eye contact.
Diminished eye contact isn’t necessarily deliberate. Nor does it always imply that the other person is angry with you. They could be feeling guilty about something they have done to you. Or they could be dealing with problems that have nothing to do with you. But if it’s your business to know what’s going on, and they deliberately don’t tell you, then it’s passive aggression.
Continually forgetting to do something is another sign of passive aggression to watch out for. Some people are generally forgetful, disorganized, or easily distracted, but there are limits to how much forgetting you should put up with if people are otherwise mentally healthy.
The reason people deliberately forget, or deliberately do something that they know will make them forget, is that they really don’t want to do what they have promised you or what is expected of them. Yet they also don’t want to tell you that they don’t want to do what they promised or what's expected. For example, if you have a standing agreement with your live-in partner that you put dirty dishes in the dishwasher immediately after using them instead of letting them pile up on the counter, but your partner frequently leaves dirty dishes behind, then it’s probably a sign of deliberate forgetting—or at least that's a reasonable conclusion if you have confronted them, and it keeps happening.
Ignoring You During a Group Conversation
If a person is ignoring you when you pass them on the street or in the hallway, this could just be a sign that they are not very perceptive or that they need a new eyeglass prescription. But when there doesn’t seem to be any other rational explanation for why another person would ignore you, then they are most likely acting passive-aggressively.
This form of passive aggression may happen during a group conversation. Suppose you and your friend Sid from college are talking to the speaker after his or her talk, yet the speaker immediately direct their attention to Sid and begins asking him questions about his research interests, mostly ignoring you, that’s a very good sign that they probably think less of you or don’t like you for whatever reason. Their subtle behavior gives it away.
When people ignore you in a conversation, it can be somewhat less deliberate. For example, the speaker in the above scenario might have an implicit bias against you. Let's suppose you are a woman and that the speaker implicitly thinks that Sid is smarter than you by virtue of being a man. In this case, the speaker's subtly rude behavior is a form of bias-driven microaggression. But this does not rule out that the aggressor should be held accountable, because not all implicit biases are created equal.
If an outsider—call them Pat— had observed your group conversation and had noticed the speaker’s subtly hostile behavior toward you, Pat could have asked the speaker: “What were you just doing?” The speaker might answer: “I was asking Sid questions about his research interests." But if questioned a bit further, perhaps they will eventually admit: “Yes, it’s true that I didn’t ask Sally about her work but I didn’t mean to act biased against her.” But in terms of the quality of the excuse, this is on a par with a murderer saying: “Yes, I stabbed her with a knife but I didn’t mean to harm her.”
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