As you read the 21 signs of everyday passive-aggressive behavior in this post, bear in mind the broad implications of passive-aggression in history. It will help you realize how damaging passive-aggression can be.
Also, see how many of the 21 signs you can pinpoint in your home or workplace.
Now for a bit of passive-aggressive history.
Even an emperor can become a passive-aggressive child. Case in point: The legacy of Wanli
Wanli, the 13th emperor in the great Ming Dynasty, desperately wanted his favorite son, Zhu Changxun, to become crown prince. This didn’t seem appropriate to Wanli’s ministry (cabinet), who fought him on the matter. Zhu Changxun was a third son and thus not favored for succession over the eldest.
This third son, whose mother was the emperor’s favorite consort (concubine) would never be crowned. Wanli finally acquiesced to the will of his opponents and named his eldest, Zhu Changluo, as the future of the dynasty.
After a bitter, 15-year dispute, officials in Wanli’s ministry had won. Or had they?
Wanli’s next move was to systematically undermine and ultimately destroy the Ming Dynasty. While he had heretofore been a competent administrator and military leader, Wanli began to willfully neglect his duties. In apparent protest of government he ran, Wanli refused to accept meetings, read memos, appoint leaders, and even attend to military matters. In effect, he went on a strike from which the government would never recover.
Neglected, remarkably understaffed and deteriorating, the Ming Dynasty ultimately fell in 1644 to the Qing Dynasty of Northern China. Qing ruled China from 1644-1912.
Known as an indolent hedonist in Chinese history, Wanli’s passive-aggressive triumph left such a mark on his legacy that during the 1960’s Cultural Revolution, Red Guards stormed Wanli’s tomb, then publicly denounced and burned his remains. Thousands of other artifacts from the tomb were also destroyed during the raid.
Who likes a passive-aggressive trouble-maker?
No one. And unfortunately, we’re all capable of it. In our passive-aggression, however, we feel self-righteously justified. We can imagine Wanli, the most powerful man in China, miserable and sulking.
Why can’t I choose my own successor? How dare they defy me! I’ll show them! How about I burn down this country? Would you like that, huh?
To the degree we act passive-aggressively, we’re destroying our own kingdoms. Friendships, families, social communities, and business teams are all affected.
There’s always a risk that some faction will give in, then rebel in some manipulative way. Next comes the denial. What? Me? No, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I mean, it wasn’t my fault. I’m not the one who…
Are you that person?
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Passive-aggressive behavior is so common that it’s difficult to pinpoint. Given the potential consequences, it behooves us all to examine our lives for signs of this insidious tendency. Check out the following list of 21 passive-aggressive behaviors and see if any strike a familiar chord.
Indirect or contradictory communication is a hallmark of passive-aggressive behavior. Consider these examples:
Passive-aggressive communicators don’t say:
• I’m not willing to do that.
• That strikes me as a bad idea.
• It doesn’t work for me.
If you’re acting passive-aggressively you’ll always give in to others. You may look martyred. You may sigh and shake your head, but you don’t take responsibility for your needs. Even if you’re too tired to take on more work. Even if you have a good reason to doubt the effectiveness of a plan. Even if you don’t trust the person who’s asking.
We live in a society that values cooperation, being a good sport, thinking positively. Saying ‘no’ isn’t popular. Cooperation is so important that we’re willing to define our lives by it.
Check out this New Yorker post to understand the pervasive need to cooperate among humans. The survival-oriented need to cooperate literally determines how we see the world.
Yet, unwillingness to say ‘no’ leads to a host of other problems, like the ones listed below.
2. Constant, Low-Level Complaints
Instead of saying ‘no’ clearly and firmly, someone stuck in passive-aggressive behavior may resort to complaining. This may be directed to the person at whom you are angry. Here, I did this for you. I stayed up half the night finishing it. I’ll be exhausted when I have that important meeting today. What? No, no, of course I’m always glad to do whatever you ask.
Masked anger may also be directed at third parties. Yes, I’ve finished cleaning up after her mistakes again. Oh, she’s a lovely person, of course! I’m sure she doesn’t mean to make my life difficult, though you’d think she might have guessed after all these years.
Complaining is a universal human behavior. But if your complaining is chronic and you never change the circumstances, it’s probably a sign of passive-aggressive behavior.
Passive-aggressive communication is often incongruous. In passive-aggressive mode, you don’t want to take responsibility for your actions (you may not even recognize them). You also don’t want your misery to go unnoticed. This dynamic often results in turning down remedies and help when offered.
Imagine: As you’re cleaning up someone’s mess, she apologizes and offers to clean it up herself. Is there motivation for a passive-aggressive person to decline the offer?
Yes. By cleaning up the mess, you get to keep blaming her, which gives you some backdoor revenge and a dose of self-righteous superiority. You feel increasingly justified (righteous) in your resentment the more you play the victim role.
The mixed message: The complaint (Why do I always have to clean up after you?) is negated by your refusal to accept the offered remedy.
4. Insults Veiled as Compliments
Passive-aggressive mixed messages aren’t always task-oriented. Suppressed resentment may come out in backhanded compliments.
Congratulations! That was a brilliant report, even if you didn’t write most of it yourself.
What a nice dress! It makes you look almost as pretty as your sister.
Where people know each other well, the negative component can be more covert, but clearly understood.
5. Passive-Aggressive Avoidance
In a situation that calls for a difficult conversation, the passive-aggressive behavior is to avoid contact. Ending an important relationship over email instead of face-to-face is one example.
There are subtler variations. Say you’ve let it be understood that you’ll attend your wife’s first performance with the community theater. At a meeting where you’re both present, you volunteer for an important role at a church function on the same night. She may not feel free to protest then and there. You’ve set a trap for her and can maintain that it’s not your fault. That’s just how the schedule worked out.
Failure to respond can be a passive-aggressive behavior. “Forgetting” to return calls or emails does the trick. Losing addresses or phone numbers, or calling when you know they’ll be away allows you to avoid confrontation.
If you do it long enough they might just give up on you.
7. Silent Treatment
The most intense form of avoidance is the silent treatment, which goes a step beyond “forgetting.” The classic passive-aggressive behavior refuses to acknowledge the other person’s presence. He can ask what’s wrong, but you won’t answer. He can lose his temper and you can feel superior to him as you remain silent. The classic silent treatment is so overt that it hardly counts as passive-aggressive behavior.
But there are subtler variants. These include ‘accidental’ failure to notice the other person when you meet unexpectedly. Or, you may hear what other people say but reply: What was that, dear?
A sinister passive-aggressive behavior, gossip allows you to avoid your target while encouraging others to join you. This could mean telling ‘amusing’ anecdotes about the other person designed to put them down. It could mean describing a conflict and leaving out important information. If you say she screamed at you for arriving five minutes late, people will sympathize with you. If you showed up five minutes too late for her to catch a flight, people might sympathize with her instead.
Sabotaging Others and Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior is more than just misleading communication. Many passive-aggressive behaviors can make another person miserable, or undermine a shared work project. Here are some examples of passive-aggressive sabotage:
If you resent being asked to do something and don’t want to take responsibility for refusing, you can agree. Then, you can work at a snail’s pace. At work, you can arrive late, take long breaks, or obsess over minutiae so a project doesn’t get done on time. In other settings, late arrivals and extreme ‘distract-ability’ can be equally effective ways to not get the job done.
Is being busy a passive-aggressive behavior? It can be. It allows you to avoid doing what you’ve agreed to by taking other commitments.
You may constantly tell the person whose project you’re putting off: I really want to do this, I’ll be there as soon as I get X done. If you do get X done earlier than you expected, you can always take on another commitment that will put off the task you don’t want to do.
One way to avoid spending money on something you don’t care for but don’t want to argue about is to spend so much on something else that there’s nothing left. The dynamic is the same as with procrastination.
Overspending isn’t always specifically about avoiding an unwanted expense; it may also be a way to stress or annoy a more frugal partner.
Most people have specific things that annoy or upset them. Strangers are apt to trigger these responses accidentally. Passive-aggressive behavior may also include ‘accidentally’ pushing those buttons. This can be physical—like ‘forgetting’ that your target is allergic to cats.
It might be social, like going on and on about how well a friend is doing at the college your target can’t attend. Or, you could bring a friend who gets nightmares into a group conversation about the latest horror movie.
13. Withholding Information
You might take a call that someone else has been waiting for and ‘accidentally’ forget to relay the message. You might know something important—that the supplier you’ve always relied on has gone out of business – and ‘forget’ to mention the critical detail. This passive-aggressive behavior might make people avoid asking for anything in the future. If played a different way, it can make people you work with look incompetent or inconsiderate.
14. Making the Other Person Late
Another way to make someone else look bad is to do things that prevent their success. You might fail to return a shared car or lose the car keys. You may promise to do backup work and then announce at the last minute that you don’t have time.
Maybe you’ll distract him with an emotional crisis at a crucial moment. The people he stood up because he was dealing with your issues will be annoyed.
As part of a team, you may do your assignment and even take on other team members’ responsibilities. Then, you forget one crucial step that ruins the project.
Forgetting can also send a powerful negative message in personal relationships.
Always sending a close relative’s birthday card late conveys a certain lack of awareness of her existence. Forgetting to pick a loved one up after a medical appointment makes the point clearer.
16. Losing Things
Put crucial documents in a Safe Place where no one else would look for them, and then ‘forget’ where they are. Lose messages to delay a project. You might explain this as absent-mindedness, but it’s probaby passive-aggressive behavior.
17. Accidentally On Purpose
‘Accidentally’ stepping on someone’s toes, slamming doors in their face, or breaking things to which they’re emotionally attached can upset or frighten the other person.
Passive Aggressive Self-Sabotage
Passive-aggressive behavior doesn’t always involve harming another person. There’s a way to harm yourself that conveys to the people who love you that they are to blame for not treating you better.
18. Passive Resentment
One warning sign of passive-aggressive behavior is a chronic feeling of helplessness or resentment. Do you often feel that others are failing to appreciate you? Or letting you down? Of course, in some situations you may be suffering real mistreatment. If you take steps to change the situation, that’s healthy.
But if you cling to your resentment and resist suggestions for change, this may be passive-aggressive behavior. You’re making someone else responsible for a misery resulting from your choices.
19. Resisting Help
Passive-aggressive communication avoids direct confrontation. You don’t snarl: Mind your own business! at people who offer suggestions to a problem that you don’t completely want to solve. Instead, you’d suddenly remember something urgent you have to do. You might break down in tears. Or you might play the ‘game’ that psychiatrist Eric Berne calls Why Don’t You, Yes But.
In this game you present someone with a problem in your life. I feel so stifled and non-creative; I can’t express my artistic side. When a helper makes suggestions, you explain why they’re all impossible.
Helper: How can I help? What if you set aside a little time each day to focus on creativity? I can make sure no one distracts you during that time.
Helper: You could take an art class, or music lessons…
Passive Aggressive Response: Yes, but I don’t have the money for that.
Helper: I know a free one…
Passive Aggressive Response: Yes, but I feel so self-conscious in front of other people.
Helper: There are books on drawing and music, the library has a good collection…
Passive Aggressive Response: Yes, but I can’t learn from books.
Helper: Can you just do what you feel like and not worry about whether or not it’s good enough?
Passive Aggressive Response: No, I need someone else to encourage me.
Eventually the helper runs out of suggestions and you have ‘won’ the game by demonstrating how your problem is insoluble and therefore not your fault. The other person may feel sorry for you, or guilty for not coming up with a workable solution.
Note: Eric Berne is the author of the legendary book Games People Play.
20. See what you made me do…?
This is the title of another game Berne identified. Maybe you like to be left alone while working on projects but don’t like telling people to leave you alone. When someone approaches you as you’re working, you drop your hammer on your foot, spill the canned tomatoes all over the floor, delete the important file… and loudly lament what the intruder has made you do.
You may also get someone to help you make a decision and then blame them if something goes wrong.
If someone confronts you, you may try to make them feel awful by dramatizing your misery. You could complain of psychosomatic symptoms caused by the other person’s unkindness. You might wreck a piece of work they failed to admire. You could go on a bender, or even injure yourself. The message to your loved one is: You’ve ruined my life. You must never be so unkind to me again, or I’ll…
Passive-aggressive behavior is hard to confront because it’s so deniable. It’s easy to confuse. We’re fallible human beings. Sometimes we genuinely forget things, lose things, drop things, or fail to complete tasks we care about because an emergency arises.
If you practice passive-aggressive behavior, you may have adopted passive-aggressive strategies. This is especially true if you avoid facing difficult issues.
If you realize you’ve fallen into passive-aggressive habits, don’t despair. Habits can be changed. Once you know where you’re going wrong, you have the power to set yourself right.
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The story of Emperor Wanli begins with example #5 in this post on Live Science:
The specific examples of passive-aggressive behavior in this article come from the author’s imagination. The games Why Don’t You, Yes But and See What You Made Me Do come from Eric Berne’s book Games People Play.
Lists of some passive-aggressive behaviors and discussions of the possible motives behind them came from Psychology Today articles including the following:
Ni, Preston, How to Recognize and Handle Passive-Aggressive Behavior, May 18, 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201405/how-recognize-and-handle-passive-aggressive-behavior
Whitson, Signe, 15 Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Work, Jan 4, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/passive-aggressive-diaries/201601/15-red-flags-passive-aggressive-behavior-work
Brogaard, Berit, 5 Signs That You’re Dealing With A Passive-Aggressive Person, November 13, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201611/5-signs-youre-dealing-passive-aggressive-person