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Aggression’s Deceptive Cousin; Passive-Aggression

I watch my nephew tell his little sister to go away; a woman yells at the parking inspector over a ticket; a man punches another man in the jaw on television, and my neighbour, has her finger pointed furiously at her partner. These are all examples of aggressive behaviour. While direct aggression is unbecoming, the one thing we can agree it does well is communicating that we are not happy with the situation or person we are aggressing. Aggressive behaviour understandably has a bad reputation, while its silent and deceptive cousin, passive aggression, often flies under the radar.

First recognised in WW2 as an ‘immature reaction’ to routine stress

Passive aggression is a means of expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than directly. A person behaving passive-aggressively is incapable or unwilling to express their emotions in an open way that can allow for dialogue, understanding and resolution. Instead, they express their negativity or feelings of being wronged through denial, silence, hints, and a range of other subtle strategies. This type of aggression was first described in WW2 when Colonel William C Menninger noticed an undercurrent of aggression in his military group, which manifested indirectly as stubbornness, incompetence, criticalness, and procrastination. He deemed this an ‘immature reaction to routine military stress’ (an assessment that doesn’t age well when read with our current cultural awareness of the impact of trauma!).

Due to its covert nature, it can be incredibly frustrating to interact with a person who regularly exhibits passive-aggressive behaviour. Passive-aggressive behaviour can be difficult to identify at the moment, though feelings as I mentioned above are common signs that passive-aggression is in the air. Psychologists have identified that anger, hurt, shame, guilt, and jealousy are the most common underlying emotional states of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Passive-Aggression in day to day life

Passive-aggression can manifest in innumerable ways. Some common examples include:

  • Moodiness: our moods fluctuate. This is a routine part of being alive, but moodiness and sulking become passive-aggressive when it is being used as a means of indirectly communicating how you feel about something specific.
  • Silence: a passive-aggressive person loves to use silence to communicate unhappiness with something or someone. If they are addressed and asked about their silence, they may continue with their silence or walk away. In psychology, this strategy is called ‘stonewalling’, and others may be familiar with the term ‘the silent treatment’.
  • Evading and avoiding: pretending everything is fine by saying ‘I’m fine’, and ‘everything is all good’ when internally they feel the opposite of these words.
  • Sarcasm: this allows the person to express their discontent openly but with the option of a ‘safety net’, whereby they are able to reverse the expression by saying ‘it was only a joke’.
  • Indirect refusal: choosing not to meet another person’s needs behaviourally, but never directly refusing these needs verbally. Maybe a person asks their spouse if they can turn down the volume of their phone, which they are watching Facebook videos on in the same room. The person might look up so as to acknowledge they have heard but not turn down their phone, or turn it down only an unnoticeably small amount.
  • Learned helplessness: they may pretend they don’t know how to do something to communicate they are not interested in doing it. Or they will deliberately do something poorly to communicate they don’t like doing it and don’t want to do it again.
  • Lateness: if a person is deliberately slow and late to arrive, this can be a passive-aggressive way of communicating they aren’t excited to be there.
  • Wishful speaking: a passive-aggressive person may declare a desire aloud that the other person can fulfil, but they do this indirectly. For example: ‘I wish I ordered what you did, now I’m stuck with this’.
  • Exclusion: social or professional exclusion is a common passive-aggressive tactic to show the person is annoyed with, hurt by, or disinterested in the excluded person.
  • Excuses: instead of providing direct explanations as to why they haven’t done something, they will make a series of excuses to omit responsibility. For example: a friend is always cancelling on you with an excuse, but really, they just don’t want to hang out. A popular extreme of this example is when someone doesn’t even bother with the excuses and just doesn’t reply. This is called ‘Ghosting’.

At the heart of passive-aggression is a disconnect between thought and behaviour

What do these behaviours all have in common? They all display a disconnect between thought and action, meaning the person is being dishonest, whether intentionally or accidentally. They often also involve the aggressor feeling ‘in the right’, whereas the recipient is somehow ‘in the wrong’. This is problematic when, at the end of the day, humans fundamentally require love, intimacy, and connection, which cannot exist in an environment rife with passive-aggressive communication.

Like many coping mechanisms, passive-aggressive behaviours are most often deep-rooted and stem from our early, formative experiences. The individual may have been taught their desires and needs don’t matter and could have been rejected or put down when they attempted open and honest communication. Their caregivers may also exhibit passive-aggressive behaviour, which the child naturally mirrors for lack of other options. Another reason people engage in passive-aggression is emotional dysregulation, whereby they find it the most effective and easy way to regulate their emotions. This is common for people facing extreme stress, nerves, low self-esteem, and mental illness. Finally, the most common causal factor is that confrontation is uncomfortable. Some find confrontation more uncomfortable than others and will do anything to avoid it, but get caught with unmet needs that need to be expressed, thus resorting to passive-aggressive strategies.

Relationships with passive-aggressive behaviours have high degrees of tension

The behaviours listed above also all leave the recipient of the behaviour feeling guilty, ignored, misunderstood, and VERY confused. Unsurprisingly, relationships that involve passive-aggressive reactions have a significantly higher degree of tension than other relationships. Often, the recipient ends up giving in to the passive-aggressive response because the situation becomes too awkward or uncomfortable (thus reinforcing this style of communication for the aggressor).

Passive-aggressive responding can become contagious in a relationship, creating a toxic environment of covert negativity. It is no surprise that passive-aggression is poison to romantic relationships, as healthy, secure intimacy depends on feelings being expressed openly. Whether one or more people in a relationship behave in a passive-aggressive manner, it is self-sabotaging as it feeds feelings of frustration and resentment, which contradicts what is supposed to be a safe, open, and loving environment and zaps the relationship of joy.

What to do about passive-aggression?

None of us are perfect. Every person will have either engaged in passive-aggressive behaviours or been on the receiving end at some stage in their life. Dr Julie Osborn perfectly encapsulates the origins of passive-aggressiveness in her podcast, showing how insecure upbringings are often the catalyst for strained communication in relationships. If this blog has resonated with you, perhaps regarding yourself or someone you know, there are things you can do to mitigate this behaviour, and protect yourself and your relationships:


  1. Unpack the behaviour: when you notice passive-aggression is in the air, the first step is to try and pinpoint why they are behaving this way. Ask yourself, what is the goal of this behaviour? And where might it be coming from? This will allow you to address the problem with direct words.
  2. Remain Objective: if you are the recipient, it is important to resist internalising or absorbing the passive-aggression. Passive-aggression usually reflects an issue or feeling they cannot deal with. Don’t overreact. Instead, try to help them see how they are behaving with calm communication.
  3. Language: avoid language that is an accusation– remember this person hates conflict and probably can’t recognise the extent of their negative behaviour. Ask them if there is an issue to be addressed, if they are okay and then identify the behaviours they are using that make you feel like something is not okay.
  4. Consider limiting contact: if you have tried all of these and find they are not receptive or willing to change, it might be worth distancing yourself from the person if they are taking up too much mental and emotional energy.


  1. Work on your self-awareness: passive-aggression often stems from not understanding what or why you are feeling a certain way. If you understand your emotional states, you will be able to understand and communicate your needs more easily. You should also pay attention to what triggers your passive-aggression reactions.
  2. Accept the feelings: often, passive-aggression arises when a person does not like the emotional experience occurring inside of them. You must recognise it is an essential part of the human experience to have these emotional reactions to people and situations, so own and speak about them when they come up – it’s only through language that we can separate ourselves and move on.
  3. Practice directness: do the opposite of what you usually do. The next time you want to withdraw into silence, sarcastically comment on a situation or make up a bunch of excuses, instead, do your best to address the cause of the irritation. You’re not being mean but being respectful and direct, and if anything, the other person will appreciate it.

It is important for our relationships and personal well-being to understand and recognise the presence of passive-aggression. If you are interested in learning how to manage passive-aggression further, check out our other blog posts on dealing with difficult people and strategies for effective communication.