Updated: Nov 11, 2019
What is passive aggression? Based on a quick browser search, passive aggression is defined as- A type of behavior or personality characterised by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. This definition is somewhat confusing and limited in describing the depth and complexity of this subject. Passive aggression is almost a phantom as far as being recognisable and definable. It is elusive; covert, subtle and insidious, lurking beyond the awareness of its victims. Trying to define passive aggression in a manner that is accessible and understandable is difficult indeed. Most people form an understanding of passive aggression through personal experience and reflection. It emerges as a feeling of dis-ease and discomfort stemming from the interactions with the passive aggressive person. The fact that the aggression is ‘passive’ is what makes it so difficult to understand and identify. Most victims of passive aggression have the feeling that something isn’t right, however the nature of passive aggressive behavior makes it extremely difficult to have any great certainty of its existence. Because passive aggression is so subtle, it makes it quite difficult when one decides to challenge their attacker. Passive aggressive behaviour is designed to just cross the line in a manner that always provides a way out for the attacker. It is one of the most common behaviours of manipulative people.
The purpose of passive aggression is to convey an indirect, but definite message to the victim on an almost unconscious level. The message is designed to influence the victim into thinking and feeling a certain way. Passive aggression is never positive in effect; it is hurtful, nasty and vindictive, the sole aim being to negatively influence another. Passive aggression is often used to punish people and undermine reputations, especially in front of others. Passive aggressive people often seek to influence the behavior of others by attacking them in a manner that is designed to breakdown their confidence and have them question their character. Veiled insults are a common theme for passive aggressive people as they seek to reduce the person being insulted to less than they are generally perceived to be. Like other manipulative behaviours, passive aggression seeks to raise the reputation of the aggressor while at the same time, diminish the shine of the victim.
The power of passive aggression in the eyes of the manipulator, lies in the fact they are able to attack others covertly, which ensures their reputation, as a decent person remains intact. The manipulator uses passive aggression to paint a picture or build a narrative on their terms. Eventually the victims of passive aggressive people fall into a state of anxiety and confusion due to the uncertainty provoked by their manipulator. This confusion can result in a lack of confidence, assertiveness and an unwillingness to engage with the attacker. The aggressor always maintains plausible deniability, allowing them to attack at will without fear of reprisal. This kind of manipulation has the effect of making the victim feel bad, even though they are in the right. So what are some of the signs of passive aggressive behavior?
Signs of Passive Aggressive behaviour
1. Body language- One strategy passive aggressive people employ, is body language and to great effect. Body language makes up the majority of all human communication, so it stands to reason that effective use of body language goes a long way in communicating a message. In the case of the passive aggressor, they will often act cold, ignorant, disengaged, unfriendly or sullen. They will give off subtle signals with the purpose of demonstrating their dissatisfaction with you as a person. You will definitely notice these signals and you will probably start to feel awkward or uncomfortable around the aggressor. Eventually you may feel the need to address the odd behavior as it is uncomfortable and irritating, but when you do, don’t expect any kind of admission from your attacker. They will likely deny that they are acting in a strange manner and will tell you they are fine, before going right back to the passive aggressive body language.
2. Words- Passive aggressive people are adept at choosing the right word for the desired effect. A single well placed word in a sentence can go unnoticed by the conscious mind of the victim, but the unconscious mind will pick it up and feel the associated negative emotion. This can be so subtle and covert that you’ll probably miss it. In response to your performance they may say- “that was sort of good” or “you actually did well”, using words that almost contradict each other or suggest a weakness in ability or character. This is similar to the sugar coated criticism point, but generally only requires a single word to convey the hidden negative message, rather than a backhanded follow up.
3. Character Assassination- One of the most common signs of a manipulative personality is the apparent need to bring others down. One of the ways they manage to achieve this is through character assassination. They often make statements with negative connotations, draw unfavorable comparisons and use words that are designed to undermine your character. Character assassination is designed to sabotage your reputation and identity. What makes this particular strategy so horrible, is the fact that they are actively trying to destroy a reputation you may have spent a decade developing, in the space of just a few weeks or months. Mud sticks and people seldom do their homework or ask questions, they accept rumours as truth or at least partial truth, which is enough to have the desired effect. They create enough doubt in the minds of others to have them question your reputation, effectively changing the nature of your character in the eyes of others and even yourself.
4. Silent treatment- This is an obvious, but common strategy. Although it is a passive aggressive behavior, not all people use it in such a manner. Some people use the silent treatment simply to get attention because they feel vulnerable, but others use it to elicit feelings of guilt, frustration and confusion. Again, simply being silent is quite passive and in a more positive scenario may even be viewed as peaceful, which precisely why it is so effective as a tool of manipulation. If you question the aggressor as to why they are ignoring you or being silent, they will either remain silent or deflect it as if they are acting completely normal. This is obviously not the case and in fact, silent treatment can go as far as dehumanizing the victim by almost pretending they aren’t even there. To be completely ignored in such a way, is akin to being invisible, a tactic that is truly evil.
5. Negative comparison- The passive aggressive person will often draw comparisons between you and another, but they are always unfavorable. Indirectly, they are suggesting that you are not good enough, that they could do better and expect better from you. This is particularly malicious when the aggressor compares you in a way that is impossible for you to challenge or at the very least change in the short term. If they compare one of your immutable characteristics, you are left helpless with no avenue available to improve or change this area. This will of course erode your character, identity and confidence. They may compare your situation to that of another who is doing better than you and suggest that you aren’t good enough or should fix this particular circumstance immediately, knowing full well it will take months if not years to improve. Be aware of negative comparison as it will not only cause discomfort, but also depression and a feeling of worthlessness.
6. Negative Tone- Tone is one of the most common passive aggressive manoeuvres. When the aggressor uses favorable wording, but with an unfavorable tone, they have ensured a way out, should you choose to question the meaning of their words. Imagine you have forgotten to do something for the aggressor, you say them “sorry, I simply forgot”, the aggressor might respond by saying “don’t worry, it’s fine”. However, when they say ‘it’s fine’, you will surely notice an odd tone that doesn’t seem to match the words. The tone will have the effect of conveying a sense of disappointment, which has the purpose of eliciting guilt and as you will come to understand, guilt is a primary weapon of manipulative people. If you confront them about the tone in their voice, don’t buy into it if they dismiss your query as silly. Remember, that is the point, to be passive aggressive the attacks must go unnoticed, so of course they will deny and deflect your concerns.
7. Poor performance- Sometimes the passive aggressive person will attempt to convey a message to you via inaction or deliberate wrong action. You may ask this person if they mind doing a job or task for you, possibly at home or in the work place, only to be let down by their lack of energy and performance. They will deliberately sabotage the task in some way to send you a message, that message being- don’t ask me to do anything again. They may also take a careless approach to their work or tasks as a way of enacting revenge. If you haven’t met their unreasonable standards and demands, then you must be punished in some way and will continue to be, until you meet their needs.
8. Having the last say- Passive aggressive people often want to have the last say, or put the final nail in the coffin, so to speak. By having the last say, they leave a situation feeling victorious and having a sense that their message was triumphant. This also increases the confidence they have in themselves as all-knowing intellectuals and experts, while at the same time having the effect of diminishing your own strengths. Having the final word also allows the aggressor to control and direct the narrative, especially if others are listening. It’s as if the last things said, matters the most.
9. Sugar coated criticism- Passive aggressive people love to give fake compliments or feedback that seems positive at face value, but it is in fact negative in effect. They might say, “that was good…. for you” or “great job, I wouldn’t expect more from you” or “amazing work, almost as good as everyone else in your team”. The point of these statements is to seem to be giving a compliment, but as the compliment is given, it is undermined by a follow up statement. The first part of the statement is generally complimentary, but the second part of the statement is designed to sabotage this compliment by adding a subtle, but negative component. The tone used when giving these false compliments is one of undermining hope; as if they are saying ‘there is hope for you yet’. If you receive this kind of feedback or compliments, you are likely experiencing the toxic nature of a passive aggressive individual first hand. Don’t buy into it.
10. Pretending to have honorable intentions- Imagine you are attempting to achieve a goal or take on a challenging task. You make the mistake of telling the passive aggressive person of your intentions, but instead of support they pull you back and have you question your own ability. When they do this, they will often tell you they are doing it because ‘they care’ about you or they don’t want to see you embarrass yourself, or they are just trying to protect you. What they are really saying is, I don’t want you to be better than me, you aren’t good enough and that they don’t appreciate you shining brighter than them. This is why it is so important to identify manipulative people before they sabotage your progress and development. Once you have identified them, it is best to simply ignore anything they say because you can be sure they will sabotage all your efforts to advance.
11. Exaggeration and Sarcasm- These are tools of the passive aggressive individual. Passive aggressive people tend to exaggerate for a number of purposes. They exaggerate because it makes a situation appear more dramatic and dire, therefore requiring immediate attention. This is of course a way to influence and manipulate others by creating a false perception of necessity or a need for immediate attention. Exaggeration also serves as a strategy to either reinforce the reputation of the aggressor or sabotage the reputation of others. Passive aggressive people use exaggeration to inflate their achievements, so they appear to be on another level to everyone else. They also use sarcasm, but the difference between their version of sarcasm and the standard version is, they actually mean it. Manipulative people will use sarcasm, but it actually isn’t sarcasm, it is simply a sarcastic tone of voice. This gives the appearance of sarcasm when it is in fact an attack on someone’s ability, competence and character.
Like most manipulative behaviours, passive aggression is toxic in effect. It can sabotage a positive environment, can be emotionally destructive and undermines the reputation of others. It is a way for manipulators to enact revenge upon those they dislike and resent. Like many subjects directly related to manipulation it is difficult to clearly define passive aggression as it overlaps with many other areas, but one can be absolutely certain of the toxic effect passive aggression can have on its victims.