The term passive-aggressive behaviour is mentioned frequently in everyday conversation about people who display undesirable traits in their communication style.
What is Passive-Aggressive Behaviour?
People who are passive-aggressive exhibit an unhealthy and negative pattern of behaviour during their interactions with others which often leaves the recipient experiencing negative emotions and a state of confusion.
This behaviour also leaves a negative, uncomfortable atmosphere amongst other people nearby. (5)
Passive aggressive behaviour is also known as non-verbal aggression as the behaviour (the message being conveyed) is delivered implicitly as the person displaying the behaviour will be unconsciously communicating their feelings through their behaviour and actions alongside the views they express verbally.
This is in contrast to a person explicitly being aggressive and clearly stating their intentions. (5)
Characteristics of Passive-Aggressive Behaviour:
The are many different types of behaviour that fall under the umbrella of passive-aggressive behaviour but they all share similar characteristics, including:
- A negative communication style is reflected in not only what is said but what is not said or avoided and can include aspects of nonverbal communication such as body language, posture, the intonation of their voice as well as sighing and eye-rolling.
- There is a mismatch between what they say and their behaviour and actions.
- The behaviour generates an emotional reaction in others.
- Behaviour is mostly at an unconscious level.
Other Common Characteristics include:
Below, we outline some common characteristics of passive-aggressive behaviour:
1. An inability to state their needs clearly.
At the heart of passive-aggressive behaviour is the perpetrator’s inability to be open and honest about how they are feeling when they are involved in an interaction with others whether it is on a one-to-one basis or in a group setting.
There will tend to be a misalignment between what the person is saying and their behaviour and actions, indicating they are not authentic.
They will, for example, agree to comply with a request from a friend or work colleague despite not wanting to but are unable to communicate this openly to the person.
2. Being passive-aggressive is an indirect form of behaviour.
Passive aggression is more of an indirect and subtle form of negative behaviour which is in direct contrast to someone who openly states their feelings whether it is anger, aggression, sadness or fear.
People observing openly aggressive, emotional and hostile behaviour in others are in no doubt about their state of mind and their intentions
However, with passive-aggressive behaviour identifying the perpetrators of the behaviour is more challenging and it may take several interactions with them to recognise their communications patterns that mark them out as potentially passive-aggressive.
3. Problems dealing with emotions.
Frustration, anger and feelings of jealousy are a normal part of life and are very challenging for many people to deal with.
Passive-aggressive people on the other hand have over the years internalised these feelings and not tended to express them outwardly when interacting with others as they are unable to.
They do not know how to deal with these feelings any other way so are unable to have open, honest conversations directly with people and so end up expressing them indirectly through their passive-aggressive communication style.
4. People-pleasing tendencies.
Passive-aggressive behaviour often stems from a need to please others, passive-aggressive people may not want to openly rock the boat or be an inconvenience to others.
They will, however, suffer in silence as they see pleasing the other person as more important to them than having their own needs met even though it frequently comes at a personal cost to themselves,
Is Passive Behaviour a Mental Health Condition?
Passive aggression is not an official mental health condition but rather more of a dysfunctional communication pattern a person uses when interacting with others.
There has been some debate in the psychiatric community surrounding whether passive-aggressive behaviour is a type of mental illness but it is now viewed just as an unhelpful personality trait.
This is because many people can display passive-aggressive tendencies at any time depending on the context and their situation.
But for most people, acts of passive-aggressive behaviour happen once in a while rather than consistently throughout most of their social and professional interactions. (6)
However, consistently passive-aggressive people may likely have a mental health condition or developmental disorder as researchers have identified links to depression and anxiety.
Many scholars researching passive-aggressive behaviour do feel that this form of behaviour can be observed in people diagnosed with several types of personality disorders. (4,6)
Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behaviour
There are countless examples of passive-aggressive behaviour which most people have either been on the receiving end of or even tended to exhibit themselves in certain situations, including:
- Avoiding problems, any form of disagreement or conflict with others which may stir up strong emotions.
- Frequently procrastinating instead of pressing on with what needs to be completed.
- Making excuses for their behaviour and/or their performance and frequently complaining about other people or external factors.
- Having a negative attitude along with a cynical outlook.
- Being sarcastic towards other people instead of trying to constructively solve the problem or disagreement.
- Poor, inconsistent and uncooperative communication which may include being silent, vague or forgetting (deliberately) to impart important information that may be helpful to others.
- Frequent criticism of the efforts, attitudes and/ or performance of others
- May appear cooperative and will verbally state their agreement but their behaviour and actions will contradict this.
- They may adopt a victim persona/mentality, for example, “Why always me?”
- Backhanded compliments. For example, a passive-aggressive person might say “That was really good work today, you exceeded your usual standard, which isn’t too difficult” (4)
Passive Aggressive Behaviour – Work Scenario
An example of passive-aggressive behaviour can be seen in the following workplace scenario:
John is asked by his boss Alan if he wouldn’t mind working late this evening on an urgent task. Alan has asked other people in the company, but they are all unable to work late on this task for various reasons.
John would rather not work late as he has made plans to meet friends he hasn’t seen for a while for drinks that evening.
John reluctantly agrees to work late as he feels pressurised by Alan and he is unable to state his needs in this situation and assertively inform Alan that he has plans for this evening and therefore cannot work late.
John does agree to work late but is in a very bad mood that evening and for the next few days at work.
He snaps at colleagues, sulks and complains about how much work he has had to do and doesn’t fully focus on the work he has to do failing to complete it to his usual high standards. He also criticises Alan several times.
When his colleagues ask him what is bothering him he replies that “everything is fine” but his body language betrays his claim.
Why Do People Become Passive-Aggressive?
There are many reasons why people develop passive-aggressive tendencies. Researchers in the area believe the following factors can facilitate the development of passive-aggressive behaviour.
Upbringing/Attachment Style/Family Dynamics
Many therapists who believe in the Transactional Analysis model believe that we are all influenced by our early experiences in our family system which dictates the rules we live by and the attitudes we adopt into and beyond adulthood. (2)
Individuals with passive-aggressive tendencies likely grew up in families or a wider culture where resolving conflict, stating their needs and preferences and expressing their emotional state was not permitted.
Some families do not believe in questioning authority, however, this can be detrimental as in some cases it is important to be assertive and set boundaries, particularly when you are well within your rights to refuse a request.
If a person tends to do everything he is told he/she will probably be taken advantage of in many situations as they have not learned to be assertive enough to say no.
Their parents or caregivers did likely not “model” (exhibit) this behaviour either so it will be difficult for the children of these parents to be assertive and state their needs as they did not have a template for this behaviour to refer to when they were younger. (2)
Other Reasons for Passive-Aggressive Behaviour Include:
- They may have a mental health condition such as depression, or anxiety.
- They may have abused alcohol and/or drugs.
- They may have experienced trauma as a child.
- They may have a neurological/developmental disorder such as ADHD.
- They may have low self-esteem.
- They do not wish to appear to make mistakes for fear of being criticised.
- They may possess a desire to be more confident and assured.
- They are afraid of being rejected by others.
Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Behaviour
Many people display passive-aggressive tendencies on occasions but this will only be seldom and so will not affect them too much.
However, if you find yourself dealing with a passive-aggressive person frequently then it is probably something you are going to have to seriously consider developing a strategy to cope with these interactions if only to protect your emotional state.
You can be on the wrong end of passive-aggressive behaviour from:
- A romantic partner/spouse.
- A close friend.
- A family member.
- A work colleague or boss/manager.
- People, you encounter going about your day-to-day life such as shop assistants.
- A person from your social and recreational life.
It is a very difficult task to know how to respond to passive-aggressive behaviour as it is highly likely that a person who behaves this way may have experienced trauma or be showing symptoms of a mental health condition so there is always an element of unpredictability possible when interacting with them:
1. Recognise that it’s nothing to do with you.
The first thing to remember is that it is not your fault that the person is behaving this way so you should not take it personally or feel that you have done anything wrong to this person
2. Assess if there is a pattern to the behaviour.
Initially, it’s probably a good idea to identify if it’s a pattern or just a one-off comment/behaviour when they are having a bad day.
We can all engage in passive-aggressive behaviour if we are going through a rough time.
Monitor their behaviour to see if they display this behaviour consistently when interacting with you and also observe whether they adopt a similar communication style with people. (3,4)
3. Show empathy and offer validation.
Show them empathy and try to be respectful and patient with them, remember very often their behaviour is unconscious and has probably been integrated into their personality since childhood.
The perpetrator, therefore, is unlikely to be aware of this behaviour, probably because it is a learned behaviour/response that they have always used when they communicate with others.
Seek to validate them whenever you have the opportunity as they may have low self-esteem, and also reassure them that you are on their side and understand their frustrations.
4. Acknowledge their behaviour and point it out to them.
It is important to point out their behaviour to them to ensure the person in question understands how his / her behaviour affects others.
It can be beneficial for them to be aware of their communication style so that they can make the necessary adjustments to change as if they carry on behaving this way they will be continuously contributing to a negative atmosphere.
For example, in response to “that was really good work today, you exceeded your usual standard, which isn’t hard” you may challenge them and say “I think that’s harsh and unfair of you to say that as I always try very hard, but sometimes I don’t have enough time to complete the work to the standard I would like”.
By responding this way you have not criticised the other person but you have honestly and openly stated how you feel about their statement.
5. Confront them but NOT aggressively.
DO NOT aggressively confront them about their behaviour and criticise them, if this occurs they may forcefully go into denial about their behaviour and become very defensive.
They have learned over the years to take their frustrations and problems out on the people around them as they are unable to openly express their feelings.
Confronting them softly is always the best approach as it is likely they will feel hurt if they are criticised.
Remaining calm and talking openly with them, offering a listening ear to talk things through is a good strategy to adopt as this will also help to model to them the type of behaviour that they should try to exhibit.
If you are too overbearing and aggressive this will not help as passive-aggressive people do tend to have a difficult relationship with “authority” and coming across in a confrontational manner may trigger previous emotional experiences. (4)
6. Understand passive-aggressive behaviour.
Make an effort to understand what is happening and research the nature of passive-aggressive behaviour. Remember the person is not doing this deliberately, they have developed this form of behaviour as a coping strategy to help them deal with day-to-day life and to manage their social interactions. (4)
7. Be aware of your feelings.
Quite often other people’s behaviour does trigger negative reactions in us based on our emotional history.
If you do find yourself emotionally affected by the interactions with passive-aggressive people it is important to acknowledge this and take care of your feelings.
If this happens frequently then it is important to see a therapist/counsellor to help you work through your feelings on this matter. (2)
8. Show patience and seek to establish a connection.
Be patient with them, and do not argue with them as this is only likely to inflame the situation and make them more agitated. Talking to the person and getting to know them can help to foster a better relationship between you, which may mean they begin to trust you and be more honest in the future.
Simply listening to the opinions they express can help to form a connection, some passive-aggressive people may have grown up in an environment where they felt unsafe talking about how they felt.
9. Permit them to state their views/needs/feelings.
Give them a platform which will allow them to express their views and show them you are interested in hearing them, this will make them feel comfortable talking to you about how they are feeling and what thoughts they have, something they do not usually do.
By offering them a listening ear that is showing an interest in their views they may start to slowly talk about what is on their mind.
They likely need permission from someone to allow them to voice their feelings as they may not have had this in their early family life.
If you find through your conversation that you share the same grievances then offer to work together to tackle problems and find solutions to the issue that they are reacting to.
By spending time getting to know them you may begin to understand them and why they have they behave the way they do. This will help to ensure that any future interactions between you become more open and honest. (1,2)
10. Reach an agreement.
Boundary setting and developing a communication contract is also an effective approach.
Once you have had an initial conversation to bring things out into the open, try to get the passive-aggressive person to consider honouring an agreement where they will express what is on their mind in the future rather than slipping back into their usual, habitual pattern of communication.
Check with them if it’s OK for you to bring it to their attention when they are behaving passively aggressively in future and, in return, you can promise them that when they state how they are feeling you will not get offended or criticise them for saying what’s on their mind.
11. Do not respond with your passive-aggressive behaviour.
It is important to avoid making assumptions about them and avoid retorting with your passive-aggressive behaviour such as ignoring them (or avoiding challenging them), demonstrating negative body language towards them or criticising them to other people behind their backs.
It is important to confront them (softly) directly and ask them to state their needs as ignoring them fuels the passive-aggressive nature of your interactions and continues the unconscious game between you as any issues or disputes that are not fully addressed can escalate in the future. (1,2)
12. Reward honesty and openness
Praise them when they do speak openly and state their position and thank them for being open. This makes them more likely to be open in the future as they will learn that they can state their feelings and needs and not be punished or receive negative consequences for it.
(1) Berne. E. (1964) Games people play. Penguin Books UK.
(2) Cornell, W.F., de Graaf, A., Newton, T. & Thunnissen, M. (2016) Into TA: A Comprehensive Textbook on Transactional Analysis. Abingdon: Routledge.
(3) De Haan, E. & Kasozi, A. (2014) The Leadership Shadow: How to recognise and avoid derailment, hubris and overdrive. Kogan Page. London.
(4) Hopwood, C, et al (2010) The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder. Psychiatry. Fall 72(3) available@ The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder – PMC (nih.gov)
(5) Neenan, M., Dryden, W. (2009) Life Coaching: A Cognitive Behavioural Perspective. Routledge. London.
(6) Pretzer JL, Beck A. T. (1996) A Cognitive theory of personality disorders. In: Clarkin J.F., Lenzenweger M.F. (ed) Major Theories of Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford.