Human aggression doesn’t have much going for it. Every war, bar brawl or playground smackdown ever fought has resulted from our habit of lashing out first and talking it through only later. But if aggression has one virtue, it’s that it’s unambiguous. It’s hard to misunderstand the meaning of a missile launch or a punch in the nose.
But passive-aggression — regular aggression’s sneaky little cousin? That’s a whole other thing. Passive-aggression is there but it’s not, you see it and you don’t. It’s aggression as steam — hard to frame, impossible grasp. You see it in the competitive colleague who would never confront you directly but accidentally leaves your name off an email about an important meeting. It’s the spouse who’s usually punctual but takes forever to get out of the house when it’s your turn to choose the movie. Sometimes there’s an innocent explanation, but often there’s not — and the passive-aggressors themselves might not even know which is which.
Either way, passive-aggression is more than just the nettlesome habit of a few maddeningly indirect people. Clinicians differ on whether it qualifies as a full-blown personality disorder like, say, narcissism or paranoia, but they agree on the symptoms: deliberate inefficiency, an avoidance of responsibility, a refusal to state needs or concerns directly.
Passive-aggressiveness comes in varying degrees, which can make it tricky to know if you work, live or socialize with a passive-aggressor — or if you’re one yourself. The behavior is practically defined by its plausible deniability. So we’ve compiled seven of the most commonly reported ways passive-aggressive character traits can show up in your life:
Leaving things undone. Passive-aggressors are champions of the almost complete job: the room that’s painted except for the molding; the laundry that’s washed but doesn’t get folded; the dishwasher that’s loaded except for the utensils, because really, who needs clean utensils when we can always spear our food with sharpened sticks or the fondue forks we’ve had in the back of the closet since 1997! (Not that I’ve ever experienced this at home.) It’s a nifty strategy, signaling resentment at having to do the job and leaving just little enough undone that you’d feel picky criticizing it and will ultimately decide just to do it yourself for, like, the twelve billionth time. (Not that I’ve ever experienced that either.)
Running late. If you’re a passive-aggressor you live in an Einsteinian universe of eternally elastic time, where a few minutes can turn into a few hours. Actually, all of us live there — which is why we have watches. To passive-aggressors, a watch is a bother. If they don’t want to go to a dinner party but feel obligated to be there? No worries. They’ll just accept the invitation and then — oopsies! — only vaguely remember the time it starts so they don’t show up till the middle of the soup course. The same is true when they resent having to attend a meeting so they wander in 20 minutes late with a mystified expression that says you’re all here already? The behavior is occasionally deliberate, more commonly unconscious — and always infuriatingly effective.
The non-compliment. Compliments are easy. Compliments can even be fun. Here are some nice compliments: “Great haircut!” or “Terrific soup!” Here are some less nice compliments: “Great haircut — I used to get the same one in college,” or “Terrific soup — I didn’t even taste all that cilantro.” It’s no secret which kind of compliment the passive-aggressor goes for — usually out of competitiveness. If you’re not sure which kind of compliment you’ve gotten, pay attention to your own responses: If you feel like saying “thank you,” you’ve probably gotten a good one. If you feel like running screaming from the room, not so much.
Silence. Shhh… Hear that? No? Exactly. That’s the sound of a passive-aggressive person who’s cheesed off about something. If you were upset with something a friend or family member did, you might say — and we’re just spitballing ideas here — “I’m upset with something you did.” A passive-aggressive person would instead say: [insert your favorite cricket sounds here]. Silence is always a go-to strategy for passive-aggressors and it’s not hard to see why. It says nothing at all and yet says volumes. It ostensibly avoids a conflict but in fact provokes one—with the very lack of communication serving as a taunt and a goad. It’s thus passive, and yet, um, aggressive. Hey! We might be onto something.
Wistful wishing. You know what I wish? I wish passive-aggressive people wouldn’t dreamily announce something they want and then immediately conclude — always out loud — that it’s probably not going to happen. But I guess that’s too much to ask. See what I did there? Annoying, right? I could have said, “Hey! Passive-aggressive people! Knock off that out-loud wishing.” But instead I came at it sideways. If that sounds like things you’ve heard in your life — “It would be great if you could get the project done by Wednesday, but I guess it’ll have to wait till Friday” — it’s a pretty safe bet there are passive-aggressors in your circle. The objective, of course, is to get an idea out there, then immediately disown it — thus putting the burden of getting it done or not done on you.
Sabotage. It’s not hard to tell the bad guy in a movie. He’s the one who’s always tampering with the brakes in the hero’s car or sneaking the bad lines of code into a computer. Passive-aggressors might not go that far, but you can see where they get their inspiration. That deadline your colleague forgot to tell you about until it was just a day away? Those work clothes your spouse tossed in with the dry-cleaning the day before you went off on that business trip you’d been arguing about? As with lateness, this is sometimes deliberate but usually not. Either way the point has been made — and yet not made too.
The disguised insult. The social contract under which the rest of us live has a special provision passive-aggressors have added just for themselves. It typically comes in the form of a “but” clause, like, “I don’t want to sound mean, but…” “I hope you don’t think I’m insensitive, but…” “Not to be judgmental, but…” after which they say something mean, insensitive or judgmental — and sometimes all three at once. An uncharacteristically honest variation on this disguised insult is the “You’re going to hate this, but…” which at least has the virtue of being true, because you will inevitably hate it down to your very last strand of DNA. This is as close to pure aggression as the passive-aggressor gets. Feel free to hold up a hand and halt the conversation before any passive-aggressors in your life get past the comma that ends the clause — but don’t be surprised if they drive right through that stop sign.
If you’re a victim of passive-aggression, there are a few basic coping strategies. For starters, remember that you’re not nuts. If you see a pattern it’s probably real. So respond — and know that it’s OK to draw sharp boundaries. The chronically late dinner guest can be invited once more on the proviso that the start time of the evening is honored. After that? It’s Chipotle for you, bub.
And what if you’re the passive aggressor? Well, the knock-it-off suggestion is a good place to start. That’s not always easy, and it can take work and even the help of a good therapist to determine why directness is so hard for you. It’s a lot better than indirectness, however—and it’s a whole lot less work.