7 Signs of a passive aggressive person

What does passive aggressive mean?

Being passive aggressive refers to behaviour that indirectly expresses negative emotions, rather than being upfront about these feelings.

Key Takeaways

  • Factors that lead to someone being passive aggressive can include familial influences, cultural influences, situational characteristics, and personality.
  • Procrastination, refusal to communicate, and sarcasm are the biggest signs that someone is being passive aggressive
  • The opposite of passive aggressive behavior is assertiveness

What causes someone to become passive aggressive in their communication?

There are many factors that can lead to someone being passive aggressive. This can include familial influences, cultural influences, situational characteristics, and personality.

Familial influences

Much of our behaviour is attributed to our upbringing and familial influences. If you grew up in an environment where being direct with your emotional expression was discouraged, you probably carried this into adulthood. Further, if your parents were/are passive aggressive with each other or with you, it’s likely that you have these traits as well.

Cultural influences

Culture can also be a large influence on behaviour, negative or positive. If you grew up in a culture where displays of aggression were frowned upon, you may have instead manifested those emotions into passive aggressive behaviour.

Situational characteristics

How you respond to your emotions can depend greatly on the type of situation you find yourself in. There are certain situations where you may feel that confronting someone outright or being upfront with your emotions is not the best thing to do. For example, at a work meeting or at a family gathering, you would probably find discreet ways to express annoyance or anger.

Personality traits

Sometimes it’s hard for people to be assertive and upfront with their emotions. It can also be hard depending on their personality types for them to deal with confrontation. That’s why instead of being open and honest about how they’re feeling, it can be easier for people to be passive aggressive instead.

What are some examples of this behaviour?

Passive aggressiveness comes in many forms. Here are just a few examples where someone is displaying passive aggressive behaviour:

Example 1

John is annoyed at his colleague, Amy for not inviting him out to drinks with some work friends. The day after, Amy asks John if he can write part of a report that she has to send to her manager. John agrees to help but does not do the report until the very last minute, despite reminders from Amy, and finishes it past the deadline.

In this example, John is displaying passive aggressive behaviour by deliberately procrastinating on a task that is important to Amy, because he is upset with her. By submitting it late, he feels like he is able to punish Amy as this negatively affects her performance.

Example 2

John is annoyed at his colleague, Amy for not inviting her out to drinks with some work friends. The next day, Amy notices John seems upset and asks him if things are okay. John repeatedly says everything is fine even though he is visibly annoyed at Amy and refuses to discuss further.

In this example, John is displaying passive aggressive behaviour by denying his annoyance, even though Amy can tell he is annoyed. This confuses Amy and shuts down communication, instead of them being able to address the problem.

7 Signs that someone is being passive aggressive

To further build on the previous examples, there are several signs of passive aggressive behaviour a person can display.

1. Procrastination

In the first example, where John procrastinated on a task for Amy, this is a sign of passive aggressive behaviour. When someone is avoiding a task they do not want to do because of how they feel towards the assignee, it could be out of spite, indirectly indicating that they are upset with the person.

2. Refusal to communicate

This can come in many forms. In the second example, John completely denies his feelings to Amy, refusing to address the problem. This can also occur when the passive aggressive individual is silent, ignoring someone or refusing to reply. Passive aggressive people tend to let things go unsaid instead of owning their emotions.

3. Excuses

A sign of someone being passive aggressive is using excuses or avoiding the person or situation. For example, a person constantly making excuses as to why they can’t see you can be indicative that they are mad at you but don’t want to directly address it.

4. Sarcasm

In certain contexts, being sarcastic is passive aggressive. For example, if you invite your partner to hang out with your friends, and they say “Can’t wait. You know I love your friends.” in a sarcastic manner, they are being passive aggressive.

5. Backhanded compliments

Taking the same situation, let’s say you and your partner go out with your friends, and afterwards, they say something like “I’m surprised your friends were fun tonight” or “Your friends were acting civilized for once”. These backhanded statements are passive aggressive.

6. Body language

A person can say a lot without ever speaking a word. Negative body language like crossing your arms, rolling your eyes, or glaring rather than discussing openly what’s bothering you, is passive aggressive behaviour.

7. Patronizing behaviour or unsolicited advice

This can look like undermining someone’s intelligence, disrespecting you in a subtle way, or offering up advice around personal topics without being prompted. All of these are passive aggressive in the sense that they indicate someone is mad at you by being rude to you, without you knowing outright what is wrong.

What is the opposite of passive aggressive behaviour?

Being passive aggressive has its faults, but that’s not to say that you should instead be aggressive with expressing your emotions. The opposite of passive aggressive behaviour is being assertive. Assertive behaviour is characterized by being direct while also being respectful to yourself and the other party. Assertive behaviour is about standing up for yourself in a way that is clear and firm, but not aggressive. Some helpful ways to improve these tendencies is to improve upon your self awareness, become better at identifying these negative behaviours, and take the time to regulate your emotions.


Related Readings

Getting People Right (GPR) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional GPR resources below will be useful:

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