What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published May 04, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. It is very common to have experienced or used passive-aggressive behavior at one time or another. 

The passive-aggressive individual frequently shows signs of irritability and hostility, e.g., making critical comments, sarcasm, cynicism, or complaints about minor slights or injustices (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Some examples of passive-aggressive language can include:

  • ‘You work is surprisingly good’
  • ‘Your outfit looks better than what you wore yesterday.’
  • ‘It’s good that you’re so carefree. I wish I didn’t care so much about things.’

These types of comments can first come across as a compliment but then can leave people feeling confused and second-guessing others' intentions. 

Passive-aggressive behavior was first described by Colonel William C. Menninger during World War II. Menninger observed soldiers who exhibited what he called "aggressiveness" through indirect measures such as procrastination, stubbornness, and inefficiency. This was due to what Menninger saw as an "immaturity" and a reaction to "routine military stress".

Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of covert aggression that can manifest in resistance to requests or demands, sullenness, stubbornness, procrastination, and criticalness.

While often used as a way to indirectly express anger or frustration, passive-aggressive behavior can also be used as a deliberate strategy to manipulate or control others. Passive-aggressive behavior is often motivated by a fear of conflict and a desire to avoid direct communication.

Someone may also express passive-aggressive behavior in their actions such as purposely ignoring someone’s phone calls, backing out of promised favours, and excluding someone from a social event while inviting everyone else. 

In general, passive-aggressive behavior reflects some disconnect between what you say and what you do. A passive-aggressive person will not let someone know how they feel directly and will instead use indirect behaviors to show their hostility.

These behaviors can often victimise themselves or induce guilt or hurt in others. People can be passive-aggressive maliciously or unintentionally, but it will usually involve someone not being clear and honest about what they are thinking or feeling. 

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of addressing them openly. This means that there is a gap between what a person expressing passive-aggression says and does (Kantor, 2002).

Specific signs of passive-aggressive behavior include resentment and opposition to the demands of others – especially of those in authority; resistance to cooperation, procrastination, and intentional mistakes in response to the demands of others; a cynical, sullen, or hostile attitude, and frequent complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated (Hall-Flavin, 2021).

Below are some ways in which passive-aggressive behavior can be displayed: 

Backhanded compliments

These are comments which are subtle insults intended to put down the person being addressed without seeming mean spirited. The comment and the tone may reflect that the person is being nice, but there is a covert insult in their statement.

Examples you hear can include ‘You look so much nicer when you smile’, which implies you do not look nice unless you are smiling, or ‘Good for you for trying your best’, which may imply that while you may try hard, it is not good enough. 

Backhanded compliments, or criticism or negative sentiments under the guise of praise, can be used to express passive-aggression too. 

For example, someone may say "You finally got a haircut that looks decent," with the intention of saying that that person's previous hairstyles were unattractive (Harrn, 2011).

Unsolicited opinions, such as stating that someone should lose weight without being prompted, or that a person looks tired and should get some more sleep, can similarly express unconscious negative emotions indirectly (Harrn, 2011).

Sarcasm 

Passive-aggressive people may use sarcasm as a way to say malicious comments which can be played off as a joke.

Sarcasm allows someone to say negative things to people and then when they are confronted, they may say ‘I was only joking’. If someone says something hurtful followed by ‘I was only joking’, then chances are, it wasn’t a joke at all and it is a way to cover up their true feelings.

Sarcasm can also be passive-aggressive in certain contexts. For example, if someone invites a friend over to their family's house and the friend says, "yeah, you know how much I love your family," in a sarcastic tone, the statement can be considered to be passive-aggressive behavior. 

Rather than speaking about the issues that that friend has with the inventor's family, they are expressing negative feelings under the guise of a joke (Harrn, 2011).

Silent treatment

Silent treatment is simply not talking to someone who has upset you. People will use their silence to let other people know that they did something that was not agreed with.

This is a way of refusing to verbally communicate why they feel hurt, leaving the other person having to figure out why they are mad. This behavior withholds attention while also avoiding direct conflict which may be more uncomfortable for someone to deal with.

Silence can be read as passive-aggressive in certain contexts. For example, someone may refuse to respond during an argument. This is known by relational psychologists as "Stonewalling" (Gottman, 2010). 

Similarly, ignoring a question or simply never replying to a message. All in all, silence when a response is warranted often is considered passive-aggression (Harrn, 2011).

Evading issues

Someone who evades issues may never address any problems they have and will pretend everything is fine. They may say ‘I’m fine’ or ‘Everything is good’, when in fact the opposite is true. Denying that something is wrong is a way to not have to deal with directly addressed emotions and feelings.

Withholding

Withholding includes holding back on privileges which would otherwise be normal, as a way to punish another person.

For instance, a parent who usually makes breakfast for their child every day may not do this one day without giving a reason but suggest that the child make breakfast themselves that day. Time, money, or any kind of normal behavior can be withheld. 

Indirect Refusal

Indirect refusal includes failing to meet someone's needs without saying "no" outright. 

For example, someone may fail to take a new puppy out despite the fact that they have been asked to do so multiple times by those living with them. 

The need being violated in this case would be both the puppy's need to evacuate himself and the needs of that person's roommates to live in an unsoiled and clean environment (Harrn, 2011).

Moody behavior

While it is normal to feel moody from time to time, if someone is moody and sulking because they don’t want to communicate about how they feel, then this can be passive-aggressive.

They can make it obvious that something is bothering them, but they are using their moody behavior to get out of discussing their feelings. 

Someone who engages in passive-aggressive behavior may appear to agree - perhaps enthusiastically, even - to another person's request. 

Rather, than complying with the request, however, that person may express anger or resentment by failing to follow through or missing deadlines. 

For example, say that a couple is deciding who will do the dishes for the night. One member may enthusiastically agree to do the dishes.

However, the next morning, when the other member of the couple sees that there are still dishes in the sink — or better yet, that all but one dish had been cleaned — they may be resentful. 

In this case, the member that had agreed to do the dishes may either not recognize this resentment or have used the act of cleaning all but one dish as a way of expressing their contempt and aggression toward another issue (Kantor, 2002).

Learned helplessness

In passive-aggressive terms, someone who displays learned helplessness will pretend that they cannot do something to send a message that they don’t want to do it. They may purposely ‘forget’ to do things or deliberately do a task badly.

For instance, a partner may purposely do a poor job of cleaning the bathroom so that they do not get asked to do it again. 

Making wistful comments

These types of comments come from not asking for things directly while also putting down the person they’re talking to at the same time. They may say something like ‘I wish I could afford a house like yours, but unfortunately I don’t earn as much as you’.

The goal of wistful comments is to announce their wish then disown it in order to put the responsibility on someone else. 

Sometimes, people can display passive aggression in what they say, including through making patronizing comments. For example, someone may undermine someone else's intelligence by using unnecessarily simple instructions and asking "do you know what I mean by that?" or call someone pet names.

Anything that is said with the intent of making someone seem superior, and the receiver inferior, is typically considered to be passive-aggressive behavior (Harrn, 2011).

Contemptuous comments, describing any comment that comes off as disrespectful, can be passive-aggressive. For example, when someone decides to buy someone a bouquet of flowers, the receiver, when saying, "Oh great, another bouquet of flowers '' may be perceived as passive aggressive. 

Similarly, in some contexts, enterprise may be perceived as passive aggression. For example, someone may say that the meal at a dinner party is "edible," and this may be perceived as disrespectful (Harrn, 2011).

Procrastinate/not finishing tasks

People may procrastinate on tasks they offered to do for someone else as a way to let them know they are angry.

This can also include not following through with favours that were previously agreed to and backing out of a commitment at the last minute. 

Lateness 

Generally, being late is not passive-aggressive and may not always be purposeful, but lateness can be used as a weapon. Someone can be intentionally late to punish someone else who annoyed them. They may turn up late and do not appear stressed about it or apologise to the other person. 

Exclusion

Using exclusion and isolating others can also be used as a way to indirectly show annoyance or hurt.

Social exclusion can involve having a party and inviting everyone except the person who is targeted.

Professional exclusion can include leaving someone out of a meeting or out of the loop on a change of deadline.  

Making Excuses

Sometimes, passive-aggression can be manifested in creating excuses for not doing something, rather than directly stating the frustrations they have. 

For example, someone may regularly claim that they are sick, or have a headache, in a way that interferes with responsibilities because they do not want to fulfill them for an unspecified reason, rather than stating the reason directly (Harrn, 2011).

Tardiness

Oftentimes, those who are exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior may repeatedly arrive late, or procrastinate. 

This behavior can be considered passive-aggressive because, rather than expressing their grievances directly, the person committing tardiness or procrastination deprioritized being there for the event they are being late to (Harrn, 2011).

Ghosting

So-called ghosting is yet another example of a behavior that is commonly considered to be passive-aggressive, especially in the modern era of online dating. 

"Ghosting" involves suddenly cutting off contact with a persoon, without warning — especially when the previous contract implied that the person doing the ghosting was interested in and valued that relationship. 

For example, suddenly standing up on a date after going out once, in the form of never texting or calling, is a common expression of ghosting (Harrn, 2011). 

Ghosting can be passive-aggressive in that it often expresses some negative sentiment (that someone would no longer wish to speak with someone else) in a way that leaves this statement unsaid

How can passive-aggressive behavior make someone feel?

Being on the receiving end of someone’s passive-aggression can leave you feeling confused, ignored, or guilty.

It can feel very uncomfortable and as if there is a lot of tension and upset that needs to be addressed.

You may feel as if you should give in to the passive-aggressive person as you don’t want to sit with the uncomfortable emotions or want to hear the other person complaining.

You may also start responding to them in a passive-aggressive way so then it becomes a vicious cycle of not directly dealing with negative emotions. 

What can cause someone to be passive-aggressive?

There are many reasons why someone may be passive-aggression, including the following:

Early life experiences 

Many people may be passive-aggressive due to their upbringing, especially their relationships with their parents. They may have learned from a young age that their wants, needs, or preferences didn’t matter. If they ever tried to be honest with their parents, they may have been criticized, rejected, or put down.

Even as adults, the thought of trying to be direct with people may fill people with anxiety so they have learned to get their needs met through passive-aggressive methods.

It may be that their parents were also very passive-aggressive so the child then goes on to mirror these behaviors as they can come to believe that this is the only way to deal with their negative emotions. 

Emotional dysregulation

For many reasons, someone may use passive-aggression as they struggle to regulate their emotions. This could be due to feeling stressed, or extreme nerves but also mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) could be why someone has emotional dysregulation. 

Situational 

Someone may not be passive-aggressive normally, but there could be situations where expressing anger directly does not seem appropriate or feels uncomfortable so they resort to indirect ways of showing aggression.

For instance, if you have a boss who is acting in a rude way during a work meeting, you may not feel confident enough to call out their behavior so you may act out in passive-aggressive ways. 

Confrontation is uncomfortable 

Some people may not feel comfortable sticking up for themselves directly, so they resort to an easier option. Being assertive can make people feel vulnerable and they may not want to risk losing relationships with others by engaging in confrontation.

Being passive-aggressive allows them to avoid any confrontation that is uncomfortable while still expressing their emotions, albeit in an unproductive way. 

How can passive-aggressive behavior affect relationships?

Often, people can display passive-aggressive behavior in romantic relationships which can cause many problems. A relationship can begin to feel toxic if one or both parties are being passive-aggressive towards each other, with neither person expressing their feelings in a healthy way.

It can feel very frustrating for a person in a relationship who is very open and assertive, to have a partner who is passive aggressive.

They can become annoyed and disheartened if their partner does not feel comfortable to be direct in their emotions and will instead respond with sarcasm, moody behavior, or evade any issues. 


Can it be a symptom of a mental health condition?

Although passive-aggressive behavior can be a feature of broader mental health conditions, it generally is not considered to be a distinct mental illness. Nonetheless, passive-aggressive behavior can cause social difficulties in all areas of life (Hall-Flavin, 2021).

Passive-aggressive behavior was first used clinically to refer to soldiers who fought in World War 2 who refused to comply with the orders of officers. Early editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provided diagnostic criteria for passive-aggressive personality disorder.

This condition was described as aggression and hostility shown passively, often in response to unfulfilling relationships and jobs. 

Experts criticized this diagnosis by pointing out that passive-aggressive behavior seemed to be better linked to specific circumstances than fixed traits and that the diagnosis medicalised having a negative attitude. Passive-aggressive personality disorder was subsequently removed from the DSM due to a lack of research and clearly defined diagnostic criteria. 

Acting passive-aggressive does not mean that someone has a mental health condition but having a condition can make it harder to express yourself, affect your beliefs about how others perceive you, and make productive communication more complicated.

Some mental health conditions can also affect how someone expresses themselves and relate to others which can lead to behavior that seems passive-aggressive, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Depression

  • Schizophrenia

  • ADHD

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Oppositional defiant disorder

  • Personality disorders such as dependant, avoidant, and narcissistic personality disorder. 

How to respond to someone who is passive-aggressive

Because passive aggression is often indirect and unspoken, it can be hard to detect and address. However, there are some things that can be done to reduce the behavior.

If someone is being passive-aggressive towards you, there are some steps you can take to respond to them in a healthy way:

Firstly, people can assess the situation by asking themselves if there is anything that could be causing the person to act this way. If it is not possible to address the potential causes of the behavior, people can try to respond in a way that diffuses the situation, rather than escalating it.

  1. Recognize the behavior patterns

If you notice that someone is being passive-aggressive, try to identify in what ways they are acting this way and try to think about the purpose of the behavior.

If you can understand what behaviors are being acted out and why, this can help with communicating with the other person about what their needs are. 

For example, the person who is receiving the passive aggression may ask themselves if the aggressor is under a lot of stress or afraid of conflict. 

Once they have identified any potential causes of the behavior, they can try to address them directly. 

If the person is acting out because they are afraid of conflict, the observer can have a conversation about why they feel that way, and see if there are any steps that can be taken to reduce the conflict (Kantor, 2002).

  1. Remain objective 

When someone is acting in this way, remember that it is rarely about you or anything you did, it reflects their own issues.

If this behavior is a regular occurrence, try to understand that this behavior is probably a result of their own issues of not being able to express themselves directly.

Try not to internalize their attacks, allowing them to annoy or hurt you. When we avoid personalising other’s behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively.

  1. Don’t overreact 

If this is the first time that you have noticed someone being passive-aggressive, try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Give them a chance to recognize how they have behaved and to adjust. Avoid jumping to conclusions and judgements about them personally and try to come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting. 

  1. Have a direct discussion

Try to have a clear conversation with the passive-aggressive person, setting out exactly what you have experienced and how it made you feel.

Ask if there is an issue to be addressed and do not accuse them of anything or attack them in any way. Some ways you can begin a conversation can include saying:

  • ‘What are you trying to say?’

  • ‘Can we talk about what is wrong?’

  • ‘What do you mean by that?’

  • ‘I don’t know if you meant that to come across this way, but it felt mean when you said that.’

  • ‘When you said that it hurt my feelings’. 

In this way, you are inviting them to be clearer with their communication. You are putting in expectations that you want the relationship to be open and healthy.

The other person may not own up to anything or respond well the first time, but it may make them more aware of what they are doing. 

  1. Don’t compromise your own communication skills

Make sure you model clear communication skills so that the other person knows what you expect from them. Try not to get sucked into their unhealthy behavior and respond in a passive-aggressive way back to them.

This is only likely to make the other person more passive-aggressive in response. Set healthy boundaries with the other person that you want both of you to have clearer communication. 

  1. Limit contact

If you have clearly set out expectations to the other person and they have not shown a change in their behavior or they reacted negatively towards you, you may have to consider whether to deal with it or distance yourself from them.

It can be very challenging to try to change someone else’s behavior, you only have control over your own behavior.

To the best of your ability, it may be worth minimising contact with the passive-aggressive person if you feel they are draining your energy to be around. 

Additionally, people can try to set boundaries with passive-aggressive people. For example, they may need to have a conversation about what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Finally, it is important for people who experience passive aggression to take care of themselves emotionally. This may include talking to a therapist, or taking some time for themselves if they are feeling drained by the behavior (Kantor, 2002).

How to annoy a passive-aggressive person

  • Do not give in to them – if you give in to a passive-aggressive person, they are likely to continue this behavior. Instead, make it clear that you are not going to give them what they want unless they communicate to you clearly. 

  • Walk away - it is perfectly acceptable to remove yourself from a situation which is causing a lot of negativities. You can start with trying to clearly reason with them first, but if they still pursue, you can refuse to engage in any conversation until they have calmed down. 

  • Confront them – passive-aggressive people try to avoid confrontations but if you are assertive with them and explain that the way they are behaving is not ok, they may be more careful about how they are acting towards you. 

  • Tell them they are being passive-aggressive – sometimes, simply calling out someone’s behavior shows that you are aware of what they are doing. It may be the case that the person was not aware of their behavior and calling them out can bring them some self-awareness and hopefully change this behavior. 


How can I recognize when I am being passive-aggressive?

It is often easier to recognise passive-aggressive behavior in others, but sometimes we may use passive-aggression without realising. Once you are aware of what passive-aggression is, try to take a step back and reflect on your own behavior. You can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I get moody or sulk when I am unhappy?

  • Do I talk about my feelings when I am upset?

  • Do I often avoid talking to people if I am annoyed with them?

  • Do I delay or stop doing things for others as a way to punish them?

  • Do I use sarcasm in times when I should be engaged in meaningful conversation?

  • Do I often go along with others suggestions but then resent them for it later?

  • Do I have a fear of confrontation or setting boundaries with others?

  • Do I worry that people will be angry with me if I tell them how I really feel? 

It can be useful to consider the reason why you may be behaving in a passive-aggressive way. Consider the circumstances- do you tend to behave in this way in certain situations such as at work or with family?

Does it seem to happen more when you are in a situation where you do not feel comfortable expressing your assertiveness?

Consider whether you recognize these behaviors in people in your life such as your partner, parents, or friends. It could be that you only act passive-aggressively around other people who are passive-aggressive.

If you notice that your parents or other family members are also passive-aggressive, consider that this could be why you are also behaving in this way. 

How can I address my own behavior?

Improve self-awareness

Passive-aggression can often stem from not having a good understanding of why you are upset or what you are feeling. Try to pay attention to your emotions and the behaviors that result from them.

Become aware of passive-aggressive behaviors and try to notice when you use them, and the circumstances that trigger them. 

Accept how you feel

When you become aware that you are experiencing anger, frustration, or annoyance, accept it. Remember that it is normal to experience these emotions so try to own them when they arise. 

Practice assertiveness 

The opposite of expressing anger passively is to be more direct with people when something annoys you. This does not mean that you should be mean-spirited or shout at others but communicate in a way which expresses your needs in a respectful way.

Clear communication where you set your boundaries can make way for healthier communication and stronger relationships. 

It can be difficult to be assertive if you are not used to this way of communicating. Try to take small steps to get used to being more direct with people. Note that some people may not be comfortable with you being direct with them, but many will appreciate you being more straightforward with them. 

Use ‘I’ statements 

When trying to be more direct in your aggression, make use of ‘I’ statements to get across your feelings and emotions without blaming the other person.

This should also make it less likely that the other person will become defensive. For example, instead of saying ‘You never clean up after yourself’, you could say ‘I feel frustrated when I come home, and the house is a mess’. 

Keep a journal

Writing down when you feel passive-aggressive throughout the day can help with dealing with your emotions.

You can write down what the situation was, your thoughts at the time, and the feelings that resulted due to those thoughts. Over time, this can help to identify common themes which may make you act passive-aggressively so you can work on effectively changing your behavior. 

Be patient

Recognize that it can take a long time to make a positive change in your life. Identifying your own behaviors is a good first step towards change although altering your behavior patterns can take time.

Try not to give up on self-improvement if you find that you often fall back into passive-aggressive patterns. Spend time reflecting on why this may have happened and use it as a learning opportunity on your journey to being more assertive. 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, May 04). What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/passive-aggressive-behavior.html

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