Passive Aggression

by classicalgeek

Do you have a passive-aggressive person in your family, among your friends or coworkers? Learn how to recognize some of the signs, and what works and doesn't, in dealing with them.

I have this friend who was staying with me. When he moved in, he volunteered to take over the kitchen, but it was like Parkinson's Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. It took him hours to do what would normally take me only a few minutes. He would wash the dishes by hand, and then put them in the dishwasher, and stack them in the dishwasher in such a way that he would have to run the dishwasher every day (when I was living alone, it would take me weeks to fill the dishwasher, because I eat only two meals a day). It would take him hours to cook a single meal, and nothing was ever done on time, nothing was ever planned in advance, and what had been my orderly routine turned into chaos. It wasn't until I was reading a book on management that I realized he was displaying passive aggression.

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Signs You Are Dealing With a Passive-Aggressive Person

  • Chooses not to share information when it could prevent a problem
  • Resentment and opposition to the demands of others (sighs, eye-rolling)
  • Procrastination and intentional mistakes in response to others' demands
  • Cynical, sullen or hostile attitude
  • Frequent complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated
  • Frequent excuses why their mistakes are not their fault (I'm too busy, I can't keep up)
  • Forgetting tasks
  • Taking a long time to do a task
  • Resisting suggestions
  • Making a mistake and blaming you for it (You didn't tell me, you should have said)
  • Doing tasks too late to be of any use
  • Doing a task in a way that turns out to be useless
  • Not expressing feelings, especially anger
  • Easily offended


Are You Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Person?

The person you are thinking of . . .
"And then you'll want to take the No. 2 or 3 train to right here behind th…" - New Yorker Cartoon
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Some Examples of What I Had to Deal With

Sound Familiar?

Would "forget" or was too busy to do assigned chores.

Would roll his eyes or sigh when asked to do something.

Would often "forget" that he had been asked to do something.

Would consistently miss deadlines or leave them until the last minute.

Would follow the letter of the request but not the spirit of it.

Would not communicate his plans in advance, especially when it affected other people.

Would assume something he knew was wrong and then blame me for his assumptions.

Never had time to complete tasks (but had plenty of time for solitaire, twitter, facebook, and other activities).


What To Do:

Do not attempt to escalate passive-aggressive behavior. The other person is more skilled at it, and you will lose. There is really no safe way to respond to passive-aggressive notes.

Respond factually and do not allow the other person to push your buttons.

Have a face-to-face conversation without assigning blame. Blame will provoke excuses. Simply pointing out the other person's passive-aggressive behavior is not enough; they will deny that they are behaving this way, no matter how much evidence you may present them with.

Set clear expectations, assign consequences for not completing tasks, and be sure to get everything agreed to in writing. Keep signed copies, as with a contract. That way the other person will have no option but to work with you, and if they forget, you can refer to the signed agreement. (Of course, the other person will have plenty of excuses why they could not fulfill the agreement, but then you have the consequences to rely upon.)

If you can sense the other person's frustration or anger, you may have some success in empathizing with them. Saying something like, "I know it must be frustrating dealing with _________" may help, by recognizing the other person's suppressed feelings.

Take choice away from them. Say, "If I do not see X result by this date, this will happen." Do not attempt to argue with them, just lay down the decision.

Always have a backup plan in case of procrastination.

Do not accept bad behavior, but call it out publicly (in a nice way). When the sighs and eye-rolling start, ask, "Do you have something you wish to contribute?" or something similar that is appropriate.

If possible, enlist a neutral third party who sees the problem firsthand. Sometimes the weight of public opinion will help sway a person's passive-aggressive behavior.


Updated: 11/17/2013, classicalgeek
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blackspanielgallery on 07/03/2015

I suppose we all know such a person.

Guest on 06/04/2014

Me too, Kathleen! Thanks for an instructive article, classicalgeek.

KathleenDuffy on 02/06/2014

Really enjoyed your article. I especially like this response to the eye-rolling: "Do you have something you wish to contribute?" I shall be using that one! :)

classicalgeek on 11/27/2013

Thank you, Mira. I have had to deal with many passive-aggressive people in my life (unfortunately closely). I am to the point now of taking pity on them rather than simply being furious (which used to happen a lot). I deal with their passive-aggressive behaviors by making funny products to sell on my passiveaggressive Zazzle store to help others relieve some of the frustrations they experience. Now that's passive-aggressive behaviour taken to the extreme, but then, I always did have a bit of a competitive streak! ;)

Mira on 11/27/2013

This is an excellent article. I've always wondered why passive aggressive actually meant. I figured some of it from the name of the thing, but didn't really have the whole picture. Now I feel I've learned a lot about this behavior. I have to say I've known people like that, but not closely.

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