12 signs you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive person

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Have you ever had an interaction with someone and afterwards you feel extremely frustrated and like you are completely crazy, but you can’t explain what they said to make you feel that way? Chances are you’ve encountered a passive-aggressive person. The passive-aggressive person is a master at keeping calm and faking shock when others, exhausted by their indirect attacks, react negatively. This person secretly enjoys setting others up to burst out in anger, and then calling them “dramatic”.

All of us are passive-aggressive at times, but a real passive-aggressive person has a control issue in an indirect way, and they know that when they say and do things indirectly, they don’t have to deal with the consequences.

“My friend will tell me that I made the most delicious leg of lamb, and then she’d add: ‘I wish I had such a nice oven,’ totally disregarding my cooking skills! When confronted with her passive aggressiveness, she just says ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ It drives me nuts!” – Samantha (29)

Here are 12 traits that will help you identify passive-aggression in a person:

1. They say one thing while meaning another

Backhanded compliments are insults veiled as accolades and a tell-tale sign that someone is passive-aggressive, especially if the belittling or condescension is intentional. E.g. “Your camera takes beautiful photos.” Where people know each other well, the negative compliments can be more veiled, but they are nevertheless impossible not to understand.

2. They use sarcasm

Sarcasm is an excellent way to mask that the passive-aggressive person is quite angry at something you did or asked for. For example, a husband asks his wife to make him a cup of coffee, she says: “Of course my dear, I would love to spend another five minutes on my feet after working the whole day. One cuppa on the way!”

3. They blame shift

Shifting the blame is another passive-aggressive way to make you think you are crazy. They will never take responsibility for their actions or say directly how they feel, but instead, they will shift the blame to make themselves feel or look better. E.g. “If my friend hadn’t posted that on Facebook, I wouldn’t have reacted.”

4. Silent treatment

The passive-aggressive person refuses to acknowledge the other person’s presence. The other party may attempt to communicate with the passive-aggressive person, but they won’t answer. They give the silent treatment punishment as displaying the ultimate control they have. In fact, the silent treatment is so obvious that it hardly counts as a trait for a passive-aggressive person. But there is more subtle version, like ‘not seeing’ someone at a function, or pretending that you didn’t hear something someone said when you heard it loud and clear.

5. They express anger indirectly

When you indirectly express anger, you act out rather than say directly what you are thinking or feeling, e.g. using negative facial expressions, different tone of voice or gestures. We all know the infamous eye-roll expressing disgust without saying a word!

6. They avoid difficult conversations

The passive-aggressive person’s way of dealing with a difficult conversation is to avoid contact – as in sending a boyfriend a WhatsApp to break up, or “forgetting” to return calls or emails. Avoiding confrontation works on the understanding that if you do it long enough, they might just give up on you and you don’t have to face that difficult or uncomfortable situation.

7. They expect people to read their mind

Although the passive-aggressive person thinks that their facial expressions or their silent treatment are conveying their message loud and clear, such non-verbal behaviours often only confuse other people and are lost on the recipients.

“Passive-aggressive behaviour is more than just misleading communication. It is a whole array of scenarios that negatively impact other peoples’ lives.”

8. They complain chronically, but indirectly 

Complaining is masked anger most of the time, and the passive-aggressive person uses this to chastise whoever they feel is the reason for their anger. It can also be directed at a third party, e.g. “She is a lovely person. I’m sure she’s not making my life difficult on purpose.” Also, instead of saying no clearly, they will use chronic complaining to get their point across that they are doing something under duress.

9. They don’t take responsibility for their own needs

They are seldom straightforward and honest, e.g. they won’t say “This does not work for me” when someone tells them to do something they don’t agree with. They will react passive-aggressively by saying “If this is the way you want me to do it, then I will do it that way.” They will not directly express that they don’t agree with you or don’t want to do what you ask them to but will do whatever is asked of them with a poor attitude and a sullen demeanour.

10. They are fake

The passive-aggressive person often pretends that they are concerned and say something like “I’m concerned about your health; you’ve put on a lot of weight lately,” but what they are actually saying is “You are fat.” And usually, this comment will be made at the most inopportune times, for instance just as you are putting a block of chocolate in your mouth!

11. They send mixed messages

Passive-aggressive communication is often inconsistent. These people don’t want to take responsibility for their actions, but they also don’t want their unhappiness overlooked. This often results in turning down solutions for a problem or help when offered in lieu of playing the victim.

12. They engage in malicious gossip

This menacing trait of passive-aggressive people allow them to avoid confronting the person they are gossiping about, yet they encourage others to join them. This could mean telling “amusing” stories about the other person with the intention to humiliate them or blatantly lie about them. It could also mean leaving out important information when gossiping to gain sympathy. This is what happened to Lisa, and advertising executive:

“Sarah told the people at work that I screamed at her for being five minutes late. Everyone sympathised with her. What she didn’t tell them was that she was 15 minutes late and because of her, I missed my flight and a vital opportunity to pitch to a high-end client in another city.”

How do you deal with a passive-aggressive person? 

Resolving issues with a passive-aggressive person is not easy, but the short answer to the question is the following:

  • Set limits with the passive-aggressive person.
  • Figure out and address the root of the problem.
  • Practise assertive communication.
  • Determine when to avoid the person completely.
  • Give the person little information that they can use against you.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is more than just misleading communication. It is a whole array of scenarios that negatively impact other peoples’ lives. If you practise passive-aggressive behaviour, you may have assumed passive-aggressive approaches to situations. This is especially true if you avoid facing difficult issues. If you realise you’ve fallen into passive-aggressive patterns, don’t lose hope. Habits can always be changed. Once you know where you’re going wrong you have the power to set yourself right. Get help, it’s never too late!

Also read:

10 ways bullying behaviour can be stopped if parents get more involved
Developing your child’s EQ is crucial for future success