Contrary to popular belief, aggression isn’t only direct. Just because someone doesn’t shout doesn’t mean they’re not aggressive.
Because the point of aggression is to act hostile, express anger or annoyance, and potentially hurt someone’s feelings. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you mutter or scream an insult – it’s still an insult.
Passive aggression, therefore, is all about the little indirect gestures that sour the atmosphere and wreak the relationship dynamic in the long term.
And how do you spot a passive-aggressive person in your life, I hear you ask?
1) Watch out for verbal hints
Naturally, the most obvious way to recognize passive aggression is to pay attention to other people’s language.
Since passive-aggressive people prefer to dance around the issue instead of directly addressing it, they often resort to sarcasm or subtle ambiguous hints.
“Did you read a whole theatre play in there?” they ask if you spent too long having a shower.
“The dishes won’t wash themselves, you know,” they roll their eyes if you still haven’t gotten around to tidying the kitchen.
“You’re always so considerate,” they mutter after you’ve arrived five minutes late to the date.
Such remarks can, quite unsurprisingly, sour the mood and make the situation even worse because there’s an undertone of contempt and judgment to them.
And if there’s something that can totally ruin relationships, it’s got to be contempt and judgment. It implies a loss of respect, which in turn destabilizes the whole dynamic.
2) Decode their “jokes”
On a similar note, passive-aggressive people thrive on humor – and not in a good way.
A joke is one of the easiest ways to point out an issue without highlighting that it is, in fact, an issue. After all, there’s always some truth to jokes, however small or well-hidden, and passive-aggressive jokes are an excellent example of that.
“This report sounds like you were drunk when you wrote it. Haha!”
“Oh, you’re saying you’ve been eating a lot more lately? I wouldn’t be able to tell! Ha!” (This one actually happened to me. It wasn’t great.)
As you can see, these are only half-jokes. At their core, they’re insults or expressions of annoyance that are thinly veiled in humor.
3) Look beyond their backhanded compliments
People who are passive-aggressive have this magical ability to give compliments that aren’t compliments at all.
“I’ve seen you took out the trash yesterday. I count that as the most pleasant surprise of the week!”
While it is good you took out the trash, they’re also saying you almost never take out the trash and should do it more often.
“I like how this skirt suits your body shape. I think I’m too skinny for stuff like this.”
While the skirt does suit your body shape – that part is a compliment – they’re also actively bringing you down as part of the same sentence.
The point of compliments is to make someone feel better about themselves.
When passive aggression is thrown into the mix, though, compliments can transform into weapons that lift you up and put you down at the same time or into expressions of deep-seated anger that’s been bottled down for way too long.
4) Recognize the silent treatment
There are all kinds of silences. There are comfortable silences. There are awkward silences. There are silences after arguments and silences before something exciting happens.
And then there is passive-aggressive silence, aka, the silent treatment.
Lots of moms are huge fans of this one. When something upsets them, the whole family walks on eggshells for days on end while Mom barely speaks, pouts, radiates tension, and gives everyone the cold shoulder.
The worst part is, this behavior solves nothing. Most of the time, the person who sulks just slowly stops sulking and returns to normal without ever addressing the issue that caused the whole thing in the first place.
And then the cycle begins again.
5) Listen for the banging noises
Of course, the whole pouting scenario wouldn’t be complete without angry banging noises in the kitchen.
I once had a flatmate who got upset the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned the night prior, but instead of talking to us about it straight away, she spent the morning angrily baking cookies.
We were all too terrified to walk into the kitchen because it sounded like she was taking her anger out on the bowls and pans.
Once the cookies were ready to eat, she brought them into the living room, banged the plate on the table in front of us, and left without a word.
One of my totally clueless flatmates ate his cookie with a smile and said, “Yummy, thank you!”
That’s another drawback of passive aggression – those who aren’t in tune with the emotional atmosphere around them just won’t take a hint. They’ll probably think you were so happy to bake you couldn’t handle your excitement, hence all the banging.
The cookies were good, though. Just in case you were wondering.
6) Ask them what’s wrong and see if it’s “nothing”
Ah, the famous “nothing”.
When I was about sixteen, I, too, loved to brace myself with “nothing”. Every time there was an issue in my relationship, the conversation with my ex went something like this:
“I can see something’s wrong. Tell me what it is.”
“Please, tell me what’s wrong.”
If I just said I needed some time to process my feelings, I’d save us a lot of trouble, that’s for sure.
“Nothing” means many things, but it almost never means “nothing”. It’s a passive-aggressive way of saying, “I don’t want to talk about it right now. I need some space. I want to sort through my thoughts.”
Funnily enough, it’d be much easier to say all those things than to stubbornly rely on “nothing”.
7) Acknowledge whether they’re keeping score
After four weeks of dating, a guy once listed all the things he’d already done for me and went on to say, “In the meanwhile, you just bought me one muffin.”
In reality, it wasn’t about the muffin.
It was about his insecurities, doubts, and worries. He was afraid I didn’t return his feelings with equal magnitude.
That’s what keeping score is. It’s when you feel terrified that someone doesn’t love you as much as you love them, and so you disregard all the ways in which they do show love because it doesn’t fit your narrative.
And of course, it’s passive-aggressive because it serves to attack the other person in ways that only graze the surface of the real issue underneath.
8) Ask yourself if you’re walking on eggshells around them
Lastly, ask yourself how you feel when you’re around this person. After all, it’s not just the external signs that tell you who it is you’re dealing with, but your own inner voice.
Do they make you feel tense? Uncomfortable? Do you often find yourself wondering if there’s conflict just around the corner and then trying your best to prevent it?
Are there things you wish you could tell this person but are worried they’d react negatively?
Combined with all the points above, the fact that you’re nodding along to these questions is a huge sign you are, in fact, dealing with a passive-aggressive person in your life.
The next step is a scary but necessary one.
Talk to them about it. See what happens. If their reaction isn’t great, the situation hasn’t changed much. But if they take well to your feedback, there is a high chance you’ve just improved the relationship and helped them gain more self-awareness.
The decision is up to you.