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The Tell-Tale Signs of Passive-Aggressive Communication

We all get angry or upset from time to time, but various people express that anger in different ways. One of these anger styles, as psychologists call them, is passive aggression. People who express their anger indirectly or say one thing but do another fall within this anger style. 

Even if you’ve never expressed your anger in this way, you’ve surely encountered it. A friend that doesn’t return your calls for days or a neighbor giving you backhanded compliments every time they see you in the yard all belong within passive-aggressive communication.

Passive-Aggressive Communication upset woman
That being said, pinpointing passive-aggressive behavior can be difficult, especially if you don’t know the “suspect” very well. Luckily, we have experts in psychology and communication to guide us through the red flags of passive aggression. Read on to learn how to spot this kind of behavior and respond appropriately.

Sign 1. You’re getting brief replies

Small talk doesn’t have to be one-sided. Imagine a scenario where you keep asking open questions, but a person just answers with a brief “yes,” “no,” or “fine.” If someone is giving you the cold shoulder, even though they’re usually friendly and outgoing, this could be a sign of passive aggression.
Passive-Aggressive Communication couple fight

In cases like these, paying attention to the context around the conversation will help you understand whether or not you’re dealing with passive aggression. Some people always answer briefly, and others may just be busy on that specific day. However, if you notice that the person is pleasant and outgoing to everyone but you, you’re likely dealing with passive aggression.

Respond appropriately:

  • Stay cool - Showing emotion is just what they want you to do, as this will let them launch an attack. Instead, stay focused on your goal. Alternatively, you can calmly exit a conversation when that is possible.
  • Laugh it off - Humor is a great way to get the other person to open up to you when they’re upset. Just don’t joke about the person specifically, as this may make matters worse.
  • Tiptoe your way into addressing the issue - If it’s a good time to have a level-headed conversation, try and express genuine interest and understanding of the situation. The key is to be as non-confrontational as possible.

Related article: 10 Great Tactics to Improve Communication


Sign 2. It takes them ages to respond

Passive-Aggressive Communication surprised woman in front of a laptop

Are your messages ignored or delayed beyond a reasonable timeline? When someone is giving you the silent treatment, this is a possible indicator of passive aggression. 

To many, this type of behavior may appear childish or immature, but it actually has a very specific goal - to make you nervous. When waiting for them to respond and go through all the possible scenarios of why we get no answer, we experience a phenomenon psychologists call timing anxiety; which is exactly what the passive-aggressive person is trying to accomplish.

Respond appropriately:

  • Avoid making early conclusions - Some people are slower at responding to emails than others, and all kinds of life situations may preclude the person from answering you. If a timely response is not crucial, let it go.
  • Send reminders - If you know for a fact that the person in question has a lot on their plate, or they tend to genuinely forget to reply, send them a polite reminder.
  • Try to contact them differently - Sending a barrage of emails may be ineffective and impolite. After one or two reminders, it’s prudent to seek another mode of communication, such as calling the person or even dropping by for a visit if you’re close to the person in question.

Sign 3. They seem cold, standoffish, or talk too formally with you

Passive-Aggressive Communication upset women

There are a number of tactics a person can use to leave you with that cold and withdrawn impression. One of the ways this happens is through a sudden shift in register - which is a change in language depending on the social situation. So, if a person is usually talking to you as a friend, but then switches to a more formal tone, this may be a red flag. A good example of this is when a parent suddenly refers to “Little Jonny” as “Jonathan” when the kid is in trouble.

Respond appropriately:

  • Ask for clarifications - avoid jumping to a conclusion, especially if the problematic communication is in written form. Reach out, inquiring about the situation without being apologetic or critical.

Other signs of passive-aggressive communication

Passive-Aggressive Communication boy upset on birthday

Apart from the 3 key signs discussed in detail above, passive aggression can show itself through one of the following behaviors:

  • Sarcasm or hiding hostility behind the joke
  • Cynicism
  • Backhanded compliments - nice words tainted by judgment
  • Scorekeeping
  • Hostile body language, such as keeping a distance or avoiding eye contact
  • Social exclusion - everyone else but you is treated nicely
  • Complaints about being cheated and not appreciated
  • Making up excuses
  • At work - “resistance to cooperation, procrastination, and intentional mistakes in response to others' demands” according to the Mayo Clinic.

And remember, a person who exhibits passive-aggressive behavior may not be fully aware of its malicious intent, it may just be the only way they know to express their anger or resentment. Patience and level-headedness are your best tools for dealing with a person who exhibits these tendencies. But if it’s you or your loved one who is dealing with this issue, prominent organizations like Harvard Health and Mayo Clinic recommend seeking counseling.

H/T: Mayo Clinic, Cornerstone Family Services

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