What Does “Passive-aggressive” Really Mean?

“My friend is so passive-aggressive!”


You probably have said or heard this phrase, but do you know the real passive-aggressive meaning? Passive-aggressive behavior is common in daily life, but it is different from a passive-aggressive personality disorder. Colonel William Menninger, the founder of The Menninger Foundation, coined this term during World War II to describe soldiers who expressed defiance in indirect ways.


So, what’s the deal with this behavior? Is there any way to recognize its pattern? What can you do if you are faced with such individuals?


Definition of Passive-aggressive Behavior

Oxford English Dictionary describes passive-aggressive behavior as an act of indirect resistance, mixed with avoidance to deflect confrontation. However, in common cases, people also this behavior to deliberately invite negative reactions from others, such as frustration and anger. Some people also use this behavior to express hidden anger.


Passive-aggressive behavior is different from a passive-aggressive personality disorder. DSM-5 defines the latter as a continuous passive resistance and negative behavior, launched as demand for changes in certain environments. In this definition, passive-aggressive behavior is just one symptom, because the person with this disorder also displays stubbornness, pettiness, crankiness, testiness, and other negative traits.


Signs of Passive-aggressive Behaviors

Different people have unique ways to express passive aggressiveness. However, there are several common signs of passive-aggressive behaviors, such as:


  • Sour, sullen behaviors

Being sullen, grumpy, cranky, or sour may sound specific, but passive-aggressive people can do it in a subtle way. For example, if you ask a perfectly normal question, he or she may answer in grumpy or sour tones. The person may also complain softly but continuously, making everyone uncomfortable.


  • Rejection or failure in finishing tasks

Passive-aggressive behaviors may show in refusal to finish assigned tasks. Long procrastination may also be a sign of passive aggressiveness.


  • Silent treatment

The silent treatment is a popular passive-aggressive tactic. The person may refuse to talk to you all day (despite being close in daily life), not answer direct questions, or fail to acknowledge your presence in such an obvious way.


  • Being stubborn (without reason)

Stubbornness can be important in defending a right idea. However, stubbornness is also a popular tactic of passive-aggressive people. They display stubborn behaviors not because they have worthy ideas to defend, but because they want to see others frustrated and upset.


  • Subtle mockery

Mockery or insult is often used in a direct confrontation. Passive-aggressive people know how to use it subtly. For example, when someone praises your work and then says that it is as good as intern’s, it can be read as a subtle mockery. It implies that your work is only on the level of beginners, despite your experiences.


When these behaviors frequently appear on someone and become his or her common reaction to many things, safe to say that the person is passive aggressive.


Detecting Passive Aggressiveness through Phrases

How to detect a passive-aggressive person? You can notice it from the way they talk. Several common phrases a passive-aggressive person may use include:


  • “Can’t you take a joke?”

This phrase is often used after an insulting or aggressive remark. The perpetrator uses the remark to hurt others, but when other people get angry, he/she uses this phrase to imply that the others are to blame.


  • “I’m not mad”

This phrase is so popular in passive-aggressive confrontation, it became a cliché. This classic phrase usually reflects hidden anger.


  • “Fine/whatever”

“Fine” or “whatever” is a dismissive word, used to stop others from expressing their displeasure. A passive-aggressive person often says this word with a dismissive tone, rolled eyes, and other unpleasant traits.


  • “Don’t worry, you will… (mention something better)”

This phrase sounds like praise or assurance, but actually a thinly veiled insult. For example, if you prefer to be single, a passive-aggressive person may say something like, “Don’t worry, you will find someone when the time comes.” If you are overweight, such person may say, “Don’t worry, there are men who like fat women.”


Remember, sometimes, the meaning behind these phrases depends on situations. You must also pay attention to verbal cues, such as expression, tone, daily interaction, or emphasis in the sentences.


Tips to Face Passive-aggressive Person

What is the best way to face a passive-aggressive person?


Ignoring his or her attempt is the best way to deflate a passive-aggressive individual. Passive-aggressive behavior is aimed to draw responses. Reacting will bring you straight to his or her trap. Focus on doing other important things, or communicate with more supportive and professional friends.


If the passive-aggressiveness affects you in certain ways, the best strategy is to ignore the person and surround yourself with better social/professional support. If the person breaches the limit, contact authority figure such as HR manager, lecturer/teacher, or boss. Describe your annoyance and how it may affect you professionally and personally.



Passive-aggressive behavior is something many people have even without the psychological disorder. While it can affect your daily life (especially if you must interact with such a person often), there are strategies to face such a person. Understanding passive-aggressive meaning and signs help you avoiding the toxic person and living the best life.

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