How to spot the five major signs of passive-aggressive behaviour


We’ve all heard of the term ”passive-aggressive” at some stage of our lives or another but what exactly does passive aggressive mean?

Whether you have gotten subjected to passive aggression in the past or someone you know has been at the back end of this behaviour, passive-aggressive behaviour is unpleasant and often done implicitly. 

It can also be challenging to identify and even more difficult to abolish.


When young children, adolescents and even adults get subjected to negative behavioural patterns such as passive aggression – it can induce a series of unpleasant feelings and emotions.

Signs of passive-aggressive behaviour

Passive aggression may include (but is not limited to):

  • Showing indirect signs of hostility (such as giving back-handed compliments)
  • Deliberately avoiding eye contact with co-workers, friends and loved ones.
  • Demonstrating sullen behaviours (e.g. sulking or appearing moody)
  • Using the silent treatment as a way to make others feel uncomfortable
  • Poor communication (or not communicating at all)
  • Failure to complete the required tasks
  • Purposely showing up late to meetings or family events.

What are examples of passive-aggressive behaviour?

When a passive-aggressive person is around – it can be an incredibly uncomfortable experience for those around them.

Whether it is a co-worker, friend or family members, anyone can fall prey to the whims of the passive-aggressor. 

Although executed with subtlety, the hostility often produces unease and tension for the victims of this type of behaviour. Some examples of passive-aggressive behaviour include:

1. Back-handed compliments

When someone is directly aggressive, it is a lot easier to recognise. 

It also makes it easier for people to ”nip the behaviour in the butt” before things get worse. A passive-aggressive person doesn’t make space for resolve since their behaviour is implicit. All this makes resolution difficult, if not impossible.

Someone with this personality trait often gives people back-handed compliments only to come full circle with a hurtful jibe or remark.

Hurtful remarks

For instance, a manager compliments a co-worker for a job well done by praising her subordinate for delivering an excellent presentation.

Although the manager seems supportive and proud of her colleague’s performance – she finishes the conversation by saying that Wendy (another co-worker) did a much better job last week and suggested that she might benefit from shadowing Wendy at the next meeting.

The above example illustrates how individuals with passive-aggressive tendencies behave and how hurtful and confusing their actions are.

2. Being sulky or sullen

The conditions that passive aggression creates are often fueled by tension, mainly when this behaviour occurs between an employee, family member, mother and child and loved one.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is often an indirect way for a person to communicate their emotions, usually hurt, anger and resentment. A person demonstrating passive-aggressive tendencies may appear:

  • Sulky and quiet
  • Grumpy and gloomy
  • Sour and moody

People exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviour will often reply to an innocent comment sarcastically (and that’s if they choose to respond at all!).

A sulky or sullen person won’t smile or engage through eye contact – they will often remain silent and not say a word even when the people around them might be sharing jokes and laughter.

All this makes being around the passive-aggressive individual challenging to manage and often promotes feelings of sadness without co-workers, family members and friends understanding the exact cause of such an emotion.

3. Behaving stubbornly

Similar to sulkiness, passive aggression can also involve rigid stubbornness.

A passive-aggressive person finds it difficult to talk through their issues directly. A typical behavioural pattern in this group of people is often to punish people through stubborn behaviour.

At times, adopting this kind of stance with others can be useful, particularly when standing our ground or defending ourselves.

But with the passive aggressor, the plan is very different – something that could get rectified through direct communication all of a sudden becomes an insurmountable problem simply because the person refused to talk through their emotions calmly and maturely.

All this can have a severe impact on a person’s life, relationships and sense of self.

4. Tardiness

We are all guilty of being late sometimes, whether for a work meeting, appointment, other business interest or even just a coffee with a friend.

All this is part of the human condition. However, passive-aggressive behaviour shows up when a person is consistently late for important events such as meetings, dates and other life events.

One might show up persistently late to work meetings knowing full well that the rest of the team are getting held up because of the lateness.

Another example of passive aggression is a person who doesn’t want to be involved in a work project for whatever reason. They might display boredom, disinterest, or arrive late to meetings that include discussions about the project.

In the above example, someone hasn’t directly communicated their concerns to co-workers, but their behaviour speaks volumes!

5. Failing to complete essential tasks

When young children and adolescents misbehave and refuse to do what their mother or father tells them to do, it gets expected.

The terrible twos or another life phase for a child or young adult often comes with disobedience and rebellion. All these personality traits get expected as a child grows and develops.

However, this type of passive-aggressive behaviour in adults can be a lot harder to detect and manage.

It might be that someone at the office continually palms their work off onto other people by refusing to accept their share of the workload and instead expects their co-workers to do all the work for them.

There may be genuine reasons for all this – perhaps the person is already overworked. 

Other life stressors might also be involved, but often – passive-aggressive individuals tend to shift the responsibility onto others and either leave a project half done or do not complete it at all!

All this could be down to other personality traits or problems such as procrastination or burnout. 

However, if the behaviour is consistent, it often gets attributed to a person displaying passive-aggressive tendencies.

How do you respond to a passive-aggressive person?

There are some explanations of why people use passive-aggressive tactics to express their emotions, and social media websites are awash with information and content on the subject.

Personality disorder

Researchers and therapists have found correlations between passive-aggressive behaviour and certain personality disorders.

DSM – 5

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a passive-aggressive personality disorder is an unspecified disorder along with:

  • Haltose
  • Depressive
  • Self-defeating
  • Psychopathic
  • Sadistic personality disorders

The DSM – 5 identified passive-aggressive personality disorder as a:

”pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to the demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

According to health information, people who exhibit passive-aggressive behaviour may avoid confrontation, pout, procrastinate and demonstrate sarcasm.

Each of us has unique ways of expressing ourselves and how we relate to the world and each other. A passive-aggressive personality test may used to determine some distinguishing features.

Our body language, words and mannerisms often tell the world who we are and the fact that there are so many variables to consider such as genetics, history, and individual personality traits only add to the confusion.

Dealing with the behaviour

Experts suggest that the best way to manage a passive-aggressive person is to exercise caution and care.

It may not be useful to tell someone that they are passive-aggressive as, very often, this will only exacerbate the passive-aggressive behaviour.

Some therapists have suggested that the most effective way of dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour is to ignore it by pretending that you don’t notice it.

If a person appears unaffected, the passive-aggressive will likely discontinue their behaviour as they eventually realize that there is nothing to be gained.

This tactic is referred to as ”grey rocking” and is often recommended by therapists when dealing with narcissists.

Essentially, when victims do not react or respond to bad behaviour and act as dull as a grey rock, the manipulator becomes bored by the lack of drama and eventually moves on.

If ignoring passive-aggressive behaviour is impossible, it may be a good idea to create some space between yourself and the passive-aggressive.

All this may involve asking to move desks at work and generally doing your best to interact as minimally as possible with the person displaying passive-aggressive behaviour.

Getting help

No one deserves to feel bogged down by others’ actions since passive-aggressive behaviours can lead to issues in relationships, a breakdown in communication and feelings of anxiety and depression, particularly for young children and adolescents.

For the passive-aggressive themselves, passive-aggressive behaviour can be detrimental to their physical and mental well being.

Those who feel they may be experiencing passive aggression symptoms or those who feel exposed to passive-aggressive behaviour may benefit by discussing their feelings with a therapist.

Mental health service

According to data, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) effectively treats personality disorders (such as passive-aggressive behaviour).

A CBT therapist’s objective is to help clients work through any maladaptive thoughts, emotions and behaviours by learning healthy coping mechanisms and becoming a better version of themselves.

All this gives individuals the space to process their internal worlds by channelling what they have learned in therapy and putting it into practice.

Getting in touch

If you feel as though you or someone you know may be exhibiting signs of passive-aggressive behaviour, then perhaps it’s time to get in touch with one of our trained therapists who can help you.

If you’d like to learn more about similar topics, you can read our blog How to Spot The Signs of a Covert Narcissist.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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