Passive Aggressive

Some people define passive aggression by traits, but it is too easy to misattribute traits to malice and make enemies whose hatred towards one another becomes self-fulfilling. In general, we want to avoid ascribing bad intention to others because it only harms our relationships. It might be tempting to return the passive aggression, but making someone taste their own poison also makes us hypocrites.

When reading between the lines, it is easy to misunderstand the root of the issue. I’m using 12 Passive-Aggressive Phrases That Can Destroy Your Business to illustrate this. While they are using these examples as DON’Ts, I’m using them in the context of “what if someone says that to me.”

  • “Fine.” but everything is not fine. This is certainly not an aggression, more like a defense because of the lack of trust (“I can handle this”). If you are in a position to intervene, try to ask for specifics. Or “fine” if you asked them to do something but they’re not happy about it. It could be a problem if they don’t deliver, so this could require follow up.

  • “No worries.” in response to an apology or an excuse. It’s not an aggression in itself, but the passive forgiveness may feel that the forgiveness is non-committal. The speaker might assume you know exactly what is the right thing to do, but if that’s not the case, it’s a good idea to ask for clarification. However, if the forgiveness is non-committal, some people may still resort to retaliation. This is why we sometimes perceive non-committal forgiveness as passive aggression even if the retaliation never occurred.

  • “If you really want to.” It is definitely passive negotiation where someone tries to get you to do something for them, but calling it aggression depends on whether non-compliance would result in retaliation. It may be useful to ask “is something at stake” or “is there an alternative?”

  • “Thanks in advance.” is another passive negotiation. Again, it depends on whether non-compliance would result in retaliation.

  • “I was surprised/confused/curious about …” followed by a criticism. Criticism isn’t an aggression especially if that person has a point, so pay attention to what they have to say.

  • “I’m not mad.” when a person is mad, most likely because someone told them to calm down. Telling someone to calm down is fighting aggression with aggression, so that’s not going to work. Instead, suggest “let’s take some time to think about this more, and we can resume the discussion later.”

  • “Whatever.” means they have decided to go silent because they are in distress. If something is at stake, try to create emotional safety, then ask them to share what they saw/heard, what it means to them, and how they feel. See Crucial Conversations for an in-depth treatment how to approach this.

  • “So …” if the other person is expecting a response and they are sick of waiting, it’s probably a good idea to respond sooner than later. “So …” if the other person is making an uncomfortable suggestion, try to have some empathy.

  • “Just wondering …” followed by a request is another example of passive negotiation, which depends on whether non-compliance results in retaliation.

  • “I was only joking.” But if the joke is offensive, bring that to their attention.

  • “Hope it’s worth it.” when used to express displeasure at something you’ve done or are about to do. “I appreciate your concern” is a valid response.

  • “Your thoughts?” when trying to get someone to admit their mistake. If a mistake has indeed happened, try giving a blameless postmortem instead.

The “passive” clearly means the lack of communication, so asking for clarification is a good start. On the other hand, aggression is more in the eyes of the beholder. In many of these cases, the perceived aggression is caused by the perceived risk of getting a retaliation. These can be valid warning signs, but that just means we have to pay closer attention. When something is at stake, the close attention is probably warranted.

In the unfortunate circumstance where they have caused material harm, it is important to respect passive aggressive people and the choices they have made. It is not fruitful to fight them. Instead, relationships are built on trust, and trust is accumulated by having mutually satisfying experiences over time, so surround yourself with positive people.