A Scientific Guide To Handling Passive-Aggressive People

Dealing with people who exhibit passive-aggressive behaviour is easily one of the most challenging aspects of our professional and social lives. Here’s what you need to know about this annoying personality quirk and how you can handle people who express their hostility in indirect and backhanded ways.

Passive aggressive picture from Shutterstock

Interacting with passive-aggressive (PA) people is something many of us are all too familiar with. As a behaviour, it manifests in many different ways — some of them quite backhanded and subtle — which can make it difficult to recognise.

Simply put, passive-aggressiveness is a way of expressing hostility, albeit through typically muted, seemingly apathetic, and indirect channels of negative behaviour. It can involve everything from the passive resistance of everyday social and work-related tasks (e.g. procrastination, learned helplessness, deliberate inefficiency, and forgetfulness) through to stubbornness, resentment, and contradictory behaviour (e.g. appearing to be enthusiastic about something, but purposefully acting in a way that’s unhelpful and sometimes damaging).

Though not recognised as a formal personality disorder by most countries, PA is something we all have to deal with — both as something that happens to us, and as something we do to others. While it’s crucial to avoid the pathologization of every single behaviour that makes us feel bad, threatened, or irritated, it’s important that we still be able to recognise PA behaviour when it happens, and understand the most effective ways to deal with it.

But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the rather surprising history of this thing we call passive-aggressive behaviour.

‘Willful Incompetence’

Passive-aggressive behaviour was first documented during the Second World War when it was used to describe soldiers who refused to comply with their officers’ demands. A 1945 U.S. War Department memo complained about soldiers who were shirking duty through willful incompetence. These soldiers weren’t being openly defiant, noted the memo, but they were expressing their aggressiveness “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.” The War Department construed their behaviour as an “immaturity” and a reaction to “routine military stress.”

Over the course of the following decade, this terminology took hold in the military medical literature — and was then passed on to the American psychology community at large. Instead of being concerned about soldiers’ disobedience, the APA applied the concept to conflicts at work and home. Psychologists began to construe struggles in the workplace or family as aggressiveness meted out “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstruction.”

The effect of this was more sinister than it might appear on first glance. The APA was turning fairly common behaviours into actual disorders of personality; “reactions” to many conflicts were defined as symptoms of “personality,” which were in turn assessed as being pathologic.
For nearly four decades, “passive-aggressive personality disorder” (PAPD) was considered a formal DSM pathology.

It was finally dropped from the DSM-IV in 1994. After much debate, it was agreed that, as a personality disorder, it was too narrow, situational, and behavioural to warrant a full-blown diagnosis. What’s more, the APA didn’t think there was enough scientific evidence to back it as a distinct disorder and that it significantly overlapped with other disorders.

Instead, the disorder was diluted, renamed Negativistic Personality Disorder (NEGPD), and appendicized in the DSM for future consideration and study. Symptoms continued to include passive resistance to routine social or work tasks, complaints of being misunderstood, a disdain for authority, envy, and resentment. But under the new name, it could also include negative moods and other non-specific personality issues.

Recognising Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

There’s no denying that passive-aggressive behaviour exists and that it poses a challenge for many of us in our daily lives. Though expressed in different ways, it typically involves non-verbal aggression that manifests as negative behaviour. Examples include answering “yes” or “no” to an either/or question, deliberately “forgetting” to send an email attachment, or avoiding communication when there’s clearly something important or problematic to be discussed and resolved (storming off or leaving notes are prime examples).


An article from the New York Times offers some other real-world examples:

A 45-year-old college instructor in Hawaii recently broke off a long relationship with a man she said was a “wonderful, devoted listener, an extremely sensitive person.”
But in time, she said, it was apparent that he was also passive-aggressive. On one occasion, she said, he gave away her seat on an aeroplane while she was finding a storage compartment for her luggage, saying he thought she had taken another seat. On others, he would arrive home early from work and finish off meals they normally shared, without explanation. And when he was in one of his moods, the listening ceased; she may as well not have been in the room.

As noted in the NYT post, one of the most challenging things about living/coping with a passive-aggressive person is that one struggles to understand what they did wrong.

According to Out Of the FOG, a website for family members of people with personality disorders, PA behaviour looks like this:

Withdrawal – of material support, contribution to shared goals, Re-prioritising alternate activities and goals, “go-slow’s”, procrastination or targeted incompetence.
Silent Treatment – inappropriate “one-word” answers, inattention, making yourself generally “unavailable”.
Off-line Criticism – propagating gossip or criticism to a third party in an attempt to negatively influence the third party’s opinion of a person.
Sarcasm, Critical and “Off-Colour” Jokes – Humour which targets a specific individual is a form of Passive-Aggressive communication.
Indirect Violence – shows-of-strength such as destruction of property, slamming doors, cruelty to animals in the sight of another is passive-aggressive.

The APA says PA can be detected by four (or more) of the following behavioural traits:

  • The passive resistance of fulfilling routine social and work tasks
  • Constant complaints about being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
  • Sullen and argumentative moods
  • Frequent and unreasonable criticisms of authority
  • The expression of envy and resentment towards those apparently more fortunate
  • Exaggerated and persistent complaints about personal misfortune
  • Toggling between hostile defiance and contrition

As an aside, passive-aggressive personalities often bear resemblance to pathological narcissism, including the expression of such traits as an exaggerated sense of self worth, lack of impulse control, an inability to empathise, and a sense of entitlement.

Causes and Risk Factors

The precise causes of passive-aggressive behaviour are not known, but it’s likely on account of both environmental and social factors.

In a 2001 study, the heritability of passive-aggressiveness was estimated at 50% in school-age twins (a highly contentious conclusion, to be sure). It has also been associated with a number of social/environmental factors, including ineffective parenting behaviour, child abuse, harsh and apathetic parenting, and neglect.

Perhaps counterintuitively, PA behaviour also occurs in people who have grown up in loving but demanding families. Benedict Carey from the New York Times explains:

First-born children are prime candidates, [says Dr. Lorna Benjamin, co-director of a clinic at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake City]. [W]hen younger siblings are born, the oldest may suddenly be expected to take on far more extra work than he or she can handle, and over time begin to resent parents’ demands without daring to defy them.
This hostile cooperation is at the core of passive-aggression, she and other researchers say, and in later in life it is habitually directed at any authority figure, whether a boss, a teacher or a spouse making demands. These passive-aggressive people, Dr. Benjamin said, “are full of unacknowledged contradiction, of angry kindness, compliant defiance, covert assertiveness.”

In terms of risk factors, PAPD has been associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

As noted, it also shares characteristics with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). This is interesting because NPD has been linked to fear and decision making processes. Both conditions (such as they are) are characterised by avoidance. In the case of NPD, it’s the fear of dark and negative self-experiences; in the case of PA, it’s the avoidance of direct confrontation and the preference for passive, hostile acts.

Neurologically, there may be something going on in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls processes like the detection of emotionally arousing and relevant stimuli. There may also be a connection to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for control and our ability to act in socially appropriate ways. Biological alterations or damage could contribute to any number of socially problematic behavioural patterns.

Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People

In order to deal with passive-aggressive people, it’s important to know why they’re acting that way.

Here are seven reasons why people use PA behaviour, according to Signe Whitson:

  1. Anger is socially unacceptable
  2. Sugarcoated hostility is socially acceptable
  3. Passive aggression is easier than assertiveness, and a sign of immaturity
  4. Passive aggression is easily rationalized
  5. Revenge is sweet: “Because it can be difficult to ‘catch in the act’ and often impossible to discipline according to standard HR protocols, passive aggressive behaviour often exists as the perfect office crime.”
  6. PA behaviour is convenient, allows one to avoid an actual fight
  7. PA behaviour can be powerful, allowing the perpetrator to channel their own anger and frustrations through the reactions of their target

Living, working, and interacting with passive-aggressive people is not fun. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to intervene.

First, it’s critical that you identify passive-aggressive behaviour when it happens. This isn’t always easy by virtue of the act itself, which is meant to be indirect. Things to look for include people who avoid an argument, fight, or conflict at all costs, being put into “never win” scenarios, constantly having to please a person by telling them what they want to hear, and listening to incessants complaints that “no one wants to know how I feel” or “understand how I feel.”

Second, you need to look at your own behaviour and how you’ve been dealing with the passive-aggressive behaviour directed towards you. Specifically, it’s important to evaluate whether you’ve contributed to the conflict and determine if your actions have worked to either escalate or de-escalate the confrontation. (At the same time — and this is not easy — it’s important that you not feel responsible for another person’s PA words or actions.)

The College of Education + Human Development says that:

One good reflection of what works and does not work are your feelings after a conflict. If you end up feeling helpless, powerless, angry, and confused, your methods have not worked and you should change them. If you end up feeling calm, the [PA person] has regained composure and you believe that they may have learned something to help improve behaviour, your methods are an effective way of dealing with [them]. In short, drop what is not working and identify methods which are working.

Other tips: Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated, stay emotionally calm, and don’t respond with your own set of passive-aggressive tactics. Also, do something healthy and productive for yourself.

Another way to deal with passive-aggressive people is to disarm them with honesty and focus the conversation on the real issue. Writing in her blog, Trulia, Mallory Carra says we should open up communication immediately rather than storming off or engaging in reciprocal passive-aggressive behaviours. She quotes marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar who says:

Generally, the feeling that you feel from the individual that is acting out passive-aggressive can give you some information on what they are trying to communicate; however, the goal is to not trouble yourself with reading into the implied message. The idea is to communicate in an assertive way. Be matter of fact, avoid gossip, cold shoulders, huffing and puffing.

Indeed, sometimes it’s best to initiate the conversation and tell the other person that they can always speak directly to you if they have an issue. The practice of leaving notes or hinting at things in an obfuscating or abstract way doesn’t really help the situation.

It’s also important to realise that you probably won’t be able to change the person. What you can do, however, is establish the normative parameters as it relates to your interactions with them. Your PA friends, co-workers, and family members may eventually learn that the best way to engage with you and address contentious issues is to avoid passive-aggressive behaviours in favour of more direct methods. But this will only be possible over time and with great patience and consistency on your part. That said, it’s important to model constructive behaviour, hand out heaps of positive reinforcement, and cooperate and negotiate in ways that’s fair to both of you.

Additional reporting by Levi Gadye.

Sources: NYT (2) [APA: DSM5 [C. J. Hopwood et al.: “The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder” 2009 [CEHD [C. Lane: “The Surprising History of Passive-Aggressive Disorder” 2009 [Out of the FOG]

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