Perfect the Art of Passive-Aggressive Texting

Perfect the Art of Passive-Aggressive Texting
Photo: Yuriy Golub, Shutterstock

One day, a few years ago, I mentioned to my mother-in-law that she always seemed annoyed in text messages. “What? Why?” she asked, clearly surprised.

“I don’t know,” I said. “All the periods, I think. Like, when I asked if 3 p.m. was a good time for us to come over today and you were like, ‘That’s fine.’ You might mean, ‘Sure, that works for me!’ but I read it like, ‘Ugh, great, they’re coming at 3.’”

My sister-in-law then helpfully chimed in to back me up: “Yeah, you need more emojis, too.”

Thankfully I can report that today, my mum-in-law is a very cheerful texter with lots of exclamation points, laughing-crying faces, and heart-eye emojis sprinkled throughout her messages. She wasn’t trying to convey any hidden, passive-aggressive message about her disdain for me (we quite like each other!).

But maybe you don’t want to take less of a passive-aggressive tone in your texts, though; maybe there are times when you actually want to convey such a message. If so, there are some techniques you can use to make the person on the other end of your text question whether you’re annoyed with them.

Why would you want to do such a thing? There are a myriad of reasons to be so frustrated with someone that you’d resort to passive-aggressive texting. Perhaps they’re late to pick you up, yet again. Or perhaps they were passive-aggressive with you first. (You can always one-up a “Sure.” with a “K.”) If you find yourself in such a position, follow these rules to strike just the right “I think they’re mad at me but I can’t totally tell” tone.

Use lots of periods

If you were to peek into Lifehacker’s slack, do you know what you’d see? Mostly memes, tweets we enjoy, and work-related conversations riddled with exclamation points, that’s what. Consider the conclusion to this recent conversation I had with our editor-in-chief and managing editor about whether we had rights to use certain images in a couple of posts (none of us were sure on the answer):

Screenshot: Meghan Moravcik Walbert Screenshot: Meghan Moravcik Walbert

Please note the heavy exclamation point to period ratio. Exclamation points convey friendliness in text messages! Periods convey seriousness. Why? NPR explains:

Binghamton University psychology professor Celia Klin says a period can inadvertently set a tone, because while text messaging may function like speech, it lacks many of the expressive features of face-to-face verbal communication, like “facial expressions, tone of voice, our ability to elongate words, to say some things louder, to pause.”

Our language has evolved, and “what we have done with our incredible linguistic genius is found ways to insert that kind of emotional, interpersonal information into texting using what we have,” said Klin. “And what we have is things like periods, emoticons, other kinds of punctuation. So people have repurposed the period to mean something else.”

And that something else is passive-aggression.

In particular, combining typically positive words (sure, fine, ok) with a serious period can create confusion over whether or not the texter is simply being formal or whether they’re actually pissed off at you.

Keep messages short (but not sweet)

One-word responses are best if you’re trying to give someone a passive-aggressive elbow jab. With one-word responses, you almost don’t even need the period (but use it anyway for extra effect). It leaves the recipient feeling like something is going left unsaid. Consider these two examples:

Scenario 1

Person #1: Hey! Is it cool if I stop by today to drop off these cookies I baked for you?

Person #2: Sure.

Scenario 2

Person #1: Hey! Is it cool if I stop by today to drop off these cookies I baked for you?

Person #2: Sure, that would be great.

Scenario two is like, “OK this person seems happy I’m bringing them cookies, they’re just a little formal in text.” Scenario one is like, “Holy shit, they hate my cookies!”

Use absolutely zero emojis

Emojis have no place in passive-aggressive text messages. Emojis are there to help us convey the emotions that our words and punctuation sometimes fall short of conveying. Scenario one above, for example, would have felt a whole lot different if person number two had added the “yum” emoji after it to indicate they were looking forward to some good treats. Emojis soften our words and help take the mystery out of how we’re feeling, and we’re looking for harder, more mysterious responses right now.

There is one exception: A single thumbs up. It doesn’t get much more passive-aggressive than a single thumbs up. Even a double thumbs up has a degree of enthusiasm to it; the single thumb up feels more akin to the middle finger.

Don’t respond at all

In some cases, the most passive-aggressive response possible is no response at all. If the conversation is over, that’s one thing. At some point, someone needs to press pause on the dialogue. But if that silence comes after the other person says something like, “I’m so sorry I had to cancel our dinner plans again! I swear it’s the last time!” and you send some radio silence back their way, I’d say you’re actually responding loud and clear.

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