Passive Aggression: How to Deal With It

Back-handed compliments and snide little notes left to be found later seem to be the only way people can communicate unhappy feelings these days. Whether with the family, at work, or online we've got the techniques for dealing with those people in your life unable to just say it to your face.

It's something you can guarantee will happen as soon as you get a group of people together, as certain as an exchange of gifts during the Holidays or the massive returns on December 26. Passive Aggression.

Even though passive aggression takes place in our every day lives, somehow the holiday season heightens it to a whole new level. Perhaps it's the stress packed on by work, finding the right gift, or decorating the house. Yet, whatever the cause may be, passive aggression is a tradition like lighting the Menorah or putting up the Christmas tree.

How to Define a Passive Aggressive Person

There are many ways to define a passive aggressive person. Here are a few characteristics:

  • Blaming others for personal failures
  • Pessimistic even when things are going well
  • Reluctant to show emotional fragility
  • Complaining of feeling unappreciated
  • Makes excuses to get out of social or work obligations

Passive aggressive people often come from backgrounds where they felt stifled or frustrated when it came to expressing their emotions, which might stem from their childhood. Instead of telling people exactly what they want or how they feel, they might use non-verbal gestures (pouting), backhanded compliments (to McDonald's employee: “Wow, this drive-thru line is actually moving fast today”), or little snipes that represent their differing opinion on a subject (sending a wedding invitation to a friend and unliked wife as “Jim and Guest”).

How to Deal with Passive Aggression

Family Reunions text

Many people dread this time of year because of the family get-togethers. But just because they are related to you doesn't mean they can pass judgment on you (although, some family members certainly think that's what “family” means).

Quality passive aggressive time with relatives usually only lasts one day or week per year, but family members can often leave scars on a clan for years (and holidays) to come.

What to do:

1. Have confidence. When your overly concerned aunt gives you a book on “How to Find a Mate” in a gift exchange, don't let her see you get upset. Passive aggressive people are often fueled by getting a reaction out of the opposition. While some might suggest meeting passive aggression with more passive aggression (never telling the aunt that the book embarrassed you and penning up aggression instead), this writer suggests going for shock value. “Thank you, Aunt Edna, this is great. But I really enjoy anonymous sex with strangers at dive bars.”

It doesn't have to be true. But if you sell it properly in your tone of voice, Aunt Edna will be off of your back next year.

2. Remind yourself that passive aggressive people have personal issues of their own. Sometimes they try to take backhanded jabs at you in order to make themselves feel better. “Your new car is really nice,” says your uncle, “I'm surprised you can afford this on your salary.”

Remember, that maybe he's a little jealous of the car and has an unbreakable habit of having to one-up everyone. There's a reason why people say the things they say.

3. If your anger toward a relative is too much to control, dish a little passive aggression (just a little) back through gifts. Find a gift that seems nice, but actually sends a message. For example, an atlas for your in-laws (to tell them to get lost) or even Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (which clocks in around 1,000 pages) to your stress junkie sister who will never actually find the time to read it.

A great follow-up gift is asking the sister a month later, “Did you like the novel?”

Work text

People in work relationships often are afraid of addressing problems during the holidays because there's a lot at stake. If you do say how you feel, you might lose your job, especially since many company layoffs take place during November and December (right when many workers are evaluated and when companies can avoid Christmas bonuses).

What to do:

1. If the passive aggressive co-worker doesn't carry his or her work load, get a witness. For example, if the typically passive aggressive worker promised to help with an important project, have a conversation about it in front of another co-worker. A passive aggressive person is less likely to refute something if they know someone else was there listening.

So when it comes to this person dropping the ball or failing to complete his or her work, you will have a witness to back you up.

3. If a passive aggressive co-worker said they never received a memo, have a copy handy. Keeping copies of emails and memos can be evidence! You can even have them initial certain items as documentation.

4. Sometimes memos or notes can even be passive aggressive, however. For example, a co-worker shuffles someone else's lunch in the work fridge and spills it. Instead of picking it up, the co-worker leaves a note on the fridge: “[So-and-so], your lunch spilled. Clean it up.” In this case, you can confront the co-worker as to why he or she didn't just correct the mistake.

Or you can take a photo of the note, and put it on (this writer's new favorite web site).


On the computer text

While texting and social networking web sites like Facebook are great communication tools when keeping in touch with people, they also represent the height of passive aggression in our current society. Instead of connecting with old friends during the Holiday season, people just keep up-to-date with each other via Twitter accounts and Facebook statuses.

What to do:

1. Instead of mass texting your entire phone to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” select a good friend or a few good friends you haven’t talked to in a while and give them a call. One of the best feelings in the world is hearing someone’s voice you haven’t heard from in a while.

2. The holidays are often the time when people rekindle friendships and relationships. When reconnecting with people via social networks, follow through. Instead of “friending” someone to simply lurk on his or her Facebook profile, question why you “friended” a near stranger from your past in the first place.

Article text - accepting friend request

Was there a friendship you never gained from him or her in high school? Does he or she look like someone you’d get a long with in life now? Maybe send them an actual message instead of cyber stalking.

On the flip side, instead of reluctantly accepting a friend request from a near stranger, call the person’s bluff and message them back: “Hey! How are you?” Or simply reject their request. There’s also a passive aggressiveness in accepting a stranger’s “friend” request simply because you don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings.

3. Holiday break is often a time when people feel like they can truly unwind. However, venting your frustrations about work on Twitter can often get you in trouble with the Boss (especially if a colleague or even the Bossman sees what you wrote).

Publicizing it for the world won’t make the problems get any better.  And when you get back to work in January, it might not be a particularly happy new year.

Passive aggression will probably only become more prevalent in society, as more technologies and devices enable people to avoid confrontation. The only thing we can do is steer into it head on. Or, you know, do nothing, but silently sit and stew about it.

Megan McLachlan

Megan McLachlan currently resides in the Pittsburgh area where she freelance writes, drinks coffee, and obsesses over popular culture. She was an English major, but doesn't think she wasted her life. Yet. Her blog is