Do you have friends who get annoyed at you but complain behind your back instead of talking it out? Do you have a boss who rolls their eyes when you raise a serious issue? How about family members? Do any of them sulk or give you the silent treatment when you displease them?

This is called passive-aggression, and it’s incredibly destructive. I’ve seen friends lose friends over this type of behaviour, and I’ve struggled to communicate with passive-aggressive people in my own life, as well.

It can be difficult to recognise and react to passive-aggressive behaviour. But with a little effort and the right communication skills, we can build stronger, better, and healthier friendships.

How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

The first step to dealing with passive-aggression is to identify it in ourselves and in others. We’ve all met passive-aggressive people who insist that they’re fine and nothing is wrong, all while continuing to behave in a way that makes it clear they’re angry. 

Some of these behaviours include:

  • sulking
  • doing things deliberately badly
  • backhanded compliments
  • deliberately not doing something to cause inconvenience to others
  • not taking responsibility
  • glaring or avoiding eye contact

Let’s look at an example. Gemma invites her close friends and a few of their partners to a party. She doesn’t invite Emily’s boyfriend, though. Emily attends the party alone and seems to have a good time, but in the days afterward, she gets up and leaves every time Gemma comes to sit in her group. When mutual friends ask her what’s up, Emily insists she’s fine.

This is classic passive-aggressive behaviour. Emily is angry about her boyfriend not being invited to the party, but she won’t say so out loud. Instead, she expresses her anger at Gemma through sulking and avoidance.

Gemma can tell that Emily is angry at her, but she might not know why. She feels like she has to walk on eggshells around Emily and that she maybe needs to beg her forgiveness, even though it’s not clear what she’s done wrong. 

Emily is manipulating the situation to make Gemma feel guilty and uncomfortable, instead of expressing that she’s upset her boyfriend wasn’t invited to the party. It’s easy to see how unhealthy and frustrating that can be in any kind of relationship.

We can be passive-aggressive ourselves, too. A common example is having parents ask us to help with chores such as taking the rubbish out. We might put off doing it for hours or days, waiting until a parent gets fed up and does it themselves. 

By doing this we’re being passive-aggressive by deliberately not doing a task, or doing it badly, so that we won’t be asked to do it again in future.

When Being Nice is Passive-Aggressive

Sometimes passive-aggressive behaviour isn’t obvious — even to the people who are perpetrating it.

People sometimes believe that they’re being “nice” by not voicing their unhappiness and deferring to the wishes of others. But if that niceness comes with the cost of them being snarky and sulky, and if they are only pretending to be nice in order to manipulate you into doing what they want, then that behaviour isn’t nice at all — it’s selfish.

Think of a guy who has a crush on his female friend. Instead of voicing his feelings and asking her out on a date, he keeps showing up to “support” her when she’s down or when she’s having problems with her current partner, talking about how her current boyfriend is no good, and so on.

All this time he’s actually resentful of her and is trying to win points so that she might eventually reciprocate his romantic attention. Rather than expressing his true wishes, he hopes to manipulate her into being interested in him. 

A lot of people would say he’s just being nice, even if he has ulterior motives. In reality, he’s not being nice at all; nor is he being a good friend. He’s being passive-aggressive.

It’s Time to Call Out Passive-Aggression

Once you’ve noted passive-aggressive behaviour, you need to have a conversation with the person about it

You can tell them directly that you’ve noticed they seem angry, and ask them why. Give them the opportunity to spell out what’s bothering them, and try to listen with an open mind. Sometimes people behave like this, not because they have bad intentions, but because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions or they feel like they can’t.

This won’t be easy and it won’t always work — some people won’t listen to anything that sounds like a criticism. They may become defensive, or deny their behaviour.

But still, it’s worth trying to talk to them and to be emotionally mature. People may not realise how badly their behaviour is affecting you, or they may think you don’t care about them, so taking the time to talk with them can demonstrate otherwise.

If you’re not sure how to start this conversation, sometimes it can help to acknowledge how uncomfortable you are about bringing it up. The handy phrase “I need to talk to you about something awkward” lets the person you’re talking to know that you’re not taking pleasure in telling them off or trying to make them feel bad. You acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable for both of you, but that it’s important to discuss disagreements and issues in a mature and responsible way.

Take a Step Back

Often, people won’t react well to being called out like this. They will probably feel embarrassed or defensive, maybe even angry. It can take some time and self-reflection to realise when you’ve been behaving poorly, after all.

Once you’ve called out passive-aggressive behaviour, it’s best to back off for a bit. If you want to salvage a friendship, sometimes you need to give that friend some space to reflect on their behaviour. Don’t text them often or go right back to hanging out all the time.

Once both you and your friend have some time to reflect, you may find that you’re not actually angry at each other and that your disagreement is something you can move past.

When you meet or text with someone for the first time after a disagreement, don’t dredge it up or apologise. Instead, start afresh and allow yourselves to remember why you were friends in the first place. It’s not about dwelling on what happened, but moving forward to something healthy.

It’s true that this won’t always work. Sometimes people will be so angry that you disagreed with them that they’ll never forgive you — but these people were never going to be good friends anyway.

Remember that it’s ok to walk away from these situations. You are under no obligation to put up with passive-aggressive behaviour, especially if you’ve made every effort to work it out in a mature manner.

Most of the time, though, you’ll find that with a bit of space you can rebuild a friendship after a disagreement and have healthier boundaries with each other.

Arguing Sucks

Most of us don’t like fighting or arguing with people. We’d rather everyone got along and that no one ever felt bad. Even as an adult, I find it hard to disagree with people whom I like. It’s a lot easier to talk about boundaries in principle than it is to put them into practice.

But the truth is that you can’t avoid conflict in your relationships. You can either do what most people do, which is to avoid conflict to such a degree that you end up being passive-aggressive, or you can confront conflict head-on by acknowledging it directly, getting issues out into the open, and freely discussing them.

This isn’t comfortable, and it requires you to stick to your principles and weather other people’s awkwardness. But it is the best and most adult way to deal with conflict, and it will lead to stronger relationships.

Try to be aware of when people are displaying these passive-aggressive behaviours against you, and try to honestly acknowledge when you’re using them yourself. That’s the first step in moving past this stumbling block and onto more honest and effective communication.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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