Passive-aggressiveness, sometimes known as the “nice-nasty,” is communication (behavior) that is “nicety-nice” on the surface. However, the underlying message or intent is mean, rude, nasty, and/or manipulative. It is sugar-coated vitriol. Being on the receiving end of passive-aggressiveness can be frustrating, confounding, hurtful, and can even be the reason to end a relationship, quit a job, or retaliate.

Passive-aggressiveness takes many forms:

  • Sarcasm
  • Ghosting
  • The Silent Treatment
  • Sabotage
  • Withholding (time, praise, intimacy, opportunity)
  • Backhanded Compliments
  • Hinting

And many, many more. What these behaviors all have in common is that they allow people who aren’t comfortable being openly aggressive get what they want under the guise of still trying to please others or having “plausible deniability” if called on their behavior. For example, if someone uses sarcasm and they are confronted by the recipient, they can claim “that’s not what I meant” or even resort to gaslighting (intentionally trying to make the other person doubt themselves or the validity of their perceptions and feelings) with something like “geez – you are too sensitive.” The passive-aggressive person wants their way, but they also want everyone to still like them and/or not be held accountable for their aggressive behavior.

Unsure Woman Scratches Her Head

I am often asked after delivering keynote speeches or programs on communication “Pamela, why are some people so passive-aggressive?”  Some of the more obvious answers are: 

  • They are often insecure.
  • They may have poor communication skills. They don’t know how to be assertive. (Important note: assertive and aggressive are very different.)
  • They may struggle with jealously (personal or professional.)
  • They may feel out of control or a need to gain (or regain) power.
  • They may have learned it “works” for them.
  • It allows them to stay in their “comfort zone” and avoid the accountability assertiveness requires.

In addition to these reasons, here are a few less widely talked about, and yet still prevalent reasons.

Three Panes Of An Angry Woman

Anger is often socially unacceptable (especially for women) whereas sugarcoated anger can be socially acceptable. Many people have been taught to “play nice” or that to “be liked” is a top priority. Some people are so uncomfortable with conflict, confrontation and other negative interactions that they will attempt to “keep the peace at any cost.” While they may feel anger, they are not comfortable expressing it directly for fear of social censure. When the anger gets sugarcoated, that social censure is typically less.

Nervous Woman With Her Hands Around Her Face

Assertiveness can be simultaneously empowering and terrifying. Passive-aggressiveness can be easier and feel safer than assertiveness. Being assertive and asking for what you want or need by being direct and clear about your expectations can feel risky. What if your request is denied? What if the recipient of your request belittles your request? Or gets upset? By choosing passive-aggressiveness (indirect communication) individuals give themselves a more palatable explanation for another’s behavior. For example, you may be frustrated by your colleague’s constant tardiness to meetings and you “drop hints” (passive-aggressive) about their arrival time. Despite the hints they continue to arrive late. In this situation you can tell yourself “perhaps I wasn’t clear” or “maybe they didn’t understand.” However, if you opt for the assertive approach and directly (and politely) tell your colleague that their being late to regularly scheduled meetings is frustrating and ask them to be on time (an assertive approach) they may choose not to be on time anyway. With this assertive approach, you can no longer tell yourself “perhaps they didn’t understand.” Now the remaining explanations are less palatable such as “my frustration must not really matter to them.” Sometimes these “less palatable” explanations can be hurtful. Hence why assertiveness can sometimes be terrifying.

A Womans Fist

Passive-aggressiveness can feel powerful. Because it is often manipulative and can be disconcerting to others, passive-aggressiveness can feel powerful. Passive-aggressiveness is also disrespectful to others. The passive-aggressive person is taking away the other person’s power. It can be a way for an insecure person to gain some of the power and control they feel they are lacking. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is mutually respectful (power is shared.) The passive-aggressive person doesn’t want to share that power.

Pencil Changing Unreasonable To Read Reasonable

Passive-aggressiveness can be easily rationalized. The passive-aggressive person is very adept at justifying their behavior. It is their brain’s way of arguing for their comfort zone. Any twinges of remorse or regret are quickly squashed by an inner voice or story that negates the necessity for change or personal growth.

While we cannot stop the passive-aggressive person from being passive-aggressive, it is helpful to have a better understanding of what passive-aggressive is and why people use it. For tools and information about how to deal with passive-aggressive people, check out this on-demand webinar. And, if you are looking to build your own assertiveness skills, click here.

Pamela Jett is a communication skills and leadership expert who knows that words matter! In her keynote presentations, workshops, books and online learning programs, she moves beyond communication theory into practical strategies that can be implemented immediately to create the kind of leadership, teamwork, and employee engagement results her clients want.