Essay:Passive Aggression

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We've all met that certain person. That co-worker, fellow classmate, friend, perhaps a family member. We may not know it when we see it, but it is incredibly common and sneaky. It's also subtle, it's the result of seething rage. It's passive aggression I'm talking about. Innocent mistakes, habitual procrastination, and clever ways to make it all seem normal. We've all been passive aggressive at some time or another, but some people are much more inclined to use this unhealthy means of communication than others.

The indirect goal[edit]

Psychologists will tell you that passive aggression is okay in small doses, it's normal, or has become normal, to use indirect communication to annoy others. Excuses "Oh I'm sorry, I didn't know", shifting blame "It's not my problem, why get mad at me?" and of course, not-so-friendly notes left around the place. I estimate that half the time, passive aggressive behaviour is done without any thought, it's a conditioned reaction. The person knows there is a problem, but doesn't do anything about it. They procrastinate. When confronted, they'll deny it, they'll say that they were doing the task they were meant to do. Assertive confrontation is the opposite of being passive, but passiveness has leverage here. It is easy to blame the target of your aggression for getting upset, for getting mad. Advanced manipulation lets the passive aggressor get what they want, and make the people involved feel bad. This goal is never directly revealed. If a passive aggressive person wants someone to vacuum the floor, they won't tell them to vacuum the floor. They'll make the floor extra filthy, and blame the other person for not doing it. They might casually mention it is conversation "If you feel like it, why not do a little vacuuming?". In these cases, it's a bit like guilt-tripping, toying with the target of the aggressors emotions and making them do what they want them to do.


I have lifted these examples from my own experience, in which I was being passive aggressive. I've modified them, but they are based on true stories.

  1. You share a freezer space with someone else. You buy some raisin toast loaves, one week later, it is gone from the freezer. You know who ate it, you don't talk to them about it. You give them angry smiles, cold shoulder treatment. You sabotage their life; offer to make coffee, but specifically make it the way they don't like it. You hold grudges and give them a shoddy gift for their birthday. You pretend to be nice. You affix a note to the rest of the loaves kindly informing the reader that it is yours and not anyone elses. You never get confronted because all this behaviour is seemingly unrelated and innocent.
  2. It is your turn to clean the bathroom. You clean it, but use too much cleaning product, and don't ventilate the bathroom afterwards. The effort put in seems like a lot, because you spend an hour cleaning it, but really, you purposely took too long. The house-mate thanks you for your apparent effort, to which you sweetly say was "not a problem", but you scowl behind their back. If they confront you about the poor work, you accuse them of having too high expectations and being nit-picky. Your frustrate them to no end by repeatedly doing a poor job and pretending to put effort into it. Unfortunately, it is difficult if not impossible to determine whether you are being passive aggressive or just bad at cleaning.
  3. You have an assignment due in a week's time, and tell the teacher that you are on track. On the day before it is due, you still haven't finished half of it. You ask for an extension, making up an excuse. If the extension is given, the work is completed, but only to the bare minimum standard. If not, you rush it and just make the deadline. The disappointment and frustration the teacher feels only feeds the cycle by making the passive aggressor want to "punish" the teacher what they do.


According to Dr. Leon Seltzer, the origins of passive aggression lie in not being raised in an assertive household. In other words, assertive behaviour was punished excessively. The child asking for something was chided as being selfish, rude, or was simply ignored. Being children, we could not stand up to our parents, the threat of already delicate parental bonds being broken was too much. Instead, passivity is acquired to whatever role our caretakers assign to us. We are subordinate, less significant and unworthy. This anger, rather than being direct rebellious defiance, is expressed subtly, nearly invisibly. With passivity going unpunished and unrewarded (except for the glorious feeling of making someone get angry over some small issue), and assertiveness being repressed, these children grow up to be passive aggressive. It varies, but we often call these people "jerks". There's something more to this, than the one-dimensional idea of "That guy's a real A-hole" and "That guy's really confident and helpful". Passive aggression comes in large part from our upbringing, and because it is rarely severe enough for it to be a big problem, it carries on into adulthood.


In conclusion, passive aggression may well be the most common way to annoy people, while getting the annoyed person to still like you. It is aggression through inaction. Unhealthy and damaging as it may be, it remains nearly invisible and persists in many so-called "jerks". Passive aggression is not always on purpose, and can be an automatic response to adversity. The behaviour is common, we need to see through the disguise of innocence and make passive-aggressors aware of their (in)actions.

External Sources[edit]

Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behaviour