How to Unlearn This Communication Pitfall: passive aggression, part I

I’m not super proud of it, but I’ve gotten pretty good at sending a message without saying a word — especially when I’m irritated. 

There’s a story that comes to mind about an office I used to work in, where the only available coffee creamer came in powder form (unacceptable) so I used to bring in my own little carton of half and half to keep in the fridge where we all stored our personal food. One time, I picked up my little carton the day after I’d opened it, and noticed it was about half full; the next day, it was practically empty. 

In a silent, crappy-coffee-fueled rage, my solution was to tape the most garish post-it note I could find to the front of the carton, with the words “IF YOU DID NOT BUY ME, DO NOT USE ME” scrawled in fat sharpie letters.

Mature, I know.

It’s the same side of me that has come out when our neighbors downstairs decide to smoke on their patio directly beneath our open living room windows on beautiful spring days, and I'd shut our windows to keep the cigarette smoke out — just loudly enough to send a message. Or, when I’d start giving short, one-word answers to a coworker right after they’d sent me a highly irritating email — hoping they’d ’take a hint.’ 

I’m not proud of that person I can become in those moments. But it sure can feel good to let her do her thing. And yet, when I’m on the receiving end of those same read-between-the-lines tactics, I have exactly zero patience for it. 

I think of times I’ve gotten the silent treatment from someone who was clearly upset with me about something, but refused to share what it was. Or, times when someone has ‘hinted’ that they wanted me to do something (or stop doing something) instead of just asking me calmly and directly. It’s the kind of thing that irks me like no other. 

For a long time, these two types of behavior felt totally unrelated to me. And in both scenarios, I've felt totally justified in my behavior. It's taken me a long time — until now, really — to really see how all these examples are similar, and the common thread that runs through them all. 


That thread, of course, is passive aggression. And it’s a tool I think we justify reaching for more often than we might realize. 


Merriam Webster characterizes passive aggressive behavior as: "the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.” But we don’t need a dictionary to know when it’s happening to us.

What’s interesting to me is how much easier it is to spot passive aggression when we’re the ones experiencing it, from someone else. But actually, I think most of us are more guilty of using it than we'd like to admit — not because we’re bad people, but because we get flustered in tense moments. Because we want to avoid confrontation, but we also want a pointed way to acknowledge our anger, or release our pent-up frustration. 

And when we think there’s a less aggressive alternative than confronting the thing head-on, we reach for it — without always recognizing what we’re doing, or the damage it can cause.

At its core, passive aggression is just thinly-veiled hostility.

It’s that ‘veiled’ part, I think, that makes passive aggression feel like a better, less aggressive choice than the alternatives. When we don’t want to totally swallow our frustration or anger, but we don’t want to go full-confrontation either… saying something subtly snide feels like a respectable ‘compromise’, doesn’t it? Like a satisfying, mostly-harmless way of handling a frustrating moment. That’s how we justify it to ourselves, anyway.

The problem is that most of the time, people can see right through it. 

When we go that route, others don’t see us as subtle, or thoughtfully indirect, or even right. Instead, they feel annoyed. Betrayed. Distanced from us. And isn’t that ironic? We (sometimes unknowingly) reach for passive aggression as a tool when we want to avoid escalating a situation, or creating more tension, or throwing fuel on the fire — and yet, it almost always ends up doing some form of those things anyway. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about passive aggression lately: how it shows up, why it shows up, and how those answers are more complicated than, “It’s an annoying thing that annoying people do.”  I think it’s pervasive, and easy to justify to ourselves — and yet, one of the fastest ways to put strain on a relationships. And to me, that makes it worth thinking critically about, understanding better, and most importantly, unlearning.


In the next two posts, we’re gonna really get into it: what passive aggression is, why it shows up (often in disguise), what it looks like, and how to start reversing the pattern. 


In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts: as you read through this, what thoughts and feelings are coming up for you around passive aggressive behavior? Feel free to shoot me a note, leave a comment on the blog, or join the conversation over on Instagram — and I’ll be back next week with part 2 of this series!