There is so much passive aggression out there these days, and most people love to blame social media for it. In my view, that’s just one factor, and the bigger one is just good old fashioned human insecurity. So if you’re coming up against the ‘pass agg’, how do you respond in an effective way?
Living in the UK, and culturally speaking, it seems to me that there are contexts in which passive aggression is seen essentially as a natural extension of politeness. Instead of directly confronting anyone (particularly in a work content), we look for ways to passively convey our disapproval in order to remain ‘polite’.
We want to be surface-level acceptable, while being low key subversive.
Regardless of where it might truly originate from, often passive aggression introduces insecurity into relationships — if you aren’t entirely clear about the intent or desired outcome of a statement, for instance, you can’t be sure exactly how best to behave in response. Your understanding of the situation comes under question, and your conduct going forward might well become confused.
So how do we cut through the confusion, when faced with someone who is keen not to make their real intentions, needs or ideas known?
1. Answer on face value
A powerful way to respond to snarkiness of many forms is to simply respond as if the statement was honestly and clearly given. Instead of trying to figure out the real intention, or the nuance, or whatever else, simply respond on face value, as though the words were intended sincerely.
This can help the other person realise that being passive aggressive with you isn’t getting their message across — if they’re trying to say something other than what has literally been said, they will have to try again, rephrase, or be more direct with you, because you won’t be playing their game with them.
2. Seek clarification
Asking a question to clarify is an amazing way to cut down passive aggression quickly. If someone has said something you’re unsure about, question it in a genuine way.
So, for instance, if someone says says something hurtful to you, then follows up with “Why are you getting so upset?” you can answer one of two ways. Either you can feed into their passive aggressive question by answering it (usually “I’m not!”), or you can question them back, “Are you really not sure why I’m upset?” The latter means you’re trying to get to the real heart of things, and you’re looking to clarify what’s gone on between you in order to clear the air. Chances are, they already know why they’ve upset you, and if not, here’s your chance to set the record straight.
3. Avoid like for like
Responding with passive aggression is pretty likely to get you nowhere, and if anything, teaches the other person that their insecurities might be founded. They’re likely to just keep giving tit for tat. So try not to answer with things like “I’m fine” or “I was only joking” if they aren’t really true.
4. Use humour
A really positive way to respond to passive aggression is to keep the energy light, and find the humour in the situation. This is one you have to be careful with though, as you don’t want to accidentally seem sarcastic or passive aggressive in response. But often times, someone is passive aggressive towards you because they don’t want to actually express their anger or disapproval or disappointment — they want to try and make you angry instead, so that you seem to be the unreasonable one. Disrupt expectations, and keep things cheerful.
5. Call it out
If someone really isn’t getting the hints, it might be worth just cutting through their games and call a spade a spade. It can be hard not to seem aggressive here, so it’s important that it’s not an accusation — it’s simply a more direct form of clarification.
For instance, “I’m not sure what you mean by that” or “I think I’ve missed something here” or “I feel you’re actually angry with me, but you’re afraid to say so. Is this right?” The latter in particular needs to be said with care — you’re trying to show that you’re okay with potential conflict, and you’re happier knowing where you stand. In this way you’re suggesting you do genuinely wish to understand and you also want the genuine intent, which places the emphasis on their being more direct in response.
6. Give them a chance to address it
Patience is a virtue, as they say, so if you know someone who is routinely passive aggressive, it may just be that they aren’t aware of how they come across until you mention something being amiss. Give them a chance to rephrase, to rectify, and to rethink how they want to communicate with you.
7. Remove yourself
The chronically passive aggressive amongst us may also just be too much hard work. If so, and you’re really not in the mood to keep trying to cut through the nonsense, there’s could be the option to simply remove yourself. Obviously this is difficult if the person is a family member, but if you’re really struggling, it’s worth trying to cut through. Relationships based on honesty, openness and expressing one’s true feelings at an appropriate time, are important.
A few parting thoughts…
Keep in mind that this is a really common occurrence — I’m sure we’ve all been passive aggressive at times, and in ways that really did not serve us well.
Remember too that many cultures prioritise non-confrontation and politeness over other things, so it really depends on how much you can reasonably give and take on this issue.
In the end, we’re looking for ways to make sure we are understood and understand others in key moments, particularly to ensure our relationships don’t get bogged down in bitterness. Good communication is a journey!