16 Signs Of Passive-Aggressive Behavior With Examples

Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. It is very common to have experienced or used passive-aggressive behavior at one time or another.

The passive-aggressive individual frequently shows signs of irritability and hostility, e.g., making critical comments, sarcasm, cynicism, or complaints about minor slights or injustices (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Some examples of passive-aggressive phrases can include:

  • ‘Your work is surprisingly good.’
  • ‘Your outfit looks better than what you wore yesterday.’
  • ‘It’s good that you’re so carefree. I wish I didn’t care so much about things.’

These types of comments can first come across as a compliment but then leave people feeling confused and second-guessing others’ intentions.

passive aggressive
Passive-aggressive behavior involves indirectly expressing negative feelings, frustrations, or resistance through subtle actions, avoidance, or subtle sarcasm, instead of openly addressing the issue.

What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior was first described by Colonel William C. Menninger during World War II. Menninger observed soldiers who exhibited what he called “aggressiveness” through indirect measures such as procrastination, stubbornness, and inefficiency.

This was due to what Menninger saw as an “immaturity” and a reaction to “routine military stress.”

Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of covert aggression that can manifest in resistance to requests or demands, sullenness, stubbornness, procrastination, and criticalness.

While often used to indirectly express anger or frustration, passive-aggressive behavior can also be used as a deliberate strategy to manipulate or control others.

Passive-aggressive behavior is often motivated by a fear of conflict and a desire to avoid direct communication.

Someone may also express passive-aggressive behavior in their actions, such as purposely ignoring someone’s phone calls, backing out of promised favors, and excluding someone from a social event while inviting everyone else.

In general, passive-aggressive behavior reflects some disconnect between what you say and what you do. A passive-aggressive person will not let someone know how they feel directly and will instead use indirect behaviors to show their hostility.

These behaviors can often victimize themselves or induce guilt or hurt in others. People can be passive-aggressive maliciously or unintentionally, but it usually involves someone not being clear and honest about what they are thinking or feeling.

Examples Of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of addressing them openly.

This means there is a gap between what a person expressing passive-aggression says and does (Kantor, 2002).

some examples of passive-aggressive behavior
Examples of passive-aggressive behavior

 Specific signs of passive-aggressive behavior include resentment and opposition to the demands of others – especially of those in authority; resistance to cooperation, procrastination, and intentional mistakes in response to the demands of others; a cynical, sullen, or hostile attitude; and frequent complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated (Hall-Flavin, 2021).

Below are some ways in which passive-aggressive behavior can be displayed:

Backhanded compliments

These are comments which are subtle insults intended to put down the person being addressed without seeming mean-spirited. The comment and the tone may reflect that the person is being nice, but there is a covert insult in their statement.

Examples you hear can include ‘You look so much nicer when you smile,’ which implies you do not look nice unless you are smiling, or ‘Good for you for trying your best,’ which may imply that while you may try hard, it is not good enough.

Backhanded compliments, criticism, or negative sentiments, under the guise of praise, can be used to express passive-aggression too.

For example, someone may say, “You finally got a haircut that looks decent,” with the intention of saying that that person’s previous hairstyles were unattractive (Harrn, 2011).

Unsolicited opinions, such as stating that someone should lose weight unsolicited or that a person looks tired and should get some more sleep, can similarly express unconscious negative emotions indirectly (Harrn, 2011).


Passive-aggressive people may use sarcasm as a way to say malicious comments, which can be played off as a joke.

Sarcasm allows someone to say negative things to people, and then when they are confronted, they may say, ‘I was only joking.’ If someone says something hurtful followed by ‘I was only joking,’ then chances are, it wasn’t a joke at all, and it is a way to cover up their true feelings.

Sarcasm can also be passive-aggressive in certain contexts. For example, suppose someone invites a friend over to their family’s house, and the friend says, “yeah, you know how much I love your family,” in a sarcastic tone. In that case, the statement can be considered passive-aggressive.

Rather than speaking about the issues that they have with the friend’s family, they are expressing negative feelings under the guise of a joke (Harrn, 2011).

Silent treatment

The silent treatment is simply not talking to someone who has upset you. People will use their silence to let others know they did something they do not agree with.

This is a way of refusing to verbally communicate why they feel hurt, leaving the other person to figure out why they are mad. This behavior withholds attention while avoiding direct conflict, which may be more uncomfortable for someone to deal with.

Silence can be read as passive-aggressive in certain contexts. For example, someone may refuse to respond during an argument.

This is known by relational psychologists as “Stonewalling” (Gottman, 2010).

Similarly, ignoring a question or simply never replying to a message. All in all, silence when a response is warranted is often considered passive-aggression (Harrn, 2011).

Evading issues

Someone who evades issues may never address any problems they have and will pretend everything is fine.

They may say, ‘I’m fine’ or ‘Everything is good,’ when the opposite is true. Denying that something is wrong is a way not to have to deal with directly addressed emotions and feelings.


Withholding includes holding back on privileges that would otherwise be normal as a way to punish another person.

For instance, a parent who usually makes breakfast for their child every day may not do this one day without giving a reason but suggest that the child make breakfast themselves that day.

Time, money, or any kind of behavior that is usually typical in a relationship can be withheld.

Indirect Refusal

Indirect refusal includes failing to meet someone’s needs without saying “no” outright.

For example, someone may fail to take a new puppy outside even though their roommate has asked them to do so multiple times.

The need being violated in this case would be both the puppy’s need to relieve itself and the needs of that person’s roommates to live in an unsoiled and clean environment (Harrn, 2011).

Moody behavior

While it is normal to feel moody from time to time, if someone is moody and sulking because they don’t want to communicate about how they feel, this can be passive-aggressive.

They can make it obvious that something is bothering them, but they are using their moody behavior to get out of discussing their feelings.

Someone who engages in passive-aggressive behavior may appear to agree – perhaps enthusiastically, even – to another person’s request.

Rather than complying with the request, however, that person may express anger or resentment by failing to follow through or missing deadlines.

For example, say that a couple decides who will do the dishes for the night. One member may enthusiastically agree to do the dishes.

However, the next morning, when the other member of the couple sees that there are still dishes in the sink — or better yet, that all but one dish had been cleaned — they may be resentful.

In this case, the member that had agreed to do the dishes may either not recognize this resentment or have used the act of cleaning all but one dish as a way of expressing their contempt and aggression toward another issue (Kantor, 2002).

Learned helplessness

In passive-aggressive terms, someone who displays learned helplessness will pretend they cannot do something to send a message that they don’t want to do it. They may purposely ‘forget’ to do things or deliberately do a task badly.

For instance, a partner may purposely do a poor job of cleaning the bathroom, so they do not get asked to do it again.

Making wistful comments

These types of comments come from not asking for things directly while also putting down the person they’re talking to simultaneously.

They may say something like, ‘I wish I could afford a house like yours, but unfortunately, I don’t earn as much as you.’

The goal of wistful comments is to announce their wish and then disown it to put the responsibility on someone else.

Patronizing language

Sometimes, people can display passive aggression in what they say, including making patronizing comments. For example, someone may undermine someone else’s intelligence by using unnecessarily simple instructions and asking, “do you know what I mean by that?” or calling someone pet names.

Procrastinate/not finishing tasks

People may procrastinate on tasks they offered to do for someone else as a way to let them know they are angry.

This can also include not following through with favors previously agreed to and backing out of a commitment at the last minute.


Generally, being late is not passive-aggressive and may not always be purposeful, but lateness can be used as a weapon.

Someone can be intentionally late to punish someone else who annoyed them. They may turn up late and not appear stressed about it or apologize to the other person.


Using exclusion and isolating others can also be used as a way to show annoyance or hurt indirectly.

Social exclusion can involve having a party and inviting everyone except the targeted person.

Professional exclusion can include leaving someone out of a meeting or out of the loop on a deadline change.

Making Excuses

Sometimes, passive-aggression can be manifested in creating excuses for not doing something rather than directly stating the frustrations they have.

For example, someone may regularly claim that they are sick, or have a headache, in a way that interferes with responsibilities because they do not want to fulfill them for an unspecified reason rather than stating the reason directly (Harrn, 2011).


So-called ghosting is yet another example of a behavior that is commonly considered to be passive-aggressive, especially in the modern era of online dating.

Ghosting involves suddenly cutting off contact with a person without warning — especially when the previous contract implied that the person doing the ghosting was interested in and valued that relationship.

For example, suddenly standing up a date after going out once, in the form of never texting or calling, is a common expression of ghosting (Harrn, 2011).

Ghosting can be passive-aggressive in that it often expresses some negative sentiment (that someone would no longer wish to speak with someone else) in a way that leaves this statement unsaid

Anything that is said with the intent of making someone seem superior, and the receiver inferior, is typically considered to be passive-aggressive behavior (Harrn, 2011).

Disrespectful comments

Contemptuous comments, describing any comment that comes off as disrespectful, can be passive-aggressive. For example, when someone decides to buy someone a bouquet of flowers, the receiver, when saying, “Oh great, another bouquet of flowers, “may be perceived as passive-aggressive.

Similarly, in some contexts, statements may be perceived as passive aggression. For example, someone may say that the meal at a dinner party is “edible,” which may be perceived as disrespectful (Harrn, 2011).

How Does Passive-Aggressive Behavior Feel?

Being on the receiving end of someone’s passive-aggression can leave you feeling confused, ignored, or guilty.

It can feel very uncomfortable and as if there is a lot of tension and upset that needs to be addressed.

You may feel as if you should give in to the passive-aggressive person as you don’t want to sit with the uncomfortable emotions or want to hear the other person complaining.

You may also start responding to them in a passive-aggressive way, so it becomes a vicious cycle of not directly dealing with negative emotions.


There are many reasons why someone may be passive-aggressive, including the following:

Early life experiences

Many people may be passive-aggressive due to their upbringing, especially their relationships with their parents. They may have learned from a young age that their wants, needs, or preferences didn’t matter. If they tried to be honest with their parents, they might have been criticized, rejected, or put down.

Even as adults, the thought of trying to be direct with people may fill people with anxiety, so they have learned to get their needs met through passive-aggressive methods.

It may be that their parents were also very passive-aggressive, so the child then goes on to mirror these behaviors as they can come to believe that this is the only way to deal with their negative emotions.

Emotional dysregulation

For many reasons, someone may use passive-aggression as they struggle to regulate their emotions. This could be due to feeling stressed or having extreme nerves but also from having depression, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Situational reasons

Someone may not be passive-aggressive normally, but there could be situations where expressing anger directly does not seem appropriate or feels uncomfortable. Hence, they resort to indirect ways of showing aggression.

For instance, if you have a boss who is acting rudely during a work meeting, you may not feel confident enough to call out their behavior, or worry there will be repercussions for doing so. Thus, you may act out in passive-aggressive ways.

Confrontation is uncomfortable

Some people may not feel comfortable sticking up for themselves directly, so they resort to an easier option. Being assertive can make people feel vulnerable, and they may not want to risk losing relationships with others by engaging in confrontation.

Being passive-aggressive allows them to avoid any confrontation that is uncomfortable while still expressing their emotions, albeit in an unproductive way.

Responding to Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Detecting and addressing passive aggression can be challenging due to its indirect nature, but there are steps to reduce the behavior.

Assess the situation to identify potential causes and if not possible, respond to the passive-aggressive behavior in a way that defuses rather than escalates the situation.

  • Recognize behavior patterns by identifying the ways someone is being passive-aggressive and understanding the purpose behind their behavior, allowing for effective communication about their needs.
  • Remain objective by recognizing that the passive-aggressive behavior is often not about you but reflects the individual’s own issues with expressing themselves directly.
  • Don’t overreact and give the person the benefit of the doubt, avoiding quick judgments and trying to view the situation from multiple perspectives before reacting.
  • Have a direct discussion with the passive-aggressive person, describing your experiences and feelings without accusing or attacking them while setting expectations for open and healthy communication.
  • Don’t compromise your own communication skills by responding in a passive-aggressive manner, but instead model clear communication and set boundaries for both parties.
  • Consider limiting contact if the person doesn’t adjust their behavior or reacts negatively, focusing on self-care and seeking support if needed.

Further Information

How To Respond To Passive-Aggressive Behavior

How To Stop Being Passive-Aggressive

Hopwood, C. J., Morey, L. C., Markowitz, J. C., Pinto, A., Skodol, A. E., Gunderson, J. G., … & Sanislow, C. A. (2009). The construct validity of passive-aggressive personality disorder. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 72(3), 256-267.

Hopwood, C. J., Morey, L. C., Markowitz, J. C., Pinto, A., Skodol, A. E., Gunderson, J. G., … & Sanislow, C. A. (2009). The construct validity of passive-aggressive personality disorder. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 72(3), 256-267.


American Psychiatric Association, D. S., & American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (Vol. 5). Washington, DC: American psychiatric association.

Kantor, M. (2002). Passive-aggression: A Guide for the Therapist, the Patient, and the Victim . Greenwood Publishing Group.

Menninger W. W. (2004). Contributions of Dr. William C. Menninger to military psychiatry. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 68 (4), 277–296.

Millon, T. (1993). Negativistic (passive-aggressive) personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 7 (1), 78-85.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.