6 Unpleasant Signs You're Dealing With A Passive-Aggressive Person

It's toxic behavior, but there are ways to handle it with grace.

serious woman with arms folded C Model / Shutterstock

At one time or another, we've had to deal with passive-aggressive people. Be it our impossible to please mother-in-law, or that one co-worker who can't seem to help herself from mean, it's never pleasant.

A passive-aggressive person doesn't want to make you angry or uncomfortable, they just don't know how to deal with their feelings. But that doesn't mean you should have to accept their bad behavior.


If you suspect a person you know might be acting this way, there are a few telltale signs to be absolutely sure.

Here are 6 unpleasant signs you're dealing with a passive-aggressive person

1. They ask questions that put you on the defensive

passive aggressive person being defensive Keira Burton / Pexels

If someone responds to a statement you've made with something like, "Are you insane?" or "Why would I ever do that?" and you aren't suggesting they hug a shark in the deep ocean, they're being passive-aggressive.

These kind of over-the-top attack-based rhetorical questions immediately put the person on the receiving end on the defensive. And it can feel maddening.

When someone addresses you this way and you go on the defense, neither of you feel free to be yourselves. That's a terrible foundation on which to build a friendship.

What to do: It's impossible to have a civil conversation with a passive-aggressive person who acts like this. But rather than reacting and taking the bait, so to speak, remain calm and be assertive.

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2. They give you backhanded compliments

passive aggressive person giving backhanded compliment Tirachard Kumtanom / Pexels

Sometimes, people use passive-aggressive behavior to handle uncomfortable feelings like jealousy.

For example, let's say you've just bought a new bracelet that you really love and you show it to a friend. A passive-aggressive response from them could be something like, "You're so lucky, my wrists are too thin to pull something like that off."

They might not mean to be totally rude, but because they aren't processing their emotions in a healthy or productive way, they lash out. And it leaves a stinging feeling behind.

What to do: There are plenty of ways to respond to backhanded compliments, but none of them should be in anger. It's probably best to ignore them or to act like it's no big deal. Then, later, you can set boundaries for yourself.


3. They refuse to engage in conflict

passive aggressive person avoiding conflict Karolina Kaboompics / Pexels

Be it your partner playing on their phone while you try to talk about a serious issue, or a roommate who keeps avoiding that household meeting to discuss chores, not engaging is passive-aggressive.

Dr. Scott Wexler calls it "sugar coated hostility" — and he's right. Because when a person refuses to address a conflict, they are being immature and putting you in a deeply frustrating position.

What to do: Avoid the temptation to play by their rules and pretend it never happened. The only way to fight passive-aggressive behavior is with measured, practical, direct behavior. 


4. They never arrive on time

passive aggressive person mad at someone for being late Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels

While some actions of a passive-aggressive person are conscious, others aren't. Lateness and procrastination are two examples of this.

Let's say you have a friend who is always 15 minutes late or a co-worker who is constantly pushing the deadline back on their latest project. These individuals may not deliberately try to waste your time or frustrate you, even though it might feel like it.

Passive-aggressive people have a need for control; adhering to their own schedule (however detrimental it may be to others) is a coping mechanism for the reality that the world doesn't stop for them.

What to do: While it's certainly frustrating when people are late, fight the urge to react with anger, as doing so will only make the situation worse. Stay calm, of course, while holding them accountable for their behavior. Be direct, not passive-aggressive.

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5. They engage in classic 'mean girl' behavior

passive aggressive person being dismissive Liza Summer / Pexels

A passive-aggressive person avoids conflict at all costs, but that doesn't mean they get along with everyone.

If they don't like a co-worker or they're mad at a friend, they won't address this problem head-on; rather, they're much more likely to do something like plan a fun night out and not invite the friend in question.

What to do: If you're on the receiving end of this kind of treatment, address the passive-aggressive person directly. Doing so makes it clear you won't put up with tacit mistreatment or hostility just because they don't know how to communicate their feelings in a healthy manner


6. They're dishonest about their feelings

passive aggressive person being dishonest about feelings Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

People who aren't passive-aggressive may have a bad day and get their feelings hurt for minor inconveniences, but have no problem expressing that. Unfortunately, that's not the case with a passive-aggressive person.

When they are pouting or hurt and you ask them what's wrong, they will usually lie about their feelings, saying, "I'm fine," even though it's clear they aren't.

No, they aren't maliciously telling lies, but they are keeping their real feelings to themselves because the idea of real conflict is that scary to them. Yes, it's frustrating, but it's not something that should be approached without empathy.

What to do: You can't shake the truth out of them, but you can let them know that you're there when they're ready to talk. But until they are willing to talk about what's wrong, take them at their word and don't treat them with kid gloves.

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for lifestyle, geek news, and true crime topics. Her bylines have appeared on Fatherly, Bustle, SheKnows, Jezebel, and many others.