What is Passive Aggressive Behavior?

If you’re a heavy social media user like me especially Twitter then you have surely come across the famous Daenerys Targaryen meme from episode 2 of the final season of Game of Thrones. 

The meme which features *deep breath* Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons, or just Dany in her iconic still image with a squinting, pinched, dismissive smile in a conversation with Sansa Stark has made a popular round among Twitter users. 

The image has been humorously paired as an imitation or reaction to  social remarks or incidents considered to be passive-aggressive, judgmental, or ignorant in some way. 

American film director, writer, and producer, Matthew A. Cherry was one of the first to take on the challenge and his caption, “Per my last email” – the classic passive-aggressive note which translates to “I have already answered that in my last email but I am repeating it again because apparently you didn’t read it” but just subtly more polite, garnered over 18,000 retweets and 68,000 likes. 

Because honestly, Dany’s face here is just so relatable. 

I mean I’m sure you have flashed this fake smile at least once in your life, or too many to count at this point for me, because some people are just honestly annoying and a lot of them just don’t really read emails. Or maybe…it’s because we use it as a coping mechanism for our inability to communicate what we really mean because we’re too scared to be seen as actually aggressive?

Maybe yes or maybe no. Let’s break down the science.

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

According to healthline, people with passive aggressive behavior is defined as those who “express their negative feelings subtly through their actions instead of handling them directly” which often leads to situations wherein what they say is separated from what they want to do. This behavior is often called a social manipulation technique. 

These are deliberate but masked ways of expressing anger and often lead to these people becoming socially isolated due to their unwillingness or worse, inability to effectively communicate with others. They tend to experience physical, mental, and emotional distress because of the piled-up anger, resentment, and even hostility that they cannot verbally act upon. 

It also has negative impacts on the people on the other side of the conversation. It doesn’t build trust and respect and people who receive this behavior often feel manipulated and even resentful. It creates dysfunction between relationships – either social or professional – which can be very toxic. 

Signs of Passive Aggressive Behavior 

Passive aggressive behavior manifests in many ways and sometimes it can be very subtle that it becomes hard to identify. But here are some signs to look out for:

  • Disguising criticism with compliment

This is probably one of the most common and can be seen as the indirect approach of another social manipulation technique known as sarcasm. With this type, the receiver does not often detect the passive aggressiveness as it appears complimentary. People often find this type as humorous and even smart as it takes a great deal of wit and clever wordplay to effectively deliver these insincere compliments. 

It is quite a deadly attack since these are carefully manipulated remarks, people on the receiving end are usually victims of “playing the victim” card as any negative response to the remark would be thrown out as misinterpretation. 

  • Silent Treatment

What screams passive aggressive better than a silent treatment? It’s characterized by disconnectedness that implies far from agreeable terms without exactly saying what problem they have with you. Those who are masters of this type of behavior are aware that their silence can be very uncomfortable and even distressing which they use as leverage to take control over the other person. 

  • Sullen Attitude

This is not just pessimistic. Sullen attitude is miserable, gloomy, on top of being negative. People who exhibit this type of passive aggressiveness view situations as competitions instead of collaborations. They’re so negative and unable to express their feelings in a constructive manner to the point that they don’t only attack people, they attack ideas as well. 

Worse, these people are not aware how miserable they are and they often carry this like a contagious virus that drives people away which only essentially increases their feelings of misery. 

  • Deliberate Procrastination, Leaving Things Undone

These are classic signs of a passive aggressive behavior which stems from the situation wherein they are wrapped in total resentment over things that they are asked to do but they don’t want to do which they cannot communicate. 

Is passive aggressive behavior a mental disorder?

No, it’s not a medical disorder but it may be caused by a number of underlying health conditions such as stress, anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol withdrawal just to name a few. 

Researchers have pointed out that people who exhibit this behavior have been showing the signs as early as childhood and are more commonly born out of social influences rather than medical ones. 

According to sources, upbringing plays a pivotal factor with this behavior as an environment which does not allow or discourage direct expression of emotions breed people who explore passive channels to express their anger or frustration. This can be also compounded by social situations wherein displays of aggression are characterized as not socially acceptable like a family reunion or a business meeting. 

There is also the influence of taking the easy way out. That is because being aggressive and open emotionally can be very difficult. Oftentimes, we find ourselves scurrying away from tense situations and confronting our emotions through other means. 

Passive Aggressive Behavior on Social Media

Today, one of the most common outlets where we passive-aggressively deal with situations like these is social media. In fact, one hallmark behavior of passive aggressiveness seen in many young people today is taking public jabs at others while avoiding any personal confrontation and has been largely popularized and even normalized through social media. Posting embarrassing photos of others in a demeaning way on Facebook or tweeting indirects or also known in twitter slang as “subtweets” are two of the most common ways that this behavior manifests in social media. 

That is because in the technological age, we barely remove ourselves from the company of our gadgets. We are always plugged in through the internet that our conversations eventually became through the screen with tweets, facebook posts, instagram stories. We no longer speak and interact on a physical level. 

On that note, technology does not only make people lose touch of a sense of their authentic self but has also made it difficult for people to honestly communicate with each other. It has also fostered a guilt-free environment where people are no longer burdened with the responsibility of things they post and say on the internet and its consequences as they are wrapped in the safety of the screen and their anonymity. 

How do you respond to passive aggressive behavior?

Being smart about it, you don’t. 

Refuse to engage. That’s because you don’t want to feed off their need to have control and responding to them may just as well imply that you are manipulated by them. Take a step back and breathe. Then you can try and talk it out with the person (there are a number of different communication styles to try), listen to what they have to say and affirm their emotions so that they know that it is completely fine to express their thoughts and feelings. 

Rein in any denial in a clear and concise way. But remember that talking out this behavior with the person does not immediately resolve it and that’s okay. Nevertheless, this way you gain a lot more perspective on their personality which can help you better understand them and cater a communication style that best fits them.