First let me say there are times when passive aggressiveness (PA) is a coping mechanism. In an oppressive work environment, smiling and pretending to go along with an unreasonable boss may be the only way to survive. The same can be true in an abusive relationship with a toxic person. It may be in your best interest to smile and nod and plan your escape. But in healthy relationships, passive aggressive behavior is a manipulation. It is a dishonest way of interacting with people. As a result it compromises trust and creates a lot of hurt. How do you know if you are dealing with a passive aggressive person?
1. They say "Yes" when they really mean "No".
Personally, this is the one I find the most maddening. Because they said "Yes" you rely on them doing whatever they agreed to do, only to find out they didn't do it and never intended to. So you have to run around playing catch up. The feeling of betrayal doesn't foster a trusting environment either as you learn not to trust what they tell you.
2. They engage in sabotage
Passive aggressive people will smile in your face and agree to most anything, only to sabotage it when you're not looking. Their methods of sabotage are limitless. They are often predictable, but can be very creative. Some of their more common methods are:
They have a million excuses why they didn't get something done. They "forgot" or they were "too busy". This isn't an occasional thing. We all forget to do things. We all get busy sometimes. This is different. It is a pervasive pattern of always "forgetting" to do the same thing(s), something they either don't want to do or something they dislike.
They consistently didn't hear you ask them to do something.
They are constantly "forgetting" to do things they agreed to do.
Graceful PAs can become very clumsy and competent PAs can become very inept when asked to do something they don't want to do. That vase your mother gave which they hate "accidentally" fell and got broken. There are glaring errors in the report you asked them to write.
There are glaring errors made in the context of otherwise meticulous work.
I was working on a gardening project with a passive aggressive friend once who "agreed" to every plant I suggested. So I worked my heart out, in the Texas heat, planting these plants. A month later, the plants she did not like had met with "accidents". One hadn't been watered, another had been eaten by the sheep which lived there (but the plant right next to it which she had planted had been carefully fenced off and protected) and one had dug up by the dog.
Accidents happen and they aren't all sabotage. The difference with passive aggressive people is there is a pattern of this behavior.
PAs can be appear very indecisive, but it is a ploy. They know what they think and what they want, but they refuse to take a stand or voice an opinion. This is a powerful strategy, if they never make a decision, they can never be criticized. So you decide - and they critique you.
You: "Where would you like to eat dinner?"
Them: "Oh, I don't care. Whatever you would like."
You: "How about the Italian place?"
Them: "Oh, do you really want to go there?"
You: "We could go back to the Mexican place."
Them: "Did you really like that?"
You: "OK. What about Chinese?"
Them: "Chinese doesn't sound good right now."
See how this is going? Or they will go along to the restaurant sighing all the way. Or even go to the restaurant and order, but then pick at their food and complain about it. Now some people really don't care and are happy to go along to your favorite Italian restaurant. But passive aggressive folks will feign indifference - until you leave for the restaurant. Then they will often complain or find endless fault with your choice. Some toxic people have learned that not having an opinion is a position of power - if you don't choose, you can't be criticized for your choice. So they leave it to you to choose so they can criticize you. This gives them the upper hand. But the upper hand should not be the goal. Healthy, caring, trusting relationships should not be based on who can one up the other and should not be fraught with power struggles. This is just another manipulation.
People with passive aggressive behavior like to address things indirectly. Instead of telling you something to your face, they will often stab you in the back. They may even work to turn other people against you by engaging in "splitting" or "triangulating" behavior, inserting themselves as a wedge between you and another person and either turning the third person against you, or turning you against each other. Passive aggressive people may portray themselves as a victim and you as the aggressor to bring someone to their side of the dispute. And this will all take place behind your back.
Passive aggressive people have trouble asking for what they want outright, so they engage in manipulation to get their needs met. Instead of asking you to help them with something, they may employ guilt, "If I tear up my back lifting this it will be all your fault" or play the victim, "I just don't know how I'm going to be able to lift something so heavy" instead of being straightforward. They don't mind being seen as weak or having people pity them, as long as they get what they want.
6. They Mask Their Resentment With a Smile
Underneath that phony smile is a lot of aggression. But they will not express it directly. Sugary, sweet comments will accompanied by a dash of sarcasm or a cloaked barb.
7. They Retaliate
Instead of telling you they are angry or upset with you, they will plot revenge. Nasty rumors, anonymous emails, turning the boss against you or exposing your secrets are some of the methods employed by PA people. They may give you the silent treatment, withhold praise or intimacy, be hyper critical of you or your work or engage in sabotage. But they will get back at you on the sly, not daring to confront you outright.
Dealing with Passive Aggressive People
So how do you deal with passive aggressive people? I'm not sure that you can. It's like playing cards with someone who cheats. You are trying to be honest with someone who is not. What can you hope to gain from that?
You may try to bring their behavior into the light, to confront then directly or discuss the situation openly, but they will dodge and parry, lying and hiding and perhaps resorting to retaliation on the sly. They abhor open confrontation and cannot tolerate dealing with things directly. If you are in a personal relationship with a passive aggressive person, you may have to reconsider it. If it is a work relationship you may have to force their hand and hope your colleagues see what they are up to, or bite your tongue and wait for everyone else to see what they are dealing with. Either way, remember not to be swayed by their sweetness and light. They may be this way to your face, but if you've become aware of them sabotaging you behind your back, remember this and don't fall for their smiles.