Passive-Aggressive People: 9 Traits and Characteristics

Passive-aggressive people have a very peculiar way of relating and communicating. Discover 9 of their main characteristics.
Passive-Aggressive People: 9 Traits and Characteristics
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 23 April, 2023

Does this concept ring a bell? As you’ll see in the following article, the fundamental characteristic of passive-aggressive people is a behavioral pattern of opposition and passive responses toward the demands coming from the environment or from others.

If we go to the extreme of this way of being, we find passive-aggressive personality disorder, which is listed as such in the DSM-IV-TR, but no longer in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Passive-aggressive personality disorder is the fourth most prevalent, with a presence in outpatients of 12.4%. It’s located after narcissistic (35.4%),  borderline (23%), and histrionic (14%) personality disorders.

Andrea Brandt, Ph.D. in psychology and author of the book 8 Keys to Eliminate Passive-Aggressive Behavior, explains that passive aggression is a way of expressing angry feelings in an apparently non-hostile way. In other words, passive-aggressive people apply aggression when they get angry, but in a very subtle and masked way, as if they wanted to put disguise it.

Communication styles

Before delving into the traits of passive-aggressive people, we’re going to explain the three types of styles that we can adopt when communicating. These would be the following:

  • Assertive: Communication that respects one’s own rights and those of others.
  • Passive: Letting others violate our rights.
  • Aggressive: Violating the rights of others.

Therefore, in passive-aggressive people, the style they adopt when communicating oscillates between passive and aggressive, but often in a masked or subtle way. In addition, there’s an alternation of different behaviors that can confuse the listener or interlocutor, making it difficult for them to understand if they’re being attacked or what’s happening.

“Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.”

William Butler Yeats

A woman showing contempt on her face.
Contempt, envy, and feigned indifference are passive-aggressive characteristics.

Passive Aggressive People: 9 Traits and Characteristics

We’ve collected some traits and characteristics of this type of person. They refer to their way of acting, thinking, attacking others, and protecting themselves. The criteria for choosing these characteristics and not others are based, above all, on the diagnostic points of the passive-aggressive personality disorder of the DSM-IV-TR. Let’s take a look at them!

1. Passive resistance

One of the main traits of passive-aggressive people is a passive resistance to performing adequately in their social routine and in their academic or work environment. How is this translated? In small day-to-day acts, such as the use of silence to distance oneself from the other person and act as if they were invisible or through camouflaged attacks through language (jokes).

2. Hostility

There’s also a certain hostility in these people, which translates into irritability, moodiness, and ease of arguing. Sometimes it can be very subtle and is camouflaged through jokes or irony.

In fact, they’re usually experts at sarcasm. They may not directly say that something has bothered them, but instead choose to use this technique to attack the other. Frequently, under all this hostility, hides a camouflaged anger that the person externalizes through language.

3. Alternation of threats and regret

Another central trait of passive-aggressive people is this alternation between hostile threats and regret. That is, the person can go from one state to another in any situation and quickly.

4. A tendency to blame

Passive aggressive people tend to blame others and play the victim, through their characteristic communication style that’s often difficult to detect or understand. In addition, they can show resentment and let the other know, but in an indirect or camouflaged way.

“He who blames others has a long way to go on his journey. He who blames himself is halfway there. He who blames no one has arrived.”


5. Emotional dependency

Emotional dependence would be another trait of passive-aggressive people. In other words, although it seems that they don’t need anyone or that they despise others, a brutal emotional dependence is hidden under all this. In addition, they also tend to victimize themselves and try to make others believe that nobody understands them or that nobody listens to them.

6. Misunderstanding

Passive-aggressive people complain that nobody understands them, as we said in the previous point. They also do it because they feel despised by others.

“My misunderstanding is misunderstood, which I don’t even understand when doubt blinds my reason.”

-Laura Galo-

7. Shows of envy

Another characteristic feature of these people is that they’re envious and resentful toward others, supposedly because they’re more fortunate than them (or so they feel). Through envy, these people feel miserable for not having something that others do have.

8. Manipulating

Manipulating involves voluntarily influencing someone to achieve a certain end. Passive-aggressive people may resort to manipulation to get what they want.

How do they do that? For example through combining negative, defeatist, and challenging attitudes. They also feign indifference, when in reality they don’t feel that way.

9. Open complaints

Finally, passive-aggressive people openly complain. Their complaints are often exaggerated and may refer to having bad luck or not deserving what happens to them.

Tension between colleagues in the workplace.
In workplaces, passive-aggressive communication complicates daily tasks and goals.

Traits vs. Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder

We’ve attempted to capture what a passive-aggressive person is like, although we want to remind you that in order to diagnose a personality disorder, the criteria defined in the DSM-IV-TR must be met, in addition to significant interference or discomfort in the individual’s life.

In this regard, it should be clear that we’ve talked about characteristics of people with this passive-aggressive tendency, not of those with the established disorder. Knowing the traits can help us understand them, but also to be alert when we interact with them, as their behavior style can affect us negatively.

It’s also true that we can all go through times in which certain personality characteristics are accentuated. When this becomes a constant and maladaptive pattern or habit, it’s important to take a look at ourselves and go to therapy if we feel we need it.

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Psychological Disorders: What Are They and How Do They Manifest Themselves?
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Psychological Disorders: What Are They and How Do They Manifest Themselves?

Psychological disorders are defined as behavior patterns that clearly deviate from the norm. Learn more in the following article.

  • American Psychiatric Association -APA- (2000). DSM-IV-TR. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4thEdition Reviewed). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Belloch, A., Sandín, B. y Ramos, F. (2010). Manual de Psicopatología. Volumen II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.

Los contenidos de esta publicación se redactan solo con fines informativos. En ningún momento pueden servir para facilitar o sustituir diagnósticos, tratamientos o recomentaciones provenientes de un profesional. Consulta con tu especialista de confianza ante cualquier duda y busca su aprobación antes de iniciar o someterse a cualquier procedimiento.