Passive Aggressive Sarcasm: Why we do it & how to nip it in the bud

We all know someone who seems to pride themselves in their passive aggressive comments. They snap “nothing” when asked what’s wrong, respond to texts with a “K” to make their disapproval known, and seem to always have a strong opinion they’re not explicitly stating. This might be a friend, your partner, a family member… heck, it might even be you!

If you’re trying to understand why people respond passive aggressively, or if you’re constantly finding yourself saying petty and sarcastic things when you’re upset, look no further. In this guide, we’ll cover why people respond in this way and why it’s a problem. Once we understand the “why,” we’ll cover how to both stop being passive aggressive and how to respond to someone acting this way.

Hang on, Tali, what makes you the expert?

The best way to learn about an experience is through the eyes of someone who’s lived, it, right?

I spent an embarrassing chunk of my twenties doling out passive aggressive comments. I snapped that “nothing’s wrong” and gave silent treatments. I doubled down on petty remarks instead of being upfront about things that bothered. It was dumb, and rarely resolved the issue at hand.

But passive aggressiveness was how I saw other friends, family members, and partners communicating, and it felt like the only tool I had at the time. So I used it.

Then, in the last few years, I started spending more time with two people who made me question why I was behaving that way. They constantly disarmed me with their genuine desire to understand. While everyone else brushed off sarcastic comments, they responded with patience and compassion. They made sure everyone felt comfortable enough to be direct and honest instead of hiding behind petty comments.

With time, I learned to communicate in a much healthier and more productive way. I’m not perfect, I still have my bad days when I make snarky comments instead of being candid. But I’ve come a long way from the person I was before.

Why are people passive aggressively sarcastic?

I made a 3-part video series on just this topic. The first video covers this very question: why are people passive aggressively sarcastic? I’ll summarize it in the sections below.

What is passive aggressive sarcasm?

Passive aggressiveness is anything that’s meant to deliver a message of anger, spite, or frustration instead of directly acknowledging a problem. While there are many forms of passive aggressiveness, such as backhanded compliments and patronizing, this guide will focus on sarcasm.

Sarcasm in the context of passive aggressiveness is using irony or mocking to express irritation without outwardly stating we’re upset. Some classic examples:

  • Saying “fine,” “whatever,” or “OK then” when we’re unhappy with an outcome
  • Texting “K” when we’re annoyed
  • The good ol’ “nothing” when asked what’s wrong,
  • “Wow, sounds like fun” or “woulda been nice to be invited” in response to learning about plans that took place without us
  • “Fine, I guess I’ll just…” followed by whatever task we weren’t able to outsource
  • “I love it when…” followed by whatever someone did to upset us
  • “Big surprise” when a friend does something we find frustrating and predictable (i.e. running late, cancelling plans)

All these phrases can be used in regular conversation and not necessarily be passive aggressive; don’t worry, your grandma isn’t being petty when she comments “Wow, looks like fun!” on your vacation photos. And not all sarcasm is malicious.

Like all communication, it’s not about what’s being said, but how it’s being said. The tone, inflection, and body language often give it away (eyerolls and raised eyebrows reign supreme). Not to mention, when someone is being passive aggressive, they want you to know something’s wrong.

Why we respond passive aggressively

Like breaking any bad habit, to stop being passive aggressive, we need to first understand why we’re doing it.

Passive aggression is a defense mechanism rooted in fear. We use passive aggressive sarcasm to indirectly express that we’re hurt or angry when we’re afraid to be honest about our feelings.

We may feel feel upset, disrespected, disappointed, excluded, or rejected. We’re afraid about being upfront about our feelings might get us rejected, laughed at, dismissed, or misunderstood, so we avoid sharing them explicitly.

This fear may come from…

1. Believing we’re not worthy

This is fear that if we speak up, our friend, family member, or partner may leave us. If a friend makes us feel unimportant, but deep down we think we’re barely fitting in as is, we feel powerless to say anything for fear of stirring the pot. If a partner makes us feel disrespected, but we subconsciously believe we don’t deserve them to begin with, we fear asking for too much.

2. Thinking people don’t want to listen or change

We may resort to sarcasm if we think people are unwilling to understand our needs or change their behavior. If someone does something that hurts us, and we believe that’s just the way things are, we conclude that speaking up won’t accomplish anything anyway. Why risk the embarrassment of sharing how we feel if nothing will change anyway?

3. Not having better communication tools

We might also lack the tools or confidence to communicate our emotions. If all we’ve ever seen is our parents, friends, or romantic partners being passive aggressive as a way of communicating their feelings, it’s no wonder we’d fall into the same habits.

See the source image

Kermit sipping tea: The ultimate symbol of passive aggressive sarcasm. The meme takes a dig at a person or group, and then pretends not to actually be bothered.

The problems with passive aggressive sarcasm

Passive aggressive sarcasm is pretty much the most ineffective form of communication. Not only does it fail to resolve whatever issue is bothering us, but it also damages our relationships and self-esteem.

1. Passive aggressive sarcasm undermines our relationships

When we respond to anger with sarcasm, we send the message to whoever we’re talking to that they’re incapable of dealing with the issue at hand. We’re deliberately making the situation uncomfortable by playing games. We’re punishing whoever upset us, instead of trusting them to hear us out and giving them chance to respond.  

Passive aggressive sarcasm tells people that we don’t trust them or value the relationship enough to be honest about what’s bothering us.

2. It doesn’t actually resolve the thing we’re upset about

Here’s the kicker: All that those sarcastic remarks are for naught. They don’t get whatever bothered us in the first place resolved.

These indirect jabs rarely get an honest conversation started about what’s really going on. Sure, the other person can tell we’re angry, and they might have an idea of why. But it doesn’t make sense to expect someone else to do all the heavy lifting of addressing the problem if we don’t meet them halfway. Meaningful conflict resolution can only take place when we’re honest about what’s going on.

3. It’s damaging to our self-esteem

This is the most troubling thing about passive aggressive sarcasm. It’s a behavior that reaffirms whatever negative beliefs cause it in the first place.

Every time we respond sarcastically instead of telling someone how they made us feel, we’re teaching ourselves that we don’t deserve to be heard and have our problems addressed. Because sarcasm rarely leads to conflict resolution, we’re confirming our subconscious beliefs that nobody cares about how we feel, that we’re powerless to say anything, and that this is the only way we can respond when things don’t go our way.

That’s a pretty shitty lesson to be teaching ourselves over and over again, when really what we want at the end of the day is to feel seen and heard.

If you truly want a different outcome – for your buddy to stop canceling last minute, for your partner to put away their phone and spend quality time with you, to be included in your friends’ plans, to feel your opinions are heard – you have to take responsibility for communicating your needs.

And if you don’t want a different outcome… well, ask yourself: why not? If someone made you feel so angry that you want to lash out with a sarcastic remark, doesn’t that warrant at least some introspection about your own self-worth?

How to stop being passive aggressive

If you want to take a break from reading, watch the second video from my three-part series that answers this question. Otherwise, read on for a summary.

While sarcasm sometimes feels like the only socially acceptable way to respond when we’ve been wronged and we’re worried about stirring the pot, there’s a healthy alternative that allows us to have our needs met and improve our relationships. It’s deceptively simple, but it’s not always easy, and takes practice (along with a healthy dose of vulnerability).

Right now, take a moment and write down a simple phrase that can keep you grounded next time you’re itching to say something passive aggressive. Think of something that can make you feel open to responding differently, something that will trigger you take a step back from the situation. I’ve included some examples below:

  • “My goal is to be authentic and honest with the people I’m close with”
  • “I’m respecting my friendship by being honest”
  • “I’m respecting my relationship by not playing games”
  • “I’m worthy of this relationship”
  • “People deserve the benefit of the doubt”
  • “It’s up to me to communicate what’s wrong”

The next time you feel the urge to respond to something that bothers you with sarcasm:

1. Take a breath.

Take a moment to catch your breath. Take a step back. Remember the phrase you chose keep you grounded and honest.

2. Identify what’s really bothering you

Be honest with yourself. What made you angry or annoyed just now? Anger is almost always fear or hurt in disguise. See if you can dig a little deeper.

Did you feel disrespected? Embarrassed? Rejected? Excluded? Ignored? Unimportant? Unseen? Unheard?

3. Give your feedback

Tell the other person how they made you feel. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to feel like a dramatic affair where everyone sits in a circle and talks about their feelings for hours. You’re not derailing the whole conversation or starting an intervention. It can be much more casual than that.

It helps me to think of this as giving feedback. We give and receive feedback at work all the time – addressing and working through problems is something we expect as a key part of keeping business running. You can think of giving feedback in your personal life the same way – it’s a necessary part of keeping relationships healthy and strong.

A simple way to bring up something that bothers you is through a “When you…, I feel…” statement.

“When you cancel our plans at the last minute, I feel like my time isn’t important to you, and like our friendship isn’t a priority”

“When you pull out your phone in the middle of a conversation, I feel like you don’t really want to spend time with me, and it makes me feel unimportant”

“When you invited everyone but me to your party, I felt like I was being excluded, and it hurt”

You get the idea. “When you… I feel” statements bring attention to the problem objectively. This keeps things from escalating by avoiding accusations like “YOU always cancel,” “YOU never listen,” etc.

Nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s worth trying

A quick reminder: We can’t always get what we want. Even when we do our best to communicate, others may disagree with our expectations, proceed with their plans regardless, or repeat the thing that bothered us in the future.

That’s fine. The world doesn’t revolve around us and doesn’t owe us anything just because we decided to set a higher bar for ourselves. Not to mention, people aren’t perfect, and some level of disagreement is inevitable no matter how healthy the relationship. We may not always get the outcome we desire, but that doesn’t mean the effort to communicate our feelings wasn’t worth it.

Worst case scenario is we tried but didn’t get what we wanted anyway. That certainly feels better than not trying at all, or saying something snarky, and wondering what would’ve happened if we were honest instead. Like most things self-growth, there’s not a lot to lose, but a whole lot to gain.

The message we send to ourselves and our loved ones when we choose to speak candidly instead of resorting to passive aggressive comments is in itself worthwhile.

How to respond to passive aggressive sarcasm

Check out video 3 of my mini-series on passive aggressive sarcasm (but don’t worry, I go over the same steps below)

So you’ve found yourself a target of a snide remark. Or maybe the conversation isn’t going anywhere because someone is dominating it with passive aggressive one-liners.

Hopefully by now, we agree that passive aggressiveness stems from fear. Yes, there are plenty of articles that will tell you that people who say passive aggressively things are toxic. Those articles recommend ignoring their behavior, treating them like a kid throwing a fit, or shutting them down by “killing them with kindness.”

That seems pretty patronizing. If you don’t care about the relationship or just need to get through the day without your coworker’s sarcasm bringing you down, feel free to take that advice.

But I think there’s room in our world for a bit more compassion than that. After all, we’re dealing with our friends, partners, and family members here. We should at least try to come from a place of understanding before we start labeling them as malicious.

From my personal experience, the most effective way to disarm someone who makes sarcastic remarks is to see their comments as a cry for help, and show them that you take their concerns seriously.

But doesn’t responding with compassion just reward the behavior?

You might think that responding this way just encourages the other person to continue their behavior in the future. Quite the opposite. This response shows the passive aggressive person that your relationship matters enough to want to resolve any issues. It teaches our passive aggressive friend that they are safe to be honest. It shows our partner that we do care about their feelings. It reminds our family member that they can trust us.

As I mentioned earlier, I have two people in my life that do this effortlessly. For them, addressing the passive aggressive comment doesn’t come from a sense of frustration (“ugh, Tali’s being passive, here we go again”). It comes from a sense of curiosity and understanding (“oh, Tali seems afraid to tell me why she’s upset… I wonder what’s really going on here”).

My relationships with these people deepened because I learned I don’t have to hide my feelings with sarcasm. They continually responded with compassion and kindness. Eventually, I learned I don’t need to be sarcastic to get my message across to them. I found myself comfortable enough to skip the snide remark altogether and get straight to what’s really going on.

This response opened my eyes to how I can better communicate my feelings. More importantly, it taught me that I do deserve to be heard up when I’m upset. That’s a beautiful thing, and I’m eternally grateful for the growth I’ve experienced because of their kindness.

Most of us ignore passive aggressive comments (because they’re annoying and make us uncomfortable) and then gossip about them with others later. I’m certainly guilty of this myself. Instead of just letting passive aggressive comments slide (or rolling our eyes), let’s have a plan for how to respond to people in a healthy way:

1. Take a deep breath.

Take a step back before reacting. Give yourself a moment to see the bigger picture.

2. Remember that this person is probably hurt

If someone is lashing out, chances are it’s not about you and more about their own insecurities and fears. Beneath the obvious anger, there’s probably pain they’re afraid to share. If we care about this person at all, we must remind ourselves that they’re just asking for help with the best tools they have. It really sucks to have your feelings hurt but feel powerless to say anything.

Think about how you can convey curiosity and understanding, rather than frustration.

3. Offer open-ended questions

This can be as simple as “Hey, what’s going on? It seems like there’s something bothering you” or “What do you mean by that?”

Keep it open ended. Asking a defensive person yes-or-no questions like “is something bothering you?” or “is everything OK?” will likely just elicit more sarcastic responses like “NOPE, I’m fine” or “Oh yeah, TOTALLY.”

It’ll probably take a few attempts and some prying to get the passive aggressive person to feel safe enough to open up. They may not take your question seriously. In that case, follow up by letting them know you’re truly interested in understanding: “It feels like you’re upset about something I said. I want to understand so I can help.”

If they’re not budging or insisting on moving on, you can always say “OK, but if you change your mind later and want to talk, I’m open to it.” This is less about stopping the sarcasm right away, and more about creating an atmosphere where the person knows they can be honest when they’re ready.

Remember, people don’t stop being passive aggressive overnight

You’re not going to get someone to stop being passive aggressive right away. Sarcastic remarks are a result of many years of someone feeling like they’re not allowed to express their true feelings, and of having that belief reaffirmed by everyone who shrugged them off. It takes time and effort to undo that kind of learning.

Have some patience. We’re all just doing our best with the tools we have, and most of us are still working with the rusty old hammer that our parents handed down to us when we moved out. If you’ve been blessed with a better toolbox, all you can do is share your knowledge and demonstrate to that person they have a whole range of other options to consider.

And if after months or years of trying, someone still refuses to meet us halfway and continues to be passive aggressive, at least we know we’ve done our part. At the end of the day, that’s all we can really ask for.

We all deserve better.

Passive aggressive sarcasm is a defense mechanism that keeps us from communicating how we really feel. Many of us have learned it to be the only response available to us when we’re upset. When we instead choose patience and honesty, we teach ourselves and the people in our lives how to communicate in a healthier and more effective way.

I hope you’ve found this guide on passive aggressive sarcasm helpful. What tips do you have for dealing with a passive aggressive friend or partner? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Summary of this guide

Passive aggressive sarcasm is using ironic or mocking remarks to indirectly express frustration without actually admitting we feel angry or hurt.

  • People respond in this way because they’re afraid sharing their feelings may get them rejected, laughed at, dismissed, or misunderstood.
  • This can come from feeling unworthy, believing that people are unwilling to listen, or not having any other communication tools.

Problems with passive aggressive sarcasm:

  1. It undermines our relationships
  2. It doesn’t actually resolve the thing we’re upset about
  3. It’s damaging to our self-esteem

How to stop being passive aggressive and sarcastic:

  1. Take a deep breath. Think of your grounding phrase
  2. Identify what’s truly bothering you. What do you feel beneath the anger?
  3. Give your feedback using “When you do XYZ, I feel…” statements

How to respond to passive aggressive or sarcastic comments:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Remember that this person is probably hurt, but too afraid to say it
  3. Offer an open-ended question. Remember that it’ll likely take a little prying to get the passive aggressive person to feel safe enough to open up

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