What Makes Certain Language Passive-Aggressive?

Per my last email!
grumpy orange cat making a scowling face passive-aggressive language

When CNBC published a guide for avoiding passive-aggressive language, a lot of people had something to say about it on Twitter. Though the argument was that it’s better to replace “Per my last email” with “I’m following up on the below,” a lot of people were very divided in the comments over which version was actually more passive-aggressive — the cliches or the attempts to soften the cliches?

Other suggestions included changing “For future reference” to “In case it’s helpful,” or replacing “Going forward” with “How about we try doing.” It’s easy to see why there’s no clear consensus on what makes certain language sound more passive-aggressive. Both versions could potentially come across as petty in the right tone or context, because at the end of the day, they’re just different ways of potentially masking your annoyance at someone.

All of this really just brings us to an interesting question: what actually qualifies as passive-aggressive language? How does an otherwise innocuous statement become so loaded with potential complications?

The Four Communication Styles

Perhaps you’ve heard this one before, but there are four basic communication styles on the spectrum of “hostile” to “constructive.”

There’s passive communication, which is where people avoid overtly expressing their thoughts at all and generally don’t stand up for themselves until they’ve been pushed to the point of having a sudden outburst.

Aggressive communication is pretty much the opposite. This is when people express themselves in an alienating way that’s often verbally or physically abusive toward others.

Assertive communicators will say what’s on their mind while maintaining respect for both themselves and others. They’ll do things like use “I” statements, listen without interrupting, and state their needs and wants clearly.

All of that, of course, leads us to passive-aggressive communication. This is kind of a blend of the first two styles, where the true substance of what’s being communicated actually registers as aggressive but it’s presented in a muted or stifled way.

Passive-aggressive communication tends to occur most frequently in situations where someone doesn’t feel able or empowered to say what they want directly (professional emails are basically a petri dish for this sort of thing). It can also arise in situations where someone thinks that expressing themselves directly will make things worse or harder for themselves, so they make their displeasure known in a more subtle way as a means of shutting down further communication.

What Does Passive-Aggressive Language Look Like?

Usually, what makes passive-aggressive language isn’t necessarily the language itself. It’s often the mismatch between the words themselves and the tone, facial expressions and other nonverbal language that goes along with it. From that standpoint, it’s easy to see why emails and texts can feel like verbal landmines. People can misinterpret something as passive-aggressive when it wasn’t intended that way at all.

In general, passive-aggressive communication can often be spotted in the wild as someone muttering under their breath or giving someone dirty looks, smiling when they’re clearly angry or upset, being sarcastic, making backhanded compliments or even purposely sabotaging the other person as a form of quiet revenge.

In that sense, any statement can sound passive-aggressive if you say it in a certain way. But there are some phrases that are so “textbook catty” that they’ve become passive-aggressive cliches.

Among these: “I’m not mad.” (The person is clearly mad.) Or, “Sure, whatever.” (The person is clearly not “whatever.”)

It’s not just English, obviously. Each language has its own set of familiar cliches when it comes to this sort of thing, but certain commonalities can be found almost anywhere you go.

Just about any place with an office culture will recognize a variation of “per my last email,” and so long as you’re gritting your teeth while attempting to smile your way through a statement, you’ll probably achieve the right effect.

Exaggerated politeness is a big thing in Portuguese, and just about any sentence that begins with se ruega (“kind reminder”) in Spanish is likely to be passive-aggressive. In Sweden, leaving angry notes around the office is almost de rigueur, and the French might speak subversively with a smile to people they may not like very much.

If what you’re looking for is a linguistic tell, though, you can make a statement sound more passive-aggressive in Polish by using the construction “would like” (in the sense of “I would like to point out that…”). Also, a well-placed ellipsis at the end of a sentence in Italian can do a lot of work when you’re trying to sound shady.

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