A woman looks over at a man in a disappointed way.

Passive aggression—we’ve all seen it and probably done it. The snide comment. The chronic lateness. The purposely misplaced papers. The deliberately cryptic “vaguebook” post. 

Passive-aggressive behavior quietly screams, “I don’t want to do this,” while avoiding speaking those words aloud. 

You know it's a bad thing. Human brains don't deal well with uncertainty and passive aggression leaves everyone walking on eggshells, unsure of what they've done wrong. 

So why do we do it? 

Beneath these petty moves lie layers of motives, and most of them are tied to aspects of personality that we all possess to varying degrees.

Is passive-aggression really you?

It’s hard to self-identify with negative habits so you may not realize you're engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. But if you're hearing through the grapevine that you haven’t been playing fair, it’s time to do a spot check.

Identifying passive-aggressive behavior takes some brutal honesty. It can be masked by politeness, subtle and misleading body language, or outright deceit. Are you generally known for sarcastic remarks, deliberate “accidents,” repetitive teasing or criticism, or agreeing to tasks but not following through? Are people confused about what your true intentions are? You may not be aware of your own passive-aggression, but others are. 

Passive aggression can look like:

  • Saying one thing and doing another.
  • Consistently failing at a task to avoid being asked again.
  • Purposely frustrating a task to set low expectations.
  • Insisting you’re innocent when confronted with the behavior.
  • Patronizing attitudes, backhanded compliments, ghosting or gaslighting.
  • Shifting blame from yourself onto anyone else.
  • Email phrases like, “per my last email,” “going forward,” or “for future reference.”
  • Friendship phrases like, “no offense,” “just kidding,” or “you’re so sensitive.”
  • Relationship phrases like, “I’m fine,” “whatever,” or “I didn’t know you meant now.”
  • Texting single-words or even letters like, “K”, “nevermind,” “fine” or “???”

The personality link 

There are few, if any, personality trait patterns or cognitive functions that can help explain passive-aggressive tendencies, at least in any consistent and reliable way. 

But the following thoughts are interesting to note.

Certain personalities struggle with communicating directly and assertively. In the 16-type system, the types most likely to have trouble verbalizing their opinions are ISFP, INFP, INTP and ISFJ. These are the types most likely to lapse into passive-aggression—but they do so for very different reasons.  


The ISFP Composer is not naturally assertive. Their dominant function is Introverted Feeling (Fi),  which means they can be pretty cool on the outside and are not comfortable verbalizing their emotions. On the inside, they could be a perfect storm. 

Distant and aloof on a good day, they are terrible communicators in times of conflict. ISFPs have a habit of deferring to others and trivializing their own needs. Part of that is they are so empathetic that they feel someone else’s pain or unhappiness as if it were their own. 

In conflict, they might go with the flow for a while, avoiding direct confrontation and hoping it all blows over, but would rather drop the relationship entirely than face a direct conflict. All of this makes passive-aggression very tempting. In a way, it's the lesser but more self-serving of two evils, allowing the ISFP to retaliate without facing any uncomfortable emotions. 


INFP Healers are passionate but private people. They are also Fi dominant, which leaves these Introverted Feelers intensely unwilling to express feelings in public. Intent on keeping the peace, they may deliberately ignore someone when spoken to or make vague social media posts to express their anger indirectly, hoping they take the hint.

As open-minded and accommodating as INFPs are, it's easy for repressed feelings to build up in these sensitive types and leak out passive aggressively. 


INTP Architects can, in theory, offend others on a good day with their scrutinizing, logical approach to what others think. This personality leads with Ti, or Introverted Thinking, which means they quickly get lost in their inward thoughts, sometimes neglecting even their basic needs. When they rub up against someone who is biased, judgmental or insincere in their opinions, they will play devil’s advocate or pick apart the ideas, looking for the logic.

But if things become heated, the INTP's first reaction is to retreat. They take criticism personally and march all the more strongly to the beat of their own drum, drumming out the sounds of others and intellectualizing their anger behind a wall of calm. 

It takes a great deal of time for INTPs to decide what they think—not what they feel—before they can take their conclusions public. It can feel so much easier to be passive aggressive in the meantime.


Our Protectors, ISFJs, have Introverted Sensing (Si) as their dominant cognitive function, and use it as a frame of reference as they navigate their world. Focused on being good, cooperative and helpful citizens, they hate conflict. They fear that expressing their true feelings would make them look bad, so they take their strong values and emotions underground.

ISFJs may passively withhold warmth from those they have unresolved issues with. Their serious and sober personality—plus a mile-wide stubborn streak—leaves them vulnerable to passive-aggressive behavior. Because they are so private with their true feelings and can take criticism personally, being sulky or headstrong feels like a safer alternative to open confrontations.

What's the resolution?

When we peel back the surface issues, we find that the actual reasons behind passive-aggressive behavior involve suppressed feelings of anger, resentment or unhappiness. 

Often, these feelings are held in for so long that they fester to the surface and make you lash out. And, for whatever reason, you will not or cannot make yourself heard. So you appear to be agreeable on the outside but turn around and rebel in secret, trying to get your message across without actually articulating it.

The bigger problem is the loop it creates. You obsess about getting even, getting away with it, and getting what you need by going completely around the person. It’s faked politeness and weaponized kindness—behaviors that can leave the person on the other end of this behavior feeling hurt, confused, distanced and upset.

The solution? Recognize that passive-aggressive behavior damages trust and erodes relationships. Solving conflict requires the courage to communicate transparently, the calmness to initiate and follow through with conflict-resolution steps, and the willingness to accept uncomfortable compromise when necessary. It's a tough but necessary choice to make. In the long run, healthy communication will help you feel better about yourself and your relationships overall. 

Jolie Tunnell
Jolie Tunnell is an author, freelance writer and blogger with a background in administration and education. Raising a Variety Pack of kids with her husband, she serves up hard-won wisdom with humor, compassion and insight. Jolie is an ISTJ and lives in San Diego, California where she writes historical mysteries. Visit her at jolietunnell.com