Ever wonder why that coworker always avoids direct eye contact during meetings or why your friend takes hours to text you back but is constantly posting on social media? Chances are, you’re dealing with passive aggression. Passive aggressive behavior is frustrating to experience, but the good news is that there are subtle cues you can look for to spot it. By paying close attention to body language and other nonverbal signals, you can identify passive aggression and better navigate interactions.

What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive aggressive behavior is indirect hostility, where someone expresses negative feelings in a subtle, indirect manner instead of openly addressing them. Rather than say what’s really bothering them, a passively aggressive person uses sarcasm, indifference, stubbornness, and resentment to get even.

Common signs of passive aggressive behavior:

  1. avoiding direct confrontation or communication by being vague or ambiguous.
  2. Constant lateness, procrastination, or forgetting to do things as a way to exert control or express anger
  3. sulking, pouting, or shutting down when asked to do something they don’t want to do.
  4. Making excuses or lying to cover up mistakes rather than just apologizing.
  5. leaving nasty notes or sending hostile emails rather than addressing issues face-to-face.
  6. Ignoring people or giving them the silent treatment’ as punishment
  7. deliberately doing a poor job on unpleasant tasks as a way to rebel or get revenge.

The underlying anger, resentment, and frustration of the passive-aggressive person often stem from a lack of assertiveness and an inability to express emotions in a healthy way. Their behavior causes problems in relationships and the workplace. The key is learning better communication skills, addressing issues openly, and finding constructive ways to deal with negative feelings.

Common Passive-Aggressive Personality Traits

Passive, aggressive people are masters of manipulation, and their behavior can be hard to spot. Some common traits to look out for are:

Lack of direct communication

Rather than clearly voicing their needs or concerns, passively aggressive people rely on hints, sarcasm, and vagueness. They expect you to read their minds and know what they want without actually saying it.


They chronically put off tasks and responsibilities, usually as a way to avoid direct communication or to inconvenience others. You ask them to do something, and they drag their feet for days or weeks before half-heartedly completing the task.

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When they don’t get their way or feel slighted in some imagined way, passively aggressive people will pout, sulk, and give you the silent treatment. They want you to feel guilty for upsetting them without actually discussing the issue.

Playing the victim

Passive, aggressive people never take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They always blame external factors for their behavior and expect others to feel sorry for their plight. According to them, nothing is ever their fault.


Whether it’s affection, intimacy, praise, or everyday helpfulness, passively aggressive people will withhold to keep you craving their approval and to maintain control. They want you to walk on eggshells, always trying to please them.

The only way to deal with a passive, aggressive person is through direct, honest communication. Don’t get drawn into their manipulative behavior. Call them out on the spot and demand an open discussion. It may feel uncomfortable, but establishing healthy boundaries is the only way to break the cycle.

Passive-aggressive body language

Passive-aggressive body language is a way of expressing negative emotions or hostility without using words. It can include gestures, facial expressions, posture, eye contact, and tone of voice. Some examples of passive-aggressive body language are:

1. Crossed arms and legs signal defensiveness.

Crossed arms and legs signal defensiveness.
Crossed arms and legs signal defensiveness.

Crossed arms and legs are a dead giveaway that someone is feeling defensive or closed off. When a person crosses their arms over their chest or crosses their legs tightly, it signals they are protecting themselves or resisting the interaction on some level.

Crossing arms restricts blood flow, constricting energy in the body. The person is subconsciously protecting their heart and other vulnerable areas. It also creates a barrier between themselves and the other person. If you’re talking with someone who has their arms crossed, don’t take offense. Politely ask open-ended questions to make them feel more at ease and build rapport. As they relax, their arms may uncross, indicating they are open to exchanging ideas.

Crossing legs can also be a self-soothing behavior for anxiety or stress. The person is attempting to relieve discomfort and ground themselves. However, crossed legs prevent quick movement, showing the person does not feel entirely safe or comfortable. Look for other cues, like lack of eye contact, tense posture, or fidgeting hands, that may confirm discomfort. Do your best to be patient, Esten, without judgment, and lighten the mood. Once the person relaxes, their legs may uncross, which is a sign they are ready to engage in a more positive way.

The key is not to call unwanted attention to these defensive behaviors or force interaction. Remain open and inviting, allowing the person to uncross in their own time as they become more at ease. Their body language will naturally adjust as their mood improves and guards come down. With sensitivity and understanding, you can navigate an interaction with a defensive person successfully by letting their body language guide the flow and pace.

2. Eye rolling and sighing show irritation.

Eye rolling and sighing are two of the most common signs that someone is feeling irritated or annoyed in a passive-aggressive way. When someone rolls their eyes at you, it shows they feel exasperated or think what you said was ridiculous. Eye rolling is a dismissive gesture that conveys contempt for the other person. It’s a nonverbal way of saying “whatever” or “you’re an idiot.”

Sighing loudly is another way to express irritation without directly confronting the issue. A sigh can signal boredom, impatience, or frustration with the situation or person. Loud, exaggerated sighs are meant to be noticed by others and make them feel like an inconvenience or annoyance.

Both eye rolling and sighing are meant to be subtle enough to have plausible deniability but obvious enough to elicit a reaction from the target person. The passive-aggressive person can then act innocent, claiming, “What? I didn’t do anything!” when confronted about their behavior.

Other related nonverbal cues to watch out for include:

  • Tutting or clicking their tongue shows disapproval or annoyance.
  • Crossed arms create a physical barrier and can indicate defensiveness, hostility, or detachment.
  • Lack of eye contact avoids engaging directly and can signal discomfort, deception, or detachment.
  • Tense posture—hunched shoulders, clenched jaw, etc.—can show suppressed anger or anxiety.
  • A forced smile—an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes—can hide underlying tension or negative feelings.

Spotting these subtle signs of irritation and addressing the underlying issues with the passive-aggressive person can help improve communication and set clear boundaries. But ultimately, you may need to spend less time with constant eye rollers and sighs for your own wellbeing.

3. Poor posture conveys disinterest.

Poor posture conveys disinterest.
Poor posture conveys disinterest.

Poor posture is a sign that someone is disengaged or uninterested in the interaction. When someone slouches, hunches over, or crosses their arms, it usually means they have checked out mentally and emotionally.


If the person you’re talking with is slumping in their chair with their shoulders rolled forward and their spine curved, they probably don’t want to be there. Slouching is a subconscious attempt to appear smaller and less threatening, indicating a lack of confidence or enthusiasm. Try engaging them by asking open-ended questions and making eye contact to bring them back into the conversation.

Crossed Arms

Crossing arms is a defensive position that signals that the person is closed off. It’s a way to literally close themselves off from the interaction by creating a barrier with their limbs. Even if crossed arms are accompanied by a smile, the posture suggests discomfort or distrust. Look for other cues to determine the meaning, as crossed arms alone may just indicate habit or comfort. Uncrossing arms tends to make people feel more open and receptive.


Excessive fidgeting like foot tapping, leg bouncing, or finger drumming shows restlessness and impatience. The person wants out of the situation and is eagerly awaiting escape. Fidgeting may be due to discomfort, anxiety, boredom, or disagreement with what’s being said. Gently call attention to the fidgeting by saying something like, “I notice your leg is bouncing. Everything ok?” Address the root cause of their discomfort or suggest taking a quick break.

Spotting these and other passive-aggressive behaviors is the first step. Then you can make an effort to re-engage the person, set them at ease, clarify any misunderstandings, and improve the interaction. With awareness and the right communication, you may find their body language transform as their attitude shifts to one of openness and interest.

4. Fake smiles and forced laughter are red flags.

Fake smiles and forced laughter are two of the biggest red flags to watch out for when dealing with a passive-aggressive person. Their nonverbal communication will seem off or exaggerated.

A genuine smile reaches the eyes through small wrinkles at the corners, known as crow’s feet. Fake smiles only engage the mouth, not the eyes, so they appear unnatural and stiff. Forced laughter often sounds hollow or mirthless. It may come across as an attempt to cover up underlying tension or discomfort.

Passive-aggressive people rely on these contrived expressions to appear friendly and good-natured on the surface. In reality, they’re being subtly antagonistic or manipulative. Trust your instincts—if something feels “off” about their body language or tone of voice, there’s a good chance your perception is correct.

Other signs of insincerity to look for include:

  • A smile or laugh that drops from their face suddenly. Real expressions fade gradually.
  • Flattering or ingratiating compliments that seem over the top. They may lavish praise as a way to get what they want.
  • Tension in the jaw or lips. Their mouth may twitch or tighten, showing suppressed annoyance or impatience.
  • Lack of eye contact. While brief eye contact can signal discomfort in anyone, a habitual avoidance of eye contact may indicate passive-aggressive behavior, especially if their words and body language don’t match.
  • Arms crossed over the chest. This can be a defensive posture, signaling resentment, hostility, or emotional withdrawal.

Learn to trust your instincts. Don’t let passive-aggressive people manipulate you with their false charm and hollow expressions. Look beyond their contrived smiles and forced laughter to determine their true emotional state and motivations. With awareness, you can spot the subtle signs and not get caught in their manipulative web.

5. Passive-Aggressiveness in Facial Expressions

Passive-Aggressiveness in Facial Expressions
Passive-Aggressiveness in Facial Expressions

When someone is being passive-aggressive, their facial expressions can reveal subtle signs of their behavior. Look for these telltale signs in their faces:

Lack of eye contact

Passive-aggressive people often avoid direct eye contact or stare at you blankly. They may look away frequently when speaking to you or engaging in conversation. This shows their unwillingness to genuinely connect or take responsibility for the underlying anger or frustration they feel.

Forced Smile

A forced, fake smile that doesn’t reach their eyes can signal passive-aggressive feelings. They may smile at inappropriate times or when the conversation turns serious. This phony smile masks their true emotions and allows them to appear calm or indifferent on the surface.

Tightly pursed lips

Lips that are frequently pursed or pressed together tightly can indicate suppressed anger or annoyance. Their lips may disappear into a thin line when they are upset or feel criticized, but they are holding it in. This reaction shows they have something they want to say but won’t come out and express it directly.

Raised Eyebrows

Eyebrows that are frequently raised or arched, especially when listening to you speak, can signal a judgmental or incredulous attitude. The raised eyebrows often come across as condescending without actually voicing disagreement or criticism. This allows them to covertly question you or your ideas without taking an overt stand.

Recognizing these and other subtle expressions in the face of a passive-aggressive person can help you identify their behavior and not get drawn into it. By being aware of the underlying anger and frustration behind their facade, you can choose not to engage or set clear boundaries to limit their manipulation.

6. Passive-Aggressive Gestures to Watch Out For

Passive-aggressive people often communicate through subtle body language and gestures. Watch out for these telltale signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Nothing says “whatever, quite like an exaggerated eye roll. When someone rolls their eyes at your words or suggestions, it signals their annoyance, impatience, or belief that you’re wasting their time.


Heavy sighing is a way to show frustration or disappointment without directly expressing it. Repeated sighing in response to things you say or do is a passive-aggressive way of conveying annoyance.

Refusing to make eye contact is a way to be dismissive without verbalizing it. If someone regularly looks away, avoids glancing at you, or stares off into the distance rather than engaging visually during a conversation, it could indicate passive-aggressive behavior.

Slouched or closed-off body posture

Leaning away from you, slouching, crossing arms over their chest, or positioning their body at an angle are gestures that create physical distance and signal a lack of openness or receptiveness. These postures suggest they have little interest in truly exchanging with or listening to you.

Vague or ambiguous language

Rather than expressing themselves clearly and directly, passive-aggressive people tend to speak in roundabout, obscure ways. Their language is full of ambiguity, vagueness, and open-ended implications rather than clear communication. This allows them to avoid taking responsibility for the implications of their words.

Watching for clusters of these behaviors and patterns over time can help identify passive-aggressive tendencies. While any one signal alone may not be definitive, together they paint an insightful picture of the motivations and communication styles of the people around you.

7. Passive-Aggressive Posture and Movement

Passive-Aggressive Posture and Movement
Passive-Aggressive Posture and Movement

Passive-aggressive people often use closed and defensive body language and posture to communicate their unexpressed anger or frustration. Watch out for these signs:

Slouched or rounded shoulders

Slouched or rounded shoulders can indicate a lack of confidence or an unwillingness to engage. Passive-aggressive people may round their shoulders to appear smaller or less threatening. They want to avoid direct confrontation while still expressing their annoyance.

Crossed arms

Folding your arms across your chest is a classic defensive posture. It acts as a barrier between you and the other person. In passive-aggressive people, crossed arms may show they feel attacked or threatened by the situation or interaction, even if that threat is not openly expressed.

Little or no eye contact

Making little or no eye contact is a way to avoid direct engagement. Passive-aggressive individuals may avoid eye contact so they do not have to openly confront the issue or directly deal with your reaction. Lack of eye contact can make the other person feel shut out or ignored.

Exaggerated sighing

Exaggerated or overly dramatic sighing is a way to show annoyance or frustration without openly saying anything. The passive-aggressive person wants you to notice their annoyance, but without taking responsibility for directly expressing it. The sighs are meant to evoke a sense of guilt or obligation in the other person.

Slow or sluggish movements

Moving in an overly slow, dragged-out way can communicate an unwillingness to engage or a desire to make a situation as difficult as possible without openly admitting to it. The pace of movement becomes another tool for the passive-aggressive person to silently express their hostility or obstructionism.

Watching for these subtle cues can help clue you into the underlying anger or frustration a passive-aggressive person may be feeling but is unwilling to openly acknowledge. Their body language speaks volumes about what is really going on beneath the surface.

Responding to Passive-Aggressive Nonverbal Cues

When interacting with someone displaying passive-aggressive body language, be aware of the underlying messages being conveyed and respond appropriately.

  • Pay close attention to their overall demeanor and stance. Someone with crossed arms and legs while facing away from you may feel defensive or closed off. Give them space and avoid direct confrontation. Respond in a calm, open manner to help put them at ease.
  • Notice the inconsistencies between their words and actions. For example, if their words express enthusiasm but their tone of voice and facial expression appear bored or irritated, their nonverbal cues are betraying their true feelings. Address this disconnect respectfully and ask for clarification to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Look for signs of impatience or annoyance, like eye rolling, sighing, or foot tapping. Do not mirror their behavior or make excuses for it. Remain patient and composed. Say something like, “I’ve noticed you seem frustrated. How can I support you?” This can help diffuse the situation.
  • Watch for subtle acts of obstruction or withdrawal, such as showing up late to meetings or being slow to respond to messages. Do not make accusations, as this will likely only increase their passive-aggressive behavior. Politely but firmly insist on open communication and follow through. Say, “I value your input and want to make sure we stay on the same page.”

Do not engage in their manipulation or games. Stay focused on your own responses and keep interactions constructive. Address issues directly and honestly while also expressing a willingness to listen and be flexible. With time and consistency, their behavior may become more straightforward and cooperative. If not, you may need to limit contact with this person when possible.

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You’ve learned how to detect the subtle cues of passive-aggressive behavior through body language. Now that you know what to look for, you’ll start noticing these signs all around you, whether at work, with friends or family, or out in public. Don’t confront the passive-aggressive person directly, as that will likely make them feel attacked and become defensive. Instead, set clear boundaries and don’t engage or make excuses for their behavior.

Stay calm and composed, and don’t stoop to their level. Recognize that you can’t control how others act; you can only control your reaction. Now go out in the world with this new superpower and trust your instincts—you’ve got this! Stay strong in yourself, and don’t let others manipulative behaviors diminish your confidence or self-worth.


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