The 3 Biggest Signs of ‘Passive Aggressive’ and ‘Childish’ Behavior: Harvard Body Language Expert

We’ve all had to deal with passive aggression at some point. A boss raises a dismissive eyebrow when you speak, or a friend shuts you out of the conversation at a group brunch.

But the lines are often blurred. I certainly struggled with this myself, which is why I spent much of my career at Harvard researching body language and communication.

I always recommend taking the road, rather than fighting back or being hostile. Here are three signs of passive aggressive or childish behavior and how to respond effectively:

1. Exceptional brevity

You send your boss an email asking, “Should we go ahead and schedule a meeting with this potential client?” — and they respond with a curt, one-word answer like “yes,” “good,” or “OK.”

Some people just prefer to give short, to-the-point answers. But if you notice that they mostly respond this way to you and not to others, then this level of brevity can be a sign of passive aggressiveness.

How to answer:

  • Ask clarifying questions: “Thanks! What day and time works best for you?” or “Is there anyone else I should invite?”
  • Keep calm: Don’t take the bait. Stay focused on the present and avoid acting defensively.
  • Use humor: Humor is a great way to diffuse tension. You could say, “If we don’t land them as clients, at least we get a free lunch at the company!”
  • Treat it gently: This can be useful in some cases. The goal is to show genuine intent and a desire to understand: “I feel like you might be upset with me. Is that right?”

2. Slow response

Receiving the silent treatment can show up as delayed emails or text messages or even ghosting.

Acknowledging these actions can cause what I call “synchronicity anxiety,” an intense worry we feel when we find ourselves wondering about all the possible meanings behind slow responses.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for knowing for sure whether someone is using silence as deliberate levity or if it is just an oversight.

How to answer:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Unless it’s important to get a response as soon as possible, remember that you never really know what someone is going through. Maybe they have a lot on their plate, or are dealing with personal issues.
  • Send a gentle reminder: Some people are downright forgetful, so a follow-up can be helpful: “I know you’re very busy. But when you get a chance, I’d love to talk about it.”
  • Switch to a different way of communication: If you follow up twice with no response, try sending a work DM instead of an email. Or stop by their office if they don’t answer their phone.

3. Change from informal to formal language

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