8 phrases passive-aggressive people use to avoid direct confrontation

Does someone keep using passive-aggressive phrases that get your back up?

You might feel they are trying to start an argument with you or are purposely pushing your buttons.

In most cases, people use passive-aggressive behavior as a defense mechanism. 

Despite how it may seem, they are actually trying to avoid confrontation and conflict. 


Instead of telling you how they feel, they bottle up their feelings. 

Their hidden anger then seeps out in the way they speak to you – full of sarcasm, manipulation, and passive aggression.

Certain phrases can signal someone has a problem with you. If someone keeps saying the following things to you, you’re likely dealing with a passive-aggressive person.

1) I’m fine

Sometimes, it can seem so evident in someone’s behavior that they are not okay, yet whenever you probe them, they respond with the same two words, “I’m fine.”

For example, they might appear visibly flustered or frustrated, yet they will refuse to admit anything is wrong – despite how obvious it is.

Why do they do this?

According to Nicholas and Jody Long, authors of the book “The Angry Smile,” passive-aggressive behavior stems from a person’s belief that directly expressing anger will only make matters worse and cause them more trouble. 

So, they (sometimes unknowingly) choose to express their anger indirectly and shut down the communication channel by saying they are fine.

If you don’t accept “I’m fine” as their answer and keep probing, you’ll probably hear the following passive-aggressive phrase

2) Nothing, it’s just…

If pushed to explain themselves, passive-aggressive people will make excuses for their behavior rather than say what is on their mind.

They will blame something trivial, like:

  • The weather
  • Being tired
  • Being busy

By starting the phrase with the word “nothing,” they make it clear that they don’t want to talk further about this. 

And by saying, “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just busy,” they are hoping this is enough to get you off their case. 

3) Ok fine

Because passive-aggressive people feel they cannot be truthful about their feelings, they often agree to do things they don’t want to do. 

Instead of saying no, they will begrudgingly say yes, often along the lines of “yes, that’s fine” in a tone that says otherwise. 

Sometimes, they will follow up with a sarcastic response, such as “Like I don’t have enough things on my plate,” making you feel bad for asking.

However, should you say, “If you don’t have the capacity, it’s okay,” they will again tell you, “It’s fine,” but without any enthusiasm. This will leave you with an uncomfortable feeling and an inkling that they won’t actually do it. 

This inkling is confirmed when they devise some last-minute excuse or emergency to get themselves off the hook. 

4) Whatever

“Whatever” is a classic one-word phrase a passive-aggressive person will use to indirectly tell you they are unhappy with a decision/solution.

However, like “I’m fine,” this phrase shuts down the conversation as they do not want to discuss it further due to the fear of conflict.

This is a form of stonewalling, which, according to goodtherapy.org, is a persistent refusal to communicate or express


Using phrases like “whatever” to shut down communication is on par with giving someone silent treatment, which research shows leads to:

  • Lower relationship satisfaction
  • Less intimacy and connection
  • Poorer communication

In an American survey by Preply, “Whatever” was voted the 4th worst passive-aggressive phrase, closely followed by this next one… 

5) If that’s what you want to do

pic1413 8 phrases passive-aggressive people use to avoid direct confrontation

“If that’s what you want to do,” really means, “I don’t think you should do that, but I’m not going to tell you directly.” 

It’s an indirect way to disagree with someone’s actions or decision as it implies “disapproval,” yet like many other passive-aggressive behaviors, you cannot be sure.

This phrase shows they lack the ability to express their opinions in a healthy way. 

So if you do something they disagree with, they will respond by sulking and being moody instead of telling you.

6) It would be nice if you…

As passive-aggressive people struggle to directly ask for what they need, they will tell you what they want from you by complaining about what you don’t do.

For example…

A passive-aggressive partner may say, “It would be nice if you could take the trash out for once.”

They are not directly asking you to take the trash out. Instead, they complain that you never do it and use sarcasm to express their frustration. 

This type of behavior is known as giving wistful comments, which, according to simplypsychology.org, is a way of asking for something indirectly while simultaneously putting down the other person.

As a result, they will express a wish in a sad or melancholy way, making the other person feel bad, such as:

  • “I wish I could always jet off on fancy holidays, but I care about my responsibilities at home.” 
  • “It would be nice to wear designer clothes like yours, but unfortunately, all my money goes on my kids.”

Sometimes, passive-aggressive people combine manipulation in a wistful comment by putting the responsibility on someone else.

Like this…

“It’s so nice that Jane’s husband always surprises her with flowers and gifts. But it’s okay; I know you’re not making much money right now.”

Shifting blame in this way was voted the worst passive-aggressive behavior by US citizens in a 2022 survey by Preply.

7) It’s not a big deal, but…

Another way a passive-aggressive person expresses their wishes and desires is by downplaying the importance, like this

“It’s not a big deal, but if you could finish this by tomorrow, that would be great.”


“It’s not a big deal, but it would be nice if you do the laundry while I’m at work.”

Because passive-aggressive people struggle to assert themselves, they will downplay their wants and needs. 

According to James Detert, a Harvard expert in Leadership and Organizational Behavior, pretending things aren’t a big deal when they really are is an avoidance behavior that causes you to harbor negative emotional energy and resentment towards the “wrongdoer.”

Someone might also use this phrase when expressing disappointment or frustration. Often, this phrase will come immediately after a complaint, such as:

“Why did you fold the laundry like that?! Oh, forget it, it’s not a big deal”.

In this instance, they use the phrase to avoid conflict. 

They make it clear they are not happy with how the other person did something, but they quickly say it’s not a big deal to shut down the conversation and avoid it becoming an argument. 

8) I was kidding

Passive-aggressive people are good at belittling others and then instantly shutting down communication, leaving the other person confused and hurt.

However, they sometimes go too far with sarcasm or manipulation, revealing their true feelings – all that resentment and envy.

When this happens, they will try to backtrack by saying it was just a joke. 

Often, faking humor is not enough, so they will turn the blame onto the other person by saying something like, “You’re so sensitive” or “Why can’t you take a joke?”

Handling resentment in a passive-aggressive way like this significantly lessens trust and can damage the relationship beyond repair.

Final thoughts

If someone keeps using these passive-aggressive phrases on you, you might be tempted to outsmart them with witty comebacks. However, this will only make things worse. 

According to Jody Lambert from Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute, leading by example is the best way to handle a passive-aggressive person. 

Remember that people use passive-aggressive behavior when they fear conflict or cannot express their emotions healthily.

So, to respond, model direct communication by being open and honest. Calmly explain how their comments make you feel, but avoid using “you” statements, as this could make the other person feel like you’re attacking them.

And if the passive-aggressive person will not open up or change their behaviors, consider setting clear boundaries and spending less time with them to protect your own mental health!

Picture of Gemma Clarke

Gemma Clarke

I am a certified yoga and mindfulness teacher and an experienced content writer in the spirituality and personal growth space. I’m passionate about sharing my expertise through the power of words to inspire and guide others along the path of personal and spiritual development.

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.