10 sneaky phrases passive-aggressive people use to indirectly criticize you

Have you ever come out of a conversation feeling a little lost?

Like there’s a mismatch between what they said and how they feel.

Don’t worry, you’re not going crazy! Chances are, they were just being passive-aggressive.

In other words, they disguise their criticism and frame it as positively as they can. Usually, to avoid conflict (nobody likes confrontation).

Think of it like a magic trick. Where the magician uses sleight of hand to distract you from what’s really going on.

The result?

Ambiguous communication without fully understanding their thoughts or intentions.

Here are 10 sneaky phrases passive-aggressive people use. How many can you recognize?

1) “Must be nice to have so much free time.”

Sounds nice enough.

Wrong! This phrase has a serious sarcastic undercurrent. I know what you’re thinking.

As with all these phrases, context does matter. So, if one of your most trusted, closest friends says this, it could be a genuine statement (with no bad intention).

If, on the other hand, it comes from a jealous work colleague or anyone who resents your laid-back lifestyle, it’s a perfect example of passive-aggressive criticism.

Read between the lines.

What they’re really thinking, is that life isn’t fair. Maybe they have a busy family or a demanding job. They’re comparing their situation to yours (and they don’t like what they see).

Deep down they’re frustrated and full of regret. They’re looking to express their anger (but don’t want a full-blown argument).

So they spout this sneaky phrase to release some of that pent-up frustration.

2) “I’m sorry you got upset.”

They’re apologizing. This is good, right?

Well, pay close attention to what they’re actually apologizing for.

That’s right – the fact you got upset. This implies you’re being overly sensitive.

It’s also an example of shifting blame. In other words, they’re not holding themselves responsible for their hurtful behavior. They’re not admitting to any wrongdoing. Instead, they’re claiming that you got upset for no real reason.

So it’s your fault for being such a wuss, not theirs.

3) “I love how you just don’t care what others think.”

This disguised criticism is pretty clever. It uses an incredibly positive word (“love”) to offset or distract from the insult.

What they’d really like to say is: “Be more considerate and think about others.”

But of course, this is a direct criticism that could spark conflict.

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

4) “Well done! That was surprisingly good.”

The word “surprisingly” makes all the difference with this one.

Think about it.

This single word implies the result was unexpected. Put it this way, they don’t think you’re very competent.

Talk about patronizing!

It’s the perfect example of hiding criticism behind what looks like a compliment. They even start the phrase with “Well done!” which sets the tone. If you don’t pay close attention, it’s easy to assume they’re being authentic.

5) “A friendly reminder…”

You’ve probably heard this one in the office.

It’s an example of fake politeness.

You can bet that whatever comes next is a stern demand or request. When people use this prefix they’re attempting to soften the blow or make their instructions sound less confrontational.

pic2090 10 sneaky phrases passive-aggressive people use to indirectly criticize you

6) “Oh, you’re doing it like that? Interesting choice.”

Again, this phrase hints at criticism without being obvious.

It might come from your boss after assigning a tricky task, or even a friend watching you work on some DIY.

They want to make it clear that they don’t really agree with your approach. This could be to cover their back if things go south.

They’re basically washing their hands of all responsibility. They want no part of it!

Yet, it sounds so polite and considerate.

Rather than say “terrible choice.” or “bad idea.” they decide to use the word “interesting.”

7) “Feel free to jump in at any time.”

Another phrase straight from the office. Commonly heard in meetings.

It’s passive because it comes across like you have a choice. It’s up to you if you want to contribute or not (and there’s no rush, wherever you have time!)

But what they really mean is: “Please give some input, like, right now!”

8) “I could never pull off a look like that.”

We’ve all been guilty of fashion faux pas (I know I have).

It seemed like a good idea in your head, but brown and orange really don’t work together.

When things go wrong, at least we can rely on our close friends to tell us straight (maybe pull us to one side and have a quiet word in our ear). Not beat around the bush with these passive-aggressive games.

If someone tells you this (in front of an audience), it’s hard to know where you stand.

Do they actually mean this look suits me? Or are they just being rude (without being rude).

You get the idea.

9) “I wish I had your level of optimism.”

Another criticism packaged up to sound like a compliment. Fake politeness at its best.

Imagine the scenario. An important deadline is looming, you tell your team that everything’s under control (we’ll get finished on time). 

Then you hear this. They’re effectively announcing that they think there’s more chance of pigs flying than you hitting the deadline!

But in a polite (you’ve guessed it) passive-aggressive way.

10) “No, I’m not mad.”

Finally, this phrase is scenario-specific. It comes after someone clearly IS mad.

Let’s say you forgot to invite a friend to your wedding (a genuine mistake, after all, you have a million different tasks to prepare for the big day).

A couple of months later, you randomly bump into them. They ask how it went.

“I’m so sorry, I forgot to invite you.”

“That’s ok, I’m not mad.”

But you feel a cold vibe. They continue to be short with you. Their words don’t match their emotions.

Denying anger like this is another form of passive-aggressive behavior that you need to watch out for.

You might also hear “I’m fine.” (when they’re not). Or simply “Whatever!”

It can be tough to navigate the complex world of passive-aggression. But, hopefully, after reading this article you have a better idea of what to look out for!

Picture of Leila El-Dean

Leila El-Dean

Leila is a passionate writer with a background in photography and art. She has over ten years of experience in branding, marketing, and building websites. She loves travelling and has lived in several countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and Malta. When she’s not writing (or ogling cats), Leila loves trying new food and drinking copious amounts of Earl Grey tea.

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