Passive-Aggressive Phrases in English: How Not To Offend The Interlocutor

Tori Tornreviewed bySana Liashuk / more about Editorial Process12 min
Created: Nov 17, 2022Last updated: Jan 24, 2024
Passive-Aggressive Phrases in English

Dealing with communication in English for English learners can be challenging and frustrating enough from time to time on its own. But interaction during the lessons differs from the real-life experience. Since your teacher is there to help you learn, they will stick to polite communication, even using an informal lexicon. So you won't need to manage their passive-aggressive outbursts. However, on your way to fluency, you will encounter different people who may have passive-aggressive behavior patterns. That is why you should be able to recognize it and cope with it. 

The other important thing in your English learning process is working on your speech patterns to make you sound polite instead of passive-aggressive. Of course, everyone can have a bad day, but there is no need to offend the interlocutor, whether it's your family member, friend, colleague, or a perfect stranger. 

To take your communication in English to a new level and make it less muddy, we created a list of passive-aggressive examples statements and options to replace them. Also, in this article, you will learn how to avoid sounding passive-aggressive in texting and using emojis. So let's slip into new knowledge. 

What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Gif Passive-Aggressive

Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of communication when a person expresses their negative feelings indirectly instead of having an open conversation about them. Usually, an abuser tries to offend people by saying or doing something that will hurt them in a hidden manner. If the interlocutor tries to reveal such behavior and point out that a person is acting passive-aggressive, the abuser will deny all accusations. Instead, they will find another passive-aggressive thing to say to avoid discussing the conflict directly. 

Psychologists agree that there are some red flags that identify passive-aggressive behavior, among them:

  • Change from informal to formal language to hide anger behind difficult words and sentence constructions
  • Disregard or slow responses to the demands of others, especially when the people are in a position of power
  • Constant complaining about being underrated and underappreciated by others
  • Sullen attitude, sulks and sights, eye-rolling
  • Unwillingness to cooperate and work as a team member. 

Even though passive-aggressive behavior can seem normal, in reality, it is highly toxic and destructive. Therefore, a passive-aggressive person needs professional help from a therapist. 

Passive-Aggressive Comments To Recognize And Replace

If you catch yourself saying passive-aggressive phrases but can't pick up words to replace them, we can help you with that. We collected the most used passive-aggressive sayings and created synonyms that are better to communicate with. 

"You're too sensitive…."

There is a special place in hell for people who say this phrase. By saying that, a person immediately devalues another person's feelings. They know they have said something that upset someone but won't admit their guilt. Their best shot is to defect the blame off themselves and put it back on their victim. 

What to say instead: It's much better to express your feeling in another way, providing the interlocutor with more information and sincerely apologizing. For instance, you can say, "I know I hurt your feelings. I'm really sorry that I made you feel this way". 

"If that's what you want to do…."

That's one of the parents' favorite passive-aggressive phrases to say to their children. We've all been in a situation when you were trying to prove to your mom or dad that something is a good idea for so long, so they give you this phrase. By saying that, people don't actually agree with you doing something. They judge you and appeal to your conscience not to do that. 

What to say instead: However, if you really mean that you are okay with someone doing something you don't like after a long discussion, there is a better way to express that. For example, "I still don't agree with you on this, but I respect your decision." 

"Well, If you like it…" 

This phrase expresses so much judgment toward someone's choice. That means you don't like what your friend is about to wear or your colleague will present at the meeting. So you push them to give up something they actually like. 

What to say instead: Speak openly. "That is not a choice I would stick to, but it's your life, so I respect it." 


When someone says everything is "fine," congrats, you screwed up big. Psychologists say people tend to express their anger with this single word if they have zero desire or time to discuss the problem. It is also a very popular outburst in texting if there is a period at the end. 

What to say instead: Don't be silly. It's still safe to use "fine"; just watch your intonation sound true to life and use positive emojis in the text along with the word. 

"No worries"

The translation for this passive-aggressive comment is "f*uck you, and your mom, and your sister, and your job…." People use this phrase to show their anger so often that you check it at least twice to see if a person really means it. 

What to say instead: Again, watch your intonation in real life, and don't forget about emojis in messages. 

"Thanks in advance."

We hate when people end their emails with such an ending phrase. Why? Because they are basically ordering others what to do without giving them a choice, the task becomes a weight on your shoulders. 

What to say instead: If you need someone to complete the task by the deadline or ASAP, let them know politely. For instance, "I would ask you to finish with this by the afternoon on Monday. If you need more time, just let me know, and maybe I will ask someone to help you or assist myself". 

"I'm not mad"

Oh, hell, they are. But a person won't admit that since they want you to worry and feel guilty. They want to win the argument and stay right without further open conversation. That's very dangerous because people can bury their anger inside for too long and then explode. 

What to say instead: Express how you feel, why you are angry/mad, and what about other person's actions make you feel that way. 


That's what people drop at you when they want to end a discussion and don't intend to listen to you anymore. And feeling that is fine, just let another person know you need a break because you don't want to say something you will regret later. 

What to say instead: "I'm mad. Please, let's talk later because I'm afraid I can say something wrong". 

"Just wondering…"

Wait for it…. The most stupid request ever. That's how people prepare you for the nonsense they know you don't want to hear. They know the ask is too much, but they still open their mouth, literally or figuratively. 

What to say instead: Let a person you are asking a favor know they can easily say "no" to it. The example: "I would like to ask you to pick me up on your way to work since my car broke down this morning. But I understand if you don't have time or a free seat today". 

"I was only joking"

With this phrase, people try to cover all the mean things that they told you before. Then, they deprive you of the right to be upset because of their words by saying, "I was only joking." Guess what? No, it wasn't. 

What to say instead: Tell jokes that don't need saying "I was only joking" after. 

"Your thoughts?"

When this phrase can be harmless in some day-to-day communication at work or school, it is very annoying. Superiors love to use it to show that you failed and that they need your explanation or just want you to feel bad. 

What to say instead: "Can you clarify that for me, please?", "What do you think about that?", "Can can you explain why that happened, please?"

"I'm not one to talk…"

If you start expressing your thoughts with such a phrase, you are not the one to talk, indeed. So don't give a passive-aggressive comment you wouldn't like to receive. 

What to say instead: Nothing. Keep to yourself. 

Gen Z Rules: Passive-Aggressive Behavior In Texting

Like emailing, casual texting has its own rules. For example, people learn how to express all emotions with one word or how to change the meaning of that word with a single period. Of course, being an English learner, you might not understand all the subtleties of modern texting, especially with younger people. Nonetheless, there are some texting rules that you should know at least not to seem passive-aggressive or be able to recognize such behavior and react to that properly. 

Fortunately, Jimmy Kimmel, a famous American tv host, decided to help people unfamiliar with passive-aggressive texting. He made a video with examples of passive-aggressive comments. 

Relevant Passive-Aggressive Emojis

Since emojis made it onto the iPhone keyboard in 2011, people can't stop interpreting them in different ways. And if you naively think that your favorite emoji don't have passive-aggressive meaning, we have to upset you. In the digital era, not only words and phrases can be passive-aggressive. Some emojis can express hidden anger or irritability even more than passive-aggressive statements. Gen Z finds some of the millennials` most used emojis rude and hostile. So, watch out and don't text your Zoomer friend, relative, or kid following emojis; otherwise, you risk sounding passive-aggressive. 


Circle October 2022 in your calendar as the month when Gen Z canceled Thumbs-up emoji, claiming it to be passive-aggressive. According to Keith Broni, the editor-in-chief of Emojipedia, younger generations are ditching the Thumbs-up emoji since they see it as low effort response with a passive-aggressive undertone. So no more 👍 sending unless you do want to show your attitude.  

What to use instead: 👌

Upside-Down Smiley

Millennials and Gen Z both agree that Upside-Down Smiley deserves a top 1 place in the passive-aggressive emoji list. Whatever anyone says, this emoticon has never looked friendly or positive. Instead, it gives judgmental vibes when a person doesn't want to tell you what's wrong but lets you know something is wrong and you should worry about it. So be mature enough, don't use Upside-Down Smiley. 

The Peace Sign

These days The Peace Sign is basically a synonym for the F word. People use it to show that they are fed up with whatever you are doing or saying; they exclude themselves from the situation. To better understand the meaning, watch the video of former American president Barack Obama dropping his mike after finishing his speech. Iconic!

What to use instead: ☮️🕊️

Head-Rub Girl

Massaging temples has never been a good sign. It's more like, "Okay, girl. I will listen to you, but I'm so done with this drama. I can't". We are low-key worried for your mental state and friendship if your friends send you Head-Rub Girl too often. 


Remember when in "Friends," ross started talking about dinosaurs for the millionth time, and the group began to snore? Zzz emoji emphasizes the same mood when you can't care less about someone's life updates that you are falling asleep. But if you want to use it when you are heading to bed, don't send just a single emoji, use words as well. 

What to use instead: 🛌

Clapping Hands

Clapping Hands doesn't mean applause in the modern world, no. It's a sarcastic notice to express how dumb someone is by doing or saying something. A big Brain moment here. 

What to use instead: 🎉, 🤗, 🥂, ✊🏻, 🙌🏼

Cool Button

Using Cool Button is not cool. Because you should have an open conversation with a person instead of hiding your frustration, anger, disappointment, and offense behind 🆒. But if you really mean "cool," find another emoji. 

What to use instead: 😎,👌,🔥. 


How Promova Can Help Not To Sound Passive-Aggressive

On your way to fluency, there will be some misunderstandings with native English speakers and people whose English level is higher than yours. So, if you want to sound polite and not be taken as passive-aggressive, you should work on your English skills comprehensively. Since every skill needs to be practiced, we recommend you find a good teacher. 

The Promova platform offers you a 1-to1 tutoring experience with certified native-level tutors from different countries. You can find the best English tutor for any purpose of learning. 

If you need to fix your English and make it extra polite for work or school communication, you can book a lesson with one of our Business English Tutors. They know how to help you not to sound passive-aggressive in emails and will teach you a suitable lexicon for business matters. 

Another way of not sounding rough is having lessons with a British English Tutor. English manners relate to the British royal family and date back to the 17th century. British politeness comes from the desire to save themselves and others from social embarrassment. Through the years, English people mastered their skills, which can be considered a standard of manners and etiquette in general. Just listen to any average British person. Their speech is like music to the ears. 

Have no issues with spoken English, but seem passive-aggressive in casual texting? Then, try lessons with our English Writing Tutors. They will guide you through the modern texting rules that Gen Z dictates and help you sound native and positive via messages. 


Passive-aggressive phrases exist in every language, but after reading this article, you should be able to recognize them in English and know how to replace them with something more suitable for each occasion. The ability to express your thoughts clearly and correctly is crucial for any verbal and written communication. Therefore, you should always watch your intonation, saying even the most harmless words, such as "ok," at first glance. And remember that people can't guess your intonation via texting, so be extra careful with the sentence structures and constructions you use. Score twice before you cut once.  


How to sound polite in English?

English is rather distinct from any other language when it comes to being polite. Perhaps, you have heard about famous British or Canadian politeness. But the truth is that English in general – American, Canadian, British, or Australian – stands out with specific words, phrases, and constructions that make the speech courteous. 

To sound polite in English, you should use such phrases as "I would like," "I'm afraid I can't," "Forgive me, but," "Excuse me," etc. Also, not to seem rude, you should use the question structure instead of the imperative one. When in Slavic countries, for instance, it is generally accepted to go straight to the point when you are asking for something, in English-speaking countries, it is considered impolite. So, you should prepare your interlocutor for any request from your side or denial with polite vocabulary and respective sentence structures. 

Is it better to ignore passive-aggressive comments?

There are a few different ways to handle passive-aggressive behavior. Indeed, ignoring is one of the tactics to cope with the aggressor. But first, you have to analyze your opponent and determine if it helps solve the problem best. Because some passive-aggressive people can calm down after venting, but some can perceive your silence and inactivity as a sign of weakness. 

The other way of handling passive-aggressive comments is to have an open conversation with your interlocutor. Calmly and respectfully point out cases of them being passive-aggressive toward you or the team, share why it bothers you, and offer possible ways of effective communication. 

Can sarcasm be defined as a passive-aggressive way of communication?

Yes, sarcasm is definitely a form of passive-aggressive communication. Unfortunately, people got used to sarcasm, passing it off as a part of the humor. However, sarcasm is a statement that conveys the opposite meaning of what was said, which makes it passive-aggressive. According to PH.D. Bernard Golden, the anger management specialist, people usually use sarcasm when they experience intense discomfort with a more direct expression of anger. 

Is gaslighting a form of passive-aggressive behavior?

Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation when the abuser makes a victim question their own reality and confuse their mind in their best interests. Even though gaslighting is a subtle form of verbal aggression that is difficult to identify, it can't be technically called passive-aggressive behavior. Instead, it's much worse because the person doesn't express their negative emotions but is trying to completely shift the understanding of the situation for another person by manipulating words. 


DavidFeb 7th, 2024
This article was not helpful and , I believe, could cause much confusion and consternation. I do not know from where the author got their information, but it is for the most part....incorrect. I think what passes for 'passive aggressive' language in one culture may not be passive aggressive in another. Also, HOW you say something can give as much ( sometimes even more) meaning as WHAT you say. Was this written by AI? Because a human should already know this....
PromovaOct 3rd, 2023
Responding to passive-aggressive language can be challenging but essential. A helpful approach is to acknowledge the behavior calmly and encourage open communication. For example, you can say, "It seems like there might be something bothering you. Can we talk about it directly?" This invites the person to express their concerns more openly.
Mya AndrewsOct 3rd, 2023
how can someone respond effectively when they encounter passive-aggressive language in a conversation
PromovaJul 4th, 2023
Yes, there can be cultural differences in the use of passive-aggressive language. Some cultures may have more direct communication styles, while others may rely on indirect expressions of frustration or dissatisfaction. To navigate these nuances in English-speaking environments, learners can enhance their cultural awareness by observing and understanding the communication norms of the specific culture they are interacting with. Additionally, actively practicing open and clear communication, expressing concerns directly, and seeking clarification when needed can help bridge any potential misunderstandings caused by cultural differences in the use of passive-aggressive language.
Shon MaxwellJul 4th, 2023
Are there cultural differences in the use of passive-aggressive language, and if so, how can learners navigate these nuances in English-speaking environments?