Passive communication occurs when a person is avoidant, indirective, or non-assertive in how they communicate their needs, thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
Passive communicators typically prioritize the needs and feelings of others above their own, often out of fear of conflict or rejection, a desire to please others, or a lack of self-esteem or confidence.
Such people hope to avoid confrontation above having themselves heard.
Characteristics of passive communication include evasive language, failutre to establish boundaries, and indirect communication cues such as body language signals and non-verbal communication styles.
They may also avoid eye contact, speak softly or hesitantly, or frequently apologize.
While passive communication can prevent immediate conflict or discomfort, it can lead to resentment, stress, and unmet needs in the long term. It can also lead to misunderstandings and, especially in relationships, longer-term conflicts.
Passive Communication Examples
1. Non-Verbal Cues
Non-verbal cues are various, and I have a whole blog post on nonverbal cues. Some examples include facial expressions and eye movements – in the case of passive communication, it may take the form of evasive eye movements.
For instance, a person might cross their arms and avoid eye contact when they’re upset but don’t want to express their feelings directly.
The nonverbal cues we use are often a reflection of our internal state of mind, and this can provide information such as “I’m mad” or “don’t talk to me” without the need for words.
However, note that non-verbal cues vary by cultures, meaning contextualized meaning-making is necessary.
Read Also: Verbal Communication Examples
Sometimes, a person might choose not to say anything at all, letting their silence communicate for them.
Silence can be used as a passive form of communication to signal discomfort, disagreement, anger, or emotional distress.
Some people also use silence as a way to avoid confrontation, such as if you were to say nothing at all because, if you said anything, it would come across as offensive or confrontational.
3. Indirect Communication
Often, if we want to get a point across without harming people, we will indirectly express it, such as through metaphors, euphemisms, stories, or implications.
Note that this is often used by people trying to avoid conflict, but it may also be used as a way to make the point politely as per social convention and as a cultural necessity.
For example, euphemisms are often used to say something that needs to be said, but to say it less crassly.
However, use of analogies and metaphors may not be used as a way to intentionally avoid communication, but because sometimes they’re useful for making a complex point in an understandable way.
Read Also: Types of Communication
Sarcasm involves saying something but meaning the opposite. It is considered a form of humor.
Sarcasm is often employed as a way to avoid confrontation and protect oneself. For example, you may be able to deploy sarcasm in a way that expresses disagreement or dissatisfaction without directly saying it.
It could also be used to lighten the mood or to make a point in a less confrontational way, which may end up being beneficial. However, it can also be hurtful and disrespectful if used poorly, leading to strained relationships. Furthermore, it can easily be misunderstood, especially in text messages and other written modes of communication.
An evasive person will try to avoid providing a response or comment when it is socially appropriate for them to do so.
For example, you might realize that it’s about to be your turn to speak in an online meeting, so – suddenly – your internet cuts out.
Or, it might take the form of a politician being asked a question and they speak in a long-winded manner so as to appear to be giving an answer, while in reality, they have diverted the conversation so they can evade directly answering the question.
6. Submissive Behavior
Submissiveness refers to situations where a person defers to other people as the ‘leaders’, often uncritically, which helps them to remain passive rather than active in social (and especially decision-making) situations.
For example, a person may consistently agree or go along with others no matter what they say. This person may have a differing opinion or preference, or, they may simply choose not to have an opinion at all.
7. Overly Apologetic Language
Apologizing when you are wrong, or when you have expressed yourself in an insensitive manner, is of course positive and the right thing to do.
But overuse of apologetic language, such as saying sorry when it’s not necessary and doesn’t suit the situation, can be seen as passive communication.
This particular example of passive communication is a cultural touch-point in English-speaking countries, because words like “sorry” are used extensively in British English in situations where they would not be used in an American context.
Overall, over-apologizing can undermine a person’s credibility and may also convey a lack of confidence. It also comes across – rightly or wrongly – as having a negative self-image, in some circumstances.
8. Self-deprecating Humor
This is when a person makes jokes at their own expense.
Explanation: Self-deprecating humor can be a passive way of dealing with insecurities or perceived shortcomings. It can also be used to fit in or deflect criticism.
Pros: It can make a person appear modest or relatable, and it can lighten the mood in social situations.
Cons: Overuse can negatively affect self-esteem, and it can encourage others to disrespect or undervalue the person.
9. Withholding Information or Feelings
Withholding information is a common trait of people who are passive communicators. They often feel like withholding information will help to avoid conflict.
But intentionally withholding information or emotions may also cause problems later on. By preventing immediate conflict, you’re also preventing others from having all the information they need to make an informed decision. Polite expression of information and feelings, in an appropriate context, is often more constructive long-term.
Furthermore, withholding of information can damage trust in a relationships, creating feelings of isolation and resentment.
10. Passive-Aggressive Actions
Being passive-aggressive means doing things that express anger without actual outbursts. It involves inward, smoldering expressions of anger rather than outward expressions.
For example, if you’re mad at your boss, you might purposefully withhold completed work until the very last minute before the deadline. You could have submitted it earlier, but to annoy the boss, you submitted it as late as possible.
Similarly, you might “forget” to do tasks that you think are unfairly assigned to you, or deliberately take a long time on a task.
This is a way of expressing anger or dissatisfaction without confronting the issue directly.
11. Mumbling or Soft Speaking
Often, a person who wants to avoid direct confrontation will mumble their discontent. This is a way to express yourself passively – intending to be subversive but not outwardly aggressive at the same time.
For example, you might see a child who speaks their discontent so quietly or unclearly that their parents cannot hear them, or a husband who mumbles his gripes with his wife then when the wife says “what did you say?”, he says “oh, nothing”.
Of course, this sort of passive behavior may also be little subversive acts that people do when confronted by oppressive environments where outward self-expression is curtailed or punished harshly.
12. Vague Language
Vagueness in your language is often a way of avoiding responsibility or ensuring you don’t end up being boxed into a corner during a debate.
For example, we see vague language from legal teams in businesses who don’t want to say anything that will cause them to have to give you a refund, etc. This sort of language is considered passive because it fails to be helpful or assert a perspective – it’s designed to evade.
Overall, vague language can lead to confusion and misunderstanding during an intereaction. It can also come across as dishonest or manipulative, which can harm trust and relationships.
13. Excessive Hedging
Hedging is similar to vague language, and refers to when you use phrases like “sometimes”, “possibly”, “it might”, etc.
A hedge is not necessarily passive – oftentimes, it’s necessary. Indeed, I teach my students to hedge in their academic writing all the time to leave space for alternative perspectives.
But if you hedge excessively, it can be seen as a person being too passive in how they communicate.
Here’s an example:
“I wouldn’t mind going to the cinema today, but only if you want, and if you want to do something else, let’s do that instead!”
I’m guilty of this – it’s a way to express myself while also pandering to the other person and not asserting myself too much. I’m working on it!
14. Indirect Refusal
This is when a person doesn’t want to do something but doesn’t say “no” directly. Rather, they will give vague excuses, delay, or give subtle hints.
For example, you might ask your boss for a raise and your boss really don’t want to say “no”, but they are not giving you the raise. They might say “oh, the market is not good right now so maybe in a few months.”
This is not only misleading, but it’s a way for the boss to avoid confrontation.
This behavior usually stems from a fear of conflict or a desire to avoid disappointing others.
But, as with the above example, I’m sure you’d agree that most employees would just want the answer right away so they can make an informed decision about whether to apply for another job!
15. Avoiding Eye Contact
In western cultures, the act of deliberately avoiding eye contact often occurs when a person feels uncomfortable or is trying to hide something.
It’s a sign that you don’t want to engage in a conversation about a certain topic.
We’ve all done it – the teacher is looking for someone to give an answer and they’re trying to make eye contact with one of the students in front of them. We avoid eye contact to avoid being selected to give an answer!
This can help us to manage feelings of discomfort or anxiety, but it ends up signalling disinterest, discomfort, or evasiveness.
16. Not Asserting Personal Boundaries
This refers to the failure to communicate one’s limits and tolerances in a relationship or situation. Some people may avoid asserting their boundaries to avoid potential conflict, out of fear of rejection, or because they undervalue their own needs.
This can feel good because it maintains peace in the short term and can make you come across as possibly accommodating or easy-going.
But failing to assert personal boundaries can lead to disrespect directed at you by others who will exploit your inability to say “no”. For you, the person not asserting boundaries, you may also develop stress and resentment.
17. Overuse of Filler Words
The frequent use of “um”, “like”, “you know”, and other filler words can be a form of passive communication. People often use filler words when they’re unsure, nervous, or trying to gather their thoughts. This might reflect a lack of confidence in their ideas or a fear of silence.
Filler words are often used by people who want to be passive. It helps them to buy time to think and might help you to soften the delivery of your message. But overuse of filler words can be distracting for listeners. It can make the speaker appear less confident or competent. It can also detract from the clarity and impact of your message!
18. Minimizing Your Own Achievements
I’m guilty of this one. It involves downplaying or dismissing your own successes or accomplishments.
You might minimize your achievements out of a desire to express humility or out of fear that others will see you as being boastful. You may also be of the belief that you’re not deserving of praise, so this passive approach helps to minimize your impact on others.
While this can make you appear humble or modest, consistently minimizing your own achievements can harm your own self-esteem and can undermine others’ perceptions of your own competence and credibility.
A passive communication style often stems from lack of self-esteem or a desire not to put others out. While it’s often well-intentioned (such as when you just want tot be liked!), it is often not ideal, and a person who engages in excessive passive communication may want to develop their communication skills.
But passive communication can also be poorly-intentioned, such as in the case of passive-aggressive behaviors like mumbling insults under your breath. Overall, it’s good to work on being honest and holding your ground while also directly stating your genuine thoughts and feelings in kind and well-intentioned ways.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]