If Jim Rohn is right and you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then you definitely don't want hostile people in your inner circle.
At least openly aggressive people are fairly direct in actions and words; while you might not like what they say or do, at least you know how they really feel--and what they are likely to actually do. A passive-aggressive person, on the other hand, "may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists."
Maybe what passive-aggressive people do is relatively benign, like agreeing to and then canceling a meeting they had no intention of attending.
Or maybe their behavior is more extreme and can negatively impact your success or happiness.
You definitely don't need those people in your life.
So how can you tell, as quickly as possible, if someone is passive-aggressive? Be alert for conversational and behavioral indications like these:
1. They ask questions that make you feel defensive.
You tell someone you're following a keto diet plan. Instead of asking, "What does that involve?" or saying, "I've heard about keto diets, but don't know much about them," or even just, "How is that going for you?" a passive-aggressive person might say, "Why did you ever decide to do that?"
At face value, the question is valid: Why did you decide to follow a keto diet plan? But the undertone--and tone of voice--is accusatory and immediately makes you feel defensive.
Which is a problem. You shouldn't feel defensive about the choices you make. If someone has a different opinion--one that even, after a respectful conversation, convinces you to change your mind--that's great. (In fact, Jeff Bezos says that's the hallmark of smart people.)
A different opinion shouldn't make you feel defensive.
And other people should never make you feel defensive.
2. They give back-handed compliments.
Your startup has turned the corner. Significant sweat, tears, and sleepless nights later, it's profitable.
What will a passive-aggressive person say?
"I can't believe you actually made that work." Or, "If you can convince people to buy (whatever you sell), you must be amazing at selling." Or, "Wow. I had no idea you were good with people."
A genuine compliment leaves you feeling good about yourself. A back-handed compliment leaves you thinking, "Wait...what?"
Life's too short to think, "Wait...what?"
3. They try to make you feel sorry for them.
An entrepreneur's startup gets funded. Most people will say, "That's awesome! She's worked really hard to build her business."
Passive-aggressive people will say, "We should be able to attract venture capital, too...but no one ever gets how big our market could be."
Most people are happy when others succeed. Great leaders, for example, find happiness in the success of others.
Passive-aggressive people want you to feel sorry for them. They want you to feel guilty if you succeed.
And they definitely try to imply that you--and other people--don't deserve the success you worked so hard to earn.
4. They ignore what you say. (Or that you exist.)
You ask a question. You make a comment. You share an opinion. There's a pregnant pause.
Then the other person talks about something else. Or says nothing at all.
Or they simply ignore the fact you exist--because they're mad at you, or upset at you, or don't like something you just said or did.
Not responding is classic passive-aggressive behavior. And so is pretending that someone doesn't exist: whether by ignoring their presence, leaving them off email chains, "forgetting" to ask for their input, etc.
Most people let you know where you--and your professional or personal relationship--stand. Passive-aggressive people make you figure out where you stand.
And where you're standing never turns out to be somewhere good.
5. They gossip.
It's hard to resist inside information and gossip. Finding out the reasons behind someone's decisions, the motivations behind someone's actions, the inside scoop about someone's hidden agenda...that stuff is hard to resist.
The problem is, the person who gives you the inside scoop on other people is also giving other people the inside scoop on you.
Passive-aggressive people love sharing the dirt; they feel better about themselves by making other people look bad.
The people you want around you feel good about making other people look good.
They don't take. They give.
Just like you.