Passive Aggressive vs Covert Aggressive

Have you heard of the term covert aggressive? Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably experienced it! Often times people say someone is being “passive aggressive” when they really mean covert aggressive. I’ve found the distinction to be very helpful.

I learned the term covert aggression from the book In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by Dr. George Simon. I highly recommend reading it. Here are some thoughts mostly from it, plus some of my own:

Passive Aggression

Starting with the more familiar term: when someone is being passive aggressive it’s important to stress that they are being passive. For example they:

  • Avoid finishing a project
  • Don’t show up for an appointment
  • “Forget” to pick something up

They are avoiding acting in order to passively express (usually) anger. It often involves not talking and not doing.

Covert Aggression

On the other hand, covert aggression usually involves very active talking and doing and then covering it up. For example:

  • Talk behind someone’s back to gain an advantage, while smiling to their face
  • Give compliments to someone in a way that enables them to be manipulated
  • Step on someone’s foot and then pretend it was an accident, especially if the goal is to intimidate or throw someone off balance (literally or figuratively)

Simply put, covert aggression is being aggressive and trying to pretend they are not being aggressive.

What’s Behind It

Passive aggressive people are sometimes described as “cowardly”. In this blog post Dr Simon describes passive aggressive people as “ambivalent, negativistic, and often self-defeating.” While covert aggressive people are “deceptive, conniving, and manipulative.” Instead of being cowardly, they are bold and ambitious.

Here are some of my own thoughts: people act passive aggressive because they don’t have the courage to own their own feelings and express them openly. Covert aggression is about not wanting to be held accountable for their intention. Their intention is to aggressively get what what they want. And they don’t want to get in trouble or be held accountable for that fact. So they hide their aggression.

Why It Matters

As Dr Simon makes clear in In Sheep’s Clothing, most of us use covert aggression occasionally. But some people have a covert aggressive or manipulative personality:

An individual’s personality can be defined by the way he or she habitually perceives, relates to and interacts with others and the world at large. It’s the distinctive interactive “style” or relatively ingrained way a person prefers to deal with a wide variety of situations and to get the things they want in life. Certain personalities can be ever so ruthless in their interpersonal conduct while concealing their aggressive character or perhaps even projecting a convincing, superficial charm.

That’s the main reason I think this is something so important to understand: covert aggressive people can be very charming! They can be very good at convincing people, including their victims, that they are acting for the benefit of everyone. It doesn’t mean they are bad people. But these people exist. And it is really helpful to understand and be realistic about certain tendencies.

Have you noticed passive or covert aggressive behavior in your life? Do you think the distinction matters? Please feel free to comment below.

(I’ve been meaning to write more for years. This is my first step. I hope to write a lot more including connecting up the idea of covert aggression with subjects I’ve written about in this blog: unschooling, climate change, and social justice organizing. How do those all connect? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out!)

3 Responses to “Passive Aggressive vs Covert Aggressive”

  1. […] Covert aggression is an aggressive act done in away to cover up the aggression (which I wrote about in my last post). […]

  2. Helena says:

    Hi, I have had a covert aggressive person in my life.
    She is using everyone to her benefit without any conscience. I think she is unable to love someone or have compassion or she just doesn`t mind. She even screws the lives of her children so that she can tell everybody how hard her life is and how many problems she has with them. Problems that she has initiated.
    She doesn`t give a damn if her deeds will have dramatic negative results for others. If they lose their job, their life dreams, their house etc. because of her, she doesn´t give a damn.
    She is egocentric and extremely selfish, but she works on her image constantly. Most people see her as a good person. She is charming and flattering and sooo “helpless”. Oh, so “poor me” … and “help me”. “And all men just use me” (while indeed she uses the men, She`s a golddigger and always trying to get something from someone, be it a house, money, protection or a deed. Otherwise she wouldn`t be interested in you.).
    Never ever try to justify her deeds or try to find out why she does them (bad childhood etc.), she will know this and use this against you to manipulate you. She will see this as stupid and weak and you are her next victim (in the case she can get a job, money, a house, help etc. from you).

    • Eli Gerzon says:

      I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. And I’m so glad you have the clarity you have about what she is doing. The scenario you’re talking about is common. Your insights about how she plays the victim to her advantage is really insightful and important. Not everyone who is self centered and aggressive acts arrogant and in control. You’ve actually inspired me to post some resources I’ve found over the years in a new blog post:

      Some of the resources are specific to nonprofits but most of it can be applied to many relationship and situations. I hope it’s helpful. Solidarity!

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