Mitch & Cam in Modern Family, Santiago in B99: Why Are People Passive Aggressive

FIT asked psychologists what passive aggression is and why people resort to it.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Every day when I sit down to have a meal, I turn on an episode of Modern Family.

The last episode of the American sitcom aired on 8 April 2020, but for many like me, the mockumentary style show has been a source of comfort for me for some time now because of how wholesome it is.

But over multiple viewings, what has stood out to me is how passive aggressive Mitchell Pritchett (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron Tucker’s (played by Eric Stonestreet) marriage in the show is. 

Sure, it’s meant to be humorous and they always make up at the end of each episode, but there’s lies, fights, mean remarks, and much more that they constantly project towards each other.

Also, have you noticed how much they argue with each other even when they’re not fighting?

It's not just Mitch and Cam though. Bernadette Rostenkowski (played by Melissa Ivy Rauch) from The Big Bang Theory has often been referred to as the show's most hated character because of her passive aggressive tendencies.

In several episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Amy Santiago (played by Melissa Fumero) has portrayed passive aggressive mannerisms too, for instance when she's jealous of Rosa Diaz being offered the position of a police captain, or when she has to do paperwork the whole night while Diaz keeps taking breaks.

It’s not just me by the way, there are articles all over the internet scrutinising these characters.

I just went one step further (sorry, not sorry). FIT asked psychologists what passive aggression is and why people resort to it. 


Means Of Channelling Anger Indirectly

According to Psychology Today, “Passive aggression is a way of expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, indirectly instead of directly.”

Dr Rituparna Ghosh, Clinical Psychologist, Apollo Hospitals, Navi Mumbai, breaks it down for FIT. When someone expresses their anger or frustration through gestures or non-verbal cues rather than openly addressing it, that’s called passive aggression.

“The word ‘passive’ itself means suppressed or something that isn’t outwardly manifested,” says Dr Ghosh.

But why do people resort to passive aggressive behaviour at all? Dr Ghosh says that there could be multiple reasons.

  • Fear of being targeted by others

  • Fear of getting in a conflict situation

  • Difficulty expressing, especially for introverts

  • Lack of confidence, self esteem issues, and no positive regards for themselves

  • Lack of proper communication skills

Dr Abhishek Tiwari, Psychologist, Tulasi Healthcare, agrees. He goes on to say that people might exhibit passive aggressive behaviour by saying negative things indirectly, making mean remarks, indirectly hurting people, shying away from taking any responsibility or accountability, procrastinating, delaying work, being critical towards others, not appreciating others, being provocative, and being self-demeaning.

“Say there’s a topic being discussed that you’re not comfortable with. Instead of openly saying it out loud, you might say something indirectly that’s mean or hurtful to make the others aware that you’re not okay with this conversation. That’s passive aggression.”

The Important Distinction Between PAPD & Passive Aggressive Behaviour

A 2009 study titled The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder had shown that Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) is more common in people who had experienced “childhood experiences consistent with several theoretical formulations, dysfunction, substance abuse disorders, and history of hospitalisations.”

Dr Ghosh agrees. She points out that people who are victims of some past or childhood trauma resort to passive aggression because they have self-esteem issues and feel people might judge them for saying something out loud. 

“It’s called self-defeating behaviour – behaviours that are manifested when one is being passive aggressive – wherein people deviate from their goals by self-sabotaging. Past trauma can play a part in this too.”
Dr Rituparna Ghosh

TLDR: Resorting to Passive Aggressive Behaviour Is Harmful

But Dr Tiwari feels it isn’t right to club people suffering from passive-aggressive personality disorders with people who might have exhibited passive aggressive behaviour situationally. 

There's a clear distinction between the two, he says.

“Passive aggressive behaviour is used by people generally or situationally too, when they might have negative feelings like anger or resentment pent up. However, it can be a trauma response as well. Whenever a person felt unsafe, this might have been a reflex for them to express their anger.”
Dr Abhishek Tiwari

But both the doctors go on to say that even if you are resorting to passive aggressive behaviour only situationally, it could still be harmful because it can impact your personal and professional lives as you’re not communicating clearly with others. 

“We all live in high-stress environments these days. If people are not expressing themselves, their emotions will keep getting bottled up and one fine day, that might come out directly or indirectly. It can also lead to many undesirable behaviour patterns,” says Dr Ghosh.

A 2016 Harvard Business Review article had flagged three ways that you could slowly step away from being passive aggressive. It suggested:

  • Acknowledge the other person's perspective in the conversation.

  • Ask questions and accept any legitimate opinions the other might have.

  • If you feel unheard, make a firm request to put your point across.

Dr Tiwari gives a word of advice too.

“If you have other mental health issues that might be manifesting as passive aggression, seek professional help.”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Mental Health 

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