7 phrases that make you sound super passive-aggressive at work

When you’re really frustrated at work, you may opt for a passive-aggressive response instead of a nasty or curt response. It’s natural. You want to convey you aren’t pleased, but you also want to be respectful (minimally).

The problem is that everyone has a different communication style, and if your colleagues aren’t paying close attention, they may not even realize you’re frustrated.

According to Carl Zangerl, the Faculty Director of Communication and Human Resource Management at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, someone who has a passive-aggressive communication style tries to come across as aloof, even if they are actually upset or angry.

Before you press send on that email or take a deep breath to fire a backhanded retort at your coworker, pause and see if any of these seven phrases appear. You might be surprised at how often you choose a passive-aggressive approach.

I assume you are completing this for me??

Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, explains how phrases like this one will get under your colleagues’ skin. Unclear language will have people wanting to lash out in response.

The double question mark and dancing around the real question of “Hey, are you still able to get this done for Tuesday?” come across as pre-emptively displeased. 

Per my last email…

This phrase drips passive-aggressive because what it actually masks is the sender or speaker pointing out that you did not read their previous email carefully enough. Dhawan also shares how this phrase causes anxiety in the recipient because they second-guess what they’ve been doing and what the sender really means. 


People who are passive aggressive think that if they get angry or say something in frustration that their life at work will get much worse. When things get heated, they’ll often shut the conversation down completely with responses like “fine” simply to avoid confrontation. But in true passive-aggressive form, they are subtly showing their displeasure.

I thought you already knew.

Psychology Today reports that being passive-aggressive can also come across when you selectively leave out information. If you’re annoyed with something or someone at work, you withhold things that could prevent issues. Again, it’s an underhanded and indirect way of showing you’re upset.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but…

This is classic passive-aggressive phrasing. You’re making it sound like you could be wrong, even though the undertone is that you aren’t and you’re questioning someone else.

The more direct approach would be to simply ask your colleague if they got something wrong. But this phrase makes it seem like you’re frustrated with someone’s mistake, all while trying to be (fakely) kind. 

You did your best with your education.

Yikes. A passive-aggressive compliment that’s really not a compliment. While it might be construed as positive by someone else, the speaker is definitely insulting the person on the other end. It’s a masked dig at that person’s lack of education. You might also hear this phrase but instead of “your education,” they use:

  • Your skills
  • What you had to work with
  • Your knowledge

I was only joking.

Took some ribbing a little bit too far, but you actually weren’t sorry about it? You might respond by telling someone you were only joking. It’s another way of saying, “Jeeze, don’t overreact.” People who are passive-aggressive don’t like to get angry or blow up; they instead stay calm and slowly wear down their opponent.