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Ask Conflict Resolution: passive-aggressive roommates

Dear Conflict Resolution:

“How do you best deal with a passive-aggressive roommate who doesn’t like face-to-face conflict but feels safe to attack you through technology/notes?”



    Aggressively Annoyed

Passive-aggressive (PA, for short) behavior can take many forms, but it is basically the indirect expression of hostility. Instead of being direct and telling you that I’m angry about something you did, I’ll use things like sarcasm, the silent treatment, intentional mistakes and/or pointed notes to express my displeasure. Because it doesn’t directly address underlying problems, this kind of behavior is rarely constructive. 

Being the target of PA behavior sucks. It can make you feel confused, stressed and helpless. You know there’s a problem, but you don’t know how to confront it. It’s easy to label someone who uses passive-aggressiveness as a jerk (or worse). Yet often the root of this type of behavior is a combination of fear and a lack of skills. Maybe, as a child, your roommate learned that it wasn’t okay to show anger. Maybe they are terrified of confrontation. Maybe they were never taught how to be assertive. Or maybe they are just stressed out and super busy and leaving notes seems convenient.

Whatever the reason(s) may be, if you’re not loving this kind of communication, it’s up to you to shift it.  While it may be tempting to respond with a passive-aggressive note of your own, that probably won’t address or fix the actual problem at hand. Instead, model the kind of direct communication you want from your roommate and initiate a face-to-face conversation.

To do this effectively:

  • Assume your roommate is reasonable. It’s easy to go from thinking, “Ugh, he/she left another mean note,” to “He’s/She’s just trying to hurt me. What a terrible person.” Yet, assuming the worst about others will make you more upset and less able to communicate effectively. Try to keep in mind that they might not know how, or feel comfortable, to assertively communicate with you. They also may not even realize how upsetting this kind of behavior is to you.
  • Consider how your own behavior might play a role in the conflict. We’re (understandably) often in our own heads, which can make it hard to see other perspectives — think about how you might feel if you were your roommate. You may be stressed out with school, family and now this. What might your roommate have going on?
  • Initiate conversation at a time you know they’re free and in a good mindset. It’s probably not the best idea to catch them while they’re running out the door or before you know they have a big exam. If you can, try to do something fun and relaxing together so you’re both feeling positive when you start this conversation.
  • Even if your roommate responds passive-aggressively, try to remain calm and respond with honest but conscientious replies. Say how you feel about something and try to reflect back what they seem to be saying, i.e. “It sounds like you feel ___,” or “What I’m hearing is that you’re frustrated.” It might sound awkward, but it can really help your roommate believe that you care about their side, which will probably make them more open to communicating face-to-face in the future.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. If there is a big, underlying issue here, you may need to take small steps to fully resolve things. Don’t get discouraged if one conversation doesn’t fix everything.

If you want some more assistance to get through this, visit the Conflict Resolution office. We can provide one-on-one coaching or help mediate a conversation between you and your roommate. Whatever the conflict, we are here to help.

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