What is the German word / expression for "passive aggressive"? The closest I've found, would be, how one might expect, passiv aggressiv (see here). Unfortunately this term only really seems to be applicable in psychology texts and such and not really in day-to-day usage.

So what would be the "casual" translation in German? If there isn't an exact one, close substitutes would be OK I guess...

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    I think it is just as fine and "daily" as it is in English...
    – Emanuel
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:29
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    I feel like among the closest concepts might be Insubordination, but that relates to the "good" old days of Untertan and Obrigkeitshörigkeit. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 18:32
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    I'd welcome more of the supposed/known meaning of the English phrase. I suspect, that some of the diversity of the answers originates from uncertainty of the meaning to translate.
    – guidot
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 14:58
  • Like @guidot said: please add a sentence or two about your understanding of (English) passiv aggressiv. This term has become very frequent in the English societal discourse, but, I think, not so much in the German. Anyway there may be common ways to express it but first you should clarify the meaning of the English term. You may start with "Passive agressive is used in situations where..." Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 9:49

7 Answers 7


From what I hear around myself in the recent past, passiv-aggressiv is making its way into everyday german, simply because we don't have a suitable less-literal translation (as we already see in this thread)


unterschwellig feindselig - subliminal hostile

  • I think this is by far the best approximation. In being "passive aggressive" you're creating animosity on a sub-conscious level thus this would be a fitting translation.
    – Adwaenyth
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 14:04
  • @Adwaenyth That's not necessarily "subconscious" though. That person might well be very well aware of it, but he just chooses to deliberately display it in a more "passive", subtle and even more devious way to make the other person as uncomfortable as possible. This is a really bad form of social interaction, but it exists.
    – xji
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 8:38

"Passiv-aggressiv" ist meiner Meinung ein Oxymoron. Entweder man ist passiv oder aggressiv. Beides gleichzeitig geht nicht. "Passiv-aggressiv" erscheint mir als ein typisch amerikanischer Begriff, um jemandem, der nicht macht, was man will, eine reinzuwürgen (Stichwort aggressiv, aber er tut ja nichts, also setze ich noch das "passiv" dazu, um das "aggressiv" behalten und ihm die Schuld geben zu können).

Im Deutschen würde ich "unkooperativ" sagen oder konkret benennen, was derjenige macht; zB "er verschränkt die Arme und meidet den Blickkontakt, wenn ich mit ihm reden will".

Nachtrag für alle, die den Begriff nicht als Oxymoron sehen:

Wer Verhalten wie Arme verschränken, sich weigern, etwas zu machen, oder den anderen auflaufen lassen als "agressiv" bezeichnet, verharmlost wirkliche (körperliche) Gewalt und Agression.

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    +1 für angewandte kritische Vernunft! Das Fazit wäre, so einen psychologisierenden Blödsinn wie "passiv aggressiv" nicht zu verwenden.
    – Ingo
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 9:59
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    Passive aggressive is not an oxymoron. "Passive" refers to behaviour, "aggressive" can refer to behaviour or to feelings. So it is possible to behave passively and feel aggressive, and this is exactly what the compound means. "Unkooperativ" doesn't capture this meaning, and your second description may describe "passive aggressive" or something completely different like "apathisch", "zurückgezogen".
    – Turion
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 10:53
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    @Turion I doubt that "aggressive" can properly describe a feeling. To convince me, please name an "aggressive feeling".
    – Ingo
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 11:41
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    Here's an example of passive-aggressive behaviour: imagine two people have a conflict. A refuses to speak with B in order to make B feel bad and also to make sure the conflict cannot be solved, and if possible to make B more angry and thus demonstrate superiority/power: A tries to steer the feelings of B. The behaviour is passive: outwardly nothing is done, but it is also aggressive: A tries to subdue B. Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 16:35
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    (By the way: the loudest claims that passive-aggressive cannot exist I heard from people who were experts at using such techniques... though of course that was during a conflict, not on definition/terminology Q&A pages) Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 16:37

If you look at the origin of this phrase it becomes clear that is a concept formulated by psychologists:

Passive-aggressive behavior
Passive–aggressive behavior is characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation.

Originally a scientific term that was well defined,

Passive–aggressive behavior was first defined clinically by Colonel William Menninger during World War II in the context of men's reaction to military compliance. Menninger described soldiers who were not openly defiant but expressed their aggressiveness "by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism" due to what Menninger saw as an "immaturity" and a reaction to "routine military stress".

It slipped from technical terminology to everyday (kitchen) psychology jargon. Both of these are a source for the source of this usage in German. It is not even an English loan word. It is a Latin construct in both language and used in both languages in exactly the same manner with the same meanings.

It is a perfectly well established concept and phrase in German:

Karrierebibel: Passiv-aggressiv: Definition, Anzeichen, Tipps

So the associated patterns to observe for this description are:

non-active resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, sullenness, stubbornness, and negative attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected by others, indirect behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency, especially in reaction to demands by authority figures, passive, sometimes obstructionist resistance to complying with expectations in interpersonal or occupational situations, avoiding direct or clear communication, evading problems, fear of intimacy or competition, making excuses, blaming others, obstructionism, "playing the victim", feigning compliance with requests, sarcasm, backhanded compliments, and hiding anger, deliberate, active, but carefully veiled hostile acts which are distinctively different in character from the non-assertive style of passive resistance, "The worst case of passive–aggressive behavior involves destructive attitudes such as negativity, sullenness, resentment, procrastination, 'forgetting' to do something, chronic lateness, and intentional inefficiency."

As is evident from this laundry list the accompanying personality disorder is not considered very useful anymore and no longer part of the DSM V. Some of the associated pattern are falling just short from being simply openly aggressive, some of them are perfectly normal behaviour for a healthy individual that is forced into an authoritarian environment or situation. The overuse of this phrase in ill-fitting contexts by people using it as a kitchen therapist has led to the funny situation the those who utter the term are often engaging in passive-aggressive behaviour just by that. In most interpersonal encounters the term the should have been used or what was really meant is something like feindselig-negativ. But "avoiding direct confrontation…"

If an English native speaker wants to say "passive-aggressive" in German, he should say passiv-aggressiv. If the same speaker wants to say something that is a little bit more concise, to the point, less jargony he should do so. Some examples or suggestions are found below the question above.

  • Following your defintion of passive aggressive the first thing that comes to my mind in a context of German language and literature is Der brave Soldat Schwejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923). So, a classical way of desribing passive-aggressive behaviour would be: Er verhält sich wie der brave Soldat Schwejk. Perhaps one could also speak of "Schwejk'sches Verhalten". Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 10:18
  • @ChristianGeiselmann It's not really my definition. But who knows even the film versions of the story? Imho that would distort the meaning now into Bauernschläue, verschmitzt etc.; quite impractically. Although I agree that the definition coming from a military context it is a nice fit for Schwejk. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 14:43
  • Bauernschlau for my understanding is a type of behaviour where a person tries to frame or cheat others, but does so in a very stupid and obvious way. This is then clearly something different from passive agressive and/or à la Schwejk. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 15:47
  • @ChristianGeiselmann Yes, exactly. And that is the problem when you want to rely on widespread public understanding of the figure: "Er ist naiv und tölpelhaft, meistert sein Leben aber mit Witz und Bauernschläue." Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 15:51
  • The problem is that "Er ist naiv und tölpelhaft, meistert sein Leben aber mit Witz und Bauernschläufe" might be just a somewhat wrong description of Schwejk. - B the way: your citation is from a promotional text on Amazon, of all sources,and it is even not regarding the original book but regarding some film based on it. I was speaking about the book, of course. Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 8:37

Unterschwellig Provokant nails it for me. Germans tend to lock in on shades of definition and use any interpretation to support not acknowledging the meaning of what one is trying to explain. It takes patience to finely clarify some translations. Once fully debated and all possible Shades of definition are accounted for comes understanding.

  • This is really classy, but not used in daily life. Everyone connects passiv aggressiv to the concept, but would have to think for a while to connect unterschwellig provokant to the same concept. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 6:33

Depending on the context, I'd probably use something like "abweisend" or "feindselig".

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    Which do not mean the same
    – Emanuel
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:30
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    You should provide context and reasoning for that. Well either way, welcome to German.Stackexchange
    – Vogel612
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:36
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    @Emanuel Well, at least it means something Could anybody explain what passive aggressive is supposed to mean? See also Roberts answer. Down with Neusprech!
    – Ingo
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 10:01

I suggest


see Duden with lots of synonyms, which also could match like

bockig, störrisch, trotzig, trotzköpfig, verbockt, widerborstig, widersetzlich, widerspenstig.

This is based on the assumption, that passive agressive means "not currently actively opposing, but being prepared to do so at earliest opportunity" (see my comment for clarification to the question).

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    Wer aufmüpfig ist, ist aber nicht passiv. Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 17:20
  • @HubertSchölnast Ich kann mir aufmüpfig durchaus auch in einer verhaltenen, unterschwelligen, subtilen, heimlich sabotierenden Art vorstellen. Insofern finde ich das Wort hier ganz gut. Ich hatte sowieso vermutet, dass es für passive agressive, da die Verhaltensform ja weder neu noch eine amerikanische Erfindung sein kann, sicherlich deutsche Begriffe gibt, auf die man bloß nicht gleich kommt... Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 9:59
  • Für passiv-aggressiv fehlt mir hier noch die Komponente der Aggression (im Unterschied zum Widerstand). Trotzig & Co. decken beides ab, bzw. beschreiben nur einen Konflikt, vielleicht ohne der Seite der Aggression viel Gewicht beizumessen. Z.B. ein Kind kann trotzen und sich so dem Willen (Aggression) der Eltern widersetzen. Es kann aber auch trotzen, um die Eltern zu ärgern (aggressiv). Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 23:04

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