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Dear Caroline,

I have a coworker who is compelled to verbally cut me down whenever she gets the chance. She makes her nasty remarks in a sweet tone of voice and tends to preface them with something like, “No offense, but …“ or follow them up with, “I’m just kidding.” I want to defend myself, but I don’t want to come off as overly sensitive, or even worse, a troublemaker.

I still haven’t lost my temper, but her remarks feel like Chinese water torture and I’m getting near a breaking point.

What can I do?

…Silently Seething

Dear Seething,

Sounds like you’re dealing with classic passive aggression. While I haven’t the slightest insight into your coworker’s motives, I can give you a method to correct her so you no longer have to suffer in silence.

Though you can’t take a rolled-up newspaper and whack her on the nose like a naughty puppy, her behavior warrants a similar tactic. Your verbal “whack” must be firm, consistent and with no intent to injure. You must apply it every time she insults you, no exceptions. Practice this technique ahead of time so you can do it easily and with total confidence.

Here’s an example you can adapt for any interaction:

Coworker: “No offense, but your skirt looks uncomfortably tight.”

You: (Pause for a beat,hen with great eye contact and a calm voice.) “Excuse me? Did you say my skirt looks uncomfortably tight?”

Coworker: “Uh, yes.”

You: (Sill calm and making great eye contact, slowly, at full volume.) “My skirt looks uncomfortably tight. What do you mean by that?”

Now all you have to do is keep your cool, and give her a pleasant, expectant smile while you await her explanation.

Since passive-aggressive people tend to be in the habit of delivering their put-downs while others are present, all eyes will be on her. At this point, she’ll probably have preferred a whack on the nose. Let her scramble for words.

Do this every time she throws a dig your way, and she’ll soon tire of her game completely, or decide to direct her aggression at someone else.

Yours in solidarity and good cheer,


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