Here is a situation:

Whenever a 2-year-old son does something wrong, his aunt always makes some remarks to her husband regarding that child's misbehavior and she does it deliberately in the presence of the child's mom obviously trying to needle her. For example, the mom told her child not to touch the remote control, but he just went ahead and grabbed it from the coffee table and accidentally dropped it on the floor - so the aunt right away told her husband, 'Look, he is so spoiled! Never listens to his parents!' Usually she doesn't do it loudly. She can't be accused of trying to start a fight with her sister-in-law (the child's mom) as she does have the right to tell her husband whatever she thinks, yet she never fails to do it audibly enough so that the child's mom could hear it.

What would you call the aunt's actions here? How would you describe what she is doing?

I am most interested in a noun or a verb: "What she is doing is called (noun)." or "She is simply (verb+ing)."


  • What she is doing is called mockery.
  • She is simply ranting.
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    She is simply being a b**** . Seriously though, passive aggressive is apt and all, but this kind of behavior, spreading negative energy for the sake of making other feel bad, needs a stronger and more judgmental word in my humble opinion.
    – Supr
    Commented Aug 31, 2012 at 13:08

12 Answers 12


Passive aggressiveness is very apt. Provoking also comes to mind, depending on how we interpret her motives: she seems to be trying to provoke the child's mother, she is trying to get under her skin, she is trying to put her down. I am assuming that the mother of the child is her sister-in-law: she is trying to drive brother and sister apart by provoking the sister and setting her husband up against his sister by pushing him to join her in her provocations. She is a sower of discord, a bully, a manipulator. And, no, I have never had a sister-in-law perform such tricks of bullying and manipulation on me.

  • WOW!!! Thank you, Cerberus!!! I especially like "trying to get under her skin". Very graphic!!! :) Is it like though she is really trying to provoke her sister-in-law, I still can't say that she is being provocative, because "provocative" has some sexual connotation?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 7:10
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    @Brilliant: While provocative can still mean "causing anger or irritation", I think provoking is the better adjective, because, as you say, provocative is now mostly used for "causing sexual excitement". Incidentally, do you actually know this aunt? Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 7:37
  • @Cerberus: Yes, I know her, but the story presented here is deliberately overstretched and has many made-up elements added to it as my focus here was more on how to describe this particular behavior in English, rather than on getting any consultation help :)
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 8:13
  • @Brilliant: Haha, I see. Well, good luck with her. By the way, provocative is also often used to describe modern art that supposedly provokes emotions in people. Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 8:20
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    @Cerberus: :) :) Well, I got the point. Some of these "jumbles of rags" and "peanut-butter floors" do provoke a lot emotions in me, albeit not that kind of emotions that the authors would probably mean to provoke. :)
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 20:21

To describe the aunt’s behaviour as “passive aggressive” smacks a little of pseudo-psychiatry.

More commonly one might say she is being snide:

adjective Derogatory or mocking in an indirect way: snide remarks about my mother

  • Thank you, Brian. Is "snide" a common word in English?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 20:27
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    Well, it's not something I find myself using every day, but I wouldn't say it's rare or obscure, either. Commented Jan 17, 2011 at 14:09
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    @brilliant yes, it's common to say "making snide comments"
    – Andrew Vit
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 4:32
  • Added the definition to show how perfect this really is. The example comment nails it.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 8:31

I'd say it's a form of passive aggressiveness. She doesn't complain directly to the person she's complaining about--she complains to someone else in her presence. As you put it, "she can't be accused of starting a fight." That's one of the passive aggressive traits: Being argumentative or otherwise behaving badly, but with some kind of deniability built into the process so she can deny the aggressive behavior.

This is far from the only trait of passive aggressive behavior, but it is a type.

  • Thank you Bikeboy39!!! Is "passive aggressiveness" a kind of idiom in English?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 14:58
  • 1
    @brilliant: It is a pretty common term, I'd say, but it's also a recognized personality disorder when the behaviors are extreme. And as usual, the way it's commonly used isn't exactly the way it's defined as a psychological disorder. There's similarity, though.
    – bikeboy389
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 17:12

I can't accept passive-aggressive as an answer (though I've not down-voted) because it does not mean "indirect complaints" (the behaviour you describe) but rather it means passive negativity, sometimes obstructionism, which is something else altogether.

I suggest this behaviour is better described as needling, where the aunt is goading and provocative. Needling is an informal word, but a good fit for this situation.

  • Since I received this answer, I've used "She's been passive aggressive" quite a few times in my conversations with native English speakers, and almost always could notice some shadow of confusion on their faces. However, when I switched to "She's been trying to needle..." they seemed to be okay with that.
    – brilliant
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 12:46
  • 1
    @brilliant: You must be speaking of her the whole time! She must be horrible... Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 12:56
  • @Cerberus - :) Well, she's been especially "disturbing" lately :)
    – brilliant
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 13:29

The aunt is a shit-stirrer: one who makes trouble for others...by making known facts that they would prefer to keep secret.

The shortened "cleaner" version stirrer is commonly used too. For the action itself, shit-stirring can be toned down to stirring things up.

This metaphoric "stirring" is so common that even more oblique references occur in things like..

...for Annina's sake, I expect you to hold that sharp tongue and put away your wooden spoon!


The aunt is frustrated and instead of complaining directly to the parents she is complaining to someone else loudly to show her dissapproval. It is pretty common and lately this behavior has been labled passive agressive to show the indirect, yet confrontational manner.

If the parent does not like the aunt saying mean things about her and her son in front of her, she must either confront the aunt directly, or indirectly to another relative that is sure to get back to the aunt.

This is why passive aggressive aunts often do not get invited places making them even more upset about being slighted and even nastier. A vicious cycle.

  • This is not an answer; its really a comment Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 3:48

How about critical? Negative? Passively critical, perhaps?

  • please expand your answer to include an explanation as to why any of these are good choices. The best way would be to give example sentences. Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 9:07

Obnoxious comes to mind.

The fact that it is not directly addressed to the sister-in-law, but yet still audible by her seems clearly an attempt to offend/annoy her.

  • So, could I say that she is offending or she is annoying the child's mom?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 9:08
  • @brillant: this is clearly an adult's game: she offends mainly the mom, not so much the child.
    – VonC
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 9:10
  • So, "offend" would be the right word here, right? Do you think "mind games" would also fit in or that would be too soft?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 9:13
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    @brillant: "offensive" would be adequate. But "mind games" could apply even though it could very well be too sophisticated. Basically, she is simply rude to her sister-in-law.
    – VonC
    Commented Jan 15, 2011 at 9:17
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    @brilliant, @VonC: With respect, I think this is not the best answer. Obnoxious is a judgement of the behaviour, not a neutral description of it, any more than engrossing is a literary genre. Passive aggressive is a more specific and more objective description here.
    – user1635
    Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 6:40

I would characterize the aunt as being PROVOCATIVE. Essentially, she is trying to provoke the mother to pay more attention to her child by "calling out" the child's misbehavior. You can call her "snide," but in a sense, she is trying to be "tactful" by directing her remarks to her husband, rather than directly to the child's mother.

  • Per comments on @Cerberus's answer, the problem with provocative is the sexual connotations. That's why people sometimes use the word provoking for this particular behaviour. Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 3:59
  • @fumblefingers: That probably wasn't the case "originally." Perhaps it is true today. But I'd certain accept provoking as a reasonable synonym.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 12:59
  • Well, here's an 1861 dictionary definition that says tending to awaken or excite appetite or passion; exciting, stimulating. So it's been that way for quite a while, even if the strong connotation with sexuality wasn't likely to be explicitly mentioned back then. Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 17:53

In my opinion I would say that the aunt is being overreactive. Seriously, what does 2-year old know about anything? Anyone getting upset about an infant's action is slightly... disturbing.

  • this is not Parenting.SE, where expectations on child-development are on-topic. The OP is asking for a word. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 16:36

The polite word for what she is doing is rebuke:

verb 1. express sharp disapproval or criticism of (someone) because of their behavior or actions.

Another interpretation is that the aunt's actions are fine: she cannot rebuke the mom because it is not her blood-family, but she can rebuke the dad; the child is out of order and the parents need support from peers to ensure they raise the child well. To do this, the aunt rebukes.

  • But doesn't rebuking implies first of all expressing disapproval directly to the person that deserves that rebuke? In my case, however, she is making this indirectly, she is telling this to her husband, however, she's doing this audibly enough so that the person that is being rebuked can also hear that. On the other hand, she can always say that she isn't telling that person a word - all the words she says "are addressed to her husband". So, it's a kind of rebuke, but in a quite a subtle format, so to say. Describing it just as rebuking would seem to be too general to me.
    – brilliant
    Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 7:36
  • No no. The aunt is rebuking the child's father. It is clear to the aunt that the sister-in-law (child's mom) is performing what she seeing as a quality standard of parenthood. The aunt would expect the same civility regarding her own parenting standards. Since the brother is blood she has all force available to her to question the judgment of his parenting style, since the aunt and father were raised together under the same standard of their parents - which is clearly better that the mother was exposed. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 3:43
  • It's thus the father's responsibility to parent better, so he gets the rebuke. The mother feels insulted because her judgement is being questioned, but this is unecessary. The mom is angry because she lacks the courage to stand up for the wisdom of her parenting style. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 3:45
  • @brilliant Consider that, in one regard, there really is no word for this, because the actions of the aunt are directed at the father, not the mother, regardless of whether she chooses not to criticize / rebuke privately. Since most are not this direct, the aunt will be negatively characterized by her peers. If the aunt is intending to speak with the mom through the dad, we could probably use a word that is founded upon the judgement of a personal flaw. I.E. snide Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 3:54
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    "If the aunt is intending to speak with the mom through the dad" - Yes, she is. That was the whole point in my example.
    – brilliant
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 5:21

Consider trolling.

Oxford Dictionaries says:

make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.

Urban Dictionary says:

Being a prick on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it's the internet and, hey, you can.

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