The Medium is the Passive Aggressive Message
Last weekend, we were having dinner with a couple who moved here from New York a few years ago. The wife asked my husband (who is from Los Angeles) what he found most surprising or challenging about moving to Minnesota. “Not as much surf,” he laughed. “What about the Midwestern passive aggression?” she queried. “Don’t you miss people just telling you like it is?” “Ya sure, you betcha,” he agreed in his best Midwestern accent.
Growing up in Minnesota, I never quite “got” the passive aggressive thing. I knew that it was a Midwestern stereotype, but I had only met a few people who actually “passively aggressed” on a regular basis. I associated Midwestern passive aggression with unfulfilled middle- aged men in ill-fitting suits, secretly plotting each other’s professional demise, mother-in-laws in tight high-waisted khakis whispering criticisms in their sons’ ears behind their daughter-in-laws’ backs or needy “church ladies” (come on, you know the type) vying for negative attention. I never really found myself surrounded by any of these people in my teens and early twenties, so yes, I was blissfully out of “P.A. range” for many years.
Upon my return from LA (where people typically just tell you like it is, or ignore you— academics excluded, but that’s a special kind of passive aggression), I finally figured out what everyone had been talking about. As I entered my “adult life” in Minnesota, I encountered a particular genre of passive aggression, one mediated by technology. I’ve learned that the medium through which one chooses to “passively aggress” often reveals more than the words he or she uses. And man, there are some great options out there, depending on your flavor of passive aggression. Here are two of my faves:
When I first moved back to Minnesota I was teaching French in a Catholic school. I liked the whole “we are family” metaphor and all, but what some co-workers failed to understand is that while I might forgive a relative for sending me a bizarro guilt -laden (or rage-filled) email, my co-workers aren’t actually my family. That’s OK, the lack of professional boundaries fused with good old-fashioned Midwestern passive aggression and made for some priceless emails.
Email is a prime medium for passive aggressive behavior because you can get everything off your chest without actually having to (gasp) confront someone (like they do way out there on the coasts,” don’ t ‘cha know”). One particular co-worker experienced moments of intense rage when he would discover the TV he had reserved for his class was not there. Instead of going into the reservation system to see who (perhaps by mistake) could have taken his particular TV instead of one of the other six in the building that he could be using, he would send out a “staff all” email (heavy on the guilt) about personal responsibility. During the three years I worked there, these (frequent) emails morphed from the “Catholic-guiltesque” variety to full on “rage against the system and everyone in it” epics. Woah Nelly. But would this guy ever talk about a “TV transgression” to your face? No way.
Let’s not forget that the cc and bcc are great strategic tools for passive aggressive emailing. But here’s what passive aggressive emailers tend to forget— while it feels soooo good to hit send, your little P.A. moments are also permanently recorded for posterity and could very easily be forwarded on or used as entertainment at parties (not that, ehem, I’d have any experience with that).
While most of the uncomfortable Facebook interactions I’ve had with Midwesterners have actually been rather aggressive (there’s a former –now blocked– “ friend” of mine — I’ve dubbed him the “Tea Partier”— who really liked to let me have it in the form of vitriolic misspelled diatribes), I have had several “fun” passive aggressive moments as well. My favorite happened recently.
A friend of mine had posted a link on which I commented— nothing controversial, basically just saying I liked the link. Another friend of hers (let’s call her “Nancy”) posted something pretty inflammatory– well more just out of touch– (though not political in nature). I thought about it for a while and posted a quick little “interesting read on the situation, this is how I see it,” response, not looking for a fight, just being (double gasp!) straightforward. After all, it’s Facebook and, as the media reminds us daily, there is no such thing as privacy (especially when you’re posting for all to see…go figure). So, “Nancy,” assuming her best passive aggressive stance, writes something to my friend (on the same thread) about how she should have known better than to post anything “remotely political” because “certain people” get “all out of whack” and how the last thing she wants to do is have a debate with someone “she doesn’t even know.” Followed by a separate post lamenting how she “loves and hates Facebook at the same time. Sigh.” Not only had she skillfully employed a very public forum to shame me for responding to her in the first place, she did so without actually addressing me directly.
Oof dah! I didn’t know whether I should applaud or set her up with email man so they could ride off into the sunset together and “passively aggress” each other until the end of days. The best part? With the help of technology, they would never even have to meet face to face.