Keep your scary directness away from me!

My sophomore year at BYU, I lived in a house south of campus with four other girls.  One roommate was engaged, another was a grad student film major we didn’t see  much, and the remaining two were former mission companions who both had jobs in addition to going to school.  I didn’t see much of them as a result.  Our kitchen was one of those outdated 1950s style kitchens with a sink but no dishwasher, so everyone had to hand wash their own dishes.  The house was also old enough to be prone to heating, plumbing and pest problems.  And had an ugly couch that was itchy.  And we often had to use the open oven door to warm ourselves. [1]  I wasn’t sure which roommate was leaving her food-covered dishes in the sink for days at a time, but it was nasty, and I was tired of it.  I resorted to something that is an unfortunate staple of communal living:  the passive aggressive post it note.

My first note was pretty straightforward, if hyperbolic:  “Day Three of the dirty dish crisis.  When will the madness end?!”

This received a guilt-inducing reply [2] that wasn’t wholly satisfactory:  “When notes are left, feelings are hurt.”  Fair enough, but THE DISHES WERE STILL NOT WASHED.  EXCLAMATION POINT.

My next salvo was a bit more snarky, I admit:  “When crusty dishes are left in the sink, rats feel welcome in our home. Do your (here I thought but did not write several expletives [3]) dishes!”

We did finally sit down and have a roommate chat at the end of the week.  She expressed her feelings that notes were not an effective way to communicate.  I expressed my feelings that grown women should do their own damn dishes and not require hand-holding or personal reminders to do so.  While that may sound like we were at an impasse, strangely enough the two of us actually moved to a new apartment together when our contracts were up, so apparently there were no lasting hard feelings.

In Stephen Covey terms, passive-aggressive behavior is a lose-lose solution.  You don’t (directly) address your unmet needs, and the other person feels icky as well.  However, in the moment, the self-righteousness coursing through your veins can feel quite satisfying.  There’s an entire site devoted to passive aggressive note leaving here and an excellent essay of the passive-aggression of a vegan here. [4]

As a girl from the northeast, raised outside of Philadelphia, I was used to people being fairly direct and not mincing words.  A few years ago, we took the kids to Hersheypark, and they overheard a father say this to his children:  “Fine.  You kids don’t want to listen to me.  That’s OK.  You just keep running around.  Someone’s going to abduct you and chop you up.”  My kids were horrified, although the man’s kids were unfazed.  My kids were even scandalized at the notes attached to the brownies by the cash registers at the Philly cheesesteak places:  “You touch it, you bought it.”  As my daughter said:  “Mom, that’s so rude!” [5]

I was surprised to find that many of the Utah Mormons I met were very conflict-averse compared to those norms with which I was raised. There was even a study on this presented at Sunstone last year, although equating avoidance with passive-aggression may not be accurate.  People in Utah weren’t exactly nice; they just avoided saying what they thought, using silent treatment or avoidance tactics that I found unfamiliar.  More mind-reading was expected, and I wasn’t terribly good at it.  And it also seemed that people could only hold in their negative feelings for so long before they were bound to surface.  I also was surprised at how quickly people from Utah would use the phrase “contention is of the devil” to shut down what I considered to be a normal conversation with differing opinions.

La la la la! Can’t hear you!

Being in an environment where you may be called out directly requires a certain amount of confidence.  A few years ago, I was traveling through the Newark airport when an older gentleman in front of me failed to heed the repeated instructions to remove his laptop from his bag for screening.  The TSA guy lowered his glasses and looked the guy in the eye:  “What are you?  Blind?  There are about fifty warnings.  You have to remove the laptop from your bag for screening.”  [6]  Then he took the guy back through security and made him do it properly.  But he didn’t stop there.  He shouted loudly to the rest of the line in a sing-song cadence:  “People.  You have to.  Remove.  Your laptops.  From.  Your bags.  For screening.” [7]

Utah and Philly may be two different extremes.  Where do you fall in the spectrum?  Have you ever been the recipient of a passive-aggressive note?  Have you written one?  Do Mormon teachings or culture create passive-aggression or just avoidance and passivity? [8]



[1] Now that I think about it, this house was actually far worse than most of my mission apartments, although the cockroaches didn’t fly and mostly died when you stepped on them, so that was nice.

[2] Also worded in the passive voice, so kudos for that.

[3] After all, I was preparing to put my mission papers in, so I was exercising self-restraint.  Little did I know that there would be plenty of call for expletives on my mission as well.

[4] I particularly enjoyed the guy flipping off the butcher with his fingers in his pockets.

[5] I said, “Well, you’re not going to touch it now, are you?”  Amiright?

[6] Based on the expression on the passenger’s face, it wasn’t entirely clear he understood English.

[7] Tough crowd, too.  The ripple of disapproval for the old guy who was holding up the line was palpable, passed from person to person like the words of King Benjamin’s speech.

[8] Or just lots of talks written in the passive voice?