My Brief Foray into Mormon Passive Aggression

By: hawkgrrrl
January 7, 2014

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  Our kitchen was one of those outdated 1950s style kitchens with a sink but no dishwasher, so everyone had to hand wash their own dishes.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]

Discuss.

__________________________________________________________________

[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?

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27 Responses to My Brief Foray into Mormon Passive Aggression

  1. Handlewithcare on January 7, 2014 at 4:29 AM

    How much do I love this-let me count the ways.
    I was brought up by a woman on her own. She was angry. That taught me a lot. I learnt that women on their own were often angry, that their kids get hurt, that their anger can enable them to get things done and keep their kids safe. I learnt that we can all survive anger and learn more from the experience than pretending that events hadn’t happened.
    I’m not recommending anger`as a life-style choice, just that it’s a human energy that we can choose to channel appropriately, to think about and understand from.
    I find the anger of others so much easier to deal with than passive agression, in fact I think passive aggression is a damming set of behaviours, it condemns us to powerless repetitions and limits our growth. It also halts the growth of intimacy in a relationship, enabling us to idle away our time in self righteousness.
    I’m actually a very sensitive soul and don’t want to get into any situations of confrontation, but my family generally know exactly where they stand with me, and hopefully they are not spending their every waking thought worrying about what I might really be thinking or wanting.Weird thing is though, I honestly believe that my daughters have learnt passive aggression from the Young Women’s program. Go figure…
    Anger is scary, but nothing like as scary to me as not knowing what the hell I’m supposed to do to please someone else.
    And I just thought the security guard was doing his job.

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  2. SilverRain on January 7, 2014 at 5:31 AM

    I don’t think your second note was passive-aggressive. Passive aggressive can be an actual personality disorder. It is expressing negative thought only indirectly. You were pretty direct. And the first note just seemed to be trying to diffuse the situation with humor…

    Passive aggressive would have been leaving the dirty dishes on their bed (assuming you knew who was leaving them) or labeling a set of dishes with the name of each roommate and making a rule they could only use their labeled dishes. Or washing them and leaving a note: “Happy to clean up after you!“ signed, “the Maid.” But a direct note doesn’t really qualify….

    I do find it somewhat disturbing that my ideas for passive aggressive handling of the situation flow so freely….

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  3. Jeff Spector on January 7, 2014 at 7:31 AM

    Interesting, I don’t think that men handle things in this way. I had a similar issue where my roommate, whose sister and b-i-l owned the house we were rented and who also owned all the dishes and pots and pans, didn’t think I was doing a good job washing the dishes. So, I didn’t argue, I just went out and bought my own pot, pan, dishes and utensils.

    end of problem. His dishes stayed in the sink for days and mine didn’t.

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  4. rk on January 7, 2014 at 9:23 AM

    Ah, the notes. Your bringing back memories, I’ve tried to forget.

    I don’t know that passive-aggression or holding things inside is necessarily a Mormon issue as it is a regional or perhaps a broader cultural thing. I had an elderly non-Mormon relative who would hold negative feelings towards people inside. They came out with her dementia and it was not pretty. The people at the nursing home said that it was pretty typical for women raised in Southern California (where she was raised) to bottle up negative feelings and not confront them, but rather gripe about them behind the targets back.

    Personally I can’t stand people who are not direct about problems they have with me. I don’t like trying to navigate unwritten rules some people (particularly women) seem to have. I know it is contrary of me, but when someone tries to give little “hints” I ignore them and take their words and face value.

    I’m not a fan of being in-your-face when having to confront people though. I prefer others to be direct, but diplomatic with me.

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  5. Howard on January 7, 2014 at 9:25 AM

    Modern LDS Mormonism focuses strongly on outward behavior, countenance and “perfection” of the natural man via obedience and will power which is typically impossible to actually accomplish in this lifetime unless you were lucky enough to be born psychologically healthy to loving psychologically healthy parents! The antidote btw is love, if your parents weren’t completely psychologically healthy as most aren’t but your perception is that you were raised with a lot of (authentic) love that love goes a long way toward mitigating the other problems in your upbringing.

    The neurotic natural man does NOT yield to obedience in any authentic way, rather it results in a mind over matter dissonance with the mind sometimes or often losing to the natural man’s undercurrent of sabotage! This model gives rise to the idea of having an Angel on one shoulder and a Devil on the other. And in Mormon circles buys you some empathy and immunity (provided it wasn’t a WoW or chastity violation) if you also offer or even fake a little humility while admitting to the failure (alcoholic remorse style). It’s kind of a be good in spite of yourself model. While it may be a step in the right direction authenticity suffers greatly because wannabes mimic the ideal behavior and countenance by expressing it outwardly while not really feeling it inwardly by creating a synthetic Mormon persona layer over their yet untouched natural man tendencies. Since this incongruity is uncomfortable for the holder it is then pushed down into the subconscious and held there allowing the subconsciously inauthentic Molly or Peter Mormon to in good faith (from their perspective) call me a liar for what I have written here.

    The method that actually works is introspection leading to transcendence of the natural man, the mighty change of heart resulting in having no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually being one example. But this is the path less traveled in the LDS world and it is one of the reasons that we find more hypocrisy and passive aggression within the LDS faith than outside it. Who is more authentic the TBM with perfect attendance who pretends to live the “gospel” (church imposed rules) or the inactive or ex-member who openly admits he can’t?

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  6. hawkgrrrl on January 7, 2014 at 9:43 AM

    SilverRain – you are probably right that I wasn’t really being that passive aggressive. My style is definitely to diffuse with humor first, then be direct, so that rang true.

    Jeff – I believe men are very capable of being passive-aggressive, and I know I’ve seen it in Utah. My husband is much more indirect than I am, for example. Silent treatment or withdrawing rather than saying what you think, trying to put forward the least objectionable least disagreeable alternative when asked your opinion regardless of what your real opinion might be if you felt entitled to have one: these can be examples of passive aggressiveness. In a way your solution was passive aggressive in that it didn’t address the dirty dishes, but you (perhaps because you are a man or simply don’t find such things gross or unfair) just worked around it without enforcing societal expectations to keep the shared living space clean. Studies show that women care more about the appearance of the house, perhaps because we are conditioned to see it as a reflection on us.

    I thought of another example that went really badly in which someone thought they were getting a passive aggressive message from a roommate. A girl in the apartment upstairs from us my freshman year had a boyfriend from another country who had a volatile temper. One day he came barging in to the back of the apartment (the bedroom area that was off limits) where one of the girls was emerging from the shower wearing just a towel. He picked her up off the floor and slammed her into the wall with his hand around her throat because he thought she had been mean to his girlfriend. He and his girlfriend were in a sexual relationship, and her roommate had expressed concern to her. Then his girlfriend found what she thought was poop in a baggie on her shelf in the refrigerator and told her boyfriend how horrible everyone was being to her about their relationship using the “poop” as evidence. He lost it and assaulted the roommate believing this to be true. In reality it was gingerbread dough that someone put on the wrong shelf accidentally. Ironically, the girls had been more concerned about the boyfriend’s temper than about their sexual relationship.

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  7. greedy reader on January 7, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    I see your point about passive-aggressiveness, but that Philly directness strikes me as nothing but belligerence. The speaker’s basic assumption is: you all are stupid, and I’m not.

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  8. Last Lemming on January 7, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    Gingerbread dough, huh? I’ll have to remember that.

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  9. Kevin Barney on January 7, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    I lived in a house at BYU with a bunch of guys (I describe the house in this blog post:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/04/13/the-house-of-il/

    So there was one guy who would just hlep himself to everyone else’s food. Things escalated from notes to direct confrontations, but nothing worked. So then one of my roomies put a very insistent note on his lemonade pitcher, something like “DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES DRINK THIS!!!” As you might guess, the guy drank from it. And as you further might guess–it wasn’t lemonade. That put an end to the problem.

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  10. KT on January 7, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    I really like this post because it does indeed address a part of LDS social pculture that doesn’t seem to be addressed that much, and that many in the church don’t seem to realize or think is a problem.
    I’m a pretty direct person, but I’m not from Utah and was not raised LDS. I was however raised in the heart of ‘Midwest nice’… In my experience though, Midwesterners will say what they mean, including contentious conversation when necessary, but avoid it otherwise.

    I have lived in Provo and am married to my husband who was raised LDS (not in Utah) and he is a huge avoider of any sort of contention. If I am contentious with him, he has a tendency to stonewall….. I have seen many many LDS be passive aggressive and manipulative. My LDS mother in law is an excellent passive aggressive manipulative controller. She always wants to appear ‘nice’ and gracious, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

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  11. Jeff Spector on January 7, 2014 at 11:14 AM

    Hawk,

    “In a way your solution was passive aggressive in that it didn’t address the dirty dishes, but you (perhaps because you are a man or simply don’t find such things gross or unfair) just worked around it without enforcing societal expectations to keep the shared living space clean.”

    Not exactly. My other roommate agreed the guy was being unreasonable, So I told him I was going to get my own stuff. Nothing passive-aggressive about it. All out in the open. Just wasn’t going to put up with a double standard.

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  12. Jeff Spector on January 7, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    I think you might be over-exaggerating the LDS passive-aggressiveness from the societal variety. It’s prevalent all over.

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  13. hawkgrrrl on January 7, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    I agree that people are passive aggressive all over, although it is probably different regionally. North easterners tend to be very direct, and to greedy reader’s point, I have heard lots of people say very conversationally, “What are you? Stupid?”

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  14. Frank Pellett on January 7, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    ”You touch it, you bought it.”

    I know too many people who would live on brownies if they could be bought so cheaply. ;)

    Maybe it’d work better to just have the brownies look more like gingerbead dough. Remove the temptation to touch.

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  15. Jared on January 7, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    My Dirty Dish Roommate Story

    When I was at the Y my first year I lived south of campus in an old home with about 8 or 9 other guys. We had one guy who didn’t do his dishes. I told him very politely I wan’t his mother and to please clean up after eating. He didn’t. So I put his dirty dishes in his bunk between the sheets-kinda of a messy note.

    He confronted me later in the day. We got ready to go to blows when a 5 foot nothing roommate stepped between us.

    I was in the army before my mission and wasn’t concerned about taking him on. My dad was also a boxer/bar fighter so being confrontation was natural.

    I regret what I did in hindsight. But the problem was solved. We didn’t become fast friends but we were friendly towards one another thereafter. Both of us were glad for our 5 foot nothing ROTC roommate’s intervention.

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  16. New Iconoclast on January 7, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    KT #10, I was thinking about my Minnesota upbringing and how many out-of-staters I’ve heard say that “Minnesota Nice” is really just “Minnesota Passive-Aggressive,” and wondering if that makes us Minnesota Mormons extra-PA, or is there some kind of wrap-around effect that makes us direct? :) I guess I don’t know if we North Star Mormons are worse than the MN norm or not.

    I tend to be direct because I’m a low-grade Aspie, but I’ll be much more concise and direct in writing than I will in person, and I’ll tend to avoid confrontation unless I’m really wrapped around the axle. Then all bets are off.

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  17. Hedgehog on January 8, 2014 at 1:41 AM

    I did once have to work with a terribly passive-aggressive relief society president. It was a nightmare. I was given the complex task of organising the VT lists. I did as much as I could, but wasn’t privy to much of the privileged information the RS president had access to. It was clear she wanted nothing to do with the VT lists, although she never said so. I did the best I could. But the lists needed her input before they could be finalised. When I tried to make this clear, what I got back was ‘well if you don’t want to do it just say so!’. Excuse me. I’d been slogging my guts out for weeks on this thankless task. I pointed out every time I’d asked a question or asked her to approve anything, she simply avoided answering, and felt that was sufficient response.
    I don’t think I was the only person to find her difficult, she wasn’t RS president for long.

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  18. Hedgehog on January 8, 2014 at 6:22 AM

    Come to think of it, I think she moved house, just across the ward boundary, which has to be the most passive-aggressive way to be released from an unwanted calling…

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  19. Handlewithcare on January 8, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    I think some of the comments here illustrate nicely how damaging and contentious passive aggressive behaviour is in it’s consequences.May the good Lord save us from it.
    Does anyone have any good suggestions for constructive ways of dealing with PAs? I’ve just about run out of strategies.
    On a lighter note, I think the writer and broadcaster Garrison Keillor does a great job of portraying passive aggression in his very own passive aggressive way, to great comic affect. I think we need to get at least a good laugh out of it.

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  20. hawkgrrrl on January 8, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    A quick search revealed the following pointers: 1) notice the symptoms of PA behavior (e.g. procrastinating, sulking, gossiping), 2) do not escalate the anger – stay neutral and don’t engage, 3) point out the person’s underlying anger without emotion (e.g. “it seems to me you’re angry about such and such”), and 4) expect them to deny their feelings. The key is to avoid arguing with the person. Even if they don’t admit their covert anger, the fact that it has been brought to light should help change the PA behavior pattern.

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  21. Jeff Spector on January 8, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    How about: ” Ooo wow, That’s quite passive aggressive behavior. How’s that workin’ for ya? Is that an East coast approach?

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  22. howarddirkson on January 8, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    When push comes to shove passive people are in charge even when it appears on the surface that active people are. It is a very effective ego defense and difficult to work with but it can be addressed and changed by using a therapeutic technique IF you are willing to confront and IF you are willing to slightly exceed what many find socially acceptable or comfortable. The passive aggressive person hides behind this social veil for protection while doing their dirty deeds. It may or may not be subconscious behavior to them. The method is to talk about the passive aggressive person and outline their methods of aggression by speaking abut them in the third person to another person or to other people while the PA is present and listening! This confronts their defense dynamics drawing them out of their passivity (often angrily and defensively btw) allowing further confrontation to take place. If you find this unkind consider the unkindness of their passive aggression, you are actually doing a lot of people a favor including the PA.

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  23. Naismith on January 8, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    Very thought-provoking, thanks.

    I can’t do the mind-reading and game-playing either (raised in Midwest).

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  24. New Iconoclast on January 8, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    Hedgehog says, I think the writer and broadcaster Garrison Keillor does a great job of portraying passive aggression in his very own passive aggressive way, to great comic affect. I think we need to get at least a good laugh out of it.

    Haha! Very true. Not only is Keillor a Minnesotan, we come from the same hometown. :)

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  25. hawkgrrrl on January 8, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    Jeff: I think we might go for something more like, “Hello, passive aggressive!” (said in a Barbara Streisand voice)

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  26. Hedgehog on January 8, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    NI, that was Handlewithcare, not me.
    I am familiar with his writing though.

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  27. New Iconoclast on January 9, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    Sorry, Hedgehog. Kudos, hwc.

    I nearly did a spit-take today reading the last section of this, over at BCC:

    Excerpt:

    GST: That is the perfect encapsulation of Mormon passive-aggression–won’t tell her to not to call, but will call the police on her.
    Steve: And the Police Beat itself is passive-aggressive — months of complaints, but we won’t identify her.
    Ken: “I shouldn’t have to be awkwardly direct! THAT’S WHAT LAW ENFORCEMENT IS FOR!”

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