Passive-Aggressive Postures & the American Middle Class

I stated the other day that passive-aggressive relational postures pervade American middle-class white churches.  This is, of course, a completely unscientific opinion.  It’s an observation from my experience, but it seems common enough to generalize safely.

I’m writing about this not to condemn middle-class white (Christian and non-Christian) Americans, but to examine and identify destructively manipulative behaviors and attitudes.  Thinking carefully about such relational patterns may help to identify redemptive pathways that renew relationships.  Further, this is the culture I inhabit, and I’m interested in identifying my culture’s power dynamics in relationships so that I can discern how to embody cruciformity.

So, why are passive-aggressive relational postures so common among white middle-class Christians?  There are likely loads of reasons, and if you have some ideas, please do comment.  Here are just two suggestions.

First, it seems that the dominant mode of communication for middle class people is indirect speech.  We cannot bring ourselves to speak plainly and directly about relationships, what we would like, what we want, or how we’re feeling.

To speak plainly about such things seems “demanding.”

We say things like, “uh, it’d be great if you could just . . . “  Or, “you know, I don’t know if it’s possible or if it can work out, but if it’s okay with you, could you just . . . “

We use all sorts of hedge words and back our way into suggesting things so that other people are in the position of having to guess what we’re talking about, what we’d like, and what are our desires.

Speaking this way is subtly manipulative and often leads to disappointment and anger when things don’t work out the way we’d like.  Further, indirect speech frustrates other people who are in the position of never quite knowing whether they’ve done what is expected.

Now, this is a generalization and there are many people who do speak directly.  I’m merely noting one feature of the speech habits and relational dynamics of “polite” middle-class culture that contributes to passive-aggressive relational strategies.

American evangelicalism, which is largely made up of white middle-class suburbanites, is part of this middle-class culture, and in evangelical churches, this seemingly polite mode of discourse predominates.

People who are “plain-spoken” stand out.  In fact, we have this designation because a person who speaks her mind is remarkable.

If a plain-spoken person ever turns up in an evangelical church, we usually hire her as an administrator.

Most middle-class people aren’t “plain-spoken” but are well versed in indirect speech.  In evangelical churches, it can feel downright unchristian to speak plainly.  That would be rude or unkind or “demanding.”

I once worked for someone who could not bring himself to speak plainly.  I was involved in a situation that he needed to address and asked him about it after he had claimed to have done so.

I asked him if he had spoken to my co-worker about “topic A” to tell him that he must take “action B.”   He said, “yeah, more or less, but I think he got the message.”

Knowing the relational dynamics of my work environment, I asked my co-worker, “did you talk to our supervisor about ‘topic A’?  What did he tell you to do?”

He said, “well, I’m not sure, but I think he just wanted to check in and see how things were going with me.”

I later found out that my co-worker had been labeled as being “difficult” and as one who “doesn’t fit the ethos of our workplace.”

It seemed to me that this wasn’t fair.  If my supervisor had spoken plainly to my co-worker, he would have put him in a good position to contribute in a fruitful way to the workplace ethos.

For tomorrow, a second factor—the illusion that pure passivity is a Christian virtue.

11 thoughts on “Passive-Aggressive Postures & the American Middle Class

  1. Dan Reid

    Tim, there’s something I’ve puzzled over for years. In the early ’90s people who had never done it before started using what people who study these things call “up-talk,” or rising intonation. That is, they started talking like “Valley Girls,” ending statements with the intonation of a question. It is so prevalent now that it’s hardly noticed. But at the time (right around 1990) NPR did a segment on it. I’ve tried to avoid this speech pattern, but it’s very difficult to do since it’s so prevalent now. And I’ve noticed that if you don’t do it, in some contexts you are perceived as a bit harsh or rude.

    This and other forms of speech that catch on and spread as memes fascinate me (in recent years, beginning a statement–from a cold stop– with “so”!). I’ve thought of this up-talk as passive in posture–but in fact it’s often used in a way that is not passive at all (in a manipulative way). I’d never thought of it in terms of passive-aggressive behavior, but reading your blog I’m thinking it just might be part of the wider matrix you’re pointing to.

    I’m not ready to draw a conclusion, but you’ve given me something to think about!

    1. timgombis

      That’s so fascinating, Dan! This just sparked a lively conversation between Sarah and me.

      We’ve actually mimicked this speech pattern at the dinner table since it does indeed involve seriously manipulative speech, though I don’t know that I can fully get my mind around all its attendant dynamics. When I taught undergrads this way of speaking was increasingly common. For some reason, it seemed that students from Western PA used it more than others.

  2. Carl Mosser

    I’ve observed that plain-spoken people in the U.S. frequently come from lower class backgrounds or other cultures. They tend not to employ excessive euphemism, indirect speech, talking through others, etc. but instead address issues head on and honestly. This makes people raised in the comfortable American middle class (of whatever racial composition) very uncomfortable. Rather than being valued for their virtue (plain-speaking is a virtue), plain-spoken persons are frequently labeled as arrogant, proud, or rude. Because others feel threatened by the prospect of having to confront issues directly when a plain-spoken person is around, natives of the middle-class will sometimes become more aggressive than passive in their efforts to marginalize, slander, or fire them.

    1. timgombis

      I think you’re right, Carl, which is why I’ve said that it seems particularly true of middle class white people. When we got to know people in urban areas long held in poverty, speech was more direct. And in my own family, many of those who were immigrants or first-generation Americans speak very directly.

      Of course, each culture has its own destructive proclivities, too, but certainly other cultures don’t exhibit those indirect speech patterns.

      1. Linda Mortensen

        The working class immigrant culture I came from, however, spoke in very passive-aggressive ways. They were also pacifists. I’m not saying that all pacifists are passive-aggressives, and perhaps there is no correlation, but it is interesting nonetheless.

      2. timgombis

        I wonder, Linda, if it has to do with where ‘they’ come from. In my case, a bunch of Greeks. Northern or Western Europeans might have different communicative practices.

  3. Kris Pierson

    I am thoroughly enjoying this series of posts, Tim. This one in particular really summed up the discussions I have had with friends, both at work and at church, about what a “passive aggressive” posture or turn of phrase might look or sound like. We Minnesotans are obliviously proud of the moniker “Minnesota Nice” which, shockingly, is simply a passive aggressive “Hollywood insult” pointing to the passive aggressive nature of many Minnesotans (our population is dominated by white, middle-class). Those who know better understand that many outside the North Star State see Minnesotans as “nice to your face”, but seldom as the types to deliver on direct acts of goodness.

    I have often used this hypothetical exchange to explain such a Minnesota Nice passive aggressive posture:

    Betty [eager to show friend Frannie her new window treatments]: “Betty, what do you think of the new drapes? I just had them put up.”

    Frannie [Smiling, despite her disgust]: “Oh wow, Betty! I wouldn’t have noticed, they simply fit right in. Tell me, did you get these from WalMart? Or perhaps from the thrift store? I know shades like these must have been hard to find!”

    Betty: “Well, I won’t say. My little secret! But if you ever need help with picking out some drapes, or want to find a good deal, just call me!” [Betty has picked up on Frannie’s slight, and has no intention of ever helping Frannie in this way. But, hey, these two are “best friends”.]

    Thanks for your insights!

    1. timgombis

      Brilliant, Kris! That illustrates nicely the “polite” character of our public speech that values unruffled public exchanges over truth-speaking. Now, on one hand, it just may be kind to keep an honest opinion from someone. But when such speech patterns become deeply-engrained, they can foster people who can’t bring themselves to address things honestly when the need arises.

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  5. xavier

    I come from a Southern European background and can relate to the issues raised. Conseequently – I choose to associate with almost everyone except Americans. Fake, evasive, dishonest and manipulative are some of the words that come to mind.

  6. kassandra

    I am half cuban, half white but I was adopted by cuban and puertorican adoptive parents. Just today I had an argument with a white christian friend because he’d been passive aggressive and he says its bc I’m “offensive” and “innappropriate” and “weird”. I ask how the heck? He says that I deeply offended him when I told him his cellphone photos were ugly. I explained that he’s an attractive guy but I was trying to help him bc ugly photos have given him bad luck on dating sites. An ugly photo is not a reflection of him, its just an issue he should try and fix (I have ugly photos too!) But well he just did not understand me at all. He expected me to apologize for telling him the truth about his photos. I refused. He also took offense to me telling him he may end up single forever and enjoy it. I explained that I enjoy being single and maybe one day he will come to enjoy it as well. But he was still expecting me to apologize. Well this is all bizarre to me. Maybe I should stick to hispanic friends bc they don’t expect all my responses to be generic and fake.

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