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.