In Praise of Passive Aggression
Sometimes the best way to respond to life’s grievances is to simply smile—and strike back.
By Ian Urbina
Most days the job ended late. My exhausted trek back home from the New York Times building in Times Square often didn't start until after 9 pm.
But keeping me in forward motion during that foggy stumble was the simple and intense pleasure that awaited me back at my apartment: a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
I prefer Heath Bar Crunch. The bodega on the corner sold Cookies and Cream, which contented me just fine.
With kids and a wife back in Washington, D.C., I had little interest in laying down roots while working in Manhattan during the week. In searching for a place to rent, I had three simple criteria: it needed to be inexpensive, not too costly, and affordable. At $350 a month, the closet I found met my needs perfectly.
It was a three-story walk-up shared by two women, one of whom had a boyfriend who stayed there most of the time. With opposite schedules, the four of us rarely crossed paths, and everyone seemed to like it that way.
Still, living in close quarters brings friction—and much of it I could do nothing to avoid. For example, it was far too awkward—and maybe also a bit unfair—for me to complain about the personal noises coming late at night from the adjacent room used by my apartment mate and her boyfriend. So I kept my mouth shut. And while I couldn't help but be annoyed at the flecks of kitty litter that the apartment's two cats habitually left on my pillows while I was at work, I knew better than to try to reason on such matters with a feline lover.
But when the ice cream started disappearing, we had big problems.
It started humbly. Avoiding deep gashes that might attract notice, the culprit skimmed off the top with gentle strokes of a spoon. Soon, the strokes were more aggressive, and a third of the pint would disappear overnight. When the perpetrator began leaving only one spoonful after a late-night binge to avoid having to throw the container away, I decided that something had to be done.
I tried everything. Hiding the pint behind the stacked ice trays did not slow the culprit down. The same was true for writing my name across the top of the container. I was reluctant to leave a note on the refrigerator—"Attention: Midnight Marauder"—because I thought it would appear too ornery without any guarantee of success. Asking each apartment mate individually required scheduling and it couldn't help but seem accusatory to the innocent.
So, as I sat at the kitchen table one night, stewing over my predicament and staring in frustration at the vacant depths of a pint that yesterday was practically full, a simple solution caught my eye.
Crystalline and white, it would camouflage beautifully with Cookies and Cream. Natural and edible, it would also avoid sickness, not to mention a lawsuit, if unwittingly consumed.
It was perfect.
Just the idea was cathartic. And in harboring it for several days, I found a restored pep in my stride on my daily walk home as I flirted with the decision of whether tonight was the night.
Yes, it risked burning a bridge with at least one of my apartment mates. But some bridges are meant for kindling. I had already resolved that I was not going to buy any more ice cream than what I could eat during the walk home, so I was relatively immune from revenge. At worst, the tactic would jolt the culprit in much the same way that I was jolted on a regular basis. At best, it might also anger the marauder into dropping the cloak of anonymity.
So, two weeks before I planned to move out of the apartment, I set the bait. It was a newly opened container of Cookies and Cream, a quarter inch skimmed off the top, capped by a thin but solid layer of salt. To test the invisibility of my trap, I stood at the freezer, spoon in hand, and adjusted the lighting to various levels.
It was foolproof.
Several days passed, and then the email came. As I had suspected, the culprit was the roommate with the boyfriend. She was livid and—perhaps rightly—she accused me of taking my ice cream way too seriously. Indignant at the passive aggression in my actions, she gave an explanation for her behavior that was as self-righteous as it was lame: she said that she had a near-pathological weak spot for ice cream and that if it was anywhere within reach she had no way of resisting it. She seemed surprised that I wasn't more sympathetic to her condition.
The email tirades stopped a couple of days later, and I moved out soon after that. But the more I reflected, the more I was struck by two things in her reaction to the whole incident.
At no point did she pause to concede the pure genius of my booby trap. Sure, a mouthful of salt stings. But anyone—most of all a culprit who had been warned with ice tray barriers and my name written across the pint—would have to admit the cleverness in finding an effective yet innocuous way to turn the tables.
But even stranger was her pejorative use of the term "passive-aggressive." In my view, criticizing something for being passive-aggressive is like faulting a tactic for being discreet. Just as there are times when subtlety is the worst approach, there are also times when passive aggression is the best.
In fact, the more I talked to friends about similar experiences—sometimes in dealing with roommates or neighbors, but most often in dealing with larger and faceless adversaries—the more I realized that passive aggression is actually the vehicle for a noteworthy array of scrappy ingenuity.
The stories people offered on the topic were enough to fill a book. And they did.
Less creative souls—like myself—exacted sweet but gentle revenge. Others mined the occasions for art or profit. Some opted for circumvention. A few people stood firm, often adopting perfectly irrational yet strangely cathartic ways to convey their dissent.
But why focus on such petty behavior? The answer is simple: Because it is the stuff of everyday survival. And our myriad coping mechanisms offer a clear window onto the complicated mix of humor, anger, creativity and irrationality that makes us all so human.
That loud cell phone talkers or inconsiderate dog owners who do not clean up after their pets raise our blood pressure faster than the atrocities in Darfur or the growing national debt does not imply that we are callous to the suffering of others—though certainly some people are. The reason is simply that some realities are closer than others, and it's difficult to focus on Darfur or the expanding national debt when your co-worker in the adjacent cubicle is noisily playing video games.
How we choose to deal with these grievances gives our personalities definition and a valuable edge. They are formative for exactly the reason that no one likes a Pollyanna: Happy-go-lucky people are boring and predictable.
The easygoing sorts will be quick to point out that only fools make mountains out of molehills. And to some degree, they will be right. Nevertheless, these same laid-back folks will be lying if they try to pretend that they are above the fray.
One need only watch the angry gesticulations of that driver with the "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" bumper sticker after he gets cut off in traffic to recognize a basic truth about the human condition:
No one is above life's little annoyances.
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Ian Urbina is a reporter for The New York Times, based in the paper’s Washington bureau. His writings, which range from domestic and foreign policy to commentary on everyday life, have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere.
From the book Life’s Little Annoyances, by Ian Urbina. Copyright 2005 by Ian Urbina. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
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