Minnesota is the land of Passive Aggressiveness. It’s like it’s in the water or something and infects everyone (but especially those who were born and raised here). It took me a while, when I moved, to realize that underneath all of this current of “nice” was something deeper and more insidious. Often people were upset with you. But they wouldn’t tell you that they were upset with you and they definitely wouldn’t tell you why.
Now, on the one hand, you can use that to your advantage. In my first job out here I was on a committee. (Well, I was on about a million committees because that’s how the liberal church works, but this is a story about one particular committee.) We had been meeting once a month for about six months. We were getting ready to represent our church at Pride (and events leading up to Pride). We had decided that we were going to design a postcard that declared that ours was a church that celebrated all families and so we gathered a bunch of photos of same gender couples from the church and put together this beautiful postcard. And then we talked about it. And talked about it. And talked about it. Every month, for six months. Making slight changes. Going around in circles.
The event was getting closer and closer and still we had not printed the postcards. There were no substantial objections, no major changes that anyone needed to make, we just kept dithering. And so, finally, I just sent them to the printer.
Then, at the next meeting, people wanted to talk about the postcard again. I piped up and said it had already been submitted to the printer. There was a brief murmur around the table. And then we all moved on. I’m sure that some people were annoyed but because of the Minnesota “Nice” thing no one said anything to me about it. Of course, after that I was kicking myself that I could have just submitted that postcard months earlier and saved us all some meeting time. But on the other hand, this passive aggressiveness looks like walking into a room, asking someone how they are, and they reply that they are fine. Then, as you go about your business, they sigh dramatically. Maybe a couple of times for effect. Now you have a choice: You can ignore their sighs, or you can ask about them. If you ask you’ll get another “Oh, I’m fine. Really.” (If this happens I suggest saying, “Great!” and leaving the room immediately because if you don’t…) After a brief bit of silence they’ll launch into whatever is bothering them but without ever being clear about it. Or asking for what they need. Or saying what could have been done differently.
This plays out in all sorts of ways: The person who takes on way too much work, doesn’t ask for help, and then gets mad when he is overwhelmed. The person who gets assigned a job, says yes to it, but then is bitter because they didn’t really want that job. The person who is nice to your face, but then behind your back talks about how you really messed something up. The list goes on and on and on. And all of this could be solved with a super simple solution: If people would be honest about what they want and need, and express those honest feelings with actual words. Words like: “That thing you did hurt me.” Words like, “I am overwhelmed, can you help me by doing XY or Z?” Words like “The way you are handling this situation isn’t working for me, can we try something else?” Words like “I just don’t have the interest in doing this project right now.” Words like “Yes” and “No” and “I don’t know but I can find out.”
Instead we dance around each other. We hurt each other without meaning to. We allow grudges to fester and boil over. All because we refuse to say what we mean and ask for what we need.
I try my best not to feed into this culture of Minnesota Nice. I take people at their word. If they tell me they are fine, I believe them. If they are not really fine and want me to know then they should have said so. If someone tells me they can do a job or take on a task, I let them. If they are overwhelmed I trust them to ask for help or clarification.
We are adults. We have words that we know how to use. When you choose not to you are making everything harder on yourself (and frankly on everyone around you as well).
Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Ask for what you need.
(And don’t apologize for it! There is no shame in saying, “Hey, I really need some help in order to get this done on time.” Even if it was a matter of you overcommitting, or not planning your time very well. I will respect you way more if you simply ask for help than if you are miserable and mean to everyone around you and resent them for not giving you the help you didn’t ask for. Seriously. Stop doing that. It’s really annoying. People can’t read your mind so you need to use your words. Use. Your. Words.)
It’s time for the passive aggressive way of communicating to end, because at the end of the day? It’s not actually communicating anything.