Southern Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Southerners are known for their manner of speech. A woman from the South was talking to her young son about why all their relatives from the North talk funny. “They have a different accent,” she explained. “Everybody talks in different ways,” she continued and added, “To them, we sound like we talk very slowly, and all our words are drawn out.” The little boy’s eyes got big and he asked, “You mean they hear funny, too?” We all talk in a manner that is peculiar to our region or even our families. For instance, my mother used a phrase about people, women in particular that exasperated her or had questionable morals. She said that they were a “big six.” I have no clue what she meant, but if you do, please let me know! I’ve been trying to figure it out for years!

Southerners are truly exceptional at indirect speaking and passive-aggressive behavior. I have been at the dinner table with Southerners and instead of daring to ask directly that someone pass the salt, the proper way to do it is, “Would you like some salt?” The acceptable response is, “No, but would you like some?” which is the cue to say, “Certainly.” Why not just come out and ask for the blooming salt? What if they said that they did want some salt and you were stuck sitting there inwardly fuming because they didn’t know the unwritten rules of indirect communication?

This, of course, leads to passive-aggressive behavior. Southerners are famous for this, especially church people. We hate to launch an attack at someone in a frontal assault. It would be so unbecoming, Darling! Maybe you’ve heard about the two Southern Belles who were sitting on a veranda one day. Darlene said to Billie Jo, “See the red Cadillac over under the magnolia. My husband Billy Bob just handed me the keys one day and said I’d look good in it. It wasn’t my birthday or anniversary or anything.” Billie Jo replied, “How nice.” Then Darlene said, “You know last year he sent me on a ten-day cruise and said here’s a few thousand dollars to buy some new clothes to wear. I’m not going to go with you. I want you to look good. You dance with whomever you want to.” Billie Jo responded, “How nice.” Next Darlene pointed out her 4 carat diamond and said, “Last year Billy Bob just up and gave me this diamond. It wasn’t my birthday or our anniversary. He just said he thought I deserved it.” Billie Jo responded again, “How nice.” Finally Darlene said, “Why Billie Jo, I’ve been going on and on about all these things that Billy Bob has done for me. Has your husband ever done anything like this for you?” Billie Jo replied, “Why yes, last year he sent me to charm school. Now instead of saying ‘Up ______, I say “How nice.”

Passive-aggressive behavior is what Jesus got a lot from the Pharisees. They asked roundabout questions trying to trap him. They said something that seemed innocuous, but meant something more subtle yet sinister. Passive-aggressive behavior is like that. It comes off as harmless but really is aggressive. It’s like someone asking you, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” Sounds simple but will make you think all day that you must look horrid in that color. Maybe someone will ask you, “Do you like your hair like that?” Sounds like a fair question, but there’s nothing fair about it. It’s an indirect passive-aggressive insult because they want to say that your hair doesn’t look so great, but they don’t want to be too direct in their attack. After all, such an explicit remark might hurt your feelings.

Why can’t we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Rather than triangle in another subject or person, shouldn’t we care enough about each other to talk plainly? Southerners and diplomats need to quit quibbling here and there trying to sound all nice and cordial and get to the point. We could avoid more than a few spats and wars and get over the tension more quickly. Seems like the Bible says something about, “Speaking the truth in love.”

I’ll never forget the kick I got out of my Dad and the Yankee. This particular woman had been visiting his Edgefield Pottery museum, cataloging every piece for a book she was writing, and picking up and photographing every piece to his silent but obvious dismay. After a day of quiet exasperation, he was ready for her to leave. In typical passive-aggressive Southern fashion he said, “Wouldn’t you like to stay for supper?” She replied, “Sure!” He was cooked. He threw something together, we ate, and then she wanted coffee of all things. After she finally left, Daddy blasted her for being rude, staying for supper and so forth. I said, “You invited her.” To say the least, he didn’t think that my lack of sympathy exhibited proper decorum. She simply didn’t understand Southern passive-aggressive behavior.

We would rather shift the focus to someone or something else to avoid being direct, and it only complicates our misunderstandings more. I hope that today I will exhibit speaking the truth in love without sugarcoating it so much that the message is muddled or missed. We must care enough to confront or we don’t care enough!

passive-aggressive picture

11 thoughts on “Southern Passive-Aggressive Behavior

  1. Well-written article.

    I live in California, yet frequently interact with business partners in Brazil. To some degree, they remind me of people here in the US, in the South – excelling in hospitality and possessing more bifurcated gender roles than I experience in my California workplace.

    To an outsider, the nuances of their culture and communications often obscure their intentions.

  2. Well, bless your heart! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I agree totally with what you wrote. Sometimes, though, indirect speaking is called “tact.” I guess the difference between tact and passive-aggressive behavior is the intent.

    1. Good distinction, Beth! Thanks, tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Oct 19, 2014, at 8:20 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

  3. “Southerners and diplomats need to quit quibbling here and there trying to sound all nice and cordial and get to the point”

    I suspect the speech pattern has its origins in the old southern honor society where real or imagined insults could lead to dueling challenges with lethal concequences for one of the parties. In those days, getting to the point too quickly increased the chances of getting stabbed with one.

    Thus, the more diplomatic way of voicing disproval with out being direct. Today, though dueling is a thing of the past, a certain number of southern men still take pains not to give even unintended offense. Thus, the continued use of the cultural speech pattern.

  4. I’ve lived in the South for 12 years now, and am originally from the Pacific Nortwest, and I still have not gotten used to the indirect communication styles and downright passive aggressive behavior of the locals here. Case in point: I was at the grocery store the other day waiting at the check out counter with my hands full. The Southern couple in front of me had already placed their items on the belt, and there was 3 feet of space there, so naturally, I was waiting for them to make room for me to do the same. However, they didn’t budge one inch, even though I had managed to put just one item on the belt, and was struggling to juggle what was in my hands. Instead, the woman turned around and gave me a huge smile, then quickly turned around with her back to me. Again, they did not budge one inch, or try to accommodate me, which would have been the norm in this situation. This is just one small example of Southern passive aggressiveness. I could probably describe hundreds of such little incidents, not to mention the indirect conversations that I have had with neighbors that boil down to lots of breezy platitudes being spoken, but not much else, unless you happen to enjoy sharing gossip, which I don’t. Needless to say, I miss the very free, direct, playful, creative, and novel communication styles of the West coast, and the open style that includes sharing personal details of one’s life, without ever thinking that someone might judge you, or use it against you as fodder for the gossip mill! They won’t. Culturally speaking, Pacific Northwesterners do not tend to engage in gossip, as this is generally frowned upon, and denotes that the person has no outside interests, or curiosity about the world. When I mention this fact to Southerners, they really don’t believe me, because they have trouble imagining a place like that, but it is generally true of the area. There’s a sense on the West coast that “you do your thing and I’ll do mine”, and that’s pretty much the norm. I’ve also noticed that Southerners tend to think that everyone is “hiding something” or has a “dark side”. It’s not exactly “paranoia”, so much as it is a constant preoccupation with what other people may, or may not be doing. I find this cultural bent to be oppressive in the extreme, but then again I’m not a native. Anyway, I imagine that the Southern cultural propensity towards passive aggressive behavior, indirect communication, and the tendency to enjoy gossip, is a vestige from an earlier antebellum time, when people got their social and cultural cues from plantation families, and agricultural life, just as much as the Western pioneers influenced the different West coast cultures that communicate very differently from the rest of the country. As they say: it is what it is.

    1. Pretty spot on. I have no clue about cultural origins! tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Nov 25, 2018, at 2:18 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

  5. This is spot on with my experience growing up in Texas and leaving for the northeast in my late 20s. I now live in California and have no desire to ever live and work in the south again. I didn’t realize how bad the passive aggressive behavior was until I left. I was raised watching those Pace Picante commercials bashing other hot sauces made in “New York Ciry?!” The effectiveness of those fed into the narrative that Yankees were rude and we southerners took great pride in our friendliness. I later realized the friendliness was often surface-only, masking some pretty ugly misogyny, racism, etc. Pretty toxic communication style!

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