on being passive aggressive

Kyle Turner
6 min readMar 20, 2023

Two things I inherited from my mother: an unabiding love for Bringing Up Baby and an expertise in passive aggression.

Few people can be passive-aggressive like my mother. It’s like it was written into her DNA, and threaded into the very cloth of her existence. It is such a significant part of her being, and our relationship, that it is difficult to paint a single scenario. The slightly pointed, poison-tipped conversations or deafening silences are not all I remember about our relationship, but they fill out a good chunk of it.

I’m in the car after school has gotten out and she’s asking me how I am, but I can smell the anger on her breath. I did something to upset her. It’s probably 2009 or 2010, and our default modes violently oscillate between defensive and offensive. I get annoyed because she feels intrusive, she gets angry because I’m not giving her the answer she wants, and the ways she prods implies there’s something else that she either wants to address or that helped light the fuse. If it doesn’t end in a screaming match, the other scenario is sitting and stewing in the car ride home.

If I didn’t bruise so easily, it would be tempting to jump ship, just projectile myself from the passenger seat. Saying nothing, or oiling up simple, quotidian conversation in roiling anger and frustration makes an unbearable rot that fills up the space. My father had died not too long before, and the weird Oedipal detente didn’t seem so pronounced until he was gone. That’s a recurring theme. While he was settling downstairs in the apartment that was made from a renovated basement that my parents couldn’t afford, I could scurry away down to him to avoid whatever wrath.

I’m being unfair. She wasn’t always like this. But my most profound memories during my most formative years are stained with circumstances where her lips curl at a librarian when she isn’t getting what she wants and I audibly say sorry; or the way she said “well, Ky, if you had just done this” as if she had prepped the words in a wood oven; and how she would weaponize the nice things she would do, contort their meaning. I did this thing for you, and now how could you do this thing to me. Maybe she took me to a movie or bought me a present. At least I saw the movie.

I wish it were easier to write about my mother in a kinder way, but for more than half of my life our relationship has been defined by antagonism, both implicit and explicit. And as I’m writing this, my face falls, the sadness tugs at my cheeks, I’m aware of the weight on my face, the muscles contracting. I’m trying to dig up the parts of myself and my relationship to her that haven’t decomposed. That don’t have rot to their core. I have to do that for a longer project I’m working on, but I hope that rescuing those memories might be a way to rescue my relationship. Maybe it won’t be, but at least I’ll have the memories.

There are writers who are good at painting scenes in their life and unfortunately I am not one of them. Specificity is the spice of life! Or at least the mark of good writing.

I’m closing my eyes, trying to excavate.

I remember mostly the ways in which my mother would compare me to other children my age, that I wasn’t as well behaved and that I didn’t work as hard as they did. I asked my therapist about this once, if other mothers did that, and he said yes, but that it was still painful. He may have said “ouch” at one point, which I hate, because sometimes he has a mawkishness about his modality. Maybe the passive aggression my mother liked to wield was stapled into comparison, my sense of self-worth in relation to others.

In a perverse way, I kind of get it. My worst habit is my passive aggression. The idea that you can conjure the perfect version of someone you know, the idealized self that only you could imagine for them, and rub it in their faces. It’s the thrum of power, of knowing you know better, could do better. A little “I’m doing great, thanks for asking” in the middle of a one-sided conversation here, a little “oh okay” when someone cancels at the last minute there.

I’ve been a little passive aggressive since i was in high school, part of a curmudgeonly persona i drafted when I was 12 and then fleshed out at 14. But it doesn’t have much place or use in high school, when and where everyone is stupid.

It is electric knowing that, through tone and word choice, maybe a narrowed gaze, you can shape someone’s emotions. It’s not good, it’s not nice. But, in lieu of a more Machiavellian lifestyle, it’s a brief power trip which goes to my head like brandy. Who needs tequila shots when you can turn the read receipts on to a friend you’re mad at?

Is passive aggression kind of a gay thing, too? Perhaps it is easier to use certain indirect techniques to articulate hostility or anger than it is to directly deal with them, because that directness might be the province of straight maleness.

That pleasure is short lived, though, isn’t it? It’s overtaken by guilt; I don’t love making enemies, even with people who I don’t really respect. I prefer, at worst, cordial indifference. But passive aggression is a strategy that precludes indifference.

Did my mother feel as excited and thrilled that she could make me feel bad when she would tell me that my best friend Joe didn’t give his mother as much trouble? Did she feel a little quiver of excitement or pleasure when she responded to my excitement at watching Grey Gardens for the first time with “that’s very gay”? Rhetorical questions are gimmes in essays, and I’m sorry to rely on them, but I do wonder. I wonder where she learned it from, and I wonder if she knew it would be something I’d use myself.

If I were to provide a specific example in such a public forum [he shouted] of when I chose to be direct, it might look like I’m airing out dirty laundry. Or, at least, lightly sweaty laundry.

Those little snarky comments are, as I have found in my adult years, not very useful. They are, like tequila shots (I imagine?), fun when you’re young but probably not very productive. Now that I’m medicated, a new favorite phrase of mine, and I’ve been thinking about my relationships and friendships in a way that is more holistic and less neurotic, I am getting used to [groan] being mindful about my feelings. Which is just an online way of saying, I am finally learning to internalize my feelings without intellectualizing them to the point of distancing myself from them. I’m learning to not be passive aggressive. It’s better to be direct, to get it out of the way. I think the Real Housewives have made me better at apologizing, which was already one of my favorite pastimes.

This turns to drivel and sentimentalism, but I am thinking about where I might get that brief excitement of power if it’s not in being a little bit of a bitch now. I don’t know if that power, having it and hoarding what little of it I have, matters to me as much any more. In my newly minded lexapro era [I will jump off a cliff for having written that], it gives little pleasure to admit that being straightforward and honest and sincere with people is more meaningful to me than the spurts of adrenaline I could feel when being shady. I want to take action and know where I stand, without the game of it all. Those games never made much sense to me anyways. Maybe it means two things then: I don’t have to be passive anymore, and I can be not passive, aggressively.

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Kyle Turner

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc