Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Passive Aggressive and Petty Things

I had an interesting introspective moment today. (I was going to say a self-examination moment, but that just sounds dirty). 

I posted a sign on the inside of the door in an employee-only bathroom at my office yesterday, which is a single stall/locker room/shower setup with no ventilation fan. A few people have complained about smells over the years, so I thought I’d try a joke and see what happened. I posted this: “If you don’t use air freshener, the terrorists win. Do you hate America?” (wording credit to

What happened was that many people laughed.  Some people came up to tell me how funny it was.  One anonymous person ripped the sign off the door, crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. Without saying a word to anyone.

This passive-aggressive act (ironic considering where I borrowed the wording for the sign) snapped on an ugly side of me that tends to over-react, fight dirty, and rage over inconsequential’s. So I fished the sign out of the trash, smoothed it a bit, and hung it back on the door. When they do it again, I planned to print a new one and hang it back on the door. Repeat ad nauseum until they grow a spine and use their words like the other children.

Right afterwards I felt triumphant. I had “scored a point” against my unknown opponent. I would “win the game”.

But what a stupid game to waste time on trying to win. I got a burst of energy and snark-credit amongst a few people I told, but I also got stress. The energy was highly negative. I, like anyone who engages in this kind of passive-aggressive battle, became slightly paranoid wondering who my “opponent” was. I worried that it might become a “thing” that would end up creating more negativity in the office if the person dragged supervisors into it (or worse, it WAS a supervisor). All morning I’ve been more sensitive to perceived slights and negative gossip and less receptive to good news or positive events. Truthfully, once the initial “victory” energy wore off, I was in a pretty damn bad mood.

I found it really interesting once I stepped back and realized what was going on. I’ve been in a pretty good mood since I started the happiness project, so the contrast with what I’ve felt this morning is pretty clear. Simply by taking a hostile action towards an unknown person (who probably isn’t worth the effort or concern) I disrupted my mood, which disrupted my physical well-being (acid stomach, tension headache), my relationships (it’s harder to hide a piss-poor mood than most people think), and my work performance (since I was wasting time, energy and thought on such a stupid thing.) When you count up the negative effects, the small pointless victory and the fleeting smug illusion that I might change someone’s behaviour become very much not worth it.

While the world of an office is very small and boundaries are important, there is a point where the loss outweighs the gain. Certain little things will do me more harm than good to fight. If there’s a choice between being happy and being “right”? Sure it’s a case-by-case decision. Fighting for a worthwhile cause can be very satisfying in the long-term, boosting confidence, self-esteem and creativity. But there’s a definite like to be drawn between the worthwhile cause and the worthless. Petty things are not worth my anger, even if they’re entertaining to others.

I should work out a resolution to address this. Maybe, “Let the Petty Things Go”? or “Decide First Whether it’s Worth it”?


SC said...

Er, how about deciding that it's not worth getting annoyed over their passive-aggressive act because your note was passive-aggressive in the first place (albeit funny).

Elizebeth said...

You're amazing. Not everyone has the guts to go through this kinds of self-introspection.

And, I relate. It's hard to make the decision to pick your battles. To choose a positive path instead of giving into petty urges.

Time and again I struggle when someone pushes my buttons, especially in online forums, and I know the right thing to do is simply not respond.

My urge, my gut reaction, is to play into their game. To flame back.

But, I have to remind myself, nothing positive comes from that kind of interaction. It's not like I'm going to convince them to undetstand or empathize with me by responding to their hateful behavior.

They've already set the precedent that they don't want to have a positive interaction with me.

Anyhow. I respect the path your attempting to take. And I think you should be proud of yourself. It may not be easy but it's certainly worthwhile.

JoGeek said...

@SC Not really. It was clearly a joke, not intended to actually influence behaviour, and no more passive agressive than your average Dilbert.

@Elizabeth It's really tough in online forums to remind myself to not feed the trolls :-) Thanks!

JennyRose said...

It sounds funny to me. I think management may have removed it because any kind of personal or joke posting is inappropriate. They also may have been concerned that it would lead to some kind of raging debate.

BTW - Why do you hate America?

Jill said...

Sigh. Toilet things are so hard to talk about, and people who do very different things often believe theirs is the only right way to do it.

It's possible that the person who took down your joke was (like me) allergic to air freshener. For me, a bathroom with air freshener in it is much less hospitable than one that smells like a poorly-ventilated toilet. Sneezing and wheezing are much worse than some normal smell of crap.

It's a pity, since there's such a strong taboo about talking about these things, that the facilities are not ones that can be reasonably inoffensive and avoid these fights in the first place.

JoGeek said...

@Jill: We have two other large multi-stall restrooms for each gender in the building that have ventilation and are "no air freshener" zones. Actually that came about because of an employee's allergy. This is the only bathroom in the building where you can (and need to) spray.

LAT said...

That's funny, because where I work, there was kind of the opposite thing that happened. Someone taped a plastic container to the wall of the one stall and left a little spray bottle of air freshener in it. (Non ventilated washroom here as well.) I thought it was actually quite handy. But now someone has been doing something annoying and weird... locking the one stall door when nobody's in there. You can open i from the outside with some effort, and the toilet is in perfect working order, so why is somebody locking the door? I'm close to leaving a note about that one myself. I've heard other women in the washroom discussing how annoying it is that someone is locking that stall door.

I don't blame you for leaving the note, it was actually cute and funny.