by Julie Pham
Imagine you are on a bus in the middle of winter. Someone has his window open and all the people around him are shivering. Yet, no one says anything even though all are thinking, “This guy should close this window!” Instead of acting, everyone continues to sit in the cold, resentful and silent.
Imagine a new coworker has joined the team. Someone asks, “What do you like to do in your free time?” She responds, “I like to read my Bible.” Awkwardness falls over the group, most of whom haven’t been to a religious institution in years, if ever. Instead of acknowledging her response, the topic is quickly changed.
These are real examples of “Seattle passiveness” that have been shared with me.
While people claim that “people in Seattle are passive-aggressive,” or that “it’s hard to read people here,” or “no one says what they mean,” no one ever says, “I am passive.” We always talk about other people as passive.
And we don’t do anything about it. As a native Seattleite, I know we accept our indirectness like we accept the rain. Being passive is an an openly acknowledged cultural trait in the Pacific Northwest.
Or is it? If we were less passive and indirect, how would our community change?
I’ve thought about these questions a lot in the last year because the “Seattle freeze” seems to be a popular small talk topic. I’ve reflected on my own passive behavior. And I’ve discussed Seattle passiveness with hundreds of individuals. I’ve even come up with a categorization system to describe the different levels and types of Seattle passiveness, how we foster passiveness, possible reasons for it, the consequences on our community and a call to make a New Year’s resolution to contribute to a less passive Seattle.
To clarify, I am referring to the entire category of this behavior as “passive.” You may hear the term “passive aggressiveness,” which the dictionary defines as “indirect resistance to the demands of others.” Some levels are “passive aggressive,” but not all.
SEVEN LEVELS OF PASSIVE TO PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR
Level 1: Not saying what you want to say
You want to say something, but you don’t want to seem aggressive. Example: Chris is playing loud music in an open space. I’m annoyed. But I don’t say anything.
Level 2: Non-response
You receive a first-time invitation via email, text or social media. If you can’t respond in the affirmative, you don’t respond at all. Example: Chris emails me, inviting me to attend a social function of theirs, and I never respond. This is a “non-response.”
Level 3: Non-acknowledgment
Someone makes a comment and it goes unacknowledged. This usually happens when an unpopular view is shared and people want to avoid conflict. Example: Chris says, “I don’t think that (issue) is so bad” after several others complained about the issue. Instead, people pretend they didn’t hear Chris and they change the subject.
Level 4: Deflection (the “Seattle yes-no”)
This happens in the same context as level 2, except the invitation is extended in-person instead of delayed by technology, forcing a real-time response. To avoid disappointing the other person or inciting conflict or awkwardness, the recipient will deflect the inquiry by not giving a straight answer. Example: Chris asked me, “Do you want to get coffee sometime?” I respond, “There are some great coffee shops in Seattle.” I do not say “no.” But I do not say “yes.” (Note: Credit to my friend, Manuhuia Barcham, for coining “Seattle yes-no.”)
Level 5: Saying “yes” when you mean “no” (the “Seattle yes”)
You decide to say “yes” when you don’t mean it in order to avoid making the inquirer feel bad. If the inquirer’s invitation was genuine, the result is giving them false hope and stringing them along. Example: Chris suggests, “We should get coffee sometime.” I respond, “Yes, let’s get coffee” even though I have no intention to make time to have coffee with Chris.
Level 6: Talking behind someone’s back
You have negative feedback for someone, but decide not to share. Instead, you share it with other people. You may justify this act of passive-aggressiveness as “venting.” Since you have voiced it, you may even feel like you are being direct, even if you haven’t told that person who is the target of your feedback. Example: Chris did something to annoy me, but instead of telling Chris directly, I decide to tell our mutual acquaintances about why I am annoyed by Chris. Chris may even ask me directly, “Did I do something to offend you?” And I say, “No, nothing at all.”
Level 7: Ghosting
You committed to volunteering with a group of people when you decide you no longer want to participate. To avoid telling the group, you decide not to respond to their communication or show up to their meetings. You decide to “disappear,” to “ghost.” Some people confuse Level 2 and Level 7. The difference is the context. “Ghosting” happens when a commitment was already made versus just ignoring a first-time invitation with a “non-response.” Example: I was volunteering with Chris on a project, but they do something I don’t agree with. Instead of telling Chris, I decide to “ghost” Chris.
Any of these sound familiar to you? Perhaps you’ve even committed some of these yourself? I know I certainly have been passive at all of these levels.
Being passive is just the first of two kinds of passiveness. The other kind is condoning passiveness from others. By “condoning,” I don’t just mean that we see others do it and fail to say anything. It is when someone is passive towards us and we quietly accept it.
Seattle passiveness is so deeply entrenched in our culture, we often exhibit and condone passive behavior on a regular basis. It’s like a shared, coded language. For those who don’t speak Seattle passive, they take our words literally. Newcomers to our region may find it particularly hard to learn this language. They may even interpret our acceptance to their invitations “to get together” as authentic. They can’t read between the lines of an artful deflection or a “Seattle yes.” They don’t know it’s socially acceptable and in fact, expected, to condone passiveness.
WHY WE ACCEPT PASSIVENESS
When I ask people, “Why are we passive here in Seattle,” I hear a lot of reasons:
We don’t know how to be any other way because it is so ingrained in our social norms. I heard many times, “It’s easier to be passive.”
Self protection and self-preservation
One person told me, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be indirect. We need to be indirect at times to preserve our relationships.” Others pointed out, “We can’t be direct with people ranked higher than us.” People fear retaliation for being direct. By being direct, we are taking the risk to invite an action we can’t anticipate.
Fear of hurting/offending others
Saying “no” feels like we’re rejecting people. We overthink how others might respond and censor ourselves to avoid possibly offending anyone. Anything bordering on being direct could be interpreted as potentially offensive. We don’t think about how in our effort to be considerate, we’re actually taking away the other person’s agency to respond.
People say they don’t have the time to respond or engage and that’s it easier to be passive. They don’t want to expend emotional energy or even think about a response.
Seattle freeze: Don’t want to engage beyond superficial pleasantries
This is the next stage of “I’m too busy.” Seattle passiveness is linked to the “Seattle freeze” because people don’t want to do the work it takes to engage with others.
THE EMOTIONAL TIME/ACTION TIME QUOTIENT
There is another Seattle trait intertwined in our passive culture: a propensity for complaining about others. Any of these levels of passiveness is most likely accompanied by at least a little bit of talking behind people’s backs (level 6).
I refer to the mental time spent on complaining as Emotional Time (ET) and the time it actually takes to deal with the issue directly as Action Time (AT). Because Seattleites are such considerate, self-reflective people, we also spend a lot of ET resenting the thing we decided to be passive about.
If you are wondering if you should take action instead of being passive, here’s an equation to help you decide. First, estimate ET and AT in minutes. If you are spending five times as much time on ET versus AT, you should consider doing something about it. Note: we don’t like to think of ourselves as complainers, so we’re probably underestimating ET anyway.
Example: Freezing on the bus because you don’t want to be the person to say, “Shut your window please.”
ET = 50 min (the 30 min of sitting resentfully cold on the bus + 20 min recounting the story to 5 individuals about the audacity of the person not closing the window)
AT = 5 min (thinking of how to politely tell the offender to shut the window and then having the words come out of your mouth)
ET/ AT quotient = 10x
If you value your time and you talk about being busy, with a 10x factor, you really should just take action.
It’s taken me a long time to realize not engaging or condoning Seattle passiveness does not equal being aggressive or “calling someone out.” It just means stating my needs aloud.
HOLDING OURSELVES AND OTHERS ACCOUNTABLE
I run a social experiment at Washington Technology Industry Association called Ion. We facilitate collaboration among strangers from diverse backgrounds who are working in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. I see in Ion and in other professional settings that Seattle passive behavior is one of the biggest killers of collaboration. Even with all of these newcomers to Seattle, they learn how to assimilate into this dominant culture of passiveness as a survival mechanism.
In Ion, we talk a lot about re-examining our assumptions and looking at things from a fresh perspective. People try to find tech solutions to increase a sense of belonging and connection within our community without examining the root causes of our increasingly atomized society.
When talking about equity, we decry microaggressions around race and gender that tear at our ability to foster diversity and inclusion. Well, the aggregate of these small acts of passiveness also erode our ability to collaborate and build a community where people can express their authentic selves.
A friend who moved to Seattle two years ago told me she’s been talking to her therapist about how people not responding to her (level 2) after they said yes (level 5) makes her feel invisible. From Ion, I know there is a huge difference between when a team member communicates the need to leave versus just ghosting their team (read my earlier column on it here). The team in the former scenario is able to move on; the latter will struggle with maintaining morale amid feelings of abandonment.
How can we hold each other accountable, if we can’t even hold ourselves accountable?
Where does accountability start?
I’ll turn to Michael Jackson for the answer: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”
Over the past year, I wasted a lot of ET in complaining about when people acted passively toward me without owning my own passiveness. So, I started taking inventory of the times I have been passive with others, when I didn’t say what I wanted to say (level 1), when I deflected (level 4), talked behind people’s back (level 6), and when I ghosted people (level 7). I’ve also reviewed when I’ve condoned non-responses (level 2), non acknowledgements (level 3), “Seattle yes-nos” (level 4), and “Seattle yes” (level 5).
I call this taking an “Audit of my own passiveness.” The first step is to write down passive behavior that I can still take action on. Then, calculate the ET/AT quotient.
For example, I had a cringe-worthy case of level 1 passiveness combined with condoning level 3 followed by 100 hours of level 6 about a group of people I volunteered with. With a 60x ET/AT quotient, I knew I had to do something. I felt like a hypocrite — how could I lead others in collaboration when I had lacked courage to express unpopular views among my peers? I finally contacted my fellow volunteers and talked about getting together to share views candidly. I also ended up reaching out to the person who verbalized thinking that most differed from mine and we talked for nearly two hours, revisiting issues where I disagreed but didn’t have the courage to say so earlier. Once it was finished, I felt such a sense of relief.
It’s never too late to say sorry. I wrote to a former mentee, asking to apologize for ghosting her four years ago over a petty grudge I held against her. ET took hours when AT was under 10 minutes.
I’ve also been trying to condone passive behavior less often. Like when friends tell me they’ll be at my event and then decide not to show up. Now, when I see those people, I’ve said, “You didn’t show up and you didn’t let me know before or afterwards. Next time, I’d like you to let me know.” I took a risk on possibly making them feel bad and demonstrating that their absence mattered to me. My success rate on not condoning flaky behavior is 25 percent.
Now, when I think about holding back my opinions (level 1), I ask myself, “Will you spend a lot of ET replaying what you should have said?” I still have the biggest challenge with the “Seattle yes-no” (level 4) to a request for something. I try to say instead, “I can’t do that but I can offer this…”; “I can’t do that because it doesn’t align with my priorities but good luck!” or “Instead of meeting, let’s schedule a phone call so I can learn how to help.” I’ve replaced ending a casual encounter with “Let’s get coffee sometime!” (level 5) with “It was great chatting with you.”
Recently, I shared this categorization of passiveness with a new acquaintance. Naturally, he was a little defensive at first. He left me a voicemail a few days later, saying, “I’ve been thinking about what you said. I’ve started trying not to be passive. It is so hard.”
It is hard work. But if we can’t be accountable for the small things, then how can we hold ourselves and others accountable for the big things, when they really matter?
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: CONDUCT A PASSIVENESS AUDIT
I believe it’s possible to be Seattle nice and authentic in our intentions with others. If we can figure that out, we’ll have a stronger community where more people feel seen and included.
So, for your New Year’s Resolution, I’m asking you to consider conducting an audit on your passive behavior. If you can’t acknowledge or apologize for the past deeds, then next time you’re about to engage in or condone one of the levels of passiveness, think about how you could act authentically instead.
Change in our community starts with me, you and us.
Special note: We’re recruiting for the next cohort of Ion Collaborators. If you’re curious and you work in government or at a community-based organization or in a technical role in the private sector, check out details here.
Julie Pham, PhD runs the WTIA Ion, a program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) that recruits Collaborators from tech, government and community-based organizations to tackle our civic challenges. She grew up in Seattle, after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. She co-owns Northwest Vietnamese News with her family. She loves throwing dinner parties in her International District home.