Resolve for 2011: If I Have Nothing Nice to Say…

Resolve for 2011: If I Have Nothing Nice to Say…

The other morning I made a ruckus trying to get my chronically late teenager up in time for school. She pleaded for “just another ten minutes” but I yelled, screamed and threatened waterboarding until I got her up and into the bathroom. But when she hadn’t surfaced a half hour later I peeked in to find her curled up on the floor of the shower, sleeping, or pretending to sleep. She was going to get those extra ten minutes one way or another. My daughter was treating me to a taste of passive aggressive behavior; better said, she was treating herself, because passive aggression is not only one of the most underrated tools in our arsenal, it’s also one of the most satisfying. (More about that later.)

For those of you who are not regular users, passive aggression can best be described as a statement or act that appears on the surface to be innocent or even sweet, but is actually motivated by hostility, containing a hidden barb of some sort – a sugar-coated pill with a really bad aftertaste. This compliment, for example, from a slim woman to a heavy one: “How brave of you to wear leggings!” It’s the kind of behavior that characterizes the so-called “mean girls”.

So, mean girls, mean women, how did we get to be that way? After all, evolutionary psychologists tell us we’re programmed to be pleasers. When the cavemen went off to hunt, the women stayed behind to care for the kids, bonding together in the face of danger and finding safety in numbers. They had little choice – a woman fleeing from a saber-tooth tiger with an infant hanging from her breast and a toddler in tow was not likely to achieve a personal best for the 400 meter run.

Exclusion from the protection of the clan posed an existential threat – you could starve or be eaten by predators – so the cave women learned to get along, spritzing each other with oxytocin and becoming BFFs. And they learned to express anger in safe, subtle ways. Since the outright expression of hostility was dangerous, passive aggression was born to fill the gap between mute compliance and rebellion.

My family recently presented me with yet another excellent example of passive aggression. (Apparently we are very good at this.) My mother had just learned that she had been excluded from the birthday party of Joan, a member of her social circle. Truth be told, she was not overly fond of Joan and, in fact, rather disliked her. Nonetheless, she felt snubbed. I was with my mom when she first heard about this and as she mulled over the situation. After a while she announced: “I think I’ll get her a nice present.”

On the surface this would appear to be a generous impulse. However, knowing my mother, this was not a selfless gesture but the stroke of a master manipulator. She could have opted for direct, honest confrontation, but that would have been potentially disruptive to the balance of relationships. Equally important, it would have all been over too soon.

Woody Allen once described a debate he and his wife had about whether to use their savings to take a nice vacation or to get a divorce. They opted for the divorce, reasoning that a vacation is over in a week, but a divorce is something you’ll always have. Open aggression is like a nice vacation – momentarily satisfying but then, you know, it’s over and you’re left with a hefty bill. But the pleasures of passive aggression go on and on.

To illustrate, the scenario between my mother and Joan might play out like this: My mother would pretend not to know about the party and send a thoughtful gift. First, she would enjoy imagining Joan’s discomfort upon receiving the present. Then, Joan would call and thank her, feeling obliged to extend an invite to the party, thereby allowing my mom the further joy of turning her down with all the sweet insincerity she could muster. Or the plot might thicken. Joan could send a thank you note but fail to proffer the expected invitation. Then my mother would have to wonder – was Joan “on to her” and retaliating in kind, or was she the rare woman that was simply immune to guilt and other devious tactics? Either way, the game promised to be highly entertaining.

But here we are in the 21st century and it’s fair to ask the question: Why are we still afraid to openly express our negative feelings? The saber-tooth tigers are long gone. A third of the country is obese so there appears to be plenty of food. And the men, well not the hunters they used to be, are they. So maybe we should resolve for 2011 and beyond: “If we have nothing nice to say, … we’ll just come right out and say it! “

But this, like all New Year’s resolutions, is destined to fail because straightforward and honest aggression is just not as much fun as the insidious kind, the kind that has delighted and amused women since long before the Pleistocene era. And who are we to tamper with such a time-honored tradition?

So for 2011 lets resolve, instead, to do exactly what we intend to do anyway: “If we have nothing nice to say, we’ll just say something that sounds really nice.“

And by the way, what an adorable dress you’ve got on! I admired it so much last week when my sister’s housekeeper wore it.

Article & Illustration By Alisa Singer

Alisa Singer’s humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada. She is the author of various gift books designed to entertain and amuse baby boomers. Her newest book, When a Girl Goes From Bobby Sox to Compression Stockings…She Gets a Little Cranky, is available at You can learn more about her work by visiting her website: or contacting her at”