You felt totally prepared when you left for your Midwestern college, and why shouldn’t you? Bags filled with scarves and winter coats, you took a stance on the hot dish-casserole debate. You acquainted yourself with the region’s characteristically drawn out vowels (but you still giggle when your Minnesotan roommate pronounces the word “boat”). You should be good to go, right?
Not so fast, because America’s Heartland doesn’t merely consist of corn and compliments. Until you’ve mastered the art of the Subtle with a capital S insult, you have yet to discover the more nefarious side of Midwestern communication.
Passive aggression exists everywhere, but the Midwest seems particularly fond of it. Not that we’d ever come right out and say it. In Minnesota, my perfectly polite homeland, you might hear whispers about “Minnesota Nice and Minnesota Ice.” But we seldom come right out and say “passive aggression.” That would be too jarring, too inconsiderate. Nevertheless, though we shy away from overly descriptive terms, we Midwesterners remain quite familiar with the art of insulting one another as discreetly as possible.
If you’ve found yourself in a passive aggressive situation without really understanding it, you’re not alone. No other area of the country does passive aggression quite like the Midwest. So if you didn’t grow up here, you’d have no way of recognizing the passive banter. Even if you call the South home and consider yourself well-versed in the art of throwing shade, you still might have trouble with the Midwest’s approach to it.
“Midwesterners are even more subtle [than Southerners]; it can be really hard to tell when you are being passive-aggressified unless you are also a Midwesterner,” explained Dr. Amy Weldon, a Luther College professor who hails from Alabama. “Its omnipresence, its subtlety, and the fiendish pleasure one can take in attempting its use oneself even if one is not a Midwesterner. It’s like learning a different language, which, like any language, can give you new shades of meaning in which to express yourself.”
Dr. Mike Garcia, a Luther rhetoric professor from Oregon with a background in linguistics, describes the “rituals” of communication he has noticed which seem specific to the Midwest.
“In a group discussion, a speaker will often start by spending an unusual amount of time (in my opinion) thanking the person or people whose issue is being discussed. They might say, ‘Before I comment, I’d like to acknowledge the months of hard work this group has put into this project; their commitment is truly appreciated. I just wanted to make sure we don’t overlook that,’ etc.,” said Dr. Garcia. “But then, it seems like this little gesture gives them license to follow up with passive aggression. I’ve heard some surprisingly cutting remarks in faculty meetings, for example, but they always seem to be set up by this bit at the beginning.”
If you attend a school in the Midwest, you can bet that before long you’ll encounter “Minnesota Ice” in some form or another. The examples listed below represent just a few of the many forms Midwestern passive aggression takes. Understanding these will help you spot it in real life.
“I think it’s so cool that you just wear anything.”
Seems like a compliment, right? That’s what you’re supposed to think. Believe it or not, this ranks among the most direct forms of Midwestern passive aggression. If someone says this to you, they actually mean to address your apparent lack of effort in your current outfit. The compliment “it’s so cool” softens the blow of the insult “you just wear anything,” so you don’t even know you’ve been dissed.
“Hey, I’m going out tonight.” “Are you sure?”
A favorite among Midwestern mothers, you might hear this one from your roommate if you decide to go out on a school night. Or, really, the desire to do anything they might disapprove of. The question “are you sure?” might seem like it comes from a place of concern. Rest assured, this actually expresses your roomie’s dissatisfaction with your decision. A true Midwesterner might not push the subject any further, but don’t fool yourself. You’re being hardcore judged.
“How was your weekend at Amy’s?” “Not too bad.”
Ah, the beloved “not so bad.” This actually means “good,” we just favor the least direct method of communication possible. Similarly, if you hear, “Not too good,” understand that it’s meant to be taken as “bad.” I know, navigating Midwestern negatives might seem impossible, but I promise you’ll get the hang of it.
“How was your trip?” “Oh, you know how it is there. Say, how’s your family?”
“When in doubt, distract them” should be immortalized in a cross stitch and hung above every Minnesota fireplace. We begin with the characteristically vague answer to the question, “Oh, you know how it is there,” which is neither positive nor incriminating. Then we immediately move to a more appropriate subject-changer, “how’s your family?” Note the use of the word “Say,” a common transition word used when the speaker tries to navigate their way back to safer, less controversial conversation.
“I’d never think to do that.”
Sounds like the speaker means to praise your innovative thinking, right? Wrong. When your North Dakotan tutor tells you, “I’d never think to write a thesis as a question,” they’re really saying, “Don’t ever write your thesis as a question.”
“Oh, I thought you knew that.”
This one can be tricky to spot, but that makes it all the more passive aggressive. While you can sometimes understand this comment as truly innocent, the phrase often employs itself to call attention to the fact that you didn’t know the information in question. Did you know that this phrase remains a favorite among Midwestern middle school bullies? Oh, I thought you did.
Of course, we Midwesterners don’t rely on words alone to convey our true feelings. Tone of voice and eye contact (or lack thereof) can also signal displeasure. If your friend’s “That’s great” adopts a higher than usual pitch after you tell her about your fabulous weekend adventures, she thinks they’re anything but. Did your lab partner actively refuse to meet your eyes during discussion? Take this as a clue that he’s not too pleased with you. We might have our own language in the Midwest, but don’t fret—our dialect is one you can learn with ease. The longer you stay here, the more familiar you’ll become with it. So kick back with your mittens and a plate of hot-dish; you’re well on your way to becoming fluent in Minnesota Ice.