Relief Society: The Passive Aggressive Olympics

September 17, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 11:31 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

If passive aggressive behavior could be pitted against other passive aggressive behavior in some sort of competition, I think there would be a lot of Relief Society sisters going to the Olympics. And they would bring home medals.

I am going to skip the part where I convince you that Relief Society is a hotbed of passive aggressive behavior. If you haven’t noticed by now I am not likely to convince you. But, this week it struck me that the reason we have so many Hall of Famers is that we don’t allow any other type of aggression. Culturally, we have made confrontation (and even disagreement in many respects) off limits.

When someone raises their hand and makes a comment in Relief Society, they have staked out territory. If they were first to the punch, this presents a dilemma to anyone who disagrees with them. The disagree-er has a couple of options. First, they have the option of cleverly devising a follow up comment which has the appearance of building on the previous comment and praising the previous comment, when in fact it is actually directly contradicting the previous comment. The second option is to let it go.

The first option is dangerous because everyone listening knows what the follow up comment is actually trying to convey and there is the potential for hurt feelings and the genesis of a deep-seated grudge. However, if the follow up is clever enough, it is possible to contradict the previous statement within the bounds of an unwritten set of rules, at which time the original commenter must internally acknowledge that the refutation was so cleverly disguised that she really cannot take offense. One problem with making this into a real sport is that the rule book would be quite long.

Now, the good thing about comments in Relief Society is that they don’t have a concrete outcome. Which person was right and which was wrong never has to be resolved-life goes on. However, if you try to plan an event, watch out. In planning an event, decisions have to be made and not every idea can be executed on. Unfortunately, the same trouble remains. Instead of a comment, someone makes a suggestion. “It’s just a suggestion, we don’t have to do it, I am open to other ideas.” Sure. When someone says they don’t like that idea and proposes something else, they might as well have leaned across the table and slapped the person. So, it is the same old song and dance. There is an hour of people saying “I really like that idea” about ideas they hate and then whoever is actually in charge of it goes and does whatever they want, regardless of what was decided upon in the meeting. We are not good at everything, but we are good at getting our way.

We have created a culture where disagreeing with someone is akin to insulting them. The result is that we have trained people to be really nice to each other in person and then go get their way when no one is looking. No confrontation necessary. Everyone is happy.


  1. Great post, I couldn’t agree more.

    This is actually one of the reasons I find the bloggernacle so attractive. It is a community where constructive confrontation is both accepted and encouraged. One of the obvious differences between blogging and Sunday School is that blogging allows for a much wider range of topics than Sunday School does. But honestly, the type of discussion that is allowed in this environment is more important to me than the range of topics. Here, it is okay to tell someone you think they are dead wrong. In fact, a lot of the time people are looking for just that because it leads to an interesting discussion. That is one problem in Sunday School, lively discussions where people could learn something are often stifled by the fact that people can’t openly disagree with each other.

    Comment by Jacob — September 17, 2006 @ 11:41 pm

  2. Hold on. Are you agreeing with your own post, Jacob?!

    Comment by Ronan — September 18, 2006 @ 3:27 am

  3. I think there’s even a little more to it than that. I’m not so afraid of insulting someone else as I am appearing evil.

    You see if you make a contrary comment then everyone turns around, looks at you with narrowed eyes, and thinks to themselves, “Didn’t her mother tell her contentions was of the devil?” (Which my mother did MANY times)

    Usually I’ll just let it go because I don’t want to be the one who caused or was accussed of chasing the Spirit to “race straight out of the room”.

    Comment by Kristen J — September 18, 2006 @ 6:11 am

  4. You’re wrong, Jacob. Dead wrong. And you’re wrong too Ronan. And you’re wrong too Kristen.

    Comment by meems — September 18, 2006 @ 6:21 am

  5. I must not have gotten the memo. Kinda funny, too, because I’m generally rather passive agressive.

    Once in Relief Society, the teacher asked how we would define a certain word/virtue. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure the word was modesty. The bishop’s wife raised her hand and said something about tattoos. Whatever she said, it was really judgmental about people with tattoos. So I immediately called her on it, mentioning we should be careful not to judge people based on their appearance, and explaining how I’d recently visited an old ward of ours in a small town, and there was a man attending who was wearing jeans, a tshirt, with his arms all covered in tattoos. My reaction on seeing him was joy, that someone who obviously had not been attending church was there.

    Anyway, I’m sure there are wards like you describe, but I’m not sure I’ve attended any.

    Comment by Susan M — September 18, 2006 @ 7:39 am


    Actually, it seems the further out into the mission field you get the less you have to deal with the passive aggressive issue.

    Comment by Kristen J — September 18, 2006 @ 8:16 am

  7. Susan M,

    I would expect nothing less from you. How did the Bishop’s wife take it?

    Comment by Jacob — September 18, 2006 @ 8:25 am

  8. I love this blog! I have to say that I am finding more and more honesty as I get older and older. I have had my feelings hurt more than once! When I am teaching a RS lesson, I find the comments are very diverse and a lot of them are trivial, but I can’t please everyone in my lesson. There are too many different personalities to cater to. Relying on the scriptures and what the prophets have said is what gets me thru a lesson!

    Anyway, thanks for letting me say that!

    Kristen, where are you?? I need to get a hold of you!! We are coming to live by you and I wanna remind you who I am and have a good long stroll down memory lane! Then I wanna ask you about AZ and get your opinions!!! It’s me, Pamela Felshaw Jorgensen…remember how we use to hang out at BYU in your apartment in Coventry? I sent Geoff an email thru this site…let me know how to get in touch with you, k?

    Sure love ya!

    Comment by PamJorg — September 18, 2006 @ 8:51 am

  9. I wonder if this has rubbed of on me. I am very non-confrontational. This is difficult at work, because I am often asked to lead a team of strong willed, arrogant, intelligent engineers. And I have to make a lot of ‘tough calls’. It tears me up sometimes. I usually hate contention. My company is now sending me to a Dale Carnegie leadership training course where I am told I will learn all kinds of self confidence and concensus building skills – among other things.

    I may never be the same.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 18, 2006 @ 8:55 am

  10. The great problem in any society is where people become attached to ideas solely based on emotion and personal experience, instead of considering more general principles – at the very least the priority of consensus over personality. Now I am not saying this is the sole province of women – men do this too all the time, making the resolution of disputes impossible.

    The key to a healthy discussion is rationality and shared experience. And the reason is that anyone willing to take a robust rationality as the standard of argument is humble enough to be converted to a superior conception and grateful for the privilege. A humble person has no greater respect than that due to a person who converts him from the error of his ways.

    But how can emotion be error? How can you tell someone that their emotions are wrong or that their experience is a quirky exception to the rule? You can’t. And that is why a debate governed by emotion might as well not be held at all. There is no humility in emotion or the cult of individuality, but only in reason and common consent.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 18, 2006 @ 9:08 am

  11. Kristen (#6), Is that a tricky way of saying it is worse in Utah?

    Eric (#9), As an arrogant and intelligent engineer, I find the corporate culture to be a breath of fresh air. We don’t always live up to the ideal, but at the company I work, “constructive confrontation” is actually one of the corporate “values.” I hope the leadership training courses don’t turn you into a jerk.

    Comment by Jacob — September 18, 2006 @ 9:35 am

  12. The thing that I’ve noticed that is different in Utah is that most of the women think they need to behave like the women they see on general conference. So they all try to be really sweet, really soft-spoken, really righteous, really tender, etc., etc. And since they are all supposed to have the same opinion, the righteous one, disagreement is tatamount to saying they aren’t righteous for thinking what they think.

    In Vegas, people just were not trying to be that one particular woman. They were all trying to be the best versions of themselves. So disagreement and healthy debate was common, with no hard feelings. I walk into RS now and it’s like sitting with a bunch of robots. Everyone has the same opinion, and when someone is brave enough to say that they disagree, it’s a huge THING. When we first moved here, I disagreed with a comment, and said so, and she said something back, and life went on – didn’t think it was a big deal until afterward in the hall when people came up to me to MAKE SURE I WAS O.K. !!??!

    I’d never move back to Vegas, but church wise, it was a much healthier environment, ironically enough.

    Comment by Sue — September 18, 2006 @ 11:27 am

  13. Sue,
    I have lived both in and outside of Utah and don’t find a great deal of difference in RS here. I am not sure your experience is necessarily reflective of Utah in general. It’s not that Utah doesn’t have it’s challenges, but so does any other place.

    I’ve never really liked generalizations about Utah. Each place has its quirks. I actually love living here, in spite of the quirks that show up. The quirks are just different. And there are more members so I have more chance of finding people I can connect with.

    Comment by mullingandmusing (m&m) — September 18, 2006 @ 11:50 am

  14. “we have trained people to be really nice to each other”

    This is knocking on the door of a huge topic. It has to do with a strange application of the word “nonjudgmentalism” (it seems that any ‘constructive confrontation’ is deemed judgmental and therefore is dismissed and the giver condemned), and the popularity of the phrase “just love them.” Its come to the point where I just cringe when I hear people ‘teach’ this. Now, there are true principles buried in those words but they are flung around recklessly today in a way that has led to a world that is non-discerning and unable to recognize evil. And now I learn that it all started in Relief Society.

    Comment by Hal H. — September 18, 2006 @ 12:03 pm

  15. Connecting with Mormons hasn’t happened very often for me. (Don’t confuse me with the Sue above, though, I’m a different Susan!) Ex-Mormons, yeah. Active, rarely.

    Jacob, I don’t remember any reaction at all from the Bishop’s wife. She was a nice lady, and I understood what she was getting at, I just didn’t want her comments to stand without pointing out that we shouldn’t go around judging people based on their appearance.

    Eric, I hate confrontations too, at least emotional ones. If I’m not emotionally involved, then I don’t have a problem with mouthing off, I guess.

    Comment by Susan M — September 18, 2006 @ 12:05 pm

  16. I was just talking about this this weekend with some friends. I was saying that I was envious of the men, who can go to Priesthood and have a heated debate and still walk out of there the best of friends. Women for whatever reason do not work that way and I quite often keep my comments to myself for fear some RS sister will be so offended that she will never come back to church.

    I personally would love a little “contention” in Relief Society. It would liven it up a bit. Thinking for ourselves, sharing our opinions, our interpretations, and personal experiences is good, isn’t it??

    My solution… Skip Relief Society, head home and take an early nap.

    Comment by seew — September 18, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

  17. Sue,

    My experience everywhere I have lived has been like your Utah experience. I live in Oregon now and the meeting I had this week trying to plan the primary program for sacrament meeting led to this post. However, you’ve got me thinking about moving to Vegas.

    Hal H,

    You’re right. However, I wish it was only when judgmentalism was involved. It seems to become a problem for me at any sign of disagreement whatsoever. Maybe Kristen is on to something with her comment about contention being of the devil. It’s like disagreeing is evil per se. Of course, discussions get a little boring if you’re not allowed to openly disagree.

    Susan M,

    Interesting. I have a long history of stories like yours where I play the part of you and the reaction was not favorable. Glad to hear your comment came off okay.

    Comment by Jacob — September 18, 2006 @ 2:14 pm

  18. seew,

    I was with you one hundred percent, right up until your solution. If I stopped going to church over stuff like this I would have gone inactive long ago. Nope, I use it as an opportunity to work on my long-suffering and I give thanks for callings like my current one where I get to sing primary songs all day instead of dealing with the adults. I love it.

    Comment by Jacob — September 18, 2006 @ 2:21 pm

  19. Now that I do think about it, though, RS is a pretty tough place to be able to just speak your mind and not worry about hurting feelings. Women can be rather hyper-sensitive. (Just talked to RS pres. about this yesterday. I don’t envy her job.)

    Comment by mullingandmusing (m&m) — September 18, 2006 @ 3:02 pm

  20. Jacob, it probably helps that I come off as very shy/unassuming in person. Not that you come off as a bully…

    Comment by Susan M — September 18, 2006 @ 3:13 pm

  21. The sad thing is that there are feminists for whom having and defending an idea is rationalist-male-patriarchal thinking. I hope no one feels punched in the face simply because someone else strongly disagrees with them, and more particularly enunciates reasons for doing so.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 18, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

  22. Jacob (#11)

    Are you saying that working in a place that expects confrontation is refreshing? If so, wow. I expected, early in my career, that engineers were calm, logical, rational creatures like Spock from Star Trek. From my experience so far I was way off. They seem more like Klingons where I work.

    I wonder how much this Carnegie thing can really change a person. My company wants me to be more assertive in my leadership. We’ll see.

    Oh, and thanks for not saying ‘more of a jerk’.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 18, 2006 @ 7:14 pm

  23. I am an engineer of sorts, and most of us have first class egos, which isn’t so much of a problem if everyone is willing to work as a team and respect authority (and have leaders to worthy of respect). But many projects fail for lack of common consent and no strong leader to pull them together (by directive if necessary). I could tell stories…

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 18, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

  24. Truer words were never spoken. Once again, I’m printing off a thread from you guys to share with the world. Good job.

    Comment by annegb — September 19, 2006 @ 8:22 am

  25. Echoes of the Sugar Beet’s article, “Relief Society Sister Makes Declarative Statement”

    Good stuff.

    Comment by Ben — September 19, 2006 @ 9:01 am

  26. Eric,

    Yes, I did mean that I find the culture of controntation to be refreshing, but let me explain a bit. By “confrontation” I do NOT mean rudeness or meanspiritedness. Hence the qualifier “constructive,” which is trying to convey that we should confront issues/problems directly and with the purpose of resolving them as efficiently as possible. It makes good sense from a corporate perspective. It is not about telling people to insult each other, on the contrary, the idea is that everyone uniformly confronts the problems and learns to stop making everything personal. Making it personal is not constructive, but it is our natural tendency. It takes training to get out of that mindset where we make everything personal.

    In my mind this is at the root of the problems I discussed in the post. People cannot bear to have someone disagree with them because they make every comment personal. Instead of being interested in the issue under discussion and evaluating different ideas on their merits, they quickly get caught up being offended that someone disagreed with them publicly. It becomes a big thing about whether someone made them look stupid, or didn’t respect their idea. It is clearly a part of our culture; if you listen to how our teachers field comments, their main responsibility is to tell everyone how great their comment was, regardless of the content. We do it even if they say something which is totally wrong. Is this really a healthy culture? Must we demand people stroke our egos and no one ever disagree with us openly? How much progress can we make when 3/4 of the discussion is pretending no one disagrees and every idea is great? It is not productive, and there is really no reason for it except that we train people to take offense at the drop of a hat.

    Mark mentioned the huge egos of engineers/programmers (#23). I don’t think ego is a good thing per se. However, if it gives a person enough self-confidence to have a productive conversation in which everyone shares conflicting view points and at the end they don’t have to huddle around to ask Sue if she was okay (#12), then it does play a useful role. If we spent more time teaching people that we expect them to develop a little bit thicker skin and learn to deal with conflict without making it personal for no reason, we could do better than we do today.

    I’m sure Susan is right in #20 that it helps to look shy and unassuming (and I have no doubt that I come across as a bully even though I do not intend to). But that is my whole point. Why must I be shy and unassuming to disagree with someone?

    We can suppress every aggressive-looking behavior in the name of decorum, but in the end it just leads to people undermining each other behind backs because passive aggression is the only kind of acceptable aggression. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone could confront the disagreement openly?

    Comment by Jacob — September 19, 2006 @ 9:36 am

  27. Annegb,

    High praise indeed, thanks. (But if I find out you actually disagree with me and your just saying that, ohhhhh, will there be trouble.)

    Comment by Jacob — September 19, 2006 @ 9:40 am

  28. My husband and I just had a discussion about this. He said he went at it with another member about evolution in priesthood. He believes in a somewhat middle ground between evolution and creationism. The other person was a diehard creationist. But he did not like the bad feelings this engendered. So he stays away from evolution. I grew up in the middle west where freewheeling discussions were usually the norm in Relief Society and I found very enlightening. But that was long ago and far away: and I am much older. I go to church every Sunday, but there are times I can’t stand Relief Society for this very reason. So I would make a good participant in your olympics. I’ve been in training for 40 years.

    Comment by Rebecca — September 19, 2006 @ 12:20 pm

  29. Rebecca,

    Good comment. Many times I have sworn off talking about doctrine with other members because I worry about the bad feelings you mentioned. I picked on Relief Society in the post, but as you allude to in your comment, GD and EQ are often guilty of the same thing. Where in the “middle west” must I move to find these freewheeling discussions you speak of? They sound fun.

    Comment by Jacob — September 19, 2006 @ 5:17 pm

  30. Jacob:

    Thank you so much! Your comments on #26 help me a lot. I don’t tend to take these things personally, but I know others do. I think if I need to change something (which of course I do) it would be to care a little less how they react to what should be considered a sound decision.

    Also, It appears that my comments were not to much of a thread jack. I’m glad, I was worried that I was taking things a direction you may not have wanted.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 20, 2006 @ 8:35 am

  31. Jacob, I never lie about stuff like that. I’m going to share this.

    Comment by annegb — September 20, 2006 @ 9:07 am

  32. Not a threadjack at all Eric. In fact, I was thinking about your comment a lot last night and this morning and decided I might do better to decribe what I like as “directness” instead of “confrontation” (since I am not advocating “contention,” which gets lumped in with confrontation as Kristen pointed out).

    Your example of caring less how people react to a sound decision is a great application. It makes me realize how different this sort of thing plays out in business than in church. In business, everyone is there to be efficient and make a profit. A culture of inefficiency should be attacked directly because it defeats (by degrees) the whole purpose of the organization. In a church, a little inefficiency or boring lessons are much more likely to be tolerated because hurting someone’s feelings defeats the whole purpose of the organization. Both could benefit from a culture where directness is the norm, but we are not likely to make the shift in church for that reason.

    Comment by Jacob — September 20, 2006 @ 9:23 am

  33. Annegb,

    I see my poor attempt at humor backfired. Having read lots of your comments all over the ‘nacle I would never actually suspect you of being disingenuous.

    Comment by Jacob — September 20, 2006 @ 9:34 am

  34. Excellent post Jacob. I was just having this conversation with some friends recently too. I am the guy who tends to be very direct in church and Sunday school classes. I do separate ideas and people but I know that it freaks people out sometimes (especially in the church but sometimes outsideas well). Many Mormons are not at all used to having someone actually openly disagree with their idea. But I think there is great deal of value in the old cliche about disagreeing without being disagreeable.

    I also agree with you that one of the primary appeals of blogs is that disagreement is expected and even encouraged. Ideas that can’t withstand scrutiny oughtto be discarded, right? Even though occasionally people get heated here, I think for the most part we are quite good at disagreeing without being disagreeable.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 20, 2006 @ 9:42 am

  35. As a rule, if something is worth saying at all, I am going to say exactly what I believe, whether it is a direct contradiction of what someone else said or not. If there is some agreement with what the other person said, I think it is a good idea to give them as much credit as possible, but agreeing with what appear to be outright errors, if not false doctrines, is not a good idea. It is better to represent one’s own opinion accurately, even if it be false, than to muddle everything together.

    I am under the general impression that far too many members doctrinal understanding is just such a muddle. And I say that because mine was for several years until I started to study the scriptures intently and to learn the truth for myself. I think in many ways it is better to believe in a coherent personal theology (even a weak one) than an incoherent muddle of other’s beliefs. The Lord can teach you much better that way, because he can lead you to understand where the problems are, where with a muddle it is hard to know where to begin.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 20, 2006 @ 9:58 am

  36. One other thing – I never bother to say anything in Sunday School unless I have a scripture to back it up without engaging in too many subtleties. I think it is a waste of time to share speculation in such a forum. After all, Sunday School is about learning the doctrine of Christ – unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable opinions don’t matter. That is why politics is generally off limits, for example. It is supposed to be Gospel Doctrine class, not Gospel Speculation, nor Gospel Opinion, nor What-the-Gospel-Ought-to-Be class.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 20, 2006 @ 10:14 am