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Going postal: How passive aggressive notes are ruining our lives

"Then Sam went west and put a note on each dish they hadn’t washed"

Going postal: How passive aggressive notes are ruining our lives
15 May 2018

Stamford Street, central London, the main university halls for King’s College London, a stone’s throw from campuses on the Strand. Hundreds of students packed into a cloistered living environment, with halls split into individual flats, each with individual kitchens, each filled with familiar and not-so-familiar faces milling around. The perfect scene, undoubtedly, for crime.

Marlena Dachnowicz was a first year student studying maths, in a flat of seven people, none of whom really spoke to one another. She began to notice a pattern of behaviour with her soy sauce. Namely: it was being stolen. Once, she got home and found it empty – finished. She replaced it, and a day later, the same thing. Frustrated, she took the bottle to her room and left a note in its place: “Surprise! It’s not here!”

A disturbing portrait of crime

Your reaction to this story from Marlena, a former student of King’s College London and resident of their Stamford Street halls, will differ depending on what kind of person you are. You either sympathise with her plight, and her presumably bland, umami-less lunches, feeling she was well within her rights to call out the soy-thief in her midst. Or, you think she’s an absolute nightmare housemate, dealing in acts of passive aggression rather than laying everything on the table. Leaving disputes hanging in mid-air – poisoning the vibe.

These wars of passive aggression are being fought up and down the country on a daily basis, and the kitchen is the battleground. As well as food getting eaten, there are tales of dishes not getting done; whole pans being stolen; bottles of milk marked with sharpies to make sure nobody was snaffling even a drop; shelf segregation in the fridge. The de facto communal space in a climate when living rooms are few and far between, the kitchen is a place where resentment grows like a thick mould, and manifests itself on Post-its. But who is leaving these notes, and what is the long term result of all these arguments hanging in mid-air?

Tom Bradley is another card-carrying note leaver from his university days, when he lived in a shared house of four: two boys and two girls. While Tom and another flatmate, Sam, cooked regularly, the girls microwaved most of their meals, leaving plastic sleeves and trays and dishes out on the side to fester. In this instance, words were exchanged first, but the behaviour didn’t stop.

“Notes were put on the fridge. Then on the door of their room. Then on their own cupboard door,” Tom explains. “Then Sam went west and put a note on each dish they hadn’t washed and proceeded to put the dishes directly outside their room.” The eventual resolution? The girls moved out, to another flat in their halls, with no word of whether their kitchen cleanliness had improved.

Your kitchen cupboard, probably

Ken Cloke has been involved in the field of conflict resolution for 38 years, and is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution in Santa Monica, California. He sees this pattern of behaviour as being pretty universal, and puts it down to, essentially, lack of skill on our part.

“The main reason people don’t confront directly is that it requires a more advanced level of skill at managing a conversation,” Ken says, explaining that in confrontational conversation we will “slip into either aggression or accommodation.”

“When we perceive that others are behaving in ways that do not acknowledge or respect our interests, it is common for us to either feel confrontative and hostile, in order to get what we want, or accommodative and self-denying, in order to preserve our relationship.” To avoid these complex interactions, we instead end up leaving notes.

Ken’s right: we are terrible arguers, but the problem with note-leaving is that we’re not developing the skills to get better. Passive aggressive notes didn’t help Marlena, Tom, or their housemates, and perhaps a real argument would’ve been better. If we can’t have an actual discussion about dishes and soy sauce, then what happens when we need to argue about the serious stuff?

The final response to conflict, the one that Ken says we have the most trouble with, is collaboration, “which requires more advanced cognitive skills that develop later in life, and for us to learn how to combine a concern for results with a concern for people.”

While this is true, “collaboration” implicitly suggests that all sides have equally worthy points of view, and this is often not true – Tom’s flatmates should have done their dishes, Marlena’s shouldn’t have kept stealing her soy sauce. In the case of the real, political and cultural arguments that are going on right now with increasing regularity, “collaboration” isn’t possible, as many debates are a matter of life and death for the marginalised.

In 2018, arguing is important – we need to be able to fight better battles. A good way to start is with those small, niggling annoyances that creep into a living situation, and how to deal with them. So the next time someone steals your dairylea lunchables, drinks your milk, or leaves dried mashed potato in the blender for three days to harden up into a sort of mashed potato slurry, knock on their door and just have a wee fight. The fate of the world, and the fate of democracy, may depend on it.

(Pics: ShortList, Getty)