Hello, Dear Reader:

It is the weekend. (What is a week end?) As such, I would like to sit down and ramble at you a little more than usual. A weekly column of sorts. A letter, perhaps.

We may never reach such lofty heights as the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans, but that is entirely beside the point.

The point is for me to take some of the thoughts that I have been batting around in my head, and try to arrange them in somewhat of a readable order without bending myself in knots trying to write a perfect essay. (Because if that were to happen, I would never publish anything and that would entirely defeat the purpose of having a blog, now would it.)

This week I have been thinking about people who reflexively, or naturally, or compulsively write in the passive voice. 

This is not a category of person that I typically use. In fact, I had never thought it to be a category of person until recently.

You should probably know that I put everybody into categories for a number of things, so that every person I know is usually categorized in seven or eight little boxes. I’m sure that some types of my mental categorizations contradict others, but it ends up being like a super-sized version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (STFU, haters; scientific or not, it’s still a useful heuristic) that expands to cover things like politics, neuroses, and writing styles. Basically it’s my crutch for learning how to get along with people.

(And yes, I do in fact think too much.)

So where were we? Right, categories.

Recently I have had dealings with two different people who write in the passive style.

One, who I’ll refer to as Serena, was texting me about an problem that needed to be dealt with. Serena hates confrontation, so much that she will let something sit for months rather than deal with it head-on. Whether she meant to or not, her text came through as passive aggressive, which of course got me defensive, which is never a great way to begin something.

When I first started dealing with this person, I realized quickly that she was the type of person that I needed to be very deliberate around, someone who is…well…passive aggressive. Serena is very much a “go with the flow” kind of person, not taking many pre-cautions to ward against unforeseen circumstances. For instance, she is the type of person who will keep a camera in her car, unlocked.

In retrospect, her writing style should have clued me in to her being this type of person.

The second instance was with someone, let’s call her Vanessa, with whom I was interacting at work. She would be manning the computer in a meeting, putting together a powerpoint or an outline or some such officework. Someone would say, “Hey, the next line should read ‘Let’s convene a director’s meeting’.” Vanessa’s hands would hesitate for a bit, and then she would write something like “Consider convening a meeting of directors.”

This happened for nearly everything we said. No matter how someone phrased it verbally, it would get documented passively.

I try to write actively, so this drove me nuts. But Vanessa does it so consistently that I think it’s just part of her nature. What I don’t understand is: why?

I first came across this phenomenon in a different coworker of mine, long ago, who wrote a bunch of documentation for all of the processes that we did. The end product was incredibly passive, almost to the point where it sounded like Corporate Ipsum.

She was an education major, and we were both student workers at the time, so I chalked it up to her trying to write “business-y” in a bid to be taken seriously.

I spent a lot of editing time digging those poor sentences out of their passive holes to let them run wild and free on active territory.

In retrospect, all three people have similar personalities. Hate conflict, want to get things right, dislike the prospect of other people disliking them. I could always tell that A was really nervous whenever we had to do presentation-type activities.

Part of me wonders if this is at all connected with r/K selection theory as applied to politics, where a naturally passive writing style would be a “tell” for an r-selected person. Quick primer for the uninitiated: r-selected people (or rabbits, in the original application of the theory) tend to have high social conditioning, high levels of anxiety, and lean left so that they can be taken care of by a nanny state, whereas K-selected people (or wolves) tend to be more self-reliant, liberty-minded and right-leaning.

All three of those people are left-leaning in their politics to varying degrees, so that would lend credence to that argument.

However, one of the higher-ups at work writes in a relatively active style and she too is left-leaning. It’s clearly not THE ONLY tell for it, but it is a component.

Or perhaps it is a natural outgrowth of this type of person with a socially-biased outlook, not wanting to cause any waves.

I would hate to think of this phenomenon as merely a result of poor writing instruction in schools, but that is certainly a possibility. Maybe these people don’t know any better, but they are all educated to some degree–two have master’s degrees and one is decently erudite, at least with modern literature.

You know what’s starting to look like a coincidence? I wrote a paper on writing style and MBTI in grad school, and here we are again, looking at writing style and personality. Considering that I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, this is clearly something that I should do more looking in to.

Perhaps it would be worth cataloging literary “tells” for different personality characteristics. That might be a fun project.

Statisticians look at famous literary works, why not look at modern and historical political commentators?


With that vast and unanswered question, I will bid a goodnight to anybody who ventured to read this far. You are an intrepid soul, and I salute you.


Childlike Empress