Walking in the door, my mind was an entanglement of anxiety and relief. I looked over the faces of those inside the cafe and finally located a familiar blonde haircut at the far corner of the room.
I sat down on the stool beside my friend, Ella, who had invited me to the Starbucks right next to our high school. Starbucks: a place for business meetings, homework parties and hangover recoveries — not a place for gut-wrenching conversation. But we both needed this, and a public place would allow us to process our emotions with a little more polish and compassion.
Ella was one of the closest friends I’d ever had. We had been friends since eighth grade, interacting on a daily basis in school or on our own personal adventures. With our shared values and identical wild humor, we gravitated toward each other and remained in constant contact.
But for the first two months of senior year, she barely spoke to me. When I approached, she walked away. When we were partners in French, she was curt and to the point. She rarely ate lunch with me, and when she did, she talked to others without making eye contact in my direction.
I knew something was off, yet she never gave me the chance to ask why she was upset. Only coldness and avoidance with no explanation.
Finally, in late October, she slowly began to interact with me again. With a steady progression back to what I hoped was normalcy, we ended up at Starbucks, where she explained the reasoning behind her distance. Over the summer, I had started dating someone, but with our busy schedules, I never had the chance to tell her until almost the start of the school year. Ella found out about my new relationship from a mutual friend before I revealed it to her and was livid that I hadn’t told her for so long.
We hashed out every event, feeling and grudge. She revealed her past experiences with abandonment and the distrust my miscommunication had created. I felt guilty for reigniting her old fears, but at the end of our conversation, I still couldn’t shake my underlying anger over how she chose to react to her distress. We seemed to have resolved our situation, but there was a lingering tension in our relationship that had sprouted over the few months prior.
And despite our conversation, the damage had already been done. We had grown distant.
It felt like I was walking on eggshells around Ella, as if my presence would snap the illusion of peace we held up for the sake of those around us. Every interaction with her since then has felt forced and tight. It’s as if there’s an invisible wall up between us. On the rare occasion that I see her, I am immediately reminded of our rift.
We had to start our relationship over and reconstruct the trust that was lost. I don’t think we’ll ever be back to what we were before.
At Starbucks, Ella told me how she refused to let herself act “okay” when she was hurting — she wasn’t going to pretend that everything was fine when it wasn’t. I respected that she internally recognized the validity of her emotions. But in most ways, she did act like everything was fine, continuing all of her normal actions with a punctuation of coldness focused in my direction. The way she approached the conflict made me constantly question which of my actions had caused such a reaction and if she would ever actually tell me. I shouldn’t have to play detective to figure out what was bothering her, but I definitely couldn’t force her to open up to me. I gave her space to determine what she needed to do, but in doing so, no solution was ever reached. The issue festered, resentment building and building until we didn’t even recognize our friendship anymore.
The whole situation made me realize how much I valued respectful confrontation in relationships. Since our friendship’s undoing, I’ve fully embraced the idea of verbalizing my concerns, whether with roommates, friends or family. I despise resentment and rarely hold grudges — I immediately make clear what’s bothering me so matters don’t spin out of control. I forgive easily since when I bring up a problem directly, I know the other person has heard me and internalized what I have to say. It frees me of any ill will related to a conflict because they now know how their actions have affected me, allowing us to mutually decide how we can move forward in a more positive manner. Most people tell me they appreciate my honesty, that they respect that I’m upfront without being overly rude.
Confrontation is often seen as aggressive, negative or frightening. But in my experience, the effects of passive aggression and avoidance are much more destructive.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “conflict?” Is it a fistfight, a screaming match or a cold distance from someone who you have wronged? Is it characterized by active verbal projection against another person? Is silence the most cutting method of getting one’s anger across?
One’s approach to conflict is heavily influenced by their communication style. There are four main types of communication: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive and assertive. Those who are passive don’t express their concerns or feelings while those who are passive-aggressive will communicate their frustrations in subtle ways, whether through body language, indirect comments or a bitter demeanor. Aggressive communication is characterized by combative interactions in which the aggressor tries to dictate the situation, allowing no room for others to respond. Assertiveness is seen as the healthiest way to respond to conflict — defending one’s own emotions or desires clearly while remaining respectful to those at the other end of the communication.
This doesn’t mean that each of our conflict management styles is stagnant. We can change our communication method completely based on the environment we are in. A person may not have the same response in a personal situation as opposed to an academic setting. Or, if you’re like me, there is a spectrum of the intensity of your assertiveness: I’m much more poignant (but no less assertive) with my roommates than I am with my boss. I’m not okay with letting things slide, but I adapt based on my position or comfort level.
Growing up in Minnesota, the concept of passive-aggression is so ingrained in local lifestyle that it has become a regional inside joke. “Minnesota Nice and Minnesota Ice” perfectly encapsulates the two behaviors we are known for — when speaking with a Minnesotan, you will be met with the polite, stand-up Midwesterner or a demeanor as cold as our January blizzards.
Passive aggression is a common approach to conflict throughout the Midwest. This geographic trend presents a possible cultural influence on communication styles, as residents within a certain region generally share common social and behavioral norms due to their similar lifestyles. One study shows this geographic significance, as residents of the “Upper Midwest” had much lower “assertiveness” scores than residents of the New York Metropolitan area. In other words, Midwesterners were much more passive in their communication with others than New Yorkers. The concept of “Minnesota Nice” isn’t just a stereotype; it’s a demonstrated cultural mechanism that affects our daily interactions.
Though a bit of a generalization, there is something to be said about the well-known stereotypes associated with where we grow up. There are evident differences in the dominant modes of communication in each region, which is why studies have tried to bring attention to these local distinctions. How and where we were raised can have a big impact on how we approach conflict. In this case, “nurture” gains an edge over “nature” in the ages-old debate.
This Midwestern assertiveness standard leads people like Ella to avoid confrontation so as not to directly cause discomfort by verbalizing a problem. However, many other outside influences factor into social behavior, resulting in differences in our communication styles. I was raised by two decisive parents from Chicago, an urban environment that promotes Midwestern manners just as much as straightforwardness and passion. Their influence taught me to be direct and determined, a mindset that shapes my communication style. Assertive confrontation drives my actions in relationships, which makes it ever so frustrating to not receive the same candor from others who instead evade our issues.
Passive aggression was detrimental to my friendship with Ella. Our emotions were left unspoken for so long that we welcomed resentment to appease the intensity of our anger and hurt. Indirect animosity can be counter-productive to solving arguments and can be harmful to all parties involved. But there is a difference between being assertive and directing pointless aggression and criticism towards those you disagree with. Assertiveness shouldn’t be exploited — if you obsess over every detail that irritates you, it will only lead to stress, disappointment and exasperation from others. This is a common pitfall of assertive communication and one that I frequently fall prey to.
Directness is not a free pass to alter people to meet your own standards. Humans aren’t perfect and they’ll make mistakes. But there must be a balance between being candid and remaining level-headed in emotional expression.
We have to be conscientious. But we also can’t let ourselves be consumed by bitterness in not articulating our troubles. In an interview, scholar and author Brené Brown iterates the importance of setting “boundaries” when something is bothering us, respecting ourselves enough to be “straightforward with what’s not okay.” If we don’t recognize our boundaries, we can be spiteful and critical of others. Being kind to ourselves and acknowledging our emotions is the best way to ensure that we are compassionate to others and that we are not weighed down by the burden of hostility. Enmity deepens conflict and breaks friendships as a result.
Our reactions to disagreement can depend on the setting, the relationship and personal history. Conflict is subjective; we respond with the method that we perceive to give us the most control over the situation. This is what I remind myself when I think of my former friendship or any time I brush up against passive aggression: in times of conflict, everyone acts in the hopes of protecting themselves from emotional discomfort.
But we need to know when it might be more constructive to address friction rather than turning to hostility or avoidance. You don’t have to settle things right away — you can give yourself time to process your thoughts, to interpret your feelings. However, you have to communicate this boundary you are setting yourself to ensure others recognize your needs.
Conflict is plentiful and inescapable. But confrontation doesn’t have to be harmful: It’s a sign of self-respect, an action that strengthens bonds instead of breaking them based on what’s left unsaid.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.