Of course, the duty to be nice and consider the feelings of others has a downside: the whole universe of things we have to repress. As a kid, there was an almost tactile pressure hovering around the Christmases, Thanksgivings, and birthday parties at Grandma’s house -- so much stuff we maybe wanted to say but couldn’t, even though we were family. The tension beneath the vanilla chitchat exhausted me, and I often left her home relieved that I could relax and be myself.
Here again, though, I was wrong, or at least only half right, and as an adult I discovered the fun of old-fashioned Midwestern innuendo: the way my aunts, say, could achieve the perfect degree of half-smile when extending their barely dead-toned goodbyes to my sister’s boyfriend, which told her how very much they disliked him. In fact, people from outside the Plains think they can mimic us by elongating some O's, but in truth we communicate far more in what we half-say, or fail to say entirely. To live in the Midwest is to experience two realities: the first, all sunshine and bland pleasantries among other potluck-suppering churchgoers; the other, a red-lit underworld where people relay vulgarities through the learned second language of euphemism, eye rolls and loaded silence.
We are the alpha and omega of passive-aggressiveness. It is, like the corn we plant, our contribution to society, and our art. In his hilarious book, The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth!, Mike Draper, a Des Moines-based retailer who writes under his company’s pseudonym, Raygun, shows how no form of passive-aggression is as finely honed as our own:
"The Northeast Jewish mother takes the most direct approach to her passive aggressiveness: 'Oh, you’re going out tonight, even though you’re only home three nights from school? No, I understand, you’re Mr. Popular. So if you want to leave your poor mother, that’s fine…'"
"The Southern Baptist mother brings Jesus in for backup: 'Going out tonight with those boys? Do you really think that’s what an upstanding young Christian man should be seen doing?...'” "A Midwestern mom plays it very passive: 'Going out? You sure?'”
Every Midwestern mother is like this. During my junior year of college I decided to grow my hair out. When I called my mom with the news, she said, simply, “Oh.” But the word carried a lot of tones, a note of surprise and then a second beat, which sustained the first while she parsed the news, followed at last by a slight dip and then a leveling out in a lower register, so the "Oh" ended in more a statement than a question: Ooouuwwaah. That one word showed how she both processed my decision and rendered her verdict on it. She was not pleased with me. And she didn’t say anything else.
Two things explain that kind of subtlety. The first is a guilt over our lame attempts at bluntness; even our passivity pains us. Midwesterners never want to be malicious, and so we swallow our great loogies of venom, until the whole viscous thing gags us and forces from our lips, like a reflex, tiny spittles of displeasure, whose trajectory we struggle to control. I saw this most recently when Jonathan Franzen, a product of St. Louis’ suburbs, was asked how Midwestern virtues shape his life and writing. Skip ahead to roughly 3:15 and watch till the end: