Ben Borgers

Is It Worth It to Be Passive Aggressive?

January 29, 2022

We use Piazza for Computer Science classes. It’s a kind of forum for classes, where students can ask questions and other students or instructors can answer.

And boy do people ask questions. Piazza famously spams everybody with more emails than they’d like, and if you peek into the firehose of questions you’ll see the same questions asked again and again.

And inevitably, you’ll see passive aggressive answers like this from TA’s:

And I completely understand the inclination to answer like this. Or just to answer with a link to the three other times that this same question has been asked. It’s funny!

But something doesn’t quite sit right with me about this kind of thing. As funny as it is to see in passing, it’s probably not funny for the person who asked, someone who had to put themselves out in front of hundreds of email-notified people to ask this question.

I understand that I’m walking the thin edge of being on a soapbox here. Lecturing TA’s about being nicer as if I’m a perfect specimen. But of course, I’m not. I’ve given people a lot of passive aggressive answers like this before, and it even feels good for a moment. That’ll show them, I think.

But I have to remind myself that it isn’t worth it.

The moment of satisfaction fades into regret as time goes on. I could’ve just not been a jerk. Is this who I want to be?

Not only is it not “nice,” it also probably does some kind of tangible harm. Subjects like Computer Science have a hard enough time seeming approachable, especially to groups of people traditionally not included in such disciplines.

At best these sorts of answers make them think twice before posting another question later, and at worst they completely sour their early interactions with Computer Science.

It’s hard to remember in that moment to be kind. It feels overly kind, even. But I’m writing this mostly as a reminder to myself: being passive aggressive in that moment is probably not worth it. Even if I’m not in the most helpful mood, even if they’re asking something that’s been asked before. It won’t take more energy to be kind than to be a passive aggressive. So don’t be a jerk.