The sticky note that wasn’t passive-aggressive

…though it would sure look passive-aggressive to many. Here it is:

A dirty frying pan flipper, next to some pots and pans, with a note on it that reads "this was with the dirty utensils"

Now, granted, if I hadn’t seen this sticky note in context, I might have assumed it was passive-aggressive too. So the purpose of this post, essentially, is to communicate the context within which I saw that sticky note and assumed it wasn’t passive-aggressive.

This feels surprisingly hard to do, probably because much of the context and the reasoning was an embodied sense, rather than a deliberate process. But I’ll start by sharing a bit more detail of what I experienced in the second or two after I saw the note:

I read: “This was with the clean utensils.”
I imagined the dirty spatula in with the clean ones.
I mentally simulated some earlier person (the note-writer) encountering such a thing. I noted mild feelings of disgust and confusion, along with curiosity around how it came to be there.
My simulation suggested that the person would have wondered what to do, and concluded that, at the very least, it didn’t make sense to leave it there, dirty.
I noted that they placed the dirty utensil where dirty (i.e. in-use) large utensils normally go, on a plate on the stove.
I supposed that they reasoned that it would be helpful for the ecosystem to have the feedback that that utensil had ended up in an inappropriate place.

Feedback = feeding back

The term “feedback” commonly carries a bunch of connotations. One is that of “negative feedback”, because often we’ll use “compliment” or “praise” for “positive feedback”, while “feedback” becomes a euphemism for “negative feedback”, i.e. “criticism” or “blame”.

What’s funny though, is that as someone who’s studied engineering control systems, I’m aware that there’s a sense in which negative feedback is critical to the successful functioning of a system. With positive feedback, the system spirals out of control, whereas negative feedback (that responds to an input by saying “yup, less of that now”) is what keeps the system at some stable equilibrium. This happens in your body too: for example if your internal temperature rises too high, your body produces negative feedback (cooling) by sweating; too low and it produces negative feedback (in this case, heating) by increasing the metabolism to generate more heat.

Two graphs, the first showing how with only positive feedback, a system has no stable point and simply diverges, while negative feedback allows it to come to an equilibrium.

So not only is not all feedback negative feedback, but negative feedback is actually great!

…provided that it can be given and received without a sense of judgementalness.

Taking a systems perspective

I think that the issue that often arises with trying to leave notes like this, is they become interpreted as judgements of character, rather than mere remarks about the state of the kitchen—and reasonably so, because in many cases they are veiled judgements of character.

And, there’s another perspective, that looks at the household as an ecosystem (that particular house used to actually call itself Household As Ecology) and asks “what kind of information flow (aka feedback) does this system need in order to be stable and healthy?”

Through that lens, the sticky-note leaver isn’t trying to say anything about the individuals in the system, but merely to nudge the system as a whole in the right direction.

The meta-lens

One possible objection I can imagine to this post is that perhaps it sounds naïve: what if the sticky-note leaver was being judgemental?

To that, I will point out that the mere fact that I noticed there was a blog post to be written here reveals that I didn’t miss this possibility. My initial thought upon reading the note was of appreciation for the simplicity of the feedback and a reflection that it felt (to me) fairly well-optimized for not setting off defenses. Then, the part of my brain that handles coercive thought patterns (which I try to keep at arm’s length from my motor cortex) produced the thought that some people could read or write such a note in a judgemental frame.

And it’s still possible that the note-writer was in a judgemental frame.

But given what I know about my roommates, I’d bet otherwise.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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