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4 Reasons Kindness and Good Manners Are the Best Revenge

Poised on the border between wicked and delightful, good behavior can sting.

Not able to act out when you're looking for revenge? Too "nice" to allow yourself to indulge in perfectly normal fantasies of retribution? It's OK: The best revenge can involve being terribly too kind to your adversaries.

Indeed, a version of the line—“Forgive your enemies. You’ll feel better, and it’ll drive them crazy.”—appears to have been said by every aphoristic writer from Oscar Wilde to Tiny Fey. There’s a subtlety in this method that can be very sweet indeed, but it takes a sense of distance and a sense of control that's difficult to achieve while angry or hurt. To be able to absorb the hurt without actually reacting badly is to be triumphant, surely, but the lack of reaction has to be genuine for it to work.

1. Turning the other cheek must be done without wanting to hurt the person who’s hitting you; otherwise, the point of the lesson is moot.

One kid I knew from Brooklyn illustrated this when I overheard him tell a buddy, “Yeah, I turned the other cheek when he came after me this time, but next time, I’m gonna punch the bastard’s lights out.” This level of self-determined revenge is rare.

Passive-aggressive revenge, however, appears in as many forms as there are to say, in effect, “up yours” while maintaining a facade of politeness. A passive-aggressive Valentine’s Day present is a box of diet chocolates and a guide to the fat content in food; a passive-aggressive Christmas present from a relative across the country could be a set of stationary complete with stamps and a note saying, “Please write.” These might be regarded as nice little reminders by the people who offer them, but unless you’ve asked for a fat-free cookbook, or you don’t live near a post office, they are the equivalent of an emotional elbow in the ribs.

2. A frustrated worker might silently put up with a maddening employer while unconsciously sabotaging every project through poor performance or the awkward handling of minor but important tasks.

“If I don’t give my workers a reasonable salary, paid vacation days, a reasonable number of sick days, a full hour lunch, and a decent overtime wage, they aren’t going to give me their loyalty or their best efforts,” agrees one factory overseer. “They’ll screw off if they feel like they’re being screwed by the company. It’s human nature.”

An administrative assistant who hands in messages a little late on a daily basis to one executive is using a passive-aggressive form of revenge. A worker who takes unnecessarily long bathroom breaks, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks might be signaling his dissatisfaction with his work environment. So might the typist who gets every fourth letter wrong, but who can’t be fired because her uncle owns the company.

3. Many psychologists regard a child who is “accident-prone” as systematically acting out anger towards parents who otherwise pay insufficient attention so that the body of the self becomes the site of revenge upon others.

There are those for whom a wound that they can show to another is as good as wounding the other themselves. “See how hurt I am?” they cry. “If you loved me more, I wouldn’t have hurt myself.” Also regarded as self-inflicted and self-directed acts of buried rage are bulimia and anorexia, frequently diagnosed as patterns associated with repressed anger in young women.

But young men are not immune. As D.H. Lawrence wrote in his classic novel Sons and Lovers, “Recklessness is almost a man's revenge on his woman. He feels he is not valued, so he will risk destroying himself to deprive her altogether.” Lawrence was referring to the way his hero rides a bicycle dangerously fast down a dark hill, but his remark could apply to the man who, in repressed anger, drives his car dangerously or walks through a bad neighborhood late at night.

4. There are also kinder and gentler forms of passive-aggressive revenge, such as the one found in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the classic Victorian handbook of etiquette that was the standard governing behavior in countless households for several generations.

Even dear Mrs. Beeton condones passive-aggressive revenge when the situation demands it: “It is generally established as a rule not to ask for soup or fish twice, as, in so doing, part of the company may be kept waiting too long for the second course, when, perhaps, a little revenge is taken by looking at the awkward consumer of the second portion.”

To an extent, even the perfectly correct Mrs. Beeton can counsel using passive-aggressive behavior, because it works below etiquette’s radar—most social screens cannot detect incoming fire. There’s a sense that something is amiss, perhaps even a distinctly uncomfortable atmosphere, but there’s no way to fault anyone for its effectiveness. This is at the heart of all passive-aggressive revenge: working below the radar.

5. The contemporary arbiter of social rules is Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners. In her widely syndicated column, Miss Manners has often been heard to vaunt the delights of perfectly acceptable passive-aggressive revenge when the situation demands it.

The examples she offers pose rather more delicate problems than the matter of soup. Miss Manners is proper but never coy; she addresses the important issues without subtlety. “If you are rude to your ex-husband’s new wife at your daughter’s wedding, you will make her feel smug. Comfortable. If you are charming and polite, you will make her feel uncomfortable. Which do you want to do?” and “Many relatives who do not get along use etiquette as a weapon with which to fight. Choose your weapon” are two excellent examples of her expertise in perfectly polite, passive-aggressive relations.

Perhaps Miss Manner’s best recipe for revenge is couched in response to a woman who knows that her husband is having an affair with a close friend. “[I]f you really want to be evil (and why not—it will make you feel better), you might make vague statements with a radiant face that make her believe, without you saying so, that you are spending... time with a man who makes you look more thrilled than your husband apparently did,” suggests Miss Manners without a girlish blush. “This will pique her; but she will mention it to your husband, to salve his conscience... It will also pique him. Two people in this state of mind are not going to enjoy each other for very long.”

Charming and deadly, Miss Manner’s schemes are poised on the border between wicked and delightful—a difficult place to find in the world of those dreaming of revenge, but nevertheless a great place to be.