It is difficult enough diagnosing a dysfunctional culture in a large corporation—imaging having a large American city as a de facto patient. Not that I had any idea what treatment could possibly cure a social-psychological disease when I was in San Francisco. I, like so many other new-comers there, temporary or permanent, got the sense after only a few weeks that something was very wrong in the way people were interacting there. As a corporate man in his late twenties from L.A. remarked after just ten days in the city, “The people here are very rude.” As he described the particular behavior pattern, I was stunned; it matched what had taken a month for me to discern. This began my curiosity as to the dysfunctional culture undergirding the wholesale lack of manners, and, more particularly, how it is that a distinct mentality or value-set and behavioral trait can show up in so many individuals.
What lies beneath the clouds is not necessarily visible from above. (Jeff Chiu of AP)
By 2015, software engineers at internet-based companies such as Google and Facebook had been moving to San Francisco and commuting to work in Silicon Valley for years. The “techies” were widening the economic inequality in the city, which, along with the related hike in rents, was causing tension—even anger—on the street. This sort of explanation is at root political in nature. While I do not doubt its validity, it does not do justice to the social-psychological dimension at the individual and interpersonal levels. In other words, I would like to provide some finer brush strokes to finish this picture of a modern American city in the grips of a pathogen.
By 2014, San Francisco had “become the hype- and capital-fueled epicentre of America's technology industry, which has traditionally centred on the string of suburban cities known as Silicon Valley 40 miles to the south. In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee [had] introduced tax breaks for Twitter and several other tech companies to encourage them to settle in and revitalise the downtown San Francisco neighbourhood South of Market, or Soma.” Three years later, the city’s unemployment rate was just 4.8 percent, while California’s was 8.3 percent. In 2013, job growth in San Francisco County was the highest of any county in the States.
At the same time, “(m)any long-time San Francisco residents” worried “not only about being forced out of the city they love, but also that their city [was] being changed for the worse.” Critics were saying that San Francisco's “communities of alternative culture, ethnic or otherwise” were being “turned into playgrounds for rich people.” According to Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Castro, the proverbial “gay mecca,” was more homeowner and much straighter, much whiter and much more conservative." If the city’s soul was “its social and economic diversity and status as a refuge for those outside the mainstream,” then the city was indeed losing its soul. I concur, though for a reason—one much deeper than the socio-economic shifts and the resulting tensions. I submit that enough of the city’s people, most notably those who are under 35 or so, had lost, or more likely never had manners. More serious than this euphemism implies, people comprising a major segment in the city’s population were assuming a mentality that could be labelled, The Zuckerberg Syndrome. The underlying pathology is psychological at root.
San Francisco was indeed ground-zero in the American trend of increasing economic inequality, and the social mores were starting to burst at the seams. The “influx of so many young, rich tech workers [was] causing significant tensions. Starting in mid-2011, rents and house prices began to soar. Eviction rates soon followed as property speculators sought to cash in by flipping rent-controlled apartment buildings into flats to sell.” No-fault evictions “displaced nearly 1,400 renters in 2013. About a third of those evictions were under California's Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants and sell their apartments.” Ellis Act evictions increased by 170% from 2010 to 2013, according to a City study. The ability to essentially bid up the rents that pushed long-time residents out was increasing tensions—even turning the city into “an angry city,” according to one retired man there.
The long-time resident told me that the rising number of vocal confrontations between strangers, such as the ones I had I had witnessed just hours earlier between two middle-aged drivers in a parking lot and two young adults on a sidewalk were a function of the widening gap between the haves and have nots in the city. That Facebook, Google, Apple and other tech companies located in the string of “silicon valley” cities in the south area of the bay were commuting about 35,000 techies each workday between their high-rent residences in “the City” and the companies in Silicon Valley was undoubtedly stoking the fire. Just the sight of the sleek white, double-decker buses stirred jealousy and resentment on the street and most probably a sense of superiority, even snobbery, inside the luxury vehicles.
According to Nietzsche, resentment pertains to the weak. As for the strong, self-confidence rather than arrogance is the hallmark characteristic. The onlookers can thus be reckoned as “herd animals” and the bussed kids as “new birds of prey,” whose presumed superiority is in fact a hypertrophic instinctual urge to dominate. In other words, both are weak—which may explain part of the jealousy. In contrast, the strong are saturated with the self-confidence that is innate to strength rather than a need to be superior. Put another way, strength and its overflowing power are content in themselves, hence the strong do not view the weak as evil (whereas the weak view the strong as such). The strong seek to win a race, for instance, rather than focus on the onlookers, whereas the weak a race cannot resist the urge to be cruel both to the strong up ahead and to the onlookers.
I contend that the aggression being inflicted on a daily basis in San Francisco during its second wave of techies—the first being during the “dot.com” heady days of the 1990s—extended beyond the attention-getting vocal spats and “nudges” between strangers in public places. I do not believe, however, that widening economic inequality is a strong enough force to trigger specific incidents of aggression, whether passive or active. The underlying cultural change was considerably more subtle even as it was stark on the individual and interpersonal levels.
I further contend that a cultural trait has no “collective” basis as an entity beyond the minds and behaviors of individual human beings. Arrogance, for instance, can spread through a number of agreements, whether tacitly or consciously made, between two or three people at a time, that a given attitude, value, or specific behavior is good rather than bad; hence it is permissible rather than to be shamed. One person “tells” another that being rude in a certain way is cool, and the other person in turn “tells” a few of his friends. Soon, a high enough percentage of people in that segment of the population are being rude on a regular basis in a particular way that is thus distinctive.
Having been in the social sciences for some time, I was curious to study how a cultural trait metastasizes—how it is that so many people could be rude in so precisely the same way—so I informally interviewed a number of long-time and new residents alike, of various ages and trades. Detecting a common refrain, I narrowed my focus to young adults between the ages of 21 and 35—the Millennial Generation. It was not long before a distinct pattern involving a certain mentality and a distinct behavior-pattern emerged, which people not infected typically identified as being unique to San Francisco though at the same time being the leading edge of a broader trend then going on in American society. I turn now to my data, obtained through observation and a series of interviews consistent with Clifford Geertz’s method of participant-observant, or époche.
A significant proportion of the young adults, most of whom were far away from their parents, appeared to feel free to treat other people their age and even much older not only with a lack of respect, but also with blatant rudeness tantamount to brazen passive aggression—and without any sense of shame. Typically on meeting someone new, for example, the delayed-adolescents would quickly size him or her up. Is this person on my level? Can I expect to get something out of him or her? If the answers are negative, the interest, albeit self-centered, in the other person quickly turns to a dismissiveness and dismissal. Even in the middle of a sentence, the other person can be hit with a rude turning-away without warning. Such rudeness is so blatant and severe it can be counted as passive aggression. The anger manifests not only in the turning-around and walking away, but also when the person merely turns around and ignores the other person, even while that person is asking, “Why are you ignoring me?” or “Why are you being so rude to me?” I witnessed an older woman asking a 25 year-old(ish) man both questions, after she had approached him to ask him about a noise audible in the patio of the coffee-shop/bar, with the boy continuing to stare off to the side as if she were not there.
At a coffee shop, I myself asked a similar guy an innocuous question only to get a curt answer. Strangely, on his way out, he said goodbye to each of the two guys he had also met briefly and who were then talking with me. Saying “goodbye” twice made it especially obvious that he was ignoring me. Why would a stranger make such an effort on something so trivial as saying goodbye, especially considering that he knew none of us and the question I had asked had not been offensive? More than the rudeness, I felt aggression. The presumption itself that such anger can be unleashed on an innocent stranger is itself a problem, particularly when it becomes part of a culture (i.e., widely understood to be acceptable rather than blameworthy). Put another way, why did the guy feel such a strong urge to reject a stranger whom he would be unlikely to encounter again (especially given his curt reply to my question)?
When I had been a student at Yale and a member of the Yale Political Union, the chairman of the “party” thereof that I had recently joined asked me to change my plans on the upcoming Friday night so I could attend a social party in the bell tower where the new members would be “tapped” to enter the secret society that the party owned. In actuality, he wanted me to attend so his three friends, who were the only ones tapped, could have the pleasure of seeing other members turned down, or rejected. In other words, the pleasure of selecting and being selected was not enough psychologically. The same phenomenon would be part of the epidemic to hit San Francisco decades later.
At a group for speaking French in San Francisco, a middle-aged New Yorker described to me (in English) another manifestation of the angry city.
“People are blunt in New York,” the Lebanese man of around 50 admitted. “That bluntness can be rude, sure, but here there is also passive aggression.”
“Have others from New York noticed the same thing?” I asked.
“Yes. Several others living here now have told me they had noticed it. In New York, people will tell you to your face what they think; the people here say one thing to your face and another to your back.”
In other words, the passive aggression could manifest as duplicitous betrayal too. Moreover, the level of such aggression in San Francisco was not the case in other cities where a person might expect it, on account of overcrowding for instance.
In terms of dating or just “hooking up” to have sex, the following scenario—a true story which I verified from both parties—may have been paradigmatic in San Francisco in the Millennial Generation. A 28 year-old guy who worked at the time for Sacs Fifth Avenue met a 35 year old woman in a bar and the two clicked. After kissing, he persuaded her to change her plans the following evening so she could go out on a date with him. They met after work at another bar, and sat in the patio in the sunshine. She figured they would go out for dinner and then perhaps to a bar or to his or her place, so she was surprised when he informed her he would have to leave in an hour to attend a departing co-worker’s get-together at another bar. Seeing her mood quickly sour, he made a not-so-subtle reference to her looking older in the light, and that he should not have kissed her. He did not even feel any obligation to carry through with the date, even though he knew she had re-arranged her schedule to accommodate his desire to go out the next night. Thinking on her feet, she quickly called the guy she was to go out with later to tell him that she would be able to make it after all. She told me she had a good time on the second date—the first time she had had two dates on the same evening—and she got laid to boot! Neither the man nor women were teckies, so the phenomenon was not, or at least no longer, techie-specific; rather, it had spread through the Millennial Generation.
Certainly in San Francisco’s iconic gay “community,” the guys (generally speaking) were “always on the lookout for the next best thing.” From that standpoint, dismissiveness toward any guy not in the running for the next time is a foregone conclusion. Zuckerberg’s innate sense of superiority could easily translate into a presumed entitlement to not only ignore interested guys eliminated from being “the next best thing,” but also get pleasure from inflicting pain so those guys feel they are being rejected.
“I hit on this guy at the Edge [a bar in the Castro] but he blew me off,” a gay guy recounted to me.
“Did you say something insulting?” I asked.
“No, I complimented him. So when was leaving the bar and passed me and two other guys who had talked with him—the three of us were talking—he went out of his way to say good-bye to each of the other two.”
“He really wanted you to know he was ignoring you,” I observed. “For some reason, the guy felt the need to put a lot of emotional energy into making sure you would be hurt. It’s not like he had reason to think he would run into you again. What I wonder is where all that anger is coming from—seems sadistic to me.”
A few weeks after I had spoken to guy who was so blatantly and intentionally ignored, I submitted the scenario to a San Francisco native—a women in her mid-20s dressed in “gothic” black. Her explanation uncovered a mentality utterly foreign to me.
“The guy being hit on was probably pissed that the guy he didn’t want hitting on him ruined his social image so he took it out on him.”
“You mean he was punishing the other guy?”
“Yes,” she replied, “the guy might have decided the other guy ruined an otherwise perfect day, so he should pay for it.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing!” I exclaimed. “It must be something going on in your generation.”
“Being able to get stuff instantly with apps has changed personalities,” she added.
“You mean into spoiled brats?”
“Yes,” she said.
Visibly excited about teaching an older guy so ignorant of her generation, she told me that to let a friend know that the person seducing him or her in a bar, for instance, is not good enough for him or her, simply put a hand on the friend’s lap as if the friends were in a relationship. That gesture sends the signal not only to the seducee, but also the seducer, that the latter is not good enough in the opinion of the friend. I was struck by the sheer brazen disregard for the seducer’s feelings.
The message must have been getting around enough young men and women in the city that it is fine to insult anyone who is presumably lower, of no future use. Treating other people as if they were throw-away “objects,” which involves deeming them as unworthy of even common courtesy, intimates sadism, or at the very least a subterranean current of pent-up anger. From where, I wondered like a scientist trying to find mass in space to account for indications of gravity far away, did the anger behind the passive aggression come?
My theory highlights the cultural role of internet companies, their respective founders, and employees, with near-proximity intermingling spreading the dysfunctional attitude through the generation. The sheer number of “techies” who had moved to the city and worked in “the mostly white, male-dominated, monied monoculture of the tech industry” was sufficient to have a major impact on San Francisco’s social mores and dominant attitude, especially considering the impact of the preexisting “laid-back” culture sewn by the hippies decades earlier.
A colleague of mine from Detroit Michigan reported to me after reading this essay that he had begun to see some of the same behaviors since techies had begun to move there in significant numbers. Although “like some hippies [the techies had] the same sense of social mission to transform the world for the better with technology,” this abstract idealism to be practiced on people at a social and geographic distance was dwarfed closer to home, as in social gatherings, for example, by what Nietzsche describes as the brain sickness of the weak who are too weak to resist their urge to dominate others. In more modern terms, the sordid flu is of malignant narcissism mixed with a presumptuous entitlement that justifies rudeness, even passive aggression, without any shame. Rudeness can be so severe that it becomes passive aggression. As such, it can remain undiagnosed as something real. Hence, my colleague’s feedback is significant.
Speaking with two retired men in San Francisco, I detected an alternative hypothesis.
“They are threatened by the older generations,” one of the men said, “so they lash out at us.”
“Why do they feel threatened?” I asked, skeptically.
“Because we’re straight-shooters. They use passive aggression because they are insecure.”
“But why are they so angry at us?” I asked, straining to understand something I had no intuitive sense of.
“We have put them in a tight spot. Not enough jobs. A [federal] debt of over $17 trillion—money we spent on ourselves that they will have to repay.”
“So it goes well beyond not respecting their elders.”
“Yes, and it is a recent phenomenon.”
The office cultures in Silicon Valley may have served as incubators. A climate of arrogance would either have come from the top or been tacitly tolerated. One techie told me that the people at Facebook do not respect the users.
“Does that come from Zuckerberg himself?” I asked.
“I’m not surprised,” I replied, “considering how he treated the two guys at Harvard who were working on a social network there.”
“That’s right,” the teckie confirmed.
“I’ve studied organizational culture,” I said as a sort of debriefing. “It would not surprise me at all that Zuckerberg’s attitude toward other people—his manipulations and sense of superiority—as in that psychological experiment on Facebook’s users—defines the company’s culture, which in turn forms the values, attitude, and conduct of the employees.”
This raises the thorny question of whether the authorities at the area’s social-media companies bore any responsibility in having spawned or at least condoned the mentality of self-centered arrogance, rather than trying to eradicate it. In other words, did the companies’ respective managements fail in their corporate social responsibility? Can we hold them blameworthy if they were blind to the brain sickness, being infected themselves? Can we hold Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, responsible, given how he answered a question on CNBC television in June 2015 regarding whether he would serve as CEO on an interim or permanent basis beginning in July? “I’m not going to answer that question because it’s not what I’m focused on,” he said. It would not take much for his employees, and those of other internet companies in the Bay Area to ignore questions from tourists on the street, or from strangers in a bar or coffee shop by merely thinking, “it’s not what I’m focused on.” Indeed, such dismissive arrogance is perfectly in line with walking away from a conversation unilaterally is a social context without even bothering with “excuse me.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that HIV was spreading most at the time in millennial generation. Why bother wearing a condom to protect the other person if he is not what is being focused on? Why be concerned with the interests of a person who is not worthy of respect anyway? Rather than simply being self-centeredness, passive aggression is also involved.
The distinctive pattern of the cultural dysfunction includes an absence of any sense of responsibility in following through when doing so is no longer of interest, even if other people are relying on the follow through. The pattern I discerned goes something like this: Jim does Susan a favor by rearranging his schedule to buy her a ticket to a rock concert, and Susan fails to meet as agreed to pick up the ticket because she feels like doing something else with another friend.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had “put the city on the world’s counter-cultural map by publishing the work of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, described a “soulless group of people,” a “new breed” of men and women too busy with iPhones to “be here” in the moment.” The new breed can indeed be characterized as soulless in the sense that shame does not touch them. I am not referring here to a mere lack of social skills and even a selfish desire to use people for a person’s own ends; rather, the sheer presumptuousness of the arrogant dismissiveness of people deemed lower or beneath is striking in the pathology. I suspect it may be distinctly American, with San Francisco being the epicenter of the socio-psychological earthquake.
The pathogen may have been so associated with the Millennial Generation because it was sealing itself off from the other generations. A sixty year-old man, for example, would hardly continue to put up with such blatant disrespect as that which is laced with passive aggression. Abject humiliation can only result in social distance. In the film, Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is depicted as treating a distinguished lawyer with blatant, unashamed disdain at a meeting. Zuckerberg is looking out the window while the elder man is speaking.
“Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?” the lawyer asks.
“No,” Zuckerberg replies.
“Do you think I deserve it?”
Zuckerberg again says no. Adding insult to injury, he goes on to ask whether he adequately answered the lawyer's “condescending question.”
It is telling regarding American society that Zuckerberg’s fortune and social-media technology have been so lionized, and yet the prospect of his values, attitude, and conduct coming to define an entire generation somehow escaped attention, at least as of 2015. That a founder of a company can come to define its organizational culture is nothing new; that similar founders would be drawn to the sector, such that the organizational cultures have family resemblances, and gain sufficient traction to spread throughout a generation is more astonishing.
Can one person's persona infiltrate an entire societal system, viewed here as a network?
As for the sources of the passive-aggression element, I’m not going to attempt to psychoanalyze Zuckerberg or Dorsey. I can posit, however, that the internet companies may be one source. “According to TINYpulse's poll of 5,000 engineers and developers, tech workers are less happy than workers in other sectors in every key category. For example, only 36% of tech workers say they see opportunity for professional growth, compared to 50% of other workers. . . . ‘There's widespread workplace dissatisfaction in the tech space, and it's undermining the happiness and engagement of these employees,’ the survey concludes.” The anger may be from the unhappiness, especially if the ease and convenience of smart phones create unrealistic expectations of instant gratification.
With its infusions of young techies, San Francisco came to serve as the incubator enabling the transmission of the social-media companies’ organizational cultures, including the angst, to the generation through intermingling. The City on the Hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a chilly bay had begun in the quest for the golden idol as gold hunters headed west. That the same city would be heir to so many techie dollars, and emerge as the leading edge of the descent of American civility, surpassing even the brashness of New York City, is perhaps not much of a surprise. The stunning development is instead the new strain itself, of a virus that oozes the putrid brownish arrogance of conceit tinged with subtle, yet very real anger manifesting as inconsiderateness so severe that it can be classified as passive aggression. In short, passive aggression as a raging epidemic in interpersonal relations even among strangers may have taken off in the not so “laid back” chilly city by the bay.
1 Zoe Corbyn, “Is San Francisco Losing Its Soul?” The Guardian, February 23, 2014. All of the quotes, except those from my interviews, that are in this essay come from this article.
8 “10 Reasons SF Is The Best/Worst Place For Gay Men,” Queerty.
9 Corbyn, “San Francisco Losing.”
10 Alexander Kaufman, “Jack Dorsey Won’t Say Whether He’ll Be Twitter’s Permanent CEO,” The Huffington Post, June 12, 2015.
11 Marco Cava, “Tech Workers Richer But Less Happy Than Most Workers,” USA Today, August 20, 2015.