In Defense of Negativity

April 5, 2018

Let me tell you about my great-grandfather.

There’s actually a lot I could tell you about my great-grandfather. It’s one of the things that my dad’s side of the family did very well, helping maintain a sense of continuity throughout the generations. My great-grandfather made his home in a tiny village in the interior of Portugal, and I’ve visited that place many times in my life. We still have a great-aunt who lives there in the same house he used to live in, one of the dozen or so people that still call that village home.

Every time we visit there, my dad tells us stories. About how the land around the village, now overrun with pine trees and brush, used to be covered in well-tended fields. About how he used to play with the rabbits they raised, and then have them for dinner later that day. About the time the village finally got itself a phone. One phone, in the centre of the village, for everyone to use.

And he told us about my great-grandfather’s old nickname. “José Mau”. “Bad José”, to partially translate it.

It’s not that he was a bad person. It’s that he was the kind of person who always had something negative to say about everything. You could tell him it’s a beautiful day outside, and he’d complain, telling you that the crops were drying out and needed more rain. Criticism came liberally, praise was more often left implied than outright stated, and his mind seemed to always jump towards the negative side of things first.

That’s how he earned his nickname, and even though he died when I was too young to really remember him, I believe the story. Because the entirety of that side of my family has this kind of tendency, ingrained so deeply that I’m convinced it’s at least partially genetic.

I am no exception to this.

I’ve lived almost a year in California in total, broken up between the summer of 2016 and now. And one of the hardest things to get used to is the Californian cultural impulse to act like everything is amazing all the time. Praise and positive reinforcement come frequently, often with over-the-top exaggerations and questionable sincerity.

Not only that, but when I do see people open up with criticism or negativity, they’re often met with huge pushback. I’ve seen people called entitled for daring to say anything bad. I’ve seen people talk as if caring about or liking something, and having criticisms of it, were mutually exclusive. I’ve seen people deflect criticism by completely ignoring it and pointing to unrelated positive aspects of whatever was being criticized. And there’s always this vague feeling that you have to be careful what you say so people don’t feel insulted. My work even has a training course primarily meant to help people learn to gracefully and dispassionately receive criticism. I took that course, and I left it both convinced of its necessity to the company and feeling like I got very little from it myself.

I don’t see this as much in other places. When I visited London late last year, it was like a breath of fresh air, because I saw people—important people, making speeches in front of a large crowd—making light-hearted fun of other people and humbly downplaying the positives of their achievements. Even in New York, where I lived before this, the people have that sort of rough-and-tumble attitude that means they can roll with whatever punches are thrown their way.

But the last time I made a self-deprecating joke to a stranger in California, the person I was talking to reacted with, “Oh no, don’t say that…”

I’ve spent my entire life living between multiple cultures, never really precisely fitting in to any of them, and it’s helped me learn to be flexible enough to make my way not just in the cultures I grew up with, but many other ones as well.

One of the things I’ve internalized is that between any two cultures, you can usually find several major differences where people from either culture will tell you that the way their culture handles things is absolutely the right thing to do and the people in the other culture are doing it wrong. But when you look at it objectively, it’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but it’s that they’re just different. Different ways of approaching the same situation, which came about by chance, by different environmental pressures, or even just by how well those tactics and attitudes fit in with the rest of the culture.

But even when those things are not “right or wrong” but just “different”, it’s still important to understand what those differences are and what they mean. Each one will have its own benefits, but also its own pitfalls, its own failure modes, and its own problems that you have to be able to compensate for. A keen awareness of both the good and the bad parts can give you some great insight, especially if it means you can adapt your own strategies to take with you the parts that are good, and leave behind, or push back against, the parts that are bad.

I think most of the Californians reading this will probably have a good sense of the problems with excessive negativity: taken to extremes, it can lead to hurt feelings, or it can shut off avenues of exploration before you’ve really had a chance to take a gamble on them.

But I don’t think people here, or even people elsewhere, have a good sense of the problems with excessive positivity. Like any other aspect of a culture, you need to have some perspective on its pitfalls.

Here’s one, for example. If all you ever hear is praise, you will never know what you need to improve on. We all have our personal flaws, and a big part of growth is acknowledging those and either fixing them or finding ways to work around them to mitigate their effects.

This is especially true when insincerity gets thrown into the mix. Insincere praise is worse than saying nothing at all, because it can mistakenly lead the person you’re praising to think that they’re going in the right direction. I had a friend once who was so well-aware of this issue that when asking for feedback on a project, he never said, “I’ve been working on this for a long time, what do you think?” Instead, he asked, “I’ve been working on this for a long time, but I’m not so sure about it. Do you think there’s anything missing here?” The former just baited people to smile and encourage him regardless of what they thought of the project. The latter gave him actual things to think about and work on.

On top of that, constant insincere praise can be a relationship-killer. It can be exhausting to have to always read between the lines to try and guess what someone actually thinks, regardless of the intention. This is especially true if it’s about something that bothers you: if you don’t complain about it, the other person may never know it’s a problem.

But even with sincere praise, if it drowns out or discourages any potential negativity or criticism, you may not be able to foresee problems before they happen. If you don’t listen to the people telling you there’s an issue, or if they’ve been pressured or ignored so often that they don’t say anything at all, you could easily miss some major failure modes, and regardless of whatever early success you have, you could find it coming crashing down around you.

All that is not to say that you should immediately take to heart all criticism you receive and act on it indiscriminately. It is saying that you should listen. Listen to the criticism that comes your way, encourage it if you’re in a position where criticizing you is hard for people to do, pick out frequent themes that come up, and most importantly, understand where your critics are coming from and why they’re complaining. Then you can make a decision as to whether you should change things or not. And if after all that, you’ve made the decision not to change course, then you’ll be in a much more confident position to argue in favour of that decision, because you’ll have gone through this intellectual exercise.

So in memory of José Mau, be nice to your critics. They’re usually coming from a better place than you might think.