The Power of Negative Talk?

June 13, 2005

I readily admit that I have been guilty of talking negatively about other people. I don’t try to be openly malicious, but in conversations with friends, I have often found myself pushing my mindset onto another (most often not present) friend and in doing so, disparaged opinions of that person’s decisions come out. I’m not trying to tear down my friend behind their back, in fact, many times I would openly tell them what I’m thinking… but in reality this doesn’t happen that often. I believe many people are guilty of this to some extent.

Lately I decided that this would be an area of my personality that I would really like to improve on. I truly believe that most people (myself included) often see the world too much through their own eyes, and therefore push their own mentality onto others. If everyone made the same decisions I did, or agreed with me on everything I thought was ‘true’ or ‘right’… we would have a much more boring world than we currently live in. I’m constantly guilty of taking a situation in a friends life, applying what I think I would do, and then giving them my opinion. Sometimes this advice is helpful, depending on how receptive they are to my opinion and how much respect they have for me in the area in question. Certain areas where I might be considered a subject matter expert (in comparison)… like running, seem to go over more than other areas like fashion… where I’m much less of an ‘expert’.

Giving others this advice is a result of two things:

  1. My ‘fix-it’ mentality, which tells me that if someone presents me with a problem, they are asking for a solution. This is definitely not true, especially with women in my life, who often seem to be looking for an empathetic ear, not my ‘solution’.
  2. I find it easier to point out what is wrong with another person, than what is right. This is hard for me to admit… and somewhat surprising, especially since I am eternally optimistic.

Is there ever any value in talking negatively about someone else? I thought about this for a while, and first came to the conclusion that the only reason to speak about someone else’s flaws or about them in a negative manner, is if you are bringing it up so that you can elicit others opinions on how you can possibly help the situation. (Note that I said “help the situation” not “fix them”). This seems like a noble reason to bring up something about another person that you find disagreeable or contentious… because your intentions are positive.

I thought about this some more, and I realized that in the same way that it is easier to see the negative in a person, rather than the positive, its also sometimes easier to bond with your conversational partner when you agree on a negative aspect of a non-present person. I think that a large reason people ‘gossip’ in a negative manner is that it brings you closer to those you’re talking to. If I talk to my friend Jane about Bill being arrogant last Thursday when we were out together, and Jane and I spend 3 hours discussing Bill and how its typical of him, etc. etc. I come away from the conversation with a negative mindset about Bill, but a feeling of connection with Jane. In reality, sometimes Bill is really irrelevant, and what was important, was sharing a common opinion with Jane. I can think of many conversations in my life where I have bonded with a friend over negative talk about someone else.

So is this okay? After all, I am getting something very positive from it, and often the talk is relatively harmless since its not acted on, or its about someone who I don’t interact with, etc. For example, what if I spend hours talking with my friends about my negative opinions of Paris Hilton? She’ll never know, and probably doesn’t care. Meanwhile, if I say something positive, like “I love that band Guster!”… it doesn’t always stimulate the same strength of conversation, and therefore might be more difficult to create that bond.

I think the problem is that no matter who the subject is, if you’re talking about it negatively, there is a danger of two things happening.

  1. The friend you are conversing with may get a negative vibe from you. Even though you agree on the negativity, subconsciously, you might come off as someone who brings others down, possibly to make yourself look better. If there is not a positive spin to the conversation (how you might help the situation), then you come off looking a bit insecure. Sure, your friend, in agreeing with you, might also be doing the same thing, but I doubt that would affect their subconscious opinion.
  2. Talking negatively puts you in a frame of mind that is just not productive. I’m not saying you have to be 100% positive, all the time, but training yourself to watch for the negative in others, will never help your relationships. Doing the opposite, watching for the positive, just might.

So what about the positive bond that comes from sharing a common opinion with your conversational partner? I think that coming together by sharing something negative is not nearly as strong as coming together by sharing something positive. Its harder to do, for sure, but I believe its a higher order of thinking that we should all strive for.


Riding a Two-Wheeler: A Metaphor for Growing Up

June 6, 2005

Yesterday, while waiting for the elevator, I heard a colleague talking about teaching his kid to ride a bike. He was describing the process of running alongside his son, having him pedal, while he held on to the seat and handlebars. Then he let go of the handlebars, and kept running, just holding on to the seat of the bike, so that his son could get the feeling of riding alone, even though he was still there. Finally, the moment of truth came when he let go completely and after a few seconds his son looked back and realized that no one was holding on, panicked, screamed and jumped off the bike.
It’s an interesting thing, riding a bike… For the rest of your life, people always keep this learning experience as a reference. “It’s like riding a bike…”, They say… implying that the subject at hand, once learned, is never forgotten. But learning to ride a bike is much more than a childhood skill that we keep. It’s a process, just as in my colleague’s story. Sometimes there are training wheels, helmets, and elbow pads, always to be followed with the guiding hand holding the handlebars and seat. When you think about it, it’s a remarkable experience. A child, who can just barely dress alone, is propped up on this unstable mechanical device, and propelled forward, told to keep pedaling, and to steer, a verb that means nothing up until this point. The child has no experience to fall back on to help him with this task, but tries nevertheless, over, and over, and over… until he gets it. Despite the sharp repercussions of falling, failure is simply not accepted, because everyone learns to ride a bike, right? I wonder what else could be accomplished if all tasks were attempted with the same dogged determination.
For me, a similar bar was set with graduating from college: a task I completed only two years back. Failure was simply unacceptable. And, upon graduating, despite having ridden a bike successfully for over 15 years, I realize in other ways, I am still learning to handle my “two-wheeler”.
In high school, I wanted to be independent. My parents patiently ran beside me through the four years. They told me to study, cheered at my track meets, helped me apply to college, taught me how to drive, and set a curfew.
Then, one day, I left. One thousand miles away, and I was on my own. The college dorms had no curfews, the classes had no attendance lists, and the only thing that stopped the parties were the 9 o’clock tests the next morning. Stubbornly, I (mostly) resisted the temptations to party too late, sleep through classes, and skip track practice. I kept both hands on the handlebars and churned hard… and sometimes it felt like it was more uphill than downhill. And these times, when I just couldn’t pedal anymore, I called home. One thousand miles away, thank god, my parents were still holding on to the seat.
Then, just as soon as it had started, it was over. And I moved farther away. Three thousand miles now, living on my own, and I had to start a job, find a place, buy a car. I’m used to feeling like I’m on my own, but the question in my mind is: Who’s holding on to my seat now? If I look back, will I see my family growing smaller in the distance, as I pedal away?
I feel I have reluctantly reached the point where my parents are letting go. But on the other hand, wasn’t riding a bike without training wheels always more fun? In some ways, the answer is ‘yes’. But sometimes, the sense of freedom is so great, it almost swallows me. I’m not sure when to turn, or which direction to ride. But thankfully, the metaphor works full circle. My parents were always there when I fell off my bike, and I know that as hard and as fast as I pedal, I can always park my bike in the garage, and finish at home.