On Negativity, Part I

How many times a day do you encounter someone being rude, mean, aggressive, or telling you that you did something wrong because it wasn’t what they wanted? How often is that person you (acting that way toward someone else)? I deal with a lot of negativity in my job — with a community of tens of million users, thousands of professionals, and hundreds of contributors, there are always people who are dissatisfied. Now that I’m also running a cafe, it’s a dozen times worse (if you can imagine). Every day I encounter mostly wonderful people, and it sucks that even one negative encounter can throw off your whole day. Even worse, it sucks that being treated negatively can cause you to act in a similar manner, thus spreading the nastiness. I know I’ve been guilty of falling into this more than once.

Years ago (decades ago?) there was a Dykes To Watch Out For strip titled “Horizontal Hostility” that hit me like a bus and has never left me. Sadly I can’t find the strip online, but the basic plot was that each panel showed a different character in an interaction gone wrong. An old man yells at a kid for knocking over the trash cans (or something — it was 20 years ago, cut me some slack) in one panel. In the next, the kid throws a tantrum or breaks a window. In the next, the person on the receiving end of the kid’s hostility in turn gets snippy with a friend. Then the friend yells at… you get the picture. In the last panel, the hostility has gone full circle, and the old man is on the receiving end of someone’s else’s hostility, hostility that started with him.

There was a lot of meanness 20 years ago — it inspired that comic strip! But that was all in-person interactions. Today, it’s so much easier to be mean. People type things about other people on the internet that they would never say to your face, whether it’s on a forum, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, or any of a dozen other social media sites. But why? If they really feel that way, why don’t they have the guts to stand behind those feelings/opinions and say it to your face?

In some cases, people don’t have the opportunity to be mean in person, because they are geographically distant. This is often the case around sniping in the WordPress community. Meeting at a WordCamp and sharing a drink or two can usually resolve even the meanest snipefests. In person it’s a lot harder to lob fireballs at someone, because you can see the expression on their face when it hits, and you don’t feel clever or smart then, you feel mean. Most decent people do not like being mean when they realize they are hurting someone’s feelings. But what other outcome is there? That being mean will make someone feel good?

I think most people consider themselves to be decent people. And yet, there’s another social construct that reinforces the mean behavior, in that telling someone they’ve hurt your feelings is seen as weak and/or manipulative. Why has it evolved this way?

I had a roommate once upon a time who worked for United Cerebral Palsy. She came home every day upset because her client/patient had been mean to her. He was a dick! A dick with cerebral palsy, so she didn’t feel comfortable being mean back. One day when he bitched at her while she was helping him onto the bus, she replied, “You know, that really hurts my feelings. I’ll be upset for at least 2 days because of what you just said about me.” He shut up. I remember thinking (when she told me the story that night) that it was a bummer that she had to be manipulative to get him to be nice. A decade later I thought what a bummer it was that my reaction to someone expressing their feelings was that it was manipulative, when in reality it was honest, and kind of seriously brave, given the potential for retaliatory mocking. And you know what? The next day the guy went back to being a dick, and she told him every day that he was hurting her feelings. He didn’t care. He wasn’t a decent person.

I had an illustrative experience at a WordCamp with someone who’d said some nasty things about me (mostly on Twitter). I made sure to meet this person at the afterparty — in truth, I’d gone to this particular WC expressly to meet this person and see if we could work out a more constructive way to communicate when he didn’t like my/core decisions. We ordered a round of drinks and were being friendly when I took a deep breath and asked him why he was so mean to me. He tried to laugh it off, but I kept going, and said he’d hurt my feelings. I could tell by his face that he didn’t like hearing that, but he kept up the cheerful demeanor, said he was sorry if I took it that way but that he hadn’t actually been mean. Then I opened my laptop and showed him my browser, where I’d pulled up the meanest dozen or so tweets. I read them out loud. Immediately, I could see that this decent guy didn’t like/was embarrassed the words he’d posted. The next couple of minutes were awkward and uncomfortable as we had to face the things we’d said online, and how much we were or weren’t willing to stand behind them. We’re friends now. But if we hadn’t met in person, if we hadn’t had that awkward and uncomfortable experience of having to be honest about who we were and how we felt, could we have gotten past the online sniping to talk seriously about WordPress and the issues that were causing a problem in the first place?

I’ll say it again: Most decent people do not like being mean when they realize they are hurting someone’s feelings.

The next time you’re about to be snarky, or snipey, or just plain mean, think about that. Are you a non-decent person? Do you enjoy hurting people’s feelings? Do you want to have a negative effect on the person you attack for days to come? If the answer to these questions is no, then think before you tweet or post to facebook or leave a comment, and make sure your words and tone are the same ones you would use to the other person’s face. I’m going to try harder to make sure my words match my feelings. A smiley face after an insult doesn’t make things right. If you consider yourself a decent person, then be one. 

8 thoughts on “On Negativity, Part I

  1. Sounds like a decent comic strip, and it’s a good reminder. It’s so easy to fall in the trap, and so hard to get out of. :-/

    I know how many people yell at me in the run of a day, I can only imagine how many you deal with, eep! The nice comments don’t last near as long as the nasty one.

    I know I also struggle with how my words come across sometimes. I *think* it usually worse in person. But only when I *don’t* think… you know? ;)

    Now I can hear my mom in my head. (“Andrea, watch your tone!”)

  2. Hi Jane,

    I hope you’re having a good day. Sometimes it’s so hard to not dwell on the negativity in one’s life, and I hope this blog post is coming from a good place and not because you’re having a bad day.

    While I absolutely agree with your premise, I think we all need to be more aware that the internet and 24 hour communication has added a new challenge: non-real-time conversations with people without any context. This is made even more challenging as we embrace social sharing and 140-character limits. These formats, along with language and cultural differences, can morph messages into whatever tone or intent we think best describes the person or their agenda in our opinion.

    So much of human interaction is subliminal (or at least not-spoken), and we miss a lot of nuances in electronic communication. So much is easy to be taken out of context, or completely mis-interpreted.

    Thats why my website has always had my phone number and this message: “I know I’m old fashioned, but why not E-MAIL or CALL ME. I love shooting the breeze with intelligent people with a different viewpoint than mine; and I’d love it if you called me, even to rant about something.”

    Hope your Saturday picks up.

    • Yes, the post came from someone else telling me how upset they were by something someone else had said. Since I knew the other person myself, I was certain he hadn’t meant to cause that reaction (or at least I hoped so), and it just got me thinking about how quick we all are to hit send/publish these days instead of thinking before we “speak” or sticking around to see the results.

  3. Your post is also a great reminder to intentionally find ways to simply encourage those around us and offset some of the negativity from other sources.

    For example, I just attended WordCamps two weekends in a row. They were great for learning and networking, but I also had the specific goal of meeting people who have impacted what I do just to say “thank you.”

    Some of those people were WordPress contributors, some were authors of plugins that I rely on every day, and some were bloggers who provide great information and insights that I find helpful. Many of those folks take a lot of heat online for decisions they make or get loud complaints and demands for free support or features.

    But there are so many little things we can all do to tip the scale of feedback toward the positive and away from the mean: Help answer questions on the forums for WordPress and your favorite plugins, do some troubleshooting or submit a patch to fix a problem instead of just complaining, tweet out public kudos, donate to plugins you use (especially if WordPress puts food on your table,) and don’t forget to say thank you.

    Believe me, it’s appreciated and the impact can be huge.

  4. I think one of the worst ways we allow Negativity to permeate through our community is through anonymous / inferred comments.

    There are far too many ” This person is doing_it_wrong() ” or “No Mr.plugin-author, … ” comments / tweets flowing around.

    We’ve learned to accept a certain level of “bitchiness” as long as we don’t name the person directly. Its like an inside joke to those who know the identity of the subject of the comment; while with increasing regularity it comes very close to bullying.

    Worse, the negativity attached to such posts/comments/tweets have a greater ripple effect, hurting the feelings of those whom maybe they were not intended for as well as those they were.

  5. Nice post, Jane. I like that you pointed out that the negativity always comes back around. I think we lose site of that (or just don’t believe it) because our interactions aren’t in person and in some cases are anonymous.

    We like to make this issue complicated, but I think the “golden rule” is a pretty simple solution. If I disagree with something/someone and feel the need to say it, how can I say it in a way that if it was being told to myself, would come across the right way, and actually effectively communicate my point. There’s been so many tweets/comments/emails discarded simply because after re-writing it 5 times, I made the determination that I just couldn’t say it in a way that I thought would actually get my point across. Because like others mentioned, there’s just so much context missing.

    I think this also works in the reverse.. If I was an ass to someone (online or otherwise), I usually have a (debatably) good reason. Either a) I didn’t realize it, b) I realized it but was overcoming for some insecurity (they won’t care about what I say so I have to yell it, or they attacked my way of doing things and now I’M hurt, etc), or maybe c) I’m caught up in the mob mentality. So when that’s the case, how would I want you or anyone else to say, “Hey, you’re being an ass! stop!” That’s how I should treat those being an ass to me. Sometimes this just means ignoring them.

    Anyway, enough of my 2 cents. Jane, I do appreciate that you choose to take your thoughts to your blog instead of punishing those involved. Seems like that would be easy to do.

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