Could I give up snark?
April 6, 2011 1:09 PM   Subscribe

Given this post on the Blue about being less snarky/cynical/negative and the related comments about how it made people's lives better, I thought I should try it. But how?

A few comments in particular:

I have made a pointed effort to be more kind and patient to people around me, and it's made me feel much better about my relationships and about myself. It's not even just snark I've tried to cut down on, but negativity in general.


I discovered that without it, I was generally nicer, still funny, and more positive. Some of my relationships with people (with whom I generally was not as close as say friends or long-sufering coworkers) improved. I discovered that snark was seeping into everything I did, insidiously. I also discovered that snark could build as many bridges as it burned, and that tone really did matter. I thought a lot about the boundaries between criticism and snark. I thought about the way it made me feel and the external forces that fed it and how it affected other people. I also missed snarking muchly. I still enjoyed it as a spectator (although I became more discerning and something of a snark connoisseur), but I began to see times when it wasn't helpful, entertaining, or productive that I might not have seen before.

The time off was great for recalibrating my approach. I came out of that experience with more focused snark and a better sense of when and how I was using it, and how it affected people. I think I've become a much better snarker, even though I snark much less now, and I tend not to snark about people/their characteristics (particularly people in my every day life, unless we are close enough to have a mutual snark society thing going on) as much as I do about events or actions/implementations. I've found that's less corrosive to who I think I am, and it feels less personally negative. It's also led to me thinking more about solutions or a "right practices" type of thing. When I go for the funny, snark is no longer my automatic go-to, as well.


It was one of the best things I've ever done for myself, seriously. Let me be clear: I didn't give up skepticism, I didn't become some wide-eyed naif for six weeks. I didn't give up snark per se, though I did do a lot less of it, and I definitely didn't give up being harsh or critical. I just gave up my presumptions that everything was always going to go poorly and that everyone around me had bad motives. The effect was startling; I was happy nearly all the time! Strangers would comment on what a good mood I was in. I became more willing to do goofy things like sing along with the Muzak in a supermarket (I'm a professional singer) or do a Happy Dance in public (I am a TERRIBLE dancer). When I dropped the presumption that everyone around me was judging me -- which I didn't even know I had! -- I got to be a lot more true to myself.

So all this sounds like something that would probably help me a lot, and be good for me, and if it isn't, well, I bet it's easy to go back. But I cannot even imagine what the actual steps one goes through to do this are. How do you just stop being cynical or pessimistic or snarky?

I refuse to listen to the interview because I hate Q a lot. Is that too cynical? I really have listened to it in the past, I just never enjoy it.
posted by jeather to Human Relations (20 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
It's easy to stop being cynical. You even have it in your last cite from the article:

I just gave up my presumptions that everything was always going to go poorly and that everyone around me had bad motives.

Once you do that, the world is a much less snark-worthy place. Is it easy? Nope. But that's the sort of thing it will take.

She also points out in the article that there is a huge difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism wants it to be proven, cynicism thinks it's useless to try. Stick with the skeptic side, and you'll be well on your way to abandoning snark, or at least using it a lot less.
posted by pdb at 1:26 PM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. Pay attention! You can't change something if you don't notice that you do it.

2. Stop yourself before you say it. Or, if you've already said the snark out loud, come up with a positive version, and either say it in your head or out loud. It can be very funny and mood-changing when someone who just snarked revises it to say something positive and non-judgy.

3. Monitor and provide feedback to yourself. Did you unsnark today? How did it make you feel? Are there ways to improve?

4. Keep at it, even when you're tired and traffic is awful and you need a drink. Or if you must say something snarky, do it with a smile.

Lastly, the biggest difference may come from just doing this with your own inner monologue, so it's not like you'll constantly have to revise your statements with friends. If you change the inner complaint and snark stream to more positive words, your whole outlook will change, and it'll become easier.
posted by ldthomps at 1:28 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's about cultivating mindfulness.
Right Speech is a mindfulness practice. By undertaking this practice, we commit to greater awareness of our body, mind, and emotions. Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it. With mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows. We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train the heart to more frequently incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy. From these heart states Right Speech naturally arises.
It starts by learning to be aware of your breath (pdf). Then, learn to breathe before you speak.
posted by desjardins at 1:29 PM on April 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

I refuse to listen to the interview because I hate Q a lot. Is that too cynical?

Honestly the easiest way to start with this sort of thing if you don't want to go all out and use the grumblebee method is to stop telling people what you don't like all the time. So, that's an easy way to start. Your hating Q isn't at all relevant to this question and just starts everything out on a down note. You could have just said "Haven't listened to the interview yet. Is it important that I do?" and moved on.

To me the biggest downside to snark is the relentless negativity. It's humor but it's humor couched in sneering or needling or poking at someone or something. So it's fine if you're among friends and everyone sort of knows that you're not really a nasty person, but in a larger context where people don't know you so well it's open to more interpretation.

So, I'd start small. Keep an eye on sarcasm and negative comments. Think about why you say them, what you're trying to accomplish, whether there's another way to get to the same place. See if you can appreciate other people's jokes without adding your own barb. See if you can say something sincerely complimentary [or sincerely non-complimentary if you didn't like something] without it being a sarcastic "just kidding" sort of thing. Own your words. Try to be friends with people [or alternately, assume they all just came from the dentist and try to treat them with compassion].

I'm not saying this is my suggestions for "how to be a better person" or anything, I enjoy snark some of the time too. Just that if what you're trying to do is to dial it back some, that's a good way to start.
posted by jessamyn at 1:31 PM on April 6, 2011 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Step one is to identify when you do it. When the voice in your head goes "jesus christ, lady, you're seriously going to pay with a check??" follow it up with, "and that was kinda negative."

Just do that for a while. Eventually you'll cut down just the same way that logging all your food is often enough to create some weight loss.

After that, you'll be left with some patterns emerging that you'll start to recognize and be able to head it off at the pass, especially in cases where you see you're doing it because you're hungry or anxious or someone else has made you feel bad about yourself.

The final step, at least for me, was a greater effort toward empathy. Yeah, it's annoying when somebody pays with a check, but there are at least a dozen understandable reasons she might be doing it and several dozen more that may not exactly be understandable but at least plausible. Maybe plastic gives her a rash. You don't know - and that's exactly the point: you don't know. Snark is just a constant assertion of your own superiority, as if you were omniscient. And you're not. You don't know.

The thing that finally really pushed me toward living a less snarky life was watching some close relatives of mine constantly think the worst of people, and how that was fueled by paranoia that everyone was out to get them, and how it drives their casual self-justified racism and small-mindedness and fear-based existence. I didn't want to be that.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:31 PM on April 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

How do you just stop being cynical or pessimistic or snarky?

For me it was simply a matter of really paying attention to when other people did it. On-line, off-line, friends, family members, etc. All of a sudden I realized they weren't being funny; most of the time they were being total dicks.

This comment, by Dave Goreman (who I knew nothing about until he was mentioned on Metafilter), really made me think, especially this part:

"Your cynicism does you a disservice. Guess what... I like taking photos. Isn't that easier to believe than the weird fictional project you've just cooked up in your head? Drink less coffee. Think less. Assume the best in people instead of the worst, it's nicer that way."

I think about that last line almost every time I post. I don't think there has been one single sentence on Metafilter that has had a bigger impact on me.

I'm still not where I want to be, and I never want to lose my sense of humor completely, but I like to think I've become somewhat less of a dick over the years.
posted by bondcliff at 1:32 PM on April 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

I have taken to actually calling myself and others out when I/we devolve into snarking. And then try to change the topic. Also, when I am tempted to snark (and god, I am tempted all the time) I try to imagine things about the person or situation I am feeling negatively about that could explain or justify what I feel negatively about or I make myself find something positive about the person/situation to balance the negative. Once again, this is something I will often articulate vocally, not just in my head.

I've also started considering why I think and feel the way I do about the subjects I snark most about (generally people). I remind myself that despite thinking I am the centre of the universe, I really am not and I need to consider the thoughts and situations of other people.

Finally, I try really hard not to complain about life/people/etc. Honestly, complaining is boring to listen to and it really is self-fulfilling -- the more you complain, the more you have to complain about. Basically, by catching myself complaining/snarking and then vocalizing that I've caught myself, I have been able to reduce the amount I snark/am negative. I'm by no means even close to perfect, but I see it as an ongoing life project.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 1:38 PM on April 6, 2011

About two years ago, I did this for a couple of weeks after reading another article (which I can't find), with a colleague, as we both realised that we were getting a bit snarky and complaining at work.

We wore elastic bands on our wrist and would flick it if we said or thought negative things, whiny or snarky thoughts.

It did work, in that I stopped voicing those thoughts as much, thought more about what I was saying, and thought more about my reaction (internally) to things rather than just jumping to a snarky one.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:49 PM on April 6, 2011

I'd suggest you read The Power of Kindness. "A leading transpersonal psychologist reveals the unexpected secret to a happy life: behaving with kindness. "
posted by essexjan at 1:52 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I started out by smiling, specifically smiling instead of immediately letting loose. While I was smiling, I would evaluate what I wanted to say for snarkiness. If it was, I'd tone it down or just not say it. I talked less intially, it's true, and it wasn't a clean start - sometimes I didn't hear the snark in a statement until I said it out loud, and sometimes I forgot to smile and let loose with it.

If smiling was inappropriate, I would make some other physical response: biting my lip or widening my eyes or taking a sip of a beverage or a bite of lunch. I found myself talking less, and in the process I got to know the people around me better. That pause really helped me. After a while, the urge to snark lessened, and as I said in the MeFi thread, I could spend time really thinking about why and how and what I snarked, and what of that was valuable, and what wasn't.

It might even be easier to start with a more loaded physical response - an eye roll instead of a smile, or a comically dramatic shrug, throwing your hands up in the air, hitting yourself on the forehead, etc, and then see if you still want to say something, and then tone it down over time.
posted by julen at 2:31 PM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've relaxed my snark reflex quite a bit in the past few years, though it's not gone completely. A lot of it is just thinking to yourself, "okay, I'm going to stop with the knee-jerk snarking," and then remembering that and trying to follow through on that often enough that it sticks. And just wanting to be positive is proof that you are capable of being positive, so there you go.

Specific things that have helped me:

- Back away gracefully from negative people and environments. Don't indulge the office complainer, stop trying to outsnark your sarcastic friend, don't read gossipy blogs or wanky forum threads. Find entertainment and interaction that don't involve cutting other people down. You'll lose your taste for it eventually.

- Similarly, don't pay attention to stuff that infuriates you for no good reason. If you're sick of everyone talking about Mad Men, it's pretty easy just to ignore the Mad Men conversations.

- Identify when your negativity doesn't have any use. What benefit do you get from getting pissed about Mad Men? It's not even enjoyable. Allowing myself not to be bothered by petty grievances has been surprisingly effective.

- Criticize like you would like to be criticized - not softballing, just with more thought than "this sucks." If you encounter something that sucks, articulate what you don't like about it without using hyperbole, distinguish between things that are poorly done and things that just aren't to your personal taste, and for bonus points, find something you maybe kind of honestly like about it.

- View it from a public-image perspective: tact wins friends and influences people. You'll always look like the better person if you refrain from sniping. I kind of enjoy trying to be a classy dame.

- Figure out if you're hiding behind your snark. For me, for the longest time, snark was a way to avoid engaging with the world around me. It wouldn't matter if anyone liked me if I'd already decided I didn't like them. My cynicism was just poorly-disguised fear. If this sounds like you, slowly start approaching the specific things that scare you with a lowered guard. People are, for the most part, pretty okay.

It's totally okay to retain a little bit of snark. Relentlessly positive people set my teeth on edge a little bit; you need to find a balance.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:34 PM on April 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Chesterton put me in the right mindset: "The optimist thinks everything good but the pessimist, and the pessimist thinks nothing good but himself."

As far as things closer to home at MeFi, this post by member JD Roth influenced me.
posted by michaelh at 2:35 PM on April 6, 2011

The actual step (apart from mindfulness, mentioned above, which has helped me a lot as well) is to imagine receiving a comment instead of making it. Would it hurt much? Don't say it. Nobody deserves to get from you what you wouldn't want to be given by others.
posted by Namlit at 2:39 PM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For me, some of the first steps were to say, every time someone did something annoying, "S/he has a reason for doing that." Because they do; the guy who is aggressively weaving in traffic? Has a reason. The lady who pays with a Ziploc of change? has a reason. The reason might be a good reason, or it might be a crummy reason, but it's probably not "to ruin jeather's day." Sometimes I'd daydream about people's reasons; maybe traffic guy REALLY HAS TO POOP! or change lady gets to malls at the crack of dawn and scoops all the coins out of fountains. Sometimes I'd just think to myself "I'm glad I have the option of not driving like that" or "I'm glad I have the option of paying with a debit card" or whatever. I do this still, when I'm stuck in traffic that's so awful it's clear it's the result of an accident or a disabled vehicle; I spend some time breathing in and out, being grateful that I am stuck in the traffic rather than being the cause of the traffic.

In terms of getting rid of the shadow-puppet theater, though, MAN that's tough. I'm very glad I did the exercise before having kids, because I have to work so hard not to let my brain be eaten up by strangers' imaginary judgments of my childrearing as it is. I spent some time consciously negating my assumptions that other people were thinking ill of me, as well as drawing boundaries in my mind, saying "If someone has a problem with me, it is their responsibility to let me know if they want me to change." When I am doing something that obviously is inconveniencing other people -- like challenging a misrung item on my grocery receipt, or stopping to let my kid press the elevator buttons -- I'll look people in the eye and smile and apologize, or thank them, depending on what's appropriate.

I still hate a lot of things. Ooh how I hate things! But what I try to do is to frame the hate as an interactive property between the thing and me, and not as an inherent property of the thing itself. It's OK to just not like things, just like it's OK to just like things. I've tried to stop hating people, too; it's easy with people I know, and harder with people I don't know who have power, like John Boehner. I can get a little bit of traction by trying to practice active compassion, all "why does Boehner act that way? What's motivating him? If it's just greed and power, what has happened to him so that these are the things that are motivating him?" but it's a struggle, and not always worth it. Sometimes people are just douchebags. But the active compassion exercise is a good one to help compensate for an unrelenting slide into just writing people off.

Try looking people in the eye and smiling, regardless of the context you meet them in. Barista, grocery clerk, bank teller, mail clerk -- these are all complete people with their own complete lives. You can't really obviously honor that in a 2-second interaction, but if you keep it in mind, you'll find that it really does affect how you interact with people, as well as the way you feel. It helps you -- or, anyway, it helps me -- feel more connected to and part of the world.

I'm rambling, kind of; I've been pretty ill, and I'm the primary caregiver to two young children, and I don't have a lot of mental space left for organizing thoughts right now. But hopefully this made some sense, and if you want to know more, feel free to memail me or comment here.
posted by KathrynT at 6:38 PM on April 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

Oh, jesus, that comment makes me sound like a cotton-candy Pollyanna. I swear, I'm not, this is just the up-beat stuff I do to help compensate for my black and shriveled heart.
posted by KathrynT at 6:40 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't consume culture that you don't like or that is extremely popular simply in order to say snide things about it. This is a waste of time! Instead, watch/listen to/read things that you like.

Snark is so boring! And very unattractive. I'm just saying. I seem to know a considerable number of guys in my city who, on paper, are smart and do interesting work and go to cool places and such. And yet I don't have an interest in spending time with them because they are frequently on various Internet platforms making snarky comments about all of it, and it is not cool at all. Maybe I'm unique in feeling this way but I don't think so. I also have friends who behave this way in real life conversation and though I've known them for a long long time, I really don't know them well and I'm irritated by how emotionally crippled they are. Sometimes you wish people would just be real.
posted by citron at 7:28 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Snark is the easiest thing in the world to do. It's almost like a default position. It's superficial and it gets a laugh until there's too much of it and it becomes like a cloud hanging over everything and everyone.

To get rid of snark from your life is like eating healthy and exercising - it's kind of hard work sometimes. Sometimes you just want to sit on the couch and eat chocolate. Which is cool. Snark is not bad in itself. However, given that you can't be perfect all the time, you can't expect to wave a snark-be-gone wand and it will disappear forever.

It's about mindfulness, respect for others, being accountable for your behavior. It's about not immediately being judgmental, without losing your ability to question things. It's also more about being an active participant in a situation rather than a spectator who gives an opinion.

You also don't have to watch/listen/do anything you really don't like.
posted by mleigh at 8:13 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Next time you want to say something snarky to someone, compliment them on something specific instead. Most people rarely get complimented, men can go years without anyone saying anything nice to them at all. They'll be so surprised that they'll stop doing whatever's annoying you as well, so it's a win/win situation. Nobody cares about your opinions on pop culture outside of the AV Club and as soon as you realise that it's pretty easy to stop snarking about that kind of stuff too.
posted by joannemullen at 8:31 AM on April 7, 2011

Response by poster: I think I worded this a little badly, as I do not intend to give up snark entirely, but I would like to be a more positive person, and less anger-prone, which is, I think, related.

About mentioning hating Q: I think that not deliberately putting in front of myself things that irritate me is a way to help myself be less negative. So I wanted to explain why I wouldn't be listening to the interview, whether or not people thought it would be useful. Maybe I could have put it better, or maybe it wasn't necessary at all, I am not sure.

I need to think about these more. I don't really snark about the things I do for fun; I enjoy them, and I think I talk with great love about them. I cannot remember ever snarking about cool places I have been. Television and politics, well, I am not sure I would want to give up snarking those, and I don't think I do them in inappropriate places. I think when I snark at someone in person (over email/phone/etc), I do not say things I would not find funny if they said to me, though I am sure that when I do it about a third party, this is not true. Maybe it isn't snark that is my problem, and it's cynicism/pessimism, which I know can be problems for me.

The thing is: I am not clear, always, what "be mindful" means. Smile at people I am interacting with; assume people have reasons for doing things that I think are obnoxious or rude; try to be less pessimistic. Okay, I can do those, or work on doing them. I can work on being patient, on not losing my temper. Catching myself being negative is something I will work on, too, though I often find I don't even notice I am being negative until later. Somehow.

These have been helpful, thank you. I'll probably come back with more questions, once I can figure out how to start integrating these things into my life.
posted by jeather at 1:50 PM on April 7, 2011

The thing is: I am not clear, always, what "be mindful" means

Start here, perhaps. Or here and certainly here.
posted by Namlit at 3:23 PM on April 7, 2011

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