I'd like to be nicer
February 29, 2012 4:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm casually critical much of the time. I'd like to change that. I'd especially like to stop casually criticizing and reflexively disagreeing with loved ones.

My criticisms aren't severe, but they are frequent. Typical examples:

Friend: "My doctor gave me this cough medicine" Me: "Cough medicine doesn't work."

Friend: "I am so annoyed at my ex husband for doing xyz", Me: "I really think you shouldn't ask him to do abc!"

Friend: "I love this band". Me: "What?! Are you serious?"

This is something that has consistently bothered partners. I do it a lot with a few specific friends and to a lesser degree with others. I am not mean, just reflexively negative and mildly invalidating much of the time. Often, as in the last example, I say these things in a joking tone, but I recognize that only goes so far if I do it too much. In my defense, I have improved with age, meditation, and attempts to reduce these behaviors. Also, I'm not trying to totally stop these since they are pretty mild, just stop doing them so much!

I read this great comment and am wishing someone would do this for me! In leu of that, maybe I can train myself somehow.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Someone CAN do it for you.

Just tell your friends and loved one that you are on a new path to be less critical and more open, and that you'd appreciate it if they would honestly let you know when you say something that sounds overtly critical or disagreeable. By wording it this way, you'll let them know that you KNOW you are this way, that it's okay to let you know as soon as you start doing it that you're doing it, that you are looking to change, and that you need their help to be a better friend / person.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:36 PM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

I had a similar issue: I was an unintentional smartypants who wanted to stop.

What I learned to do over the years, honestly, was to just stop blurting every thing that was in my brain. It took time to learn to self-edit, to stop and think before opening my mouth. But if you work on being mindful of what you're about to say before you speak, it really does become easier.
posted by kinetic at 4:37 PM on February 29, 2012 [19 favorites]

1. Is it possible that this is the easiest, least-thought-required way for you to interact in conversations with people? That trying to think up other, more positive or constructive/useful things to add to the conversation would be more difficult so this is just your easy habit to fall back on?

2. Or along those lines do you want to seem useful? Or knowledgeable/smart? Or help these people in their lives in some way? If you think this is the main thing you have to offer to people or the main reason they would want to be around you, this may just seem to you like the easiest knee-jerk way to do that.

If the #2 resonates with you, then it might be worthwhile to try to think of other things you could offer people that have nothing to do with being knowledgeable or right or helping them steer their lives in the right direction. For example, you could be funny. You could be a good listener. You could be a source of excitement and interesting things. You could physically help them with things in your lives that don't involve you helping them with your knowledge or direction of what they should do, such as helping them move boxes or things like that. Just whatever your other strengths are.

If #1 resonates, you could try to be really conscious and present during your interactions and always be thinking to yourself, I know what the easy way to engage here is. But what's the next level? How would I engage if I were really trying to bring up participation up a notch?
posted by cairdeas at 4:40 PM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also, I'm not trying to totally stop these since they are pretty mild, just stop doing them so much!

Also, why not? Sure those 3 examples you gave were mild, but don't seem that useful to anyone (especially the one about the band) and unasked for advice is generally really annoying to people. They are a net negative. Mild situations are actually probably worse than non-mild situations ("hey you are about to run over a bed of nails with your car!")
posted by cairdeas at 4:45 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got called out on this recently, and the suggestion was to count to three before offering my contribution to the interaction. Reasoning being it gives you a chance to stop yourself and really consider if what you have to say is worth saying.

Another thing I try to remember is a little axiom my mother drilled into my head as a child: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

And finally, it really helps if you begin to try to understand where other people are coming from when they're talking to you. If someone says "This band rocks" and you disagree, maybe it's because you're missing something about the band that this someone understands. The only way to find out is to ask though. "What about them rocks?" asked with a genuine curiosity, not only serves to enlighten your perspective on the subject of the statement but it also grants you further access to this someone's personality/interests/way of operating/perspective.

And really, it's not about the band. It's about you and the person you're talking to.
posted by carsonb at 5:15 PM on February 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Change your reflexive answer to everything to "how come?" Use a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you fail. (I've actually found its the awareness of the rubber band that is what really helps here - YMMV.)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:16 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't have any solutions, but I wanted to add that back in the day we referrred to this character trait as 'sarcolepsy.'
posted by gnutron at 5:26 PM on February 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

Don't be afraid to backtrack.
Friend: "I love this band."
You: "What?! Are you serious?"
Friend: "Well, um--"
You: "Wait. I'm sorry. I don't mean to belittle things that you enjoy. I'm trying to stop doing things like that, so can we start over?"

People are remarkably receptive to other people's self-critique.
posted by Etrigan at 5:37 PM on February 29, 2012 [27 favorites]

Yeah, I am kind of this way too. And it's annoying, I know. And I see it in family members and that's annoying too. I think maybe just realizing that you (like any of us) only have your limited knowledge and perspective on things and other people may have different opinions and views.

Surely you do not have the last word in curing the common cold or the definitive answer to 'what music is good?' because apparently there aren't single correct answers to these things. Just opinions. So you can backtrack, or try not to say things in the first place (impossible for me!) and or replace opinions with 'hmms' or 'oh yeah?' or something similar which will probably make the person speak more and maybe you will appreciate where they are coming from more.

I also am trying to be less negative but it's SO HARD! But basically it's about appreciating and respecting that people are different and that is often no one right answer/opinion/taste etc.
posted by bquarters at 6:53 PM on February 29, 2012

When you notice something that's wrong with something, you're comparing it to your idea of how it ought to be.

That means you've already got your idea of how it ought to be in mind, and can talk about that instead.

Not much of an improvement, yet. If you say how other people ought to do things, there's the obvious implication that the way they're doing it is wrong.

But wait--you don't have to say anything to do with "ought" or "should" when talking about your idea of the better way. English is loaded with adverbs and stuff that let you communicate the same idea while suggesting something completely different about your intention in doing so.

Friend: "I am so annoyed at my ex husband for doing xyz",

Wrong answer: "I really think you shouldn't ask him to do abc!"

Right answer: "He probably did that because you asked him to do abc."
The only difference is in the lack of a judgment. Really, judgments in these cases are orders in disguise. You might have said "Don't ask him to do abc!" to the same effect.

So you don't need to disguise your opinions. Just don't put them as orders. Or, erm, things that sound like orders. "Are you serious?!" is most often a rhetorical question that's meant to make the other person revise their previous statement.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:01 PM on February 29, 2012

Go to an office supply store (online or IRL) and ask for a tally counter. Carry it around in your hand, pocket, or bag all day. For every critical comment, click the counter. Before you go to bed, write down the tally. Start fresh the next day. Repeat. Over time, the tally will shrink, and you will feel smug about this. (It is unnecessary to criticize yourself for feeling smug.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:17 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Replace your criticism with curiosity as darlingbri says. Stop giving your opinion, and foster conversation.

My doctor gave me this cough medicine - why? What's up?
I'm annoyed that my husband is doing x- why do you think it annoys you?
I love this band- who do they remind you of?

In short: your friend didn't actually ask you your opinion. They just gave theirs. So focus on them for a while, and learn more about them.
posted by anitanita at 7:56 PM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

>> Also, I'm not trying to totally stop these since they are pretty mild,

I would echo the idea that maybe, maybe, this isn't an altogether good behavior.

From the outside, when I see someone with this trait, I assume that he or she is using this automatic, constant, maybe-even-subconscious criticism as a way to redirect attention from or mask a crippling insecurity. I realize that this is a generalization and it may or may not be true in this case—but healthy people lift others up, and damaged people tear others down. You might want to consider how your habit comes across to others.
posted by pineapple at 8:02 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

To me something like "I love this band," is a way of saying "I want to give you more information about who I am because I want to be known by you."

Your response is closing the door on your friend's self-revelation. Maybe they wanted to tell you that they love the band because they have wonderful memories of listening to the LP with their great aunt, or maybe they once dated the bass player, or maybe the lyrics really speak to them, or who knows.

I think you already realize this on some level. But it might be helpful to think of it as your friend opening a door and you making a choice as to whether to leave it open. "Really? What is it that you like about them?" Or "Huh, I guess I never really acquired a taste for them. Tell me what got you into this band."

Or just a neutral "Hmmm, yeah?"
posted by bunderful at 8:22 PM on February 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

Lots of great advice above. I've heard it said that people who are critical of others are often most critical of themselves. You might want to start with going easier on yourself and see what happens from there.
posted by funkiwan at 12:43 AM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hello, me! I've been doing some digging into this aspect of my personality.

Our family is quite a critical one so I am used to receiving criticism and used to dishing it out. I am also very critical of myself. So it comes naturally to be judgemental of other people. Thing is this doesn't really work socially. Not everyone is my family.

What's helped me: Don't react off the cuff. Count to five before you react to something. Then either (1) take what you were going to say and put a positive spin on it; or (2) Redirect to a neutral topic.

Your friend: "I love this band!"
You, thinking: "Are you serious?" Count to five. "Yeah, they're not really my thing but I can see the appeal." OR "Yeah, and this other band is also really great, have you heard them?"

The thing is, you're not faking your reaction and being all like super-positive about something you have reservations about. It's easier to do this when you're alert; I do often myself being more critical and negative when I'm tired or hungry.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:05 AM on March 1, 2012

It may be weird, but I find that online and written communication are great places to practice this. You say that you want to focus on friends and loved ones, not commenter #3 on youtube, but what you're talking about is habit-building. It's good practice for learning to frame things constructively, and if you can't be a little bit nicer to everyone, it will be extremely hard to be nicer to the people you care about. Besides, does it hurt you to be more patient with internet strangers?

Eventually, you want to get into the habit of checking yourself for criticism and one-upmanship before you say anything. In the mean time, though, Etrigan makes a good suggestion. People respond surprisingly well to "Sorry, that was dickish, let me start over. I'm not a big fan of X band personally, but they are catchy. What do you think about band Y?"

In text-based communication, this is even easier, because you can look over your comment/email/whatever before you send it, and save yourself the mini-embarrassment of inadvertently insulting someone.
posted by catalytics at 7:46 AM on March 1, 2012

Great advice from above. I just want to add that performing self digs onto oneself increases the effectiveness of your criticism. If you can articulate well with your friends on how bad your judgment went in the past, how silly some of your actions were etc., reduces the disconnect induced by your criticism on them. In other words, be openly humorous. Humor is one strong rope to pull anyone out of such recursive cynicism.
posted by godugu at 7:49 AM on March 1, 2012

If it's part of making small talk, realize that the point is to exchange social pleasantries, not converse.

If it's part of conversation, picture yourself as seen by your conversation partner, realize how unpleasant it is to be talking to someone who only emits negativity. Realize that they are being generous by putting up with it already, feel that generosity, and carry the emotion of wanting to return that generosity to them through your own positive attention.
posted by ead at 8:26 AM on March 1, 2012

Two ideas:
  1. Once a day for a month, write down three positive things that happened to you. I've heard this suggestion repeated in a few positive psychology books that I've recently read. I use iDone This for recording the three things.
  2. A previous poster suggested keeping count of the number of negative things you said. Research shows that you relationships are stronger at the Losada Ratio, which is the number of positive to negative comments. At work, you want about 6 positive comments for every one negative. The numbers vary depending on the context, and if you are too positive it can actually have negative outcomes because you will be perceived as insincere.
Send me a message if you want a book list about these topics. It's really powerful stuff because you'll not only lift your mood but also the moods of those around you, which creates a loop of good moods. I also find myself more aware of the negative things people say, which can keep you from unconsciously adopting their negative mindset.
posted by tenaciousd at 5:18 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

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