I'd rather not use superlatives all the time
December 8, 2017 8:25 PM   Subscribe

Most of my experiences and interactions are fine and just okay, as they statistically should be. Yet I frequently find myself feeling pressured to deliver positive, if not superlative feedback, with a huge grin on my face. Even when people ask me, "how are you?" I feel like they're expecting this effusive response, when in reality my life is humdrum, with all its usual rough bits, just like everybody else's. Relatedly, I find myself pressured to mirror and affirm whomever I'm speaking with. I don't feel like this is a productive use of my energy...

I think part of this is American culture-- overwhelmingly positive, grade-inflated and self-esteem-cushioning, to the point that anything that falls short of superlative translates to "basically, it sucks." We are literally encouraged to give feedback sandwiches. People who worry about their performance are reminded to not fall victim to imposter syndrome, when they simply have ample room for improvement.

Another part of this might be a result of being female, or perhaps a result of being somebody who doesn't always feel entitled to her opinions. I dunno. Maybe I'm just fatigued from being in holiday-party small-talk mode, but sometimes I just wish it were okay to be merely competent, frank, honest, and to find people/places/things NOT SUPERLATIVE. (Will this bubble ever burst?)

I work hard at thinking of something positive to say about everything and everyone, and because I don't like generic praise, I always have to rummage for the right details and thoughts. This doesn't happen as much if I am not talking to a supervisor or if I am close to my conversation partner, but the nature of my job is such that I work with many different people for short periods of time, so they remain acquaintances in need of pleasantries delivered with a McDonalds smile. This is tiring! After repeating this ad infinitum, it can become almost difficult to tease out my true opinion.

Life is too short to care so much about what other people think, but the truth is I am afraid of deviating from this norm because I don't want to be viewed as overly negative/critical, unenthusiastic, or as somebody who goes against the grain of my workplace culture. It is important to communicate enthusiasm as a learner/trainee, and I think positive feedback is one of the ways to do that... even though similarly, am not constantly brimming with enthusiasm-- of course I care a lot and want to do a good job and learn, but most of the time, work and learning experiences are just a drop in the bucket, and that's that.

How might I temper or reframe some of this?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Before the emotional labor thread here on metafilter, which gave us a (very much needed and important) way to critique unseen and unrecognized work in relationships, the phrase "emotional labor"was more often used in sociology to mean the institutional, work-based demand for particular kinds of emotional expression and self-regulation in service jobs (i.e. flight attendants whose job it was to smile in The Managed Heart by Arlie Hochschild). This seems pretty close to what you're describing, although not in a service position. But eventually the flight attendants stopped doing this. We don't expect it any more. It's possible to change.
I think you can reframe what you're feeling by recognizing that you're feeling the pressure to perform a kind of emotional labor at work, where it's the norm, and seems expected as part of your work culture; you don't feel it with closer relationships. It is tiring and it feels like you're not able to be in touch with your actual feelings after occupying this role for too long. Perhaps you can decide consciously that it really isn't part of your job description, to be this hyperbolically positive all the time. You could try communicating with a smile and a pleasant word, without going overboard, and perhaps seeing that in fact, you're not actually violating your work expectations, this might give you the room to start easing into a more comfortable kind of expression, where you can focus more on your actual work and less on the emotional labor.
posted by velveeta underground at 8:45 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I used to feel like that too. Then I realized you can tell the truth as long as you weight your affect to match the circumstance - which, in the case of small talk and casual greetings, is always light. Even if the content of your speech is outright negative, your tone should be neutral in order to take the weight away.

So for instance:

- "Meh," said with a bit of a shrug. "How about you?"
- "One of those days." Shake head. Then casually ask if they caught the game/episode/whatever last night.
- Respond to "How's it going?" with "It's going," and smile in a friendly rather than enthusiastic way.

What helped me start doing this was to realize I don't have to reassure the whole world. Nobody's worried about me. Nobody really cares! I was trying to put energy and enthusiasm out there because I thought that's what I owed the world. But NOBODY CARES! It's okay to stop trying to spread joy and cheer as long as you don't start *sucking* energy from the world instead. Neutral is good. Go for neutral.

(Note that this may not necessarily apply to your situation if your workplace culture is unrelentingly ridiculously upbeat. I have worked in such places before - and there I would usually dramatize and exaggerate my negative or even "meh" responses to play up the humor while trying to tell as close to the truth as possible. For instance I might respond to "How are you?" by saying "I'm feeling a bit aggressively average today." Said with a straight face. Not sure if this can work for you? But an idea nevertheless.)
posted by MiraK at 8:45 PM on December 8, 2017 [17 favorites]

Someone else said this someplace else recently, but it resonated with me in terms of what you're asking... for some reason, it seems that one socially accepted way around the binary-ness of only being able to signal that EVERYTHING IS AMAZING or EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE is to phrase things in reverse by saying what they aren't.

For whatever reason, phrases like "Can't complain," or "Not bad," sound laid back and noncommittal, yet appropriately positive for the workplace.
posted by space snail at 8:47 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

I turn it into a game and say intentionally chipper-but-essentially-empty things, or absurdly hyperbolic responses that are clearly meant as a joke. Examples:

“Just movin’ and shakin’, how about you”

“Living the dream”

“Well I’m upright!”

“Oh you know, just keeping the rising torrent of existential despair at bay”

“Good enough for government work!”

“We are definitely going places, if you know what I mean” (and then you smile big and if they ask you what you mean just wink and say “oh you know, don’t be coy” and then you just walk away like you have some big secret)

I find this helps a lot and usually dispels some of the tension for others, too. It can be “delightfully disarming”
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:36 PM on December 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

I struggle with this too and either use Doleful Creature's method, or often just make something up that satisfies the situation without leading me to some black hole of unsustainable lies- then turn it back onto the other person. Being the holiday season, this is easier.

"I got a lot of my gift-wrapping done while watching [insert Xmas movie here]. What's your go-to holiday movie?"

"I got a lot of cute wrapping paper at Target so I was really into it, normally I hate wrapping. Do you just slap on the tape, or are you an expert Design Wrapping person?"

"Went down to see the [local holiday lighting display] lights and froze my ass off! Why does it always seem like I pick the coldest day of the year for that? Have you ever been there?"

"I really want to donate [time or money or both] to a deserving charity this year but I can't decide which. Have you ever volunteered at [insert name of local organization]?"

"Getting some deep-cleaning done before [neighbors/relatives etc.] come over [tomorrow/next weekend/this weekend]. Are you hosting any parties or anything this year?"

This is varied accordingly based on the time of year or other circumstances (and it gets a lot easier the more you do it). And every now and then it actually leads to real conversation that feels meaningful, as an unexpected side bonus.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:00 AM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm a guy, so my advice may not apply as well, since expectations for women are so different. But my two go-tos are the upbeat delivery of droll responses, and outright sarcasm.

By the former, I mean: "How are you?" "Oh, I'm here." You don't have to be too chipper; just not Eeyore.

The latter is useful in certain contexts. I used to work in an office with a lot of fresh-out-of-college sales guys, and if I'd see one in the bathroom or something, I could just say "fucking crushing it today, bro". The complex subtleties of sarcasm are lost on some people.

One final move is the classic "I can't complain". It's nice because there are two possible meanings. Most people will interpret it as "I have nothing to complain about". But it could also mean "the prevailing norms of social etiquette do not permit me to complain".
posted by kevinbelt at 5:58 AM on December 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I hate this too. I often answer with something like "still here," "well, it's Tuesday...," "not bad for a Thursday," etc because I find that if I say "ok" or "fine" people will sometimes say "just ok?" but they tend to nod (knowingly?) or laugh slightly at these other responses.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:13 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

With a smile:

"Could be worse!"

"Hangin in there!"

"Not too bad!"

Sometimes I've asked customer service folk how they were doing and gotten a response like "You know what, it's been a DAY" with a wry smile. Or even "Well, our network crashed twice today and we're having to use paper records now but you know what, we're getting it done." That doesn't strike me as unprofessional.

Side note: Maybe this problem is best solved by changing to another job? What you describe sounds - to me - kinda soul-crushing. If that's not possible then I hope you find some helpful answers here.
posted by bunderful at 6:57 AM on December 9, 2017

I think my question was a little misleading. I am not asking about small talk, even though that was one of the examples I listed.

These are people I have long-term working relationships with even though I change teams quite often -- I'm in medicine and everybody knows everybody in the hospital. People are performing generally at a high level because it is a demanding job, but the nature of the field presents a never-ending amount of information to learn and number of ways to improve. When supervisors seek feedback or even simply check in, they are generally asking about specific experiences/details, not just small talk-level deferrals. In medicine, there are typically two formal feedback sessions during every rotation (rotations last for about one month, so I have to do these pretty frequently).

What I am asking is... when I give feedback or speak about my experiences (especially with my supervisors), why do I feel so much pressure to paint everything in such a glowingly positive light when they were just normal experiences? Why do I feel like I have to expend the energy to come up with something thoughtfully positive to say about everything? (It's not the affect that is draining... it's the thinking that I have to do to come up with something positive to say.) I feel that sharing anything honest (which tends to be neutral) would imply that I had a negative experience or contribute to a perception that I am cold/negative/unenthusiastic/missing the point. How can I change this?
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:01 AM on December 9, 2017

"I thought it went well, thanks." (The 'thanks' is optional, depending on situation.) 'Well" is better than "great, or amazing" but still solidly positive.
posted by mmf at 8:54 AM on December 9, 2017

What I am asking is... when I give feedback or speak about my experiences (especially with my supervisors), why do I feel so much pressure to paint everything in such a glowingly positive light when they were just normal experiences? Why do I feel like I have to expend the energy to come up with something thoughtfully positive to say about everything? (It's not the affect that is draining... it's the thinking that I have to do to come up with something positive to say.) I feel that sharing anything honest (which tends to be neutral) would imply that I had a negative experience or contribute to a perception that I am cold/negative/unenthusiastic/missing the point. How can I change this?

What would happen if you just stopped that extra layer of work you're doing, as an experiment? It sounds like you're worried about the reaction, but it's unclear whether that pressure is internal or external at this point. Can you try moving toward more authentic expressions and gauge the reaction? It's also possible that just as you're mirroring the "enthusiasm" of your conversational partner, they're trying to mirror yours, and you may just be stuck in a weird feedback loop where no one feels like they're being authentic. Taking small steps to recalibrate it might help. (And if you get some weird negative reaction after trying a couple of times, then you'll at least know it's external pressure to be Mary Sunshine. My experience with people who work in hospitals, however, would lead me to believe you may be overestimating the external pressure to be cheery and positive.)
posted by lazuli at 9:32 AM on December 9, 2017

“Not too shabby”

“Pretty good, yourself?”

“All’s quiet on the Western front”

Also, it sounds like you feel the need to be performative (not unusual when being asked to evaluate your own work performance) and it may be sufficient for you to just give a situation report. It may also help you to know that everyone struggles with coming up with good small-talk rejoinders without using the same 3 lines over and over. You’re not alone in that, and I suspect most people will take it in the spirit it was given.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:10 AM on December 9, 2017

As a woman, I do think that tends to be part of it. We are always taught growing up that women are supposed to be positive and when a woman is negative or assertive, she is a "bitch." I mean, for fuck's sake, I've had strange men on the street tell me to smile for no reason (which is beyond infuriating and sexist, by the way). There is this never-ending pressure to be happy and make others feel happy.

I don't think we can change gender norms and pressures in one AskMetaFilter question, but I do think you might be better off having some stock answers that require less energy on your part. For instance, when people ask me how I am, my response 100% of the time is "Good, how are you?" It used to take a lot of energy from me trying to gauge whether they were politely asking how I was or whether they really wanted to know how I was, whether they were using "how are you" as a greeting like "hi," or whether I was supposed to ask them how they are doing in return even though I don't care about 99% of the time. I just decided I can't waste my time wondering about that or trying to navigate each individual ask, and now I simply say "Good, how are you?"

So, when you're talking to supervisors, I understand not wanting to sound negative. But maybe if you have some sort of stock thing you can say that makes you feel like you've said something positive, then you can just start being honest if you have something neutral to say. Either way, I think you should tip your toe in the waters of the idea that being neutral is not negative and being honest is ok -- try to do it more with your bosses. You may find your supervisors react positively to the honesty.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:35 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel that sharing anything honest (which tends to be neutral) would imply that I had a negative experience or contribute to a perception that I am cold/negative/unenthusiastic/missing the point. How can I change this?
The answer depends on why you feel this way -
It could be a belief you have about the world - "I have to be perfectly positive or nobody will like me" Are you this way about everything with everybody? If not, what triggers this behavior on your part - is it people you don't know well or people in authority?
This belief might have been learned in certain setting where it made sense - was it true in your family growing up or in your school or did you have a traumatic experience of being neutral/honest and rejected?

Or maybe there is has a basis in fact? Try do a reality check. Talk to other people in your organization and see if they feel the same pressure. Try being more neutral just once and see how it goes over.

As you figure out why you are doing this, you can focus on which part of it makes the most sense to change. Maybe you are putting undue pressure on yourself and you need to push yourself to not autmatically go into supper happy mode. Or maybe you need to be positive but perhaps you can be less fully enthusiastic and thus use up less energy doing it. Or maybe your workplace sucks, everyone is insecure and this is what you need to promote yourself.
posted by metahawk at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

> ...when I give feedback or speak about my experiences (especially with my supervisors), why do I feel so much pressure to paint everything in such a glowingly positive light when they were just normal experiences? Why do I feel like I have to expend the energy to come up with something thoughtfully positive to say about everything?

Oh, that's an interesting addendum. I'm really curious to know exactly how glowingly positive you currently are being!

We do this feedback thing a lot at my workplace too. We use it to track certain standard challenges for our team, like, did we hit our deadlines and how smoothly did collaborations with outside teams go and is that pesky website issue still slowing us down and so on.

Is there any way you could, in your own head, come up with some standard things that you could report on during these feedback sessions? For instance,

- Communication. e.g. "Jack kept me in the loop about delays with XYZ which I appreciated."

- Process. e.g. "We should take a look at the task checklist for shift changes, people keep forgetting ABC."

- Performance, e.g. Did you meet deadlines, why or why not, etc.

- Change tracking, e.g. Is the [new solution] to [persistent issue] working well so far, or would you prefer to go back to the old method?

I doubt anyone expects you to be glowingly positive all the time during these feedback sessions, especially if they happen frequently. This stuff tends to be real work, not a request for compliments, in my experience. And it doesn't have to be a LOT of work for you. Your feedback could be as succinct as "I thought communication and process stuff went very smoothly this round, but the report was delayed because of Chris getting sick. BTW I love the new coffee machine!"
posted by MiraK at 11:15 AM on December 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

"Fine, thanks."

or "Fine, and you?"

Either is great. I hate it when I ask people how they're doing and get a serious, long, negative response. It's a pleasantry. Depending who you are, I probably care about how you're doing to some extent, but the expected response is "fine" or something along that line. I don't need to hear "spectacular" or some sort of overly positive response, but "fine" is a great one.

I personally vary between the generic "fine" or "well" and something more interesting like "keeping it trill" or "living the dream!" but that's just me.
posted by Slinga at 12:39 PM on December 9, 2017

I think that we (people who present as feminine in this time and place) tend to do this (paint everything in this big glowing positive light) because of fear of whatever we have to say not being well-received. This is a conditioned response to everything we say being questioned and nitpicked to death, as well as outright coaching ("So-and-so is negative all the time! Don't be so negative. Smile!"). Well you can't nitpick this because it's covered in a thick lacquer of positivity and is only one thing and that thing is the MOST POSSIBLE DEGREE. I am protected from your never-ending pecking.

First step is being aware of when you're doing it and thinking about how you could have phrased things differently. Then try experimenting with not applying that lacquer and see how it goes over. Try it in little ways at first, see what works and what doesn't.
posted by bleep at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2017

To me this sounds like grade inflation, but in organizational interactions. This relentlessly positive feedback people are giving, is it tied to people's job performance ratings, salaries, advancement? Do you think people are worried that if they're just neutral about someone or something, that person or thing might be de-funded in the next grant cycle? Did the NIH launch a secret shopper program that I don't know about?
posted by All hands bury the dead at 2:58 PM on December 9, 2017

For the small talk part, I'm partial to "so far so good [optional: but it's still early]". For opinions of other people, "He's a... different kind of dude, that's for sure" or "she is amazingly good at [something that isn't the relevant thing]" Experiences: "I'm learning a lot."

Feedback sessions with a supervisor are trickier. You can't really be super-positive, because the supervisor needs to know how they can help you. If you whitewash everything, you're only making it harder on yourself. But you can't be Ms. Complaint either.

I've had good results by a) making sure I AM seeing and mentioning the good stuff too, because there is good stuff even if it's not in the front of your attention all the time and b) casting the neutral or negative stuff as a puzzle for me to solve, not a complaint. Something like, "I'm noticing I need to figure out a way to get information from Alice more frequently - there have been a number of times I've assumed I had the whole story, but it turned out Alice knew something I didn't. (Not said - Alice plays "I have a secret" a lot, despite knowing I need to know that stuff). Optional: I propose some unnecessarily complicated impractical scheme to fix it, like "I'm going to put in my calendar to phone her daily at 7:30 and 12:30 to see if she has any updates" and let my supervisor scoff and say "why don't I just have a talk with her about keeping you in the loop?" Yeah, do that, please. Gasp, would you? Wow, you're amazing, thanks.
posted by ctmf at 6:27 PM on December 9, 2017

wait, are you talking about actual meetings, where it is part of your job to report on what's going on?

In that case I think it's important to be honest, but every company has its code words for "this has been a problem." A couple I've seen are "opportunities" and "challenges." Use those words.

With regard to having to spend time blowing sunshine in addition to reporting the truth: remember that the managers are tasked with (among other things) keeping up morale. So when you tell them that something in their department sucks, it's a criticism, whether the problem is in their power to fix or not. Just remember they're people, and it's generally impossible to un-offend someone.

You may think that honesty about problems would be refreshing, but my experience is that if you're used to a positive culture, it feels surprisingly startling, dismaying and unpleasant to have someone ignore the pleasantries. It can feel really personal really fast, and that's not something you want your managers to experience from you. So just consider the sunshine to be a necessary part of the job, like submitting the TPS reports.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:42 PM on December 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Him: How are you?
Me: Oh, I'm just jumping up and down.

Him: How's it going?
Me: Oh, I'm just jumping up and down.

Him: Hey, bro, how's it hangin'?
Me: Oh, I'm just jumpin' up 'n' fuckin' down.
posted by mule98J at 11:45 AM on December 10, 2017

Your experiences at the hospital remind me of the dreaded mentor check-ins when I was a law student working in a large firm where we rotated through different departments to get experience in a variety of practice areas. Similarly, I felt a lot of pressure to appear appropriately excited/flattering/grateful even when my time in a department had been routine or even if the mentor had basically ignored me the whole placement.

I feel similar pressures in social interactions in general: I often feel a sense of responsibility, in a social situation, to facilitate good conversation and make sure everyone is having fun. I feel that it ends up distorting my personality and interactions, because I say what I feel the group needs me to say rather than what I want to say.

It's something I've talked about with my therapist and while I certainly haven't resolved the issue entirely, what helped me was reprogramming my concept of how I would be perceived if I stopped doing what I'm doing. I came up with a mental list of people who are not socially upbeat/effusive/pleasant/affirming but who nevertheless are likable and respectable. The list included people I know in real life and fictional characters. For example, a Russian professor I had who was brilliant and who I respected greatly: she was by no means warm or cheerful but she had a thoughtful demeanour and when she did occasionally give praise I found it so much more precious and genuine than the empty automatic compliments we hear day to day.

When I think about how I want to appear, and what accurately represents my inner thoughts and personality, I am much keener on the idea of being like my old professor (a shrewd woman who always thinks before she speaks and always means what she says) than the image I had been unconsciously forcing myself into (a pleasant upbeat affirmation machine who always says what's polite and expected). Redrawing the picture of nonconformity in a positive light is the thing that has most helped me resist that urge to smile and be bubbly and positive.

I remind myself: there are different ways to be likable. If people are to like me, I want it to be because I can be counted on to say something thoughtful and genuine, not because I am always ready with a cheery smile and a kind word.
posted by Severine at 5:58 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Looking for a compact keyboard (UK) with Home/End...   |   What do you love or hate about your copper/bronze... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.