Can we talk about something more pleasant?
December 19, 2017 10:56 AM   Subscribe

What are some good strategies for dealing with a relentlessly negative person?

For the past four years, I’ve sung in a large concert chorus. There’s another woman in my section who I became friendly with when I joined; I’ll call her Sue. She’s a bit older than I am, and from certain things she’s said, I gather that she doesn’t have a lot of friends. She’s married but I don’t know very much about her husband; I met him once and he seemed nice enough. Also, she’s told me that she suffers from depression for which she takes medication, and she’s lately indicated that she’s had sort of a downswing.

As the time has gone on, Sue has gotten really negative about everything in the chorus – the other members, the conductor, the assistant conductors (whom she despises for reasons she’s never articulated), the temperature of the room, etc. Some of these complaints probably have some merit, but a lot of them border on the ludicrous. For example, she once went on and on and on complaining because another woman had “big hair” so she was infuriated at having to sit in back of the person at rehearsal (at which we generally have no assigned seating). She also gets very upset if someone asks her a question during rehearsal, such as “What measure number is he starting from?” (Note: every single person in that chorus, including Sue, occasionally has to ask for the measure number.)

She also complains about the conductor acting like “the king” and not taking suggestions from members about how the music should be conducted. Um, what? (p.s., the conductor is an absolutely lovely person, but even if he weren’t, that’s kind of, you know, the point of having a conductor). Last night, we did a concert that by all accounts from the audience was really beautiful; when I ran into her as we were leaving the stage, she saw me and commented, “Well, at least we got that over with.” I mean, WTF? How am I even supposed to respond to that? (I chose to just give her a wan smile.) She always gets quite snippy if you even mildly contradict her on anything.

It’s gotten to the point where I feel just drained dealing with her. I really enjoy the chorus, and it’s just sort of demoralizing to talk to Sue at rehearsals. There’s another woman who we’re both friendly with, and I’ve noticed that she doesn’t really sit with us anymore although she’s still extremely friendly to me separately and will sit with me if Sue isn’t at rehearsal. The other woman is sort of a sunny type, and I may be projecting but I suspect she may also be getting tired of Sue’s constant complaining. I’ve tried not sitting with her for a rehearsal or two by just quietly sitting in a different area of the room, but she always finds me at sits next to me.

Sue has been very nice to me in general; last year, when I had to have surgery, she offered to come and wait for me at the hospital and then go home with me in a cab (we don’t live near each other). For that reason, and also because I know it may partially be depression talking, I don’t want to just sort of freeze her out. Is there a way to deal Sue in a kind way that also preserves my sanity? I’m not very good at these sorts of things; I tend to be a bit blunt and critical, and I often struggle to be patient with people. Honestly, my general urge at this point is just to yell, "Shut up Shut Up SHUT UP!!!" but I would rather be more...charitable. Thanks, everyone!
posted by holborne to Human Relations (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I tend to be a bit blunt and critical, and I often struggle to be patient with people.

New Year's is coming soon, and gives you an easy opening: tell her the above, and that your new year's resolution is to be more positive about things that frustrate you. Even if you're not frustrated by the same things she is, but you can leave that part out. Frame it as a way she can help you with your self-improvement project. She might react well to that since she's been helpful in other ways in the past, and being asked for help often makes people feel good. Or she might not, in which case you've got a specific reason to distance yourself, and you can tell her why.

Or, I dunno, hand her a copy of Feeling Good.
posted by asperity at 11:14 AM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had a friend like this, and ultimately ended up just having a "come to Jesus" talk with her where I basically said "I love you as a friend, I really value our friendship, but the constant complaining is really getting me down and I need to not be the person you complain to stuff about." It was briefly awkward, but then things did get way better.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:19 AM on December 19, 2017 [29 favorites]

She probably doesn't entirely realize she is being negative. Can you push back on her like - 'Wow Sue. It sounds like you're not really enjoying chorus anymore. If it isn't working for you in all of these ways, should you really be doing it anymore?" and with some of the more obvious ones, push back like" if you can't see over Janet's hair, move" or "Relax, Sue, Marge just forgot her place."

If you show that you don't tolerate the negativity, she may reduce it.
posted by k8t at 11:28 AM on December 19, 2017 [18 favorites]

To avoid sitting with her, come late to rehearsal and sit elsewhere. You might do this once or twice to at least reset the expectation that you sit together every time.

Another suggestion would be, at some point where she says something critical, to say something like "you seem really unhappy with a lot of aspects of choir lately. Is this not something that you enjoy doing?" I don't know that this would change her much, but it's a way of bringing this pattern out in the open that doesn't sound accusatory.

I am frequently the sunny person being driven crazy by people who complain (and the irony of complaining about complainers always strikes me as funny), and my strategy is often to seriously and thoughtfully discuss why the person they're annoyed at is doing the best they can, or could be seen as right, or has every right to do things differently. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't, but I almost always feel better for not just agreeing with complaints that seem unfair.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:29 AM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Take the sunny woman's lead and sit somewhere else. (Make up some reason if you want to, like you want to better hear what the sopranos are doing or whatever). Not necessarily next to the sunny woman if you want to avoid drama. And measure your exposure to Sue. (Say hello and ask how she's doing maybe once per rehearsal.) Don't waste energy contradicting her negative pronouncements unless you really feel like it (you can't win at that game).
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:33 AM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I recommend buying her coffee, having a nice long chat, and toward the end doing what rainbowbrite says. That's probably a step up from asking her to leave, or stop being her friend.

On the other hand, this is a personality trait of hers, and this is just the kind of thing you deal with. There's a bunch of "annoying" personalities in each group, and even if she left this one, often someone else would pop up or be annoying in another way.

I think if you do talk to her, it's imperative that you make her KNOW you are on her side. I'd talk about the shared frustrations you have with choir, more than asking her to change her behavior. Maybe take a notebook and write the things she says, and bring her and the director together to talk about them.

In the end, I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a friend than be in a choir.
posted by bbqturtle at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

(my guess is she's one of those people who bonds over complaints. It's a basic small talk tactic but those who are socially anxious or otherwise uncomfortable tend to over rely on it).

I've had people like this in my life and I have one approach:

1. Laughingly point out that they are being a Debbie Downer immediately after they make a negative remark. Something like "you're yucking my yum, I actually love (conductor) because she's x, y and z! Then immediately change the subject to something positive (so she doesn't think you're pushing her away)
2. Do this a couple of times to consciously bring attention to the pattern.
3. If they have not taken the hint, directly state how you feel. I would say something like "hey I enjoy your company, and I also enjoy the chorus. I would like to enjoy both, however. Can we be chorus buddies without the negativity?"
posted by Tarumba at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2017 [23 favorites]

If this is new-ish behavior and you really think your friend is suffering from a downswing related to her depression, please don't say anything about her "getting [you] down." I'm projecting my own experiences here, but something like that would just be fuel for my negative feelings about myself and my worth to other people.

I've been here, and the most effective thing was when someone brought this to my attention in a direct and jokey but clearly concerned way. Like, "Damn, you can just find nothing to like about this day, can you? How has everything been going for you? You are grumpy as fuck." It doesn't seem like you are close enough to joke, but be kind.

The thing is, I really didn't know I was doing it. My default setting was negative. Also, though it may not have seemed like it given the negative stream of things coming out of my mouth, but it did help when my sunnier friends would refute my statements.

All that said, you are under no obligation to keep interacting with her if you do not enjoy it. You are not her therapist, and it is not your job to correct her outlook.
posted by unannihilated at 11:41 AM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

this is a miss-manners-y kind of suggestion that may not work in the real world but: every time she says something grouchy, react with pleasant agreement, as if she'd said something nice. I mean: don't say it like you're disagreeing or correcting her, say it like you're totally in sync with what she must have meant. so like, she says Thank god that's over! and you smile and say, Yes, wasn't it wonderful? or she says Can you believe that woman in front of us lost her place in the music? and you say Oh yes, I do that all the time! or she says The conductor thinks he's God! and you say Yes, he's certainly a wonderful man and I love working with him, he's very good at his job!

this won't work in real life the way it does in books, probably. but I suggest it anyway because if you can't escape this woman and you can't stand to be mean, you can do this as a kind of game you play with yourself. the idea is never to sound like you're fucking with her, only to treat her extreme negativity as something that goes right over your head because you can't really take it in, who would say something like that, she must have meant to be nice.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:43 AM on December 19, 2017 [25 favorites]

Irritability is a symptom of depression, as well as this sort of overall relentless negativity. It is not easy to stay friends with a depressed person. And responding can be a minefield. Some time when you are having coffee or tea or visiting, tell her that you understand that depression makes it hard for her to experience and see what's positive, but that expressing her negative thoughts and feelings about day-to-day stuff may be reinforcing her depression and creating a barrier for others to connect with her.

Reinforcement does help. When she's positive, respond with enthusiasm and praise I enjoy your positive side. and when she's negative, try to ignore it. The term for that is extinguishing.

Being depressed is so much worse for her than those around her, but, even so, thanks for being such a good friend.
posted by theora55 at 11:46 AM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Maybe even, "How has your depression been? You've seemed a bit down lately."
posted by gideonfrog at 12:19 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I almost can guarantee you she has ZERO idea how negative she is. Also nthing that some cultures promote bonding via complaining (NYC in the house!) and that mixed with depression is a slippery slope into being anti-social, then ostracized.

I advocate being kind and direct once or twice, then modeling more positive conversation patterns with her. She's in pain, even if it crept up on her so slowly she's not consciously entirely aware of herself. Also, it's damn hard to change a habit! Being negative is also a habit.

You don't have to take this project on, but I see no reason to refrain from at least bringing the subject up.

PS - I guarantee she's heard this before as a complaint about her demeanor from others, likely bosses and family or her spouse. I bet she's heard the message delivered in anger more than once over the years. Frame it kindly, not a complaint. Enjoy the irony of this. Be the one she can hear because you meet her pain with kindness.
posted by jbenben at 12:51 PM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

One of my dearest friend's go to mode is negative. It's not terrible and it's probably not as bad as your friend, but when she starts complaining, I try to talk about the thing that is so much better. The fact that her kids are so great or how great an event was that we attended. I think your friend may be more genuinely depressed rather than just habitually negative, but maybe try and see if it works...
posted by Sophie1 at 1:32 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

God, do I know this one. And I've got a great counter, too -- check it out.

My friend -- let's just say his name is Patrick, because it is -- Patrick is *relentlessly* negative. It's out of control. He's out of control. He can't help it, or won't, and either way IE whether it's won't or can't, it's still can't, plus no matter what it's still a drag to deal with it -- gawd.

One sunny autumn afternoon -- one of these awesome days in which the air has that golden tint due to the sun going through more of our atmosphere to get here, and everything looks like that really fine gold holiday wrapping paper -- one gorgeous sunny autumn afternoon Patrick and I were taking a walk around Town Lake. He was up to his normal -- the political system sucks sucks sucks, republicans suck, suck, suck, and democrats suck, too, and hollywood movies suck, thin pretty blond women who look and/or act like they're from Dallas absolutely, totally suck (best I can figure it's his mother here though who knows), and he's going on and on and on -- "This sucks / That sucks / Everywhere a suck suck / Suck McSuckles had a farm / Suck-i-suck-i-o" -- you get the idea.

And then I got it. It's judo -- use his energy to toss him away from me. I'm like "Oh man, those democrats sure suck -- Isn't it a gorgeous day? Look at that blue sky!" "Oh man, those republicans sure suck -- Isn't it a gorgeous day? Whoa!" "Oh man, hollywood flicks sure do suck. Exploding helicopters indeed. It sure is an awesome day! Goddamn, aren't we lucky to live in Austin? I mean, really --Austin! We get to live here! Austin is Disneyland for adults! Hurray!" No matter what, I'd spin it back* and then counter with how goddamn lucky we are to even just be alive and sucking air on this gorgeous ball of rock and mud and water, spinning as it is around our local star and isn't that star just flat-out gorgeous today?
*Except for the part about thin pretty blond women who look and/or act like they're from Dallas; I certainly don't understand them but I don't find them loathsome.)

I don't have the slightest idea if he shut up with the negativity that day or not. I *can* tell you that I didn't hear any of it, or at the very least none of it stuck to me.

I've used it since, with other ppl who are determined to be fussy, and it sure works well.

EDIT: Please understand -- I *know* he's depressed. I suffer depression too. But I try not to spread it around, like the flu...
posted by dancestoblue at 2:38 PM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

We have a saying at work: "Everyone is allowed to complain, but not forever."

Be honest with your friend. Just tell her that you don't want to keep hearing constant negativity. Depression is one thing, and we try to be supportive, but listening to griping is something else, and being the recipient of constant dumping might seem supportive, but it isn't constructive or fair.
posted by ovvl at 3:53 PM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

How about "Gee you're really feeling crappy. You need a hug." Then a big hug. It usually stops things, especially if you then change the subject to something positive, eg "My Dad gave the best hugs. When I'm down, I ask my husband for a hug. What's your strategy?"
posted by Enid Lareg at 4:07 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, her depression may be getting more severe, but that doesn't mean you need to tip-toe around not wanting to be the recipient of her vomiting negativity all over you at every meeting. Gently tell her that her constant emphasis of the negative is hard on you because choir is an oasis where you get to feel unmitigated happiness and satisfaction. It's OK to treat her like an adult and have a hard conversation with her. If she responds by taking it as a cruelty or criticism and snaps back at you, that's her choice. Many depressed people are able to understand that the negativity caused by their disease can be overwhelming and can accept being redirected into more positive interactions, or they can own and acknowledge that they're just having an extra hard and grumpy day. Depression is real and terrible, but it doesn't give someone free license to treat others badly, especially when someone has thoughtfully and kindly called their attention to it.
posted by quince at 5:32 PM on December 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think some of the approaches here to meet her with empathy and kindness are good, and would warn about too much relentlessly trying to find the silver lining. I have depression and though I am not your choir friend - I really hate bringing people down and try very hard not to be the person who complains all the time - I have a really good friend who can be just so relentlessly upbeat even when I'm trying to tell her how I am really struggling that I find myself exaggerating how bad things are, complaining even more, because I feel like she isn't hearing me. This is something I've only recently realised, particularly after one conversation in which she actually went quiet and listened and then said, yeah, wow, that sounds really tough. And then, paradoxically, I started trying to say, well yeah, it was stressful but a and b...

Now I do think your choir lady has something a bit different going on. But I think the thing that is the same is that she doesn't feel like she is heard, that anyone really listens or understands her. People are really bad at sitting with pain and try to avoid it at all costs, but if she is depressed then she can't. When you try to switch the focus to something positive without first acknowledging her reality, she probably feels anxious and frustrated that yet again she is the oddball, no one gets her, that she is alone with her pain. And complaining about little things can be a way of trying to find some common ground, even one thing that someone agrees with her about.

So my suggestion is to ask her what's really making her unhappy, that all the complaints make you think there is something else going on. And if she trusts you enough to tell you, listen properly. Don't come up with a cheerful aphorism to dismiss her feelings. You don't have to agree with her feelings - she may not want to even have them in the first place - but if you can validate them, it just might help.

You absolutely do not have to stay in the place of pain, by the way. Just let it sit for a little and then ask if she feels better for having told you. She just might. And if she keeps wallowing and complaining, then you have lots of other suggestions to try.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:05 AM on December 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

So my suggestion is to ask her what's really making her unhappy, that all the complaints make you think there is something else going on

I think it's a good idea to ask this, if you feel close enough. And I think it's possible that she won't be able to give a good answer. I wonder if the depression is making her think, on some level, "I'm so miserable, why am I miserable? If I could figure out why I was miserable and acknowledge it maybe I'd feel better. What's something I hate right now? Well the conductor didn't take my suggestion about going forte at measure 30, he's an asshole. Hmmm. I still feel miserable. I'll try again." Rinse and repeat.

Some people also use techniques like imagining that they ducked someone else's negative comment and it missed and hit the wall. One time when I was in a negative spiral someone asked me "So did anything GOOD happen?" and I realized I was being negative and tried to adjust. Another time a therapist told me that what I thought was drily humorous self-deprecation was hard even for him to hear, and that also made me think about what I was saying. It's just very, very hard to see this stuff if it's in your blind spot.

Also, people tend to bond through negativity. A friend of mine who struggles with depression mentioned recently that being snarky is what allows her to connect. Walking up to someone and saying "isn't this party lovely" just doesn't feel workable to her. A self-deprecating joke about her wardrobe choice or drinking habits feels more like an opportunity to bond. At work, most of my coworkers bond through complaining about management and the work we have to do.

I'd probably ask her if she enjoys anything about choir. Or take the less direct method of being curious. Her: "The director thinks he's god, he didn't ask for input on the program" You: "I thought that was pretty typical, have you worked with other directors who took a different approach?" Or even "What would you like to be singing this season?"

And you can just say, after a negative remark "It's kinda hard for me to hear that."

You won't fix her depression with skillful responses to her negative remarks so ultimately you may have to distance yourself. It's okay if you do.
posted by bunderful at 5:57 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

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