How to deal with relentlessly negative carpoolers?
April 17, 2008 3:53 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with relentlessly negative carpoolers?

I carpool with four other people. We all work at the same place (a small liberal arts college). It's convenient for me and them, reduces our transportation costs and the group is stable membership-wise. All great.

The only real problem is that the rides to and from routinely turn into marathon-length gripefests that everyone but me participates in, almost always centered around intra-/inter-office politics, remarkably petty interpersonal conflicts, campus gossip or their kids. Every so often it's about the shitty pay and benefits -- which is even more ridiculous. I loathe discussions like this and remain as quiet as possible during them. If asked about something, I'll give as positive (or at least non-committal) an answer as possible. But it never seems to shift the conversation in a more positive direction. And, after two years, it's gotten really old.

Is there anything I can do to change this? Conversational techniques? Just sit back and think of England?

(Finding another carpool or a different transit solution are, unfortunately, not options. Also, an iPod would be considered incredibly rude.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
i could be wrong, but i say that in all likelihood, there is nothing you can do short of getting the hell out of that carpool. youre stuck.

if changing is not an option, i recommend sitting in silence, and if anyone asks why, you can tell them. which probably wont change anything except for make things awkward.

you could always choose to try some assertive communication but i would bet it would be too fucking much of an uphill battle.
posted by gcat at 4:04 PM on April 17, 2008

and i would also forget about that ipod being considered rude. those guys need seom perspective.

take your ipod. do whatever you need to do.
posted by gcat at 4:06 PM on April 17, 2008

I would call the gripe-festival folks out on their negativity by skillfully confronting them in a way that embarrasses them slightly. Even a simple "Wow, that's pretty negative," can help.

You could also try starting your own conversational topics that are more upbeat.

Also, while an ipod might be considered anti-social, sometimes quietly working on a crossword puzzle or reading a book or magazine is deemed less so.
posted by pluckysparrow at 4:09 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

"For gawd's sake you all sound like a bunch of five-year-olds. If you can't converse like adults then please shut up and ride in silence."

Being a liberal arts college, everyone will automatically take offense (kidding -- sorta) but hopefully they will continue to act like children and just pout.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:21 PM on April 17, 2008

My daughter used to spend our commute time doing this, so I finally told her she had to report 3 positive things from her day for every negative. She still got to vent, but discovered how productive and positive her days actually were.

A little trickier with unrelated adults, but I think you need to be really upfront. Maybe start with the evening commute. As soon as someone starts in, just gently say that you had a really hard day and would love to hear some inspiring stories from the day, or about a problem that they solved. Gradually see if you can expand it to the morning commute, and even introduce a formula like the one I used. A little sacharine, but effective. If you complain about their complaining, you're just joining the game.
posted by nax at 4:24 PM on April 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

I ran into this problem when I would go out after work with my old coworkers (which, thanks to our industry and my desire to be social after working long days, was 4-5 times a week). I ended up making a silly, but useful rule with my drinking buddies/work friends: "No work talk at the bar!" It got to the point where if someone started smack talking about that dork in [whatever dept], I'd look at them and say "dude." and we'd move on to making a new playlist on the jukebox.

Maybe, if you're comfortable enough with these people, do *sort of* the same thing? Maybe download a podcast to burn to CD and listen to/discuss on the way to work to distract everyone else from work issues? Say, "hey, we've gotta be there for 8 hours anyway, and we can deal with it when we get there, but what do you guys think about [anything]?" If you want the subject to change, you're going to have to actively change the subject, because BSing about work leads to more BSing about work.
posted by AlisonM at 4:29 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tell them how excited you are to listen to x book on tape!!

Then after a few mentions of that, start listening to it on your ipod. Leave one earphone out, that can be seen as more social.
posted by sondrialiac at 4:35 PM on April 17, 2008

get an ipod and listen to it really loud when you're not driving, with your eyes closed
posted by Salvatorparadise at 4:50 PM on April 17, 2008

Part of me thinks trips to and from work will naturally be full of griping, however I dislike that kind of conversation too (especially in the morning!) so I sympathise. Is there a good radio show (or a downloaded podcast; whatever's your flavour) you could listen to during the car journey? Maybe that would effectively derail the conversation from more negative stuff.
posted by eponymouse at 5:12 PM on April 17, 2008

do you want to have a more interesting conversation with them, or do you just want to be left alone to listen to your iPod without pissing them off?

There are a few types of standard conversation filler, all of which are annoying to some degree.
There's small talk - "nice weather we're having".
There's gossip or venting - "can you believe what bob said about katie?"
There's repeating old stories or retelling the plots of TV shows / movies - "did you see the latest episode of the Office? Wasn't that hilarious when..."

People use these when they are not up for investing more effort in the dialogue but do not want to sit in silence. A large portion of daily conversation comes down to some combination of these rather than serious intellectual or emotional engagement, or playful / witty banter, or whatever other mode of conversation you prefer. People gossiping and venting doesn't necessarily mean they are truly unhappy and negative. They might just be looking for stuff to talk about and this is kind of how it comes out.

So I'd say your options are to either try to steer the conversation toward something more interesting yourself (are these people interested in the same kind of things you are? are there academic subjects to ask about, etc?) or to just be zen about it and let them vent while you just ponder the psychological nature of the human animal...

If you are hoping that it will just be quiet the whole ride, I think that is wishful thinking on your part with four other people. It would be a statistically unlikely group of five who all preferred not to speak when in a crowded car with co-workers (and anyway you have two years of data) so someone will try to start a conversation. If it's not you, it may well be someone who starts with a subject you don't like.
posted by mdn at 5:48 PM on April 17, 2008

Ugh, I've had that experience with coworkers, too. My take on the matter was that these were folks for whom "complaints about work" was really the only common ground they shared - sort of the equivalent of talking about the weather with a perfect stranger, it's just kind of easy for some folks to automatically slip into. Deliberately trying to talk about positive things can (I think?) be tough for some people, simply because it might sound like bragging in their own mind even if it's really isn't (and furthermore, for some reason it seems harder for some people to join in on another person's retelling of positive events than of their recital of Wrongs and Offenses Done To Them).

As such, I'd suggest you seek alternatives you think they can all relate to. I really like eponymouse's suggestion to turn on a talk radio program as something perhaps you could all listen to together - possibly you could introduce this the next time it's your turn to drive, and who knows, if other folks enjoy it maybe some of them will start turning on talk radio when it's their turn to drive, too? Who knows, maybe the reason they only ever complain is because that's the easiest thing for them all to participate in together - maybe they'd enjoy a change of pace, too, if only someone (you!) would get that ball rolling.

And if nothing works and you just can't get them to knock off all that negativity ... well, I know this is cliched but I think it is worth mentioning: when it comes down to it, you can't do much to control other people's behaviors, but you can try to control how it affects you. Try to find a mindset that distances you a little from the behavior (imagine you're doing an ethnographic field study on the culture and traditions of the Marathon Griper nation?), and/or take the opportunity to remind yourself of how glad you are that you don't share their outlook on life.

My mom always says that we "learn patience from the impatient, we learn manners from the mannerless" ... I think that could easily be extended to "we learn appreciation for the Good Things in Life from those who obsess over the bad things. Don't let them bastards grind you down =)
posted by zeph at 6:34 PM on April 17, 2008

Take comfort in the fact that, as one of those cheeful morning people, your kind control the world. You got there early, took all the best seats, and are cheerfully chatting to each other while the rest of us struggle in, groaning, blearily looking around for the coffee machine.

Nthing the Ipod. Trying to start a cheerful conversation in the morning(!) on the way to work(!!) will bring snarls, glares, and sneers.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:48 PM on April 17, 2008

C'mon people, this one's easy. Four liberal arts college employees in a car together? Ask them "questions that invite people to explore the most fascinating of subjects: themselves" (taken from the description for the first book, but applicable to all three and, conveniently, your situation).
- The Book of Questions,
- If: Questions for the Game of Life
- Would You Rather...?: 200 Absolutely Absurd Dilemmas to Ponder
posted by cocoagirl at 7:17 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

A former coworker of mine used to respond to gripefests with the following, perfect one-liner:

"Beats pumping gas."

Worked for me.
posted by googly at 7:19 PM on April 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'd probably revisit the rudeness of the iPod. Declare that you're really wanting to learn a new language and that you're planning on listening to the instructions in the car and you hope no one minds. Or similar with some other book of learning that you're wanting to experience during the commute.

Or, consider sharing the act of listening with the others in the car. It's easy to talk over music, but what if you were to suggest the whole car listen to books on tape during the ride? It's much ruder to talk over that, and it gives you something non-work related to talk about.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:35 PM on April 17, 2008

You'd need to a) convince them to avoid the negative talk; and b) have some other conversational gambits. Social skills would come in handy here.

Has anyone ever combined a carpool with a book club?
posted by amtho at 9:46 PM on April 17, 2008

In case they don't stop with the negatives, do bring an ipod and just don't listen to them because the negativity rubs off, as I've experienced.
posted by drea at 11:26 PM on April 17, 2008

Seconding the iPod and "I'm listening to a book on tape I'm really into" or "I'm listening to a podcast I'm really into" if you want to seem hip.
posted by davejay at 12:51 AM on April 18, 2008

You need to consistently bring up your own topics of conversation, focused on all the positive things in life. You'll be amazed at how much *you* can turn this around. Don't just respond to their questions/prompts with something positive or neutral, but start conversations yourself.

This is a really difficult situation for you to be in. Being surrounded by negativity like that all the time is not good for you -- or them. So, even if it feels like a struggle, you owe it to yourself, and your car-mates, to get the good vibes going.
posted by Lleyam at 3:40 AM on April 18, 2008

these are overworked people who probably need that time and space to complain. the problem is not them, the problem is you.

i say you are the problem because you express displeasure with all of their types of conversation - not just one. maybe you are blessedly free of these issues, but most people find that after enough repetition even the most petty of problems becomes major.

like your petty problem with their conversational topics has become major. it doesn't make it any less real, but the same mechanism applies with the topics that frustrate them.

the etiquette of our world means you are not allowed to ask them to change perspective - you can only do it in yourself. also, the dishonesty inherent in trying to put out positive conversation while you are annoyed is likely detectible by your fellow commuters, and it only tires and frustrates you.

the world is no afterschool special. honesty is punished and people almost never change, i have found.

so find perspective. this is difficult. perhaps there is something else going on in your life, a deeper, realer source of negativity, that is making this so hard to bear.

the world is about us bowing our heads and being humble, unfortunately. believe me i am in deep protest about this and think about killing myself regularly because of it. i know how hard bowing your head is but that is what is expected of us. the general coping mechanism is to find something or someone that makes bowing your head worth it. i have not found this yet.

best of luck to you.
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:41 AM on April 18, 2008

oh, one more thing: conversation about poor workplace conditions has an outlet - "let's organise and change this." many a struggle for social justice has started out in this way.
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:44 AM on April 18, 2008

these were folks for whom "complaints about work" was really the only common ground they shared
ding ding ding winner!

i carpool too, mostly with one person on the way in and a different on the way home, with some irregulars.
morning: no work talk, ever. sometimes mention people from work, but we never talk about work. one of the first days i met this guy, i blew off a work-related question in the car and that was that, we've never talked about it again. except within, like, the last three minutes, if i desperately need him to do something for me...

evening: work talk sometimes happen, including some gripes, but mostly brainstorming and "soul-seeking" or whatever. advice kinda talks.

other people i occasionally go with when things come up: we talk about work a lot. Dullsville! subject changing only works so long. eventually, silence can be your friend.
posted by whatzit at 5:29 AM on April 18, 2008

posted by waraw at 6:18 AM on April 18, 2008

If you are the driver: "Friends, I can no longer abide your carping. Lighten up or find another ride to work once a week. If that doesn't work, twice a week. And if that doesn't work, three times a week." And so on.

If you are a rider: "Let us talk of pleasant things we have seen and done." Say that over, and over, and over, interupting their diatribes again, and again, and again, raising your voice each time, until they get the hint. Alternately, find another ride to work once a week. If that doesn't work, twice a week. And if that doesn't work, three times a week. And so on.

Your civility is being held hostage. Don't negotiate with terrorists. If they were concerned about rudeness they wouldn't have pissed and moaned all over the seats for the past two years.

But sometimes people, including me, get in ruts. When others hold mirrors up to my behavior I don't always like what I see but later I thank them for the chance to stop being such an ass. My advice to you as a rider is based on what someone did to/for me once years ago when I was pissing and moaning too much. Thanks, years ago critic and friend!
posted by eccnineten at 7:57 AM on April 18, 2008

In dealing with chronic complainers, I sometimes ask how they are going to change the situation they are endlessly bitching about. You will likely get a "But I'm blah blah blah excuse excuse excuse and that's why I can't change it" response, but keep up with the "I hear you, what are you going to do about it?", or eventually the "Do something about it or stop complaining about it." That last one may make you a tad unpopular, but it's fantastically effective in shutting them up without actually having to say "Shut the hell up."

Chronic complaining is a peeve of mine, and it's boring as hell. Also, my moods tend to be easily affected by others and I find if I join the complaint circle I start to get all pissy and self-righteous right along with them. I don't like that in myself as much as I don't like it in others. Bad moods are contagious.
posted by 8dot3 at 8:32 AM on April 18, 2008

@googly: mr. epersonae is wont to say "at least you aren't digging ditches."

I was in a vanpool for several years when I worked at a community college. You have my sympathies. :) (Actually, my vanpool-mates were for the most part quite pleasant to ride with.) A few thoughts....

Don't worry about being rude with the iPod. Already you don't really care what these people think, right? So find your inner zone. If you're lucky, they'll just think that you're weird/quirky. Ditto on reading or writing. I was always pretty clear that I looked at the commute as my time to read. The other thing I used to do in the morning was sleep, honestly, as I can sleep in a moving vehicle at the drop of a hat. YMMV.

I noticed that you mentioned that their kids are a topic of griping; perhaps asking positive questions about kids would turn things in a good way: either cute stuff they did when they were little, good things they are doing now, etc.

I have worked with a number of people who were long-time employees who seemed continuously unhappy. (Thankfully, none of them were in my vanpool.) If these are your carpool-mates, there's not much you can do about them, IME. All you can do is find your own happy place.

On 2nd thought: a lot of this depends on how good a relationship you have with these folks. If there's any camaraderie, it might be worth trying "can we not talk about work for a while?" at least once, maybe more. When mr. epersonae & I worked together aeons ago, we ended up having to institute a "no work talk at home rule" for a while when work got very stressful. It helped a lot.
posted by epersonae at 8:33 AM on April 18, 2008

Take comfort in the fact that, as one of those cheeful morning people, your kind control the world.

This has nothing to do with morning vs. night people. I'm a night person, and I find that sort of conversation just as tiresome as the OP. For that matter, we don't even have any evidence that the OP is a morning person.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:58 AM on April 18, 2008

The key here is that you work for a small liberal arts college. The one thing you can count on, other than petty bickering and an extraordinary amount of assumed privilege, is an extreme level of white guilt.

So, each time you hear someone complain about something petty, inane, or just plain lame, counter with an example which points out their complete lack of perspective. "Yeah, that guy in your office really did move your stapler. I bet that's the kind of problem the victims of Mugabe's torture camps wish they had." "Oh, yeah, your kids are a total pain in the butt. You should tell some of the parents of the kidnapped child soldiers in Uganda how hard you have it."

Granted, it's not as relentlessly positive as they are negative, but I find that most of us with a conscience understand the need for people to vent -- it's just the incredible lack of perspective that really demoralizes those of us who try to stay positive. One of the most unfortunate realities of our time is that, even setting aside charged domestic political issues like the situation in Iraq or poverty here in the U.S., you can still find plenty of examples internationally of reasons they should shut the hell up.

You'll be doing something positive by providing perspective, especially if it's actually a motivator to educate yourself. And you'll be doing something effective by using a holier-than-thou bludgeon against their sense of guilt and propriety to make them stop bitching and understand how good they get it.
posted by anildash at 5:58 AM on April 19, 2008

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