Why Are We So Crabby?

Simple Acts/Big Impacts 2018: Praise

We complain. A lot. You may have noticed. It’s getting worse.

In 2014, a column in Psychology Today posed the question “Are We Hardwired to Be Positive or Negative?” Author Ray Williams noted, “The capacity to emphasize the negative rather than the positive has probably been an evolutionary phenomenon. … [O]nce the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly.” He cited Rick Hanson who explained matters succinctly: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

In 2015, VentureBeat published a study that began with this startling stat: “There are 2.1 million negative social mentions about brands in the U.S. alone … every single day.”

In August 2016, as the presidential race entered its final stretch, “Trump and Clinton Wreck Facebook Friendships” appeared in POLITICO, noting “the phenomenon of unfriending people on Facebook is not a new one. Researchers have been examining the topic alongside the rise during the past decade of new social networks. In 2012, the Pew Research Center found 18 percent of users to sites like Facebook had blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because of their political posts.”

In my own feeds, which contain comments from a wide variety of Republicans and Democrats, the vitriol and negativity becomes overwhelming at times — and it’s spilling over into issues beyond politics. From the time I was a little girl, my mother taught me the adage “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Those days are gone.

But why? The Edelman 2017 Trust Barometer revealed: “The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012.” A colleague suggested that “folks are prone to griping about ‘little’ stuff because they feel powerless to change ‘big’ stuff.’” She posits that “frustration of the middle class has been growing over time and social media is an accelerant on the embers that have been smoldering” for years. Plus, social media makes griping easy and, for those who choose, anonymous.

All this negativity concerns me. How do we stop the negative spiral online? It gets depressing. So I asked myself: Through our online habits, can we help shift the mood of the country?

I decided to conduct a test. What happens when I post nice things? I wrote two posts for LinkedIn. The first post congratulated Ken Powell, the former CEO of General Mills, on his retirement. I noted that when I led the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, Ken’s opinion was held in such high regard by his fellow 16 food and beverage CEOs that they requested that meetings be scheduled to ensure Ken’s ability to participate. The second post highlighted the communications and customer service of British Airways personnel during an extended ground stop for a flight from Washington, D.C., to London. Cumulatively, the posts garnered more than 10,000 clicks, as well as multiple comments, shares, and likes. Previous posts, that shared either basic or negative information, averaged 200 to 300 clicks. My positive posts averaged 5,000 each. That was a big jump for an average post. I think it reveals a lot about the desire we have to see glimmers of goodness in the world.

Here are a few suggestions for 2018:

· Commit to posting or tweeting positive comments about a brand or individual. Go beyond a generic “Atta girl!” and specify the action taken and the outcomes of that action. If you are posting about a brand or a specific store, restaurant, or hotel location, add a hashtag, e.g., #ParkCenterMacys, #General Mills, #BritishAirways.

· When you feel compelled to cite a negative experience, outline what went wrong and recommend ways that the situation could have gone right. If you had a bad flight or hotel experience, limit your negative comments to the specific problem management should address but also take a moment to compliment individuals who did something nice during your travels. If your check-in situation left much to be desired but the bellhop took special care to ensure your bags were handled as you tended to your crying child, mention that. Also, commit to noting folks’ names so you can pass along praise to the powers that be.

· If you voice your political discontent, do it less often or choose an appropriate discussion stream. If you’re commenting about the current or previous First Lady’s wardrobe, don’t go into a rant about her spouse. Focus on the fashion.

Life isn’t rainbows and unicorns. Each of us have moments when we need to air our grievances. But we can commit to balancing our tone and criticism with thoughtful and specific comments or suggestions. Without them, it’s difficult for companies and leaders to respond and fix what bothers us. Let’s focus on the positives more than the negatives and inspire each other to do better.

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