Richmond Proper: On Negative Nancys

In this darkest, coldest, and most depressing stretch of the winter, it seems particularly appropriate to discuss negativity. Friends, do not commit conversational suicide by being a Negative Nancy. Please, we love you and we want you to step back from the ledge!

“Things without all remedy should be without remark.”
— Williams Shakespeare

“What the world needs is more false cheer.  And less honest crabbiness.”
— Judith Martin

In this darkest, coldest, and most depressing stretch of the winter, it seems particularly appropriate to discuss negativity. The “woe is me” outlook tends to creep over each of us at one point or another, and it doesn’t help that it has become So Cool to hate everything one comes into contact with. But most of you have the good sense not to pay it forward. You are careful not to let your sad little dirge eclipse your entire personality, or worse, to inflict it upon innocent bystanders.

Negative Nancys, killjoys, Eeyores, bammers…no matter what you call them, you know who they are. Doubtless you try to avoid your Negative Nancy when you see her coming, hiding your face in a cough and praying she finds someone else to strangle with complaints. Nobody likes a person with a fake, plastic smile plastered on her face at all times, but the Negative Nancy over-corrects this blunder and plunges instead into a melodramatic abyss. She sees all, feels all, hates all, and disapproves of all.

Friends, do not commit conversational suicide by being a Negative Nancy. Please, we love you and we want you to step back from the ledge! The following self-examinations should be useful:

Take stock of subjects.

What topics do you tend to bring up? There’s a whole wide world of wonderful things to talk about. In case you’re not clear, some of the things people do not want to hear about are: your aches and pains, “kids these days,” politics, how irresponsible everybody else is, politics, how hard your job is, politics, and how bad the traffic was on your way here. Note: some of you are lucky enough to have a bosom friend who calls you promptly each night at 9:30pm, wanting to know every gory detail of your day. This is the person you should save the “real talk” for. Not random coworkers who are just standing in the wrong place when you decide to rant about the rising cost of Prozac. “To have a dear friend who will occasionally listen to a recital of woes, in exchange for services in kind, is a blessing,” writes Judith Martin. “To require this regularly, or to impose it upon those who have not volunteered for such tedious duty, is the sin of adding to the total of unhappiness on earth.”

Listen to yourself.

How often do you use negative words in a given conversation?  Seriously, grab a loyal friend and have her take notes while you hang out for an hour. If you use words like hate, lame, awful, tired, crap, boring, and sick 90% of the time and words like interesting, love, cool, excited, and sweet only 10% of the time, you might be misrepresenting things just a little.

Gain some perspective.

Are you constantly declaring how bad things only happen to you, how doomed you are, how you were born under a bad sign, etc? In her book, The Art of Civilized Conversation, Margaret Shepherd states: “Steer clear of negative pronouncements in general and any moping, self-pitying remarks that seem to whine ‘It had to be me.'” The truth is, bad things happen to everyone. No, the fact that your art supplies didn’t get here in time for your big, tough, art project’s due date does not mean that the Creator is benevolent to everyone except for you (but it might mean that you should have ordered them more than two days in advance).

Take comfort.

When others attempt to comfort you, what is your response? Most people feel thankful for the support, even if there’s nothing the other person can do to solve the problem itself. “The chronic complainer, however, doesn’t seem to feel better no matter how much she complains. She is happy only when miserable. Wedded to her troubles, she prefers self-pity to your pity, and will argue back when you try to cheer her up,” writes Shepherd.

Of course, your next question has been anticipated.  Here are some tips for dealing with the Negative Nancys we come in contact with, despite our best efforts at hiding from them.

Disarm her with a compliment.

Ah, the compliment — the polite person’s sharpest weapon. In the movie version of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett disarms India Wilkes (Negative Nancy extraordinaire) by complimenting her thus: “Why India Wilkes, what a lovely dress. I just can’t take my eyes off it.” There’s nothing rude she can really say back to that, and still appear to be a kind hostess. This method is best used before the Negative Nancy even has a chance to start on one of her tirades. It makes it more difficult to deliver a disapproving monologue when she’s been so beautifully complimented.

Don’t argue.

If you try to point out the bright side to your Negative Nancy, you’ll be inviting her to give you a thousand new reasons why her situation is so bleak. If you just stare back without saying anything, sometimes the Negative Nancy will go away without launching into a new topic of grief.

Change the subject.

“Say something related, however vaguely, to what has been said before,” writes Shepherd. If your Negative Nancy complains that eating too much red velvet cake made her ill for a week, mention that this is quite a coincidence, because you’re planning to wallpaper your dining room in red velvet. Then you can transition into leading the conversation to pleasanter pastures.

Excuse yourself.

Simply skitter off to the ladies’ room, the copy machine, or the bar, depending on venue. I have used this excuse many times when the first three methods didn’t work, and spent a few very pleasant minutes alone before returning to find the conversation over. Victory!

With these, I hope my dear readers can ably fight chronic negativity in Richmond and beyond. I leave you with the following quote from Miss Manners, and with a request for stories of Negative Nancys in the comments!

“Please notice that Miss Manners is trying hard to refrain from pointing out that there are people who overcome adversity with courage, bravery, and determination, who turn their attention resolutely away from their own dissatisfaction and toward bettering the lot of others. She has been told that this example is of no use to those who cannot manage that exemplary feat, so she is not demanding true cheerfulness. Naturally, the more skillful the performance of false cheer, the more pleasing the effect is upon one’s public and on that private audience to whom one owes even more. It is also true that the semblance of happiness eventually, by some alchemy of the spirit, turns genuine. But even the crudest effort is better than tossing one’s problems to others, like an unexpected volleyball to the stomach.”
— Judith Martin

Have an etiquette question and need some advice?  Email

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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