update: my coworker is unbearably negative

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the podcast caller whose coworker was unbearably negative? Here’s the update.

I was on your podcast about the unbearably negative coworker, Jane.

I utilized what you told me about your Mom, and how sometimes talking about something negative was a way to connect. It turned out that’s exactly how Jane is! She loves the drama of the negative.

This attitude came in handy later in 2019, when I had a family crisis that involved my Mom being a huge jerk. A lot of people in my life were going out of their way to give unsolicited advice about forgiving her without really understanding the situation.

When I told Jane what was going on, she was one the BEST support people around! She was 100% on my side and didn’t blame me for not having instant forgiveness and let me be mad about my Mom. This didn’t turn into a therapy session or anything, but it made a huge difference to have that, and interestingly enough, when I was having a hard time, she actually went out of her way to cheer me up!!

What I learned from that is that sometimes being a friend is saying “that sucks.” That sometimes the most positive thing you can do is acknowledge something really negative so that you can move on. She’s still pretty negative, but we’re able to change topics more quickly now. I think I even had an influence on her being more positive. I’m a much better friend to her now and I have healthy boundaries at the same time!

That’s when I see her, of course. I’m still in the office because I’m alone 90% of the time, but when she comes in I go run errands for my boss, who recognizes we shouldn’t be in the office together during covid. I actually kind of miss her, because of how good of a friend she became.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

    1. DieTrying*

      Right?! I was particularly touched by it in light of yesterday’s — very sad, to me, if ultimately positive — update about the friend-turned-boss who turned out to never have been a friend in the first place.

  1. I'm in this photo and I don't like it*

    I think I may have missed this story the first time around, but you know that internet meme that originated with Facebook photo tags, “I’m in this photo and I don’t like it”?

    I think I’m just like the bookkeeper in this letter, attempting to bond with new people by complaining about something. My complaint stories are supposed to give the other person a way to chime in and identify with my complaint by offering a similar one of their own, and find common ground, but yikes, did it fall flat with that LW!

    Now I am wondering if it is a generational or regional thing. (I’m in my 50s and I’m originally from New England.) And now I am thoroughly embarrassed!

    1. I'm in this photo and I don't like it*

      If it isn’t clear, my comment here is not a complaint! I’m actually laughing about it, though my cheeks might be a little flushed!

    2. allathian*

      Sometimes complaints can be a way to bond, that’s for sure. But too many complaints make for a very negative atmosphere, and people who complain constantly and who can’t find anything positive to bond over with new people aren’t fun to be around in the long run.

      That said, toxic positivity is often even worse. So giving others space to be negative when the situation warrants it, as in LW’s case here, can really help.

    3. Squidhead*

      I think there’s a certain amount of “performative opinionating” that can either spark conversation or really put people off. (I’m early 40’s raised on the US west coast but now in the east with primarily younger co-workers.) If some one starts a conversation that’s like “I tried *kombucha for the first time and it was awful!” others will match the tone and share the hate. A few brave souls might say “oh, no, * is great” with equal enthusiasm. But someone who genuinely has no opinion on the matter or doesn’t care to engage with that level of “opinionating” will find that they aren’t part of the conversation. I see my younger co-workers doing this more frequently (but like I said, *most* of them are younger). I sometimes feel like saying “you don’t need to have an opinion about everything!”…and other times I get drawn right into the topic! Anyway, I don’t think you should be embarrassed, per se (I see your comment below), but maybe it’s a good phenomenon to be aware of in yourself and those around you?

      1. Chriama*

        To be fair, how do you contribute to the conversation if you don’t have an opinion? If you liked it, you share why. If you didn’t, you share why. You can talk about the reasons you tried it and the effect (e.g. “I didn’t like the taste but found it helped with my digestion”, or “My friend/relative/spouse hates it but I like it”). If you have no opinion, what exactly do you bring to the conversation? I think most conversations are based on people sharing their opinions on their experiences (how was your weekend? did you see that tv show? great/terrible weather we’re having!), so if you have no opinion there’s no dialogue.

        1. Squidhead*

          I think it’s the perceived need for…almost vehemence…that I find surprising. It feels sometimes like one-upping, especially when it seems like everything a particular person talks about comes with the same level of intensity. Like I said, sometimes it can be very engaging! I do think one can participate in a lower-stakes conversation without feeling obligated to espouse an opinion (neutral statements, asking questions, Etc…) but it’s much more daunting when everyone else seems so. very. invested.

        2. NaoNao*

          Well, to answer the question literally:

          The “Tell me more!” riposte

          The “Oh, funny story about kombucha making…”

          The “Topic Changer”

        3. HoHumDrum*

          I’m an opinion-sharer type, and my mom is not and finds that tiring. Her idea of a good conversation is to just constantly share information about other people and herself. It’s interesting because I think that style can be nice, but also comes off gossipy sometimes. If you hold a conversation through telling stories you can be fun OR you’re monopolizing air time. If you complain a lot you might be funny or you’re a negative downer. If you’re very perky and positive you’re fun or you’re superficial and vapid. If you just try to ask others questions and let them talk you’re a good listener or you’re kind of a brick wall and people don’t feel like they know you. Honestly I don’t think there’s a real way to have a “correct” conversation, I think the trick is to just try to do your best to vibe with who you’re talking to and to find your people who get you as you are. But I say that as someone who is neuroatypical and who has never been able to successfully navigate socializing “correctly” and so I’m giving up on being universally liked and working on liking myself, so YMMV.

        4. JSPA*

          If the point of the conversation is to create self-identified tribes (or to actually hash out the most intense pros and cons of kombucha) this is valid. In any number circumstances, though, artificial tribalism is counterproductive and (for many people) off-putting.

          It’s something we absolutely have been taught to do by the simplistic two-part rivalries that have become part-and-parcel of US culture, whether in politics or diet drink preference or sportball rivalries and a thumbs up / thumbs down scoring system–not something intrinsic to all human culture.

          It may be hard to imagine, but twenty or thirty years ago, it was absolutely the default for people to discuss both the good and bad points of even something so emotionally loaded as their favorite team; the opposing political party; a piece of legislation; let alone drinking the flavored metabolic product of a symbiotic yeast-bacterial complex.

          The point of discussing topics socially wasn’t to signal your membership on team “like,” team “dislike,” or team “y’all need to get a life,” but rather,

          a) to engage in pleasant chat and light repartee
          b) to confirm mutual respect and interest with the people around you, and
          c) to appreciate the range of interests and knowledge of those around you, learning something in the process.

          Now that we’ve outsourced social learning to YouTube, Wikipedia and Alexa, actual artful, thoughtful conversation (as opposed to sounding like extras in a commercial) seems to be something of a dying art.

          1. Jennifer Thneed*

            Thank you! This is a thing I’ve been feeling and having trouble articulating.
            (58, California West Coast)

          2. talos*

            So I do so-called “performative opinionating” all the time (21 years old…maybe age does play a role here). And I *do* actually learn from the conversation. If I shout “I hate [thing]!”, but you like the thing, I will pay attention to your reasons, and frequently I’m able to coherently explain why people like the thing later. I’ve had my own mind changed too. This is despite my (mostly artifical) air of being super worked up over hating the thing.

            People seem pretty surprised about this, but it’s definitely something I do.

            As for *why* I do it, it’s mostly just a way to engage in a conversation on a topic of interest to me, and to make it so there’s actually something to converse about (as opposed to instant mutual agreement, which I find dull; here I can modulate my opinion so it’s different from yours, and we can have a full conversation).

            As for participating in these conversations without having an opinion, I kinda enjoy watching them/asking clarifying questions (“talos, why do you hate [thing] and how does it compare to [other thing]?”).

    4. Wendy Darling*

      This is also me but I’m in my 30s and a west coaster.

      I’ve kind of come to terms with it. I can come off as a bit of a doom-cloud but I’m a defensive pessimist — expecting the worst just makes me feel more prepared, and then I get to be pleasantly surprised if my doom-cloud-ness was unwarranted. 2020 has been really bad for reenforcing that, too — every time I did something I thought might be a little paranoid at the time it ended up being a great idea.

      I just have to be careful not to let it get toxic. And to not become a doomsday prepper.

      We’re all gonna be a little odd 20 years from now, aren’t we, like my grandparents who lived through the depression and secretly hoarded strange things Just In Case.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        I’m with you on that Wendy Darling. I guess I’m sort of a Debbie Downer (of SNL fame) myself.
        But really my negativity is my self-defense coping mechanism. If you expect the worst, you might be surprised once and awhile when good things do happen. But you’ve prepared for the worst case scenario.

        I find it really, really difficult to connect to people who always expect things to go well or have great outcomes as long as they “stay positive,” because I just see that as being unrealistic.

        1. Lisa*

          Except there’s data on people with positive outlooks getting better outcomes, so it’s not unrealistic. Obviously, there’s stuff you can’t control, but there’s a lot you can control and also a lot that depends on your outlook. If you expect things to go well, you unconsciously do things that enable that and make it more likely to happen. Same with negativity – if you assume the worst, you look for ways to justify that assumption and then it becomes self-fulfilling.

          And you can be a planner without being negative – I mean, what kind of plan only accounts for bad outcomes? You have to also plan out what to do if things go well. Not sure how literally you are a Debbie Downer, but if you spend all your time planning out what to do if the 1/100000000000000 thing happens, that’s a waste of your time.

          1. anon for this today*

            This is all such an interesting conversation to read, because

            1) I’m now a planner (didn’t used to be) and believe very much in trying to be positive, looking for opportunity in any circumstance, working to incorporate adversity into my story if necessary. My spouse is very different and sometimes feels I’m a bit Pollyannaish in this respect. I don’t think so; I’ve gone through some horrible things, and just figure there’s not much point dwelling on the horrible at some point (of course there must be time for processing and revisiting and wallowing — I just get bored of it at some point, and that’s just my personality)
            2) I’m often imagining worst-case scenarios, how things can go wrong; I was trained in a STEM field that really focuses on edge cases and mistakes and risks (like, if it all goes well, it’s not that interesting…). I love thinking through possible disasters.
            3) My spouse complains a lot about certain things in a way that really gets on my nerves. Want to contemplate the aftermath of the new COVID variant in lurid detail? I can get into that. Want to complain about the quality of the dialogue in Bridgerton? Not into that: I want to hear *nothing* negative and want *no* critical thinking, thanks, unless it’s about to what extent Daphne is herself by nature or by nurture.

            I guess if I’m enjoying something I don’t like criticism/complaints. I just want to enjoy it. Sometimes I think my spouse enjoys via criticism/complaints. At the same time, spouse won’t think through all the ways things could go wrong, and I wonder why not. It’s interesting.

          2. JSPA*

            Well, a lot of people who fake it to make it have been rewarded for faking it, and continue to fall upwards without ever learning the essentials of the job.

            If they’re in charge of visioning, that’s nobody’s business but the person who’s signing their paychecks. But sometimes it’s the person writing legislation, putting together the prospectus for the would-be-unicorn IPO, the designing bridges, or overseeing proper distribution and handling of frozen vaccines. At that point, people who’ve “fallen up” fail not only themselves and their easily-snowed bosses, but the rest of society, as well.

    5. Tuesday*

      I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or not, but I’m your age, and I’d love to have an animated gripe session with you! To me, not all complaining is “negative.” It very much depends on the tone. I like what Alison said about it being a form of storytelling because that really rings true for me, but it’s good to know how it can affect other people!

      1. I'm in this photo and I don't like it*

        You reminded me of that old saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me!” Haha! You are absolutely right that tone is everything, and it is a kind of storytelling. But I am going to make every effort to be selective about the time and place for it, and I will be sure never to bombard anyone with relentless negativity!

    6. Asenath*

      I’m not sure it’s generational. I’m older than you, and from eastern Canada with New England influences, but I don’t like complaining. Maybe sometimes I avoid it too much! I’m far more likely to annoy other people by offering helpful suggestions in response to a complaint than I am to join in with them. I do try not to do that either, now that I’ve realized that responding to complaints with helpful suggestions sometimes isn’t received well. And of course, I’m talking about the “Co-worker is totally unreasonable with that deadline! etc etc” and not people who simply and obviously need to vent or talk about something far more serious than some annoyance about a work deadline.

      Still, it was a great update.

      1. Not playing your game anymore*

        I’m a problem solver. My first impulse is always to offer a solution, or at least a work around. It took my waaaay to long to realize that many people are complaining just to… make conversation? complain? vent? whatever. They really don’t want to solve the problem, just want to stew in their own juices. So now, even though I have opinions, I often have nothing to say on the subject of *kombucha or any other topic. I’m not a complainer but I do enjoy listening to them in a limited amount. I am glad LW found a connection with her cow orker.

        60. Midwest USA.

        1. Mockingjay*

          I’m a problem solver too. This kind of conversation always puzzles me because I figured you’re telling me about X problem because you want help. Apparently not. In the last few years I’ve started asking, “do you want advice or do you want to vent?”

          99% of the time, it’s vent. Not my preferred type of conversation, but it works for others. It’s rather one way, though.

    7. Batgirl*

      I think it’s a perfectly fine way to start a conversation. The problem is when you don’t pick up on the other person’s cues and plough on when the other person isn’t showing interest or enjoyment. That would be true with any topic or tone though. Honestly, I love a good moan but not unless I can make people laugh. And, as with the bookkeeper, even if you misjudge, your true intentions shine through and can even turn out to be useful.

      1. ObscureRelic*

        This reminds me of a Buffy episode (Fear Itself), in which Willow is frustrated by Buffy’s response to something (I forget what) and Buffy checks herself and says “This is an encouragement talk? I thought it was ‘share my pain’.” It’s all about picking up clues about what the other person wants or needs, and if you’re not sure, sometimes you just have to cut to the chase and ask.

      2. I'm in this photo and I don't like it*

        Yes, Batgirl – there has to be a humorous component, and social cues are paramount!

    8. lazuli*

      I think it also depends on how much you also use humor. Funny complaints tend to land differently than “The world is always horrible” doomsaying, in my opinion, especially with people you don’t know very well.

    9. Vixlynell*

      LOL! I hear you. I’m in my 50s and from/still in New England. I think it’s part of our Yankee up bringing. :)

      1. I'm in this photo and I don't like it*

        It sounds like you really get me! Thank you!

        (And it looks like you understand “tortitude” as well!)

  2. Kuododi*

    To paraphrase The Grinch in belated honor of the season. “Their hearts grew 3 sizes larger that day!!!”.


  3. Tedious Cat*

    I did not see this coming, but my heart is warmed by the unexpectedly wholesome content. Sometimes friendship arrives in forms we don’t expect.

  4. Eliza*

    A while ago I read a news article about a Japanese cafe for negative people, with a drinks menu that included items like “On My Birthday, My Mom Sent Me a Melon from the Countryside, and I Didn’t Have the Heart to Tell Her that I Don’t Really Like Melon Very Much Anymore”. The cafe owner was asked why he’d want to set up a cafe with such a theme, and he explained that he appreciates how pessimists can show their own form of kindness by giving people space when they’re going through hard times rather than trying to push positivity on them. I felt there was a lot of truth to that at the time, and this update reminded me of it. There’s a place for negativity — not everywhere and all the time, but an important place all the same.

    1. I'm in this photo and I don't like it*

      Haha! That sounds like a wonderful cafe! If I ever get to Japan, I’ll look for it!

    2. Teapot Librarian*

      I DID tell my mom when she got me shampoo for my birthday and it was a kind that I didn’t actually like :-)

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I think of it as doing them a kindness, in that they can save their money going forward, and I don’t do it immediately. Separate the gratitude from the information/correction.

  5. germank106*

    I must have missed the original, but I really needed that advice today. We currently have a family member (mid 20s, first real job after college) living with us until they can find their own place to live. That person has their own bedroom/bathroom and a small sitting area that they use for their wfh set-up. They also have their own TV in their bedroom but often prefer to watch in the living room. We share common areas in the house. I work from home in a different area of the house, but their rants often get so loud that it interrupts my focus on my work.
    This family member complains All. Day. Long. When they are working there are outbursts of profanity such as F* this and SOB every half hour or so. The rest of the day he rages about the food he bought, the time he has to spend cooking it and the characters on TV when DH and I watch a show. Not only do they complain all day long, they also voice their complaints in a very aggressive tone and are outright rude.
    I wonder at times if they are feeling inferior to other people since they mostly rage against older and more experienced co-workers/bosses. On the private side there seems to be the same pattern. Anyone that is older is a stupid F*, don’t know what they are doing, etc.
    DH and I try not to give advice unless asked, but I have entered into conversations with this person asking “are you just venting or do you want some help navigating this situation?” The answer was always “no, I don’t need your help, I’m can handle it.” Yet, the very next day they complain about the same situation.
    DH and I have addressed this several times using verbiage such as “hey, you might want to tone down your complaining. It’s really annoying to hear all the time and it interferes with our private time.” None of it has helped.
    I am now at the point that I want to tell him that either the complaining/name calling has to st0p completely or they will have to find their own space to live (I don’t even want to be that nice. In all actuality I want to tell them to grow the F* up and stop whining).
    DH doesn’t want to do something that drastic since kicking them out would lead to trouble with another family member. I tend to give in to DH since his health is not the best, but having this person in our household doesn’t make it any easier on his health either.
    I’m not sure how to address this without coming off as if we’re trying to parent them. Should we address this like a PIP and tell them where we need to see improvement otherwise X will be their last day?

    1. MissDisplaced*

      My husband acts very much like this. I should note that I am also very much a pessimist myself, though I do not get as loud and/or as angry the way he does when he is frustrated with something (think putting together furniture, traffic, etc.).

      There is a pretty big difference between expressing negative views and plain old ANGER. What you’re describing is someone who seems to have progressed from complaining into more of an anger management problem.

      Either way, you are NOT OBLIGATED to put up with it if it disturbs you, your own state of mind, and your well-being.

    2. Batgirl*

      How do you feel about the potential fall out with the family member? Do you feel it’s more worthwhile, even for your husband, to get some negative fall out at a distance as opposed to the fall out in the living room every day? Probably the answer to that one is yes.
      As for the warning period; it’s a nice thing to do to give someone a heads up but this is your house, you don’t owe them that (assuming they have somewhere to go, if not you need to allow them time even if youre definitely kicking them out). It’s definitely not parenting to tell a roommate in a house you own to cut out behaviour that will get them kicked out. Few parents use that technique on the regular! If you do discuss it I would focus on behaviours rather than personal comments: ‘x and y bother me and need to stop’ rather than ‘x and y are signs you need to grow up’ (even if that’s true).

      1. JSPA*

        Legally, it’s not always as simple as, “your house, so you can tell them to leave.” Depending on location and circumstances, this can very much be a “legal notice required” scenario, unless there’s something like an arrest and a restraining order.

        1. germank106*

          Thankfully we had him sign a month-to-month to lease, so we’re in the clear legally as long as we give him enough notice.

    3. JSPA*

      Concur that this is an anger management problem, not a negativity problem. And adding, people who think everyone else is out to get them, and that they’re smarter than everyone else, are often on a one-way trip to a bad end, if they don’t get professional help.

      I’d see if you can use a focus on the behaviors to get them into therapy, by way of presenting CBT as a way to find out how to get the outcomes you need. They may think they’re going in to find out how to rub the boss’s nose in their pile of brilliance, and along the way, develop tools for acting like a member of society, more broadly.

      1. germank106*

        I did talk to them about possible therapy at one time after DH informed me that they acted the same way since they were a child. They turned the therapy offer down saying therapy is for crazy people and they don’t need it. I don’t feel I should push more, ultimately it’s up to them to get therapy before falling on their face job wise or in their personal life.
        We actually talked to the other family member (their mother and DHs sister) tonight and explained what was going on. She didn’t bat an eye and told us to “kick their A** out” if we needed to.
        We will talk with them this weekend and explicitly explain what needs to change now in order for them to keep on living here. If not we will give them notice and have them go somewhere else.

  6. Not So NewReader*

    Good for you, OP and good for her also. I really enjoyed hearing your enthusiasm as you described her support for you in your difficulties with your mother.

    And yep, sometimes the most powerful thing we can do for someone is simply say, “Oh this really sucks…”.
    We all need to feel seen and feel heard, OP. I suspect she has a keen awareness of this herself for reasons.

  7. Ding! Dong!*

    Ahh this makes me happy! I can be a bit like this (I can get through ANY situation by myself, I just need a moment to complain about it, and if I can’t complain I can’t move forward), and it can be hard to be like this in a world where we’re almost forced to be positive all the time and constantly look for solutions to problems, but I have found some peace in just taking some time to be in the moment, and be okay with not being okay.

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