Not everybody can be a cheerleader celebrating only things positive. A boss who dismisses suggestions because of doubts and perceived risks is considered “too negative.” A person always posing obstacles and challenges to any initiative is called behind his back as “Negatron,” after the Transformers movie character. As the subordinate in “Dilbert” being corrected by the boss for numbers that don’t add up complains — why is it so hard for you to give a compliment?
Sometimes, being negative is a good thing.
In medicine, negative results are welcomed with a sigh of relief, followed by a big celebration. One is tested for a possible ailment and the best news a doctor can give his nervous patient is that his laboratory results turned out to be negative — that the suspected condition is not present. (It’s just muscle tightness.)
In golf too, the higher the negative number, indicating how many strokes below par a golfer has racked up, the better his placing on the leader board.
Still, being negative is the opposite of affirming and supportive.
Negative campaigning in politics is publicly denounced as unethical. “Opposition research” is intended to flush out all the negatives about a candidate, even going to the extent of manufacturing nonexistent liabilities. Even candidates themselves use “oppo” research to check for their vulnerable spots and have talking points for demolition jobs, which has nothing to do with construction. Sometimes, foreign powers help tilt the balance by only releasing hacked negative material on one candidate to favor her opponent.
To allow the candidate to rise above the fray and be huggable to children and their moms, it is his operatives and proxies who take care of the attacks. These can be legal complaints from predictable personalities — they’re always the same names.
Politicians publicly declare that they want to discuss issues and not engage in personal attacks. Our brand of political discourse, even outside of elections (like nowadays) is more personal than ideological. Who follows a match of wits and ideas? Dirty linen, bales and bales of it, is what keeps the ratings up.
Why are some categories defined by what they are not? History and current affairs are referred to as “nonfiction” although some in this genre involve conspiracy theories and speculative realities. Fresh faces in politics that have no experience in the art of give and take are called “nontraditional” politicians. Healthy food is not referred to as nutritional but “non-fattening.” Peace agreements are called non-aggression pacts.
Some define themselves by what they don’t like. Hate objects are specified and categorized as personal allergies. CEOs are known for what irritates them — do not ask him to sign documents on his golf day. He is pissed off by loud voices and grating arguments.
Getting along entails avoiding negative traits that are known to be annoying to those you are trying to impress. Somebody who does not piss off the boss is regarded as satisfactory — he doesn’t have anything negative on his evaluation sheet — no room for improvement.
Architects interview customers to elicit what they dislike. Shown a home design, the negative thinker can pick the nits and observe that there are too many arches or the storage space is too small. But asked what design she has in mind, she draws a blank. In the construction stage for such a client, there are continuous change orders, with walls being torn down and floors ripped up, even before the cement has dried.
A negative list, because it is always shorter, seems easier to remember and follow. With a diet, food types to avoid (high fat, sugar, carbs) are a small slice of the food pyramid. Food not in the null list is therefore allowed. Rules for visa application (must not have a reason to stay indefinitely) or literary contests (must not have been previously published) also tend to be negatively phrased.
Negative criteria serve as an effective screening mechanism for medicine as well as life. Not having certain disadvantages like bad looks and awful attire get us through the door of an exclusive event faster than possessing unseen virtues like perseverance.
The positive approach of presuming limitless possibilities should be screened by what can’t be done. When asked to undertake a job, it’s all right to reply in the negative — no problem.
A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.