Negative and positive writing

Until Language on the Move came along, Web of Language was my favorite language-related blog. Now it’s my second-favorite … A few days ago, the blogger, Dennis Baron, Professor of English at the University of Illinois, wrote about a psychology experiment that had apparently shown that writers feeling negative are more effective writers than writers feeling positive. I don’t want to add to Professor Baron’s reflections on how to induce negativity in writers. What struck me about the study was that the researcher, Joe Forgas, Professor of Psychology at UNSW, seems to have a somewhat limited view of human emotions: “negative moods”, “neutral moods” and “positive moods” and, hey presto, we’ve captured the whole spectrum of writers’ emotions. Whatever happened to the nuances? Is a sad writer doing as well as a clinically depressed one? Is it more useful for my blog writing to be a bit melancholy or should I write from the depths of despair?

One of the sad effects of a certain form of English management-speak spreading to every corner of the globe is that it sucks the life out of the language as Don Watson noted so eloquently in Death Sentence. What do we make of a discipline such as psychology if “negative,” “neutral” and “positive’ are the height of sophistication with which to reflect on “moods”? On a recent flight to Australia, the cabin crew advised us shortly before landing that anyone “feeling unwell” should report to a flight attendant. I felt very unwell after 14 hours sitting in the same uncomfortable spot and I’m pretty sure everyone on the plane felt similarly “unwell.” No one reported to a flight attendant maybe because everyone knew that they were after flu symptoms. However, the guy two rows in front of me who had been coughing and sneezing for 14 hours didn’t report either – and I can’t blame him: if no one else of the other passengers who were clearly also “unwell” with swollen feet, queasy stomachs, stiff necks etc. felt it necessary to report their “unwellness” why should he report his?

All this leads to the question whether the person who wrote the announcement (it was clearly read off and I’d heard it before) was “in a positive mood” when they wrote this useless statement or whether it’s just that so many writers suffer from an impoverished vocabulary?

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Boobialla

    Professor Forgas has a much richer (and more positive!) view of negative emotions than this post suggests. Read his own words here:
    It’s fascinating material for anyone interested in how our moods and emotions influence not just our use of language but the way we think, the judgements we make, the effectiveness of our memory and so on. Here’s one quote:

    “It is strange indeed that the one emotion we all seem to want to avoid – sadness – can be so beneficial and useful. Equally odd, perhaps, is that the pursuit of happiness – one of the “inalienable rights” famously set down by Thomas Jefferson in the United States Declaration of Independence – can sometimes lead our clever brains so astray.

    “Since Plato’s time, many theorists have seen emotion as a potentially dangerous, invasive force that subverts rational judgment and action. This idea gained its most powerful expression in Freud’s psychodynamic theories early last century. In this view, emotions can “take over” thinking and behaviour unless psychological resources are deployed to control them. When logic and reason deliver so many tangible benefits, why are we humans so prone to succumb to our feelings, throw caution to the wind, fall head over heels in love or get overwhelmed by despair? In short, what good are these seemingly irrational states of mind, and why did our evolutionary heritage bestow them on us?

    “More to the point, if being happy is such a universal goal why is the human emotional repertoire so heavily skewed towards negative feelings? Apart from happiness and surprise, four of the six deeply ingrained basic emotions identified in humans are negative ones: fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Fear, and anger and disgust have obvious evolutionary benefits, triggering a fight, flight or avoiding response. But what is the point of sadness?”

  • Emily Farrell

    I think the issue isn’t that so-called negative emotions can’t be positive or productive, but rather a problematization of the notion of sadness as, in Professor Forgas’ words (as you quote them), ‘one emotion’. What of the range, the spectrum, the vast networks of emotions that we experience from moment to moment and simultaneously? And indeed of the myriad ways that we can use our language resources to express these emotions?

  • vittoria

    I felt many mixed emotions at once this week following feedback of what I think is an example of impoverished vocabulary. I was following up my child’s school report for science. His teacher described his performance as ‘barely adequate’. As this didn’t actually tell me anything about how to follow up and help him, I asked for elaboration. Does this mean lack of comprehension of concepts/not handing in homework/behavior in class/handwriting/attendance/lateness/?. Her summary, so negative, yet so empty, gave me no indication of the real problems. As for the point of sadness, I think it can often spurs us on to take action on issues that we want to see changed.

  • Jenny Zhang

    I think Boobialla might miss the salient point that Ingrid was trying to convey here. Ingrid did not refute the “benefits” or “usefulness” of human emotions on thinking and behavior, be it “positive”, “neutral” or “negative” in Professor Forgas’ terms. It is the oversimplification of human emotions into a few mutually exclusive categories in positivist researches conducted in carefully controlled experimental conditions that we need to query. Just like what Ingrid questioned, “Whatever happened to the nuances?” Can’t we, as complex social beings in complex social conditions, have complex, nuanced and sometimes ambivalent emotions? Can’t we, as individuals from diverse cultures, have distinct understanding and practices of what counts as “positive/neural/negative” emotions. Even the most delicate lie detector can’t read human minds, let alone complex emotions. Personally, I feel “positive” and “negative” of myself. I don’t know which writer category I could fit in, maybe …“neutral”?

    PS: Ingrid, please don’t write from “the depths of despair”. That’s not gonna be “more effective” for us poor EFL readers. 😉