Grumpy People Get the Details Right

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Photo: Disney

Think back to the last time you had to navigate a customer-service situation. Perhaps you were trying to make a doctor’s appointment when few convenient times were available, or you may have been speaking with a credit-card rep in an effort to get a onetime waiver on a late payment charge. Maybe you were speaking with an airline representative in hopes of finagling priority seating. Did you adopt a warm tone and play nice? Or did you raise your voice and speak aggressively? You are a nice person, so you probably chose the kind route. The tough pill for most of us to swallow is that those overbearing screamers often get their way. 

Feisty personalities, although unpleasant, can be tremendously effective. The psychological agility we’re advocating here would expand your repertoire to give you access to the tougher, more direct, and sometimes more effective approach. You’re probably avoiding this strategy because you think that being negative is, well, negative. You may think that aggressive, hostile, or downright mean people are generally jerks and you don’t want to run with that crowd. The good news is that a whole range of negativity — of beneficial negativity, mind you — has nothing to do with being a jerk. 

Negative emotions can also help you focus on the situation at hand. When you are about to drill a hole in the wall, chances are that you pay close attention to the measurements involved as well as to the position of your hand. The anxiety associated with the downside risk encourages you to drill in exactly the right spot. (Cutting pieces of birthday cake with a plastic knife is a very different experience, in which a good-enough approach is, in fact, good enough.) 

Research by Kate Harkness from Queen’s University shows that people prone to depressed moods also tend to notice more details. This is particularly true when it comes to facial expressions. Happy-go-lucky individuals take in the broad strokes — okay, you have a nose and some eyes and it looks like your eyebrows are raised. The less upbeat folks in the Harkness studies, by contrast, were eagle-eyed when it came to facial expression, attuned to the smallest quiver of a lip or the slightest narrowing of the eyes. This is why — and you’ve probably noticed this — when you are in a fight with your romantic partner, you read even the tiniest changes in their demeanor, things you’d never notice when you were in a good mood. 

So if happy people gloss over the fine print and it leads to more comfortable interactions, then shouldn’t we all be satisfied with their close-enough approach? Well, no, of course not. Would you really prefer a happy, easy-going attorney to a somewhat grumpier one who would be sure to catch every little problem in that new contract? We wouldn’t, either. 

The culture of air traffic control (ATC) tends to the negative. This is, in part, because ATC is a safety-conscious industry in which the downside of a risk of mistakes can be high. At the minor end of the spectrum, errors lead to delays and logistical complications; at the other end, costs can run into tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of people dead. Pushing tin, as ATC work is sometimes irreverently called, requires an eye for detail; those little blips on the radar screen are actually airplanes, each with its own call number, altitude, speed, and flight plan. Negative emotions like anxiety and suspiciousness can act like an attentional funnel that narrows the mind’s eye to important details. There is no room in ATC for good enough. In keeping with what we’ve seen, when all goes right in the control tower, no one notices; people only pay special attention when things go wrong. 

Greg Petto, an air traffic controller in Louisville, Kentucky, told us that his tower is responsible for fifty square miles of air traffic between the ground and an altitude of ten thousand feet. This is a high-stress job in which planes that come within three miles of one another are cutting it dangerously close. Petto describes the radar room as a dojo, the Japanese word for a martial arts training room. The controllers manage seven hundred flights every day and their busiest time is in the middle of the night, when local Federal Express jets take to the skies to record numbers. We asked him whether knowing that FedEx is transporting packages, and not human cargo, makes ATC seem like less of a high-stakes game at night. 

To be honest,” he replied, “I have to think of all planes as dots on a screen. If I stopped to actually think about the real deal up in the sky, I’d go crazy.” And then he added, “It feels good though, to line up all the planes at just the right distance and at just the right time. It feels really good.” Despite his pride in his work, Petto is the first to admit that there is a little negativity built into the controllers themselves. They can be bratty or competitive when they get wound tight. “We deal with it by poking fun at one another, or by going home and praying, or drinking, depending on your cultural heritage.” 

It’s important to linger here for a moment and point out that most people make a huge mistake where negative emotions are concerned. They typically separate the experience of negative feelings from the expression of negative feelings. Most people we chat with are quick to accept that feeling bad is a valid, and even inevitable, psychological experience. 

On the other hand, expressing frustration, or even too much sadness, is anathema to most folks. It’s as if we expect ourselves to be computers, whose inner processes are largely hidden and divorced from what appears on the screen. This attitude exists in varying degrees across cultures; it’s part of the idea that it’s easier to live in a society where people are smiling than it is to coexist with people who are shouting.

But it misses the point that emotional expressions exist for a reason. Emotional expressions are an important way in which we communicate with others. A furrowed brow or frown warns people off when you aren’t in the mood (and sometimes you’re not in the mood). A gasp of fear has a contagious effect such that bystanders also feel a jolt of adrenaline and look around nervously. Expressing feelings, including negative ones, is a big part of the human emotional experience. 

From The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your "Good" Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, 2014.