Nothing is ever “not bad”

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You might fondly remember the post in which I urged readers to drop the “should”. Several months in, I can say that I have successfully stuck to that change in the language that I use, and my writing has gotten more precise because of it. I also now feel bad whenever I catch myself still falling back to using “should”, because it is usually a cop-out preventing me from stating my honest opinion. It’s an ongoing process, but one that I am very happy about.

The power of habits like this one is that they become automatic after a while, and over time reveal additional aspects that could benefit from a little more attention. Once you don’t have to actively think about a particular habit anymore, your brain is free to notice and explore other areas.

As soon as avoiding “should” became second nature, a different quirk started popping up. One sentence that I started noticing over and over recently is:

That’s not bad.

Meant as an appreciation of a circumstance, or sometimes even as praise, “that’s not bad” sets a really low bar. It describes whatever is being commented on as being just good enough:

I expected this to be shit, but it is not shit. I acknowledge that you did something that is not shit.

“That’s not bad” comes in many shapes and sizes. One friend, when given an alcoholic beverage from my country to try, declared it to be “not too shabby”. For him, that was one of those phrases that are so ingrained in us that we use them without noticing ourselves, as most everything was “not too shabby” to him. I know that this is established slang, but there are so many better ways to express appreciation. Also please don’t start off by assuming that German beer is shabby.

A much better way to let someone know you are thankful for their effort or admire their accomplishments, or when you talk about anything you enjoy, is to use the positive voice. Words like “nice”, “good”, “great”, “impressive”, and “fantastic” come to mind, with many more following in the same general direction.

  • “Your solution is not bad.” → “Your solution is really good.”
  • “The food here is not bad.” → “I like the food here.”
  • “This band is not bad.” → “This band is great.”

There is little need to downplay the fact that we like something. Calling something “not bad” sneakily lowers the expectations of others before they have even been exposed to whatever it is we are referring to. We might want to play it safe in case they end up not liking it, because we worry they might think less of us because we do.

Well so what? In the grand scheme of everything, that makes absolutely no difference to anything ever. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone can explore and express it in any way and with however much enthusiasm they please.

Avoiding the negative voice has another beautiful side effect: the recipients of our comments will actually feel appreciated. Positive reinforcement is a powerful concept, and even just this tiny bit more of it can make a difference. It can make employees feel more valued, friends more respected, and family members more loved.

It is difficult for me to sound genuine when giving praise. I frequently think that I end up sounding entirely fake, most likely because I am not used to expressing honest appreciation. Not giving people positive feedback will not make me any better at it, so I decided to jump in and go with it. After all, practice makes perfect, while stagnation rarely changes anything.

Whenever I catch myself falling back to the negative voice, regardless of the situation I am in, I immediately stop and rephrase my former statement. Whether I am talking to a coworker, presenting something to executives, or chatting with a salesperson in a store, I openly advertise that I recognize my own mistake and correct myself in front of whomever I am speaking with. Sure, it might appear odd or even eccentric if the other person is unaware of what I am trying to accomplish, but I am doing it for my own benefit and theirs. It’s a subtle change, but one that I think would help other people just as much.

I cannot say for certain if my effort has yet had any effect on the people around me, as that is for them to decide. It has certainly changed my own outlook: I don’t immediately jump to negative expressions, and give everything an honest chance. If you yourself notice the pattern of calling things “not bad” or one of the many different phrases like it, try adjusting your language one statement at a time. It can only help.

Note how I did not say that “it can’t hurt”. Why would I use a negative expression here, and do even so much as hint at the possibility of a change like this hurting, when the positive voice makes it sound so much more rewarding? Think of all the instances in which what you say has a negative connotation, and shift it around to a positive message instead.

As with any change to long-held habits, it takes time and effort to break out of our established automatisms. I hope that when you tell others about this post, you start by telling them that it is “good”. Maybe even “great”.

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