The Arrogance of Joy

Positive words lead to positive mindsets.


I was listening to an interview on NPR recently with a former White House staffer. I, sadly, don’t even remember his name. But he taught me a valuable lesson:

People who answer questions in a foreign language are more positive (and succinct) than when they answer in their native language.

“How was your day?” asks the camarero (waiter) as he serves the evening meal.

“Good, thank you,” you say in reply.

But if an American asks you the same question, you are more likely to reply with something like:

“I can’t complain.”

“Pretty good overall.”

“Not bad.”

You qualify the quality of your day, because to have a “good” day seems almost mythical or perhaps arrogant.

What if you just kept it at “good,” as you would when answering in a foreign language?

The reason you are more succinct and more positive while speaking in a foreign language is simple: you know fewer words. You also are less familiar with the complexities of the language.

Childlike language

Think of a native English-speaking child. They know “good.” They know “bad.” They often know “ouchies,” “hurt,” and maybe even “sick.” But, “not bad” is a foreign concept. Isn’t “not bad,” by definition, “good?” Not in its implication, though. It is meant to convey a sense of “I am still alive, but this day has had some rough spots.”

Somewhere between the age of four and thirty-four, we learned to tone down our joy for life. We learned that it is not acceptable to feel great, think great things, and believe for great results. We were taught to sigh when asked about our day, plan for the worst-case scenario, and temper our happiness.

It starts with the words we say. It penetrates to our minds. It starts a vicious cycle.

Try this:

Pretend you never learned those qualifying words and phrases. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “good” be “good” and your “joy” be “joy.”

How have the words you use stripped your joy? How have learned phrases affected your positive thoughts?

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  • CabinetDoork

    Not bad, Matt. This was a pretty good post. (Just kidding… It was awesome!) So true. You can almost predict a person’s level of joy in the first nano second they begin to answer the following questions: How are you? Have you had a good week? So, what’s been going on? Happiness, positivity, joy are choices that we make. I agree with you, Matt. The first manifestation of that choice is your choice of words. Choose wisely!

    • Well played Jeremy.

      You are right, so much is “said” in the first two seconds. Shoulders slump, head down….or lean forward, smile, eyes light up. I like the last three.

  • Allt fint. Icelandic for good/fine. Sometimes I say thing like I’m okay, so/so, etc. But for me it’s partially about honesty. Pretending that life is all “good,” even when you’re having a plethora of problems seems a tad dishonest to me. But I do agree a simple good or fine is best in the majority of cases.

    • Very true Dan. My dad use to have an employee that if you said “Good Morning” he’d say, “whats so good about it??” It was partly his joke, but I think that might be an extreme example of how the complexity of language changes our thinking…

  • Haha, I had to laugh as I read this Matt, because my four year old does know phrases like “not bad”. She says things like “I can’t believe I’m saying this…” and “…I knew this day would come” and “you’ve gotta be kidding me…”.

    haha, but you’re right, in general, kids are much more simple in their language.

    I think its so true that we often qualify our responses. I have never thought of how it affects my thoughts. I have a feeling that it does have a substantial affect though. I’m now going to be more observant of the effects. Thanks for the great post!

    • Your daughter sounds like a treasure Mark.

      • haha, no shortage of entertaining, tweetable moments for sure! The best recently was she was told by her mother to pick up the shoes and clothes in her room and she put her hand on her forehead, shook her head and said “I knew this day would come!” and then sulked into her room. hahaha

  • Great points. I’m guilty of saying “hanging in here” a lot when asked how I am. Need to focus on saying “Great!” and really meaning it! thanks!

  • I always say “Not much” to the question “What’s going on?”. Didn’t realize the negativity in that statement. So much IS going on. Gotta remember that! Thanks Matt.

  • Fantastic, spectacular, splendid, and wonderful. These are the words I most often use to describe how I’m doing when people ask. Many people seem surprised when they hear such a response, but it’s simple – and true.

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