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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