Good News and Social Cues

There’s a social prohibition against bragging. This seems to make sense: bragging as that ‘look what I have, look at me’ behavior is really unpleasant. It’s a dominance move: everyone is stuck in either responding by praising the other person for having something, or trying to verbally wrestle over who has the best life/luck. I like this norm against bragging.

But even not-bragging, good-news sharing conversation seems to be socially tricky, to the point of being avoided.

I can come up with a few reasons we have this problem.

1a) It’s hard to have a conversation about happy news. Bad news can generate a whole host of bonding experiences in response. Responding to bad news with some version of “Ugh, I’ve been there and it sucks, I’m sorry” is considered helpful and sympathetic. The suffering person is not alone! Misery loves company, and all. I think the implicit interaction is like this:

Alice: Bad thing has happened to me!
Bob: Bad Thing has happened to me too! Other people you are similar to have also had Bad Thing and survived!

When it comes to sharing happy news, though, sharing about your similar experience in most cases seems to be less good, presumably because it downgrades the uniqueness or individuality of the person sharing. I think it looks something like this:

Alice: Good Thing has occurred!
Bob: People similar to you also have Good Thing! You are not sharing something unique or new to your social group!
Alice: er. okay. yes.

2a) When the happy news isn’t something that’s familiar or common to your conversational partner, there’s even less they can say that leads to ongoing conversation: yay! Go you! That’s awesome!
These are all good responses! But if Bob says “Yay! That’s awesome! …then Alice is sort of trapped. She can continue to expand on how happy she is or how awesome her Good Thing is, but then the conversation is entirely focused on her good luck, which doesn’t make the conversation as fun for Bob. At some point, Alice can decide to change the subject or bring the conversation to a close, but it’s not always easy to do.

3a) It seems to take more work (possibly because we have less practice) to hit the right level of excitement and joy when someone tells you good news. I think for many people, it requires more mental gear-shifting to suddenly light up and be enthusiastic* than to sympathize/empathize. Additionally, someone’s good luck can prompt jealousy  in a way that someone’s misfortune rarely does. Jealousy-squashing plus seeming the correct and authentic level of happiness is more mental work.

So. What I’m saying is, sharing good news is hard.

Also, I’d like people to do it more.

Partially, it’s selfish: other people’s happiness and successes are fun for me to hear, and, probably because I talk to people about their mental health often, it feels like I hear them unusually rarely.

Less selfishly and more altruistically, I think it might be beneficial in my communities. Positive psychology has an unfortunate habit of outrunning its evidence but it seems concretely established that gratitude and celebrating achievement is good for you.

So! How do we do it?

I’ve been doing a conversation like this:

Kate: Can I tell you something that makes me happy?
Bob: Sure, what?
Kate: I’m going to be able to do Fun Thing! I’m really excited about it!
Bob: [enthusiasms]

I’ve both heard that this is helpful to others and noticed that it makes me more willing to share my happiness. I’m not sure exactly why, but I have a few interrelated theories.

1b) The other person has some warning about what’s up. Instead of demanding they switch mental gears, I’m saying “I’m going to ask you to be happy for me, can you do that for a second?”

2b) The framing seems to discourage the implication that I am sharing a Good Thing that is about me being special or unique: instead I’m letting a friend know about something that made me happy.

3b) A favor/consent/control: firstly, the person (Bob, in this case) has the theoretical option to say ‘no, not right now.’ Even if in 99% of the cases, the person says that they want to hear about what’s making me happy, they have been given a choice in the matter, and I think, a sense that I am not just sharing my good fortune for my own sake—I want to know if they want to hear about it. Thirdly, I think there’s a sense that their role is to listen, then express happiness, and that this is all I’m asking from them.

1b, 2b, and 3b do not solve the problem of 2a, where I have to decide when and how to turn the topic back to other topics, doing so with minimal awkwardness or implied false modesty. Nor does the ‘can I tell you something that makes me happy’ construction avoid the problem of excess: if I’m constantly asking you to share my happiness without asking about yours or focusing on you, I’m still being rude in conversation. But all things aside, it makes it easier for me to enjoy others’ happiness and share my own.

*I spend a lot of time with people with depression, my intuition might be wrong here. 

Credit goes to Mitch for framing this habit as social cueing, making me think about how people share good news effectively. 


3 thoughts on “Good News and Social Cues

  1. An additional problem I have is that it’s hard for me to be happy for someone when I’m having a bad day. Especially during a bout of depression. So instead of “Yay, I’m so glad for you!” my default response is “I hate you and I wish you’d stop rubbing your happiness in my face.”

  2. This also solves a different problem for me, for situations where your interlocutor is happy/enthusiastic sharing in your good news, but it’s not obvious to them what is good news vs what is everyday sharing of neutral information. So they would acknowledge your news in a neutral way and all the while you’re thinking, “Would it kill you to be happy for me once in a while?”.

  3. (nods) Giving people cues about how to respond is helpful, totally.

    I see people do this on social media a lot, actually, though it’s usually more preemptive defense. (e.g., “I have this new difficult project at work, which I’m excited and intimidated by! (details) I’m sharing this because I’m enthused and thinking about it; shared enthusiasm is welcome but please don’t comment to ‘solve’ my problem.”) I don’t see it much face-to-face, which is kind of a pity.

    From the other side, my preferred response to other people’s uncued good news (outside of Facebook, where in my circles clicking “Like” is considered an adequate response) is similar to my preferred response to any other conversational gambit — I acknowledge it, and I ask questions to encourage continued discussion of that topic in a direction that interests me.

    That is, my response to “I got my art accepted in a gallery show!” might be “That’s great! Have you been applying to galleries lately, or is this more serendipitous?” Or “Awesome! What gallery?” Or “Cool! What pieces are you submitting?” Or “Oh, how interesting! I’m curious, does staging your art for a show change how you experience that art?” Or “Neat! I’m curious, does having your art as part a show change how you experience that show?” Or any of a million other things.

    Or even “That’s cool! I actually don’t know anything about art galleries, what’s involved in that?” if it’s case 2a.

    All of that cues the person to keep talking about their art. When I’m tired of hearing about that, I might instead say something like “Cool, that’s great! So how’s your garden coming along?” Or any of a million other things. Or maybe I’ll talk about what’s up in my life.

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