My colleague says I’m too negative. Is being honest at work improper?

I had a bad time over the Christmas break. I won’t go into the particulars – let me leave it at an unexpected event rocked my family and caused me some heartache. I returned to work in early January, and was met with the usual questions: “How was your break?” “What did you get up to in the holidays?” “Are you feeling refreshed in the new year?”

I’m an honest person at heart and decided not to give formulaic lies in response. I told colleagues who asked that I hadn’t had a good break, but didn’t feel comfortable saying much more. Some colleagues were sympathetic, but I was floored to discover that one person complained to a manager that my attitude was too negative. How can simple honesty be out of place at work?

Illustration: John Shakespeare
Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit: John Shakespeare

I’m really sorry to hear that something so upsetting happened to your family late last year. I’m also sorry that someone at your work has decided to treat that news with such a horrible lack of compassion.

As you’ll know if you’ve read Work Therapy for a while, I think it’s generally best to confront unkindness and close-mindedness with the opposite – an attempt to understand. Is the person being rude or mean having a hard time themselves and lashing out indiscriminately? Have they misinterpreted something you said or did? Are they presenting a good idea or a fair point in an insensitive way?

It’s not an easy standard to uphold, though. Even at the best of times, fighting fire with something non-incendiary can be a difficult choice to make. And in this case, I wonder if it’s bordering on the impossible. I say that because your colleague’s dobbing strikes me as so petty and mean-spirited that only the most unusual of mitigating circumstances could make it seem reasonable – or even understandable.

So, I’m going to break my own rule and suggest this isn’t a case of a peer going through their own problems or making a bad decision based on a mix-up or a different (but valid) perspective. This is just classic toxic positivity.

When our workplace begins to demands that we refrain from fundamental honesty, something is disastrously wrong.

Toxic positivity is a big psychological topic. (And like so many psychological concepts it affects culture and society, including – perhaps especially – work.) I’m not going to pretend I can cover it in less than 500 words, but I do think it explains why your co-worker has acted so obnoxiously.

They’ve taken (what I consider to be) the bizarre position that being outwardly upbeat trumps everything; it’s more important than getting to the bottom of problems, more important than being truthful, more important than material reality. And the most farcical part is that, in the end, it’s more important than enjoying work – because relentless toxic positivity leads inevitably to a whole work environment comprising only facades and fakery.


Naturally, everyone wants to work in a place where most people are happy (or at least content) most of the time. But most people also know that not everyone can be cheerful and bright every single minute of every single day. That’s just not how humans operate nor what the vagaries of life allow.

Your question is so straightforward and yet so telling. Yes, the workplace – just like any social situation – often asks us to modify ourselves in some way. To hold our tongue, toe the company line or err on the side of caution.

But when it demands that we refrain from fundamental honesty – “I had a rough time over the holidays” – something is disastrously wrong. There’s no pay-off that makes such self-repression worthwhile. Not cultural stability. Not social smoothing. Not the less onerous trek offered by the path of least resistance.

Simple honesty should not be out of place at work. In fact, I think the leaders at your organisation need a dose of it straight to their faces. They need to be told that they’re responsible for a culture that is allowing a dangerous and destructive idea to embed itself.

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