On Positivity, Vulnerability, and Culture (with a Touch of the Coriolis Effect)

Cloud, who blogs over as Wandering Scientist, posted a review of Laura Vanderkam’s “I Know How She Does It“. I have not read Vanderkam’s book and I have to say it is unlikely that I will. I occasionally read her blog, I have read a couple of her previous books, and I think I have a pretty good idea as to what I might find in the book.

What I want to discuss here stems from one of Cloud’s comments about the book. Namely, Cloud says that Vanderkam’s book gives a nice counterbalance to all the stories of gloom and doom that accompany a woman’s choice to have it all (family and a satisfying job) in that it shows, on a number of examples of high-earning women, that the time requirements of raising a family and keeping a career going are not incompatible with one another, and that people don’t actually work as much as they say they do. In essence, Cloud feels Vanderkam’s book counters a lot of negativity surrounding the talk of balancing career and family.

Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking… A dangerous passtime! I know…

I have been thinking about what the positive and negative really mean in our lived experiences and in how we choose to present them to others.

As someone who didn’t grow up in this culture, I think I have a much higher threshold  than the US mainstream for what constitutes annoying whining and complaining, and a much lower threshold for what constitutes unfounded optimism or bragging or drumming up what are essentially non-achievements. So much of what is considered whining in the blogosphere, for instance, simply registers as relieving pressure or being honest on my radar. But optimistic and clean definitely trumps honest or messy in the culture that the middle class consumes; even after having lived here for 15+ years, this is one of the cultural aspects that I can only deal with intellectually, while every fiber of my being wants to scream “Bullshit!”

Most books that I have read in recent years and that were published in the US completely fail to elicit any emotional response from me, except annoyance. They don’t make me think or feel anything, they don’t dazzle with the beauty of the writing, they just kill time, and not very effectively at that. At this point, I think I am almost entirely lost to contemporary fiction as a genre, as a majority of even critically acclaimed books I find just… disappointing. I have become a very timid reader, deciding on getting a book as if I am approaching a hornet’s nest.

So I have found myself gravitating towards the books where I am at least guaranteed to be entertained: science fiction (I don’t care for fantasy) and when I travel I often pick up what I would call comedic autobiographies. It turns out, when I strive to be entertained, I sometimes end up being surprisingly moved or led to think. It goes to show that sometimes the best writing comes from the people who do not take themselves too seriously. (Or, as with many things in life, the key to happiness is low expectations.)

I read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” a few years ago, and I didn’t dislike it. Recently, I read Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman,” and I really liked it. On the surface, the two books are very similar — funny women talk about growing up and how they developed into the feminists they are today. And the two books, to me, show a stark contrast between what I would consider a vcoice that is marketable in the US versus what is a more European (specifically British) take on the same topics. I am not going to speculate how much of the difference comes from the writers versus the editorial process. I will just say that Tina Fey is a celebrity, and “Bossypants” was meant to be a big seller. Caitlin Moran is a virtual unknown in the US, so “How to Be a Woman” would, I am sure, not be expected to appeal to nearly as large of an audience. I think these considerations probably play the roles of importance comparable to each woman’s facility with the metaphorical pen. 

Put simply, “Bossypants” has been sanitized for your protection. While she writes about growing up and all the trials and tribulations that accompany it, there is really no emotional component to the writing. It feels very much removed from the experiences, as if someone else’s story was being written. The words are there, the stories are there, the connection… is not there. 

In contrast, Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman” is messier. Sure, there is profanity, but I don’t think that’s all of it. “How to Be a Woman” actually manages to stir up memories of teenage years, the writing feels very real, it makes you laugh and reminisce and nod in recognition. For instance, when you are a teenager, you do all sorts of things because you are totally convinced that you know what you’re doing. Of course, you don’t, but they feel urgent and important and right. Moran manages to powerfully convey that sense of importance and urgency that colors much of teenage years, and I felt I could completely be there with her, really and truly in her teenage shoes. Fey, in contrast, never lets you forget that she is all grown up now, and the mess is downplayed; some vulnerability is shown, but it’s really only in retrospect, so you almost pity the poor soul. I was a teen once and did things that in hindsight were ridiculous or degrading, but only in hindsight; then, the actions were fueled by curiosity, lust, and lots of energy that just needed to channeled somewhere. Moran reminds you of how the hurricane of teenage emotions feels. Fey tells you how it all looks to a mildly concerned adult who is shadowing the teenager.

Which brings me back to the comment that Vanderkam’s book is a good counterbalance to all the negative messages young women receive today about how hard it is to have work and family.

I actually think there is not enough genuine whining about this topic, or any other. I am drawn to blogs and articles where the authors sound like real people, warts and all. That means joy sounds like joy (rather than as a commercial for antihistamines, with families in pastels frolicking through the meadows) and where sadness/anger/irritation sound like those emotions (rather than as the Hayden Christensen Star Wars attempts at portraying them). Because I absolutely do not believe that there are perfect people, but I do believe that there are some people who lack in self-awareness, there are some people who are control-freaks and who do not believe in letting even a sliver of genuine vulnerability show through, and there are simply many people who have firm boundaries between their presentation to the world and their genuine selves and are extremely careful about whom they allow to peek into their inner sanctum. However, I feel that there is no real friendship until and unless you have shared some of your vulnerabilities with another person (I would say that Brené Brown agrees). Everyone else is just a friendly acquaintance.

A colleague from another department, whom I considered a friend (he and wife have been our dinner guests many times), asked a few weeks ago how my semester was going, and it was truly going awfully; I was exhausted, with way too much service, too large of a class I was teaching, conflicting deadlines, and generally just being stretched too thin. For a moment, I forgot he’s a born-and-bred WASP and instead told him, as I would a friend, that I was very tired and briefly why. He retorted with the sarcastic “Wow, why don’t you tell me how you really feel.” I was very close to telling him to fu*k off. Later I wrote him an email faux apologizing for the negativity and pledging to endeavor to be unfailingly sunny in the future (in overly bombastic language), but he seems to have taken it seriously.

Maybe I am just a curmudgeon, by nature or by how I grew up, but it boils down to this: while my colleague finds negativity off-putting, I can’t help but find unrelenting positivity to be disingenuous. Of course, people who are happy and positive are nice to be around, but if you are too positive all the time around me, I assume I am irrelevant to you, i.e., you choose not to actually have a meaningful relationship with me.

My point is that what I feel we need — in real life, in books, and the blogosphere — is more people talking and writing in their genuine voices, rather than simply more people being relentlessly upbeat or even blandly non-negative about things. If people are genuine, then you see the good and the bad, which is the spice of life, but I suppose being genuine is scary, bad for business, and potentially dangerous (yes, you bet I blog under a pseudonym).

Barring a revolutionary cultural shift (ha-ha), I will keep working on suppressing my inner curmudgeon, so I can be a fountain of joy the next time I run into my so-called friend and not ruin his day. As an example of this upbeat attitude that is stereotypically American (indeed, I have never met anyone who grew up in Europe or Asia to be so happy and exuberant all the time) I shall endeavor to emulate Destin of “Smarter Every Day“: this great two-video project on the Coriolis effect can cheer up even the grumpiest of nerds.


  1. Some of the positivity that you see in certain segments of US culture is a stoic facade or a friendly facade (not quite the same thing), but some of it is also a tremendous susceptibility to bullshit. I am sick and tired of the people who are all “Oh, I tried this one thing and it works so great for me!” “Oh, you just have to do this one thing and it will work.” Um, no. Most problems aren’t that easy.

    I can take the stoic facades and the friendly facades more easily than I can take the people who honestly believe that if you just do “this one thing” then hard problems become easy. I’d rather see either the dignity and privacy of a facade or the honesty to admit that hard problems are hard, rather than some bullshit about how “Studies have shown that you just have to do this one thing…”

  2. That’s a really interesting set of observations about the cultural differences.
    To me as an Englishwoman, the over-exaggerated American positivity comes across as fake.
    I want to know what your thoughts and feelings really are, especially if I count you as a friend.
    What are friends for, if not for sharing your troubles and your griefs with, as well as your joys and successes?

    Yes, there’s the British stiff upper lip that doesn’t like asking for help, that in my great uncle’s voice was heard as “mustn’t grumble, mustn’t grumble” but the point of your closest friends, rather than your passing acquaintances, is to be able to put that aside in safety when the chips are well and truly down.

    I’ve read Brene Brown’s books about vulnerability and for the longest time, they didn’t make sense to me, and her tone of voice completely put me off. Even when she was trying to be messy and real, she came across as too polished. Because *of course* you’d be vulnerable with your friends and loved ones (which may or may not include family members). Few problems there. The question for me then became “are there enough (whatever that means?) people I’m vulnerable with?” with the belief that “The people/friendly acquaintances/work colleagues etc I’m not vulnerable around, I have damn good reasons for not exposing myself to and that’s not going to change any time soon!”

    So yeah, not entirely sure where I’m going with this, but I did want to say that my favourite bloggers are the ones who let on how they are really getting on in life, rather than putting on their polished public faces.

  3. The true me genuinely *is* optimistic and positive. I don’t lie. I’m not disingenuous (just naive). When I’m in a bad mood, that’s not me being more “brave” or more “honest” than when I’m cheerful or upbeat. My life sucked as a child in many ways and being a grown-up is so much more wonderful than I ever dreamed or imagined it would be, even in my wildest imaginings. It would be foolish for me to be unhappy or unpleasant on a regular basis. And I don’t like being unhappy, so if there’s a way to fix whatever is bothering me, then I’m going to fix it.

    Liked Bossypants– it was funny. Found Caitlin Moran’s book to be pretty boring (#2 liked it more). Deleted it from the kindle after reading it on the plane. (Would probably have stopped earlier if I’d had more reading material on hand.)

    One of my colleagues is very big on people being “genuine” too… he thinks that the internet is going to make people more genuine because they can’t hide. But I blog under a pseudonym precisely because it’s dangerous being a genuinely herself woman online. I’m also not that sure I need to see everybody’s honest self– I’m perfectly happy with the self they present to me if that’s what they choose to present. I did a poem in forensics in high school that I found really thought provoking about how we all show masks to different people in different situations but that doesn’t mean the masks aren’t real. They are real. My view of what people are is very theoretical physics based– it’s all relative and we’re all just outlines of space.

    I also really don’t want to be close friends with most of my colleagues. Social distance is nice with people I may have to see 5 days a week for the next few decades.

  4. Great post.

    This is actually one of the reasons I had a really hard time living in the south. I felt like I had to smile all the time.

    I have trouble maintaining real relationships with folks on either extreme of this spectrum. But in terms of colleagues specifically, I’d rather be around the superficially positive bunch.

  5. People barely tend to remember conversations in passing. So you were pissy with your colleague and he said something back. Then when you emailed him again about it later, he likely had no idea even what you were talking about and thought you were some kind of loon.

  6. Thank you for this post. I haven’t read Bossypants, but I loved Moran’s book because I found it funny and messy and real. I was born in the U.S., but neither of my parents were, and I think that my perspective on this issue is very similar to yours. I find it really annoying when colleagues or acquaintances ask how I am and the only acceptable response is to say, “Great!” and smile, no matter what the actual answer is. Real friends are those with whom I can share the truth. That is why I have so few of them around at any given time (although I have kept in touch with many from various stages of my life).

  7. I have added Moran’s book to my list. Thanks! I stopped Bossypants because I felt like it was really forced. (but I loved Poehler and Kaling’s books…)

    I feel torn on the issue you’re discussing on this blog. Like someone else above, I genuinely am optimistic and friendly and kind. I was raised in the South and it takes me awhile to remember that not everyone has the same expectations for pleasantries (and I’ve struggled for years with the naive assumption that everyone really could just get along and be friends). At the same time, a person can be all of the above and also be very genuine and upfront with their struggles. I am always honest when things aren’t going well–as a parent and as an academic. I am most interested in hearing how my colleagues truly are doing as well. I am incredibly fortunate to be in a department where that is allowed and encouraged so again, I have to be reminded that isn’t the case everywhere. It actually really frustrates me when I hear academics complain that we don’t have a right to vent about the tenure process, service, developing an independent identity–because I think that’s incredibly invalidating. The argument I have heard most often is that academia must look so shallow and FWP to outsiders because we are so lucky to have the security to be concerned with these ‘upper level problems’. I speak up and argue that it does not make our problems less valid (likening it to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the struggles at each level are real and valid at each level).

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