Proclivity For Negativity

Mary wants to be a writer. She is 19 and already a good one. Her literary influences are Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and the immutable Samuel Clemens.

But when Mary published some of her first writings online, several of her college peers returned her efforts with the following comments:

“What the heck did I just read?” Only the commenter didn’t use the word “heck.”

Another commenter: “This has a lot of misspellings, learn to proof.”

And: “Nah thanks.”

Whatever that means.

So a saddened Mary emailed me asking for my opinion about the issue of negativity in the modern world. And I’m glad she did because Mary and I actually have a lot in common.

Like Mary, I also admire many classic authors. In fact, one of my primary literary influences is Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side.” I’m also a veteran when it comes to mispeling wurds.

The first thing I’d like to say, Mary, is that no matter how adult you feel, when people throw rotten tomatoes at your proverbial theater stage, it hurts.

There are a LOT of grumps out there, and as a writer you’re going to meet them all. And you’ll constantly be asking yourself the question: “Who carries rotten vegetables to a theater?”

But no sooner will you have posed this question than some irate commenter will remind you that tomatoes are fruits not vegetables.

One of the first writings I ever had published by a newspaper was a piece I went to great lengths researching. I traveled to a distant town, interviewed residents, and painstakingly sampled the local beer.

For me, it was a dream gig. The most fun I’d ever had. The pay was squat, I covered my own travel expenses, but I loved it. What I produced was a feel-good story. Granted, it wasn’t Bill Shakespeare, but it wasn’t that bad.

Do you know what happened when the story ran? Well, if you guessed that the newspaper started getting hate mail, you’d be right. Not a bunch of mail, mind you, but a few letters. Yes! Paper letters! People actually took the time to handwrite their unhappiness. Apparently I had misspelled the name of a local place and the commenters were mad about it.

I was so crushed I had a stomach ache for days. But the editor wasn’t bothered. Instead he shirked it off and said: “Welcome to the Age of the Internet, man. People’re just mean.”

Another time I had a humor piece published by a small magazine and a few days after it was “out there” I started receiving ugly messages from a lady in West Virginia. She didn’t like the religious jokes. She went so far as to call me—I am not making this up—the Antichrist.

Which was news to me. Immediately, I raced to the bathroom mirror to look for goat horns and forehead tattoos. All I found was buck teeth and a face that was perfect for radio.

This woman still heckles me from time to time. It’s been a while since her last email. But I predict that tomorrow she’ll be back in the saddle.

The hard truth is that the world is crankier. I wish I could say that negativity eventually quits bothering you, but it doesn’t. You spend days, hours, years, sometimes decades around negative people, and it never stops bugging you.

I say all this because I wish someone would have told me about the haters in this world before the doctor pulled me from the womb. Because if you’re not careful, all this negativity can mess up your life.

Negative remarks damage your brain in ways that aren’t even fully understood by science. There is solid research behind this. Biologically speaking, bad comments hit your brain harder than good ones.

The effects of unkind remarks are more easily digested by your neurons than friendly remarks. One study even found that for each bad comment you receive it takes—get ready—five positive comments to outweigh it. That’s a 5:1 ratio. Or is it 1:5? Or perhaps 5=π?

I’m no math jockey, but the research is saying that for every handful of weisenheimers who says, “You suck!” it takes a roomful of people saying, “No you don’t!” to make you feel better.

But alas, Mary, I believe the newspaper editor was correct. Negativity is the hottest trend. It’s everywhere. It’s cheap. And rampant.

Disturbing news items go viral while stories about building homes in Third World countries remain unliked. Many cannot even buy a bag of Cheetos without leaving a negative review online.

In fact, when I was researching for this column I visited a major online bookseller’s website to do some looking around. I did a quick search for a specific book. To my delight, several people have reviewed this particular book.

I thought I’d leave you with a few glowing reviews I found:

“I really hated this book. Really odd style of writing, I was lost from the first page to the last… Don’t bother.”

“Yeah, I know this is supposed to be a great work… But I really think it sucks. I could not help but be irritated… This is not an adventure it is a tragedy.”

“…Part of my dissatisfaction with the novel comes from this ‘bad boy’ approach… The overly-pleased tenor of the narrative voice was largely lost on me.”

“…A ok book. it didn’t explain things to well in the begging. It should of alaborated more!! I know that the story could have been even better!!”

“Meh. Just okay.”

“Never even heard of this author? Pass on this one.”

And in case you were wondering, the book these people reviewed was “Tom Sawyer.”

Keap writtng.


  1. Kim Kilgore - October 28, 2020 8:22 am

    How can I read MARY ??

  2. Steve - October 28, 2020 8:26 am

    Spot on!

  3. Margaret - October 28, 2020 10:51 am

    It’s true that great minds think alike, your research about the 1:5 ratio is spot on. When our kids were young we had a rule that if they said something unkind to their sibling they had to follow up with five good things. This not only curbed the negativity but helped them become closer and more loving. I believe that it also helped them navigate the hurtful teenage years because they supported each other.

    I enjoy your writing because it conjures fond memories of my LA (Lower Alabama) roots, I grew up in Brewton too. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  4. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - October 28, 2020 11:15 am

    I predict that your predictions will come true. I don’t see any goat horns though.

  5. Jane - October 28, 2020 12:08 pm

    Grate story I loved it.

  6. Ginger - October 28, 2020 12:09 pm

    My comment will be lost in the many that will undoubtedly roll in today in an effort to be counted in 5 of the 5:1/positive:negative ratio effort for you. Like many others, my heart and throat constrict when I think of your ever being too discouraged to write. Unthinkable. How would I start my day? Full disclosure you do come behind my prayers and devotional. Right after that, though, it’s Sean time. Can I still be counted in the 5 positives? Trust me I am sending positive vibes through the air headed in your direction. These vibes fix on the aromas that waft from your kitchen so I’ve no doubt they can find you and Jamie.

    By the way yesterday your story was about Marian, A Love Story. I have STILL not recovered from that reading. The goosebumps and the leaky eyes rendered me useless for quite a moment. Thank you! The intensity of my appreciation for that story should count as 5+ positive votes. You have a blessed day, Sean.

  7. William Strawn - October 28, 2020 12:14 pm

    Thank you for another great story. I of course have my opinion about negativity. I finally decided people are unhappy about some nonsensical thing in their lives, are afraid to change it, and respond to try and make you unhappy. Years ago, I plagiarized from a coworker “Solendid” as my response to any inquiry about my health, my day, the status of my dog, and such. After a few times saying it, I believe it. Maybe WV crank should try it.

  8. Sally Barnett - October 28, 2020 12:47 pm

    Years ago as an Girl Scout leader there was a slogan for the year: “Find the gift in every child”. I still have the slogan pin. After a few years I realized I should look for the gift in every person and when an occasion arose, tell that person in an admiring, encouraging way. It was life changing to me and I hope to the receiver. As a children’s librarian and youth leader I discovered it was a great way to approach the “so-called bad boys” and befriend them.

  9. Beryl - October 28, 2020 12:57 pm

    Sean, you mentioned the biology around negativity. Thank you. Our nervous systems are amazing super highways of interconnectedness within ourselves, as well as others. I surround myself with non-haters. I often wonder about people, “What happened to you?” And then I make a decision, is this person just having a “bad” day or are they consistently spreading their negativity around. I always have a choice about who or what I want in my life. Otherwise, I would spend my days overwhelmed by others opinions of me. My energy is better spent lifting the spirits of others through kindness. This is a contagion we can all help spread.

  10. David Jones - October 28, 2020 12:58 pm

    Sadly, too many people think that criticizing others will improve their own circumstances. Sean, you’re awesome, and I love you and your work. I’ll try to comment four more times in the next few days, to increase the impact!

  11. Andy Andrews - October 28, 2020 1:05 pm


    Personally, when I consider the world’s greatest book or the most incredible music ever written, I always suspect it will end up at the bottom of a box in someone’s closet…because someone else told them how bad it was and they believed it.

    My first novel, The Traveler’s Gift, was published 18 years ago and is still selling in hardback. I hope Mary sees this. Not because I want to brag, but because I want her to know that during the 3 1/2 years I was trying to get it published, the manuscript was rejected 51 times. To be clear, FIFTY-ONE publishers declared that what I had written was not worth putting on paper. To date, the book has sold more than 4 million copies.

    My point (though Sean already made it for all of us) is this: Mary…don’t let another person’s opinion about your work or your worth become your reality. And as for spelling…I never met an author who won a spelling bee. That’s what editors are for!


  12. Roxanne - October 28, 2020 1:07 pm

    I am teaching in person AND online…so I’ve not had time to read your column in awhile, but THIS was just absolutely perfect. Maybe we should go back to Thumpers advice. “Momma says, ‘If you can’t say nuffin’ nice, don’t say nuffin’ at all.’ “

  13. Diane C - October 28, 2020 1:18 pm

    Here’s one of your 5 good comments… I like your style. Stay positive because we sure need it out here! Keep doing what you’re doing!

  14. Denise Walker - October 28, 2020 1:18 pm

    isn’t it terrible that there are so many Negative Nellies out there? We need more positivity!

  15. Susan Mitchell - October 28, 2020 1:19 pm

    Keep on writing, both of you! I still believe the nice people outnumber the jerks!

  16. Harriet - October 28, 2020 1:21 pm

    I giggled at the ending Sean! Keap writing

  17. Patsy Boshears - October 28, 2020 1:26 pm

    As a university professor I took very seriously my student evaluations of my teaching. I literally, always ranked as one of the best and received multiple teaching awards through the years (which I immediately donated back to the scholarship funds), but there was always “that one” and sometimes even two. Although they were anonymous, I learned to read through comments and probably pretty accurately attribute them to specific students. Even so, I found them hurtful, and would begin the process of weeding back through every possible scenario to figure out how I might have handled or taught it better. I do not now, nor have I since those years, allowed the opinions of others to dictate my self evaluation. You really cannot please them all! I tried for years; it didn’t work. Tell this young woman her content will be worth paying someone else to edit it for her!

  18. nebraskannie - October 28, 2020 1:26 pm

    I think it’s so easy for hate and negativity to spread nowadays because there’s no consequences and you can do it anonymously. I delete this type of person from my life. I choose to be Thumper and surround myself with like minded people, although I realize there are many more out there who don’t. Never let them steal your dreams OR your happiness!

  19. Lisa Williams - October 28, 2020 1:31 pm

    Your wurds send us off in a good mood. I read those wurds to my husband most mornings during our “coffee ministry” time before he goes off to work in a tough position. Light hearted, pointed, and filled with a love for people, community, and doing what’s right – it’s a very good thang.
    Mary, someone once told me that I need to put on my crocodile skin before making my presentations that would be followed up with accusatory questions each time. She said you have to let it roll off. She’s right. It’s much easier when you dwell on kindness and goodness. Choose to listen to what gives life, not what takes.

  20. Pete Black - October 28, 2020 1:33 pm

    Hey Shaun – great message of encouragement!! Can’t remember if I told you, so I will tell you again, I loved Will the Circle be Unbroken. Pete

  21. Jim Thomssen - October 28, 2020 1:57 pm

    At least you spelled weisenheimers correctly!

  22. Brenda Owens - October 28, 2020 2:08 pm

    Good advice Sean. I have a REBA tee shirt that I purchased on sale last year with the written words on the front “Have Courage AND BE Kind”. I purchased it because it was only $5 for a Reba McEntire very comfy shirt! When I wear it I actually have noticed people smile while reading it and seem to be kinder, and perhaps so am I 😉 After surviving breast cancer I made a decision to only have positive people in my life. It is not always easy and just a few days ago I blocked an acquaintance from my emails. She added my email address to a group email that was extremely nasty and hateful politically. I sent her a private email and let her know how disturbed I was and that I would be blocking her from any future emails. I did this because it was not the first time I have received something from her that I felt was not in line with my life values. We all have choices and decisions that we can make to help keep us on a tried and true positive life. I like the REBA motto Have Courage AND BE Kind. Sean you certainly seem to live by this and it is the reason I keep reading your emails that come to me every morning. Thank you!

  23. Glenn - October 28, 2020 2:45 pm

    I’m of the belief that a thousand years from now anthropologists will point to the ability to comment on Facebook as the reason for the near downfall of society and the end of civility.

  24. DiA - October 28, 2020 3:20 pm

    Sean, Love it! And so true. Unfortunately there are few role models out there of positive behavior especially coming from the White House and other “leadership”. Thank you for being a good role model for all of us and for sharing your life and thinking with all of us – including Mary.

  25. Sandra Siegel - October 28, 2020 3:59 pm

    Sean, for every bad comment there are a hundred good ones that you never hear. And we tend to only hear the negative ones. Don’t let the haters get to you. Your writing is exceptional and personal. I love it and keep up the good work.

  26. Christina Davis - October 28, 2020 4:08 pm

    Thank you for making a grey day a little brighter.

  27. Jean Steen - October 28, 2020 4:14 pm

    Don’t ever stop writing! Your voice continues to show us there is decency in this country!! Thank you!

  28. Linda Moon - October 28, 2020 4:15 pm

    Flannery O’Connor. I’m looking at photos from my road trip to Andalusia….her home. I saw her crutches, her typewriter, and the peacocks who now reside on the 544-acre farm. It is too easy for commenters to express meanness. The love of God does not abide in mean people; they are Anti-Christ. I’m only one of many roomfuls of people who say loudly: YOU DON’T SUCK. You are in good company with Miss O’Connor and Mr. Clemons, Author. Keep writing!

  29. Paul - October 28, 2020 6:45 pm

    Even the best artist need critics to keep them on an even keel. Kind of the way our bipartisan government is supposed to work. Nothing to pout about. Just laugh and shoot them I mean show them 😬

  30. MAM - October 28, 2020 7:16 pm

    @Glenn, I could not agree with you more that Facebook is killing society and civility! I’m glad that Sean comes into my email box and does not reside just on Facebook, because I wouldn’t ever see it on FB.I once wrote an editorial titled Banish Negativity Sean, you uplift us is some way every day. Keep it up.

  31. Iris Hamlin - October 28, 2020 7:31 pm

    Sean, you are such a great guy! I love your articles and Include them in my daily devotional. Please never stop writing!

  32. kathleenivy - October 29, 2020 12:42 am

    Hey Sean, It is my (unproven) theory that the negative hits us 5 times harder so we notice it and avoid it. But it is so hard to avoid. Bleh. Mean people suck. Thank you for being you and for writing your heart out. Mary … keep writing. Even Will S. got rotten tomatoes. If the reviews are helpful, keep them. If not use the paper to wrap fish (figuratively speaking.)

  33. christina - October 29, 2020 6:18 am

    So sad and true about the world we live in, but choosing kindness and compassion (even for ourselves in the face of naysayers) is still a higher calling that we can all participate in. That’s why we are in this community together with Sean as our ringleader. :p Keep writing, Mary!

  34. Donna Coen - October 29, 2020 1:24 pm

    All of your daily writings make my day! You’re the best!! Write on and often. Please. ❤️😊👏🏻

  35. turtlekid - October 30, 2020 11:03 am

    Laughter will cure most of the illness on this planet. Thank you for doing your part.

  36. Kim Royal - October 31, 2020 3:54 pm

    I am a high school English teacher in a small town in Central Florida. As a weekly assignment for my 10th grade students, I have them read two of your columns and write a brief analysis and reflection. I have been so pleased to see that they genuinely enjoy your columns and are often moved by your words.
    My goal was for them to recognize that sometimes storytelling, sincerity, and simplicity are often effective tools to move and persuade your reader. A writer doesn’t have to continuously state hard facts and data to sway a reader’s thinking and create a pause in their reflection. Thank you for your example of honest, humorous, and uplifting prose.

  37. Heather Miller - November 28, 2020 4:00 pm

    I save your writings to read at quiet times. I just read this two month old article. The sad truth to add to what you said is that the ugly comments can often stop people dead in their tracks from trying to write, finding it impossible to get past the ugly retorts. They give up on a dream, and will never be able to do what they may have been destined to do. Sad.


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