My husband and I were having dinner at a restaurant with a couple we were getting to know. After a while it occurred to me that they had spent a considerable amount of time crap-talking members of their own extended family (by that, I mean parents, siblings and in-laws). And a different time I overheard the wife and her daughter talking about a girl they knew who had gotten hair extensions "which looked so fake."
My takeaway after these two encounters?
"I don't think I want to spend time with these people. If they can talk badly about their own family and a teenage girl, what are they saying about me when I'm not around?"
Maybe there are individuals who enjoy spending time with gossips, bad-mouthers and people who get-off on the misfortunes, dramas and bad decisions of others, but not me. I find this kind of talk is full of negativity and saps my energy.
Now, envision an opposite scenario: You're having lunch with a friend who talks positively about a mutual acquaintance. Maybe something like:
"What I really appreciate about Miranda is her kindness and generosity. Even though she's well-off, she offered to let me hold a garage sale at her house last month because she knew I didn't live in a neighborhood which would get good traffic. Toward the end of the day she was giving her nice things away to strangers with a smile on her face."
Miranda sounds cool, right?
But, I'll bet the friend telling this positive story is actually the person you would judge as being a nice person.
Turns out, there's something to this, researchers have found.
It's called "spontaneous trait transference" and it's when the person saying nice things about someone else is perceived by listeners as actually having the traits they're attributing to the third party. According to an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers conducted four studies and found that people talking positively about others are perceived as possessing the traits they describe in others, and those associations last a long time.
So, in the garage sale scene, you might think the person telling the story is actually kind and generous, even though she was actually talking about Miranda.
The maxim turns out to be true: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."
Better yet: "If you can say something nice, please do."