Musings Technology

3 reasons to be more positive on social media

Positivity is like the childhood best friend that we all take for granted: always there to catch us, always overlooked. It is interesting that most people easily extol the virtues of staying optimistic and upbeat, yet so much of social media is dominated by complaints and negativity. A recent article published in the MIT Technology Review sparked a reflection on this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone, especially social media influencers, needs to be more proactive in promoting more positive engagement on social media. Here’s why…

1. Negative emotions stay with us for a longer time.

I took a course in Positive Psychology a while back and another on Coursera earlier this year, and one of the key concepts that struck me was ‘negativity bias’. Negativity bias is the notion that negative encounters have a greater impact on us than positive encounters. If you were to have one positive experience and one negative experience in one day, for instance, the negative one tends to ‘stick’ with you longer. Recall the times when one bad encounter just made the day suck overall — that’s what the positive psychologists are talking about.

As Jacob Burak discusses in this Aeon article, this bias has evolutionary origins but doesn’t serve us as well now that we no longer encounter the threats we used to:

“Of all the cognitive biases, the negative bias might have the most influence over our lives. Yet times have changed. No longer are we roaming the savannah, braving the harsh retribution of nature and a life on the move. The instinct that protected us through most of the years of our evolution is now often a drag – threatening our intimate relationships and destabilising our teams at work.”

If we’re always adopting a fight-or-flight response to the experiences that we have, and if we focus so greatly on negative encounters, we can often be paralysed by them or behave reactively instead of proactively. This defensive stance can hardly be conducive for our personal growth and the growth of our relationships.

While it is clear that negativity has a role to play in ensuring a realistic and grounded approach to the problems that we face (as Burak discusses in the last few paragraphs of his article), I hardly think that we need to actively seek it out, given our default inclination towards it. In other words: Yes, we need to confront the negatives in our lives to ensure that we’re not blindly optimistic, but our nature takes care of that for us anyway. Let’s not be shackled by them, but practice the practical wisdom to balance negative and positive consciously.

2. Positive emotions support individual growth and development, and resilience.

One of the first readings that students of Dr Barbara L. Fredrickson’s Positive Psychology course on Coursera encounter is her article entitled, ‘The Value of Positive Emotions’. (I strongly recommend it to everyone.) It’s an eye-opening piece that sheds light on how positive emotions are basically life-giving.

“Instead of solving problems of immediate survival, positive emotions solve problems concerning personal growth and development. Experiencing a positive emotion leads to states of mind and to modes of behavior that indirectly prepare an individual for later hard times.” (p. 332)

Dr Fredrickson coined the ‘Broaden and Build Theory’, which basically states that positive emotions broaden a person’s mindset (and attitude) and build a person’s internal resources for future challenges (see also The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions by Dr Barbara L. Fredrickson). While focusing on negative emotions promotes convergent perspectives that lead to myopic worldviews (I’m sure we know of some complainers who are completely resistant to seeing the silver lining, and we’ve all been there at some point!), positive emotions allow us to appreciate possibilities, exercise creativity, and take a more integrative perspective. When you’re in that zone, you’ll be able to see more than one way out of a bad situation and, interestingly enough, your positive experiences may be amplified.

3. Our social networks can amplify the impact of messages. This is especially so for influencers.

The MIT Technology Review article that sparked this reflection discussed a concept called the ‘Majority Illusion’ that was discovered by Kristina Lerman and her peers from the University of Southern California (original article here). The theory basically states that our networks can give the illusion that a certain phenomenon or attribute is more common than it actually is thanks to the influence of certain better-connected peers in our networks. Since some people are more well-connected than others, any information these people disseminate will have greater reach. This greater reach translates into greater transference of the information they share and hence can “skew the view from the ground”.* Just think of how some Twitter influencers’ tweets go viral through RTs and MTs thanks to the sheer number of followers they have.

“For a start, it shows how some content can spread globally while other similar content does not—the key is to start with a small number of well-connected early adopters fooling the rest of the network into thinking it is common.”

In turn, this means that if you have a certain degree of influence, what you choose to share can have greater ramifications than you intend. As the authors of the MIT Review article wrote:

“That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.”

Why even bother?

If we consider the implications of the 3 reasons together, it becomes clear that it’s good to stop and think before we post on social media. I often think about how a sour encounter with someone can put a downer on my day and amplify this on social media where (i) the encounter reaches more people, and (ii) the encounter lives for a much much longer time.

Since we all are predisposed with a negativity bias, yet positive emotions tend to be more conducive for our growth, and the majority illusion implies that our social networks can skew the gravity of certain ideas, isn’t it important for us to exercise more intention when we post? This is especially so if we have influence in our circles. Let us be more proactive in shaping the content that we and our peers encounter, and promote that which is life-giving.

In the words of dear Uncle Ben:

With great power, comes great responsibility.


Further reads:

Everything You Need to Know About Facebook’s Controversial Emotion Experiment — Wired

The Science of Positivity in Social Media — Buffer

Image Credits:

‘Sunrise’ by Susanne Nilson (Flickr)

Community Musings

Empathy first, empathy always.

An amusing exchange happened in one of my lessons the other day and it made me think about communication, sincerity, and how to go about creating and maintaining relationships with others.

You see, I had spent most of the lesson reviewing my student’s external correspondences and was somewhat horrified that the correspondences, while well-crafted and polite, were mostly utilitarian and mechanical. It is one thing to write that you are requesting a favour but quite another to communicate your gratitude in having that person take the time to consider your request. After all, no one owed them anything. Any response was time spent giving them feedback and an opportunity for reflection, and people should be thanked for their time! So I tried guiding my students to understand that sincerity and gratitude were essential in their correspondences especially if they were asking for a favour. To my surprise, when I later dismissed them early so that they wouldn’t be late for their next lesson, some students thanked me for my kind understanding. In those terms. Yes, it was probably some cheekiness on their part and we laughed it off, but that episode made me wonder about how to encourage sincerity. After all, it’s not something you can simply tell someone to do and false sincerity is the surest way to be patronizing.

In the multiple roles I play, as a mediator, event planner, community builder, sports team manager, I’ve often find myself having to work with others. Those experiences provided wonderful springboards for this reflection.

What has gone right in those experiences and what went wrong?

When was I sincere and when did I feel that someone was being sincere towards me?

How did I react?

I realised that the sincere exchanges that I was enriched by left an impact because I felt like someone actually made the effort to think about me as a person. Not as a means to his end and not as a favour. And the ones that I know left an impact on people were able to do so because I thought about things from the other person’s perspective.

The key to sincerity is empathy. Empathy first, empathy always.

Yes, we may never truly know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and it’s another brand of condescension to assume that we do know. However, the empathy I refer to is an attitude and a mindset. To want to think from the other person’s perspective instead of ours. To remove ourselves from the center of the universe and think about others instead.

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”
Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

It’s a matter of thinking about how we may have inconvenienced others, about what they could be preoccupied with, about what they may be happy or upset about at that point in time… or even to think about how much a quick note of thanks could brighten their day and taking a few minutes to convey that thanks. Why not expend a little more effort to make someone’s day a bit better? (Or at least not make it worse?)

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo Buscaglia

A recent New York Times article recently discussed how empathy is actually a matter of choice, and I encourage everyone to read it!

So, reflection completed, I went back to class and discussed empathy instead of sincerity with my students. The heart and effort that went into subsequent correspondences were palpable. I sure do hope that their recipients felt the same way.

Empathy, like all other virtues, isn’t an end point that we can arrive at. It is too easy to slip into complacence. But it certainly is something we can continually hone and work towards 🙂


Image source: Path by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho

Carnegie Chronicles Musings

Carnegie Chronicles: What are we doing to spread positivity?

The key lesson in Chapter 2 is one that I learned some time back — the impact of appreciation and gratitude. Carnegie includes several anecdotes about instances where being appreciative resulted in positive outcomes for the appreciator, but is insistent that his recommendation is not to flatter.

He juxtaposes flattery with appreciation and points out the fundamental difference between the two: Sincerity. What Carnegie seems to advocate in this chapter is a change in mindset and how we interact with people. It takes the lessons in Chapter 1 (recap: don’t criticize) further. I see Chapter 1 as a simpler, behavioural change — how to act — whereas Chapter 2 begins advocating a deeper, psychological change — how to think.

Indeed, he is most adamant about this:

“No! No! No! I am not suggesting flattery! Far from it. I’m talking about a new way of life. Let me repeat. I am talking about a new way of life.

“Try leaving a friendly trail of little sparks of gratitude on your daily trips.”

I’ve witnessed how powerful appreciation can be, and how the lack of it can demoralize. It’s one thing to go through life without spreading negativity and sourness, and this alone can take effort if we are used to complaining and criticizing. However, once we have that down, we need to ask ourselves:

What am I doing to spread positivity?

What have I done to show my gratitude?

It’s easy to assume that people know they’re doing a good job, but have we expressed our thanks for that? I had a mini-wakeup call in the form of a casual remark by a student who joked that I didn’t praise my students enough. I thought I did! I have made it a point to be encouraging, made provisions for them, said kind words to them… but as I wrote in my previous Carnegie Chronicles post:

“If you truly want to help the other person grow, you need to help them hear your message too.”

My student’s casual remark made me realise two things:

  1. Be sensitive to the different ways people communicate. Some people need to be told, “I appreciate you” because they are receptive to Words of Affirmation. It simply isn’t enough appropriate to perform an Act of Service for them, for instance.
  2. Be precise in your appreciation

Consider the difference between the two:


“Thanks for doing _____! It has helped me in ____ way 🙂

Which of these would you feel more encouraged by? Which of these would inspire you do better? I noticed this in a deeper way when a manager recently took the second route with me. I don’t think it was deliberate on her part, but her precision in identifying exactly what I was doing right encouraged further reflection on my part and made me feel like she wasn’t just being nice. (Although just being nice is a great starting point!)

It’s a matter of becoming ‘softer’, to some extent, in an otherwise hard and competitive world. The quote that Carnegie cites at the end of the chapter was particularly powerful:


How often has someone else’s kindness towards us spurred us to be kinder to others? What if we could make the world better (even if by just a tiny margin) just by being kinder and more appreciative? Let’s strive for that. It’s possible!

Carnegie Chronicles

Mining wisdom from Dale Carnegie

I’d never thought of reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People even though I knew of it back in my college days. Recently, I found out that this book is part of Buffer’s hiring criteria — and I have so much respect for Buffer, their values, and their team — so it has to be something special, right?

So I picked up a copy, read a few chapters, and got really mad… at myself.

Why didn’t I pick it up sooner??!

Not only did Carnegie’s advice on how to engage with people resonate with what I’ve learned in my professional and personal life, his insight also gave new dimension to these lessons. And I can’t wait to apply and share them.

Given the book’s title and some of the anecdotes, it’s understandable why some of the reviews are skeptical or downright critical. Although Carnegie frequently reiterates that being genuinely interested in others and behaving in an authentic fashion is paramount, it is still up to the reader to interpret the advice in the book and I can see how one may read it as a manipulation manifesto. But I don’t think that’s fair.

It all lies in how you read it and how you live it.

If you read Carnegie’s book as describing relationships between a particular set of behaviours (e.g. listen, don’t condemn, smile) and their outcomes (winning friends and influencing people), and frame those behaviours in a positive, non-manipulative, authentic, and life-giving manner, then I don’t think using his advice is disingenuous. Any set of instructions can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but how to understand and manifest it in your life is up to you 🙂

Understanding things from the other person’s perspective

Carnegie begins his book by encouraging people to adopt a certain mindset — one that isn’t driven by criticism of the other person. Criticism engenders resentment, he says, and resentment is not only unproductive to your ends, it also hinders the other person’s development. How many times have we refused to take advice just because the advice-giver began with pointing out our flaws? Hearing oneself painted a negative light automatically puts people on the defensive, even when we know that we truly are guilty as charged.

My professional life is dedicated to empowering students and helping them be the best that they can be. In my early years, it was easy to default to scolding and nagging since that was how things were done when I was a student and the teacher’s intentions are good anyway. But you see, when it comes to developing others, good intentions are not enough.

If you truly want to help the other person grow, you need to help them hear your message too. They won’t hear your message if they’re put on the defensive.

Furthermore, I have come to view education as a dialogue, in which both teacher and student learn, instead of the mere transfer of information. Just telling someone to do A instead of B doesn’t empower her to make the best choice for herself. Why not explain why you think A is beneficial for her and discuss the decision-making process instead of labelling either option as good or bad? Regardless of what she chooses, at least she has thought it through and it’s a decision she can own. That’s more than can be said if she chooses out of spite due to a mishandled piece of advice.

It is also rather condescending to assume that we know what is best for someone else. Other people are different persons, not versions of ourselves; we have infinite things to learn about them. This is why I found Carnegie’s closing sentiment so impactful:

“Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness. “To know all is to forgive all.””

Some other choice quotes from this chapter are:

“Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” — Abraham Lincoln

“Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof,” said Confucius, “when your own doorstep is unclean.”

Reading this chapter made me reflect on how I can handle my interpersonal relationships with more intention. Positive reinforcement and positivity in general go so much further than being a well-meaning complainer.

These reflections are influenced by my readings of Paulo Freire, Emmanuel Levinas, and Dale Carnegie. Drop me a tweet (@stephe_lee) if you’d like to start a conversation!

P.S. This is the first post in a reading series. Check back at my main blog or the post category to read the rest of the posts!

Dialogue Musings

Lions, peacocks, and lessons in listening

As Singapore becomes increasingly cosmopolitan by all outward measures, Singaporeans seem torn between their old-world, gritty, down-to-earth cultural narrative and an urbanity that reflects their economic status in the world. We both covet and abhor anything that seems foreign. Singaporeans are always at the threshold of the traditional and the modern, the familiar and the foreign, and any small movement could tip the scales.

They call themselves The Gentleman’s Pride (or simply, The Pride), and their goal is to evangelise a brand of dandyism amongst Singaporean men. Unfortunately, people didn’t agree with their pontification on masculine style.


We like things to make sense.

One of the things The Pride received a lot of flak for was the inconsistent messaging. On one hand, they proudly (see what I did there?) declared that being a gentleman is “not just the way you dress, but how you treat people”. On the other, they first established their presence via an image-heavy medium — Instagram — and the mainstream audience first encountered them through a Straits Times article that featured a video of them discussing being a gentleman in largely style-oriented terms. And if this Asiaone article is to be believed, their movement involves promoting the, wait for it, aesthetic aspects of being a gentleman.

Singaporeans don’t like that sort of thing. Tell us the whole story and tell it like it is.


We like the familiar. We like the ‘we’.

All the fuss online is to be expected because what The Pride is really proposing a kind of subculture. One that is so divergent from mainstream culture that it almost is counterculture. Not that The Pride seems to see itself as a kind of opposition. But to practical, down-to-earth Singaporeans, anything that smells of a class-system will be regarded as an opposition of sorts.

Take a look at the comments. They’re largely driven by:

  • Practicality: citing the absurdity of suiting up in Singapore’s humid hothouse
  • A fundamental disagreement about the hallmarks of a gentleman: how one acts >  how one looks
  • Protectiveness over our Asian roots

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 4.27.11 pm

Human beings have always had an aversion to Otherness. Anything that is overtly other, like this subcultural movement, will surely be regarded with some hostility.


Let’s talk about this.

People would probably be more receptive if they sense that you’re trying to create a conversation, or better yet, a dialogue, than if you tried to impose your opinion on others. No one likes to be told how to be. If social movements tried to establish a conversation about social norms and values — practicality vs presentation, what does polite society consist in? etc —  people may feel less threatened and be less hostile.

Why not let culture develop organically? People are less skeptical of an influencer they christen, than of someone who claims to be influential. People want to have a say in the world they live in. Change that stems from authentic debate about what is and what should be tends to have more long term value. Let’s not impose our norms and mores, and instead negotiate our collective understanding of everything from ‘marriage’ and ‘love’ to ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’. Let’s go beyond hearing other people — let’s listen to them.


And yes, listening swings both ways.

If you are keen on becoming more gentlemanly, may I recommend this interesting read?

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness

Curated Journal

If not now, when?

I am told that I almost didn’t get my job because I am a woman. I’m not sure if it is true, but the idea that this is even possible guts me when I think about it. No one should have to face the possibility of not doing what they love simply because they were born a certain colour, creed, or sex. We would be up in arms if we knew of someone who couldn’t get a job because his ear wasn’t shaped in a way that suited his potential employers. It is as arbitrary as that.

Women cannot be the only ones on this journey towards equality because equality is a matter between people. It is a question of otherness and alterity, of dialogue, of correspondence, and of cooperation. If men do not come on-board, then the imbalance will, necessarily, always persist.

I’ve been blessed to have men in my life who, whether they realise it or not, stand for #heforshe. They’ve encouraged and enabled me to transcend gender biases even when I had not realised that I was being enchained by them. I wish the same for more women in this world.


“In the flush of love’s light, we dare be brave.

And suddenly we see that love costs all we are, and will ever be.

Yet it is only love which sets us free.”

Maya Angelou



“The woman who survives intact and happy
must be at once tender and tough.”

“Women should be tough, tender,
laugh as much as possible,
and live long lives.”

Maya Angelou



“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.

I’m trying for that.

But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence.

And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language.

We need language.”

Maya Angelou



“And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief;”

Anecdotes about teaching are a dime a dozen. From stories about grading papers, to inspiring kids, to huge, dramatic blow-outs in class, to rants about the amount of administration that needs to be done, to accounts of awful parents… you would think that teachers have given you the whole picture.

I thought so.

I was wrong.

Everyone warns you about difficult students and nitpicky parents, but there’s one type of experience in a teacher’s life no one talks about. No one tells you that a student may pass away; that the grief, though perhaps not as soul-crushing as that of a parent, is real.

Perhaps it’s because death is taboo (but, why?) or that grieving is deeply personal. Or maybe it’s because this is an experience that not every educator will encounter. It’s hard to say, really.

“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories

Educators know that their students will not always be with them. The purpose of this vocation is precisely a preparatory one — transience is built into its function. Indeed, educators often hope that their students would leave the classroom quickly (either because she hopes that the child would spread his wings and achieve his potential, or because the child is annoying #truefacts), but it is a hope rooted in the child’s movement towards something greater in his life. (This, of course, may seem laden with assumptions: That life is somehow greater than death, that death is something taboo. I don’t believe that these are necessarily true, and education should safely introduce students to existentialism and mortality. But even when we talk about death and dying, as the existentialists do, it is a dialogue about how to live, is it not?)

The educator’s grief upon a student’s passing, then, is grief not just about the loss of another human being. She mourns because she understands her relationship with the child as one of empowerment and support, one that gives him the tools to create his future. It is a relationship based on potential. But when that future is cut short — when the potential is no more — it is like having the rug pulled out from under you.

It is senseless, and tragic, and hollow.

It is as if a thriving flame is extinguished before you.

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
François Rabelais

We may comfort ourselves with the idea that perhaps our students, like our loved ones who have passed on, have moved on to the next phase in their lives. And perhaps the preparation, empowerment and growth that an educator has contributed to the child will somehow manifest in some useful fashion in the afterlife.

But even if we do not believe in life after death, we need not mourn the waste of those good years of education; our relationship need not have been in vain. For the lessons that a teacher shares, and the empowerment that she brings, if it is education in its truest sense, can manifest in a discreet manner. What we learn today, helps us live tomorrow better.

So, take comfort in the tomorrows you have bettered for the child. And be grateful for the tomorrows that he has bettered for you.

(The quote used in the title is by William Cullen Bryant.)