Genuine VS toxic positivity in language: communicating with empathy 

Can positivity be toxic? We’ll investigate the concept of toxic positivity and how we can communicate more genuinely and empathetically. 

What is toxic positivity? 

‘Toxic positivity’ is a relatively new term that refers to positivity to the point of excess. It is predominantly a social media phenomenon. But, because many of us habitually use social media, it has bled into our behaviour in daily life. Communicating with excessive positivity ironically fosters a negative culture that denies lived experiences and alienates people from a sense of community.

When do I need to be aware of toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity can crop up in a few different ways:

On social media

Instagram is the home of motivational quotes, beautiful sunrises and long positive captions under bikini pics. It paints a picture of a life that very few people are actually living. It’s your prerogative to post whatever you want on social media. You may use your own feed as a way to motivate yourself – for example, if you’re documenting your fitness journey. Nobody has any obligation to anyone else to post negative aspects of their lives. We can be as private or public as we want and each person is responsible for their own self-esteem. 

However, it’s best to keep in mind that social media doesn’t reflect real life. If someone is open about their struggles on social media, it’s likely they want either to simply be heard or to have an empathetic response. At times, inauthentic positive responses can invalidate someone’s valid negative experience. 

In the workplace 

Airing concerns or struggles in the workplace can be really nerve-wracking. Often, we are afraid of appearing unprofessional or being judged negatively. This is the perfect opportunity to practice active listening. Active listening is taught in Mental Health First Aid

Giving someone space to air their feelings without interrupting, showing signs verbally and nonverbally that you’re listening, asking questions and respecting the person’s feelings are all examples of active listening. It shows empathy instead of enforcing positivity to the point of toxicity.

In ourselves

We are our own worst critics. Being able to sit with one’s feelings is one of the most difficult skills to learn. Having toxic positivity overwhelming our minds could actually hinder our emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is all about being able to express our emotions. With emotional intelligence, we handle our interpersonal relationships with empathy and good judgement. However, we can’t do that without having a good relationship with ourselves. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling with negative thoughts. Acknowledge them without placing a value on them and approach them with an attitude of curiosity. Ask yourself what you would say to a friend if they were feeling the way you do. It’s likely you would be empathetic and respect their feelings – not deny the negative feelings altogether. Try to do the same thing for yourself. 

How does this apply to my content? 

It’s natural to subconsciously emulate what we see online and going overboard on the ‘positive vibes’ may affect your content. Of course, you should communicate in the positive. Fear-based advertising will likely reflect poorly on your brand. It’s best practice to steer clear of negativity whenever possible to portray the best possible image. However, there is a fine line between this approach and being completely unrelatable. 

The key is knowing the difference between positive branding and toxic positivity. 

Positive branding 

Whereas toxic positivity goes overboard and minimises real human experiences, positive branding is both warm and authentic. Humanising your brand makes it much easier to connect with your audience. 

Building a community 

Positive branding, as opposed to toxic positive branding, applies most obviously to your social media activity. Foster a community that really hears people’s problems instead of minimising them. This benefits both your customers and yourself. Customers who feel heard will feel connected to your brand. Having good listening skills as a brand makes it easier to identify pain points and ultimately improve your service. 

How can I make my writing more empathetic? 

Guidance around empathetic communication encourages open questions and showing you understand how the person feels. There are a couple of ways we can apply this to writing for an audience.

Keep your audience in mind

Everything starts with forming customer personas. Customer personas are fictional characters that reflect your typical customer or customers. They aren’t subjectively made up, though – you have to do the foundational research of understanding how your customers behave and interact with you. Once you understand what their common problems are, you can address those issues in your sales content and resources. 

Hubspot has an excellent resource for forming buyer personas. When you have a clear image of your audience in your head, it is so much easier to empathise with and write for them. 

Find the right tonal balance

When you’re proofreading any content, it’s important to check whether it strikes the right tone. 

Readable’s tone and sentiment tools help you to optimise your content for positivity. Using our sliders, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of your language.

On the slider, you can see this example is on the positive side of the scale. However, it’s not so positive as to be suffocating. This is an ideal balance of positivity for most types of content.

You can also use our sliders feature to check for personalism. Making your content more personal means addressing the reader instead of making too many ‘we’ statements, helping you to bring your audience closer. Cosy. 

Empathetic positivity in customer success

I asked our Customer Success Champion, Natasha, about this topic – empathy is one of her many superpowers. 

L: What does the difference between toxic positivity and authentic and empathetic positivity mean in Customer Success?

N: This is a great question because the two are very different! Toxic positivity ignores a customer’s inconvenience and frustration. It can demean their struggle and make them feel like they can’t be open about their issues. 

If a customer feels uncomfortable bringing a problem to you, they’ll find another home for their business. It is important to remain positive while still acknowledging a customer’s pain points. It really is as simple as trying to imagine how you would feel in that same situation.

Keeping things upbeat doesn’t mean we gloss over the issues. It means we approach things with a solution-focused mindset. As you mentioned earlier, it is important that customers feel heard. The key to empathetic communication is always to listen first. Understanding the issue before responding is key.

Another important thing is to remember that we are all facing different challenges in our lives. Toxic positivity doesn’t leave room for the wide spectrum of human emotion and experiences. If you lead with kindness and understanding, your message will automatically be a positive one. 

How to write with authentic positivity

To summarise:

  • Instead of invalidating negativity, be understanding
  • Instead of being unrealistically positive, be relatable
  • Make sure you understand your audience’s needs before you write anything
  • Ensure your writing is community-focused and offers something helpful
  • Actively listen to everyone around you