Dealing With Negativity at Work

Tiernan L. Tensai

Dear TLT,

Recently I’ve been feeling a bit down about teaching English in Japan. My job is okay overall, and there are no big problems. However, there are a few colleagues that really get on my nerves. They keep whining and complaining about their job and life in general in this country. We get on okay, so there is no big problem there, but their constant negativity is a real drag. I could use some cheering up, so I’d love to know: What do you love about teaching English in Japan?

– Sad in Shizuoka

Dear Sad,

Thanks so much for writing in. Sorry to hear you’re feeling down at your job these days. Yes, colleagues acting out in negative ways is really hard to deal with. Even though it may not be a big problem, it’s still quite a drag on your morale. Your question about what we love about teaching English in Japan signals that you’re on to one of the key methods for dealing with office negativity—focus on positive things and remind yourself of what is right and good about your situation. As big fans of teaching English in this country, we’ll have more to say on this in a moment. However, we’d like to start by  commenting a bit on the underlying issue your letter brings up—how to deal effectively with negativity in the workplace. 

First, there is a lot of good information out there on the web on this topic. Try googling how to deal with office politics and you’ll come across a lot of well-written advice. In our view, when encountering gossip or other negativity from your colleagues, it’s best to be firm, compassionate, and patient. When it starts to fly, be firm and resolute in your non-participation. Be aware of what you say and how you say it and try your best to not feed into the gossip, spread any rumors, or make harsh judgements. A great way to do that is to pretend there are no secrets, that anything and everything said in the workplace is a matter of public record, well-known to all. In other words, remain above board at all times. If you imagine the person folks are whining about is actually there with you, how would this change the way you interact? If you would not say something to someone’s face, do not under any circumstances say it when they are not physically present. 

While this just-say-no-to-gossip policy is fine in theory, things get really hard when you know your colleagues well and generally get along with them, as you point out in your letter. We’ve had great friends at work who just can’t stop themselves from whining about this or that, and it’s really hard to know what to do in those moments. Here is where compassion plays an important role. It may help to remember that when people talk badly about something or someone else, they are really just trying to vent bad personal feelings. Or perhaps they have some other life stresses, such as family problems, financial worries, or health issues. There are lots of reasons why people engage in negative behaviors such as gossip or rumor mongering—we just have to look at ourselves to know this is true. So, be compassionate with yourself when you do this, and don’t hold the negativity your colleagues traffic in against them. If possible, try to listen carefully to what they say and gently redirect the conversation back to them. For example, if they are complaining about the department head’s latest decision or are whining about how lazy and uninterested the students are, see if you can get them talking about themselves instead. Yes, it’s hard to know what to say when, and you won’t always get it right, but if you really listen hard with compassion, somehow you’ll find the right words when you need them. 

Next, you really need to be patient with folks. Life is stressful, and we all have issues we’re dealing with. Many of us are living in a foreign country away from family and friends. Some people feel isolated and sad when removed from things that are happening back home. News, whether good or bad, can be a source of stress when people learn about developments they are missing. In addition, there will always be something at work we don’t like, some student who underperforms, or some other problem that pushes our buttons. Patience is about staying present and consistent with your non-participation and compassion. In other words, it’s not like one good conversation with someone is going to change the world—you need to keep at it. Over time, the more you’re able to rise above interpersonal conflicts, remain positive, and avoid getting sucked into arguments, the higher your integrity will grow. Strive to remain professional at all times and keep the students’ well-being constantly at the forefront of all your interactions. The more you do that, the better things will get. 

Now, on to your main question: What do we love about teaching English in Japan? Well, again, that’s an excellent question! Where do we begin? Apart from some of our dear colleagues, from whom we’ve learned and shared a lot, we really enjoy the freedom we have over our classes. We can teach in ways we enjoy, use whatever textbooks we want, and assess performance in ways we believe in. Not all workplaces allow this sort of freedom, so we definitely count our blessings here. We also have some really great students. These beautiful young people are a joy to be around and teach. We feel grateful to be a part of their lives in a small way and feel honored and humbled with the opportunity to teach them some useful skills. We have seen a lot of students struggling with English due to the harsh grammar-translation/entrance exam system here, and while this is undoubtedly hard, there is an upside. This situation means that at least some students, when suddenly finding themselves in a communicative classroom with an emphasis on having fun as well as studying, are so amazed that they think you’re the best teacher ever—and what teacher would ever want those feelings to change? There’s nothing more rewarding than students who tell you at the end of the year how they used to dislike English but now they like it because of your classes. There’s also a healthy level of student respect for teachers in Japanese society. We have rarely had seriously disruptive students in Japan, and we have never felt in danger for our safety. We know that if a class was a bit difficult, it was our fault as much or more than our students’. All in all, we know we are very lucky to always go to work happy and come home happy, even when we’re tired or generally feeling grumpy. We feel very fortunate that we get paid to do something that’s so much fun. Although many people are on fixed-term contracts (including many of us), compared to teaching EFL in many countries, we enjoy reasonable stability and are well-paid, so the lifestyle in Japan is really relatively stress-free, all things considered.

So, Sad, we could go on, but we’ll wrap it up here. It is our firm belief that no matter how hard things can be at work, there is always something good to focus our attention on. However, it does take practice to tune our minds to picking up on positive things. It’s a skill we all need to cultivate. Think of it as your personal gardening project, and try to take a few moments during each day to appreciate something, no matter how small. In the end, the keys to a successful work experience boil down to two simple bits of advice: follow the Golden Rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) and stop once in a while to smell the roses (develop an attitude of gratitude). That’s basically it! 

Those are a few ideas from us, but what about you? If you’re on Facebook, please check out the JALT Publications page and let us know what you are grateful for about teaching English in Japan, or give us your tips for staying positive amidst negativity in the workplace. We all have a lot to learn, so we’d love to hear from you!