How to Share Bad News Without Being a Downer

Once upon a time, there were only a few ways to share pieces of important personal news with others: In person, by letter, or — post-Alexander Bell — by phone. Technology, however, opened up a whole new can of worms, with everything from email to Facebook and from texting to Skype providing an almost unlimited number of public and private ways to share. But are some of the ways to share good and bad news better than others? That’s what Professor Catalina Toma of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her graduate student, Mina Choi, wanted to know — so, like any good scientist would do, they conducted an experiment to find out.

According to Pacific Standard, Toma and Choi’s study asked 311 undergraduate students to keep a daily online diary of how they shared important personal news with others — both the good and the bad, with the students ranking each piece of news on a scale of how positive or negative they felt it was. The students tended to share both the good news and the bad news in equal percentages — 78.2 for the good and 76.4 for the bad — but the really interesting patterns emerged when Toma and Choi looked at how the news was being shared.

Talking to someone in person is still the most popular method of sharing: About 50 percent of the time, that’s how the students spread the news. At 30 percent, texting was the next most popular way to share, with phone calls close behind at 25 percent. Posting on Facebook was only used nine percent of the time, emailing 5.5 percent, instant messaging five percent, and all other forms — Twitter, Skype, blogging, etc. — coming in at less than 5 percent. However, it’s worth noting that each of these percentages doesn’t mean that each student communicated only using that method; usually they’d employ a few of them. So, even though the students shared their news face to face 50 percent of the time, the percentage of students who only shared their news via this method was about 30 percent.

Furthermore, the methods the students preferred changed depending on the nature of the news itself. Good news tended to be shouted from the digital rooftops, with modes like Twitter and texting being commonly employed; bad news, meanwhile, tended to be saved for phone calls and face-to-face interactions.

...Although clearly Professor Farnsworth bucks the trend.

While, as Toma noted, the results aren’t surprising — the study, which was published in Computers in Human Behavior , points to previous research showing that people love sharing good news with as many people as possible, but prefer to keep bad news on the down low — it does bring up a lot of interesting questions about etiquette. It’s one thing to share good news, for example, but it’s totally different if you start bragging about it; it’s also tricky to navigate the waters of sharing bad news without looking like you’re creating drama just to get attention. Cross either of those lines and you get into oversharing territory — and as we already know, no one likes an oversharer.

Many people who are shrewder than I have written about both of these topics in the past, though, so allow me to point you towards Emily Gould’s piece “How to Share Your Good News With Friends” on The Awl for the positive version and Adam Dachis’ tips about how to be the bearer of bad news for Lifehacker. It’s good advice. Follow it.

Now go forth and share — wisely.

Images: Bustle Stock Photo; Gif Bay; RockPaperRobot/Tumblr