We spend a lot of energy talking to our kids, spouses, co-workers, and strangers…but how do we get them to listen? Our success depends on our relationship and the framing effect: whether our ideas are presented with positive versus negative phrasing.
Positive phrases with “can” and “do” emphasize desired goals. On the other hand, negative phrases, such as “cannot”, “do not”, and “no” are verbal stop signs. Sometimes negative words are necessary and inevitable. But when overused, they become roadblocks to communication and connection.
By changing the tone of our phrasing, everything from bilingual parenting to social activism can be more effective. While positive phrasing comes naturally to me in English, I’m still learning these translations in Chinese, my heritage language.
However, positive phrasing has empowered my everyday parenting and work, and I’ll share examples you can start using today in English and Chinese. I’m also happy to share a free bilingual printable of these examples!
Comparing positive versus negative phrasing in English and Chinese: why it matters
Positive phrasing consists of clear and encouraging statements of what the listener can do.
In addition, Montessori teacher Ginni Sackett reminds us that “body language, facial expression, tone of voice, inflection and words all [should] convey the same meaning and intention; when these are not aligned, the receptive child will always default to the non-verbal and emotional intention rather than the actual words.”
On the other hand, negative phrasing tends to require extra words (cannot, do not, stop) to reduce or eliminate a repulsive behavior or action. Negative commands can obstruct the target outcome, because they may:
- Sound judgmental and antagonistic
- Trigger the defensive “flight and fight” response
- Require a follow-up sentence for target behavior/outcome, thereby taking longer to listen, read, decipher, and follow-through
For example, when you tell your kids not to whine, they usually get more annoyed and keep whining. If I tell you not to yawn, you might think more about yawning. And if you’re climbing something and I tell you “Don’t look down!” instead of “Keep looking up”, you have to work extra hard to ignore the urge to look down.
Positive versus negative phrases in bilingual parenting (English and Chinese)
In English and Chinese, small but impactful changes make negative phrases into positive counterparts:
- Don’t forget…别忘了… / 別忘了… (Bié wàngle…) → Please remember…请记得… / 請記得… (Qǐng jìdé…)
- I don’t like….我不喜欢… / 我不喜歡… (Wǒ bù xǐhuān…) → I like…我喜欢… / 我喜歡… (Wǒ xǐhuān…)
- You can’t….你不可以…(Nǐ bù kěyǐ…) OR 你不能,,, (Nǐ bùnéng…) → You can….你可以…(Nǐ kěyǐ…) OR 你能… (Nǐ néng…)
- Don’t do…不要做… (Bùyào zuò…) → Do….做… (Zuò…)
With practice, here are daily parenting phrases you can transform from negative to positive. I’ve included English plus simplified, traditional Chinese translations, and Hanyu Pinyin. If you’re a native Chinese speaker, please feel free to add any suggestions to the comments!
|You can’t run here.|
(Nǐ bù kěyǐ zài zhèlǐ pǎo.)
|Walk slowly. |
(Màn man zǒu.)
|Use your words. Then I can hear what you say.|
(Nǐ hǎohǎo shuō. Zhèyàng wǒ jiù kěyǐ tīngdào nǐ shuō dehuà.)
别喊! / 別喊!
别叫! / 別叫!
|Quiet down. |
Please be quiet.
请安静。 / 請安靜。
|Don’t bother her. |
(Bùyào chǎo tā)
(Bùyào dǎrǎo tā.)
OR redirect child:
Come here now.
(Lái zhèlǐ ba.)
|You can’t hit!|
(Bù kěyǐ dǎ!)
轻轻的。 / 輕輕的。
(Qīng qīng de.)
别碰。 / 別碰。
|Redirect to something touchable or give specific instructions:|
Put your hands behind your back.
(Jiāng shuāngshǒu fàng zài bèihòu.)
|Don’t do it by yourself.|
(Bùyào zìjǐ zuò.)
|Let’s do it together.|
(Wǒmen yīqǐ zuò)
Do you need help?
(Nǐ xūyào bāngzhù ma?)
|Don’t give up!|
|You can do it!|
(Nǐ yīdìng zuò dédào!)
|Don’t stand on the chair.|
(Bù yào zhàn zài yǐzi shàng.)
(Hǎohǎo zuò xià.)
|Don’t throw your book.|
不要扔你的书。 / 不要扔你的書。
(Bùyào rēng nǐ de shū.)
|Gently hold the books.|
轻轻拿。 / 輕輕拿。
(Qīng qīng ná.)
轻拿轻放。 / 輕拿輕放。
(Qīng ná qīng fàng.)
|Don’t throw toys.|
(Bùyào rēng wánjù.)
|Put your toys gently on the ground.|
把玩具轻轻放在地上 。/ 把玩具輕輕放在地上 。
(Bǎ wánjù qīng qīng fàng zài dìshàng.)
|Don’t forget to brush your teeth.|
别忘了刷牙。 / 別忘了刷牙。
(Bié wàngle shuāyá)
|Remember to brush your teeth.|
(Jìdé yào shuāyá.)
Positive versus negative phrasing in advocacy
The framing effect is also extremely important in how we spend our time and resources in advocacy and activism. The Stanford Social Innovation Review advises us to “Stop Raising Awareness Already”:
To move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand
Which of the following phrases do you think would be more effective to tell your family or post on a flyer?
|NEGATIVE PHRASING||POSITIVE PHRASING|
|Don’t waste electricity|
(Bù yào làng fèi diàn)
|Please turn off the light|
请关灯。 / 請關燈。
(Qǐng guān dēng)
Buy electric cars
买纯电动车。 / 買純電動車。
(Mǎi chún diàndòng chē)
|Don’t waste water|
不要浪费水。 / 不要浪費水。
(Bù yào làng fèi shuǐ)
|关好水龙头。 / 關好水龍頭。|
(Guān hǎo shuǐlóngtóu)
(Bù yào luàn diū lā jī [lè sè].)
|Pick up the trash.|
把垃圾捡起来。 / 把垃圾撿起來。
(Bǎ lā jī [lè sè] jiǎn qǐ lái)
|Don’t eat so much meat.|
(Bùyào chī tài duōròu.)
|Eat less meat.|
(Shǎo chī ròu.)
Stop eating meat.
别吃肉了。 / 別吃肉了。
(Bié chī ròule.)
|Don’t use so much paper.|
(Bùyào yòng tài duō zhǐ.)
|Use 1 sheet of paper.|
可以用一张纸。 / 可以用一張紙。
(Kěyǐ yòng yī zhāng zhǐ.)
|Don’t forget to recycle!|
(Bié wàngle huíshōu.)
|Remember to recycle! |
(Jìdé yào huíshōu.)
The importance of being specific and practical
Although “save electricity 节约用电 / 節約用電 (jiéyuē yòng diàn)” and “save water 节约用水 / 節約用水 (jiéyuē yòngshuǐ) are also positive phrases, these statements are inadequate alone and should be followed by specific calls to action.
Most of the positive phrases in the table are concrete, doable steps for all people. However, “buying electric cars 买纯电动车 / 買純電動車 (mǎi chún diàndòng chē)” has more obstacles including budget, availability, and misconceptions. In addition, reducing or eliminating dietary meet is a major lifestyle change.
To motivate change, alternative options should be desirable, affordable, and easy to implement. As The Decision Lab explains:
Because we want to avoid sure losses, we look for options and information with certain gain. The way something is framed can influence our certainty that it will bring either gain or loss. This is why we find it attractive when the positive features of an option are highlighted instead of the negative ones.
Due to the negative phrasing and lack of action steps, I am concerned about the trending slogans:
- Stop Asian Hate
- Stop AAPI Hate
- I am not a virus.
Although many Asian Americans want to counter the Model Minority Myth by showing anger, each post and sign with popular catch phrases takes time and attention from practical solutions.
Regarding the term “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)” Associated Press (AP) Stylebook advises:
The acronym is widely used by people within these communities but is not as well known outside of them. Spell out the full term; use AAPI only in direct quotations and explain the term.
Furthermore, “STOP” statements can shut down the potential for real, meaningful conversations. While people who actively “hate” Asians are likely ignoring our messages, our own friends may not realize they could be perpetuating stereotypes and other harmful systemic issues. The Government of Canada’s Language Portal suggests:
A positive tone also affects how your readers react to your writing. It may just be subconsciously, but if your readers sense that a document is “speaking” to them kindly, they will be more inclined to follow the instructions in it than if they feel threatened or belittled.
Positive versus negative language in advertisements
With all that said, I want to clarify that positive phrasing is not always “rainbows and ponies” (<–note my sparse use of negative phrasing here!) Positive and negative concepts can be presented powerfully with positive phrasing. Take a look at the following advertisements; start-up consultant Dianna Lesage compares these in her article about framing.
In contrast to the utopia on the left, the image on the right is revolting and grabs my attention. Paired with positive phrasing “what goes in the ocean goes in you”, I’m immediately compelled to avoid plastic and skip sushi for dinner…
But first, cultivate those relationships
With hundreds of emails and messages a day, I cannot respond to all inquiries. If you message me for the first time with ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and/or minimal context, I will definitely ignore it!
Keep in mind that children, friends, co-workers, and strangers are more likely to listen if we speak and listen with respect. Communication is a 2-way street, and trust is essential for emotional topics and personal change.
Have you noticed a difference with positive and negative phrasing in parenting, work, and advocacy?
Shifting our phrasing can take time and practice, and I hope the examples in this post can help communication with your children, students, colleagues, and other relationships!. Please leave a comment below with your experiences and thoughts!