It’s a word with connotations, all of them bad. “I can’t stand your attitude” is the prelude to a barrage of personal failings that start and end with nothing good.
This seems strange, because at first glance, “attitude” seems like a neutral word. But let’s examine the definitions that Merriam-Webster posts for it.
Aha. Number seven points us to the one we want. If you want to say that attitude is a good thing, you have to specify that it is so, because otherwise attitude as a word is inherently negative.
I hate the word “attitude.” It annoys the living shit out of me, and why? Because primarily it’s a dismissal. Saying “I don’t like this person because of their attitude” excuses the speaker from having to question why that person has an “attitude” to begin with. The player was benched for having an “attitude,” the actor was not cast because they give “attitude,” I’m not going to sign that author because their Twitter shows “attitude.” I don’t listen to people of that race because they have “attitude.”
No, you’re not going to do it because of something else, but you’re going to call that reason “attitude” because it excuses you wholly from having to listen to that person.
Let’s go back to the definition. “A negative or hostile state of mind.” Yes, there are neutral meanings, but we’re focusing on that one, because that’s the one that doesn’t require modifiers. What does it really mean?
Whoa! That’s quite a strong word, with a lot of definitions. But which one applies to “attitude”?
Probably not (a); it’s a bit warlike. The first part of (b) sounds a bit melodramatic, but the second part of it sounds likely. (c) might be part of it.
Er, if someone is being openly resistant, unfriendly, and intimidating towards you, with a side of offensiveness…why are they doing that? It seems like the logical next question. Why are they resisting what you’re doing? Do they believe it’s incorrect? Are they being a bully? Are they going out of their way to provoke you because they are bigoted in some way? Have you offended them and made them believe you are an enemy? Is something going on in their life? Are they just annoying? Being hostile is a lot of effort! Why are they spending it on this interaction?
The other part of the definition is that they are “negative.” That’s a word with a lot of definitions, several to do with science, so I’ll just show you this one.
In this case, we want (b). Sounds like a pretty unpleasant quality, right? Combine negative and hostile, and you get attitude, and wow, I wouldn’t want to hang out with a person with attitude! Gosh heavens no.
Except for the bit where attitude is defined, by the words that use it, as an opposition stance. Literally, if someone is showing an “attitude,” they are showing themselves as opposed to whatever the other person wants to do. And what should we, as adults, do when faced with someone who does not want to do what we want to do and is showing this in an openly hostile and negative way?
Or, and here is something that I know will not happen, but what I wish, wish, wish would: try to understand what that person is exhibiting without putting the burden of your own education on the shoulders of someone else.
See, I’ve been called for my “attitude” quite a few times. For example, the time I was having an “attitude” in gym class because I was getting bullied in the locker room. Or when I was having an “attitude” in drama because I realized that the only people getting cast in large parts were from a certain clique, regardless of talent. There was the “attitude” I showed every time group projects were announced and, sure enough, I was paired with some kid who never did anything just because I was “good at working alone” while others got to work with their friends, so I knew I’d end up doing 80% of the work but it’d take twice the time, and I’d get graded on what others had done and why did my grades have to suffer for others’ incompetence?
Yes, my “attitude” manifested in my being uncooperative (I don’t want to smile at people who treat me badly), angry (this is bullshit), and pessimistic (my grades will go down because of this). I don’t doubt I was deeply unpleasant to work with in those moment.
And the word “attitude” allowed my frustration to be dismissed as a choice on my part.
In some ways, it was. I could have sung a song and smiled and laughed it all off, except that actually, I couldn’t, because I wasn’t an adult writing a children’s book with the grace of distance and time between myself and the experience. This was my life, where I was being told my feelings and efforts and time didn’t matter to those with the power to change the narrative.
“Attitude” was used by the boss who attempted to illegally fire me, as in, when I refused to teach classes poorly and not attend to the needs of the kids, I was showing “attitude.”
I don’t like that word, and I don’t use it, because in my experience, people labelled as showing “attitude” are being shown absolutely zero empathy, compassion, and understanding in kind. Every time I find myself wanting to use it, I stop, reconsider. Does that person really have an “attitude?” Or am I being inflexible? Have I missed something? Are we just incompatible people?
Usually I find I can make things better, if only I try. After all, you can’t have a war by yourself.
Are there actually people with “attitude” out there? I wonder. People kicking up their heels to kick up their heels, I believe they exist. But in that case, if they’re not actually in opposition, just being bratty. If someone is obsessively pessimistic about everything because that’s part of their personality, they don’t have “attitude,” they’re unpleasant to work with. Someone who tries to make things not work for no reason is being a jerk, though in my experience, they almost always do have a reason, even if they won’t tell you, or can’t.
“Attitude” is a word used by those who have power to describe those who do not. It’s a dismissal, and a particularly unpleasant one, because it denotes that the speaker is not listening to what the other person is saying.
Next time you reach for that word, pause and think: how much does this say about the person I wish to describe versus how much does it say about me?
Let’s try to work together rather than slapping on a label. Maybe then we can all have a “positive attitude,” or just actually show a little kindness to each other.