An Unpleasant Exchange

You’re chatting in the hallway between classes. In the circle are several acquaintances and a cute girl you’ve seen around but have yet to meet. You want to make a good impression. The conversation turns to last weekend’s escapades, and the guy on your left mentions how he beat you handily in basketball, or maybe you’re at Harvard, in which case he didn’t just “beat” you, he “wiped the floor” with you. Flustered, your mind races. So many things are wrong with his statement. Neither of you had been keeping score, though it was probably closer to a tie. Plus, the game was just for fun. You blurt out something to this effect, speaking quickly in an effort to get it all out before someone butts in and cuts you off. No one seems to care about your explanation. The guy laughs “whatever dude” while slapping you on the back a bit too aggressively.

Scenes like this are common; there is always someone to target and someone to impress. It’s tempting to argue that those who find themselves in confrontational situations do so at their own prerogative, that we could very well maintain a mental list of unpleasant people. But then we run the risk of passing up opportunities simply for fear of encountering one of them. If an asshole shows up in our group of friends, are we to find new friends? If we encounter one at the workplace, should we quit our job? Are we to limit ourselves to accommodate those we find distasteful? Even if we wanted to, given the pervasiveness of situations in which people feel the need to assert themselves, it isn’t feasible.

Try as you might, you will not make it through life without being insulted, provoked, or otherwise challenged. What you can control, however, is your response.

Attacks come from strangers, acquaintances, and close friends. It is therefore more productive to treat them not as attacks, but as amiable banter. There is a spectrum from verbal belligerence to gentle teasing, and much of the subtext of communication takes place in this range. Recognizing and responding to these nuances is a crucial step toward becoming a well-socialized person.

So how does one deflect attacks? This is context dependent, but the most important thing is not to be invested in the interaction. The words are not meant seriously. In taking offense or even trying to defend yourself, you immediately demonstrate your misjudgment of the situation and lend credence to an otherwise ridiculous comment. These kinds of things can turn out well or poorly; by committing emotionally, you set yourself up to lose.

Stifle the urge to explain yourself. In the basketball example, the guy on my left isn’t giving a commencement address, he’s just shooting his alpha-male shit. The attempt to respond by explaining the fallacies in his argument is simply inappropriate. He isn’t making a point, he is showing off. If any response is warranted, it should carry on the joke in a good-humored but non-compliant way, “Oh yeah, I forgot we were playing to negative ten.”

But before you expend the energy coming up with some witty comeback, consider whether it is necessary. Is anyone else actually paying attention whom you particularly care to impress? If not, you might as well completely ignore the guy. You lose nothing, and if he tries to follow up, he comes across as trying too hard. If you are in different conversational circles, ignoring him is simply an act of politeness to the people with whom you are currently engaged. If you feel obligated to respond, make him wait a little while; take your time as you register his mention of your name and turn your head to address him. Perhaps act as if you didn’t fully hear him and ask him to repeat himself. If he goes through all that trouble to elicit a response from you, then he too is new to this social skills thing.

Oftentimes the simplest and easiest option is to treat the statement as a joke, laugh a bit, smile, and move on. If the statement doesn’t faze you, then no one will think that it ought to have done so.

-Robert