How to not be Arrogant

A high school classmate once told me that I was arrogant and that nothing I said or did could convince her otherwise. This all changed one weekend when I ran into her at the rock climbing gym. She was working through some of the more challenging paths while I was struggling to figure out the easier ones. I finally asked for her help. She relented and gave me a demonstration. And the more she showed me, the warmer we both became. Her attitude toward me visibly changed.

My grandfather once told me that if you want to relate to someone, ask him a question. Ask him to explain something to you, to teach you how to do something. By doing so, you acknowledge that you have something to learn from him. And by demonstrating that you are eager to learn from others, that you find others interesting, you communicate openness and respect for what they do.

The secret to not being arrogant is to find other people interesting and to make a habit of actively searching for the qualities that make them so.

A while ago, a talented essayist wrote an article about how his many years of schooling had rendered him unable to converse with his plumber. I realize that this man is likely a fascinating conversationalist in many settings, and I see why he could have had trouble in this case if he defaulted to conversing about literature. But had he been interested in learning about pipes, this would have been his chance!

Several years ago, I found myself in a similar situation. I ran into a high school acquaintance who had gone on to become a mortician, and at first, I had no idea what to say. I knew nothing about dead bodies. But as it turned out, I didn’t need to say much. My deficiency was the precise ingredient needed to enliven my partner. Rather than trying to strike up a conversation about sorting algorithms, I learned about the process of sanitizing and embalming the body and about the factors that enticed my acquaintance into the industry in the first place.

Any difference in background is a potential source of new knowledge. If your acquaintances identify with different cultures, pursue different lines of work, or subscribe to different sets of moral standards, then they probably have intimate knowledge of some facet of life that is foreign to you. Search for these differences.

If you limit the conversation to your areas of familiarity, your acquaintances may have nothing to contribute on the subject. We experience such limited portions of the things that can be experienced. It often makes little sense to appraise others by the standards that we set for ourselves. Others have different values and aspirations, and discovering another’s motives is a far more enlightening enterprise than is measuring that person by our own.

-Robert