Monday, November 14, 2011

The Etiquette of Being Right

Lively debates are exciting, provocative and educational interactions which challenge our intellects and enrich our lives. They also test our character and reveal our true inner spirit to those around us. Why just this past week I was engaged in such a debate. I had finally grown weary of the US debt crisis and the media debacle in Britain which dominated and clogged the news channels round the clock. Surprised and mesmerized as so many people seemed to be with these crises, there are others who both saw these events coming and mentally filed them under "this too shall pass".

Thankfully, my trusted British colleague William Hanson coincidentally wrote a blog about the use of the word 'pudding' in England vs. the word 'dessert' used in the US (and most of the rest of the world for that matter). This respite from world events and woes was somehow just the frivolous relief that I needed. I decided to respond to his rather hard line opinion that 'pudding', not 'dessert' is the correct name of the course by politely throwing down the gauntlet. This resulted in an online debate which circled the globe. As with any proper debate, it is the strategy employed that will buoy one side or the other, both sides knowing full well that there is no absolute correct answer at the end of the day. What did impress me was the way in which we went about this intellectual sparring match - politely, humorously and resolutely.

Let's face it, who won this debate is not as interesting (and no, I did not lose) as the dynamics at play. It got me to thinking about how we go about being right in our daily lives and how we get into debates, which we for some reason often times call arguments. Unlike the column I recently wrote about agreeing to disagree and what is involved there, here I want to take a look at actually winning an argument or debate without making the other person feel deflated or completely wrong. Sometimes we do win debates and doing so in a civil way is an important skill, the significance of which seems to have all but evaporated. Going around with a puffed out chest is the sure sign of a bully, not a fair player.

First of all, accept victory gracefully. There is no reason to gloat. Gloating is little more than an attempt to elevate your self worth at the expense of someone else's. Although we do this unawares, we can nonetheless be quite hurtful. Secondly, smirking and making side remarks under one's breathe are rude and disrespectful as well. Grace is all about quiet inner satisfaction and not about broadcasting your triumph boisterously for all to hear. Remember that whatever small victory you may claim, it is more than likely yours alone. Few others will particularly take note as it does not affect them anyway.

One final note about being right. It's all an illusion most of time. Rarely is anything absolute. I recall the song "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye (the father) tries to balance the pros and cons of his daughter's desire to marry in a non-traditional way. This conversation with himself goes back and forth a number of times and in the end no absolute conclusion is reached. Therefore, the debate resulted in a draw. I also recall studying the history of modern man and remember that for many hundreds of years the world was believed to be flat and the earth was the center of the Universe. We humans don't know anywhere near as much as we give ourselves credit for. We are always making new discoveries to disprove theories which have stood the test of time and reason for centuries. This will never change. So just when we think we have the answer and are sitting smugly smiling inwardly that we have scored a victory of sorts, graciousness appears more quickly and we are reminded that being right is a temporary state and we may well be face to face with the flip side of the coin before we know it.

Enjoy the sweet taste of being right no matter how big or small the contest. Tempering this with a heavy pinch of humility shows respect for your opponent and will actually make you feel the simple joy that kindness provides.