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How can I stay calm despite wrong statements and irrational people?
April 29, 2012 1:56 PM   Subscribe

How can I stay calm despite wrong statements and irrational people?

In short: I cannot stand wrong statements. I can't also stand the people who assert them and dispute in irrational ways.

This whole post restrains to objective fields where the truth of affirmations is non-arguable, such as the number of sisters I have or the colors present on the UK flag. That is, I am not addressing subjects where we all may support different tenable opinions, such as politics or the qualities of the ideal partner.

It always starts the same. Some friends are sitting around a table for dinner. The conversation flows smoothly. At some point, I perceive a wrong -objectively speaking- statement, a wrong idea, or a reasoning flaw. I point it out to the talker, and I develop into detail the reasons why he is wrong. Surprisingly, he pays no attention to the reasoning, quarrels and persists to defend his irrational misconception or prejudice. My blood starts boiling and rage invades me. In some cases, I must even witness how the audience "decides" who is right basing on the talker's vehemence (rather than on the rationale behind the assert).

These events lead me to an infuriated mood where I exhibit aggressive speech and manners. I cannot control this explosion once started, and I always regret it in the end. I want to recover my control and stop these outbursts.

Of course I understand that everyone has the right to be/stay irrational. I am also aware that the truth remains the truth in spite of wrong irrational ideas being stated. However, I cannot stay calm when they are expressed aloud. Visited several therapists, but do not seem to help at all.

So MeFites, could you please provide me with a rational mental trick to keep cool?
posted by dr1ft to Human Relations (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Visited several therapists, but do not seem to help at all.

What kind of therapists? Because I'm thinking that a therapist using cognitive behavioral therapy might do the trick because you clearly know what the issue is and just want to handle it (and don't really need to find the root cause of it).
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:03 PM on April 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Recent post on the subject.

If therapists can't help you get over this, there's something very off and there is no quick fix. It doesn't make you a bad person, but I don't know what else to tell you besides more therapy.

It... might... help to know that no one wants to hang out with the angry, blustery guy who is always ruining a friendly conversation to make sure all facts are completely correct and won't let it go. So do a mental check of "Do I want to ruin this evening for everyone?" before you engage your confrontational mode for no gain at all to anyone.

Do you fixate on other things so much so that you aren't able to let them go for long periods of time?
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:04 PM on April 29, 2012 [11 favorites]

From your description, it sounds as if you're not angry until you hear the other person defend their position.

In your example, the person doesn't begin to defend their position until you dispute it.

Therefore, in this example it seems that you could avoid the explosion by just keeping quiet and not disputing the incorrect position or explaining why it is wrong. Presumably at this stage your blood is not yet boiling and therefore you're more easily able to keep a lid on it in aid of peace and quiet.
posted by emilyw at 2:05 PM on April 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

So, earlier in your post, you mention objective fields, such as the colors on the UK flag. Is there any reason why you can't just pull a "To the Google, Batman! Set phasers for my smartphone will prove I'm right!" This is how most objective-fact things get decided these days.

Later, you mention "wrong ideas and reasoning flaws." I think these are harder to counter, because they rarely are objective.

I woulf also suggest trying to figure out why this bothers you so much.
posted by corb at 2:05 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my life, I have several times been confronted with the question, "Would you rather be right, or liked?" I have made different decisions about that at different times and in different situations. As I get older, I find myself more and more able to let people just be wrong. I think time may mellow this for you, in addition to any advice you may follow.
posted by thebrokedown at 2:17 PM on April 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

It seems like you know yourself well enough to know that if you react to situations like this by doing A, it will lead to B which leads to C, etc., and that you hate hate hate being at F (and your friends likely hate it too). When you're at F, you sincerely regret doing A.

Something to try: next time, when you perceive that a "wrong" thing has been said, excuse yourself to the restroom. Immediately. Pull a slip of paper out your wallet that says: "I have two choices: go back to the table and do A, which leads to fury, turmoil and regret. Or, I can wait here for three minutes and play one round of Game Whatever on my phone, then rejoin the conversation wherever it has inevitably moved to, and continue to enjoy the evening. I know what to do. It is not A."
posted by argonauta at 2:19 PM on April 29, 2012 [11 favorites]

Maybe ask yourself why is it so important for you to be right all of the time.

You keep talking about 'irrational' and wrong people, but maybe consider if it is really them are really the 'irrational' or 'wrong' one when normal dinner conversation escalates to uncontrollable rage and aggression.
posted by seesom at 2:20 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I find that when I can't have a rational discussion on a subject with someone, the best thing to do is to agree to disagree. Most people will act defensively when told they are wrong which makes it even harder to try and convince them that they are. If you find wrong with something someone says, calmly and objectively state the problem you find in what that person says and then leave it at that. That person heard your viewpoint and it is then up to that person find validity in what you said or not. Trying to change someone's mind through forceful or aggressive means is the least effective way to change someone's mind.
posted by defmute at 2:20 PM on April 29, 2012

Treat people who believe irrational things as anthropological subjects to be studied, rather than adversaries to be tangled with. Personally, I find it fascinating to try and understand why people believe in complete nonsense, and it's more interesting to me to dig into their psyche with some probing questions than to just tell them they are wrong.
posted by empath at 2:21 PM on April 29, 2012 [18 favorites]

I wonder if it would help you to distinguish between situations where being wrong matters, and where it doesn't matter.

In social settings like a friendly dinner, the goal is not exchange of correct information. (There are some exceptions - if someone needs directions to the hospital, you want to be sure they get correct information!) The goal is friendly interchange and making your friends feel happy and valued. Being corrected always includes a small social cost - the person being corrected loses face, which makes them feel a bit less valued and happy. If you insist on correcting information in social situations, you're doing so at the expense of the goal of those interactions.

Now, in a work setting or a social setting where the correctness of information matters, it's a different story. There, correctness is part of the group's goal, and thus your correcting someone fits with the goal.

Is your problem that:
A. You can't distinguish in your mind the cases where correctness matters from the cases where it doesn't matter, or
B. You can distinguish those situations, but you still find yourself irritated and out of control in the situations where you know it doesn't matter?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:23 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your reaction itself is irrational. Unless you're correcting someone who's about to accidentally launch a nuke, rage is an irrational reaction to someone who asserts that Columbus arrived in the New World in 1498. Thinking about this may help you begin to dismantle that pattern.
posted by rtha at 2:26 PM on April 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

Do you ever get to hang out with people who don't disagree with you? I don't have your outward anger management problem, but with some issues, when I hear people defend erroneous assertions that should be obviously wrong and could easily be looked up, I get that angry on the inside. But I've noticed that the more time I spend around people who also know/acknowledge what's true, the easier it is for me to laugh at or ignore the other idiots. I think it's because I feel less powerless against the forces of the stupid when I know that I'm not fighting them alone, if you will. Having someone - ideally multiple people - to vent to (if it's ultimately a frustrating but unimportant issue) or to work with to do something (if their wrongness means people are getting killed or something) makes a big difference.

If you have that support elsewhere and are still getting this angry...I don't know. I think any kind of avoidance - leaving the room, changing the subject, etc. might be the best practical solution.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:49 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I sometimes have to remind myself it's more important to be happy than right. Especially when it's something that doesn't actually matter. If that person thinks the flag has green in it - no one's going to die.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 2:51 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

As much as I dislike the plastic, round-cornered people created by Dale Carnegie's writings, as a once argumentative, got-to-make-sure-it's-right person I've always been quite fond of the concept illustrated in this anecdote.

"Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He didn't ask for your opinion. He didn't want it. Why argue with him? Always avoid the acute angle."

To which I'd append "- if leaving it be creates no actual problems".
posted by Pinback at 2:52 PM on April 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

When you correct someone, all the social benefit flows to you, the smart one, at the expense of them, the fool. Every correction you make is effectively a challenge for status. It is not irrational for people to defend themselves even if they are wrong. They are protecting their position in the group and protecting themselves from embarrassment, which gives them utility in a rational economics sense, which means they are acting rationally. There is a meta-game here whose rules you seem unfamiliar with, and you don't understand why you're losing. Maybe this is what's so frustrating for you? Do you perhaps believe your commitment to the truth should be recognized by others, and that people who say wrong things should not get away with them -- should be punished, in other words? If so, notice how it's not the objectiveness of the truth that motivates this thinking, but praise or condemnation from others. It is telling that this happens in social settings with your friends. Maybe you are carrying some insecurity about social position which is prompting you to correct people; this could be something to think about.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:53 PM on April 29, 2012 [31 favorites]

I used to be like this. Unless the "wrong thing" involves the benefits of sitting on a high-voltage power line, you have to learn to let it go. I still feel the urge to correct people, but now I bite my tongue, literally, I bite it to keep my mouth shut. (I too have a history of depression. I have an IQ that is near genius. I am actually smarter than most people.) I wish I could find some super sticky gum I could chew when I have to deal with people.
posted by fifilaru at 3:02 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

In simpler matters, like the flag example, be sure to give the person a way to save face. Don't go to the internets, bring up incontrovertible proof, present it to the offender and say 'Admit now that you were wrong and that I was correct. Grovel before me!' Try to seem more sympathetic and say something like, 'Many people get confused with something else, but [interesting factoid].' Telling the other person that they aren't dumb, just mistaken, and helping divert attention from that fact will likely make them feel more able to admit that they were wrong.

It sounds like sometimes though, the subject isn't quite as simple ('irrational misconception or prejudice'), and while they may be objectively wrong about something, it is a plank in their political or politicized world view. People aren't going to give up long held, deep seated beliefs after you disprove a single talking point, no matter how devastating your take-down is, and getting aggressive about it won't help, because it isn't about the facts. Avoiding those situations is probably best (good advice for that above), though I do advocate the yo is this racist technique of yelling at bigots on select occasions.
posted by Garm at 3:23 PM on April 29, 2012

I have this problem too. I get around it by looking at things in terms of energy cost.

If it's a technical thing where there is a definite right and wrong, and if I have no stake, then I might argue a little but usually very quickly I reach the "whatever" point and it's easier to just let people be wrong. If you win a fight all you do is make somebody feel like a jackass and they resent you. If you lose you get mad. Therefore, there is no benefit to be derived from arguing a point. Energy cost vs benefit. To optimize your life, don't waste energy. Everything makes sense inside this framework. Always avoid the acute angle, always take the path of least resistance. You'll live longer and get more done.

If it's a batshit insane thing, like somebody tells you they speak in tongues or are a robot from the future, then I do what empath does and treat that discussion as an anthropological study. Because how can you not? In these cases I turn off the judgmental argumentative part of my brain and go into pretend I am making a documentary about this person mode. It's much more fun and in my experience you meet a lot of interesting people this way. In this case the benefit (perspective, a bar story, whatever you decide) outweighs the minimal cost of listening to a crazy person for a while. Sometimes it doesn't, in which case walk away or tune out as appropriate.

You can't win an argument. You can't because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.
posted by tracert at 3:28 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please listen to tracert, I've lived with an Aspie for 27 years and he has been fired from some fantastic jobs because of his inability to rein in his ferocious intellect. What value being objectively right in a cold bed? With no friends, no job.

Yes you are right but you're probably not going to be loved.

choose which you prefer, and decide which battles you want to win at all costs and which you can keep schtum for.
posted by Wilder at 4:10 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You do this because you are very concerned that your friends see that you are an intelligent and thoughtful human. I do this because I am very concerned that my friends see I am an intelligent and thoughtful person.

But if you or I do this too much we end up with fewer people around us for shorter lengths of time and with greater gaps in between these times. The feeling of having been nice is a way way way more satisfying and copacetic feeling than the feeling of being right.

Try to walk away from social situations saying to yourself, "I can drive home in peace because I was warm and respectful to all the people that I enjoyed spending time with tonight." Sure beats the shit out of "Oh my Christ, I cannot believe that this person didn't understand why they were wrong and I can't believe I was forced to act so aggressively to defend what is right in front of my friends who didn't seem to understand why there was a problem." and the fucking cortisol hangover from experiencing a minor but notable fight/flight reaction at what was supposed to beer and bowling night. Or whatever.

You're not a shitty person, and neither am I (I think), but some of us are stuck overreacting all the time and it is up to us to change that behavior, both for ourselves and for our friends.
posted by TheRedArmy at 7:29 PM on April 29, 2012

As you can see from the answers in this thread, this happens to a lot of folks. Do you have any likeminded friends you can share these incidents with later, in a humorous way? Or even in a "I know this is petty, but oh my god, it drives me insane when people equate every single cold/illness with the flu" exasperated kind of way. Maybe knowing/planning that you'll be able to vent/commiserate at some point in the near future could help mitigate the immediate rage. Hell, sometimes I text my friends immediately, if something like this is driving me nuts.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:00 PM on April 29, 2012

In most cases I'd just drop it. But if they're saying something that you think it's important to counter, I find it helps to present the counter-evidence respectfully and without too much certainty - approach every conversation from the attitude that you're trying to learn something from them ("anthropological study" is one perspective that might work) but also trying to reconcile what they're saying with what you already know.

For instance, I've had conversations that go like this: "I don't believe in vaccinating your children!" "Why do you say that? I think that the diseases vaccines protect against are really scary and dangerous." "Well, it might give your kids autism!" "You mean thimerosal? I remember there were some concerns about that because it was a mercury derivative and because autism usually shows up around the same age that kids get vaccinated. But it didn't show up in studies - and they've removed it from vaccines now anyway." "I still don't think you should do it! It's just going along with the herd!" "Well, OK then. *shrug*" Whenever they stop engaging or give up on logic, let it go.

Similarly, if they say "I don't really know the details of the studies but I heard it was bad!" you can let it go there too - they've admitted to not knowing. If they are interested in knowing or someone else is interested in knowing, they can talk to you or look up the research themselves. A lot of people aren't interested in knowing, just in having an opinion or in imitating some authority figure they admire. But maybe you can make sure that other people know there's more to the story, and still avoid calling someone stupid or attacking them.
posted by Lady Li at 8:42 PM on April 29, 2012

There are scores of idioms in many languages along the lines of "choose your battles wisely" for a good reason. It's to prevent that sense of rage you're feeling.
posted by desuetude at 10:07 PM on April 29, 2012

It's true that you have to choose your battles, but I'm surprised by how many people are saying that you should entirely shrug it off. My friends are mostly very rational, so as long as I'm civil about bringing up facts that I think are incorrect, I don't have to choose between being right and being liked. And I disagree that you're the only one with something to gain. If I were citing something as fact and it was totally wrong, I would want someone to tell me (preferably discreetly, but in public will often do) so that I don't embarrass myself on future occasions.
posted by tantivy at 10:24 PM on April 29, 2012

You need to learn how to stand your ground calmly. You're saying that the other people are being irrational, where you're being way more irrational by being suffused with rage at a factual disagreement.

Here's how you do it. "I'm pretty sure that Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso, not of Ghana, but you seem equally sure of your position. Is it really important right now, anyway? We can look it up when we get home, and anyway I'm more interested in hearing about Bill's trip. What other countries will you be visiting, Bill?"

Then if Wrong National Capital Person brings it up again, "No worries, we can look it up when we get home."

The satisfaction of being right is like the satisfaction of masturbation, best experienced solo or with your sweetheart. Hug it to yourself as a private joy. Knowledge is valuable for its own sake.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:08 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a little bit of this. Not to the extent that it sounds like you do, but I've always had a strong tendency to jump in and correct people when they say something that's objectively false, or when they display a common misconception that I feel I can "helpfully" clear up, or something like that. My fiance has been working on me with this, and I'm far from perfect yet, but I'll tell you a little bit about what I've learned. I say this to help you maybe readjust the context in which you see conversation and most human interactions in general, so that you maybe won't find it as bothersome when someone says an untrue thing in conversation. Warning: mixed metaphors ahead.

Conversations are not usually about the accurate exchange of information. Conversations are usually about facilitating social connection between people. Conversation is like a thing that people make together, something that exists outside of the participants, like a ball of energy that people feed by sort of gently batting it around with words, a bit like a circle of people playing hackey sack. Making a move in a conversation such as correcting someone on a factual misstep is sort of like suddenly kicking the hackey sack into that person's face.

I mean, sure, there are usually some core assumptions that any given conversation has, but these are usually just background information that everyone agrees on. Chances are, if you're having a conversation that's anything more than just a simple question-answer exchange, it is not very important to the people you are talking with that everything they are saying is true. It is, however, important that you do your bit (although only your bit – if you find yourself dominating a conversation or interrupting people because you have a lot of interesting things to say on the topic at hand, then you should work on that too) to keep the conversation alive and well-fed.

This seems counterintuitive – how could it not matter if something is true or not? Facts are important! Nobody likes being wrong, and you can help them be right by correcting them! It's certainly counterintuitive to me, anyway. Think about it like this, though: how often is the number of colors on the UK flag actually relevant in conversation, relative to how often it comes up? Most of the time if someone accidentally revealed that they were laboring under the misconception that the flag was Red, White, and Green, and nobody corrected them, the conversation could just continue on without being substantially affected by their misstatement. It's not important that it's true, but it is important that the people participating in the conversation all work together to make the conversation keep going because the energy of a good conversation (note: not debate, conversation) is something that people find pleasant and spiritually nourishing.

By jumping in to correct somebody in the context of a conversation, you are actually blocking the flow of that positive energy and really significantly dispersing it by making everything stop so that you can point out that one of the other participants was wrong. This makes people feel foolish and defensive and pull back in on themselves, which is the opposite of what a good conversation should do for everyone involved. You're also taking what is essentially a pleasant, amusing cooperative game and suddenly turning it into a competitive one, where you have to fight your conversation partners to determine who is right and who is wrong.

Sorry if I'm getting a little abstract. Basically, when you find yourself in a nice, friendly conversation you should look at yourself as a facilitator. Make it your job to keep the conversation flowing, to smooth over hiccups (sometimes the best way to smooth over a conversation hiccup is to ignore it and pretend it didn't happen) and give people an opportunity to express themselves and feel good about themselves. When everybody does this, everybody feels good.

It's not about being right, or about being liked. It's not about stopping the spread of falsehood -- it's nobody's job to strike down misconceptions wherever they are found. It's just about being able to participate effectively in an ancient and pleasant human ritual. That is what conversation really is -- it's a form of ritual. It doesn't have to make sense, it still feeds important and basic psychological needs. It's just a thing that people do, and if you can learn to look at it as a sort of collective improvised performance rather than an exchange of information, you'll be on the road to being a better conversationalist and a more relaxed and happy human being.
posted by Scientist at 12:50 AM on April 30, 2012 [12 favorites]

Is it rational that you get emotional about being right?
posted by ropeladder at 5:18 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I hate being angrily contradicted and having the person develop why I'm wrong in detail, especially in front of a group, at least as much as you hate "wrong ideas." This might be why you're not getting anywhere in these conversations.
posted by Occula at 12:20 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

You only get upset because you persist despite all evidence in believing that people won't be irrational.
posted by callmejay at 4:29 PM on April 30, 2012

I love Scientist's comment. Another thing that helps me is thinking about conversations in the emotional bid framework .(FWIW John Gottman's work is generally well recommended on AskMeFi, I think.)

Conversations, as Scientist notes, are very rarely just about exchanging information; people don't want to know whether they are right or wrong, they want to connect with you.
posted by lillygog at 7:50 PM on April 30, 2012

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