How To Deal With Smug People In Your Life
March 31, 2014 7:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I better deal with people who think they know it all? What I'm doing now is not working.

I have two people, who I cannot avoid and are fairly close to me, who annoy me with their obnoxious know-it-all behavior. These two people seem to have an answer for everything. They seem to have an opinion on everything and since their behavior rubs me the wrong way, I tend to clam up and say very little. I have trouble with making small talk because I am often peeved by their smugness.

They will not necessarily dispute my opinion but they tend to be very smug when it comes to stating their opinions. They often comment on how others are doing it wrong, whether it comes to money, personal matters, or political beliefs. They can be judgmental in a gossipy and scornful way. They have cut people off who have "wronged them", have very high standards for the behavior of others, and often feel that they have been victimized by the poor behavior of others.

It wasn't always like this. I wasn't always so quiet. I used to converse and state my opinions on all sort of matters, but over the years I have become more aware that they are quite arrogant when it comes to their opinions and I have clammed up. I don't think it's worth the effort to talk about myself and I don't feel compelled to share with them. Nowadays it's incredibly boring whenever I'm around them. They do all of the talking and I say very little. It's boring because I am hearing their commentary on the behavior of others and gossip, and boring because I'm not talking. I literally do not share anything unless asked. I'll comment on the delicious food or the weather or other very neutral subjects but that's about it. At times it's hard for me to make eye contact.

What are some things I can do to get over this and just talk without caring? I tend to respect people who have strong opinions, this is not the case with these people. With them it's more annoying than fascinating. I cannot tell them they are being smug. They are twenty-plus years older than me, not blood relatives, and I'm not willing to point out their flaws. It's not worth it and won't end well. This is the way they are and have been for decades and I only need to change how I interact and understand my behavior more.

Any advice or comments appreciated.
posted by Fairchild to Human Relations (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Master the art of the backhanded compliment and the ironic comeback. It should at least amuse you if nothing else. If done right it either won't be obvious to them, or will win them over.

For instance:
Them: "are you going to clean that dish and put it in the dishwasher, on the bottom?"
You: "oh no, for a change today I thought I would just break it on the floor."

posted by quincunx at 7:56 PM on March 31, 2014

Don't even waste your time. They clearly aren't paying attention to you and what you're saying, so (within reason) you don't owe them that, either.

Smug Person: You know, you really should do this thing that way.
You: Uh huh.

Smug Person: Here's some advice about a situation you'd never be in because you told me eight times that you do things a different way, but I never listened.
You: That's nice.

Smug Person: Cousin Honey is such a scalawag, don't you think?
You: I really couldn't say.
posted by Madamina at 8:16 PM on March 31, 2014 [11 favorites]

How willing are you to have them think of you as a b****? That may be the way they perceive you for asserting a healthy, adult boundary around this sort of behavior.

Smug Person: John is still into the blahbitty-blah way of doing such-and-such.

You: Do you really need to complain about John? I think he's a really great person and I'd much rather hear about the good things going on in your life. How is work/How are the grand kids/etc.

- sticking up for the target of gossip is a good way to stop gossip.

- changing the topic of conversation at the end of the call-out makes it tougher for them to go back.

If they are making suggestions to you, "Thanks for that input," then disregard.
posted by alphanerd at 8:26 PM on March 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Well, there's always pushing them to cut off contact...

Can you ask them questions about themselves, i.e., what it was like to grow up during whatever decade or era? Or about their personal projects, hobbies, interests, favorite things? That might divert them and buy some judgement-free time. Playing a card game or old school parlor game (i.e., no play money, no trivia) or working on a puzzle might also do this, depending on the person.

If all else fails, there's always playing either Obnoxiousness Bingo in your head while using the responses above, or Let's See How Ridiculous of a Statement I Can Get Out of This Person and Keep a Straight Face.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:27 PM on March 31, 2014

Do you want them to avoid conversation with you, thinking it's their choice? Then you just need to start endlessly turning conversations back to something personal and dull to them like your cat. "So you told her she had married the wrong man? She sounds just like my Snuffles, won't come to me unless I have cat food but as soon as someone walks in who's allergic to cats, Snuffles is on their lap! Did I show you the pictures I took of Snuffles in a hat?"

Otherwise, if you're looking for ways to turn them into pleasant conversation partners, you can't. You can shut down gossip by saying politely and sweetly that you believe the best of people and being utterly kind towards the target of the gossip (She cheated on him? That's so sad! Oh, I hope they can work things out, marriage takes a lot of work.) which takes out any enjoyment of gossip. But if they're just dull self-centered people, conversation will always suck with them.

Another gambit is to interview them - ask them about interesting facets of their jobs, or places they've been, imagining yourself as writing an article based on what you learn from them. They're happy, you're not bored. The challenge is to think of new and interesting approaches to mine with them.

Otherwise, just learn to say mm-hmm a lot and mentally organise your shopping list.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:29 PM on March 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

"if you're so smart, why aren't you rich? shouldn't you be CEO of that company by now?"

or you could tell them the old joke. the harvard guy goes fishing with his guide, a graduate of directional state u. he notices that the guide doesn't wash his hands after streamside urination, and he asks "didn't they teach you at directional state u to wash your hands after doing that?" and the guide replies....

"at directional state u, they taught us not to go on our hands."
posted by bruce at 8:29 PM on March 31, 2014

Every time they say something bad about someone, say something good. It's fun to do this because it somewhat neutralizes the emotional bad stench in the air, and plus you come out looking like a nice, fair, and trustworthy person.

Also, the MeFi obligatory "Well, bless your heart" could be useful.
posted by koakuma at 8:32 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

You've outgrown them, and you should be -- well, not smug, but contented -- with knowing you're moving on to a somewhat more thoughtful way of living your life. Learning to be quiet and thoughtful rather than filling the air with obnoxious noise is a great gift to give oneself.

When you cannot avoid these people -- are you sure that's true? -- take the role of quiet observer, learning about their biases and prejudices and such, realizing that they never want a response to their comments (and so in being quiet you are actually quite the ideal companion, never challenging them on their unfounded and unsupportable outbursts.) Consider it a reminder of how you've changed for the better. It might eventually start to amuse you, especially if one eventually asks what you think: you can respond with utmost sincerity "I think what you're saying is really interesting" because you do find it interesting that they can make themselves look like a jackass just by opening their mouth.
posted by davejay at 10:48 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well since you can't 'consciously uncouple from' them...

Meditate for a while on equality. What does equality mean? That every being's right to feelings and safety and happiness and choice is equal to that of other beings.

These two characters are insecure. To combat their insecurity, they try to place themselves above others. This is not the way things are. Just because they talk down to you does not mean you are lower than them, no matter how strongly they make it feel so.

Practice standing with your two feet plainly in the ground and looking them in the eye. Not judging. Not challenging. Just looking. See that they're not a scary monster, they're just some person. When they startup all judgy-judgy, think: wow. That's an opinion. They are too insecure to connect with me genuinely and so make up a "better than" distance. Secure people share power. I am completely equal to this person in every way. They have no power over me but what I give.

That's it, that's the secret. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:58 AM on April 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Hi Fairchild! I am probably the type of smug know-it-all you're dealing with. I will tell you about an encounter that worked to make me aware of the behavior and re-think it, without being overly confrontational:

I was once bloviating about how much a certain person annoyed me, to someone entirely unrelated who neither knew nor cared about the individual, and the person I was talking to stopped me in my tracks with the comment "You seem to have very strong feelings about this."

It turned on a light bulb for me in a big way. This happened probably more than five years ago now, and I still like to think I conduct myself in a more positive and productive manner today, principally because of this intervention. I highly recommend it! Good luck!
posted by trunk muffins at 8:51 AM on April 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the helpful advice and comments. I do find myself doing a lot of nodding and listening. I know they are insecure but I'm afraid I too can appear insecure when I'm so quiet. I think the suggestions of asking more questions about neutral or positive subjects is very good. I tend to be quiet even when neutral subjects are discussed because I'm annoyed at something that was said earlier. I don't need to go around being annoyed or slightly seething. Thank you again for advice.
posted by Fairchild at 12:06 PM on April 1, 2014

Response by poster: I would also like to add that I laughed a lot when reading these answers. quincunx, I would love to say this while loading the dishwasher.
posted by Fairchild at 12:11 PM on April 1, 2014

It is my experience that the know it all type of person usually just needs/wants to feel heard and acknowledged. My solution has been to acknowledge, echo, and then move on. Even better is if you can acknowledge what they said by saying someone ELSE said the same thing they are. You aren't agreeing with them, you're simply saying someone else does. Bonus points if you can connect it back to that other person being crazy pants. If you can do this truthfully, great, but sometimes made up scenarios work.

For example

Them: "You aren't loading the dishwasher correctly. The correct way to fill a dishwasher is for all the plates to line up in a row, facing towards the center. Your dishes will never get cleaned that way."

Me: "[chuckle] So I've been told. My friend agrees with you about how you're supposed to load a dishwasher and he goes ON and ON about it. He also thinks that bowls shouldn't be in the upper rack. I just ignore him, though. I have never had a problem with my dishes not getting cleaned. I have always loaded dishwashers this way they always come out sparkling clean. It drives him nuts, though. I once caught him going behind me and rearranging the dishes before it was run through!! I seriously have no idea why he gets so worked up over how I load my dishwasher! ha ha"

I also think answering with something like "I am comfortable with the choice I made and am going to stick with that, thanks." can work pretty well.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:11 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re. gossipy/bad mouthing stuff, when people start saying stuff about people's flaws and won't stop badmouthing people try saying something like "Sorry, but lets nix the talking about Suzy behind their back. When I was in highschool I this kind of talk majorly come back to bite me in the ass, and that was lesson learned for me. Plus, I don't really it is my business anyway." and then change the subject.

You aren't scolding them or anything, you are putting an end to it because YOU got burned doing it before. It is about YOU not them. Plus, the fact that you are saying you had done it in the past removes the "I'm a perfect angel" thing that can unintentionally be communicated in this kind of situation.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:21 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The problem with actually calling them out on it is that then they have the opportunity to get super defensive and up in arms, which usually results (for me) in my taking a three-month breather from my mom.

Smug Person: God, Lady We Know is such an incredible waste of space!

Me: Actually, not only has she been nothing but nice to me, she's gone out of her way to say nice things about you and the times she's worked with you. And she may just be trying to butter me up, but she didn't have to do that at all, let alone by complimenting you. I mean, would you like it if people ran around saying unpleasant things about you all the time? I wouldn't like hearing that, because I care about you. And you taught me to be kind to people.

Smug, Now Irate Person: Well, excuuuuuuuuuse ME! I didn't realize that you two were best friends! GOD! I was just trying to make conversation, but I'm sorry, and I'll never, EVER talk about that again because now I TOTALLY learned my lesson! GOD! Why do you have to be so SENSITIVE all the time? Forget I ever said anything. Just forget about it. GOD.
posted by Madamina at 3:45 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Loudmouths like this tend to not notice if you're listening at all except for those basic cues of looking at their eyes occasionally (barely even "eye contact") and nodding and such. For starters the important thing is to always remove yourself immediately and tactfully whenever it's possible and you're uncomfortable or it's quitting time or whatever. Just start putting on your jacket and such and move into "OK, well, I gotta get going!" and no excuses about why you have to go, what you're doing, who you're going to be meeting with, etc.

Obviously you don't do this if you're having an emotionally heated discussion, just the passive thing you're specifically mentioning, which probably has some foundations in very heated discussions that they kind of would like to revisit but are OK enough rambling on and having a captive audience.

Many will pick up on obvious negative cues like paying zero attention or being somewhat engaged before eye-rolling at a tough moment with a simple "OK..." and then turning away, typing away on your keyboard whatever, and skipping all "uh huhs" in favor of just staring at your screen. Or you leave out the eye-roll. This can be helpful if you really are in a setting where you have to focus on something else here and there, but shouldn't be a singular strategy or it just looks passive aggressive.

The ones who don't pick up cues are especially difficult to shake and some of them are sympathetic in that they need more help with social interaction and in rare occasions (not these guys) you can help them with that and they will earnestly like you even when you are assertive and say matter-of-fact things. More often than not though, if they go negative constantly, they don't care if you want to hear it or not.

Not saying a lot does unfortunately embolden them because so many other people in their lives won't put up with it, or they don't have many other people in their lives in the first place. Sometimes knowing that about them can frame things more sympathetically but you can still be kind in your subtle criticisms and attempts to get them to be more self-aware.

Seconding "you seem to have strong feelings about this." I'm constantly fighting against being the smug guy but it comes out here and there and if they're the least bit self-aware, that put pettier things into perspective, but if not, there's always:

"Life's too short and I'm busy enough trying to keep my own affairs in order let alone worry about others, unless they need my help."

And "I don't think that all about so-and-so" / "I prefer to assume they mean the best of intentions and it's up to them to figure out how best to go about their business."

For unsolicited advice, I think it helps to work that whole concept into their mental framework outside of awkward moments. Like if you're actually having a halfway-decent conversation, somehow the concept of "Man, I hate unsolicited advice!" You make it a term of art that they recognize and parse and think about, not "unwanted" advice or "unwelcome" advice, but unsolicited. It works, get it in their brains without being a total ass about it. It can be done.

Usually the worst cases simply must be avoided at all times or they will just suck the life out of you, or you develop a good sense of humor or empathy and get playful with them and just stop caring once you see things differently.

"Yeah, so and so was saying the exact same thing, but I already considered that and am OK with what I'm doing" is good too, because it takes away the feeling that they are imparting something on you that you actually need and could only get from them.

And work the word "charitable" into your vocabulary a lot, and "kind," and reinforce when they are "sweating" something (they'll probably get defensive, but they'll think about it maybe later) if you don't want to go full on "you have strong feelings, huh?"
posted by lordaych at 6:37 PM on April 1, 2014

The ones who don't pick up cues are especially difficult to shake and some of them are sympathetic in that they need more help with social interaction and in rare occasions (not these guys) you can help them with that and they will earnestly like you even when you are assertive and say matter-of-fact things...

To clarify, these "matter-of-fact things" are directly critical things that you say directly to them. I've had to do this with super socially awkward / borderline Aspie / crop-dusting my cubicle type people, like call them right out whenever they really piss me off, but very nicely, and I remain kind to them and don't put on the stone face or mean-mug, I just handle the situation. That's tough though and they pretty much need to be young, and your age (tougher but I did it!) or less (random difficulty!).
posted by lordaych at 6:43 PM on April 1, 2014

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