What's the best way to deal with contrary people?
April 6, 2014 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I have a friend who I like very much, but has an annoying habit of contradicting many things I say. I've met people like this occasionally before, and I'm curious about how to deal with it. I can't tell if it comes from a need for control or feeling "right," or if it's intellectual interest in digging into whatever we're talking about by playing the devil's advocate. Or both. My friend does this in a somewhat playful and not particularly strident way, but I still find it annoying. Is there something I can say to help make him aware of this? Sometimes I find myself agreeing with his position just because I find the discussion wearing.
posted by three_red_balloons to Human Relations (46 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I have a cousin like this, she believes that everything she likes is the BEST thing, and that there's no room for opinion. She has it on high authority that X is the BEST radio station in the country. (as if it even mattered.)

I just say, "that may be, but I like this. So, what do you want to eat for lunch?"

Acknowledge the point, assert your opinion, change the subject. By the way, it gets old, really, really old. So you may find that the whole thing is exhausting to the point where being with this person is a chore. So before that happens, you might want to tell the person that the contrariness is a drag. "Dude, not everything is a debate, Chicago or New York, pizza is fine, no matter what style."

Another thing to say is, "I don't think you know you're doing it, but you contradict nearly everything I say. It's annoying. I'll tell you what, when I'm in the mood for a discussion about something, I'll let you know. If you're just being tiresome I'll say, 'you're doing it again'."

Other than that, chances are, it's not going to change.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:32 AM on April 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

I would focus on why you like him "very much". If that reason trumps his need to be oppositional, then ignore his oppositional/argumentative nature, if it doesn't I suspect you'll eventually shed that friendship. You have no right to expect him to change.

As to how to respond, instead of compromising your own opinions and "agreeing", just respond with something like "Hmmm, interesting." and detach from the conversation.
posted by HuronBob at 8:38 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

If he's being playful about it, over-the-top joking may be the easiest way to point it out. Responding with something like, "OH! YOU'RE RIGHT! I AM SO SO SO WRONG! HOW COULD I EVER HAVE THOUGHT X??? YOU HAVE LIFTED THE VEIL FROM MY EYES AND I AM REBORN!" every time he does it might make an interesting experiment.
posted by jaguar at 8:39 AM on April 6, 2014 [12 favorites]

Honestly, I do it for mostly the joy of devil's advocate and a weird compulsion to be accurate which is entirely useless. But when I know specific people dislike it, I can make an effort and mostly turn it off. (I'm not perfect at this by a long shot.) I need to know, and though I try, I do not always pick up on subtle hints.

It's not a terribly uncommon fault, and if your friend is not doing it aggressively, they will probably be okay hearing that it bothers you. If you don't want to do that, you can just ignore it. Playing along will likely make your friend think that you enjoy this sort of conversation.

This story really feels accurate to me.
posted by jeather at 8:40 AM on April 6, 2014 [19 favorites]

There is also this classic discussion of the "well, actually" phenomenon that you might find useful.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:44 AM on April 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Say "I disagree". And then shut up about whatever they're talking about.

Say "I find it really annoying when you tell me I'm wrong all the time. Would you stop doing that, please?"

Say "I don't like arguing with you. Since [this topic of conversation] is something you obviously feel strongly about, let's talk about something else."

Say "Do you not think that I might have a different opinion about that? Would you like to hear it?" If they say yes, say "Will you hear me out without arguing with me about it?"

Say "Do you really think that I'm not capable of holding my own opinion on a subject without you telling me what it should be?"

Say "Do you understand the differences between the concepts of 'subjective' and 'objective'?"

Say "How do you think I feel when you patronise me and tell me I'm wrong? Do you care about my feelings at all?"

Say "Has anyone ever mentioned to you how obnoxious [the behaviour] is?"

Say "I'm not discussing this with you now".

Say "Do you think it endears you to people to treat them like this?"

Say "We obviously don't need to discuss this as you already seem to know what I think on the matter."
posted by Solomon at 8:51 AM on April 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

First, don't say you agree with them just to end the argument; you're giving them exactly the ego boost that they want, and that will perpetuate the behavior. There are many phrases that indicate that you're done arguing, without conceding defeat. "We'll have agree to disagree," or "Okay, we're not seeing eye to eye, so let's table the discussion."

But if you want to make them aware of it, there isn't really any substitute for telling them how you feel.

Keep it about the conversation, not about them personally. Avoid "you always" or "you never." Use "I" statements: "I feel browbeaten," "I feel that you don't respect my thoughts and opinions," "I feel that if I don't agree with you, it might hurt our friendship," "I feel bad that you're my friend but we're always having fights about these things," or "I find that I don't look forward to our time together as much as I might." (Of course, before you can say this stuff, it helps if you have thought carefully through what bothers you about their argumentativeness, and maybe even write it out.)

Listen to what your friend says about their motives, and see if you can find common ground and compromises, like, you're allowed to end a petty debate when you need to, but your friend is also allowed to say, "This is really important for me, and I'd like to talk about it. If you're not up to it now, then maybe sometime in the future."
posted by BrashTech at 8:54 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

"i don't have the energy to argue with you, so from now on i'm just gonna make animal noises when you contradict me. meow."
posted by bruce at 8:57 AM on April 6, 2014 [55 favorites]

Speaking just for myself, obviously, but I suspect that I'm not outside the norm of people who do this: we're not being contrary about YOU, the person - we're not judging you, or telling you that you're wrong. We're saying that the IDEA is wrong. That you hold it is completely arbitrary and irrelevant to what is being critiqued.

I have a very very VERY difficult time understanding that a lot of people do not separate themselves from the ideas and beliefs that they hold. It's unfathomable. You are not your ideas or your beliefs, and neither am I!

So it's just two wildly different world views coming into conflict. It's not (probably) personal, at all.
posted by gsh at 8:59 AM on April 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

This is interesting to me because I recently ran a teacher training about working successfully with kids who have contrary behaviors.

The two examples I used were:

* the story toppers: "You went to Mexico for a week? I went to Mexico for two weeks!" and;

* the contrarians: "Why are you getting pizza for dinner? Pizza is SO bad for you!"

The best way to deal with this type of thing is to come from a strength-based empathetic stance. In other words, this person is trying to connect and be part of the conversation. They want to be social and they're not trying to be a pain in the ass. They're trying to show that they have a similar frame of reference (hey, I know about Mexico/pizza too!) and they want to share it with you. But they just do it in a weird way.

If you think of it from that perspective, you can respond to them in a way that validates their effort to be part of the social interaction and doesn't feel like your buttons are being pushed.

Reimagining the pizza conversation: "Why are you getting pizza? Pizza is SO bad for you! You can respond, "I don't know if the jury is completely in on that, but in any case, I feel like going to town on a pizza. Come with and we can watch Game of Thrones!"

You want to acknowledge their contribution and then restate your position and somehow, invite them into your perspective.

Of course, some people are inpenetrable and annoying no matter what, but if you can reframe your own thinking into something positive, you may find it less button-pushing.
posted by kinetic at 9:08 AM on April 6, 2014 [26 favorites]

A very quick "Ok, you're right" followed by awkward silence. Let him will over & over & it'll take the sport out of it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:09 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sadly, my wife has this habit to a certain degree. Even after eight years together, it still rankles me. But what can you do? You just have to pause, briefly contemplate the fact that you have your own faults and the other person also has some virtues, and then move on. I know that's not much of an answer, but I have not found any better solution myself.
posted by alex1965 at 9:24 AM on April 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm probably guilty of this too. From my perspective it has nothing to do with a need to be right but more like a desire to have a conversation. If we start from a position that everything you say is automatically right and can't be discussed then what's the point of talking at all? If I say something and you don't agree there's nothing wrong with a simple "uh no, because ___." I think there's a cultural split between people who see "contrariness" as attack and people who don't think opinions are eligible for attack, they can only be shared.
posted by bleep at 9:29 AM on April 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

To add a bit more detail--I think it's generally not a genuine difference of opinion between us (I have the sense that if I say X, he will argue Y, but if I say Y, he will argue X...in fact, I think this split has happened in conversations when I attempted to agree with him). Occasionally it's also just an insistence on correcting facts, to the point of looking up the answer online (I will say he's gracious when he's proven wrong...but seems compelled not to let things go until they're totally settled).
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:39 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Your need to always be right is hurting our friendship. What is more important to you: being right, or being liked? The former does not lead to the latter, no matter how much you insist otherwise."
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:41 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

or if it's intellectual interest in digging into whatever we're talking about by playing the devil's advocate.

As gsh says, if it's this, the person may think they are "making conversation". I must be guilty of this, as this seems to me the point of discussion. What else does one talk about? The weather? That certainly seems pointless... I enjoy the process of working through ideas, and would generally explore topics with anyone who brought something up, not for the sake of proving a point, but in order to see if we could get closer to some kind of knowledge together. But if you prefer a different form of interaction, i'm fine changing course. Be honest. Tell them you find it tiresome and suggest a different way to spend time. (and to be clear, sure, I realize there are other ways...)

But I don't think you can just assume everything feels that way. I have friends who enjoy debate and intellectual argument as a primary form of interchange, and I grew up in a family where that was probably the dominant way we interacted. It was never considered negative or personal to disagree about academic topics - it was considered interesting and stimulating.
posted by mdn at 9:46 AM on April 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

It was never considered negative or personal to disagree about academic topics - it was considered interesting and stimulating.

I grew up in a family that was a lot like this, as well, but eventually one comes to discover (one hopes) that not everything is an academic topic, and that what people consider to be "academic" may differ - something that is academic to one person, and thus eligible for an entertaining intellectual discussion, may be very personal to the other party, or so trivial as to not be worth the time or effort.

OP, does your friend do this about everything (what color car you're thinking about buying as well as the best candidate for Congress in your district as well as which school your kid should go to as well as whether peanut butter cookies are better than chocolate chip cookies)? You might have to choose which hill to defend most, here - if I had a friend who insisted that their opinion on every trivial thing was the Correct Opinion and wanted to argue about it with me, I'd try to shut that down pretty quickly because that shit is tiresome and annoying.
posted by rtha at 9:55 AM on April 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who I like very much, but has an annoying habit of contradicting many things I say.

You find it annoying when your friend disagrees with you? Should your friend keep silent on all matters on which he/she disagrees with you? Having different opinions is not "being contrary." I suggest you frame this not as a personality flaw in your friend but as an opportunity for interesting and engaging discussions about a variety of topics.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:56 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My friend does this in a somewhat playful and not particularly strident way, but I still find it annoying. Is there something I can say to help make him aware of this?

If he is the kind of person for whom conversation = argument, you will have an uphill battle to change him. He's going to be bored with conversation that does not involve some level of disagreement. Most people who argue habitually are not unaware of what they are doing; they think it's better and more interesting than other kinds of conversation. I deal with this by realizing that it's emotionally neutral or even positive to them; it doesn't say anything bad about our relationship.

That said, I have resorted to spending less time with people who do it constantly and sort of reflexively, because it tires me out. And often, I feel like I'm making a big effort to follow arguments that they don't even care about that much. They'll collapse under serious challenge or say "I'm just playing devil's advocate." (The latter often seems to mean, "I am unapologetic about wasting your time and emotions.")
posted by BibiRose at 10:10 AM on April 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm also from an academic background that favors arguing over every little point, but I find it infuriating when a person does this with me all the time on every kind of topic. There's a difference between what (in improv comedy) is sometimes called "no but" behavior (challenging each thing that can be challenged) and "yes and" behavior (accepting what can be accepted and then adding something more). It's easy to get stuck in the mindset of, if we're not debating we're not having a real conversation. But there is another way - often I'm saying something because I want to share an observation, and I don't want my conversational partner to pick apart my observation, I want them to expand on it - eg to say "interesting point about x, and I've often thought something similar about thing-related-to-x."

I agree that the first thing to try is just to say something to your friend about:
-how this makes you feel -- tired? disrespected? just like you're working at cross-purposes conversationally?, or
-what you're intending when you share something -- to start a discussion about its truth? or are you intending something else, like eliciting similar experiences/sympathy/some expansion of your theme, from them?
... and see if that makes an impression.

I did this with the person I know who was doing this with me, and it definitely has resulted in some improvement, although it still happens and he'll end up apologizing later. You might also be interested in this similar recent question where the asker has a nice followup about how their bf's behavior improved a lot after a frank conversation about how annoying and hurtful it was.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:20 AM on April 6, 2014 [25 favorites]

I am a contrarian, and I am fully aware that I get on some people's nerves because of it.

So there are different types of contrariness. There are purely preferential differences, like what sort of movies or music is best; there are ideological differences, like political opinions; and there are factual inaccuracies. You can, of course, get fighty on the first two, and tolerances to fightiness vary quite a bit. Some people welcome a good rousing argument and discuss those types of things specifically TO argue, some don't.

Tolerance for factual inaccuracies is I think more of an ingrained thing. Personally, I am fine with adjusting my fighty levels without much problem. I am genuinely annoyed by factual inaccuracies, and while I've disciplined myself to let them slide and pick my battles, the best I can muster is a sort of "Hnnnng, OK, close enough, we'll treat that version of events as a hypothetical" sort of thing.

Personally, I really don't like being wrong. Not in the sense that I don't like being shown to be wrong--I very much prefer being corrected if I am. I just don't like perpetuating wrongness, so it's important to me to get my facts straight. But I think a lot of people treat facts more as conversation starters and opportunities to learn more about the person they're talking to than about the topic itself, so maybe the details of a specific event or fact are less important to them than general ideologies that might be implicated.

Ultimately, though, for me, that's a sort of long term incompatibility in my book. I can still like a person who is loose with facts, but I have to bite my tongue too much for my own comfort. Either I'm annoyed by glossing over the facts, or they're annoyed by me correcting things and looking things up, or we're compromising and we're both annoyed.

People can be incompatible without either one of them being wrong.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:35 AM on April 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

A good friend told me that I do this, and I trust them, but it's a pretty confusing thing to be told. I mean, I'm not making up opinions on the spot just to be contrary (it's not devil's advocate), there are just things they say that I don't agree with, so I say why I don't agree. I'm not trying to cast doubt on this observation, but if I accept this is true it's really hard to know what it means or what to do with that information. Do I keep my disagreements to myself? Do I need to agree aloud with those statements I do agree with? Keep in mind that this is not "a thing" in my mind, it's not like I'm on the prowl for disagreements I can have, so it's not like this is something that can just be switched off.

So it might be best to avoid bringing it up like "You've got Disagreement Disease!", and more like "Hey, I'd enjoy conversation with you a lot more if we didn't focus on pesky disagreements quite so much and more shared stories (or whatnot)". Encouraging a focus on what you do want in a conversation might be an easier fix than focusing on an unwanted behavior which you see but they (likely) do not.

(and just writing that sentence is actually somewhat enlightening for myself. Preview: similar to LobsterMitten)

A very quick "Ok, you're right" followed by awkward silence. Let him will over & over & it'll take the sport out of it.

Just to take this as an example of a few similar opinions that have been made, I've seen this exact exchange occur while I was a third-party and I found it incredibly rude and insulting. You might as well be saying "Your opinion is not valid, goodbye."
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:39 AM on April 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to take this as an example of a few similar opinions that have been made, I've seen this exact exchange occur while I was a third-party and I found it incredibly rude and insulting. You might as well be saying "Your opinion is not valid, goodbye."

To be fair, that's exactly what it feels like when a friend constantly disagrees with one, which is why I (and others) suggested it -- it's a way of reinforcing how dismissive the contrary person is being.
posted by jaguar at 10:43 AM on April 6, 2014 [10 favorites]

With regards to your follow-up, if you really think he's mostly doing it as an academic exercise, you might try something like, "Look, I'm interested in your actual opinions and feelings about things, and I would hope my friends would also be interested in my opinions and feelings about things. I'm not interested in some 'objective' debate about things -- I'm speaking so that you understand how I feel about topic X and I'm hoping you will share with me your feelings or thoughts about topic X so that I can understand them and learn more about you, not about your debate skills."

That at least gives him the answer to "What else should a conversation be about?" that's seeming to confuse other commenters.
posted by jaguar at 10:49 AM on April 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

When it happens: "We seem to do this a lot. Are you playing devil's advocate or is this important to you?"

I can get caught up in devil's advocate without even realizing that I'm doing it. But on the other side I fully realize how frustrating it is when you want to tell a story about what happened on your coffee break and you get sidetracked into a discussion about whether creamer is "real food" or not.
posted by bunderful at 11:04 AM on April 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

How to encourage behavioural change in a friend with as little effort as possible: Ding Training.
posted by flabdablet at 11:05 AM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I knew Ding Training would come up. Please don't do this. It's a really degrading way to treat fellow human beings.
posted by makonan at 11:14 AM on April 6, 2014 [18 favorites]

At the risk of being contrarian myself, my favorite Carl Gustav Jung said "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding about ourselves." Maybe instead of focusing on your friend's personality trait, which you really cannot change short of asking him to alter his behavior around you, and that's fine but only solves one half of the problem, you can look inside of yourself and ask yourself why it is so important for you to have this person tell you that you're right. Presumably you have other sources of validation, and this person is just one of a few but not everyone in your life who disagrees with you.

I have a friend, no roommate, who becomes furious any time I don't tell her that she is right, because I have the tendency, not to disagree with her, but to posit alternate viewpoints (without disagreeing but in a questioning manner) or to ask questions about her extreme claims. This is a person who is, in addition to being kind of loud and bossy, very vocal about her opinions as if they are facts, and that just rubs me the wrong way. I suspect she is not used to any person disagreeing with her. I'm sure she sees me as contrarian, and I'm sure that my skeptical attitude towards people stating opinions as facts can be seen that way, but it really just reflects a discomfort with any hubris of someone acting like they know definitive reality. For the record, I have had plenty of people disagree with me and have had debates and can let it go and say agree to disagree without simmering about it afterwards. Unless it's something personal to me . I also don't always do this but in extreme cases like my roommate. She has screamed at me for being contrarian so I just wonder if, in addition to digging into your friend's personality, it might be fruitful for you to look into yourself at why it bothers you so much to have someone disagree with you.

I apologize for typos and incoherence, I am typing this out on my phone.
posted by bengalibelle at 11:15 AM on April 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

My brother does this for the fact that it annoys me terribly. My partner does this to me because he is insecure about not being knowledgable about many topics that interest me and thus he likes to shoot things down.

The only thing I have learned from this is that there are people with whom you can have interesting and engaging conversations with, have a mutually respectful and edifying exchange of views and that not every person in your life can provide it.

I mostly talk about the weather, what is for dinner and other benign subjects with the contrarians in my life. Your friend may just happen to be the kind of person you enjoy spending time with but not someone who's going to stimulate you conversationally.
posted by loquat at 11:30 AM on April 6, 2014

I have a friend who frequently makes this complaint about other people and can get really in a snit about people disagreeing with her. She frequently says things like "you don't have to disagree with me every time" or "just let it go for once. God!". In her mind people are just constantly arguing with her.

In reality she's a control freak who bugs the fuck out when people don't go along with her plans. She acts like she's the mom and everyone around her is about 13 and just tiresome. I've noticed people tend to fuck with her a lot because of her attitude. (Not all the time obvs, but she has this annoying tendency to act like she's "cutting the bullshit" and trying to force actions when in reality she's just trying to sway group decisions her way. And she's not got the best judgement so people don't justt fall in line. She believes in The Secret for example)

Not saying this is you but if you categorize all dissenting opinuons from this guy as tiresome arguing, instead of his actual feelings and you have no interest in talking about things he wants to discuss.... Maybe you are not compatible friends. You shouldn't be contemptuous of your friends
posted by fshgrl at 11:33 AM on April 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with others who say this is a compatibility issue. For some people, factual accuracy is very important (to the point that they feel compelled to point it out all the time), and for other people it is not. You and your friend seem to have a major incompatibility that will be hard to resolve.
posted by Dansaman at 11:35 AM on April 6, 2014

I had a friend like this. Every time I posted something online, she would post with a nitpick, a contrary position, a counter-opinion, etc. I would reply mildly and change the subject. Finally, one day, I said "If you're just going to disagree with every single thing I post, why bother commenting?" That wasn't very nice, but to my surprise, instead of retorting and our having a conversation about it, she completely quit talking to me. And that was something like 10 years ago. :/

Since then, I've tried to be more thoughtful about contradicting people myself. (Like a lot of "smart kids," the tendency to be a smartass is strong, and not good.) If someone posts something that's not important, I don't bother, and if I do think it's important enough to bring up, I try to couch it kindly. I do think it's possible to do this without being irritating. And I think you have to know the other person well enough to find out whether they love devil's advocate back-and-forth or what.

I wish I had said to my friend "We seem to do this a lot. Are you playing devil's advocate or is this important to you?" as mentioned above, because I would have liked to have kept the friendship.

That said, I would rather do without the aggravation. So if I had another friend who did this and I used any of the more thoughtful language in the above thread with them and they continued to do it, I'm not sure I'd count it a loss if they quit talking to me.
posted by wintersweet at 11:48 AM on April 6, 2014

By the way, a lot of people above seem to think that the conversations are going like this:

A: Vaccines cause autism!
B: In fact, there is no proof (blah blah blah)

A: When WWI started in 1904, (blah blah blah)
B: WWI started in 1914!

A: I love the Avengers movies!
B: I don't...what do you see in them?

A: It's way too cold today!
B: Aw, I love curling up with a hot cocoa and a book on a cold day. Got any hot chocolate on hand?

The first two are factual errors, and I would have no problem with a friend kindly correcting me if I made these mistakes. (However, I go to great efforts to make sure I say/post/share things that are accurate. It's not fair to assume the OP is genuinely making mistakes all the time.)

The last two are a statement of a different opinion AND a question that shows an indication to have a discussion. That's OK with me, especially if B is really open to sharing ideas.

But here's what I've experienced from various people:

A: It's so frustrating how random sizes are in women's clothes!
B: That's only true if you buy crappy cheap-o clothing.

A: It's way too hot today!
B: Warm weather is best for health. You should learn to adapt.

A: Had some GREAT sushi for lunch!
B: Mercury poisoning isn't "great." I never eat sushi.

A: L T Thai is the best Thai food in Brentwood, I think. Their mango chicken is amazing.
B: L T Thai is on the Antioch side of the border.

This isn't a conversation. Yes, I do think "B" in this situation should go ahead and have the thought, but keep their disagreement to themselves (particularly in the middle two here). If you truly think you can help or enlighten A about something important, ask questions or share something more conducive to a conversation. (The last one is the one that I think is the least annoying, but only if B doesn't post this kind of response constantly. And even then, "I think that whole shopping center is in Antioch, technically, but you're right that it's good! Have you tried their smoothies?"...is actually a conversation-continuing reply, instead of a conversation stopper.)

I have no idea what's going on with the OP's friend in particular, but I just want to illustrate that there are a lot of ways of disagreeing that do NOT invite engaging discussions and are NOT matters of important factual accuracy.
posted by wintersweet at 12:09 PM on April 6, 2014 [28 favorites]

My kids went through this stage as teens, and I would refer to them as Dr. Correcto or Correcto Boy/Girl. I think making low-key fun of the person often can train them out of it--or perhaps you can suggest that they audition for Jeopardy. Having a different opinion is fine, but someone who acts like they're in debate club when you're just making conversation should be reminded that no one is keeping score. If your friend is keeping score, you might ask yourself why you're hanging out with this person.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:15 PM on April 6, 2014

I have a friend who does this reflexively - not out of a need to be right, but more often in response to me saying something negative and her saying "oh I'm sure that's not true" because what I've said doesn't fit in her worldview. It used to make me crazy. Now I've come to realize that she means no harm, and I say something like "ok well, we have different sources of information on this" and explain what my experience has been. Sometimes she knows something I don't, and volunteers it. More often she'll be like "oh… yeah I didn't know about that" and that's fine too. Sometimes it's just light conversation; other times heavier, but I think this way neither of us feels attacked.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:23 PM on April 6, 2014

When I'm very tired of a discussion, I declare my preemptive agreement to everything the other person is going to say next. This takes the spirit out of it really quickly.
posted by Triton at 12:24 PM on April 6, 2014

I've been told that I do this, which came as a complete surprise; I get along with everyone. But after thinking about it, I *could* be your friend.

What really sets my compulsion to 'well, actually...' someone off isn't even whatever opinion they have. It's the oversimplification of the issue. I have a un-shut-off-able systems mind and a strong belief that most things are the way they are because of reasonable people acting reasonably for their situation. I can't *not* see "the other side's" point, even if I don't agree with it.

So the way that shows up is, someone will say, "For fucks sake, this new policy of X is so stupid! It's obviously going to result in Y!" I'm compelled to point out that without X, Z would happen and the issue is much more complicated than it seems.

I've learned to determine first whether the person is just talking to talk, like, to be social or whether they really want to know what they're talking about. Sometimes they don't, and that's fine. It also helps to start with something like "I totally agree, but to be fair..." so maybe your friend could use one of those tactics.

I'm aware of the kind of "disagree no matter what" person, though. Sometimes when someone starts doing that to me, I purposely start baiting them by throwing irrelevant incorrect details into everything I say. Then when they correct me, I smile like I knew that the whole time. Make it a haha, got you again! thing and sometimes they get tired of being fished in.

Other people, not so much. Like the guy at work who will straight up admit not being any good at the task, so I have to do it. And then, within minutes, be criticizing how I do it.
posted by ctmf at 12:35 PM on April 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Or you might try a simple, "Hey, I don't like to feel dumb. So sometimes, when it doesn't matter, just let me be wrong." Maybe let him try "ding therapy" on you. Every time you're wrong, he just says "Ding," but doesn't get to explain unless you ask him to. (Then ignore them all)
posted by ctmf at 12:41 PM on April 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting thread.

To quote the OP, talking about the issue with specificity:

To add a bit more detail--I think it's generally not a genuine difference of opinion between us (I have the sense that if I say X, he will argue Y, but if I say Y, he will argue X...in fact, I think this split has happened in conversations when I attempted to agree with him).

Perhaps this person isn't the sort whose first instinct is to voice and defend an opinion because to them, discussion isn't for arguing over subjective differences, but about arriving at a considered conclusion through agonistic deliberation, or at least eliminating faulty or flimsy conclusions as possibilities. So the willingness to argue either side of an issue perhaps isn't necessarily because they're perverse, but because they're more interested in figuring out what's true (or ruling out what's not true or defensible) than in building emotional closeness or something like that. They see discussion as instrumental in arriving at stronger positions of knowledge about the world or about thinking, rather than seeing discussion as a subtle and indirect way of constituting a friendship or an opportunity to share their opinions, which they might mistrust or not value as arbitrary.

Occasionally it's also just an insistence on correcting facts, to the point of looking up the answer online (I will say he's gracious when he's proven wrong...but seems compelled not to let things go until they're totally settled).

So he is interested, ultimately, in what is true.

I would suggest the following (if you want to retain this friendship, of course), which is intended to be pitched at his level, so to speak. Tell him at some point that even though it's fun and stimulating to make determinations about truth through conversation, there are also other things conversation can be and do that are qualitatively different but also valuable, and that it can be very unsatisfying when someone is only ever interested in having one kind of conversation.

He might have some deep-seated bias against those other kinds, whose specific character I can't guess at and which you might not care about. If nobody's ever said to him, directly and respectfully, that his tendencies are not bad but that they're also not the end-all and be-all of conversation with other people, and that other kinds of conversation can be good too, it might literally not have occurred to him that people who don't care for his emphasis on debate and truth aren't simply dumber or less interested in truth.

For him, it would be agony to only ever talk about his feelings, I'm going to guess, so perhaps he can imagine (if he tries) how frustrating it could be for someone else to have him be so preoccupied with having "but what's really true?" be the operative principle for conversing with others.
posted by clockzero at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I work with a person who is so negating and oppositional to everything I say that I have to approach her with the opposite of what my opinion on how to proceed really is. It used to tie me up in knots, knowing I'd have to go up to her and let her know what I was about to do, when she was just going to say, "No, let's do it this other way instead."

Now, I get my way, she gets to think that she's got me under her control. (Which still kind of sucks, but the job gets done, and done the way I want it done!)

I have no choice but to be around this personality type, but I cannot put up with it in my personal life. I have no problem being corrected when I am wrong factually, but opinion should never be fought over. Why is it such a personal affront to someone else if I like Dr Pepper as opposed to their favorite, Orange Crush?
posted by Jazz Hands at 1:58 PM on April 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have two responses to this.

1. "That's nice."
2. "Duly noted."
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:04 PM on April 6, 2014

I do this much in the manor of ctmf above. When someone has a really negative opinion of someone (or something) usually due to just one action or event I tend to offer alternative possibilities for their behaviour. I don't like people being judged on one factor (unless that is murder or child abuse etc) and can usually think of many ways that a resonable person could end up in the same situation. I find myself uncomfortable in conversations where the other person is harshly judging an absent third party but at the same time saying " I don't want to be apart of this conversation" only adds to the drama so I tend to offer a defense for the absent person.
posted by saradarlin at 3:56 PM on April 6, 2014

As a (mostly) reformed contrarian I can say that there these were/are a few of the things going on with me.

Playing devils advocate to myself has always been a really useful mental exercise for me, and it has pretty much a reflex to spend a little time picking at any idea that pops into my head. I sometimes have bad social filters, and these reflexes end up getting directed at other peoples ideas more often then I would like.

Playful argument can be really great fun for me. I grew up with, and am friends with lots of people who also enjoy it. It is sort of hard sometimes to remember that that is not the default.

I have a certain amount of issues around feeling intellectually insecure and defensive. I was always the "smart one" in my social group as a kid, and sort of shit at a lot of other things, and later pretty much fucked up at everything academic in my life.

I think the last one was the thing that really pushed things from just being a little obnoxious/clueless/boundary pushing, into sort of just being a dick.

There were a few things that really helped me change my behavior. (At least a little, I can still be pretty obnoxious, particularly with a few drink in me.)

First off, I just got a little older, got a little more sociably aware, dealt with some of some of my issues, and just generally did a little growing up.

The second thing was just having someone I cared about a lot just straight up telling me that they didn't like me much when I was doing that sort of thing. It was something I had to hear a few times, and there will hopefully be people to keep telling me for the rest of my life.

So yeah, if this is a good friend don't hesitate to just tell them that you don't like it .
You don't have to be clever about it, or make them feel bad, just let them know straight up that you don't want to play.

I have a few friends who get a little physical and roughhousey when they are having fun, and for them it is just a way of showing affection, and being playful, but I don't want to wrestle them, and I had to let them know that a few times before it stuck, but now they know, and I can skip the wrestling, and they don't have to argue politics with me.
posted by St. Sorryass at 4:07 AM on April 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

A: It's so frustrating how random sizes are in women's clothes!
B: That's only true if you buy crappy cheap-o clothing.

A: It's way too hot today!
B: Warm weather is best for health. You should learn to adapt.

A: Had some GREAT sushi for lunch!
B: Mercury poisoning isn't "great." I never eat sushi.

A: L T Thai is the best Thai food in Brentwood, I think. Their mango chicken is amazing.
B: L T Thai is on the Antioch side of the border.

In Notes to Myself, Hugh Prather writes something to the effect of, "It's astounding how much of conversation consists solely of pointing out the obvious exceptions to what the other person just said."

I think back to that line whenever I feel these correcting tendencies arise.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:31 AM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have the sense that if I say X, he will argue Y, but if I say Y, he will argue X...in fact, I think this split has happened in conversations when I attempted to agree with him

I can address this part of the problem, as I also have this friend. After a few years of pointless circular arguments, one day I caught that she used the exact reverse of a very specific argument within a few days: first argument was against me, the second was against someone else but she used the inverse of what she'd previously said. Kind of like "omg you seriously like ketchup?? Ketchup is fucking disgusting" vs "I cannot believe that bitch said she didn't like ketchup, I fucking love ketchup."

So, I don't actually think she does this consciously. I DO think there are times when her opinions get "reverse-engineered" in the moment, based on emotions she's experiencing that are unrelated to the actual topic. I could be wrong, but whether it's accurate or not, I decided wasn't worth the aggravation to enter into debates with her anymore. It was just always a regrettable mistake. So I started to work at doing the validate-without-agreeing thing (this is a totally crucial, pro-level listening skill that is sadly underutilized by... basically everyone, me included).

Now when I feel an argument brewing, I'll abort whatever response I'm formulating, listen to what she's saying, and find a kernel of truth I can kind of latch onto. Take a beat, make sure I'm in a place of sincere earnestness, and say something like, "Well... I definitely can see where you're coming from. I don't ultimately agree with [totally arguable conclusion you've drawn], but I think I get your perspective now. That makes sense given your [anecdata, previous experience, interpretation of events]."

The better I get identifying when I need to do this, the more it WORKS. I can't change the fact that she can be contrary and argumentative. But I can change how I let it affect me and how I respond. And I can do this by really listening to her and make sure she feels heard, which tends to diffuse the emotions in the background fueling the contentiousness.
posted by hegemone at 8:09 PM on April 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've found surprising success in resorting to "Yeah, well, that's just like, your opinion, man."

Depending on your friends/ demographic, most people will get the joke, so it gets your point across in a way that still keeps things light. Resorting to a movie joke is my way of saying "This is actually not worth arguing about, but look, we're still having fun here" and it's easy to change the subject after it.

(and if your friends don't know the quote, you may look silly but the point remains valid.)
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:41 AM on April 8, 2014

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