Does this behavior have an actual designation?
November 13, 2016 5:54 AM   Subscribe

For my entire life, my dad has enjoyed (as far as I can tell) needling me, winding me up, essentially picking a fight over politics. When I heard this Story Corps story, I cried because it felt so close to home.

In the wake of the . . . National Dumpster Fire, I am hearing more and more people (particularly women, but some men) talking about exactly this behavior from their fathers.

What the hell IS THIS? Is there a word for it? The standard advice, and how I get past it, is just to not engage, but right now it feels like non-engagement is a luxury.
posted by Medieval Maven to Human Relations (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have an answer to your question, and I'll understand if the mods delete this, but I want to say this. I agree that non-engagement *in general* is a luxury that we can't afford, but that doesn't mean that you have to engage with this specific person when he is exhibiting this specific behavior. He isn't looking for a rational political discussion. He's looking to prop up his ego at your expense. You don't have to engage with him on his terms, which are set up to make you lose and feel bad. You can tell him that you're not comfortable discussing this with him and that if he doesn't respect your wishes not to discuss politics with him at that moment, you will hang up the phone or leave the room. And then you can try to find more productive ways to explain your perspective to him.

This is going to be a rough Thanksgiving for a lot of people. I feel like we need to set up safe houses for people to escape to. Maybe we can find bars that will have "come here to get away from your Trumpist relatives" parties where you can drop by for an hour on Thanksgiving and rant to understanding people.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:08 AM on November 13, 2016 [27 favorites]

I don't have a name for it, but know it well. If there's a spectrum for "bullying" then it's probably on it.

Here's my mantra: "You might be right." Then find (i.e., listen for their points, rather than confront) a foundational point that we can truly agree on. It might be *very* basic and perhaps totally factual: "People need clean drinking water to survive." "I too want America to be great."

Some (most?) folks enjoy having 'passionate' (as in, emotion-filled) relationships. They default to 'confrontational' as a way to get there.

Rather non-engagement (which might be good answer for some, I guess) can you shift to "let's explore this topic passionately - but find a point that we can both get behind?" Takes strength to dodge the personal stuff to get there. Takes skill to quiet yourself enough to listen. Takes courage express yourself in ways that might not be accepted.

Love will guide you there. Show it to him.
posted by GPF at 6:21 AM on November 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I feel like we need to set up safe houses for people to escape to.

Several welcoming homes are mentioned here on MeTa
posted by mochapickle at 6:31 AM on November 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

It walks that line between bullying and displays of dominance.

I always see it from men. Married men with children are lonely and don't usually have a lot of friends. They feel powerless at work (or, more to the point, not as powerful as they feel they are entitled to be). They need a forum in which they can show that they're still "on top", because they're politically or personally better, more informed, more victorious than others... and those others are the people in their family.

On a less pathological note, GPF also makes the good point that some people thrive off confrontations. People like to spark arguments, other people like to engage those arguments, and it's a game to -- i don't know -- bond or something (I dated someone like this. Not advised if you have a different temperament).

On a much darker note, thinking about the people in my life who are like your dad, everything Trump said in public were things they told me in private over the past several years.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 6:56 AM on November 13, 2016 [30 favorites]

The conversation in that podcast really seemed to go pretty well! There was clearly be an underlying respect between the father and the daughter-- possibly because she could honestly say how much she loved him, and vice versa. At first he sounded kind of blustery but he quickly slowed down and admitted his own vulnerabilities. For a lot of people, that might be the single best conversation they ever had with their parent. If you could have hope of achieving that sort of conversation, I'd say go for it, lay yourself out on the table the way she did. Tell him this dynamic hurts you and try to get him to open up. But I'd suggest you make it about the dynamic though, and not about how important it is in this particular situation. Hard, I know.

For me, the people in my life who act that way are not going to stop it. It gives them too much power. Plus they are often drinking when they do it, so a conversation about what they are doing in the actual moment is apt to be a shitshow. (My uncle retreated crying into the house when I suggested he stop picking on me. And then sulked all night.) But, I don't know, maybe try it once.

It drives me nuts that we're being asked to love-bomb Trump supporters. Like they are vulnerable right now, when they just got what they wanted? But when it's a family member with whom you have an ongoing relationship, it might feel OK to do this. Or not.
posted by BibiRose at 7:03 AM on November 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe trolling, button-pushing, poking the bear, sea-lioning, or just being a jerk? It could be a way of exerting control.

It could also be a way of shifting responsibility for their actions onto you. A lot of people in a place of privilege, as in they don't personally experience the negative impact of certain policies, have a hard time realizing how threatened less privileged people can feel, so they're bewildered by passionate responses. Instead of feeling embarrassed at their thoughtlessness, they react by finding it "funny" so they keep provoking that reaction. Now the problem wasn't their cluelessness, but your reaction.

There are also some people who like that kind of interaction, so they'll play devil's advocate. These people usually aren't just going for the reaction, but again, people in a place of privilege may not think how offensive that devil's advocate position is. But you'd see them do this with everyone, and at some point they'd wind up arguing both sides of a position. Sometimes it's about fully exploring ideas, as noted above, and sometimes it's just about winning an argument.

Instead of complete non-engagement you could try detaching emotionally, if you can. Think of it like an anthropology assignment. Ask him what he's trying to accomplish. Then ask him if he really thinks his behavior is the best way to achieve his goal. If you are up for it, tell him that you too obviously aren't on the same wavelength, why don't you exchange reading material to gain a better understanding of where each other is coming from. Make mental notes of what kinds of arguments persuade him: does he recommend writers who focus on zingers or well thought out arguments? Does he have double standards: does he call out your writers for zingers with no intellectual depth but recommend that same style to you? By treating it like a project, ideally you can emotionally disengage and reclaim your interactions while still feeling like you're speaking to truth to power. He may even be more capable of intellectual engagement she arguments are presented by someone other than his own child.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:51 AM on November 13, 2016 [16 favorites]

I don't really think my father knows how to engage with people except by doing this, fixing something (usually physically but other kinds of problem solving sometimes too), or discussing basically small-talk stuff like cooking or gardening. I've had to distance myself because of it, and he is ten times nastier if he's experiencing any kind of anxiety so I can't do much when there's a real problem.

My mom just doesn't respond and, if feasible, leaves the room. A lifetime of that has not really improved her personality, either.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:29 AM on November 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I hypothesize that most people don't start being "needlers" as adults -- it starts in childhood. Bored kids, unhappy kids, kids looking for some form of "excitement" start doing it. (Disclaimer: I just read your Ask, but didn't listen to the SCorps segment.)
posted by puddledork at 9:28 AM on November 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is the reason I cut ties with my father earlier this year. It wasn't the disagreeing; it was that I was tired of being an emotional punching bag. Politics, social issues, etc were just the tools he was using to try and make me feel as small and angry as he feels. Everyone else around him is 100% uninterested in politics, so it doesn't work for him to use those things to attack them. (He's got other tools in his belt for them.) I've clashed with him about politics my entire life -- funny how raising your kid to be a critical thinker works -- but the last time the bullying was this bad was when I was a teenager and he was trying to control who I was becoming. We had a fairly peaceful stretch, but it got so bad again last year that I was having panic attacks every time his name popped up on caller ID.

Part of his problem is untreated mental illness (he refuses treatment because he thinks we're the ones with the problem, not him) and part of it is fear of a world where his identity as a white man no longer means he is the ultimate authority on everything. After a lifetime of being a jerk because he could be, the only people who enjoy his company are other angry old men who get together to drink coffee and talk about how terrible the world is. I do feel some sympathy for him. He has missed out on so much joy and human connection because of the way he has treated people. I would be devastated to even suspect that I would go largely unmourned when I die.

Having said that, I learned long ago (mostly because of the way my father treated me when I was younger) that family is what you make it. I cobbled together a family out of people who don't feel better when I feel worse. Dealing with my father was draining energy that could be better used by my real family. Before last year we had a relationship that I've described as cordial, but not warm. Picking on your child like a schoolyard bully and laughing when she tries to find common ground in an attempt to keep a relationship isn't cordial and it isn't worth my time and energy. I'm sad about it, especially with Christmas (the one time of year we always got along) coming up, but I reached the point where I had to cut off contact to protect myself.

Tl; dr: your dad is a bully who relieves his own stress by making other people feel bad. It's a power play and the only way to get it to stop is to either let him think he's won or remove yourself from the game.
posted by atropos at 10:38 AM on November 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Completely forgot part of the point I was trying to make: I don't think this kind of interaction falls under the umbrella of engaging with people with opposing political views. You're not abdicating your responsibility to work for change by not talking to him about politics because this isn't an honest exchange of ideas. This is someone using political conversation as a means of emotional control. Save your strength for where it can make a difference.
posted by atropos at 10:46 AM on November 13, 2016 [21 favorites]

I've always called this "goading."

I grew up with a (then) good friend of my father's who'd revel in winding me up and making me cry from the time I was a little kid until I was old enough to refuse to be in his presence. Forty years later, I understand his wife has mental health issues and his daughter doesn't speak to him, and he's lonely and reaching out to my dad again in the guise of checking in on him - but I believe he's looking for others who'll tolerate what he probably believes is just a "sense of humour." I have to remind my parents every time they bring him up how awful he was to me, and how letting a grown-up get under a little kid's skin like that was abusive.

My father and mother don't engage me in this way much any more, but they say bigoted and racist things when my family visits that require me to engage for my daughter's sake. Now, when I see it in them and other adults, I tend to excuse myself with a clear statement that I won't take part in that because my beliefs are very different, or make the statement then pointedly ignore - and if I see someone doing that to someone I care about, I make remarks like "A joke is when BOTH people laugh." For some, I get that they believe it is just their sense of humour, and they do not get why this isn't a great way to have genuine discourse and how it is actually hurtful.

My daughter is having trouble with kids in her class who do this, who no doubt get this from home, particularly during this election (though we're in Toronto,) and when I was looking up some techniques to offer her some help, I found this Ask. And I'm reminding her to use techniques she learned from the White Ribbon Campaign, Draw the Line and Egale workshops she just attended - though those were to help her club at school to mount activations for sexual and gender-based violence, they're intertwined with today's politics. Those include using the bystander effect, pivoting, and verbal de-escalation techniques like not providing them with open statements.

I wish you luck, and peace. This is not a case of least said, soonest mended.
posted by peagood at 10:58 AM on November 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

This falls into emotional abuse.
posted by Toddles at 7:20 PM on November 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

My brother has done this for years. Or, he used to do it. My solution was to make a hole in my world where he used to be. I looked through him, but never at him. I didn't respond to him or speak to him, even for the most innocuous things. If necessary, I left the room. At one Christmas dinner, while he bloviated about libtards, I simply got up quietly, left the table, and went to my room. After enough years of this, (and my Mother losing her mind at him for ruining family gatherings), he stopped. He finally realized that I was never going to respond.

There is no other way to deal with it.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:57 AM on November 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I had a difficult relationship with my family with regards to politics. Four years ago Metafilter recommended that I disengage. I did so and our relationship has improved quite a bit. It's difficult advice to follow, but for me it worked.
posted by rebent at 7:16 AM on November 14, 2016

My dad is a center-left Democrat and agrees with me on a lot of politics. Yet this was STILL something he'd do to me, play devil's advocate just to wind me up and get me to yell or snap. He'd laugh and laugh when I finally snapped.
I do think this came from a place of love. He's proud of his smart and passionate daughter and liked to provoke me into a debate so he could admire those qualities.
But the reality for me was very different. Despite his left-leaning politics, he's not living my life and not dealing with the shit I was dealing with. He would put on an act and laugh when I snapped, and then I was sitting there, adrenaline pumping and angry. Yes, he loves me, but the result for me wasn't much different than if I was in an argument with a hostile stranger. So I stopped engaging with him and refused to take the bait anymore.
It was only after this that I came to understand my dad's side of it, and it makes me feel bad that he was doing something out of love even if it was misguided. Maybe I will try to explain my side a little better to him if this comes up again. Or maybe I'll just let it lie, I don't know.
posted by aabbbiee at 12:08 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: aabbiee, see, I think maybe this is at play with my dad, but the fact is that it nets out as MEAN for me (and it appears also, to you).

FWIW I ended up delegating this to my mom. I told her that I love her and I love dad, but that I was going to lose my damn mind if he got after me about The Orange Dumpster Fire or gave me shit about gay people or whatever. I told her that with everything else I have going on, I could not trust myself not to snap. I also told her that I'd asked over, and over, and over that this NOT BE A THING, and that I was tired of having to ask, because really, "don't be an asshole to me, I don't care what your intentions are, you're hurting me," isn't a neutral statement or a funny statement.

She apparently told him not to ruin her damn birthday, because he was nice to me. I am not sure he enjoyed it as much as he would have enjoyed being a jerk, but my mom and I got to visit without me having to excuse myself to go burn the curtains down with my gaze, so over all a win.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:21 PM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

« Older Christmas tree net?   |   Managing a Facebook Page without a Profile Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.