Strategies to deal with a pedantic partner
July 11, 2017 2:18 PM   Subscribe

My new boyfriend is a bit of a pedant and it can be frustrating at times. How should I go about dealing with these moments?

After a long-term relationship of mine crashed and burned spectacularly last year, I took some time off from dating and just started seeing someone new a few months ago. I am a female in her early 30s and my new partner is a male in his early 30s. Things are going really well – he’s incredibly sweet and attentive, we are very compatible in our values and what we want for the future, and we’re always laughing and having a good time. I also really appreciate, in contrast with my last relationship, how open and honest he is about things and how thoughtful he is about our relationship and about a lot of topics in general.

One issue that I’m having, though, is that he’s a bit of a pedant. He’s a programmer and definitely has some classic “INTJ” traits (not that I take a huuuge amount of stock in Myers-Briggs assessments, but just as an easy reference – I’m largely INFJ if that helps as well). There are times when we have conversations about serious topics, or interesting things in the news, or hobbies, where he corrects me on really minute details. Even when we’re in agreement about the topic, he manages to find some way to nitpick what I just said. It totally derails and halts the conversation, and I end up feeling kind of stupid – not the best feeling.
I truly don’t think he means to do this to be a jerk. I brought it up with him once – that it feels as though he’s talking down to me sometimes – and it genuinely made him upset that he made me feel so small. That being said, he still does it – except now he’ll ask “Wait, was that patronizing? Am I being patronizing?” It’s nice that he’s obviously taking it into consideration, but there are times when he’s genuinely not being like that and he still asks – which suggests to me that he legitimately has no clue when it’s coming across that way. Moreover, if I do have more knowledge on a topic than he does, he listens attentively and doesn’t mansplain the topic back – so I find that it’s more of an issue of him really caring about learning, which I appreciate.

I do think that, in a lot of ways, I get upset because of my own self-esteem issues. Like, reasonably I know that HE doesn’t think I’m stupid, I just FEEL stupid (I’m also a doctoral student and I think it’s residual impostor syndrome creeping into my daily life). I’m afraid that if I point out every time he does this, he’ll be afraid to have in-depth discussions at all. I don’t want to be in a relationship where a person is afraid to talk or tiptoe around issues – again, that was a problem in my last relationship and in general I am finding his directness very refreshing.

I’m wondering – do any of you have experience with pedantic partners, or partners who are super obsessed with detail? How have you explained to your partners that it’s unhelpful? Or do you have strategies to just brush off these types of moments? I think that ultimately I will have to accept some pedantry as part of his personality, just as he has to accept some of my flaws, but perhaps there’s some sort of happy medium we could find?
posted by thebots to Human Relations (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Can you do something funny to clue him in? I'm thinking about the podcast Nerdette Watches Game of Thrones with Peter Sagal...he can occasionally get a little mansplainy, and they have a jingle they play -- you can hear examples here:

It's like -- calling him out but also in a funny way. Depends if you have the sort of relationship where you guys can tease and not take things too seriously though.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:25 PM on July 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm like that sometimes! I find that if my partner simply says my name and asks me to look in his eyes, I can make a real connection instead of orating into space. Ask him to look you in the eyes. It really helps!
posted by mrfuga0 at 2:27 PM on July 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm definitely like this. But... I am a journalist who went to j-school and studied journaism, and I have always been interested in "facts" — getting facts right is INTEGRAL to my job. So I will correct someone if they're wrong. It's important to me, and I also get that it's annoying. I try to work on it when I know it bothers other people. Thanksfully my partner is of the "well, whatever, you know what I mean" type.

It might help you to learn why he's so pendatic. You say he's a programmer, so maybe, like me, it's ingrained in him profesionally and it just seeps into other areas of life? Knowing why he's this way might make you better able to tolerate it. Because you probably can't change his behavior — only he can do that. What you can change is your reaction to it.
posted by Brittanie at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Would it be interesting to hear from a pedantic person? I'm a classic INTJ with a tendency toward nitpicking and what would certainly be called mansplaining if I were a man*. Basically, hearing stuff that I can correct or share a fact about feels like having an itch. The more I ignore it, even the littlest tiniest itch, the more demanding and itchy it gets, even though I know it's not polite to scratch it in public. Which is where the simile breaks down, because scratching an itch in public is just kind of gross, whereas mansplaining is actually really hurtful to others. So I've spent my whole adult life, trying to stop doing this but it's legitimately really tough, especially because I was praised for the behavior as a child.

I think you do in fact need to point it out every time it happens. No, you don't have to brush it off. I know that's what I would like, if I were him. I would put in a lot of effort to scale it back, and to get better at generalizing about when I'm doing it. Because this is what I'm trying to do in real life, and though it's completely my responsibility to change my own behavior, it's still really hard to tell when I'm doing it in the moment, and other people's input helps a lot! Also, it's really, really super okay if this is a relationship dealbreaker. You don't need to feel like your job is to put up with this just because he isn't deliberately being mean to you.

*Is this comment an example? You decide!
posted by capricorn at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2017 [28 favorites]

There are times when we have conversations about serious topics

Are you comfortable addressing this to him directly as a serious topic, possibly explaining some of what you say here? I'm guessing (and hoping) that he doesn't want to feel stupid, or he's trying to mansplain anything to you, but you can tell him this is how it feels to you. Then you could reference that discussion with serious eyes and say his name, like mrfuga0 mentioned above.

Sometimes I also go into lecture-mode, and my wife replies with "giiiirl?" (she uses this with her high school students of both genders, too).
posted by filthy light thief at 2:38 PM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I do this. My husband gently calls them "Lisa Simpson moments," which takes the edge off the reminder that I'm sounding lecturey.
posted by Miko at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2017 [12 favorites]

“Wait, was that patronizing? Am I being patronizing?”

"Yes. Thank you for acknowledging that. Anyway like I was saying..."

Do not soft peddle your answer.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:41 PM on July 11, 2017 [20 favorites]

It seems that my husband is you and I am your partner. In my case, it's not because I'm trying to prove him wrong or demonstrate that I'm smarter or anything like that, it's because I'm on the autism spectrum and my mind latches onto details that his presumably-neurotypical mind doesn't. So when I say "wait, [X]? …but [Y] and [Z], so I don't see how [X] is possible" I'm not trying to derail the discussion or one-up him, it's because I've noticed something — an inconsistency, a parallel, whatever — and until I manage to address it, my brain is going to be stuck on it. (On preview: the "itch" that capricorn mentions, which may start feeling like a mosquito bite but builds to poison ivy level if left unaddressed.)

We used to get into unhappy friction over this, but it's gotten a lot better since he's accepted that I see the world differently than he does and that factors that seem irrelevant to him may seem very important to me. I also think he's realized that conversations get re-railed a whole lot faster if he takes five seconds to say "yeah, [X], I'll explain why [Y] and [Z] aren't a problem later". That gives my brain enough to accept "okay, we'll get an answer to this eventually, we can chill out now."

Also, occasionally he gets to say "I just want to say what I have to say so can you hold that until later?" Since I know that he's trying to be flexible and accommodate my conversational needs, I try to accommodate his in return.
posted by Lexica at 2:45 PM on July 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Instead of agreeing that a comment was patronizing, try saying, It made me feel _____." It doesn't matter if his statement or tone was or wasn't objectively patronizing (if that's even possible to determine.) He should be willing to consider your feelings and avoid saying/doing things that cause you to feel like he doesn't see you as an equal.

One problem might be that he actually nitpicks with people he does consider his equals in his own field. This happens a lot with nerds and geeks. (I use these terms in a positive way, being married to someone who is both.) If so, it does no good to invoke the "speak as you'd like to be spoken to" rule. You need to be specific and also address it when it happens, instead of making a general statement about what you see as a pattern.

The thing that really irks me is when a correction isn't at all important to what I'm trying to communicate.

Besides telling my husband, "When you _______, it makes me feel _______, I sometimes say other things to keep things light:

"Professor, precisely how much bearing does that have on what I'm saying? (He's not a professor.)"
"Thank you, Alex Trebeck. As I was saying..."
"Oh my God! I can't believe I got that vital data wrong! Kill me, please!"
"Let's try that again." (Then I repeat what I was saying.)

The worst is when he corrects me in front of friends. When that happens, I ignore it in the moment, and bring it up later.
posted by wryly at 3:22 PM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm there with my husband. And 20 years on, it's taken a lot of effort to ignore it. I've also told him that if I have to put up with it, he has to put up with "you can fuck right off" moments from me.

That said, I'm doing a lot of work with my kids as they've picked up the habit. So if they correct me, I'll say something like "Thank you for the correction however 658 is as near to dammit as 7pm. Do we need to work on your approximations?".

It's definitely wearing on me. I can feel subtly disrespected and it's hard not to slip into that mode. It takes work, but keep communicating about it.

The code words help a lot. As does me understanding that I'm really damn irritating too. So tit for tat.
posted by Ftsqg at 3:22 PM on July 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

I appreciate facts, but a conversation doesn't need to be the equivalent of giving expert testimony. While your beau might be too adult for this method, our son used to do this as a teenager and we would start singing/humming "Bloody Well Right" by Supertramp.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:23 PM on July 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've dated a couple INTJish engineer pedants in my day. One was pedantic in a very harmless way, the other...not so much, and these strategies worked with them:
  • Let them nerd out over what they want to nerd out over.
  • Perhaps avoid issues that you may have a vested interest in that they are more likely to treat as purely theoretical in a potentially dismissive way (e.g. feminism).
  • In general, deflecting their implicit bid for more "testimony" keeps conversations more light-hearted and prevents them from thinking you're a pedant yourself. They may not realize that they're communicating in a way that feels like a cross-examination and invites a pissing contest, so if you engage...worst case scenario, they may get weird about it.
  • Keep a careful eye on whether they talk at you about topics that you have more knowledge about (like your job, for example). One ex never did this, but they other began to as he felt more comfortable in the relationship, which was symptomatic of other issues.
  • If you are going to address the situation, never address the pattern in a general way. Instead, nip it in the bud as it happens. Despite being good at seeing some types of patterns, people like this often aren't skilled at seeing social patterns, so if you come at them with a general complaint they may treat you like you're a nag.
  • That said, if they have a consistent problem with being able to self-regulate coming across as demeaning, you're going to want to really cut back on the "When you _______, it makes me feel _______" statements. They establish a really weird dynamic in the relationship that will cause a cascade of problems.
  • It's potentially ableist, but it's okay to expect your partner to take as much responsibility for their own behaviour as you do in managing your reactions to their behaviour.
  • Further to that point, it's their job to self-monitor in the long run, rather than your job to continue correcting them. They may argue that that's not the case; if they do that, it's time to be concerned.

posted by blerghamot at 5:32 PM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Tell him that sometimes he corrects you about insignificant details and it inhibits communication. Try behavior modification. And/or, accept learning new facts. I have friends who are really smart. When I get fact-checked or corrected, politely, I thank them. You're right, I meant John Updike instead of John Cheever, thanks. or Snopes says this is fake!!??! So bummed. It would be perfect if this facebook meme were correct. Oh well, thanks. or You're so right; I always misuse attenuate. thanks. As I was saying.
posted by theora55 at 6:20 PM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am also an INTJ, and I also want to add to conversations by sharing what others probably perceive as picky minutae!

I deal with this by using a lot more transitional statements than come naturally to me. A good one is starting with a validating statement. Like "that's a really cool shawl you're knitting" and then move on to whatever my detail-oriented statement is (e.g. "I read a book about Estonian shawls and..."). Since your partner is realizing when he's saying pedantic things, consider whether this kind of in-the-minute reminder that he doesn't just think you're dense might help. I also sometimes check in if someone wants to go down a conversational path with me ("Are you interested in traditional knitting styles?") . Or if it's a friend who I know will humor me, I might just straight up say "I learned the coolest thing about Estonian knitting. [facts facts facts]"

The fact that he's recognizing when he's doing it is good and shows he has some social awareness. I think odds are good he can find a middle path of scratching the fact-sharing itch and also not alienating others.
posted by momus_window at 6:21 PM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am your boyfriend in this scenario. I realize it can be pretty annoying but wow, that itch metaphor is exactly right - it's hard to stop and sometimes hard to realize I am even doing it. We've worked out a little joke symbol for it: when one of us is being annoyingly pedantic, the other person raises a Spock eyebrow. It doesn't derail the conversation but signals to step back.

If he's on board with such a thing then that's great. If he balks I'd consider it a yellow flag - but it does seem like he cares and wants to do better and just isn't sure how.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 6:49 PM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't clue you into how to stop this behavior, but I would like to offer you some insight into what motivates it. I am a huge pedant, I love to argue, and for me considering contrarian points of view is a pleasurable activity. I was relieved to see that my wife either hadn't stumbled upon this question, or she skipped over it to spare my feelings. Nonetheless, she has told me many times that I sound like I am "lecturing" her when I thought I was having a passionate many times that I will often interject "Allow me to mansplain something..." into my next most interesting (to me) factoid.

Now then, what you perceive as "nitpicking" from your boyfriend is almost certainly not meant to be a hostile act. It likely stems from his ego. I would bet that he's just proud of his ability to think critically, because he values his intellect. Perhaps he doesn't get as many chances to use said intellect, and he thinks--like I often do--that he's engaging in a deeper level of conversation when he challenges you.

You said you click on almost every other level, and there is no such thing as a perfect partner, so I'd urge you to develop a method of coping with his tendency to become insensitive as he thinks he is discretely showing you how smart and/or passionate he is. Perhaps you can smile and tell him "you're right." That actually costs you very little (especially if you don't really mean it), and it might be the response he is looking for. If you are unsure or feel that this suggestion is dishonest, you can probably do better by asking him what kind of response he is looking for.

I'm certain that I've told my wife, who I love very much, that it took the US exactly fourteen minutes to recognize the State of Israel once it had been founded. I'm positive that once was enough, but I think I get why I might say things that provoke a "Yes, I already told me that!" response. Just as you want to be supported and loved in ways that aren't immediately fathomable to your partner, your boyfriend probably has some need or want that this behavior fulfills. If you aren't able to fulfill it, then that is one thing. But accepting him as he is, with this behavior that you do not approve of, can actually be a loving act.
posted by Mr. Fig at 7:33 PM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hmm, I just had what was otherwise a great relationship with a guy where this seemed to be one of our fundamental problems. We really liked each other, had great sex, and awesome discussions - until they would grind to a halt because "well actually...". It made me feel really dumb (and I'm a professor! I'm not dumb!), especially when he "actually'd" things that I am a legitimate expert in that he only knew superficially. I started pointing it out, I tried lots of the things described above, and it just made things awkward at best and upsetting at worst.

In my case, it set up a pretty toxic dynamic that ended in a breakup, because - as he put it - our personalities just didn't mesh and we were not compatible. It's too bad, because in all other ways he was the best partner I have ever had the joy of dating, but we are better off not trying to build a life together (as much as I was entirely willing to work on this, he did not want to work on it together). It would have eventually ground me down. He preferred being correct to being happy, and that just is not the life for me.

Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 9:41 PM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

You can encourage a bit more critical thought in him with a response asking him, in the moment, what the value of that comment was. "So, in 2011, there we are hiking through the woods in the middle of December --" "--January, actually" "*pause. Tilt head.* Does that correction significantly change the meaning of what I'm saying?" "Uh... No. Sorry." The moment of discomfort is where the learning happens. The lesson is to think not just about the binary true/false but about the purpose and value of what he's adding.

I also do this. It's exactly like an itch. (I, too, am a woman who saw myself in the description of mansplaining.) The feeling is like, hey, I know a thing, I can contribute correctness! I remember this incident, it was in January! I saw that news story, it was two guys, not three!

And just like many itches, if you ignore it and continue along with what you were doing, it will go away. My greatest and most embarrassing-to-have-needed life lesson has been that I can stop myself from talking just by keeping my mouth shut. So if I'm, like, in a meeting and the presenter has a wrong but not important detail, I can't stop myself from thinking the correction to myself ("January, actually") but I can often keep my mouth shut and not say it out loud.
posted by Lady Li at 10:43 PM on July 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also I'm not sure what this "happy or correct" business is. How can you even BE happy if you're not correct? ... So, my kind aren't for everyone.
posted by Lady Li at 10:45 PM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

So I'm a natural pedant from a line of pedants. Both victim and villain, as it were. My instinct is really to be direct.

Time was I would have (did) respond to criticism by saying that me chiming in to correct was a sign I was listening and cared about what you said, and it kind of was. But mostly it's rude. IMHO that's the issue more than your putative lack of self-esteem. I'm not sure I'd recommend the "I feel" phrasing--you don't want him to derail the conversations more politely, after all.

It totally derails and halts the conversation

Since you already broached it with him, and he seems to get that this is an issue, maybe you could set "house rules" that he holds corrections until after you finish laying out your case or getting through your story rather than interrupting (or jumping in on a pause.) Totally projecting because that's how I try to restrain myself but it works.

Because then I can decide if I want to respond to the substance (e.g., "I get what your saying but I really think removing Trump as unfit is just so undemocratic, at least impeachment is done by elected officials") or scratch the pedant itch ("I think you mean the twenty-fifth amendment.")
posted by mark k at 11:31 PM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

My husband and I both so this. blerghamot's suggestions about not engaging in the nit when it's a topic that's emotionally charged is key. I'm usually pretty blunt and will say "hey, this is personal for me. I need you to listen to how this makes me feel and focus on the big picture." It sounds like your boyfriend is really open to changing and would be amenable to the blunt approach. The other thing I'd that by pointing it out in the moment every time, you'll help him develop a sense of what you're finding patronizing. (Which is major emotional labor on your part, but it sounds like he might be otherwise worth it).

Does he have a sense of humor about this? Because the other thing that helps is rolling your eyes and saying, "oh I'm *partner name*, I know all about *thing*, I'm sooooooooooo smart". Teasing then a little can make it feel a little bit more like they're the one doing something a little weird/wrong, not you.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 1:50 AM on July 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a couple of friends who can tend towards the pedantic. Depending on the nature of the transgression, I find a lightly snarky "Anything else?" (or, if it's getting 'splainy, a pointed "Yeah. I know.") can gently remind them that they're being kind of tedious about specifics in a way that isn't furthering the conversation.

And I get it! I do! It's nice to feel like you have something to add to a conversation. But man, do my hackles ever raise when I feel like I'm being nitpicked. For closer friends, it's a little easier for me to let some little things slide because I know them well enough to know that their pedantry is from a place of "I AM A HELPER!" rather than "I ASSUME YOU KNOW NOTHING!", but there are still limits.

I’m afraid that if I point out every time he does this, he’ll be afraid to have in-depth discussions at all. I don’t want to be in a relationship where a person is afraid to talk or tiptoe around issues.

I see where you're coming from here, but it also sounds like his pedantry could potentially prompt YOU to self-edit in order to avoid the third degree in conversations with him. And that's not good either!

It sounds like he's willing to put in the work to try to recognize and self-correct when he's starting to nitpick or inadvertently patronize, which is promising. With a little more communication on the subject, maybe some examples, how it makes you feel, and some agreed upon gentle reminders of "hey, is that fact relevant to my point?", I feel like y'all could probably come to a good middle ground place on this. Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:07 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

It sounds like lots of couples did what we did - talk about it in depth when needed and create a short-hand to call it out in real time. Our short-hand is 'you're not wrong...' from the Big Lebowski. The rest of the sentence ''re just an asshole' is implied.

In our language it means, yes you're technically correct, but you're doing it at the expense of social connection.
posted by oryelle at 8:25 AM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've been with my husband for 10 years and he is the world's biggest pedant, rivaled only by my father and older brother. (Hmm.) I've found that one of the keys to a happy and healthy long-term relationship is that you can't make a person change. They come as is. You have to love them for who they are and tolerate the irritating moments. I try to put a positive spin on it mentally: the fact that he's pedantic means that he's smart and detail-oriented and these are traits I admire; he wants to help me not look like a boob by mispronouncing words or misunderstanding axial tilt.

One thing that's helped is setting a boundary. He understands that while it's fine (if annoying) to correct me when it's just us, it's embarrassing to do it in front of other people. He doesn't always remember, but because he loves me he doesn't want to hurt me, so he tries his best. Because I love him, I don't expect him to change who he is, so we meet in the middle and find a way to make it work.
posted by zeusianfog at 12:38 PM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Does he nitpick other people ... especially other males? Or are you the only lucky recipient? That's an important thing for you to know. Because if it's just you, it will get worse. Ask me how I know.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 5:46 PM on July 12, 2017

Thanks for all your thoughtful replies!! The perspective from self-proclaimed pedants was incredibly helpful, as were the strategies and insights of those in pedant/non-pedant relationships. I think I will just try to come up with a "code phrase" (the Big Lebowski reference made me laugh heartily). If he can deal with some playful eyerolls then I'll happily accept this as part of his personality - especially now that it's clear it's not some jab at my intellect. As yes, he totally does this to males so I'm not too worried in that regard.
All of the answers here were so helpful - I'm just going to mark this as 'resolved' and not choose a best answer. Thanks again!
posted by thebots at 7:09 PM on July 12, 2017

I can be like this (and I'm not into astrology, but those who are might say it's a Capricorn trait, eponysterical, I'm also a Capricorn and so on). I love the "Lisa Simpson moment" and my husband does something similar.

Me: "[Something insufferable, pedantic, etc. but technically correct]."
Husband: "Okay, Lou."**
Me: "Oh, haha! Totally! Sorry!"

**Lou is my dad. I come by it honestly.
posted by Pax at 6:12 AM on July 13, 2017

Just another vote for a code phrase. My partner jokingly says "You're such a Ravenclaw!" and I get the point without getting defensive.
posted by Nerro at 1:25 PM on July 13, 2017

Be clear and offer your SO an honest out before escalating emotionally. All things aside, that has been the most effective for me to realize, both specifically and in general, that toning down that flavor of discussion with my SO is best for both her and, if only indirectly, me as well.

You don't seem to be guilty of this but holding it inside until it really bothers you and it becomes an explosion or huge deal isn't fair to you or your SO.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:43 PM on July 13, 2017

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