Learning from Mr. Collins: Practice, conversation, and what to do when someone says something mean

"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"

"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible," [said Mr. Collins.]

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins thinks up compliments and practises them until they flow smoothly. He comes off smarmy and supercilious, but the idea is generally useful.

imageI have a confession to make: I practise responses. After I find myself tongue-tied or I respond to something with less grace than I want to, I rehearse it and similar situations in my mind so that I can figure out a better way to respond. I think about translations that help me get to what people might really mean, phrases to use, tones of voice to adopt, ways to bring the conversation back on track. It’s a little like the way a witty retort might come to you hours after an argument (there’s even a name for this: l’ esprit de l’escalier, staircase wit), but done deliberately, and for good and self-improvement instead of for scoring points or getting back at someone. Deliberate practice makes perfect, after all.

For example, if someone says something sexist, I know my response won’t be silence, it will be something like "That’s sexist!" in as joking a way as I can manage – and I’ve practised not taking it personally, so it bounces off me. (Kapoing!)

I’m still figuring out what to do when someone says something mean. It happens to the best of us. I struggle to avoid saying mean things, too. I’m glad my first instinct isn’t to fight fire with fire, because that just makes things worse. I can recognize when something may be mean and stick up for myself: "That’s mean!" – not "That’s not fair!" or "That’s not nice!", which are a bit soft. I can separate what someone says in the heat of a moment from who they are and from what I think about myself, and I’m working on getting faster and more instinctive at doing so.

The Internet suggests several ways to deal with hurtful words:

  • Ignore it. It’s a gift, like praise is, and you don’t have to take it. (There’s a Zen story about that…)
  • Translate it. You can pick out the useful parts of hurtful words, work with them, and throw the rest away. People are human. We’re not perfect communicators. Somewhere in there, there might be something you can work with – or at the very least, an opportunity to step back, look at the person as a whole, and appreciate what you can about that person. Everything teaches you something.
  • Ask for clarification. Sometimes this is enough to slow things down and raise the conversation to a reasonable level.
  • Respond positively or surprisingly. "I love you too" is a popular come-back, even when responding to strangers’ insults.
  • Call a time-out or walk away, particularly if things are turning into a vicious circle. You don’t want to be drawn into a fight that throws you off your balance. This doesn’t mean ignoring the issue entirely. Hit the pause button, untangle the issues, and discuss them when you’ve got some distance.

I want to get to the point of being able to respond with loving-kindness to whatever life throws at me.

How do you deal with the occasional hiccup in people’s niceness?

2011-05-31 Tue 12:18

  • Jenny Lisk

    I’ve been teaching my 4 year old to say “whatever, dude” when her big brother says something mean. Perhaps some variation on that would work? :)

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Jenny: Good on ya! I may not use quite that thought – I want to be thoughtful, but not uncaring. =)

  • terry

    Sacha,

    My friend David has a great come back that you may like:

    Regarding barbed comment -

    First, I ask myself if the speaker is fully conversant with my situation or knowledge. If not, the comment is invalid anyway. If they are I ask, “are they right?” Maybe I’ll seek clarification. I am always prepared to be wrong, and am happy to say so.
    Occasionally, if it is blatant, I ask, “Are you trying to raise your own self esteem by belittling mine? Because if you are, you’re wasting your time.”
    That stops the conversation! – David

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Terry: Yeah, keeping a good handle on one’s self-esteem certainly helps! =) You can’t be belittled if you don’t accept it. Putting that initial defensive reaction aside and looking for the kernel of useful truth is good, too. With any luck, one can help other people get better at focusing on saying that kernel of truth in the future instead of all the thorny stuff around it!

  • Felise

    Hi Sacha! Just want to say thanks for being so awesome! :) I don’t follow your blog as regularly as I’d want to, but every time I visit, I am inspired and motivated. Keep doing what you’re doing and spreading those positive messages :)
    -Felise