How Can You Possibly Think That?

There have been more occasions than I can count over the past 18 months that have left me asking the question, how is it possible someone can think such a thing? Many times I have gotten myself into an ugly argumentative quagmire when I confront the person or persons whom I am in grave disagreement with.

The question, posed in such a manner, implies the person is out of his or her mind to possess such an opinion or perspective. No matter how upset the person’s views may make me, imy words may not imply to the person that I am actually upset. Instead, I am more likely to come across as aggressively arrogant and overconfident in my own opinion.

There are a few arguers in the nuclear family I came from, including myself (though I was the worst one at it). One of the less personable habits I developed as a child is responding to what I perceive as a piece of misinformation coming from a friend or relative with one simple word: No. I still find myself doing this on occasion, though I am much more conscious of it as an adult. It’s not just the word itself, either. It’s how you say it. Bluntly, defiantly, confidently, starting with your eyes closed and ending with your mouth closed. No. It is as if to say, you are mistaken, and let this authority explain to you why.

It really upsets people to be shut down like that, but when people argue, they don’t often respond to being shut down by saying, “That really upset me.” Instead, they get annoyed, and sometimes retaliate with vitriol.

It does not feel good to not be taken seriously. Whether I imply that someone is out of his or her mind, or even if I imply that he or she is simply not in the know, it can turn into a power struggle. Even with a one-word, simple, quick “No.” If I make myself sound like the authority, or that I think I am the authority, then I am assuming the other person is not in the know and needs to be taught the truth. Both men and women do this, but it is a central pillar of mansplaining: “Ha ha, silly layperson, I shall now correct you on that.”

There are so many similar killers of meaningful communication. Any adult knows that telling someone who is upset to “calm down,” for example, is about as effective as washing your clothes in mud. Who are you to tell me to calm down?

Politicians and salespeople often try to get the upper (authoritative) hand in a conversation by starting a sentence with the word, “look,” as if to suggest the other person is not seeing something and requires yet another explanation/mansplanation. It also implies annoyance on the part of the speaker, and sends a message of intolerance and/or impatience. “Look, the situation isn’t that simple…” Oh, isn’t it now?

Online, I notice many of these tactics, and more. I usually know when I have reached the end of a person’s tolerance or patience for meaningful discourse when something I typed is responded to with an “lol,” or a laughing emoji. “Ha ha, you are so crazy I can’t even type a response,” or perhaps, in real words, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore so I am going to pretend this is funny.”

Meaningful discourse is as important today as it ever has been. We are trying desperately to make sense of a whirlwind of information every day. Much of it triggers emotional responses, and before we even fully understand the information or where it came from, we sometimes feel the need to editorialize.

Whether we perceive information that comes from others with skepticism or not, we should at least begin by taking it seriously. One might be 99.9% positive someone is wrong, or some statement is false. One may feel an immediate need to correct that information, and that is ok. What we must try not to do is dismiss information as ridiculous, laughable, crazy, or bonkers, at least until all parties understand it as such. It is difficult not to use humor when something seems laughable, or not to ridicule something that seems ridiculous, but if we are serious about correcting misinformation, we ought to begin with the acknowledgment that another ego is holding on to that misinformation.

I try, not always successfully, to respond to what appears to be the spreading of misinformation by asking questions. “That surprises me… Can you show me evidence your info is accurate?” And then I either learn something new and exciting, or I am able to prove there is no credible evidence for the claim. When I am able to refrain from immediate emotional reaction, I get better results. When I respond with something like, “OMG, are you kidding me?! That is absolute 100% nonsense,” I tend to subject myself to an extended, animated volley of digs and counter-digs, which is a total and complete waste of time and energy for any mentally fit adult.

If one is interested in participating in and encouraging meaningful, purposeful discourse between adults, I recommend communicating with total respect for each other, and taking the subject matter seriously, even if it seems backward or absurd or laughable. One can only set the record straight when one is being listened to.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for eleven years, and a passionate writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.