The Comeback Kid: Not Taking the Bait

Of course, everywhere and throughout the ages, humanity has been plagued with a particularly insufferable expression commonly identified as the know-it-all, but I believe that Washington DC has the market cornered on this particular phenotype. Nowhere is it likely to find the convergence of ambition, smarts, education, and insecurity that one stumbles across along Mass Ave, 17th or K Streets. Words such as pedantic, bloviating, and ridiculous spring easily to mind when dragooned into the Purgatory that can occur when attending a quasi-academic evening lecture in this town. The fact that know-it-alls are exasperating isn’t news to you or me, but my reaction points to just how much additional re-booting work I’ve left to do…

Case in point: last night, in an effort to diversify my social circles and possibly learn a thing or two, I trooped downtown to hear a lecture on US-China relations given by a former CIA guy. The crowd was not glittery but respectable—that usual Washington crowd consisting of slightly smelly reporters, earnest graduate students, and several elderly types who pretended they were there because they are so engaged with world events but who were really drawn by the promise of free food and wine. Overall, it seemed to me, it was a civilized affair that is until…

Somehow, I found myself talking to one of the free food guys who felt a need to impress upon me his lifelong passion and dedication to social and cultural justice. Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was hitting a saturation point of hearing too many similar speeches or running across too many people in love with their own moral superiority, but once this fellow (who wasn’t a day under sixty) explained to me, “When I was five, I asked my parents why China wasn’t sufficiently represented in the United Nations.” It was at this moment when I had HAD ENOUGH.

“Really?” I said. “You actually asked your parents this when you were five years old?”

“I did.”

“You were concerned about China’s place in the world?”

“Of course.”

“Hmm. I didn’t think about such things when I was five.”

The conversation went downhill from there. I expect he was sorely surprised and disappointed that I didn’t fall to my knees in admiration. Too bad allure didn’t work it’s magic—in this particular instance.

Now, here’s where the re-booting portion of today’s post comes in: I shouldn’t have taken the bait. I should’ve known enough and exercised sufficient discipline not to have allowed myself to get annoyed by this dingdong, let alone wasted the breath to challenge him on such matters. My doing so did not enhance our interaction and only resulted in both of us feeling significantly annoyed. In my defense, I will say that it is extremely hard to remain placid while tidal waves of bullshit crash onto my shores, but this is something a re-booter needs to master. The truth of the matter is, blowhards and annoying people will always surround us—whether at evening lectures or the workplace or even our own families. They are here to stay. It all comes back to being in charge of my reactions and not letting bullshit irritate me the way it did last night.

I ought to have known enough to keep my mouth shut. Speaking up accomplished nothing constructive. He wasn’t going to educate me and I wasn’t going to educate him, so there was really no point at all in having a comeback. What a dumb, dumb kid.

So why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to make a rebuttal in the face of such hopelessly irritating circumstances?

Growing up in a highly verbal and literary family, I fell in love with words (and advocacy) early. It was our currency; in fact, the adults used to call it “word salad.” What “word salad” means is you toss the words up into the (proverbial) air and see where they land, whether they hit their mark, that sort of thing. The faster and harder you could do it, the better. Looking back, I see now that such a philosophy may not be the best (although it trains one to make wonderful banter) because you’re not just exchanging words, you’re exchanging the energy behind the words. And that energy isn’t always helpful. Like last night, with Mr. Social Concern.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while not everyone feels compelled to talk or to meet point with counter point, it is the sign of an accomplished re-booter to recognize and respect when circumstances are better served to remain MUTE—even when the person opposite has been infected with a case of verbal diarrhea. But my point goes beyond this because it’s not simply a matter of discipline, even more importantly it’s getting to a place where their behavior doesn’t provoke me. That’s just them being them.

Know-it-alls are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this re-booting challenge. This principle applies for any quirk that raises your hackles. I face the same challenge in learning to manage my reaction to my father’s all to frequent tendency to talk as if he were a baby—HUGELY ANNOYING. Be grateful you don’t have that one on your plate…

When have you learned to ignore the behaviors of others to the point that they no longer irk you? Where do you continue to need some work in this department?

My pledge to you, my fellow re-booters, is that the next time I go to any sort of lecture event, I will be a model of beatific and passive politeness to all who wish to expound upon their prodigious brilliance and sensitivity. Peace be unto you.

Charlie Brown


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