“Listen, smile, agree and then do whatever the fuck you were going to do anyway.” - Robert Downey Jr.
We humans take great pride, get great comfort, from arguments that end in silent-inducing finality. We want that elusive, Hollywood-esque Last Word to resolve threats to our worldview.
But for those of us not living in a movie, having the last word is often an egotistic construct, an impression we give ourselves, typically as we flee an argument -- yelling over our shoulder or hanging up a phone.
So what’s the point of getting the last word anyway? It could be argued that secure people, truly confident in themselves and their positions, would take a calmer and more congenial approach to other’s opinions. Psychologist Thema Davis believes this and encourages us to “Have the maturity to know that silence is sometimes more powerful than having the last word.”
But is it really just about maturity? Perhaps our need to be heard extends beyond insecurity about our positions. Surely some folks must undercut other’s ideas to feel at ease, but for many of us tolerance and agreeability has its limits because we want to stand up for what is right. Being a “yes man” is not always a virtue. Justice needs a voice and we can influence one another and change the world.
So how do you balance a need to have justice (as you see it) heard, while understanding that taking the “high road” is sometimes virtuous in itself?
Maybe you should think of it this way: If you can admit that you’re in a conversation that is not broadening opinions or inspiring new thought (in either party), then it’s time to consider a perspective of preservation. Whether it’s preservation of your time, a relationship or even your own worldview -- sometimes there is great benefit to disengaging.
It could be about the topic at hand. Ask yourself, “What’s really at stake and what values am I running up against?” As The Peanuts character Linus has taught us, ”There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin." In other words, there are some topics that only resolve to entrenched dogma. In such cases, agreeing to disagree is all that can be done, and so, perhaps Robert Downey Jrs approach is the best bet to preserve your energy and sanity.
It could also be about the person and not the topic. Ask yourself, “Would I still be upset if this conversation was happening with someone else? What do I lose by winning here? What do I gain by walking away?” Maybe you are arguing with your elderly father or a toxic co-worker who only engages people in defensive language. Engaging those we love in unresolveable arguments is often painful without reward. And engaging “crazy” often just leads to more crazy. Or, as is often said, “In a toxic tug of war, it is often best to just drop the rope.”
Disagree with us? Please leave your last word in the comments section. And for more on this complex topic, we recommend Jeremy Sherman’s exploration on the complexities behind the Last Word at Psychology Today. It is in his fabulous article, Mankind’s Eternal Quest For The Last Word, where he originally and cleverly coined “Shutupmanship.”