“Verbal Self-Defense” is a great article by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. She provides a couple of key tools for defusing verbal attacks, especuially those cases when someone criticizes you just to get you riled up and angry. It’s important to not let your emotions get too involved and remain calm so you can pick the right strategy to defuse things. Two good approaches are what Dr. Elgin calls the “Boring Baroque Response” and “Computer Mode.”In the “Boring Baroque Response,” you give a lengthy, calm, and boring response that takes all the fun out of attacking you. For example, when someone trying to pick a fight says, “Why are you so lazy? You never do your share of work!”, don’t respond with an angry put down or by self-justification. Instead, try saying something like this: “Well, you raise an interesting question about the development of my work habits. I suppose it goes back to my days in kindergarten – or was it first grade – when we had this daily task we were supposed to do. Frankly, I just couldn’t understand what the teacher was getting at by having us stand and stretch, touch our toes, then our nose, and so forth, so I began taking short cuts. Sometimes that’s more efficient, you see, but for some tasks, it can be perceived as inadequate, so I’m faced with this optimization challenge . . . .”
The point is that you prove yourself to be NO FUN when it comes to verbal arguments.
The Computer Mode response requires that you be completely unemotional and respond to verbal asaults with a calm statement of platitude that doesn’t really commit you to a position. It can really throw the attacker off. Dr. Elgin gives the example of someone yelling at you about something that is lost, blaming you for it. Instead of yelling back or explaining the facts of the matter, stay calm and respond with a platitude or hypothetical statement. For example, you could say, “Nothing is more frustrating than losing something.” As Dr. Elgin says,
No matter how many more times the attacker throws hostile language at you, continue to answer only with another response in Computer Mode. If the hostile strategy has always worked in the past, it may take the attacker a while to understand that it’s not going to work this time. Eventually, the attacker will run out of steam and give up — and again, will make a mental note that you’re no fun as a victim and shouldn’t be chosen for that role in the future.
You’d be amazed at how many potential arguments I’ve nipped in the bud with a single meaningless emergency platitude. The attacker makes the first hostile move; and I answer, solemnly, “You know, you can’t tell which way the train went by looking at the tracks.” Many, many times, the next line from the poor soul attacking has been, “I never thought of it like that.” Almost every time, the argument has ended right there — for an impressive savings in time and energy all around, and far less pollution of the language environment.