I’m always looking for patterns in people’s actions and temperament. You know that old joke, “The world is divided into two groups: people who divide the world into two groups, and people who don’t.” I’m definitely in the first category.
I love learning about patterns, such as the “service heart,” and I get a tremendous thrill whenever I manage to identify some new pattern myself. Abstainers and moderators. Over-buyers and under-buyers. Alchemists and leopards.
Here’s a new phenomenon I’ve tentatively identified: Oppositional Conversational Style.
A person with Oppositional Conversational Style is a person who, in conversation, disagrees with and corrects whatever you say. He or she may do this in a friendly way or a belligerent way, but this person frames remarks in opposition to whatever you venture.
I noticed this for the first time in a conversation with a guy a few months ago. We were talking about social media, and before long, I realized that whatever I’d say, he’d disagree with me. If I said, “X is important,” he’d say, “No, actually, Y is important.” For two hours. And I could tell that if I’d said, “Y is important,” he would’ve argued for X.
I saw this style again, in a chat with friend’s wife who, no matter what casual remark I made, would disagree. “That sounds fun,” I observed. “No, not at all,” she answered. “That must have been really difficult,” I said. “No, for someone like me, it’s no problem,” she answered. Etc.
Since those conversations, I’ve noticed this phenomenon several times.
Here are my questions about Oppositional Conversational Style (OCS):
1. Have you noticed this, too, or am I making this up?
2. If OCS is real, is it a strategy that particular people use consistently? Or is there something about me, or about that particular conversation, that induced these people to use it?
3. Along those lines, is OCS a way to try to assert dominance, by correction? That’s how it feels.
4. Do people who use OCS recognize this style of engagement in themselves; do they see a pattern in their behavior that’s different from that of most other people?
5. Do they have any idea how tiresome it can be?
In the case of the first example, my interlocutor used OCS in a very warm, engaging way. Perhaps, for him, it’s a tactic to drive the conversation forward and keep it interesting. This kind of debate did indeed throw up a lot of interesting insights and information. But, I must admit, it was wearing.
In the second example, the contradictory responses felt like a challenge.
I described Oppositional Conversational Style to my husband and asked if he knew what I was talking about. He did (so, in answer to Number One above, there’s at least one person), and he warned me, “Watch out! Don’t start thinking about this, and then start to do it yourself.”
I had to laugh, because he knows me very well. I have a strong tendency toward belligerence—for instance, it’s one reason I basically quit drinking—and I could easily fall into OCS. (I just hope I don’t exhibit OCS already, which is quite possible.)
But I do recognize that to be on the receiving end of the oppositional conversational style—to have someone keep telling you that you’re wrong, over and over—is not pleasant.
It’s wearing at best, and often highly annoying. Even in the case of my first example, when the OCS had a fun, friendly spirit, it took a lot of self-command for me to stay calm and un-defensive. Many points could have been made in a less “let me set you straight” way.
And in the second example, I felt patronized. Here I was, trying to make pleasant conversation, and she kept contradicting me. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes and retort, “Fine, whatever, actually I don’t care if you had fun or not.”
Now, I’m not arguing that everyone should agree all the time. Nope. I love a debate (and I was trained as a lawyer, which definitely made me more comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with confrontation). But it’s not much fun when every single statement in a casual conversation is met with,“Nope, you’re wrong, I’m right.” Skillful conversationalists can explore disagreements and make points in ways that feel constructive and positive, rather than combative or corrective.
From now on, when I encounter OCS-inclined people, I’m going to ask them about it. I’m so curious to know their view of their own style.
What do you think? Do you recognize it in other people or in yourself?
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. Gretchen is also on Facebook and Twitter.
*Photo by ImNotQuiteJack.