Last week I posted 4 tips for non-mathematicians attending math dinners. I encouraged non-mathematicians not to take it personally when mathematicians asked them to defend their beliefs. I stand by this statement, but I don’t want to excuse all behavior that might come across as bullying. There’s a clear difference between being genuinely interested in someone’s belief system versus picking on him because his view doesn’t align with your own. Your argument might be more logically sound, but if your winning really hurts someone’s feelings, was it worth going to war?
If you find you often offend people and you want to change, here are some tips:
1. Be genuine and ask questions that elevate the conversation.
Invest in your conversation partner by asking questions that relay genuine interest in that person rather than making statements intended to showcase how smart you are.
For example, if I say that I really want to raise chickens because everyone in my neighborhood has an urban chicken coop, follow up with a question about the construction of the coop or how many chickens I want to raise rather than pointing out my overgeneralization (not everyone in my neighborhood has an urban chicken coop if I don’t have one).
Calling out someone on semantic errors or harmless logical fallacies might provide some amusement, especially if he’s a good friend, but this can derail the conversation and make people defensive. Not good if you are trying to get someone new to like you.
2. Avoid stubbornness.
Some people really enjoy arguing, but good arguments involve an open mind and a recognition that the world isn’t black and white. If you’re with someone who likes arguing, by all means defend your beliefs but don’t be obstinate. Acknowledge when your conversation partner makes a good point. Remember that you might not be able to bring him over to your side of the debate. If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t like arguing, don’t make him have a conversation that he doesn’t want to have.
3. Yes, and…
If you reject every idea someone brings to the table, he’s not going to want to share his ideas with you. If you’re the kind of person who constantly says “no” when someone suggests something to you or the kind of person who is quick to point out why someone is wrong, try injecting positivity into your interactions. Instead of saying “no” try saying “yes” if possible and then add something to the conversation related to that point. Tell stories about things you like doing and people you like rather than detailing the many ways things have gone wrong in your life.
4. If “you being you” offends people you like, change.
If you find you’re often rejected by people you want to like you and you comfort yourself by saying “I’m just being me,” maybe it’s time to make a change. This is scary because change involves admitting that there is something you want to modify about your current behavior. It means conceding that you’re not perfect. Go ahead…untether yourself from that part of your identity. You’ll still be you, but now you’re You 2.0, a better version of yourself.
I’m not suggesting we wear happy-all-the-time masks. It’s good to acknowledge our flaws and our pains as human beings. But aiming to be positive, genuinely investing in people we meet, and recognizing what aspects of our elitism are rooted in insecurity will all go a long way toward optimizing our relations with others.