Being contrary is no “short-cut” to self-esteem

I would be willing to guess that you know at least one person who likes to disagree, simply for the sake of disagreeing. That person is easy to identify: disputing minor facts such as the weather, carrying on an argument over something that doesn’t matter to anyone, or hanging on to a point for no apparent reason.

I once heard someone at a dinner party make a comment about the dessert, which happened to have been purchased from a company called ‘World’s Best Cheesecake.’ This contrary (and rude) person said, ‘Well, I hate to tell you, but that isn’t the world’s best cheesecake!’

Excuse me? It’s just the name of the company, that’s all. Only a contrary-for-the-sake-of-contrary person would try to instigate a dialogue about such a thing. Not to mention the discourtesy of talking to your host that way.

Different theories can be advanced to explain such a personality trait. One is boredom. The person who passionately disagrees over insignificant things may be trying to ‘work out’ his pent up intellectual energy. Instead of pursuing something useful or creative, he follows the lazier route, taking the edge off his boredom by starting petty arguments with people who couldn’t care less.

My experience suggests that there might be more to it than just boredom. A person who does this kind of thing is trying to find a ‘short-cut’ to self-esteem. Most of us earn our sense of respect and confidence from doing something well. Some, however, would rather not exert that effort or take the risks involved in doing anything useful or productive. Instead, they prefer to get into a verbal tussle about the name of a song on the radio, what day and year something happened, or who won the Super Bowl in 1979. Think of the singsong mocking of a little child: ‘I know something you don’t know.’ The sad truth is that some adults never outgrew this stage of development.

Another word for contrary is ‘oppositional.’ The mental health profession defines ‘oppositional defiant disorder’ as an ‘ongoing pattern of disobedient, defiant and hostile behavior toward authority figures that goes beyond the normal boundaries of childhood behavior.’ And, yes, I suspect that a lot of the problems with these contrary adults started in childhood. Perhaps they were exposed to arbitrary or contradictory rules and punishments. This can lead some children to grow into adults who want to ‘fight back.’ Some will take the high road and become better parents to their own kids, or maybe just distance themselves from the erratic parents who drove them crazy. Yet others will try to do battle with you over the last name of the salesman who sold you your car, whether or not it’s going to rain, or the name of the place where you bought your cheesecake. There are functional and dysfunctional ways to handle your negative experiences from childhood, and the contrary sort of person just hasn’t found a healthy outlet.

Don’t confuse a chronically oppositional adult with an independent thinker. Sometimes, genuine independent thinkers are unfairly labeled as troublemakers just because they disagree with the group, or have a different take on things. The independent thinker truly has his own ideas; he’s not depending on YOU to say something so he can then dispute it. The independent thinker—right or wrong not being the point here—has formulated a conclusion on his own. If it goes with the majority, fine. If it’s radically different or even unpopular, as was Galileo for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun (upsetting the narrow minds of the time), then equally fine. We all enjoy countless daily benefits thanks to the independent thought exercised by a minority of individuals over the centuries.

An oppositional person thrives on conflict for its own sake, and not in the interest of some higher cause—such as the truth. Furthermore, you don’t have to engage in conflict unless you see reason to do so. If Charlie wants to dispute me on my casual comment that it’s a nice day, and really wants to have an intense discussion about it, I’m in no way duty-bound to honor his desire. Frankly, his desire doesn’t matter to me. I don’t need to ‘win’ a debate I don’t care to have. I’m free to just ignore him.

By the way, this is a good technique for more contentious or debatable issues as well. Somebody might be trying to argue with you about a political or philosophical point you hold near and dear. In one sense, you want to be true to your values and ideals, and may feel obliged to fight back. Maybe you should, and you certainly can—but you never have to, simply in response to another’s neurotic prodding.

Pick your battles wisely. Hold on to the serenity and calmness in your life by deciding for yourself what’s a ‘battle’ and what’s not. Rise above the pettiness and see those quarrelsome people for whom they really are.