Saying “no” for no reason (DE Coast Press)

Clients sometimes describe a spouse, family member or friend as “contrary.” In other words, the person constantly disagrees just for the sake of disagreeing. Such a person is often referred to as a “rationalist” (though “annoying” is a good alternative). Rationalist refers to the failure to acknowledge alternative preferences in different matters, e.g., treating one’s own preferences as moral or objective absolutes. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Vanilla is superior to chocolate. You’re wrong if you like chocolate.” Outrageous, perhaps, but you get the idea.

Such a person will say things like, “I hate to tell you, but that’s not the answer.” Phrases like, “I hate to break it to you” are a big red flag that suggests you’re dealing with a contrary rationalist. Years ago I was a guest at someone’s house, and the hosts were serving cheesecake. The brand name happened to be “World’s Best Cheesecake,” and it was indeed delicious. The bakery was known throughout the area. One of the guests, known to be annoyingly contrary, announced: “I hate to tell you, but this isn’t the world’s best cheesecake.” The hosts were insulted as he proceeded to make a case against the cheesecake. His rudeness became the hallmark of that otherwise pleasant dinner party. Future invitations were few and far between.

Cheesecake aside, the more interesting question was what errors in thinking would lead to such rudeness? What within this person’s mind would tempt him to utter such inappropriate statements in the first place? Interestingly, it probably wasn’t meant as rude. Such people have inner insecurities, and being contrary about something unimportant gives such a person a chance to feel superior. It’s as if, in disagreeing, “I’m showing what I know, and that makes me smart.”

The most significant element in this error is the false belief that intelligence is an attribute of how others perceive you. If that element could speak, it might say, “If I feel superior by knowing something that you don’t know, that makes me intelligent.” Ridiculous, of course, and it’s unlikely that our dinner guest would admit this openly. But this is the sort of emotional reasoning upon which the obnoxious behavior is based.

Some people with this trait are not just concerned with petty matters. They are quick to pontificate over issues of serious importance, including those related to ethics, human nature or government, where positions can in fact be objectively right or wrong. But our contrarian is not motivated by knowing the truth or figuring out what’s right. His or her concern is with appearing superior. And this leads to their signature obnoxious style.

A person with true self-esteem is motivated to survive and flourish in reality. And this includes the willingness to be on the lookout for what’s true, what’s correct, and what’s factual.

Errors and disputes are always possible, but for the person with sturdy self-esteem, this is always the goal.

On the other hand, an insecure person is more concerned with looking right, smart and good. It’s as if he or she has concluded that these qualities cannot be gained honestly, so it’s really more about appearances. As they spout off, they are admitting, albeit implicitly, that they are not able or willing to figure out what’s true anyway, so all that matters is that they look like they know what they’re talking about.

Such a motive (and the resulting behaviors) would be unthinkable to somebody with uninhibited self-respect. While nobody delights in being wrong, new knowledge is valued by a genuinely self-loving person. Finding out that one is wrong is tantamount to learning something new. How empowering and hands-on a way to gain new knowledge!

Learning something new is nothing to fear. Internalize this belief, and you will be immune to the annoyance of contrarian know-it-alls. And if somebody says something with which you disagree, be ready to back up your views with actual relevant facts, not insults or ad hominem drivel. Whether its politics, philosophy or cheesecake, you’ll see such individuals as the sad, mentally impotent people that they are.