Saturday, May 2, 2009


I am always perplexed by Reader Mail that says “stop sending me these!” Of course, I find myself fascinating. (Else why would I have a blog?) However, it has come to my attention that this sentiment is not universally shared.

What is strange to me is that the emails are so short. When I think someone is sending spam, I just mark it “junk” on my email and I never see it again. The “junk” marker is for email I don’t want from people I don’t want to talk to.

But to send a clipped email that says “stop sending me these” is foreign to me. Does someone really want to give me a piece of his mind but is biting his tongue? Why don’t you explain what the problem is? I don’t mind. I’m interested.

On one occasion last year I kept getting weekly emails from someone campaigning for Obama. She signed off every email with bold catch phrases, like “I believe in the power of you!” and “Yes, We Can!”

Which I agreed with, on a personal basis, since "yes, I can!" And I definitely believe in the "power of me." Maybe even too much.

Needless to say, me and my Obama pal disagreed about lots of things. I was intrigued, however, and kept writing. Her responses to me kept getting more shrill and sarcastic.

Eventually my Obama pal stopped sending me emails because I kept trying to have a discussion. This was not what she wanted – she just wanted to blast conservatives and get me to vote for Obama. Interesting.

Lots of conservatives do the same thing. This is a human trait, not an ideological one. People are more interested in recruiting you than discussing things.

Which brings me to a point. It is a good idea to test your thinking periodically by listening carefully to people who disagree with you. By disagree, I don’t mean people who simply pile on abuse. I mean people who are willing to engage the issue in some depth, rather than attack you.

And that’s the problem. I don’t think people ever learn how to discuss things cordially, either at home or at school. So they perceive the process of disagreement as something very threatening, just one step away from baseball bats and a broken jaw.

Sometimes when you test your thinking by listening carefully, you find out that you thought wrong. (Listening, by the way, does not mean biting your lip while you think of how to rebut what the other person is saying.) If you get past being upset and angry, this can save you from a whole lot of heart ache.

Other times, listening carefully just confirms you were right. And how great is that?

Magically, sometimes both people in the discussion change their thinking, and understand each other a little better.

Of course, sometimes you just walk away from the conversation shaking your head at all the craziness in the world. Which can be fun.

I’ve spent my entire professional career working in places where 80 percent of the people don’t agree with me about very important things – God, politics, health care, Reagan, Obama, abortion. It can be difficult to be in the minority.

It can also be extremely healthy. At least, it has been for me. It taught me how to discuss things peaceably with people who don't agree with me. And those discussions have actually deepened, not terminated, friendships.

So when you write me to tell me to quit sending this stuff, expect a reply, like “No problem. Tell me what you found objectionable.”

Just interested. I like talking with my friends.


  1. Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.
    (Mahatma Gandhi)

  2. Enjoyed this immensely having personally engaged in some of those entertaining differences!

  3. I have found that I love disagreeing with someone I have principles in common with. Then we can explore the issues, usually centering on definitions, that are causing the problem.

    But when you don't have principles in common, your task is to figure out why and how to get some, not to argue about the issue at hand. That, in fact, turns out to be a waste of time.

    And email is hardly ever helpful in that case!

    Loved your swine flu post, although I just don't like vodka, except in gin form. Personally I had a very good mint julep in honor of Derby Day and felt a lot better.

  4. Oh! Whew! I thought you meant for ME to stop sending YOU these! I'll go put my Kleenex away.

  5. I guess it all depends on who gets to define "reasonable" and "listening."

    I'm someone who has sent a "don't send me these" message. There are certain subjects I refrain from commenting on in ordinary social discourse. In one instance I listened/read many angry, contemptuous attachments containing multiple outrageous and unfounded forwarding commments, before I drew the line. And I drew that line around one particular subject, and continue to have amiable discourse with that person on other topics. That doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

    Also, when one has been swimming with sharks and kraken for 30 years, one's sense of what is agressive or threatening is slightly different than that of the average seal.

    When will E.O. write the post about situations wherein he had a change of heart and mind after listening to an opposing viewpoint? Or situations wherein both parties moved the other closer to common ground? That's far more interesting than hearing about those idiots who never listen.

  6. I liked the kraken crack. I suppose I could write a post about how my wife and I came to consensus about the toilet seat issue (up? down?) after many years of sometimes heated discussion.