How to annoy people. Or not.

And how their bad attitutes infuse what I write.

When I first got into the newspaper business, I regularly wrote opinion pieces. Got my own column in a few different papers. I would, on occasion, deliberately try to bug people.

My justification for it was:

  • Really good writing pushes people’s buttons.
  • So they get angry. At least they’re reading.
  • I have every right to express my opinions.
  • Those who get outraged by this stuff? Cranks.
  • It’s all in good fun.

Yeah, I was a real jerk about it. I’d write really obnoxious stuff sometimes.

At the same time—more of my youthful and spiritual immaturity coming out—I was also under the misbelief that opinion pieces actually could change people’s minds over to my way of thinking. They don‘t work that way. Only fools read the op/ed pages to learn what to think. Most of ’em read to learn what others think, but for the most part they already have their minds made up. They’d either discover I agreed with them, and feel vindicated; or discover I believed otherwise, and feel annoyed. And if I annoyed them often enough, most would quit reading.

So when I tried to a rise out of people, I wasn’t as successful as I expected. I’d try to be super annoying, and my fans would cheer me on, and everyone else would dismiss me. (And rightly so.)

The outraged responses always came from the stuff I never expected.

Fr’instance, I once used the word “crap” in a newspaper column. As profanities go, that one’s really tame, so I used it and thought nothing more of it.

But we had this one regular nut-mail contributor. Some old guy who contributed to every local newspaper. Frequently he’d mix up his newspapers, and write to one paper to comment about something he read in another. And every time he found a word he considered inappropriate, he’d demand the paper fire the writer. That was his only solution to any problem: Fire people. He suggested I be fired many times. Naturally nobody took him seriously.

So, “crap” drew his ire. But none of my deliberate attempts at outrage got people to respond. It’s like I was waving red flags to the color-blind.

Eventually the Holy Spirit convinced me this was rotten Christian behavior. If I found it fun, it was evil fun. There’s no good excuse for it; it doesn’t promote God’s kingdom whatsoever; it had to go. So I repented and cut it out.

Still occasionally, unintentionally, offended people, though. Still do.

Again, it’s all for the stuff I never expect. I get misunderstood. Or somebody’s looking for offenses, and take me out of context. Or a story’s going round that bends my words till they’re unrecognizable; gossip’s evil like that.

Back when I taught junior high at a Christian school, I regularly got called to the principal’s office about rumor control. ’Cause I had all the controversial subjects—history, science, and bible—so whenever something I said in the classroom got misreported, shocked parents would wanna know what on earth I was telling their children. Hence meeting after meeting where I had to explain, “That’s not what I said,” or “I did say that, but you’re not hearing it in context.”

After one such meeting:

She. “Okay. Just be careful what you say in the classroom.”
Me. “I am careful. Doesn’t make any difference. The kids hear what they want to hear—whatever strikes them funny—or add their own attitudes to my statements, and the next thing I know I’m back in here.”
She. “Well… just be careful.”

Yeah, that’s constructively helpful.

Sarcasm aside, we still kept having those meetings. Some of ’em even had to include school board members. Didn’t help that one of the parents had a personal vendetta against me ’cause he thought I gave his daughter way too many Fs. (As if not doing your homework should merit you any different grade.) But that’s another story.

It’s all in the attitude.

Interpretation… has been a fruitful source of strife all the world over. No matter how explicit the [text], people will turn and twist the text to suit their own purposes. …Selfishness turns them blind, and by a use of the ambiguous middle they deceive themselves and seek to deceive the world and God. One golden rule is to accept the interpretation honestly put on the [text] by the party administering it. Another is to accept the interpretation of the weaker party, where there are two interpretations possible. Rejection of these two rules gives rise to strife and iniquity, which are rooted in untruthfulness. He who seeks truth alone easily follows the golden rule. He need not seek learned advice for interpretation.

—Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, ch. 17.

Gandhi was writing about legal contracts. But I believe this can be properly applied to any conversations between civilized people.

People are generally negative. Sometimes they weren’t originally, but they’ve been burned too often. So they assume people are gonna start from a negative, self-centered, pessimistic attitude. For the most part, I’d agree that’s a valid assumption.

Now, what if we started from the opposite assumption? What if we assumed people were attempting to be civil—that any apparent rudeness (as opposed to obvious rudeness; let’s be realistic) was simply an accident, or their own misinterpretation?

Think there’d be less arguing?

God calls his kids to be optimistic. Once I forced myself to adopt that attitude, I found I don’t get offended anywhere near as often. What’s more, I find most people honestly never meant to be rude. Some do, but most don’t. (And many who do, once they realize I’m going to be civil to them, immediately take back their rudeness.)

I also find this tends to silence the gossipy sort. When someone just has to tell me some juicy, negative thing they heard, and I respond, “I don’t know whether they meant it that way,” it sucks all the air out of their tires. ’Cause it’s probably true: They weren’t there. They don’t know the attitudes behind the juicy story. They quickly realize they’re in no position to judge.

I regularly run into one annoying phenomenon: Whenever people read what I’ve written, they read their own attitude and tone into it. If they’re a really angry person deep down, they’re gonna read my stuff in a very angry tone. If they’re sarcastic, they’re gonna assume I’m as sarcastic as they. If they’re bitter, their bitterness is gonna come out of my words as if I’m the bitter one. And there’s not a bloody thing I can do about this.

Read that last sentence—“And there’s not a bloody thing I can do about this”—in a few different ways, and you’ll see just what I mean. Read it angrily. Sarcastically. Bitterly.

Now read it the way I mean it: With resignation. Notice the difference.

So when I critique stuff, people assume I share the attitudes they have when they critique stuff. They assume I’m pissed. Angry. Furious. Screaming. Bilious. Insulting. Whiny. Take your pick.

Those of you who’ve heard me rant out loud: You know whenever I’m going on about some subject, it’s often with a smile on my face. Because I find it ridiculous. Because I don’t take it all that seriously. Because I don’t take myself all that seriously. Because I’m usually gonna end the rant with, “Aw well; what’re you gonna do about it?”

My attitude, for the most part, stays positive. How’s yours? Keep it positive.

And so much for my sermon of the day.