A few months ago, my wife and I got into a minor argument. Neither of us had violated any sacred trusts–it was just the type of petty power struggle couples get into in their first months living together. “You can’t tell me which towel to use!…Because that’s the way I cook eggs, that’s why! You don’t like it, don’t eat!… Oh, so you think I’m weak, huh?… Every time my father calls, it’s blah blah blah…but when your father calls, all of a sudden it’s all blam blam blam!” If you’ve ever argued with someone you love, you know it can go on and on and on. And on and on.
So we were having one of these spats one Friday night. Unhealthy as it sounds, I honestly believe that couples get into skirmishes like that just so they can make up later. The trick is making it through the argument without saying something else that will further delay the reconciliation.
Fortunately, I’m learning how navigate and even avoid this foolishness, and it starts with something as simple as smiling. Next time you’re in an argument that’s getting a little heated, smile at the other person. Let him or her rant and rave for as long as they want–just smile back. You may have to absorb a fair amount of venom, and you’ll certainly be tempted to yell back, but resist the temptation for a while. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “violence begets violence.” Yes, King was thrown in jail, called names, hit with rocks, etc. If he had fought back, it would have turned into a war. By staying calm and not stooping to the white racists’ level, they had nothing to feed off of, and we’re all better off as a result.
And that’s why you should smile to end an argument. I’m not talking about an insincere, cheese-eating grin like the one Al Gore had when he conceded the 2000 election. Just make it the biggest smile you can muster without being fake. A Zen-like half smile will suffice as long as you mean it. This accomplishes a couple of things:
First, it disarms the opponent. The better you know the person, the less time they’ll be able to sustain their rage when you’re not raging back. Smiles are definitely contagious, so one person smiling makes countless others happy as a result.
Second, it will make you happy. It seems backwards, doesn’t it? We know that we smile because we’re happy, but it’s equally true that we can be happy because we smile. Hold a smile long enough, even a fake one, and something will come to mind that will truly make you smile.
So you’re happy, and your partner has lost that angry fire. The next thing to do is to admit being wrong about a point in the argument, however small, and apologize. Swallowing the old pride is difficult. But the other person will be so relieved to see you voluntarily wave the little white flag, they will invariably pull out a larger white flag and totally surrender. It’s like letting go of the rope in tug-of-war. Technically, you lose, but the other person ends up on the ground.
Ben Franklin said an ounce of prevention is a worth a pound of cure. Don’t wait until you’re in the heat of a childish debate to turn into a pacifist. If you’ve already dug a hole, be prepared to turn things around. Always be ready to admit when you’re wrong and most importantly, always smile.