People tend to avoid conflict at all costs. It's instinctive, we're social creatures and think disharmony or lack of consensus is detrimental to a group, blah blah. And yet Americans, at least, often like to remind each other that this country was founded on the principles of freedom of thought and was built on difference rather than similarity. You can't have it both ways, people. What I mean is, you can't support freedom of thought and difference and avoid conflict at the same time.
It took me a long time--most of my life--to learn this lesson. Most of my formative years were spend growing up in a household in which conflict or difference of opinion was not allowed, so I had to STFU. As I've grown older, though, my tongue has loosened and now, well, I kind of have a hard time shutting my mouth even when others think it might be appropriate to do so. I suppose I got tired of not being allowed to express myself, so I slowly found ways to do so. I distinctly remember my mother sad-facing over my first tattoo, telling me it would make it hard to find a job. I told her that if there was a workplace that didn't want me just because of a non-offensive tattoo, I didn't want to work there anyway.
This growing inability to STFU got me in trouble when I moved to Minnesota, where shutting your mouth is the order of the day--I venture to guess that it was a big part of why I'm now jobless. I was encouraged to lay low and not make waves, along with other various cliches, but I...didn't. And here I am. Do I regret it? No, because again, if they don't want me as I am, I don't want to be there. Does it suck? Well, yeah. But I suppose my tolerance for letting people treat me and the things I care about however they want has come to an end.
And that's really what it comes down to. How much do you care?
When involved in a discussion, the two phrases guaranteed to make me want to punch you in the face and pull your eyeballs out with my fingers are, in no particular order, "I'm sorry you feel that way" and "Let's agree to disagree." There is no faster way to invalidate me and what I am saying and make yourself look like an asshole. What you are saying, essentially, is, "I don't like what you're saying so I'm going to stop talking about it."
You realize that instantly makes you a jerk, right? If you are having a discussion in which you disagree with the other party, the goal should be to come to a mutual and respectful understanding of one another's viewpoints. I've come to the realization that I'm never going to change anybody's mind. You have to change your mind yourself, or not. But what I can do is help the other person understand what I am saying and why, and maybe s/he will come to a decision on his/her own. But if I get shut down with "let's agree to disagree," we can't come to that mutual understanding. And neither of us have learned anything. Again, you can't support difference/diversity and avoid conflict or disagreement. No two individuals are going to share the same opinion about something. You can agree not to attempt to come to an exact consensus, but agree to come to mutual understanding.
Don't shut the discussion down. But by the same token, don't be a dick about dragging your conversation partner through the mud of your opinions, either. As I mentioned above, you're not going to change anybody's mind all by your lonesome, especially not by beating someone with an Opinion Bat.
So here are a few guidelines for when to shut it and when to open it.
Shut it when...
- Someone presents solid, credible, factual evidence to the contrary. What I mean is, if you present something as fact and someone proves you wrong, be a grown up and admit you were wrong.
- You will wound someone unnecessarily with your words. I'm not talking about challenging someone's beliefs, but if your intent is to wound, just STFU.
- You can't provide enough logical or empirical evidence to support your claim. In other words, don't present your opinions unless you can prove you know what you're talking about. Do your research. Form your logical claims before you express them
- You are not (yet) prepared to have your beliefs challenged. This is okay, believe it or not. I won't get into in-depth conversations about things I don't know enough about, or things I'm still trying to figure out, with a stranger.
- Someone else is talking. This seems like such a simple thing, but if you expect respect while you are speaking, give it.
Open it when...
- It's important. Especially if it's important to you.
- It bothers you. But be prepared to defend why it bothers you.
- You believe in it. See caveat above.
- You think it's bullshit. See caveat above.
- You have something to offer the conversation, whether it's knowledge or insight. This is not a free pass to spout off about whatever you please, but if you have something to say, "I don't want to make trouble" is not a good enough excuse not to speak. People need to hear your voice, believe it or not.
Long story short: listen first. Talk second. But talk.