Contradiction can ruin the rhythm of a good story. Or worse....

by Hugh Gilmore

What would it be like to live a year without contradicting what the people around you are saying? I’ve decided to give it a try during 2012 and find out.

The idea is very simple, so simple in fact that it might sound silly. But I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about making this my New Year’s resolution, and it’s really quite complex. In fact, I’ve tried sitting through several practice conversations this week and have found non-contradiction to be quite a difficult behavior to achieve. By the way, this is not a humor column if you think I’m setting you up for a string of jokes. Seriously.

I’m actually a bit worried about the danger of getting too cute with this idea, but some genuinely interesting linguistic and cognitive ideas lie behind it. Indeed, this behavior – contradiction – has serious and far-ranging psychological and social consequences.

Whew, I think I’d better ease up on the vocabulary. Writing tip for the aspiring: Go easy on words that end in “ion.” Also avoid words that can be broken down into their Latin roots. All abstract. Bad writing. Let’s get real. Examples will help.

Let’s say, George and Martha and Nick and Honey all go to the Ambler theater to see a movie called, let’s say “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and then go back to George and Martha’s house, located, let’s say, in Chestnut Hill. Drinks and num-nums follow.

Nick says, “What did you two think of the movie?”

Martha says, “That movie, oh my, I remember when it first came out in 1968. That was the first year we stayed on the Cape in July.”

George: “1966.”

“It couldn’t have been 1966, George. I remember wearing that light blue sweater we bought at Givenchy’s. There was a chill the whole time we were there. We had to light a fire every night.”

George: “It was 1966 the movie came out. And we first started coming to the Cape in 1965, right after you had your appendix out.”

“That was in 1967, George.”

I think that’s enough for now. Nick is still leaning forward, wanting to discuss the movie. He’s never seen it before, but George and Martha have, and he wonders if they think it’s stood the test of time. He’s going to have to become pushy, play the role of moderator, if he wants to get George and Martha back on track. That’s not fun. He reaches for the Martini pitcher instead.

What the heck difference does it make to a couple’s table partners whether the movie came out in 1968 or 1966? Why kill the conversation just to get a detail correct? Stories and opinions need rhythm to be told well. Why ruin the rhythm? Why break up good talk by challenging facts that don’t affect the story?

Contradiction at its extreme:

“Oh the most awful thing happened this week. Right after lunch on Tuesday I was standing on the corner at Germantown and Hartwell when I saw a dog get run over by the C bus.”

George: “The 23 bus.”

Other points of possible insertion for George might have been: Highland vs. Hartwell, breed of dog, “run over” vs. “clipped,” bus or trolley, lunch or late afternoon, Tuesday or Wednesday, etc.

Yes, yes. George is right. We’re all usually right when we contradict. (Hmmm, that’s probably not true.) I know I am. I wouldn’t add a correction if I weren’t sure. (That’s another thing that’s wrong with you, Hugh.) And what’s the obvious solution?

You’re maybe thinking: shut up. Just shut up when you hear a mis-fact (a word I’ve made up because I can’t think of a better one) and let it ride. But that’s not the end of the problem. In fact, it’s where this new series of columns begins.

First question: Shut up at what cost? Cost considers the effects of this suggested silence on both partners. Will I explode if I keep holding back what I am tempted to say? Will I feel mean if I deliberately allow “the other” to go through life as a deluded person? Will the other person be harmed if he or she carries misinformation through life and tries to enter the gates of heaven carrying a noggin filled with faulty data?

Second question: What will happen if I tell folks at a dinner table that I am practicing non-contradictarianism and they can say any silly, stupid, ignorant things they want today because I’m guaranteeing that when they do I will listen and note, but keep silent?

I’m as curious about the effect my non-contradictions will have on them as they will have on myself.

I certainly have always hated coming away from a dinner party where I played the role of guest villain, but now I’m wondering if I’ll be jumping out of the crock-pot and into the fire. I’ll keep you posted.

(First person to write back with the correct date of the “Whose Afraid” movie will get a personalized “thank you” email from me and a possible mention in a future column if it doesn’t spoil the column to mention you. Based on my memory skills, too.)