Monday, June 28, 2010

Avoiding Conflict

I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love watching Larry David get into meaningless conflicts and hilarious shouting matches with strangers, friends, salesmen and colleagues. Watching the show is like getting immersed in a world with such commonplace amusing conflicts. And I relate to Larry: I'm often running scenarios through my head about what I might say in a hypothetical imagined situation, or what I should have said in some situation past.

Today a door to door salesman came to my door. I always attempt to be friendly with the people who knock on my door, whether they are selling windows or a religion. Generally I try to make it quickly clear (while smiling and friendly) that I won't be interested, so both the salesman and myself can just get back to our business. I was friendly and smiling with this salesman, who was really working it. He seemed to be selling some sort cleaning product, and when he asked me a question, I told him I just use water to clean things and that I wasn't interested. He kept pressing, but I insisted I use water and no soap, and said thanks and bye.

The salesman started talking loudly to my next door neighbors (whom he had evidently just spoken to). Loudly enough for me to hear, he said something like "He wasn't nice like you said. Actually, he was kind of a jerk." He talked a bit more and once more said that I had been a jerk.

For half a second, I actually thought of opening the door and saying "Hey now. You don't need to stand here in my yard calling me a jerk." I really think I could have, and would have been within my rights. I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to go further, but if I could, I might have continued: "I was friendly enough, but I'm not interested in your product. You're the one who knocked on my door: what do I owe you? How am I a jerk for declining the product you're selling, and trying to do it quickly enough so you can go on your way? You don't have to stand here and insult me: I really didn't do anything to you. That's rude."

For half a second--I mean, it wasn't just an idle thought, I actually thought about opening the door and saying something. But I didn't. I realized I wasn't mad at all at this guy. I wasn't annoyed. I wasn't really insulted--he doesn't really know me and I wasn't really a jerk, so what do I care? Actually, it was pleasant to find out the neighbors told him I'm nice (best compliment I've received in months!). For what reason would I have opened the door to say something to him? To yell? For what? For pride? My pride wasn't wounded. To assert my authority? I felt no need. To defend myself? Why?

I could have opened the door. I could have said something to the person. I probably would have said it reasonably, but who knows? Could it have turned into a shouting match? Probably not, but the discussion certainly might have gotten testy. I didn't feel any real emotion about a salesman who doesn't know me calling me a jerk, but if we started an open conflict, who knows what emotions, from him or me, might have gotten sparked.

A little thing. I had nothing to gain from opening the door to complain to a man I didn't know that he shouldn't call me a jerk. Nothing to gain at all. No benefit to me, no benefit to the man. An open conflict could have erupted, and over nothing. I let it go because I didn't really care.

In He Came Preaching Peace, John Howard Yoder writes:

"The only way to end the war is to make peace, and for that someone has to die. Someone has to back down. Someone has to be humiliated. Someone has to come up with an alternative, a vision of a new order for which one is ready to sacrifice one's future, one's popularity and even one's life."

Overly dramatic words to use in relation to my brief encounter with a salesman, no doubt. But there is a point here relevant to our personal relationships and encounters. Sometimes to escape a conflict, somebody must be willing to back down, to let things go, to be willing to cede something to the other party. When I read different details of the Henry Louis Gates arrest incident, regardless of who was right or wrong, I thought this: if either of these men had been interested in resolving the situation without major conflict, it could have been done. It would have taken one of the men backing down, letting things go, accepting briefly being "subordinate" (a word from Yoder), but that would have done it. Sometimes it is little things, little moments of letting things go, that matter--or more accurately, that make things not matter.

So even when I want to, I don't pull a Larry David. I'm glad he does it in his fictional universe: it makes for hilarious television. In my real life universe, however, I'll avoid conflict as much as I can.


  1. You were the bigger man that we've all heard so much about but rarely see.

    I wouldn't have opened the door either, but that's just because I'm scared of people.

  2. fun postscript: two days later a different salesman came selling the same product, and my wife bought it.