The Smartest Thing Anyone Has Ever Said to Me
Or: what to do when arguing with strangers
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A long time ago, I used to think it was a good idea to confront people when they cut me off in traffic, while I was in my car or on my bicycle. I was younger, maybe a little angrier, and it was probably a little less likely that they were carrying a gun. I would throw both hands up in the universal gesture signaling “what the fuck?” Maybe honk my horn, maybe even give someone the finger.
Then the horn in my car broke, or a fuse went out, or something, and I no longer had the option of honking my horn. I suppose I could have gotten it fixed, but I had other stuff going on, and I didn’t get it done. This went on for a couple years, and I really had to consider how many times honking my horn was essential in possibly preventing an accident. I discovered it was not that many. Without the option of getting another driver’s attention with a short honk (hello), a longer honk (whoa, your driving almost caused an accident), or a really long honk (whoa, your driving almost caused an accident, and also I’m feeling really entitled and/or unfulfilled in some other area of my life so I will hold down the horn for three to ten seconds), I was forced to sort of chill out a bit. Instead of honking, I could only shrug when something happened.
Around the same time, I had been bicycling everywhere in the city for about four years, in all types of weather, and had a couple close calls with drivers, but not an extreme amount. I was finished with my Righteous Indignation phase and had settled more into a phase I would maybe call Please Just Don’t Hit Me With Your Car. I had sort of realized that no matter what people in an argument were saying to each other, the conversation was basically this:
Person 1: Fuck you
Person 2: Fuck you
Person 1: No, fuck YOU
Person 2: No, fuck YOU
Person 1: NO, FUCK YOU
Person 2: NO, FUCK YOU
Person 1: FUCK YOU!
Person 2: FUCK YOU!
Person 1: FUCK YOU!!
Person 2: FUCK YOU!!
Persons 1 and 2, in separate locations, later, maybe at home, in the shower: You know what I should have said to that asshole? I should have said, “No no no, fuck YOUUUUUU!” That would have shut them up.
Both people, in their minds, are right, and they both want the other person to admit that they are wrong—you know, “Well, Bob, I really had my heels dug in, but when you called me, quote, a fucking degenerate douche bag who would be better off dead, unquote, that’s when I said to myself, ‘You know, Bob really has a point here. Maybe I should reconsider.’ So I thought about it and realized that I’m wrong and you’re right. You really changed my mind.”
One Sunday morning, on the way home from my local bike shop’s breakfast ride, which was 90 percent breakfast and 10 percent ride, I was pedaling up 12th Avenue in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I stopped at a stoplight. A horn honked behind me, and I turned around to see a guy driving a shiny, very fast-looking Subaru Impreza, with his left hand out the window in the universal gesture for What The Fuck. He yelled out the window that I was in his way, and that I was holding up traffic, i.e. his car. I knew the timing of the stoplights on 12th, and that it was physically impossible for a car to get from our stoplight and through the next block before the next light turned red, which I thought about explaining to the guy for a second, you know, I’m not in your way, what’s impeding your progress here is the timing of these lights, and the four-way stop in a couple blocks, at which point you’ll hit the park, where there’s another stop sign …
I glanced over and saw his friend in the passenger seat, a guy also staring at me, and two women in the back seat, and asked myself, If I start an argument here, what will I win? Even if I’m right, will this guy believe I’m right? Or …
I pulled my bike a foot and a half closer to the side of the street and gestured for him to drive past me, and he did, yelling Get It Together as the light turned green and he floored it to the red light on the very next block, where I stood behind him on my bicycle for 25 seconds waiting for the light to change. I think passing me was not what the guy wanted. I think he wanted some aggression back from me, so we could escalate the situation, and then maybe fight in the street. With him, and maybe his friend in the passenger seat, and maybe the two ladies in the back seat of the car, too.
I pedaled home, a few blocks away, feeling like I had just stumbled upon some sort of revelation. In another version of the story, the guy and I yell at each other until he runs me over with his car or shoots me, and I die on the street or later in the hospital, and everybody says, “what a shame,” or “what an outrage,” but maybe more appropriately, “you believe these two fucking morons, arguing about what amounts to saving maybe 15 seconds of forward progress in traffic, until one of them ends up dead and the other one goes to jail for a very long time?”
Like everyone else who walks in crosswalks, rides a bicycle, a motorcycle, or drives a car, I would of course like other drivers to value my life and safety as much as I do, but arguing with them in the heat of the moment seemed ineffective, and potentially dangerous.
Over the next decade or so, our access to opinions multiplied exponentially: We all got smartphones, and signed up for social media accounts, and we could find infinite situations where we could disagree with someone. If I wanted to, I could, first thing in the morning, grab my phone from my bedside table, unlock it, open Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or some other app, and within seconds, I can find someone who is wrong about something. And, thanks to the miracle of technology, I can correct them on a small point, or their entire worldview! I can then repeat this process throughout the day, or for the entire day, fighting the good fight.
Battling to prove to someone else that I am right takes a tremendous amount of energy. I can’t even reply to someone’s snarky comment on one of my Instagram posts in less than an hour, and even then, the best case is that they never reply, and the worst case they do reply, and I have to reply again. I have realized the futility of this activity and 99.9 percent of the time do not engage with negative comments—because although writing books and drawing illustrations is certainly not the most lucrative way to spend one’s time, it pays much more than “correcting” some stranger’s hot take. If I’m going to waste my time, I can think of about a hundred other ways to waste it.
I have had a precious few conversations with Jimmy Funkhouser, the founder and owner of the outdoor gear store Feral, and one thing he said to me about five years ago has been stuck in my head ever since. We were standing in the store’s original location in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, and he told me a quick story about a friend. I forget the exact specifics now, but the friend had some drama between them and someone else, and Jimmy said to the friend,
“If you try to be right instead of being kind, you will be remembered as neither.”