Mantra: 'You're right, you're right, you're right, you're right'

IF YOU'VE ever truly won an argument, I'd like to meet you. To me it feels as though I've never won one. The other person either overcomes me or never seems defeated.

Every few months, I'm proven right in some minor discussion with my husband, and I squeal with delight.

"You were right, and I was wrong," he'll recite.

"Again!" I cry. It's never enough.

Arguing comes too easily to me. I open my mouth more than I should, and I reflexively avoid doing anything I might label wimpy, such as being nonconfrontational with coworkers. But it never works.

Discussion can persuade people, but argument gets people's hackles up. Even if they admit their wrongness to themselves, pride won't let them give in.

Decades ago, I remember screaming at my sister during a vicious argument of the type only family can have. She was insufferably smug, I remember fuzzily, and I said, "Why do you always have to be right?"

Even then I knew it was a stupid question, rhetorical or not.

No matter how much my parents tried to divide everything equally between us, equality of opportunity did not turn into equality of outcome.

Maybe she wasn't always right. Maybe she was just more persuasive, better armed with facts and style. But I hated that I always lost, and I didn't know how to lose graciously.

Years later, in my dorm room in Berkeley, I stopped a promising philosophical discussion in its tracks for fear of conflict. My thinking was "I never win these things," because I thought it was zero-sum.

So I tend to avoid situations where other people will beat me or will prove me wrong, and to use qualifiers in every sentence of every conversation. And, projecting my own insecurities, I can get irrationally mad at people and things that seem wrong, or ambiguous, or off-kilter: a door that sticks, a spelling error, a delusional movie protagonist. My husband has never been so hot at social logistics, and only now am I accepting and working around that instead of trying to change him.

How much of a control freak do I have to be to enter a garden of forking paths in the Berkeley Rose Garden and worry that I'm doing something wrong?

I got a glimpse of a new way to think 10 years ago in high school. I stopped by my favorite English teacher's classroom at lunch to ask his advice. I'd been accepted to UC-Berkeley and UCLA; which should I choose? How could I even decide? Wouldn't this choice be the most important I ever made, other than who I married?

And Mr. Hatch gently suggested they were both fine schools and that I wouldn't go wrong choosing either one.

So now I'm calmer. I can rein in my own argumentative tendencies and I can see that conversational partners who have to be right all the time just reveal their own insecurities.

I believed in pluralism and diversity as an abstract concept, but now, putting the idea into practice, I find myself surprised when my acquaintances refuse to see multiple non-crazy points of view.

Maybe I see more empathy and flexibility in myself than I used to because I work with more linear, black-or-white thinkers than I used to. They're almost all guys — and almost all computer geeks — and compared to them, tomboy passing-for-queer me is a wellspring of feminine emotion. It makes for interesting friendships.

Jeff Bigler hypothesized that, among geeks, the "tact filter" runs in reverse compared to the rest of us. Normal people soften what they say and expect others to as well; nerds soften what they hear, and thus speak candidly and expect listeners to apply appropriate tact. I think the same goes for certainty.

Some people, like me, add qualifiers to our speech to let everyone know how certain we are of our claims. Others just act as though they're confident all the time and rely on listeners (or the world) to prove them wrong. They win arguments, and I have to learn who they are and to deal with them appropriately. Bring the conflict!

A work friend and I were bantering about the French Revolutionary calendar. He thought it had five days in a week; I said 10.

"They wanted everything decimal, remember?"

He turned to his computer and called up Wikipedia.

"You're right," he said without rancor.

And the conversation moved on, and my eyes crinkled in amusement.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can contact her at

Arguing comes too easily to me. I open my mouth more than I should, and I reflexively avoid doing anything I might label wimpy.