Jack Speer Publisher/CEO
I love to think of myself as a great communicator, always saying the right thing at the right time–I like to see myself as someone who has a black belt, not in karate, but in tongue.
But I still get caught flat footed sometimes by someone who takes me on verbally when I’m on my best behavior, minding my own business. It happens at places like the gym when I’m at the top of my game, hoisting my my heaviest.
Then some would be Charles Atlas comes along and says, “Hey, man, would you like me to show you how you do that exercise right?”
I just stand there mumbling, shocked they didn’t compliment my physical god-likeness instead of putting me down. Sometimes I replay the moment over and over again in my mind. Days even weeks later I see the person before me and I come up with the perfect comeback, “Show me the exercise?! The only thing I want you to show me, Buddy, is your rear leaving this place,” or something equally clever. I see the person put in their place, and there I am smirking and looking smart. I have vanquished them and they know it–at least in my imagination.
I love the accounts of people who were really good at comebacks.
In 1930–in the depths of the Great Depression–Babe Ruth made the huge salary of $80,000 and was asked to take a cut to $75,000. Ruth, not known for being accommodating, flatly refused.
“How can you be so unreasonable,” management asked him. “You are making more than President Hover.” “Well,” responded Ruth, the greatest home run hitter in history, “I had a lot better year than the president.”
W. C. Fields, an early 20th Century comedian famous for his atheism and non-traditional attitudes, “I love children,” he once said. “They’re delicious!” At any rate, toward the end of his life, a friend came to visit Fields in the hospital, and was surprised to see him leafing through a Bible. “What are you doing reading the Bible?” his friend asked him. Quipped Fields, “I’m looking for a loophole!”
Winston Churchill was a man of the great comeback. British politician Bessie Braddock confronted an intoxicated Churchill and said “Sir, you are drunk.” He replied: And you, mam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.
On the Other Hand, Sometimes It Can be Better Not to be So Clever!
But great comebacks often don’t turn out that well. You think of that perfect thing to say, and the verbal wrestling match continues. Coming up with a clever response like Babe Ruth, W. C. Fields or Winston Churchill to an adversary may not be the most clever course of action. From time to time I do come up with a very clever response to a person—and that begins the real war. I just caused the person to be more determined to give a response even more “clever” than the one I had given her/him. It’s often probably better we’re not as clever as we wish were.
Words today are the clubs and swords of yesterday and can be just as murderous. The truth is that most of the time there is more to be gained by being the rational adult in the room and reasoning with the person about the word bomb they’ve just dropped on me. I need to be more proud of myself for a good outcome that I achieved with another person, rather than a clever comeback—although a funny, mean comeback is most often more appealing in the moment.
So I wouldn’t say never have a mean put down when you face others—sometimes it’s a powerful, much needed tool. We would never recommend that we be a victim of clever, cruel words from others. At the same time, rather than make yourself a warring adversary, look for common ground.
And the most question to ask is, “How will I feel about myself when this verbal battle is over.” Often when I get off my best verbal shot, I’m feeling bad about myself when the conversation is over. If we’re really good with verbal responses–and you and I both probably are–we should pick on people our own size. Little people make our best targets, and we should save our ammunition for elephants, not mice.