Why do you always correct me?

He was almost to the point of tears, which was all the more shocking because it seemed to come out of the blue. “Why do you always have to correct me?” he asked, “It makes me feel like you think I’m stupid!” I frantically tried to think back over the last sixty seconds, or even over the last sixty days, and remember a time when I had corrected him. I couldn’t think of even one! What was he talking about? I awkwardly put my arm around him. “I don’t think you’re stupid,” I said. But silently in the background my mind was still racing: When did I correct him?

That happened in 1998. The relationship didn’t last much past that conversation. But it was not the last time in my life that I had someone confront me with that same question: “Why are you always correcting me?”

My parents are both academics. They met, in fact, when my father was an Assistant Professor and my mom was a graduate student at Brown University. A lot of my upbringing involved the Socratic Method: My parents would challenge me and question by claims or my beliefs in order to get me to think through whether they were justified. Sometimes my parents would even do this when they agreed with me, just to make sure that I was thinking things through the way that I should.

I think this may be at the root of one of my adult habits: the way that I check to verify that I have understood what you said correctly is that I will repeat back to you what I think you meant, but in my own words. It’s a kind of validation that I “got it”: if I can explain it back to you, and you agree that what I said captures the same basic idea that you were trying to express, then that means I understood what you were saying.

From childhood on I had been trained that the only way to show that I understood something was to explain it.

Here’s the problem: to some people, that seems like I’m always correcting them. Instead of, “He’s checking to see if he understood me correctly,” they think: “He’s telling me the way he thinks I should have said it.”

In my experience, they don’t usually ask if that is my intent: they just feel that it is… and allow their resentment to build up until they yell at me.

When I first realized this, I would get very annoyed with them for being this way. Why don’t they just ask me what I mean? Why don’t they just assume that I don’t have malicious intentions? Can’t they see it from my point of view.

And then I realized: there are situations where I’m guilty of essentially the same thing.

That’s fine.

For the first several years of our relationship, I had a very difficult time with one of Jon’s linguistic habits. The best way of describe it is to give a typical example:

Me:  Would you like to go out to see a movie tonight?

Jon: That’s fine.

Me: OK I’m glad it’s fine, but do you WANT to?

Jon: Sure… I said it’s fine.

Me:  (screams internally)

Even after I knew him well enough to understand that he wasn’t intending to convey a lack of interest, and that it’s just the long-term habit he has of how he expresses himself, it would still grate on me horribly. To me, it sounded like he was being apathetic and dismissive. I could spend hours in my head: What does it mean? What does it mean? Is it that he doesn’t care what we do? Is it because he’s afraid of expressing an opinion? Is it some bitchy way of telling me that he thinks I’m controlling and that we will end up doing what I suggest anyway? What is going on?

Eventually I forced myself to learn–for my own peace of mind, really–that it’s just the way he talks. He’s just not the type of guy who will ever say, “OMG that sounds like such an awesome idea honey let’s gooooo!”  And if I spent the rest of my days waiting for him to react that way, I would evermore be disappointed.

Interestingly, we do not have any problems at all with the “why do you correct me?” issue, because we are both very similar in the way we approach things conversationally. We are up-front, we are not shy, we are type-A, we have strong opinions. He will correct me, I will correct him; he will tell me how to do thing, and I will go ahead and ignore his instructions and do it the way I planned on doing it all along; and we both are happy as clams with that dynamic.

We are perfectly happy to mansplain things to each other all day, and nobody gets upset because we get it: It’s just a personality thing. It’s not insulting, it’s not condescending, it’s not controlling. It’s just how guys like us approach everything in the world.

Me: Honey…. do you just love the fact that we interact that way?

Jon: It’s fine.

Me: (internal scream)

Every dog has a trick

Two fundamental principles of my religious beliefs are empathy and respecting the autonomy of others.

This comes into play in my day-to-day life with my loved ones. With Jon, I understood that “it’s fine” was a life-long verbal habit and that there was no way I was going to re-train that. Trying to get him to change would be a constant strain on our relationship. As they say, “It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”

How would I have reacted if one of the previous guys I had dated said to me, “I know that your entire life the way you have been used to checking whether you understand something is by repeating it back to the person in different words… but it really makes me feel bad when you do that, so could you please stop?” Even if I had wanted to change that habit, would I have been able to? Probably not. And I would have resented being asked to try.

I have taught myself (mostly) to understand “it’s fine” and take it in the spirit in which it is intended. I (almost always) don’t get irritated by it any more… and when I do, I usually have the presence of mind to laugh it off. After all, I have my own life-long habits that Jon puts up with, as well.

And I say to myself: So it goes.

This is one of the things that comes with interacting with other human beings: there will be habits, quirks, stressors that annoy us. We have to decide how we will react to them.