Being Contrarian

I often tell people I have a contrarian streak. This post explains a bit about that.

For those who don’t know, being contrarian is not the same as being contrary. Being contrary means being difficult, being hard to get along with, or behaving in unwanted ways. Being contrarian has a more specific meaning: it means having the tendency to take up the opposing viewpoint.

Why would anyone want to be contrarian? I don’t know that they do. In other words, I disagree with the premise. That’s what it’s like to be contrarian: you hear what the other person is saying, and you propose something that does not support the other person’s perspective. This behavior mostly gets noticed when you oppose the majority view on an important topic, or when you make a habit of going against the mainstream.

Let it be noted at the outset that I am not alone in this. There is that adage, attributed in various forms to Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, and probably others, that essentially says, “If two people agree, one of them is unnecessary.” There is Mark Twain’s suggestion, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).” The idea behind those quotes seems to be that there are almost always alternate viewpoints, and it is usually wise at least to be aware of them — or, better yet, to develop and test them.

Being contrarian it’s not something that a person would necessarily choose. It’s sort of like asking why anyone would want to be detail-oriented, curious, or optimistic. They might have their reasons, but to some extent it’s just who they happen to be. It could be hard to talk them out of it. Possibly the best you can do is to try to cope with, understand, maybe even appreciate it.

It can be a challenge to talk with someone who is strongly contrarian. A person doesn’t necessarily want everything s/he says to be picked apart and disagreed with. One can hope that most contrarians know how to manage their tendencies – to challenge, when a challenge is important, but otherwise to go along and be agreeable, especially when someone else is just trying to make conversation.

Unfortunately, even a moderate contrarian tendency can drive people away. People typically want to be affirmed in what they say and think. They tend to like the person who shares their views and priorities. Especially when the topic in question seems compelling, or when the speaker has a strong opinion or a powerful emotional commitment, the contrarian individual can seem like an opponent.

Being contrarian does not necessarily mean being outspoken or being a dissident. You can sit there and quietly think to yourself that the other person’s words are complete nonsense. You can have a tendency to do that with almost everyone. You can go through your life rarely letting others know just how strongly you reject most of what you hear.

I think I came to a contrarian tendency in childhood: I think I observed others being fake about their true feelings, day after day, and decided I did not want to be like that. There were a couple of reasons. There was the extensive dishonesty of perpetually deceiving close friends or family members; there was also the impression that completely sucking up to loudmouths and bullies would only encourage them, while teaching oneself to act and feel like a worm.

In addition – for me, at least – some of what I am calling contrarian behavior may be simple awareness. Even as a child, it seemed to me that people would often grab onto just one part of a complex situation, strangely ignoring or perhaps not understanding other parts of the story. I don’t know whether I would tend to take contrarian positions if other people were ordinarily inclined to fairly present conflicting perspectives on an issue, instead of just favoring one view and leaving out important information that was not convenient for their purposes.

That often seems to be the situation in adult life. People seem to be in a big rush to prove one side of an argument, even when it is obvious that the people on the other side are not simply stupid or crazy. Sometimes that may just be fear of the unknown. Sometimes, I think, it is pure selfishness, where the person can see that being fair would mean they would have to give up something that they want to keep, or admit that they’ve said or done something wrong.

If you do tend to be contrarian or simply honest, I think you may see yourself as courageous. In some cases that self-perception may be accurate; in others, people may consider you foolish for opening your mouth. Sometimes, I think, that difference in perceptions comes down to a disagreement on whether the individual is morally obliged to speak up — but that’s a subject for another day.

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