Smile & Nod

Once you become attuned to the little conversational traps people lay for each other, it becomes hard not to see them everywhere. A lot of what I think about is how to avoid them because avoiding them makes me much happier. Learning to avoid them will make you happier, too.

Arguments are traps. They’re virtually never worth it – especially when you’ve already won them! This is a (slightly modified) version of a scenario I recently witnessed:

Customer: “I’d like to use this coupon to get a discount on this item I’m buying.”

Cashier: “This coupon is expired. I’ll go ahead and ring in the discount anyway, but next time make sure to double-check the expiration date on the coupon.”

Customer: “I don’t see why coupons even have expiration dates, and I don’t think I should have to check them, you should just always honor coupons even when blah blah blah blah blah…”

The cashier and the customer both made a mistake here. The cashier, perhaps unintentionally, laid a trap. The customer fell into it.

If everyone knew how to be maximally happy, here’s how this conversation would have gone:

Customer: “I’d like to use this coupon to get a discount on this item I’m buying.”

Cashier: “Okay! You’re all set, have a great day.”


Why didn’t it happen that way? Because people often make the mistake of opening their mounts before checking the words they’re about to say against the all-important metric. Have you ever heard “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything?” Yeah, let me modify that one for you and give you a rule that will radically transform your happiness if you follow it:

“If what you’re about to say won’t get you anything you want, don’t say it.”

If that cashier had thought for three extra seconds, she’d have realized: “I’m going to give this discount anyway, I’m not responsible for this customer’s future behavior, she won’t listen to me regardless, and therefore there’s no reason for me to say anything about the expiration dates.” And even though the cashier said what she did, the customer should have realized: “I’m getting what I want anyway, and this cashier has no power to affect coupon policy as a whole, and arguing with her is worse than pointless, it’s actually wasteful.”

I suspect that humans are wired for this because once upon a time, we interacted with the same hundred people exclusively our entire lives. So there was some benefit to jockeying for status and position even in mundane interactions. But that’s not the case anymore – most people you try to score a few points off will never enter your life again. So if, in the one brief interaction you’ll ever have with a particular person, you got what you wanted? Smile and nod, and enjoy your life.

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