Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 71

Last Wordism

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

Most of my Everyday Systems so far have been very narrowly focused on the self: diet, exercise, moderating consumption of one sort or another.

Today I’m going to introduce a system, a mini-system, that is unusual in this regard: it’s about getting along with other people, and helping them to get along with each other – so not solely about the narrow self. It’s also unusual in that it’s sort of an anti-system: it doesn’t positively promote anything (directly at least), rather it’s a trick for making yourself and others aware of something bad, a bad interpersonal dynamic, so you can avoid it by gently making fun of it. I call it “Last Wordism.” And when properly deployed, that is, when it’s deployed to achieve its opposite, “No Last Wordism.”

In Judaism, there is a concept, Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. It’s next door to heaven, one of the most blissful things you can imagine. And for many of us, it feels about as unattainable. Especially, I think, for families with kids of various ages, and especially as some of those kids start hitting their teens, the kitchen table can feel like a war zone of arguing, put downs, eye rolling, charges of mansplaining (imagine how insufferable it must be to have self-help guru at the kitchen table) and – my favorite – “you always do thats!”

The solution? A simple phrase to remind everyone (starting with yourself) that the way to stop arguing is not for someone to win, but for someone to take a deep breath, disengage, and lay down their arms: to NOT insist on having the last word, to realize what is going on, to see the un-fun game that’s being played, and to stop giving tit for tat. Last wordism is what I call this compulsion to be the one to give the last comeback, the delusion that there is some comeback that is going to finally convince your brother, your sister, your parent, your spouse, your child of the rightness of your argument and shut them up. We know, intellectually, that it won’t, that there’s no such thing, that there is no rational argument, no stinging zinger, that will finally win the game and end the back and forth, because it probably isn’t really a rational argument at all, and likely not even about what is ostensibly about. But in the heat of the argument we forget this.

“Last Wordism” is the phrase or mantra (or anti-mantra!) I use to remind myself and my beloved interlocutors of this fact.

I mentioned that “Last Wordism” is a “beyond the self” system, but the best person to start using it on is precisely yourself. When you find yourself embroiled in one of these kitchen table arguments, just think “last wordism” to yourself, just call those words into your mind, and stop; refrain from giving the comeback that was about to come out of your month. Then, only after you’ve had some practice getting yourself under control, should you dare to risk uttering it to others. Asking others to do what you can’t yourself is hypocrisy, after all.

When I finally took that leap and uttered it out loud, at first, it was cute. “Hey, no last wordism!” I’d say. The novelty of it had an effect. They’d pause. Maybe get one more round in. And then steam and wonder whether silence was not after all the most effective riposte. Probably like St. Paul they were imagining the coals of fire they were heaping on their siblings’ heads by not responding, but still, it was an improvement. And it didn’t take too many arguments interrupted like this for everyone to start thinking it to themselves, before I said anything. Eventually, I could drop the no, make it just “last wordism.” And then other people started saying it. And now, in my family, we don’t need to say it at all. A significant, exhausted look conveys it sufficiently.

I’m surprised no one has yet expressed irritation at me for saying it. You do have to be careful not to say it in a triumphal, self-satisfied tone that lest it become itself an example of last wordism. I think all that pre-practice on myself was helpful in this regard, a lot of practice before I dared to preach.

You may not be so lucky every time. You may get an eye roll. You may even deserve an eye roll. And just because I haven’t gotten one yet doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Now that I’ve recorded this episode I’m sure I’m doomed. But I still recommend giving it a try. It’s just cute enough but obviously true enough that it seems to slip past people’s defenses and make them pause to think. And that, apparently, surprisingly, can be enough. If nothing else, it can get you personally out of the unfun game, and with one less player at the table, there is less to fuel the fire and keep it going.

I don’t know if me and my family have quite achieved Shalom Bayit, but at the very least our kitchen is now more of a demilitarized zone than an active war zone, and that’s progress. Not bad for two words.

We’ve been practicing “No Last Wordism” for about two years now, so it’s past the “loose lips sinks ships” danger zone that I’ve podcasted about before, and I feel safe sharing it with you. We had some practice during the height of covid lockdown, when kitchen tables were perhaps some of the tensest places on earth, so I like to think the system has been battle tested.

Well, that’s all for today. Just one mini, social, anti-mantra system. I wanted to get at least a little second episode out in November to make up for having missed October – and I think with Thanksgiving just around the corner, with all those charming, infuriating relatives we tend to find ourselves cooped up with then, it’s perfect timing for a system like this.

I wish you all Shalom Bayit, or the best approximation, on Thanksgiving and always, however you can attain it. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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