The Art of Correction

Introduction

I’m writing this article to get some of my thoughts about correcting people down. I’ve been thinking about questions like “who’s worth correcting?” and “what’s the best way to correct them?” for some time now. While my answers to these Q’s have shifted over time, and vary from case to case, I’ve never formally put them on paper until this article.

I made a YouTube video this month where I responded to the mistakes and errors in someone else’s video. Since then, I’ve spent time thinking about what I did and how I can do better in future response videos. One thing I think would be a good addition is a larger emphasis on to avoid making the same errors in the future. Identifying mistakes and correcting them is good, but preventing mistakes from being made is the ultimate goal.

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Main Thoughts

I can’t remember the exact circumstances or the exact year when my father gifted me his copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, but I do remember him giving the book to me. I think it might have been a birthday present. I want to say it was sometime between 2013 and 2016 (when I was 18-21). It’s October 2021 now and I’m 26.

Carnegie’s book was published in 1936, about 85 years ago. A lot has happened since then. World War 2 (1939-1945), the Cold War (1947-1989), the Iraq War (2003-2011), as well as many others have all had a profound impact on our world and the people in it. Technological developments such as the internet (1970s) and social media (1990s) have revolutionized how people connect with each other and how information is shared. How do the claims in Carnegie’s book hold up in today’s world? Any answer I give to that question will be massively uninformed, as I’ve only read it cover to cover once, and that was some 5-8 years ago shortly after it first came into my possession.

Part 3, Chapter 1 of Carnegie’s book opens with a story about a time he corrected someone. Here it is in short. Sir Ross Smith attributed to the Bible a quote from Shakespeare. Dale Carnegie pointed this misattribution out and Sir Ross doubled-down on his belief that the quote really was from the Bible. Mr. Frank Gammond stepped in, knowing full-well that Carnegie was correct, and agreed with Sir Ross, which effectively ended that discussion.

Gammond and Carnegie were friends. On their journey home after the gathering, Gammond explained why he had sided with Sir Ross. His reasoning boiled down to “always avoid the acute angle”. Carnegie took this to mean never argue. As he says in his own words,

“Since then, I have listened to, criticized, engaged in, and watched the effects of thousands of arguments. As a result of it all, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument — and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.”
Dale Carnegie (1936)[p.112]

This story and its moral have stuck with me throughout the years. It’s hard to tell if I employ the advice more than I ignore it. I still engage in my fair share of arguments but there’s a notable amount of them that I avoid.

After thinking it over some, an argument and an earthquake don’t share much in common aside from being things to avoid. If you don’t think an argument is something worthy of being intentionally avoided, I’m not sure what similarities there would be. They both have varying degrees of intensity? They can shake the foundations of your reality? Whatever the connections may be, the imagery reminds me of the courtroom scene in the WKUK’s Earthquake Sketch (also check them talking about the sketch).

Following the quote above, Carnegie went on to say,

“Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants being more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.
You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph.”
Dale Carnegie (1936)[pp.112-113]

I think Carnegie is wrong here. First of all, arguments can be “won”, in the sense that people sometimes do admit being in error and don’t resent whoever pointed it out. Secondly, arguments are not just win/lose situations. They have more results than dishing out Winner/Loser titles and diminishing/boosting egos. Arguments sway the minds of the people who hear them. They can cause economic gains and losses.

For example, a couple YouTube channels that I enjoy (Paulogia & Viced Rhino) have content almost wholly dedicated to arguing against points made by others. I’ve learned a lot from both of them. A lot I wouldn’t have learned had they chosen to keep their mouths shut. It seems to me their channels and their audiences are growing. This means more money for the creators and more information for the audiences. Should these creators stop doing what they’re doing just to maybe protect the feelings of people who have put out false information?

Not everyone who gets shown to be wrong gets upset about it. And some individuals are obdurate. They won’t admit error under any reasonable circumstances.

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Here’s a more dire example. A wrong calculation can set a ship so far off course that the entire crew dies. Is not arguing with the captain to preserve his ego really worth letting you, him, and the rest of the crew die? I say no. Although, determining who’s in the right can be difficult. Especially if only you and the captain have the education required to perform the calculations needed to sail home safely. In that scenario, the two experts would have to square off and their audience (the crew) would have to decide who they want to side with. Unless you or the captain explain the math and the crew learns how to do it too, their decision won’t be an educated one.

Not all arguments are over matters of life and death. Like the arguments over whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold. Or whether the voice is saying Laurel or Yanny. Which do you think is the superior beverage: Coke or Pepsi? People’s lives are not at stake over the accuracy of these arguments (at least I hope they aren’t). These arguments can be sources of entertainment. They can be used to build friendships and rivalries.

All this is to say that some arguments are worth having, and not all arguments result in hurt feelings. I think it’s important to think about arguing, and (when possible) to choose which arguments to engage in. Arguments happen and it’s good to be as prepared as possible for them. What being prepared looks like will differ from person to person though.

Who then should we argue with? A recent altercation with a friend of mine brought a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte to mind. The moral of the quote is typically chalked up to “don’t interrupt your enemy while they are making a mistake”. The Quote Investigator has looked into the origins of this if you want to learn more about where this idea originated.[1]

The reason this quote came to mind is that I was wondering if I was wrong to mention to my friend that I thought he had repeatedly made the same mistake in a string of recent games. He was an ally, not an enemy. Should we not be compelled to warn our friends if they are about to get scammed? Or if they left their gas cap open? Or if they are about to step into quicksand? I say it’s good to warn our friends in these situations.

What about arguing with strangers? If not enemies, perhaps they can be considered neutral parties? I don’t really consider anyone my enemy and so I do sometimes respond to strangers. I’ve had positive and negative reactions from this.

Final Thoughts

I haven’t been a Christian since my teen years, but I still remember this verse:

“Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.”
Proverbs 9:8, New International Version (NIV)

Maybe this is why I don’t get upset when people try to correct me. Because I’ve long associated that behavior with being wise. Looking back on it now, I don’t think people can be split into either “mockers/scoffers” and “the wise”. This means at least a third category exists. Is this third group apathetic when corrected? They shrug their shoulders, not hating or loving you for the correction.

Another book that’s been on my mind in relation to correcting people is Alina Tugend’s Better By Mistake (2011). I read it earlier this year and published my notes on it here on the Ctruth website. It peaked my interest in “Mistake” related literature. Because of it, I ended up reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (2009) and parts of Tavris & Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (2007).

To conclude, I think some arguments are worth having. Mistakes happen. Ignoring them won’t help prevent them from happening again. If you want to spread true information, there’s no need to be upset when someone corrects you. Take the correction and do what you can to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

If you think I’m wrong about anything, let me know in the comments.

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References:

[1] – quoteresearcher. “Never Interfere With an Enemy While He’s in the Process of Destroying Himself” (6 Jul. 2010). https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/07/06/never-interfere/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2021.

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