Twenty-three fabulous & socially acceptable ways to shut people down

by Katy Elphinstone

Content warning: Sarcasm.
Trigger warning: For those who’ve been the subject of bullying and/or psychological abuse, some of the content may be upsetting.

Young woman looking upset

In this article, I'm going to list some really effective communication tools (weapons!) you can use to crush people when they irritate or disagree with you. But - just a warning - that the extent to which you'll be able to effectively use these strategies will depend a lot on the amount of influence, power and autonomy you have (or don't have!) in any given situation. More on this later.

Please note: I am not seriously suggesting you do any of these things intentionally! The content is ironic, and intended for reflection and contemplation purposes only.

  1. Say, "Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions". This can be accompanied with spreading your hands and raising your eyebrows, especially if anyone who may agree with you (more than with the other person) is present.

  2. Say, “Oh yes, I know exactly what that’s like,” or “Yeah, I get that all the time too!” This works best if your friend’s talking about racism as a black person and you’re white, or about their experience as a woman and you’re a man, or if they’re a survivor of certain abuse or trauma (such as sexual abuse) and you’re not – and so on.

  3. Say, "Let’s agree to disagree" while remaining unaware of the ways in which anyone may suffer from you upholding your standpoint or the status quo.
    A public-arena example of this would be advocating one's own opinion about whether same-sex marriage should be allowed, regardless of the feelings of, and the consequences to, those it directly affects.

  4. Use any difference in your social positions to your advantage, if you can. For example, if you're a man and the person objecting to your words or behaviour is a woman, you can say to her, "Are you on your period? Is that why you're getting so emotional?" Note: All of the techniques listed here work best when there’s a power differential in your favour - even if it's only a temporary one.

    Note: It's important to be aware of any intrinsic power differentials. Some examples are: Rich/poor, disparities in education, BIPOC/white, disabled/non-disabled, neurodivergent/neurotypical, cisgender/transgender, heterosexual/gay or lesbian, woman/man, economically dependent/autonomous, child/adult, and when there's authority status of any kind involved (e.g. parent/child, teacher/student, doctor/patient, etc.). Very often the power differential may reside in more than one of those things, which is known as ‘intersectionality’ - for example a person could be a child (so dependent), female, and black.

    Two friends sitting on a sofa, one is talking (she is white), the other one looking away (she is black).

  5. Act surprised and innocent. Make big, wide eyes. You want to make it clear that whatever the person’s complaint may be (even if you’ve heard it more than once and perhaps from more than one person), it has come totally out of the blue, for you. It’s great if you can do this in such a convincing way that you become entirely convinced of it yourself, too!

  6. Say how you feel using a well-chosen past participle such as 'disappointed', 'concerned', or 'cancelled'. This shows a beautiful honesty and openness on your part, while hopefully making it clear to all concerned that you are innocent and the other person is responsible.

  7. Come up with an irrelevant parallel argument. For example, you could say, "Well, Sally never has any problems on the school bus", or "It’s hard for everyone, honey." A high-profile example of this was people recently responding to the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ with the counter-statement "All Lives Matter".

  8. Ask the person gently if they think they may, perhaps, just be ‘reacting to a trigger?’ Do this in a very concerned and caring manner. Perhaps put a reassuring hand on their knee or shoulder.

  9. A young Indian couple sitting on a sofa, talking, and looking serious. He is spreading his hands out and she is looking puzzled.

  10. Suggest fixes to them. (Only, careful here, don’t suggest any fixes that involve you changing anything about your own actions or behaviours!) An example would be, “Why don’t you try exercising more? That might make you feel better.” More on offering 'fixes' in my article on why I don't tell people when I'm not okay.

  11. Sigh and say, “Oh, not this again”, forgetting the fact that that the issue (logically speaking) must have never been resolved in order to still be there.

  12. Point out something about how they look, what they're wearing, and/or their tone of voice. This brings attention away from what they're saying, and often enrages them at the same time. You could also correct their grammar and/or quibble over the 'dictionary' meaning of a word they've used.

  13. Ask them to give you an example of whatever it is they're having an issue with. If they oblige you by giving one, say it isn't a good one (it's even better and allows you more talking-time if you list all the reasons why it's not) and then ask for another example. And so on.

  14. Say, "We should all speak our truths". Try for as saintly, gentle and reassuring a tone as possible. This, hopefully, should make it clear this particular person's 'truth' is boloney and your own is genius. This one is great as it’s enraging to the recipient (so they might play into your hands by losing their temper), while simultaneously making you look really good.

  15. Ignore the person until they’ve given up. Once this has happened, you can say something like, “Are you feeling a bit perkier today?” Perhaps with a nice friendly smile.

  16. Tell them it’s a person’s own choice whether to feel hurt by another’s actions or words. Emphasise to them how it’s in their power to not feel hurt or upset. This is especially good with children, or others who have no choices about their situations (again, if you have a niggle remind yourself that positive thinking is always good!). An even more subtle way of doing this is to say things like, "You need to learn not to take things so seriously," or, "You should try not to be so affected by things".

  17. A man talking with a doctor in a hospital - he looks very serious and worried.

  18. Suggest they're just seeking attention. This can be done either aggressively or gently – but the gentler way, I feel, is more effective as you are clearly the ‘innocent party’ in the situation. A gentle, concerned, “Do you think you/she/they/their behaviours might just be attention-seeking?” can do the trick nicely.

  19. Gently suggest they may be ‘being irrational’ or ‘overreacting’. Perhaps use the word ‘behaviour’ a lot (people tend to hate that word when it relates to themselves, for some reason).

  20. Say, “I’m so sorry you feel that way”. This one is beautiful as it includes that treasured word, ‘sorry’ but without actually having to take any responsibility for what’s happening/happened. Like, literally none. It’s perfect.

  21. Alternatively, you can side-step an apology by saying, "But that wasn't my intention". If the person acts like there's still some sort of an issue once you've done this, try adding some long explanations for exactly why you didn't mean it at all as they are taking it.

  22. Once you’ve administered as many as you wish, or seem appropriate, of the above tips – and the recipient may be showing signs of emotion e.g. becoming angry, upset, tearful and/or indignant, you can end with a mild, wide-eyed, "Gosh, why are you so angry?" Maybe add, in a serious and kindly tone, "You have to learn to use a calmer tone when you talk to people if you want them to listen to you", or even "Now, don’t forget to use your words" (this is perfect if they’re incoherently lost in a meltdown at this point).

    Two parents arguing with an annoyed-looking girl.

  23. Or – perhaps even more effective (but this one’s only for experts!), you can say, in guru-like tones, "It’s veeery good to get your emotions out", and put your arm around them. If they’re resistant to your affection you can act puzzled, hurt, and 'concerned' (but make sure it's clear to everyone you're really worried about them, and that this isn't about you at all).

  24. If you are a public sort of a person, you could go and share your version of events with your friends, acquaintances, and/or on social media. Just remember not to talk about how you feel in terms of being angry, hurt, or sad (those words are too direct and personal - they make you look vulnerable). Instead, talk about the wrong that has been done to you, and perhaps explain how are 'disappointed' in the other person, or 'concerned' about them.

  25. Two women talking, in a busy cafe, one looks really horrified and concerned.

  26. When you've effectively won an encounter with a person, it's good to disengage while you're ahead. It’s always very cool to walk away from people who are being highly emotive – it makes them look really bad and upsets them even more (if that’s possible). You, on the other hand, get to come out of it feeling super cool and superior.

What's in it for me?

Besides nominal winning, and coming away from encounters with a superiority and a (rather isolating) rightness? Okay... nothing. Nothing you'd really want anyway. The bind is that without taking responsibility - for one's feelings and for one's impact on others - there's no vulnerability. And without vulnerability there's no connection. And without connection, there's no love.

At which point we might ask ourselves, why are we alive?

On a grander scale

While you may be innocent of some, or even all, of the 'winning' strategies listed above, you may have noticed a pattern in all of this. As a society, we have a strong tendency to use neat little tricks like these when we wish to a) maintain a status quo that is (in this moment and situation) in our favour, and b) not take any personal responsibility for anything that’s happening. Indeed, you may have noticed some public figures, even politians, using them. Which does not bode well!

In effect, we’re looking at a whole bunch of sneaky little mechanisms that together form a foundation part of our current societal philosophy. But as individuals, we're all-too-often completely unaware we're even using them (indeed, speaking for myself, we may react with total horror when it first dawns on us that... perhaps we do, sometimes). Why can't we see this? Because, well, everyone does it! It's like a big winning-fest where, in any given situation and without us really being aware of how it happened, the weakest end up at the bottom. And silenced.

When we dig deeper than the mere winning of any one encounter, it becomes clear that the sum effect, on a grander scale, of all of these mechanisms we're using is to avoid change. Or, to be more precise, to avoid any changes which would be in the favour of the marginalised, the vulnerable, and those without a voice.

And indeed, change is scary! We may even find ourselves (should we become aware, stop taking part, and perhaps even advocate for change) on the side of the least power, influence and societal approval. (Gasp!)

So, next time we’re asked, “Why is there so much wrong - why's there so much inequality, injustice and exploitation in the world?” we may be able to more truthfully respond. The answer may be something along the lines of, “Because we're all fearful, protecting ourselves, and full of conditioning and unconscious responses that uphold the status quo and make sure those of us with any power at all (in any given situation), keep it."

"And," (we could add), "We are all complicit.”

Woman with umbrella, walking away

  • Books

    On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, Danya Ruttenberg
    No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn
    Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Marshall B. Rosenberg
    Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble
    Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy