‘I love your dress.’
‘Thanks. My sister was buried in it.’
That is a positive putdown. Imagine the scenario. The gender traitor, the woman, who you know is going to declare to the world, she has never seen such poor taste the moment your back is turned, has just praised your dress. Your answer leaves her speechless, and you have made it to the sanctuary of the photocopying room, before she has worked out on how many levels your response doesn’t work. Bewilderment means a brilliant result. You shut her up without being rude and probably, in her confusion, she will forget to bad-press you, once you have left the room. It was a great positive putdown.
The educationalist Jason Bangbala identified the process. He taught me to manage behaviour by disarming the disruptive pupil, with a putdown that silences the pupil, but leaves him or her with self-respect. The teacher has the last word, but in such a way that the challenging behaviour is quelled, not exacerbated. No gauntlet is thrown down! The point is to be positive about the event, before delivering a line to defuse the situation, and establish your authority. The putdown line works best if it is slightly confusing. Then some element of the answer will only work at a subconscious level and won’t lead to immediate conflict escalation. In any conflict, never do what the opposition wants. The tormentor is intent on causing offence, disruption and creating strife. Don’t be offended, disrupted, and if you enter the conflict, it is because you know how to pacify.
Example 2. I get black fingers when I do certain tasks, such as peeling potatoes. I should wear gloves, but can’t be bothered. Next day a pupil challenges me, with a voice of contempt, and still working up to a confrontation.
‘What have you done to your fingers? They are disgusting.’
Fair comment, even from a boy who hasn’t cleaned his finger nails since his mum stopped doing it for him. Do I tell the truth – the potato story? I tell a disarming lie instead.
‘My Harley blew a head gasket and I fixed it last night,’ I explain.
‘Wow! Come over here lads. Sir’s Harley blew a head gasket. Look at his hands.’
That went rather well, I think. My disgusting fingers have been elevated to hero-Harley status, rather like the facial scars swordsmen used to cultivate, to show they have cheated death.
Example 3. Life can be more difficult if the pupil is just downright rude.
Pupil: ‘Your breath stinks.’
Teacher: ‘Sorry about that. I dined at that new 5 star joint. You know! The incredibly expensive one. They got carried away with the garlic. Have your mum and dad taken you?’
This is the nastiest situation to deal with. The teacher thinks his/her breath isn’t offensive, but it is impossible to be sure. Maybe that strange herbal tea at break time hadn’t been a good idea. Whatever, the pupil response was inexcusable. There are other ways.
Rather like the black-fingers episode, the defender elevates the argument way beyond the attacker’s experience. At the same time, the defender also points out that the pupil has never put food on his own plate, is dependent on adults for survival and ought to tread carefully.
Example 4. Create confusion, rather like the ‘sister’s dress’ example. A friend delivered this disarming beauty. She spotted huge red onions in a grocer’s store, went in and bought one onion for a display.
Assistant (waspishly): ‘One onion! Is that all you want? (With derision) Shall I put it in a bag for you?’
Friend (politely): ‘Don’t bother. I’m going to eat it as soon as I am outside.’
This one is magnificently complex. The assistant is left speechless – always good as there can be no argument. Then, the idea that the opponent can eat a huge raw onion, elevates her to some super-woman status. The assistant is wondering if she wants to mix it with such a monster. Finally, is the raw onion a metaphor for something the assistant has yet to comprehend? That is always a great coup de grace. Leave your opponent with a subconscious that is flashing up warning messages. It is like the frog who knows it has been spotted by a snake. ‘Get it over with,’ the frog’s body language says as it quivers on the stone, powerless to make a leap that might save its life. You have reduced the assistant to that frog.
There are problems with the sister and onion episodes. Repeat the scenarios in your mind’s eye. You do run the risk of being declared insane, but that will take time. Your tormentor has to first work through some messy analysis of what is going on. However, the perfect putdown shouldn’t leave you exposed to any comeback. It must leave the tormentor at your mercy. That is why my favourite remains the next one.
Example 5. Sometimes you have to deal with the inexcusable coming out the blue. This is the best, most succinct, most decisive positive putdown on record, heard by Jason Bangbala on a school corridor in Liverpool, delivered by Yozzer, (a common Liverpool nickname), to silence his tormentor, who tries to establish absolute supremacy by claiming to have had sex with Yozzer’s mother. Here, humour disarms the conflict, but silences the aggressor.
Pupil 1 (very loud and triumphant): ‘Hey Yozzer! I shagged yer Mam last night.’
Yozzer (equally loud, but with a bored intonation): ‘I know! She said you were rubbish.’
Thanks to the Write Edge Writing Workshop and Ekta R. Garge for the intitial prompt.