Screwtape: What does the patient have coming up this week?
Wormwood: Well, the patient hasn’t been doing well at work lately—I should say, rather, that he has been embracing his freedom and autonomy—and it has come to the attention of some of his more responsible coworkers.
Screwtape: The autonomy and freedom part is good. Tell me more about these responsible coworkers, though. They sound like miserable fellows.
Wormwood: Well, this week one of his coworkers is going to tell him that he needs to get his act together.
Screwtape: Oh, that’s not good.
Screwtape: What sort of things is this friend going to tell him to do?
Wormwood: Shape up. Come to work on time, not look so hungover every Monday morning, stop being quite so flirtatious with the secretary.
Screwtape: This coworker sounds like a bad influence, but you have a number of options.
Wormwood: I knew you could help.
Screwtape: If your patient doesn’t like the message his coworker gives, he should complain about the medium.
Wormwood: What do you mean?
Screwtape: If the coworker tells him to shape up via email, your patient should respond that a phone call would have been more appropriate. If the coworker tells him via phone call, your patient should tell him an in-person meeting would have been more appropriate. If the coworker tells him in person, your patient should say that he “feels cornered.”
Wormwood: Excellent. What if complaining about the medium doesn’t provide enough leverage to fully disregard the coworker’s warning?
Screwtape: Complain about the tone of the message. The patient should say it’s too shrill, too aggressive, too vague, too patronizing, too familiar… too something. Whatever happens, you don’t want the patient actually engaging with the content of the message. Tone is a great way of leveraging room to avoid the message.
Wormwood: Interesting. What if the tone is perfect?
Screwtape: Timing. Complain about the timing of the message. Tell your patient to say, “This should have been brought to my attention months ago.” Between complaints about the medium, the tone, and the time, a full eighty percent of thoughtful criticism can be avoided.
Wormwood: That still leaves twenty percent, though.
Screwtape: There’s more you can do, though. If medium, tone, and timing don’t work, leverage position. Is this coworker your patient’s superior?
Wormwood: No. They’re about at the same level.
Screwtape: Then it’s not really his coworker’s place to offer him this sort of advice, is it?
Wormwood: That’s good. That’s very good.
Screwtape: If the advice his coworker gives is personal, have your patient protest it should be more impersonal. If the advice is impersonal and objective, have your patient protest it should be more personal and humane.
Wormwood: Now, what if my patient offered this same coworker very similar advice years earlier?
Screwtape: Hum. Well, complaining about medium, tone, and timing are very modern ways of diverting blame, but if none of those work, you’ll have to revert back to the classics.
Wormwood: Remind me of—
Screwtape: You haven’t kept up with your studies, have you?
Wormwood: My apologies.
Screwtape: I’ve always had a lot of luck with, “Nobody is perfect.”
Wormwood: That seems so brief, though. So short.
Screwtape: You have to fill it out, of course.
Screwtape: “Nobody is perfect, but I think my accomplishments outweigh my idiosyncrasies. I’ve done a lot of good around here, very little of which has gotten any recognition. It is only my faults that draw comment, it seems, but it is much easier to complain than to praise. If we only focus on people’s struggles and challenges, though, who could possibly stand up to critique?”
Wormwood: Wow. Masterful. I like your terms. Idiosyncrasies. Struggles. Challenges.
Screwtape: Getting human beings to replace the words “temptations” and “sins” with “struggles” was one of our greatest recent triumphs.
Wormwood: The more I think about it, the more I like “Nobody is perfect.”
Screwtape: I know, right? It’s one of the most perfectly passive-aggressive maxims imaginable. “Nobody is perfect” subtly implies the person criticizing you is demanding perfection, which all humans take to be unreasonable.
Wormwood: You said, “one of the most perfectly passive-aggressive maxims,” but is there anything even close to it?
Screwtape: I also like, “Is this a hill you’re willing to die on?”
Wormwood: I’ve heard that one before, but it never registered as passive-aggression.
Screwtape: Seriously? “Is this a hill you’re willing to die on?” makes your opponent out to be a complete fanatic who is ready to douse himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in the public square to prove the most trivial of points.
Wormwood: But there are some humans that are willing to do that, though.
Screwtape: What’s funny is just how often the people who ask, “Is this a hill you’re willing to die on?” are the very ones who would bring about the “death” of the person they’re asking.
Wormwood: I don’t get it.
Screwtape: “Is this a hill you’re willing to die on?” is a clever question, but it has an even more clever answer. No one ever uses that answer, though.
Wormwood: Which is what?
Screwtape: “Is this a hill you’re willing to kill me on?”
Wormwood: Oh, that’s good. That’s too good. It would be very helpful if no one ever learned that one. It reveals passive-aggression for what it is.
Screwtape: Yes. Well, have you got a plan forming for the patient?
Wormwood: I do, but I have one more question.
Screwtape: Of course.
Wormwood: Medium, tone, timing… You said all these things were a distraction from the criticism. I understand that. And yet, do they not matter at all? Aren’t we generally pleased when people are rude and dismissive and impatient and late?
Screwtape: Yes, but remember that it is far easier to distract people than to deceive them. The reason why complaining about medium, tone, and timing is so effective is that these things do matter, but they do not matter nearly as much as we lead people to believe. It is possible to blow these lesser concerns so out of proportion that the heart of the matter is lost, which is what we want. It doesn’t matter how you get your patient to dismiss the criticism of his coworker so long as you do it—perhaps you do it with lies, but perhaps you do it with sleight of hand and a few small, shiny truths.
Wormwood: I see.
Screwtape: The other reason why medium, tone, and timing are such effective complaints is that they’re slippery and highly debatable. You said your patient was regularly coming into work hungover?
Screwtape: That sounds like a fact to me. Keep the conversation away from facts. Medium, tone, and timing are matters of interpretation, which means your patient can debate them endlessly. If your patient tells his coworker, “You really should have spoken to me in person instead of sending an email,” the coworker will almost certainly argue that sending an email was appropriate. Let them argue about that awhile. Let them argue about it forever, if they like. Then let them argue about tone awhile. You can’t really prove someone’s tone was dismissive, can you? You can’t prove it was patronizing, can you? Of course, not, but you can try and try and try, and the longer you try, the less time you have to talk about the real issue. And it doesn’t seem entirely senseless to keep trying because tone matters, even if it doesn’t matter that much. It’s the fact it matters just a little that makes it the perfect distraction.