The Last Word
My son is officially a tween. At 12, we have more than enough interactions for me to write blogs about. This week, and every week, one of our heated exchanges was about the mess that sits at the threshold of his room. I give myself some credit because I have decided not to fight the battles regarding the cleanliness of his room. While I believe that it should meet the basic standard of not being a fire hazard, he finds more comfort in covering every surface with a project or piece of clothing. Ok. We can agree to disagree here. And even asking him to clean up things that he leaves around other parts of the house is pretty futile, too, so the system that works best for me is just collecting his stuff and placing it neatly by his bedroom door. Folded laundry, a book that was left in the kitchen, the train remote control that I rescued from between the sofa cushions.
On a daily basis, I find something that Ben has left behind and I place it in front of his room. He can’t miss the pile, yet somehow, it sits there for countless days, until I eventually can’t hold my tongue any longer and I demand that it be removed. The back and forth between us follows the same pattern. I make claims of having been very patient. He makes claims of not seeing it. I indicate that it is his responsibility. He indicates that if I really thought that way I wouldn’t care what happens to it. I retort that if he could just move things 3 feet into the room, all would be fine. He declares that I can move it three feet if it makes me so happy. And on it goes. And never, ever, will I allow him to get the last word. The last comment. The last point to make. The last word - during this discussion and so many others - is so important to me. It took my husband calling me out for me to realize that I was a “last worder”. I had to be the final thought and period on any argument, especially with Ben.
Why does it matter who gets the last word? Why do we feel better when we can say that our thought was the last one registered before the argument ended? What is it about having our say last that makes us feel so - justified? Why does it feel like we “win” if the last word belongs to us?
The last word is our way of saying that our point of view is more important, more valid, maybe even the only way you should think about something moving forward. The last word feels so good, too. The other person can’t refute or add more. It’s done. Game over.
The last word allows us to believe that we have gained the upper hand in the conversation by dictating when the discussion is over. It gives us a sense of control and/or power over the other parties because we get to say when the talking is done. (It’s after we have finished.) And when the discussion is between people of differing status (parent/child, teacher/student, boss/employee), getting in that last word often feels like a right. The person in power is seemingly in the right by offering that final argument.
Is it really the last word that we seek or the loudest word? Is it really that last important thought that drives us to keep talking to the end or is it that we can’t stand to have the final thoughts of others lingering in our head after the conversation is long over? Who are we trying to convince with the last word - someone else, or ourselves?
That last word seems to be about us, not the discussion at hand or even the merits of such discussion. We want to be heard and validated, and in many cases, we do want to be told that we are correct and that we have won the discussion with our brilliant talking points. But rarely do any of those things actually happen. I can’t remember a time when I had a heated discussion that ended with someone conceding “Oh, that was a great point you made at the end. I am now rethinking my whole point of view.” It just doesn’t happen.
One problem is thinking about disagreements as having winners or losers in the first place. If it were a sanctioned university debate among my public speaking classmates, there is definitely a reason to make sure that last word counts, as there is indeed a winner and a loser. But in the regular world and for practical purposes, no one wins. Even IF you happen to be right, which is probably about 50-50 no matter the topic or person. Often, I truly feel like a loser for arguing with my son about something so - so - stupid. Yeah, I can admit it after the fact. Destroying my relationship with my son over books in the hallway is pretty stupid - last word be damned. Last words can actually be so damaging. Less likely to be thought through and reasoned, rattled off after being worn out by the discussion, it seems we should be extra careful with what we utter at the end. It has the potential to derail our whole point, or worse, the relationship as a whole.
Another problem I can identify as a “last worder” is what it says about me. The image of being someone who doesn’t listen, or only wants to make a point, or can’t allow someone else to be right, or just doesn’t have the grace to stop talking. Frankly, I don’t want to be any of those things. And I need to stay mindful of how much I am communicating above and beyond the actual last words that are said.
I can admit that I am a work in progress. I am better about letting things go than I used to be but not always as self-aware as I need to be when this affliction strikes, usually when I’m in the midst of a heated discussion with my son, who is all too happy to spar with me to the death. The last word is less important than the exchange. The last word is irrelevant to the greater discussion at hand. And other than making myself feel better, what does having the last word actually accomplish? Maybe I could figure out how to address the issue better so we don’t fall into our Groundhog Day argument time and time again. Such a better use of my time, don’t you think?
As I write this, Ben’s stuff is sitting in the hall again. A fresh pile of laundry covering the items that collected over the course of the week. Right or wrong, I will try to say what I need to say and then move on. It won’t be easy. Getting the last word has been my habit for my son’s lifetime. And his stuff doesn’t belong in the hallway. Because I said so. And I’ll say it again. And again….until the hallway is clear. Because I’m the mother. And I’m right about this. Because the hallway does not belong to you….and…..and….here we go again.