RETORT: to reply to, usually in a sharp or retaliatory way


There are techniques in most things.  Including arguments.

  • Learning to argue without resorting to physical acts is one of them.
  • Listening to each other is another.
  • Maintaining a respectful distance helps.
  • Avoiding dredging up incidents from long ago prevents defensiveness.
  • Agreeing to disagree is a good conclusion.

Having a healthy argument is possible.   For some people it is a lot of fun. It is, perhaps, more possible between people who are not intimately related, but it is possible to argue in a respectful and non-defensive manner.  It is the kind of thing that can happen over a table in Starbucks when the topic turns to politics, sports, or religion.  It is not an “end of the earth” moment; it is just a disagreement between two people that does not end in pain or agony.

It is in the context of such a disagreement that a retort may (or will!) occur that adds some fuel to the argument.   It is when one of the persons says something that is strong or pointed and the other person snaps back with a sharp response that is meant to cripple the argument.  Example:

Phillip:  I have never said something to a woman which is degrading or offensive.

Eloise:  Maybe that’s because you  have never had  a serious conversation with a woman to begin with!”

The retort is meant to tell Phillip that he doesn’t treat women with the respect that comes from acknowledging their ability to have a serious conversation.  Eloise is making the point that Phillip sees women as unintelligent and incapable of carrying on an intelligent conversation.

Many times a retort is an almost automatic rejoinder that slips out in the heat of argument.   Sometimes it can be devastating, revealing the true feelings of the person speaking.  In this case, Eloise obviously harbors a belief that Phillip sees himself as better than women, and has probably never told him that before.  In the heat of battle it flies out as a retort that can be shocking, destructive and…above all else…revealing of a flaw in their relationship.

In a formal debate a retort is a sharp response by the second person to an accusation on the part of the first person.   It is meant to be shocking.  It is intended to knock the first person off (his) agenda.   That’s a legitimate and respected action in a formal debate.   But the kinds of arguments or heated discussions that most people have in the course of daily life are not meant to be a win-lose battle.

People argue because they feel strongly about something.  Granted, if the argument is about a spouse having discovered infidelity on the part of their husband or wife, it is not just an academic thing.  It is heated by feelings of anger, disappointment, or betrayal.   Retorts, in that case, are meant to be weapons of destruction.

But good friends may enjoy political debate, and would feel a loss if the debate became so nasty as to destroy the relationship.  Retorts, therefore, may have to carry some degree of humor with them.  The problem, however, is that  retorts may fly out without the time for cognitive assessment.  They can be followed by an apology for having spoken so quickly.  Sometimes that helps.  Sometimes it doesn’t.


Image Credit:  Njoki Chege

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