Ask Amy: The Art Of The Graceful Comeback

Martha Stewart created a stir last week when she critiqued Rachel Ray. But many say the prize goes to Ray for her savvy and graceful response. Syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson talks about the art of the eloquent comeback.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And domestic icon Martha Stewart created a bit of a stir last week. In an interview for ABC's �Nightline,� she trashed TV cooking star Rachel Ray.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. MARTHA STEWART (Host, �The Martha Stewart Show�): She professed that she cannot bake. She just did a new cookbook which is just a re-edit of a lot of her old recipes. And that's not good enough for me. I mean, I really want to write a book that is a unique and lasting thing, something that will really fulfill a need in someone's library. So, she's different. She's more of an entertainer than she is - with a bubbly personality than she is a teacher like me.

CONAN: Stewart's target then won kudos for what many described as a most graceful comeback. Why would it make me mad, Rachel Ray said. Her skill set is far beyond mine. That's simply the reality of it. That doesn't mean that what I do isn't important, too. I just think she's being honest. When it comes to producing a beautiful, perfect high-quality meal, I'd rather eat Martha's than mine too.

Such a perfectly prepared skewer can satisfy on a lot of levels. If you've issued or received an especially graceful comeback, give us a call. The phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now as she does from time to time, Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated �Ask Amy� column for the Chicago Tribune, with us from the studios at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Hey, Amy.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And lots of readers ask you for appropriate comebacks for situations where they feel they've been wronged. Well, why shouldn't we just go for the jugular?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, and you know one thing I do on my column is I often provide people with little scripts. And the thing about the perfect comeback is it's something you usually think of the next day.

CONAN: Yeah, or at 3 o'clock in the morning, you wake up�

Ms. DICKINSON: Right.

CONAN: �bolt up right in bed, that's what I should have said.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. So one little line that sometimes I give to people is, you know what, tomorrow I'm going to think of the perfect thing to say to you.

CONAN: And save it until tomorrow, or maybe the moment's passed and just savor the thought that you had in your head when you finally did think of it.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, and actually, I think that when a person is assaulted like that�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: �verbally, it's so important when you're receiving that - it's pretty shocking but it's really important to stop and think, okay, what do I want out of this encounter? Do I really want to have a fight at the Thanksgiving table or wherever it is? Do I really want to mix it up with this person? In my case, I'm somebody who people come after from time to time publicly and privately�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: �and I most often think, I really don't want to mix it up.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: And so I do, you know, I always counsel people wait, reflect, deflect if you can. And if you need to say something, have it be so open-ended, even a little bit on the kind side, which is certainly what Rachel Ray did, and have it be so open-ended that if you need to come back tomorrow or the day after with a zinger, you're open.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I don't know the exact circumstances of when she was asked this and how long she had to respond, but it's possible she may have had the chance to sit down and think about it for a moment before she responded. And if it had been an instant reaction, it might not have been - it might have been more jugular.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, and actually I thought of a perfect comeback on Rachel Ray's behalf. Hers was delicious, as we say.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: But a snappy comeback might have been, well, I guess what Martha Stewart said was not a good thing. You know�

CONAN: Mm-hmm

Ms. DICKINSON: �that's like Martha Stewart's catchphrase.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. DICKINSON: Because one of the things I sometimes suggest to people, and I've done, is I'll say, wow, that was sort of mean. You know, like you just honestly say, gosh, that was pretty mean.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, you're being, like, out there.

CONAN: We have this email from Dan in Reno, Nevada. I used to work as a waiter at a fairly nice restaurant in San Diego. One night, while taking an order for a party of eight or so, a man was ordering, give me this, give me that. His wife pointedly said, please, to remind him to use his manners. He said please less than graciously then looked up at me and he said, I bet a lot of people don't say please, do they? No, I said, and a lot of times when they do they don't really mean it. I said it with a smile on my face and a pleasant tone of voice. There was no way he could complain. His wife handled the bill and left me a great tip.

Ms. DICKINSON: I love that. I love it. And exactly, that waiter was being very honest. It was such an open-ended remark. He was answering a direct question. It was such an open-ended remark that it could be taken any number of ways and that's perfect.

CONAN: A lot of us strive for that, you know, great Winston Churchill-type putdown that, you know, you see all the quotes, yes, but I'll be sober in the morning, that sort of thing. And, you know, but a few of us are capable of that style of wit. And if you're going for the rapier and set up with the axe handle instead, it can be pretty devastating.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And of course, one thing any of us could say was, yes, but you'll be sober in the morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, we sometimes need to really stop and think about the circumstances. And as I say, you have to really think very quickly, what do I want to happen next? Because really, you've had something lobbed at you and how do you want to handle it? Do you want to catch it, do you want to throw it to the ground, do you want to throw it back? You really have a choice.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. We're with Amy Dickinson, �Ask Amy.� We're talking about gracious comebacks. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Keith is on the line calling from Tempe.

KEITH (Caller): Oh, hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Keith.

KEITH: Pleasure to be on.

CONAN: Thanks.

KEITH: I had a situation at work where I was complaining about a coworker to a friend of mine about how I had given her some paperwork to fill out for me. And it has been like a week ago and I was waiting for her to get back. And I was just really grilling on, you know, about her to a friend of mine. And a friend of hers was in the cube next door and overheard the conversation and kind of filled her in on the whole thing. And I get back to my desk - by the time I walked back, all the paperwork is there with a little note that was her telling me what a great worker I am and what a, you know, how hard I work and how great it is to work with me. And it just completely destroyed me because I spent that whole time complaining about her and�

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: �and then I come back with a thank you letter, basically. And so it, you know, I was not expecting that.

Ms. DICKINSON: I have to ask, Keith, what did you learn there?

KEITH: I learned that she's much better at office politics than I am.

Ms. DICKINSON: There you go. That's a real �Dilbert� kind of situation when the person in the next cubicle overhears you. But one of the things - I spent some time in Tennessee at one point and I loved how people had this very sort of innocuous and very pleasant way of responding to just about anything. They would look at you and say, well, I appreciate you. I mean, what�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: That's sort of what she was doing. She was saying, regardless, I'm aware, but I appreciate you. And what can we do?

KEITH: Yeah. It's very had to do that. It's - you know, you want to come back with your own, well, you also were late on the job for me and you're in no place to complain. But this completely diffused me. You know, I have nothing to say to that. I just kind of put my head down and walk away, you know? I feel bad and�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, as long as you feel bad, that's the important part.

KEITH: Exactly.

CONAN: All right. Keith, thanks very much for the call.

KEITH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have. This is from Sarah in Portland. My favorite retort was from a young lady being harassed on public transportation by a man who continued to refer to her as babe, honey, et cetera. She turned to him and said politely, I don't believe you know me well enough to call me sweetheart. He was simply too dumbfounded to responded and left her alone after that. Well, that's a situation a lot of women find themselves in.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yeah. And if - and that actually is a lovely response. It also diffused the situation right away. And - but what I like, too, is the best comebacks are witnessed by someone else, you know, who then goes on to tell the tale. And I was doing a little research yesterday on comebacks and there are some comebacks that are sort of mythical, sort of like urban legend comebacks, you know?

CONAN: Oh, give us some examples.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, one of them that seemed to fly around the Internet a lot is - was - it's nothing more than a dirty joke, which has a perfect comeback within in it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: And Neal, I'm not going to repeat it.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. DICKINSON: But, I think of one that I seem to remember witnessing - I certainly learned about it. Have you ever heard of this one between Orson Welles and Robert Blake?

CONAN: No. But�

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. They were both�

CONAN: �very different people. Yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: I'm going to get it wrong. But they were on a talk show together. I'm thinking it was �The Tonight Show.�

CONAN: Could have been Dick Cavett in those days. But anyway, yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: It could be. And Robert Blake made a comment, of course, about Orson Welles' weight. He was very, very overweight�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: �certainly most of his life. And Orson Welles thought, he turned around, he looked around, and then he said, well - something to the effect of, well, sir, with great effort, I could perhaps be thin, but you will always be very stupid. It was something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: And that really sticked in my mind as this, like, incredibly sort of sophisticated put-down to what was a very open assault and affront.

CONAN: That - sort of demanded some sort of a comeback of some sort.

Ms. DICKINSON: It did. It was just a blanket insult. And I hope that someone will call in with the perfect, you know, the quote there because it really was quite delicious.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Stephanie. Stephanie with us from Madison, in Wisconsin.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi there. I'm going to make this fast because my cell phone is losing power. I want to say, I'm a person with a disability which has gotten worse. I've been going blind, basically. And I used to feel that I had to come back with a comeback. And I'm pretty quick witted. And - or somebody insulted me, I would brood. If I didn't come back with a comeback, I would brood about it.

I have learned, a lot of times the best thing you can do is, A, keep your mouth shut, and you can bring more attention to the behavior by doing that, you know? Just nonverbal, but keep your mouth shut. Or kill them with kindness. And I'm going to hang up and let you respond.

CONAN: All right, Stephanie. Thanks very much.

Ms. DICKINSON: I completely agree. Silence is so, so powerful. And this is something a lot of us learned. I certainly feel like I learned it when I was a parent of a young child. Like when my daughter would do something I didn't like, instead of responding at all, I would just get quiet. And that's a very powerful tool that all of us have if only we can manage it. Another thing is to just say, wow, oh.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: You sure said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Or perhaps try to master the withering stare.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right.

CONAN: We're talking�

Ms. DICKINSON: My daughter claims sometimes that - she's like, mom, stop yelling at me. I said, I'm not doing anything. She's like, you're yelling with your eyes.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Dickinson, who of course writes the syndicated column �Ask Amy� for the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. And let's see if we can go next to Jim. Jim with us from Tucson.

JIM (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, Jim.

JIM: This is a comeback that I've used many times when I get involved in a political discussion. Somebody veers off on to a tangent that I don't happen to agree with. When they pause, I say, yes, there are people that feel that way. And it stops them every time.

CONAN: By seeming to put them in the margins.

JIM: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. And that works every time?

JIM: Well, it has for me.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks, Jim, very much.

JIM: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. That's an approach, too, that - it edges on sarcasm.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. But basically what you're doing is you're reflecting the person's sort of attitude back to them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: And I think that's very effective. It's - but what you're doing is you're just acknowledging. You're saying, well, you said that. I'm still here, you know?

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. It's - most of us are flummoxed. I mean, you know, we're reduced to playground behavior. I'm rubber and you're glue, you know, that sort of thing.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And, you know, a lot of stuff is going to happen around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow. And I would just urge people to really take a breath, think about the context and choose to wait. You know, I always tell myself, if I wait now, I can still launch my little grenade later if I choose. And most - I mean, 98 percent of the time, I'm glad that I've waited.

CONAN: Revenge, unlike mashed potatoes, a dish best served cold.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Amy, I have to ask you, there is a fairly well-known example of this happening in your professional life. This was shortly after you started writing your column.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's true, yes.

CONAN: The daughter of your predecessor took, well, what could only be described as an open shot at you.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. She really came after me, and basically saying, you know, my column replaced Ann Lander's column, and Ann Lander's daughter didn't like that. And she really launched a pretty gratuitous, you know, I guess you'd call it an attack. And I, again, like Rachel Ray, I had a day, you know, I got to think about what I would say in response. I was asked to respond. And I basically said, well, she's a loyal daughter. And good for her, she's very loyal. I mean, that was the best I could do. I think I also said that was a little mean.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You did.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. But I felt pretty satisfied in my response. And that's not the only time someone has sort of come after me publicly, and I really learned from that first time because I felt that was quite successful. I felt good about what I'd said. And that's really important, you know, tomorrow, how are you going to feel about what you said?

CONAN: And you could live with that down the road. It might not have been the very first thought that crossed your mind, though.

Ms. DICKINSON: Not the very first, no. But no one will ever know what that was, Neal.

CONAN: Okay. And we're not going to ask you this on this radio program - much. Anyway, as you think about - well, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to - this is Pamela. Pamela with us from Mexico Beach in Florida.

PAMELA (Caller): Good morning, or good afternoon. How are you?

CONAN: Good afternoon. Very well.

PAMELA: My best retort was when a fellow actor was making snide comments. And finally she finished and I went, wow, would you like a saucer of milk with that?

(Soundbite of meowing)

PAMELA: But it worked. She was stunned and I had an opportunity to make a graceful exit. So�

CONAN: Oh, well, and always an actor or actresses - you have to know when to pivot on the heel and leave.

PAMELA: That's right. Exit stage left.

CONAN: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Pamela, thanks very much. Are you appearing in anything at the moment?

PAMELA: Not at the moment. Thanksgiving, yes. I'm appearing at Thanksgiving.

CONAN: All right. Well, have a�

PAMELA: With a turkey and some cranberry sauce.

CONAN: Well - and I'm sure you're going to take the star role.

PAMELA: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you for letting me talk. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Here's an email we have from Linda. Reporter: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization? Mr. Gandhi: I think it would be a very good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's also the famous football coach who said - asked, what did you think of your team's execution, he said, I'm in favor of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: But you know, those are both super clever, wonderful, memorable responses to questions. Those weren't really comebacks to insults, which is in a whole other thing, because you - when somebody insults you, you're pretty hot, you're pretty excited, yeah.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And that's when you get down - am not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Amy, thanks so much for being with us. Tomorrow, are you having Thanksgiving with the whole family?

Ms. DICKINSON: I am. We're going to have a really peaceful, lovely, lovely time.

CONAN: Where none of this is going to be at issue at all, I'm sure.

Ms. DICKINSON: Not at all.

CONAN: �Ask Amy� is - appears in the syndication for the Chicago Tribune. Its author is Amy Dickinson, a regular guest on TALK OF THE NATION, with us today from the studios at Cornell University.

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