Note to teachers: This activity should be done after completing Use of English 6-2 Noun Clauses.

The Argument Culture: Say goodbye to manners

By Anne McTavish

Anne McTavish

Anne McTavish on a profile picture.

Why have people kissed good manners goodbye and begun acting so rude to each other these days? Good question. One facet of the answer can be found in the communication breakdown that is a result of our society's argument culture.

Deborah Tannen, in The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words, describes the argument culture as "a pervasive warlike atmosphere" and "an atmosphere of unrelenting contention" that "rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done." Forget good manners, arguing is war!

These are not descriptions of good manners or an intellectual examination of a challenging situation. They describe people determined not to lose or even to come in second, people who think the only way to win is by destroying their opponent. It's war. And in war, losing is not an option. War may be frightening, but losing is terrifying.

Arguments in an argument culture are not the formal arguments of legal briefs or of logical debates. They are more likely to be verbal brawls that wind up in a full-fledged communication breakdown. Arguments are treated as if they're miniature wars.

People don't discuss a topic; they try to minimize and destroy each other. Sometimes this is done "politely" as in, "that idea was discredited decades ago." More often, though, speakers eschew good manners and verbally attack those who don't share their beliefs or opinions. Or they don't let others finish their point, loudly interrupting them mid-sentence. Does this sound all-too-painfully familiar?

Talk shows - whether on radio, television or cable - allow this to happen because it makes for "good" and "interesting" shows. Poppycock! These verbal car crashes might mesmerize us, but we don't listen to what they're saying, just how they're saying it.

We take our cues as to how to behave from other people. We watch what they do and then repeat it.  Think about the last time you went to a function where you didn’t know most of the people there. What did you do when you got there? You looked around and saw what the other people were doing. You took your cue about what to do from what they were doing.

When we watch television or a movie or a video, we're not only entertaining ourselves with the story, we're also learning how people behave, whether they're real people or fictional characters. We watch and learn.

When we watch the verbal brawls on talk shows, we're also learning an "accepted" way of discussing an issue.

We learn argument is war. So when we encounter a different opinion, a different viewpoint or something unexpected, the metaphor "argument is war" jumps into action. We treat everything we see, hear and think as if we were in a war. We go to battle, defending our position and attacking our opponent. That's not a courteous discussion; that's a verbal brawl.


Couple arguing in a car.

Words are containers for meaning. We choose words to convey to others what we're thinking. When "argument is war" is active, we use words as weapons. We choose words that are more like bullets or poisoned arrows than gestures of good manners. We choose words that wound others and that leave a bitter taste in our mouths. Our tongues become toxic - not only to others, but also to ourselves.

So how do we neutralize argument is war? We start by looking out for the telltale signs that "argument is war" is at work.

Has a viewpoint or opinion fossilized into a position? Are we defending that new position as if our life depended on it? Is our voice louder? Do our words have an explosive effect on our listener (and not in a positive sense) and cause a complete communication breakdown?

If so, take a deep breath. Take a quick break from the conversation to replace argument is war to "argument is a journey of exploration."

We watch what we say and see. If we see that something we've said hurts someone or leaves a sour taste, we can decide not to say that again. If we're watching television or listening to the radio and a verbal brawl breaks out, we can easily change the channel.

We watch what others say. When you see or hear someone handling a tricky situation well, add what they've done to your repertoire.

As you neutralize "argument is war", you move out of the war zone. You move from "unrelenting contention" to sporadic episodes of contention.

Good manners return, and peace starts moving into your life. And that's a worthwhile goal.

The Argument Culture: Say goodbye to manners, from Troy Media.


Using what you have learned, complete the activity.