Communication Without Confrontation

Deborah Tannen remembers back several years ago to the time she was invited to speak on a local television show.

As the author of "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (on bestseller lists for nearly four years), she was scheduled to appear on the show with a representative of the men's movement.

No problem there, since nothing in her work is anti-male.

But as the two conversed in the waiting room beforehand, he informed her, "When I get out there, I'm really going to attack you. But don't take it personally. That's why they invite me on, so that's what I'm going to do."

Sure enough, she barely got out two sentences, when the man started to "get" angry. But perhaps even more surprising was that the audience turned vicious, not against the "experts" but against the unsuspecting female guests who were there to talk about their communication problems with their spouses.

This shows one of the most dangerous effects of what Ms. Tannen calls "the argument culture": It creates an atmosphere of animosity that influences all public discourse.

In her new book, "The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue," Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, speaks of a pervasive tendency to approach anything we need to accomplish as a fight between two sides. She examines the media, politics, education, litigation, and more - from aggressive e-mails to war metaphors in headlines to heated confirmation hearings in Congress.

"I'm not opposed to any kind of argument, I'm opposed to 'agonism' or automatic ritual use of opposition. It cuts through all our institutions," Tannen explains during a phone interview. To live in an atmosphere of animosity or unrelenting contention has a "corrosive effect on the individual spirit," she says.

Take the case of the talk show. The goal was argument, not careful listening. As Tannen says, you get heat not light.

"If we think of information shows or information media as entertainment - which is, in a way, what they've become - and think, well everybody likes to watch a fight; it's going to be more interesting if it's a fight. The heat is in the fireworks. They make it interesting to watch. But you're not getting the light - the illumination of insight and understanding. So the goal is to win the argument not to hear or understand what the other person is saying," she says.

"I'm not saying we all have to be nice and polite and never disagree with each other," she reiterates. "On one hand I'm questioning using opposition to accomplish anything we want to accomplish, but also what you might call this ethic of aggression. Criticism is valued; support and praise are sneered at."

Just as dangerous, perhaps, as polarization is the notion that everything automatically has two sides. A classic example of this: Holocaust deniers. Despite the mountains of evidence, some people still claim a legitimate "other side" to the "issue." "If we have this blind devotion that there are always two sides it can get us into trouble," Tannen says.

Where is all this leading us? Says Tannen: "In politics it's leading to a pervasive sense of cynicism, where everyone says 'oh yeah, all the politicians lie, they never do anything for sincere motive, they just want to get ahead and beat the opponent. It's all strategy.'

"In law we're having more and more people turning to litigation to solve problems when it may not be the best way to solve problems.

"With the press we have consumership of news going down, which is very scary because people need to be informed. The ironic thing is in some way it's not saying the press should be less confrontational. It's saying the press should be more confrontational, but they should pick their fights better rather than always being on the attack. A dog that's busy attacking isn't watching," she says.

In her book she concludes, "If you limit your view of a problem to choosing between two sides, you inevitably reject much that is true, and you narrow your field of vision to the limits of those two sides, making it unlikely you'll pull back, widen your field of vision, and discover the paradigm shift that will permit truly new understanding.

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