Deborah Tannen

The Argument Culture, Part I

VTR Date: April 20, 1998

Guest: Tannen, Deborah


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Deborah Tannen
Title: The Argument Culture
VTR: 4/20/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host. And my guest is Deborah Tannen, University Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown, who has joined me here before to discuss — not debate — such earlier bestsellers as her You Just Don’t Understand, and That’s Not What I Meant. Well, today, quite to the point for a program titled “The Open Mind,” we’ll examine Dr. Tannen’s insightful new Random House volume, The Argument Culture, in which she warns that we Americans must indeed move from debate to dialogue in order to blunt, as she writes, “the most dangerous blades of the argument culture.”

But why? Because (and I quote her again) “Our public and private lives are at stake.” Nor is it to challenge Deborah Tannen, which would illustrate what she also defines as “the culture of critique,” that I would now ask my guest to elaborate on what she so much sees at stake here. What is at stake? Why are we in danger?

TANNEN: We are approaching everything in our public discourse as well as our private lives as if it were a metaphorical battle. So if we have a problem we want to solve, we think of it as the debate. “The Affirmative Action debate.” “The abortion debate.” The problem with this is that a debate, when you’re in the debate, just like when you’re in an argument with somebody that you’re close to, you’re not trying to listen to what the other person is saying; you want to win, win the argument, win the debate. So if they say something which you realize has some truth to it, you ignore that. And you wait for the thing that you can really leap on so that you can score a point. We think everything has two sides; no more, no less. Information shows play upon this. They feel that conflict is the most entertaining kind of show. And this encourages them to invite people with the most polarized views possible so that they can fight and have an entertaining show. The problem is we begin to see that issue as defined by those polarized extremes, and think it’s insolvable. Because we don’t realize all that middle ground is really part of the discussion.

Most people are somewhere in the middle. Few people hold those polarized views. But the polarized views are becoming the ones that define the issue, because they are the ones that are invited on the shows to make a lively debate. And people who often comment on shows (I’ve experienced this myself) know that if the producer calls you and asks your opinion, and you say, “Well, I can see this is a complex issue, I can see a few sides to it,” then they don’t want you on the show. They want the most polarized extremes in order to create a food fight on the air.

But it isn’t only the media that I’m talking about in this book. I discuss the press, yes, but also politics, the law, our educational system. And there is a gender component. And I talk about how other cultures approach conflict and settle conflict. I’m not suggesting we can have a world without conflict; I’m saying that we need more constructive ways of managing conflict.

What I’m concerned about when I say “the argument culture,” is an automatic, knee-jerk setting up everything as a debate, thinking opposition is always the best way to truth, when, in many cases, you can get at the truth in a better way by not setting it up as a battle. We have an ethic of aggression now where, if somebody is attacking, we don’t question their motives. That’s great. We respect taking a tough stand. “Compromise” is now like a dirty word.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. You say we have a culture of aggression now. Was it not a culture of aggression before?

TANNEN: Okay, I’m glad you asked that. We have a tremendous history in our culture of opposition leading to truth, and believing that. And, of course, aggression and opposition has always been there. We have a two-party system in government. They’re opponents. Our law system is an adversarial system. That’s always been there. And the press has an adversarial relationship with the government. I would never change that.

When I say the ethic of aggression is getting worse now, what we have now is a more knee-jerk use of attack, and more ratcheting up of animosity so that it gets in the way.

What’s my evidence for this? Let’s take politics. In 1994… In 1996, 14 of our most respected, most moderate, most experienced Senators voluntarily decided not to seek re-election. These are men and women with experience who, they’re in a position to know. And many of them made the statement: part of the reason is that partisanship had become so out of hand that they just didn’t feel they could get anything done. Senator Byrd of West Virginia made a statement in the Congressional Record. “After 37 years in the Senate,” he said, “this last year is something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.” The level of rancor, the level of invective hurled at the opposition party and at the president is something unlike what he’s seen before.

HEFFNER: How do you account for this? Not just for the refusal of many political leaders to stay in the race, but for everything else that you see as ratcheting up?

TANNEN: Yes. And, again, we see it in all areas. In our private lives, the feeling that if you’re not being confrontational and argumentative you’re somehow, you should be ashamed of yourself. If it’s conciliatory, that’s self-effacing, and you shouldn’t be taking that stance. In the law we have an adversarial… I’m just going to give a few more examples and then say why, where I think it comes from. We have an adversarial legal system, but people within the law are saying that now rules that are in place to defend the rights of each side are being abused. So one example is what we call “discovery.” Each side has the right to depose witnesses and ask for documents in order to just lay out the facts of the case. But what we’re seeing in recent years — and lawyers are commenting on this — is the richer side tries to use their resources to abuse the discovery system to humiliate the other side. So you ask for so many documents that they use up all their money trying to produce them, or they become so frustrated with the deposition that they will settle prematurely. For example, the Dalkon Shield case which had to do with, it was a class-action suit by women who had been harmed by having contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield, inserted. In that deposition process, the lawyers for the company that made Dalkon Shield asked the most humiliating, embarrassing questions of these women about their private lives, about their personal hygiene, so that they would be so humiliated they would drop the case and not participate. It’s the abuse of the adversary system.

Okay. And the press, of course, has always been adversarial. But what we have now is what Larry Savateau calls not just a “watchdog press,” but an “attack-dog press,” where they’re going after public figures about everything. There’s an assumption that everyone in public office is doing whatever they’re doing for strategic reasons; never for sincere reasons. And people are now declining to stand for public office because their personal lives are being investigated in this way and they feel under constant attack, as happened with Bobby Ray Inman in 1994. He was going to be confirmed as Secretary of Defense. His confirmation was not in danger, but he withdrew because he said — and again, he’s someone who had been through it before and was going through it now — he said the climate had changed where the press and political opponents were seeing it as their job to attack him, to write a negative story every day, to only play up anything they could find that would make him look bad, ignoring the things that would make him look good, just because they saw it as their responsibility. The journalists said, “That’s our job, to write a negative story about you every day.”

HEFFNER: You know, I asked the question, “Why?” which you haven’t come to…

TANNEN: Okay, I’m going to answer it. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But another question occurs to me too. And we’ve got to do both. One is: Why don’t you just shrug your shoulders and say, “I, Deborah Tannen, have given such a thorough going account of where we are and what we’re doing, that what’s the use?” and do the counterpart of what those various political leaders have done: they’ve withdrawn and said, essentially, “The hell with it. I’m not going to subject myself or my family to this.” What makes you continue to do battle?

TANNEN: Thank you for asking that question. Because I wrote this book really because I felt it was something I owed the culture. As a sociolinguist I analyze language as it exists in our everyday life. It’s more fun to talk about miscommunication between women and men. It would’ve been more fun to just write another book redoing, revisiting You Just Don’t Understand. I felt it was my responsibility to describe something that I saw happening, and that, and I believe very much in awareness, consciousness-raising. People tell me that being aware of how much we use war metaphors and battle metaphors to describe issues and to describe even our personal relations, you know, “I’ll take a shot at that,” “He shot down my ideas,” just that awareness makes us realize that we can start reframing it, stop demonizing the people that we disagree with. So…

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t understand that. Just recognizing what you say leads us to a feeling that we can change it?

TANNEN: I believe that, you know…


TANNEN: When I talk about this in, when I wrote, for example, You Just Don’t Understand, That’s Not What I Meant, about personal relationships, people said to me, “Well, where’s the to-do list? Where are the tips?”


TANNEN: But people who read the book told me, “This has changed my life. One I understood what’s going on and why my partner, my spouse, my lover, or my friend is talking in the way they are, I myself can think of ways to change it.” And people are telling me this about this book as well. They say, “You know, I caught myself the other day thinking in this battle metaphor. And I said, you know, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t really have to talk about it that way.'” And I think producers also are telling me that their consciousness is being raised. So they’re about to invite two people with opposing views on a show, and they say, “Well, hey, let’s get a third person on here who can mediate between those two.”

HEFFNER: Deborah, do you believe that?


HEFFNER: Do you believe it when they tell you that?

TANNEN: I do. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Well, you know, that makes me think of this wonderful page in your book where your… Where is it when you say… Yeah, I wrote it down here as “naivete,” because that’s the word you use here in a certain example. And you’re talking about, you say, you write, “In an early draft of this book, I wrote, ‘I do not believe that journalists set out to polarize citizens, incite them to anger, and undermine our respect for each other.’ Someone who read that draft wrote in the margin, ‘You don’t?’ The alternative is great naivete.” Aren’t you demonstrating that same innocence or hopefulness?

TANNEN: Yes, but… It is hopefulness, and perhaps it’s a kind of intentional innocence. But, yeah, you know, the foundation of my approach to communication is that sometimes we get the impression people have bad intentions, and it’s just a difference in conversational style. For example, someone, you think someone’s interrupting you, and then you discover, well, they’re from a part of the country where they expect a much shorter pause, and they really think you have nothing more to say, and that’s why they’re starting to speak. If you don’t allow that pause, it’s amazing, they back off and they let you speak, and they’re interested. So the bad intentions were not there.

There is something parallel here. And I’ve been told by people who write headlines, headlines are very major offenders in this, always with the battle metaphor and the war metaphor. In fact, just the other day we had “The Civility Wars,” a kind of a contradiction in terms.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

TANNEN: But I truly believe that many times these headline writers are just trying — and they tell me this — they just want to get attention. They just feel they want and need to write a headline that’s provocative. And they’re not thinking, “If I write this that’s provocative, and I provoke people to anger, I may actually create an animosity in these people that makes it harder to solve the problem.”

HEFFNER: But, Deborah, what are they thinking? What is their motivation?

TANNEN: Their motivation is to attract attention.

HEFFNER: Okay. Why?

TANNEN: Because they want readers.


TANNEN: To make money. To sell papers.

HEFFNER: Okay. So if you get back to the motivation here, what chance is there in our marketplace society, in our marketplace culture, that we’re going to move away from this damned, not elusive, but continuing pitting of one against the other? It does get readers. That headline does attract people. What makes you think there’s going to be a backing away from that?

TANNEN: Because in the short run it may get the attention, but in the long run readers are being turned off. And I think there’s an increasing realization of this. In fact, part of the reason it’s been ratcheted up, I believe (and you asked me why, and this is part of my answer) is the desperation about keeping the readers. Newspaper readership is down. And they’re afraid of losing readership, and that’s why they’re ratcheting it up.

Television stations, it used to be that the major stations could simply count on their audience. Now there’s so much competition that each station is really terrified of losing that audience. So part of this is a reaction to the loss of readership and audience. But again, a term that I use when I talk about this in personal relationships, “complimentary schismogenesis.” We don’t have to worry about the term. Often what we do in reaction to the other person actually drives them into more extreme forms of that behavior. And I think that’s happening here. The news media are afraid of losing audience readership, listenership. But what they’re doing is actually driving the listenership and the audience away.

If you hear a fight outside your window, you run to the window, stick your head out, see what’s happening. If there’s a fight outside your window every day, you shut that window and try to block it out. And there’s evidence that that’s happening with readership and viewership of news. Many people are saying now that they don’t, they just tune it out, they’re not following the news. And that’s very dangerous in a democracy, where people need to be informed.

HEFFNER: Yes, but is there any evidence that the alternative style is attracting them? Yes, they’re turning off the set. That’s obvious from the numbers. But are they turning instead to a kinder, softer presentation of individual differences?

TANNEN: Well, you know, it’s interesting. There is lots of evidence that the news media themselves are moving toward what they call “news you can use.” And they realize that people are likely to watch something if they see its relevance to their own lives. So there’s a lot more of that. I believe that that approach could be applied to other areas of news. So it’s almost like there’s a two-part system: they’re giving us more news you can use, personal interest stories, you know, lots of stories about health, about aging; but the news coverage is still going toward the conflict. If the news coverage could take a little bit from “How is this relevant to my personal life?” I think that would get readership probably better than doing everything in terms of conflict.

HEFFNER: Have you seen any indication that the “If it bleeds, it leads” syndrome has been substituted for by a, again, a softer, kinder approach?

TANNEN: Well, yes, there’s lots of evidence that the, as I said, they’re going toward the news you can use part.

HEFFNER: The news you can use.

TANNEN: But the softer, gentler way of covering public events…


TANNEN: …no. And I’m suggesting that they might think about doing that.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re suggesting more than that. You’re suggesting not only that they might think about it, but you’re suggesting that the evidence is there for them to say, “Oh, my gosh, we’re not profiting as much as we thought we would with the ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ so we’ll change our way.”

TANNEN: Well, yeah, that is what I’m claiming. And there is evidence in that the American Society of Newspaper Editors is very concerned about this. And actually every one of the institutions I mentioned, perhaps except academia, but the law, politics, and the press, there’s lots of evidence within the institution itself that there’s concern. A number of the leading journalists have written, signed a document expressing their concern. And there’s lots of statements coming out all the time from experienced journalists. They’re concerned not only that the news isn’t being covered in a responsible way, but two things: First of all, there’s a backlash against the press. There’s a backlash against lawyers and against politicians. And this is very dangerous. People in a democracy have to have confidence and faith in these great institutions. So that, in itself, is dangerous, and there’s a lot of concern among the press about that backlash. And they also express a concern about what it does (and maybe this is my biggest concern too), what it does to the souls of the people in the profession, and the people in the society at large. There’s a lot of evidence that there is a cynicism being created in the readers about always reading that people in public life are doing something wrong, have cynical motives. It’s creating a cynicism in the readers that’s very hurtful to the society as a whole.

And the same is true of the backlash against our legal system, where there’s less faith in it. People who have been through the legal system often end up feeling kind of bitter about it. And that’s very dangerous in a society…

HEFFNER: Well, I’m interested in those terms. Judith Kay, who is the chief judge in New York, gave a lecture the other week at Fordham in which she said “the Rambo approach”…

TANNEN: Right. And I talk about that in the book. Yes.

HEFFNER: …is being diminished. She says it has to be, and it’s going to be. You seem to give evidence to the contrary.

TANNEN: Well, I’m giving evidence that it has gotten worse in recent years…

HEFFNER: But now we’re getting better.

TANNEN: …and so there’s a response against it. Yes. And there’s evidence that lawyers themselves are now realizing it’s now always working. See, this is what’s so amazing. Once you get this ethic of aggression, even if it doesn’t work, it is valued. And I think there’s a lot of realization now that it often isn’t working. So in the law, for example, Marta Harrington wrote a book, Women Lawyers, in which she points out that a lot of women lawyers have discovered they can actually find out more in a deposition by not taking a tough approach and really being rough on the witness that’s being deposed, but come on as if they’re kind of a friend-like relationship. And they found, well, the people then let their defenses down. They think they’re just having a conversation with someone who’s well-disposed toward them, and give them much more information.

HEFFNER: Which leads me to ask you: You said something a moment ago, and I didn’t jot it down. And I meant to. You said something about the “gender component”…


HEFFNER: …to all of this, to the question of aggressiveness.


HEFFNER: What is that gender component?

TANNEN: Yes. And I have a long chapter where I talk about this. It is a greater component in the social lives of boys and men than there is of girls and women of using opposition and fighting as a way of accomplishing all kinds of things. Sure, you’ll see a group of little boys, a group of little girls playing. The boys are much more likely to have a play fight. Not that the girls don’t fight; they do fight, but not for fun, not as a form of entertainment. They fight if there’s a dispute. Young men, when they’re friendly with each other, it’s often a lot of mock insults, teasing, which is a kind of mock fighting, as a way of showing you’re close, playing devil’s advocate in an intellectual argument. So using opposition or fighting is much bigger part of the social lives of men than women.

Our public discourse seems to have more and more begun to appeal to the young, male audience. So we know that people who make children’s shows, for example, are convinced that if they design the shows to appeal to boys, the girls will also watch; if they design them to appeal to girls, the boys don’t watch, so they don’t do that. Movies, with everything blowing up and exploding and chasing, has the young, male audience in mind.

HEFFNER: But you also make the point that the wife goes along with the husband…


HEFFNER: …to the brutal movie.

TANNEN: Yes. Just as the girls will watch the shows for the boys, but the boys won’t watch the girls’ shows, men are much less likely to be willing to go to a show that’s about relationships and has a lot of talk and no action than the…

HEFFNER: Much less willing.

TANNEN: The men are less willing to go along to the show the wife wants than the wife is to go along…

HEFFNER: Then what’s the motivation for the change you talk about?

TANNEN: [Laughter] Well, Titanic has been a tremendous success. And everybody’s talking about this, that it seems to have enough of the action to appeal to the guys, and enough of the human relationship to appeal to the women. So there’s some, you can moderate it.

HEFFNER: You are an optimist, aren’t you? You really are.

TANNEN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And you feel that attention to gender warrants your optimism.

TANNEN: Oh, I think attention to gender is one part of it. It’s not the whole story, of course. Within the culture of men as well there can be a realization that the tough tactics don’t always work. And this is what we see now. People are talking about the new image of Newt Gingrich, discovering that that tough, bad-boy image really didn’t work very well for him, and he’s coming out now with a kinder, gentler image. The backlash against the press is what I think it is, all the negative press against Bill Clinton in these latest developments, only resulted in his approval ratings going up. And I believe this is people’s way of expressing their unhappiness with the argument culture. They felt that Bill Clinton was being unfairly ganged up on, and they blamed the press, and they are blaming Ken Starr more than they’re blaming Clinton. So there’s evidence that politicians, the press, are realizing there’s a backlash against them. It’s not working.

HEFFNER: You know, along those lines, I had asked you to tell me why this had all happened. And since we have just a couple of minutes in this program left, I’m sure you’ll stay where you are and we’ll do another one after this for the following week. Why? Why has this happened?

TANNEN: I think some of it is the technology. The taking…

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

TANNEN: Yeah. We have moved more to television than to print. Television, I think, is inclined to play up drama. And there’s a feeling that conflict is the easiest drama to set up. So I think the taking over of news by television rather than print is a big part of it. I think some of it is the end of the Cold War. We no longer have an external enemy, and so we’re setting up fights among ourselves. You setting up the government as the enemy is part of that. It’s a post-Watergate mood. Before Watergate, Larry Sebedoa said the press was a lapdog, they took whatever the government said face value. After Watergate there was a lot of suspicion of the people in public life. First it was a watchdog, which was very appropriate for the press, but now it’s moved into attack dog. But it is a post-Watergate syndrome. A generation of journalists that grew up on Watergate coverage, and a feeling there that to really be a great journalist you should be bringing down the mighty. So I think a lot of this owes to the backlash, the effects of Watergate.

HEFFNER: What would you say to someone, a young journalist, who said that to you, that that’s the way to make it?

TANNEN: Well, I think the danger is we’re having a scandal inflation. So Watergate was a scandal that people didn’t go out and look for; it hit people over the head, and it was a very serious scandal. There was a lot of resistance to covering it, but in the end it couldn’t be ignored. It came out because there was a criminal break in, and a guard discovered evidence of it. If you are trying to create scandals, digging them up every day, in the end, everybody ignores them. It’s a kind of, people are scandaled-out. And so it’s really not having the effect you set out to have. You’re not getting attention for it.

HEFFNER: Well, Deborah Tannen, between now and next week everybody will go out and read The Argument Culture so we can continue our discussion of it.

Thank you for joining me today.

TANNEN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.