Deborah Tannen was Right, and Ahead of Her Time: We Do Live in an Argument Culture

Argument CultureI am a big fan of Deborah Tannen.  I think her insights into the differences between men and women and the ways they communicate are valuable, and genuinely revealing.  But it is this book, The Argument Culture:  Moving from Debate to Dialogue, that is worth another look in this tense era.  (In later editions, it was re-titled with two different subtitles:  Stopping America’s War of Words and Changing the Way We Argue and Debate.  By the way, alas, I don’t think the book has succeeded at this task).

I presented my synopsis of this book in June, 1998, our third First Friday Book Synopsis.  Here is the first quote included on the quotes page.  See if it sounds like today.

“Civility” suggests a superficial, pinky-in-the-air veneer of politeness spread thin over human relations like a layer of marmalade over toast.  This book is about a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything else we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight. The argument culture urges us to approach the world — and the people in it — in an adversarial frame of mind.  It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get things done:  The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as “both sides;” the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize.

Yet a different subtitle...

Yet a different subtitle...

And a few other quotes from the book:

Public discourse requires making an argument for a point of view, not having an argument — as in having a fight.
In an argument culture aggressive tactics are valued for their own sake.
Whatever the causes of the argument culture — the most grievous cost is the price paid in human spirit:  Contentious public discourse becomes a model for behavior and sets the tone for how individuals experience their relationships with other people and to the society we live in.

This is a blog focused on ideas from books, specifically and primarily business books.  But business exists in the culture of the real world.  This week, there are multiple stories in the news about companies cancelling/pulling their advertising from one very controversial, “argumentative” cable television show.  The companies had to weigh this question:  is this show so polarizing, so argumentative, that to support it would alienate as many consumers as it would attract?  For many, the answer was yes, so they cancelled or pulled their advertising.

We can’t avoid living in this culture of ours.  But I think this:  Deborah Tannen was correct, and ahead of her time.  It has become an ever-more pronounced argument culture.  And this culture creates a palpable environment of tension that carries over into every arena, including business.  The argument culture is another factor making business connections, business decisions, a little tougher to make than ever before.

2 thoughts on “Deborah Tannen was Right, and Ahead of Her Time: We Do Live in an Argument Culture

  1. Ed


    The third First Friday Book Synopsis?

    Jeeps, let’s see I was only, what, a teenager then?

    Man, Benjie Button has nothing on me.


  2. Randy Mayeux Post author

    Well, Ed, I had read your comment earlier, but had not grasped what you were writing — I have now corrected the date of the presentation from 1968 to 1998. I would have been a little young for that one — old enough to read, but not old enough to think or know much of anything…



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