How to win an argument
If your friendly discussions end in chilly silences read this advice on the art of winning arguments without losing friends
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
THERE ARE probably as many ways to win an argument as there are people. I know one woman, for instance, who just keeps flapping her hand in my face and shrieking: “Who ever told you you were so much?”
One husky friend of mine with flaring nostrils sits all evening with his hands on his knees, smiling and parrying points with remarks like: “Well, that’s true. However, I wonder if ... ” or “You’ve made a very good point there, but don’t you agree that ...”
Around ten-thirty he gets up, carefully wraps his fingers around a lamp, raises it over his head, and, still smiling, tries to drive it t hrough the living-room floor.
It ends with three or four people holding him by the shoulders and everyone talking at once. He peers over their heads at his fellow debater, st ill smiling but very pale.
He doesn’t always throw a lamp, of course. Sometimes he t hrows ornamental ebony elephants, chrome figurines of skaters and the glass tops of smoking stands. One time the only thing he could lay his hands on was a serviette weighing about an eighth of an ounce, and he nearly threw his shoulder out of joint.
“The only way mankind ever pot anywhere was by exchanging points of view,” this guy often says, as he lights a cigarette with shaking fingers.
There’s never any doubt that he wins something because right after that everyone starts talking gaily about arch supports, leaving him all alone with his victory. But people are too busy picking up lamps or other items of broken china to find out whether what he won was the argument. The ideal way to win an argument is to do it without breaking anything, including friendships. For instance, leaving a man without a leg to stand on does not necessarily mean that you’ve won. It means that the other guy has lost his footing which is an entirely different thing. If mountain climbers looked at things the way most of us do when we argue, the objective would be to make the other guy slip, instead of reaching the top of the mountain. Your battle should be with the topic, not with somebody in the other chair. The only real victory is reaching a conclusion everyone accepts, with both of you still on your feet. This rarely happens in an argument and I include friendly discussions.
I’ve noticed that most friendly discussions end with old friends saying good night to the wallpaper and going home early. Or with the girls running around with towels pretending nothing hapjxmed. I’ve seen two men who went through World War I together start a friendly discussion about religion and end up gripping one another’s ties and doing a slow tango up and down the living room.
One kept saying, “Tell—me—I’m —not—a Christian will you!”
The other glared into his friend’s eyes like an adder and whispered, “Tell —me forgiveness and
loving kindness won’t—work!” giving the guy’s tie a little twist with each word.
One good way to win an argument is to decide on what argument you’re trying to win. Decide on a specific, limited objective. I knew one guy who, every time he got into an argument, would start out to prove a simple point: say, that can-openers were getting too complicated, or that it’s cheaper to rent a house than to buy one; and keep backing up for a broader view until there was nothing else to decide but whether life was worthwhile. These arguments usually end with everyone just looking sad and able to think of nothing to say, in about the same position as the famous donkey standing between two bales of hay trying to decide which one he should eat and starving to death because he couldn’t find the answer.
Another thing, make sure not only that you know what you’re talking about but that you know what the other guy is talking about, and that he knows what he’s talking about. If he says, “I don’t believe in women,” don’t start shouting, “Well, by gosh, I do.” Ask him what he means. Ask him whether he means all women, or just some women, and, if the latter, which ones. Also ask him what he means by believing in them. Does he mean that
he thinks they’re unnecessary? Or that he doesn’t believe they are entitled to share equal rights with men? Or does he mean he just doesn’t believe them? You’ll win this one just sitting back watching him untangle himself.
Continued on pape 38
How to Win an Argument
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 24
The same thing applies to cliches, which have no place in a discussion, unless it’s between politicians, who couldn’t exist without them. If somebody says, “I have faith in the youth of this country,” and sits there chuckling and polishing his halo, ask him if he means that they will grow older. Or that the ratio of hoodlums will be no worse in 1980 than it is now. Or just what he does mean?
In other words, define your terms and make sure everyone else does. A lot more time could be spent in search of truth if people didn’t waste so much time parrying, thrusting, thrashing around and loading little remarks with rocks, only to discover when the girls are serving coffee and it’s almost time to go home that everybody thinks you’ve been arguing about something else.
Words aren’t nearly the precise instruments we think they are. To get anywhere with them we have to make sure we are using them the same way. I recently got into an argument before breakfast with my nine-yearold daughter over telling her that she should blow up her bicycle tires on her way to school. It was five minutes later while I was bent double, as if peering into a low shelf, shouting into her little red, wet face that it dawned on me that she thought I meant to blow them up the way you blow up a bridge.
Most concepts aren’t as easily pried out of their little mental holes. It takes a bit of patience, something seldom used in arguments. A few weeks ago I sat in on an argument between two women who not only didn’t define what they were arguing about but couldn’t even seem to define whom they were arguing with, due to a hair-raising technique of answering one another by laughing merrily and talking to someone else.
Another time I saw two ex-Havergal classmates break up for three weeks because one of them said she’d never seen any snow in Florida. The other said, why, she’d seen pictures of snow in Florida. It turned out that one was talking about a town just north of Miami where she had stayed for two weeks in March 1953, and the other was talking about Fort Sandspur, three hundred miles nwrth, and a storm there in December 1949. On top of all Ibis they kept calling one another “dear,” confusing things all the more.
“Oh, no, dear,” one would say, smiling gently. “Toronto got more snow than we did at Flamingo Gables. After all, we got the newspapers you kept sending us showing all that snow.”
“Oh, no, dear,” the other would say, “that was two years ago, before the Gulf Stream curved into Canada.”
“Hut, dear, don’t you remember the snapshots you sent? Little Sandra was just two years old and the snow came right over her pigtails.”
“I’m sure, dear, that was the year before when all the oranges froze in St. Augustine. It was cold all over. And it wasn’t Sandra. That was Daphne and she is only two feet high.”
“Oh, no, dear, surely I know your children apart by this time. Perhaps you didn’t have your glasses on, dear.”
“Well, dear, I’m forty years old and I haven’t, got used to being called a short-sighted old bat vet.”
“Wh-h-h-h-h-ell! dearie, if it comes to that I’m only forty-one and let me tell you, I knew your children when they were having their first temper tantrums.”
Lf one of the guys looked around and said, “What’s the argument about, girls?” they’d snap around with flushed fares as if they’d been out on a ski slope and say together:
"A ZZgument? We’re not having ar. A/igument. We’re just having a friendly discussion.”
Another way to win a lot of arguments is not to get into them in the first place. You don’t have to prove everything to make life bearable. Let the other guy do it; when it’s all over, lu ll he sitting with a great awkward victory in his lap while you’ll be silting there friends with everybody and feeling fine. This applies particularly to those arguments where everybody automatically takes a stand on everything, whether they believe it or not. This may be good exercise but the big winner is the one who just went on eating sandwiches. Besides, proving th.it nonsense is the truth has all been done before. The Sophists proved that you are your own father; that you are what you are and are not what you are, all at the same time; Zeno proved that movement is impossible, and it has been proved by irrefutable logic that the guy you’re arguing with doesn’t really exist anyway, so why bother arguing with him?
Scrubbed Like a Dog
Another way to win an argument is to assume that something your opponent said is true. This incidentally has tremendous surprise value and not only makes everyone feel better hut gives you a chance to do something besides sitting there smiling ironically at all flu* other guy’s speeches. For instance you can start to build a reasonable argument for your case, starting with his point.
Few of us use reason this way; we fry to scrub our opponents with reason flu* way we give a dog a bath and it ends about (lie same way, with everyone chasing the wet soap around reference libraries and dictionaries and pretending t hey don’t hear one another.
I know one guy named Harry who just keeps smiling, nodding and pulling af bis pipe stem as if lie’s trying to fie up a trout fly. He’ll find himself saying that the last ice age took place just before Queen Victoria. Next night somebody walks six blocks and takes a bus to a library and looks it up in an encyclopedia and finds that the glaciers began to go back about twenty thousand years ago. He bares his teeth with the pure joy of scientific research and looks up smiling with such emotion that the librarian nearly swoons.
Next day he meets old Harry and says, “By the way, 1 just happened to be in a library last night and happened to open a book that happened to be about ice ages and I see that the last one has been over for about twenty thousand years.”
Harry smiles, nods and pulls at his pipe. He looks as if he’s wondering what the guy is going to do now to wriggle out of it.
“TWENTY THOUSAND years ago,” the guy points out. his cheeks growing rosy. “Quite a difference from a HUNDRED, Heh! Heh!”
“1 knew it was quite a while ago,” Harry says coolly, “I wasn’t quite sure of the date.”
Which brings up another point; there’s really no basis for believing that the faster you give your answers the more truth they contain. In fact, once you start this, you’re soon paying more attention to vour speed than what you’re saying.
A slow answer is just as apt to he true as a fast one*. There is really no defeat in sitting there* thinking for a minute in silence, providing you didn’t start off by pretending you didn’t have to think. On the* other hand if you move too fast you’re likely to run into t rouble.
1 remember one time* I ran right up to my kne*es in the statc-ment that Aristotle invented radio. At le*ast, afterward everyone* said that’s what I said although I was snapping my answers at my toes and 1 didn’t notice? what the other people in the room we*re doing. They could have been slipping one another notes.
One character 1 know uses this every now and then to work me in close to the net. He just keeps talking faster and faster, diverting me with a peculiar quick brittle* laugh and snapping, “Right or wrong?”
“Right !” I bark.
“Money isn’t everything. Right?” “Right!”
“A man has to consider others. Right?”
“He has to consider animals too. Right?”
We get going “right? . . . right !
. . . right or wrong? . . .” so fast that I begin to close my eyes a bit as if 1 am getting my neck rubbed. Then when everyone else in the room has stopped talking, he shouts:
“Well, as far as I’m concerned I can’t sc*e anything funny about, kicking dogs.”
Or he’ll say, “Then if what you say is true, George here” he looks over at somebody who hasn’t been saying anything—“must have got his job by cissing the boss’ foot.” George glares.
This guy plays doubles with his wife. I’ll say something about the future of fliild psychology. From somewhere down near the other end of the room his wife will shout “HO! Listen to him!”
I whip around, lips drawn, facts ready and find that she is talking to my wife. I turn back to her husband, make another statement and hear her give a spine-chilling laugh. When 1 turn to tackle her again she is sitting sidesaddle showing my wife her permanent and saying, “Next time I'll get him to lacquer the ends.”
By this time her husband is snapping, “Well, I guess Pm old-fashioned but I still don’t believe that children should be left out on (he street till three in the moi’ning.”
Never use a trick to win an argument. First, even if it works, it doesn’t prove anything except that you’x-e tricky which is a long way from being right and in the long run isn’t very satisfying. Second, sooner or later you’ll get involved with someone trickier than you.
I know one big deep-voiced man with magnificent control of his facial expressions who can convince a whole roomful of people that you should go back to night school, just by making his eyes twinkle at someone over your head.
If you still keep swinging he diops a couple of heavy books on you. He’ll ask, “Ever read Whither Europe?”
“Nope,” you say to the knot of his tie, frowning a bit, as if he’s interrupted your train of thought. “The point is—”
“What? Never read Whither Europe?” he says with a kindly but puzzled frown. “Well, have you ever read Asia Undone?”
You give the smallest little shake of your head, implying that you haven’t time for comic strips.
By this time .everyone has stopped talking to see what else you haven’t read.
He can manoeuvre you into such a position with this trick that he can flatten you by asking if you’ve read somebody’s spring and summer seed catalogue.
The whole trouble is that we all secretly feel we can straighten out a lot of the world’s troubles with little logical rim wrenches with which we try to change mental tires and fix flats in other people’s heads, giving all the nuts a firm twist so they’ll face the right way. The idea is encouraged by radio panels, forums and open discussions where instead of snarling wait-a-minute - now - JUST - a - minute - till -1-get-a-word-in-edgewise and throwing lamps at one another, they have a referee and softly sandbag one another with culture and quotations. It all reminds us somehow of Greece and the dawn of reason.
But Socrates was mox-e concerned with the truth than winning an argument. Proving someone wrong is not an objective that leads to the harmony and enlightenment of man. What it leads to is everyone peering at their olives and making little x'emarks about business being a bit slow lately. Sometimes the silence that follows putting somebody right is worse than leaving them the way they were. I know because I ci'eated one of the most profound silences known te man once at a family reunion.
I’d beexx studying logic but evidently I hadn’t gone quite far enough with it. Either that or I’d gone too fax-. I had a book by one of the most confused men I’ve ever run across. It had an introduction by someone who had evidently left the author’s manuscript oxx a streetcar and had written axx introduction to the wrong book. It was full of little footnotes referring me to some book I couldxx’t find. The whole thing was like trying to figure out a signpost lying in a ditch.
But I didn’t realize this at the time. I used to try it out happily on my wife.
“Look,” I’d yelp, “you say A is one reason, admit that it doesn’t exist, then you prove B exists because it depends on A—aix equivocal enthymeme if 1 ever heai'd one.”
My wife would slip a minor premise under me and set fire to it. “That housecoat of yours looks as if you’d been stopping up leaks in oil drums with it,” she’d say.
But I got the idea that logical reason was the greatest boon to mankind. I decided to put it to work at this family reunion by paring down to its fundamentals a remark made by an aunt of xxxine from Syracuse about Caxxadian universities.
I can’t report the logical sequence of events but I must have used a syllogism with a loose pinion gear somewhere because I can remember sitting there axxxid a general uproar, pursing my lips patiently axxd saying “No-o-o-o, what I did say was that if we’re going to put people in prison for going to university we’ll have to wait six years.” I remember particularly one little old lady on my father’s side. Every time I’d close my eyes in martyrlike patience and say, “Please define your terms,” she’d say: “Oh shut up, you fat thing.”
It was followed by one of the greatest silences I’ve ever heard and I hope I’ll never hear another. Nobody in the past four generations was talking to one another. To make it worse this argument had started after we’d pulled our crackers and we were all wearing little tissue-paper hats in the shape of castles.
Occasionally somebody would try to pull the family together again by suddenly shouting, “Seen George lately?” and somebody else would shout hysterically, “NO, I HAVEN’T,” and slip self-consciously back into smiling at the turkey. Or someone would turn to my wife and say for no reason at all, “How are your feet, dear?” One pink-faced old gentleman turned to a little girl who had said grace and tickled her till she retched, and my wife frantically poured tea into everything but the centrepiece.
I remember thinking this was a poor end to a venture into pure reason, recalling Aristotle, and saying c’almly to somebody’s sister-in-law, “The whole trouble is we’re calling A, B and B, C!” She burst out crying. I probably would have been going yet, from premise to premise, if my wife hadn’t got me out into the kitchen and hissed, “Have you gone out of your mind? Will you stop it before you drive everybody crazy?”
I’ve seen a lot of queer arguments in my day, including one where a woman talked breathlessly for a solid hour, saying things like we had to admit that Russia had degenerated from an endemic system of agrarian morality to a neo-communal dictatorial oligarchy with onions, while people desperately trying to stop her turned on the television, went home, served coffee and generally tried to change the subject.
Which isn’t a bad idea. According to the very latest findings of science, all existence began as a continuous gas, and I can see no reason to doubt it, or that it will end the same way if we don’t stop arguing. Anyway, it’s my belief that nobody has ever changed his mind because of an argument since the world began. But I’m not going to argue about it. ★