"So, about that Donald Trump guy?"
September 1, 2017 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I shy away from arguments/conversations, like to change the subject, etc. But it seems like I'm missing out when its between friends who actually really enjoy these conversations. Have you changed how you get better at accepting what I call basically meaningless arguments ?

My wife's family will just throw out an argument out there and start an argument for awhile (they are all all very left leaning but with different POVs).

I've seen guys at bars and in other cultures where men just converse for hours in heated arguments. They seem to relish this and then get back to doing the same thing, day after day after day without much ill will(I think). I'd like to participate in this in away that accommodates my passive-passive personality, but makes me enjoy rather than dread these conversations. I think this will also help some of my confontration-avoidance that has hurt me in life and career.
posted by sandmanwv to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you aren't particularly interested in putting forth an argument yourself or have an opinion about the topic at hand, then you could approach these conversations from a more investigative point-of-view. Ask people how they arrived at that opinion? Where did they get their facts? What other sources did they consider? Is there some common value that underlies both arguments that people could discover?

Just asking questions like, "why do you think that way?" or "who influences your thinking on this subject?" could lead to some interesting back and forth?
posted by brookeb at 9:46 AM on September 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

I relate to this from the other side; my family is large and loud and enjoys arguing, an inclination that often makes my wife uncomfortable. She is an assertive person but she dislikes raised voices and is inclined to choose her words carefully, while my family members often end up shouting, repeating themselves, or exaggerating for rhetorical effect.

Some of this I think just has to be chalked up to different personalities and filed under "live and let live." But since you explicitly want to practice engaging in this way for your own reasons, I do have some thoughts. Arguments are ostensibly aimed at changing peoples' minds, but the sort of argument you seem to be describing really isn't. They are a social thing. So something to think about when engaging is "what do I hope to get out of this?" and "what are the other participants hoping to get?" This can help you let go of the view that the argument is "meaningless." (In one sense it might be, but that's generally not the point.)

A positive example might be the group wanting to share their views without an expectation of convincing anyone to change their mind. A more negative example might be that a given recurring argument serves to inflate the ego of one of the socially dominant participants. (Take Rebecca Solnit's classic example of a man unwittingly trying to explain her own book to her. His main goal was presumably more to be seen as important and knowledgeable than any meaningful exchange of ideas, and it certainly wasn't to gain a better understanding of Solnit's own views.) "Arguments" that are really just a way people socialize are one thing, arguments that serve primarily as a series of people "waiting to talk" rather than listening are probably just going to frustrate or upset you.

The mental exercise of trying to determine what people are attempting to get out of a conversation will help keep you from coming across as aggressive, will give you a layer of dispassionate intellectualizing that might help with your social anxiety, and will help you decide whether a given argument/discussion is a good thing to be participating in.

One resource that might help you in thinking through this is here. I have problems with how it's framed as how to "win" arguments. "Winning" isn't a great way to look at things but it might be how others see it, and in any case the materials they present and the list of references are insightful. It gives some concrete "what to do" strategies that might help you engage.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:07 AM on September 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Have you ever watched a school debate. It's the same thing. Enjoyment of an argument put together well, a matching of wits. The arguing isn't always about winning it's about making a point articulately & with skill. It's storytelling with facts & opinions instead of fiction.

These sort of "arguments" would be a perfect place for conflict avoidant people to practice as the stakes are so low. Listen in on the next argument, if someone makes a point you agree with or that is well worded let them know. Let them know you're listening by responding to things said in a general way. Work up to asking questions, that's pretty low risk as you're not agree or disagreeing.
posted by wwax at 10:18 AM on September 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Some (a lot?) of the people I know who do this are coming at it from an explicitly devil's advocate position. They don't actually believe what they're saying, but they're interested in seeing what they can get the other person to say. This can be an easy way to get into such an argument without caring about changing minds.

The easiest way to do this is to pick something where "everyone" agrees, and then argue the opposite. For example, I just moved to New England, and everyone here loves to gush about how Tom Brady is the best quarterback in history. It's really fun to say "well, actually, he's probably only the fourth-best active QB, and probably not even top-15 all-time". As it happens, I do believe Brady to be overrated, although not to the extent that I argue. Or something like "Justin Bieber sucks". Try defending Bieber instead. Nearly every belief that's more sophisticated than "the sky is blue" rests on unexamined assumptions. Your goal should be to find those assumptions and challenge them.

One easy way to practice, actually, is here on AskMe. If you see a comment thread where everyone is giving the same advice, just chip in and say "just to play decil's advocate here, maybe you should do y instead of x like everyone else is saying". (Devil's advocate: maybe you shouldn't do this, because your advice might be bad and you run a high risk of coming across as a jerk. See? It's that easy.) Obviously, if the question is "should I leave my abusive husband?", your response shouldn't be "actually, you should stay in the abusive situation". But there are many questions where you can.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:11 AM on September 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's perfectly fine not to like arguing. When my husband and I met, he was very into arguing for the sake of arguing. "I want you to take a fire axe to the foundation of my position! If you can break it, it was no good to begin with!" It took some time to get him to understand that I don't like oppositional arguing and won't do it. Discussion, now, I love. You want to put a topic on the table in front of us so we can look at it, turn it over, poke and prod it to see how it fits together, and come to understand it better? Yes please! But not if it's about "I'm right, you're wrong, let's fight about it."
posted by Lexica at 11:18 AM on September 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a lawyer and think talking shit with my friends is a sport and/or bonding activity. You don't have to think this. If you want to approach it in a way where you find something you like about it, that's cool - figuring out how people reason or come to the conclusions they do or why they think the weird stuff they think can be fun, and it's fine to hang out while other people get into it without throwing down any arguments yourself. But it's also totally okay if you're not into it, and the mental fatigue of dealing with what the hell has that orange nightmare done this time is not to be underestimated, and you don't have to try to make yourself take an interest.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:46 PM on September 1, 2017

I'd like to participate in this in away that accommodates my passive-passive personality

I see two possibilities here.

1. I'm someone who enjoys a good, good-faith debate where the different parties want to talk through their opinions, and I think if you're hanging out with people like me, maybe what you're missing is that this is a sort of learning style - I learn about the world, and develop my own opinions, by hashing them out in debate this way. So the way to make this enjoyable, but participate passively, is to say "I'm not a big debater, but this is really interesting! I'm happy to listen to you guys - I'm learning a lot."

2. It's also possible that you just are hanging out with people who are kind of...what I would call the real life equivalent of internet trolls? I've encountered a few people like this, who roll up to conversations all "here's an emotionally-manipulative ethics thought experiment! Opinions????". This is evidently A Thing enough that there's a card game about it (it's called Hypertheticals and I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal of it despite otherwise being a huge Chuck Klosterman fan). In this case, your script is "hey, I don't really like these kinds of debates, I'm going to go grab a beer from the bar. Anyone want anything?"
posted by capricorn at 2:08 PM on September 1, 2017

Another way to conceptualize it is to analogize to martial arts. Theoretically, karate is a way to kick someone's ass. But in practice, if you've ever seen two people who are experts spar, it's not really a fight. Neither one is trying to cause physical injury to the other. It's more like a cooperative, reactive performance. Showing off skills like that is a lot more fun than actually fighting. That's basically what this type of arguing is: the verbal equivalent of martial arts.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:41 PM on September 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh, I love arguing. Think of a dog pulling a stick, and you pulling back. It doesn't even necessarily want the stick, it just gives it so much pleasure that you're pulling it. It would be an annoying thing to do to a human, but it's not taking it that way. This is how you should think of talking to people who love arguing, they are having a different internal response than you would have. When you say you disagree, they hear, "I think you're interesting! Here's my thoughts! I want your attention! More words from you please!"
posted by benadryl at 1:29 AM on September 2, 2017

One possibility to keep yourself interested might be to read up on argumentative strategies and watch what people are doing in detail. Sadly, I can't think of one single book that's guaranteed to work for you. You could start with Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs but, like most books on rhetoric, it's pretty superficial.

With certain people, you can call them on the arguments they are using and that itself will be an interesting discussion. Other people get infuriated by that, and I think in general, busting people for logical fallacies is likely to get you labeled as a bore. (Don't be that person who has a list of things like "argumentum ad hominem" and keeps breaking it out.) But you may be able to stick a wedge into the argument here and there once you notice how someone is operating. If they are truly someone who enjoys debate, they may find that fun.

In general I think it is better for relationships if you don't get too adversarial about it. You can argue while still going with the flow of the conversation. For a while I dated a political science professor who argued and debated constantly-- pretty much whenever he was talking. Trying to win on any kind of level got unfun really fast. He would always back down and say something like "Well I'm really just exploring these ideas" and start in again, making you feel like sort of a boor for trying to engage on a logical level. It was better to keep it on his terms and just be sort of playful about it.
posted by BibiRose at 8:33 AM on September 2, 2017

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