Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How to win any argument

I got new bangs!
So, I'm a pathologically meek person, which is great, since apparently we will one day inherit the earth. In the meantime, I get slapped with a verbal wet fish anytime I enter an argument with someone who isn't afraid to correct the cashier at Checkers, even though I'm pretty sure she just handed me whatever she forgot to hand the last customer. I can't believe I'm wrong all the time, so perhaps I'm missing something in my rhetoric?

Your first problem is that you use the word "rhetoric." Arguments aren't really feats skill combing logos, pathos and ethos. Those are just words that professors made up because as a general rule professors like to make up words. It also makes it easier to explain why people are persuaded by seemingly irrational arguments, but this is all post-gaming. You want to win, then you don't have to post-game.

1. Know your audience

Performers feed off their audience. Don't fight this phenomenon. While you are in training, go to a retirement home and argue that young people today wear their pants wrong. The object here isn't to defend your ideas, because no one but the most contrarian of seniors is going to disagree with you. The object is to learn to read an audience. Look at their body language. Listen to their verbal cues and tone. What works? What doesn't get a response? Is that guy still breathing?

2. Know your opponent.

People aren't nearly as smart as they think they are. Most successful arguers have a handful of crib notes that they depend on because it is too much work to craft new arguments. Plus, actually reasoning through a problem means you might have to change your position, which is both scary and a sign of weakness. Don't go into an argument cold--that's like going into a pool hall and challenging the gentleman with the monogrammed, pearl-handled cue to a friendly wager. It doesn't matter how good you are; you have no idea how he plays.

Look for repeated references to certain webpages or pundits. Eventually you will become sufficiently proficient in media to know where your opponent is getting his notes. Has your opponent ever randomly dropped a line like, "But you are forgetting that the bill doesn't address migrant honey farm workers." Yes, you are. That's because everyone forgets that the bill doesn't address migrant honey farm workers...except possibly NPR staff writers. Now you know where to find your next move.

3. Cheat.

When all else fails, it's time to cheat. Don't bother acting indignant. Do you want to win or do you want to win honestly?

There are some quick and dirty ways to cheat:

  • Compare your opponent's position to Hitler 
  • Say your opponent "doesn't have the data" to back up his claims and, if he does, claim that 100% of all data is flawed
  • Bring up how the issue relates to the death of your grandfather and/or your cat
  • Use the term "moral relativism" 
  • Yawn dramatically 
  • Ask your opponent if he understands you after every phrase then misinterpret his acknowledgments of understanding as acceptance of your argument 
  • Intentionally misquote your opponent  
  • Poll the audience (Amirite?!)
  • Bemoan your opponent's inability to fully comprehend the genius of your reasoning because it is clearly his responsibility to decipher what you meant
  • Use the words "clearly," "obviously," and "logically" a lot.
4. The Slide-n-Smirk

The list above are all great ways to scurry into the safe mole hole of dirty arguing, but for your more accomplished arguers, you will need to employ the "Slide-n-Smirk." The "Slide-n-Smirk," in addition to being the name of a future amusement ride based on this blog, is a process by which you hide your argument's weaknesses while at the same time amplifying your opponent's insecurities. It takes practice and confidence, which is why it is not for beginners. 

  1. Learn how to speak using multiple dependent clauses. By the time you are finished a sentence, there should be no indication of where you began. 
  2. Learn to speak quickly and softly. This takes practice because most of us only speak quickly when we are yelling. 
  3. Develop a habit of punctuating your sentences with a slight smirk or, if appropriate, that thing teenagers do when they roll their eyes and bop their heads after explaining simply tasks to their horribly out-of-touch elders. (Go ask anyone under 16 how to check your cell phone voicemail.) 
Now, let's put it all together. Remember, soft and quick...

The problem with your reasoning, although I completely understand your sentiments, is that there is always going to be, and rightly should be, a distinction between knowing whether to act in a particular manner and saying that the particular manner is, in fact, an act of knowing, which is all together different from the question at issue as it relates to what you are apparently proposing. <Smirk/head bop>

Not only have you hidden your inscrutable argument in language so dense it makes the Dead Sea look like fruit punch, but by speaking softly and quickly you have increased the likelihood that your opponent has not heard or understood most of what you said. Under normal circumstances, he would ask you to repeat yourself, but the closing smirk has implied that you already have doubts about his intelligence. Asking you to repeat yourself means he can barely understand the English language, regardless of how you have mangled it.

Most likely he will attempt to repeat the last thing he said, in the hopes that by some Pavlovian coincidence you will repeat what you said when faced with the same stimuli. Don't take the bait. Give him a fresh batch of pea soup prose until he inevitably admits defeat.

Then take your victory lap.


  1. Great tips! I'm really good at arguing - when the argument's over and I think of all the good stuff too late!

    1. A common problem. More advanced practitioners are actually able to think of additional things to say during the Slide-n-Smirk. I actually black out slightly during arguments and then I forget what I said. Equally problematic.

  2. Damn I love this. I think I know a few people who go by this playbook. Mostly they are on Sunday morning political talk shows or raise their hand to often in law school. This is pure gold. Yet again.

    1. Thanks! Those are the people that inspired this post. I had to stop watching the Sunday morning shows. Unfortunately I can't get away from the law school gunners just yet.

  3. It's almost like you're exposed to this on a constant basis. Ellen


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