March 28th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; disagreeing without being disagreeable; part 1...

beckyzoole commented:
"Here is a topic I'd love to see addressed in one of your posts sometime -- how to disagree without being disagreeable. ... You have written extensively on defense against hostile and abusive disagreement. In your research and experience, what are the most effective [defined as "the desired effect would generally be either to teach or to learn"] ways to convey disagreement without appearing hostile, abusive, superior or dense?"

I'm going to have to do this in three parts. There are two very different categories of disagreements: (1) disagreements about minor issues, like whether everybody in a workplace can go to lunch at the same time or lunches have to be staggered; (2) disagreements about major issues and matters of principle, like abortion and immigration. I need to do a separate post for each category; when they're muddled together, the message gets muddled too.

In this post today, I'd like to respond to something else that beckyzoole said in her comment:
"For example, I find the phrase 'we have to agree to disagree' extremely irritating -- which is odd because it is by all appearances such a bland, peaceful little phrase. As I recall, you have previously remarked with frustration that saying 'we have to agree to disagree' just seems to make things worse. And yet you, and many other people, do use the phrase fairly regularly so it must be effective in some contexts. I wonder if there is a regional or a generational factor at play here?"


"We have to agree to disagree" is irritating because it's coercive; verbally, it's the use of force. Very gentle force, but force all the same. It says "You'll be wasting your time if you continue to present your side of this issue we disagree about, because I refuse to participate in any further interaction with you on the subject." It doesn't call a "time out," it says "This game is over, and I'm leaving the field." There's no way it could be anything other than irritating. Its only redeeming feature is that -- so long as it's done neutrally -- it carries a metamessage that says "Although I am using force, please notice that I am trying hard not to make you lose face." (Which is of course in itself offensive, since it presupposes that the speaker/writer has the power to make the listener/reader lose face.)

"We have to agree to disagree," like any other kind of force, should be a last resort. There are times, I believe, when it is the best choice among the array of bad choices. For just one example: It's the best choice when a disagreement is obviously going to go on endlessly, not because it's particularly important but because the person who disagrees with you is locked into the Disagreement Is Combat metaphor and is determined to fight to the death. In that situation -- because exposure to hostile language is dangerous to the health and well-being of everybody involved, including the innocent bystanders -- "We have to agree to disagree" is appropriate.

For me personally -- because I am a linguist, and because I am a radical pacifist -- using "We have to agree to disagree" always represents a failure. It always means that I have not been able to put my message together in a fashion that has sufficient persuasive power; if that were not true, I wouldn't find myself with my back to the wall saying "We will have to disagree." It happens. I always regret it, and I always try to avoid it, but it happens. And I recommend it in spite of its flawed nature, because there are times when it's necessary. It's preferable to just saying "Oh, shut up," and walking out.
ozarque figure

Disagreeing without being disagreeable; FYI note....

The book I wrote for John Wiley & Sons titled How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable is available at the moment in a brand new hardcover edition (from MJF Books) that's ten dollars cheaper than the original paperback. It's not at amazon.com, but it's at Barnes & Noble stores and online at http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&isbn=1567317391&itm=2 . No cover image has been posted yet, but I have a copy in front of me and can tell you that you're not missing anything by not seeing the cover. It's a nice generic cover, all text.

Like my first verbal self-defense book, it's a B&N "exclusive," in an edition licensed by John Wiley & Sons. [And thank goodness for it, because the license fee has paid off a large chunk of the advances still owed to John Wiley for me.]

I'm not trying to sell you anything -- my word on it. You can always find used copies of that book for a dime or less plus postage, online, and you can get it through your library for no money at all. This is an informational note only.