ozarque (ozarque) wrote,

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Linguistics; verbal self-defense; responding to "If you REALLY..." attacks

We've been discussing the "If you REALLY ..." Verbal Attack Pattern for American English; now I'd like talk briefly about responding to attacks that follow that pattern. We have a standard AE script for that; it leads to dialogues like this one...

John: "If you REALLY cared about your health, you'd STOP living on JUNK food!"
Bill: "Whaddayou MEAN, I live on junk food?? I do NOT!"
John: "Oh, yeah? Well, what about that jelly doughnut you had for breakfast this morning?"
Bill: "Listen, I was LATE this morning! I didn't have TIME for a decent breakfast!"
John: "And what about yesterday afternoon, when you were sitting there eating a burger and FRIES?"
Bill: "What ARE you, the FOOD POLICE? I was BUSY yesterday afternoon! I was...."
[And so on.]

What John wants is the opportunity to go through a long altercation in which he accuses Bill of one Junk Food Offense after another while Bill responds to each accusation with an attempted explanation or excuse. The longer this goes on, the more satisfied John will be. Which means that Bill's responses in the dialogue are in fact rewarding John for the attack by giving him exactly what he wants -- undivided attention, with the bonus of an emotional response that serves as proof of his power to get and keep that attention.

In AE culture we're traditionally taught three ways to defend ourselves against verbal attacks: by counterattacking, as Bill did above; by pleading ["I can't BELIEVE you're going to start that when you can SEE that I'm BURIED in WORK here!!"]; and by rational argument ["There are three reasons why you can't say that to me. First, .... "]. In recent years we've added a fourth alternative, a sort of pseudo-therapy ["I can see that this is really important to you. Why don't you sit down so that we can talk about it?"]. All four of these strategies reward the attacker in the same way, by providing the human attention that is what the attacker wants; all four have associated standard scripts; all four are excellent methods for training people to be ever more skillful and determined verbal abusers.

All the American English VAPs have two parts: an open attack (the bait); and at least one more attack -- one that's less obvious because of the way it's sheltered in a presupposition. In "If you REALLY cared about your health, you'd STOP living on JUNK food!", the bait is "You live on junk food." The sheltered attack -- presupposed by the "If you really cared" structure -- is "you don't really care about your health." The best response strategy is to ignore the bait and respond to the other attack. Like this:

John: "If you REALLY cared about your health, you'd STOP living on JUNK food!"
Bill: "Of course I care about my health." [Spoken with the most neutral body language Bill can manage.]

Or like this....

John: "If you REALLY cared about your health, you'd STOP living on JUNK food!"
Bill: "When did you start thinking that I don't care about my health?" [Spoken with the most neutral body language Bill can manage.]

Not "Why do you think I don't care about my health?" or "What makes you think I don't care about my health?" (We've discussed why-questions and their hazards in earlier posts in this journal.) The when-question is the most neutral one; the only claim it makes is that at some point John started thinking what John has just said that he's still thinking. Neither of these responses follows the standard script; neither one is anything the attacker is expecting to hear; and neither one takes the bait. The attack has failed.

John can now, if he wants to, come back at Bill with "When did I start thinking you don't care about your health? When I saw you trying to live on JUNK food, THAT'S when!". Or -- in response to "Of course I care about my health" -- with "Then WHY do you LIVE on JUNK food??" That's his privilege. But each of those lines constitutes a new attack, requiring a new response strategy; the first attack has still failed.

Tags: verbal self-defense

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