Aggressors and transgressors

The Argument Culture
February 12, 1999

The Argument Culture is the latest in a lengthy series of works about the way people communicate (or not, as the case may be): Deborah Tannen's writing in this area ranges from bestsellers such as You Just Don't Understand and Talking from 9 to 5 to dozens of articles written over the past 20 years.

Tannen's target this time is the adversarial system that so characterises Anglo-American institutions, whether in political life, the law courts or the press. The chapters revolve around what she terms "agonism" (a kind of programmed contentiousness) in private and working life, and in contexts ranging from litigation to computer games. The points are illustrated lavishly by reference to a wide range of authorities covering an endless range of episodes and anecdotes, though it is surprising no mention is made of the two front benches in the House of Commons being two sword-lengths apart.

It is a successful formula, but one that begins to cloy in a book of this length: each chapter is divided into sections that are so self-contained that it is impossible to elaborate on themes that are very important. Road rage is touched on, but is embedded in a section on the dangers of "public agonism" and fears of a society that may (or may not) fall into the hands of aggressive young men. The more recent phenomenon of air rage could have been discussed here.

Technologically enhanced aggression is covered in a single chapter, and provides enough insights for a whole book: it looks at ways in which people communicate via email (though the curious phenomenon of cyberspace partners is overlooked) and how email can be a block as well as an aid to proper communication. The sinister practice of electronic lobbying is touched on and the concern about the link between aggressive behaviour and computer games is aired.

Tannen's key area of interest - the different ways in which men and women communicate - is also drawn out with some useful insights into how people respond to the newly established protocols of discussion groups and chat rooms. The ground rules for "flaming" are not laid down as clearly as they might, which would have been a useful way of showing that the adversarial style can be used for positive purposes as a means of maintaining public order among unruly web-surfers. There is perhaps an underlying assumption that people in public life will tell the truth without being challenged by debate, while satire has a useful role to play in deflating expanded egos, even if the laughter it provokes can have a cruel edge.

The overtly American style of the book seems to have made the UK publishers anxious, to the extent that a British journalist has been called on to provide home examples and additions. The Lewinsky affair is tracked in the introduction up to August 1998, Elizabeth Dole's public style is analysed and yet it is assumed the UK reader will be aware of the Tailhook scandal without further explanation. Americanisms abound and US spelling and syntax predominate.

Whether or not (as the dustjacket assures us) "the book ... will transform our notions of truth and debate", it does draw together a range of images that sums up modern urban life and sparkles with situations that are all too recognisable.

Tim Connell is director of language studies, City University.

The Argument Culture

Author - Deborah Tannen
ISBN - 1 86049 472 2
Publisher - Virago
Price - £16.99
Pages - 336

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