Listening to my local public radio station in Seattle, I heard a debate between two women about a homeless encampment. One was supportive of the homeless people and concerned about how they are being treated. The other was concerned about the possibly negative impact they were having on the surrounding community and felt they were getting a free ride, etc.
What I was struck by was how easy it would be to tell which woman was on which side of the debate just by their tone of voice, rhetorical style and the persona they were presenting. Independent of the content of her actual words, the anti-encampment woman sounded like an uptight, angry, defensive, narrow-minded conservative bully. Meanwhile, even though I happen to agree with her position, the encampment-sympathetic woman sounded like a smug, patronizing, disconnected, elitist, know-it-all, naive liberal.
Why would these people choose to come across this way when making their case about something they are passionate about, on public radio to an audience of tens of thousands? I think it’s this: They were each, probably without having thought about it much, seeking to sound authoritative and compelling to PEOPLE LIKE THEM. I spend more time with liberals than I do with conservatives, so I’m more familiar with the stereotypical liberal style (at least the west coast version!): slow, measured delivery. An artificial smoothness in the voice. Lots of very abstract terminology that shows you are aware of the systemic, theoretical dimensions of the issue at hand. Within the confines of a private meeting of liberal activists, it makes you sound like you have done your homework, know what you’re talking about and deserve to “hold the talking stick.” But in any other context, it makes you sound like a pretentious, self-important jerk. And here I’m talking about MY SIDE, in the liberal-conservative divide. Of course, when conservatives get on their high horses, they definitely also sound like angry, small-minded jerks to me! I’m not promising anything, but if they could just talk like normal people, I might sometimes be able to learn something, and might even be convinced every once in a while.
Now, I do realize that it gets slippery, and probably racist/classist/regionalist/etc, to claim there is one “normal” way of speaking. We all have our own normal. But sometimes in the heat of a passionate debate, people turn into caricatures of themselves, and it does not help their cause.
When you are having an important conversation with people who disagree with you, if you are hoping that they might learn something from you, or maybe even come to see things your way, and, in any case, you hope that they will trust that you are listening to them, please at the very least don’t try to conform MORE to the speaking style of the sort of folks who already share your beliefs. Sure, be yourself, whatever that is, but don’t dress yourself in the uniform of a stereotype on purpose, just to impress your teammates. When you do that, you lose your chance to engage with the other side, and you kind of ruin the whole game.
That’s all! Have a nice day!