Kate Heddleston on argument culture

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


In a perfect world, people win arguments through the use of logic, facts, and better information. In reality, most people are pretty terrible at using logic, facts, and information. People make decisions from a place of emotion. We know this because if the emotional centers of a person’s brain are damaged, they become incapable of making even the most basic decisions [4]. Arguments are inherently emotional interactions where the goal is winning, and if we have learned anything from sports it’s that people will do anything to win. They will dope, cheat, break people’s legs, deflate footballs, and any number of other stupid, harmful, or ridiculous things to be declared the victor. This is why sports have refs, debates have moderators, and courtrooms have judges.

The arenas that use arguments as competition have strict regulations and oversight. Becoming a lawyer requires courses in legal ethics, and lawyers who lie are usually disbarred and lose their license [5]. By contrast, engineering environments are the wild, unregulated west. Without strict rules around the use of arguing and designated referees, people can use arguments to assert authority over coworkers. The desire to win will be so tempting to some people they will even engage in unethical behavior. These people will use almost anything they can get their hands on as a weapon against their opponent.

An argument culture creates an environment where winning is paramount. As we’ve talked about, when winning is the goal people can start to cross ethical boundaries. Crossing boundaries and using aggression to win an argument includes making personal remarks, interrupting, speaking much more loudly than an opponent, or entering someone’s personal space. Instead of staying on topic and trying to find the best solution, people might use personal attacks to undermine their opponent in order to win. Size and loudness are also ways to make another person back off in a disagreement, leaving the louder, larger person the winner regardless of the content of their argument [6].

Here’s an example of how this can play out in the workplace. Let’s say the topic of integrating a new technology into your existing platform comes up. Maybe you need to implement caching. Maybe you’re adding a new data store. Maybe you need to build a new service and you’re trying to decide what framework to use. Whatever the topic, it’s likely that someone will have a strong opinion on what to do. Many engineers have a habit of jumping right into arguments on behalf of their favorite new technology or architectural scheme. When things get heated, as they often do, one tactic a person can use to win the argument is to undermine the credibility of their opponent.

In the heat of the moment, one opponent says to the other: “You seem really frustrated.”

On the surface this might seem like a kind or thoughtful remark – one person is showing concern for the other person’s feelings, right? In reality, they are using the social stereotype that emotions interfere with rational thinking to undermine the credibility of his or her opponent. While personal remarks like this can be used as a weapon against anyone, it’s a particularly potent weapon when used against women. This is because it plays into the historical stereotype that woman are more emotional and less rational than men.