Arguments vs Debates

There is a lot of argument in our community right now. To be perfectly honest, I feel a little bit like I’m back in junior high, listening to a “he said, she said” except this time there’s pictures and links and rape threats and death threats and the pettiness is a whole lot more dangerous and has real impacts. To be perfectly honest I think most of us are getting a little tired of bickering, but there are always some who think that if we just facilitate more dialogue or more debate, we’ll come to an understanding.

However there’s something important that we need to make clear: when are we engaging in real dialogue, and when are we just bickering and arguing? There have been many times when I’ve looked at an exchange and wondered why either side was still bothering to respond, as it was clear that nothing was happening. There are other times when I see real dialogue. I’m still not entirely sure what marks the differences, but I think there are a few key elements we can identify and look for when deciding whether or not to engage and how to conserve our energy for real debates instead of letting ourselves get sucked into the yelling matches that leave us feeling frazzled and pointless (we’ve all been there. I understand).


  1. Is there any space for change on either side?

If neither person involved in the discussion has any likelihood of budging ever, or even of listening to the opposing side, your discussion is likely not a discussion. Many people in these situations say that they’re arguing back for those people who are listening, not for the person they’re arguing against. However in that case it’s good to be aware that you’re not really discussing or debating, you’re doing something more like public speaking.

1. How many times have you had to repeat yourself?

If you find yourself talking in circles this is a good indication that your conversation partner is not listening. At this point, you are likely not engaging in a dialogue, but someone is trying to talk AT you. If that’s the case, then calling them out and walking away is often a good strategy.

2. Do you feel like you can’t walk away?

This is something that is mostly drawn from my personal experience and may be different for others, but when I am engaged in a discussion and I become so emotionally attached to it that if I try to walk away or take a break, the issue niggles at my brain until I return and engage again, I am not really there for any sort of dialogue, I’m there because I want to win. Sometimes strong emotions are sign that you’re talking about something important to you, however if you are feeling incredibly defensive, angry, or frustrated, you might want to take a little time to evaluate why you’re so upset.

3. Have you created a long list of bulleted retorts to everything they said?

Oftentimes I find that in arguments people can’t let anything go. They look through absolutely every piece of what the other person said and create a little bulleted list of retorts and each side continues to do this so that it grows and grows and grows and eventually becomes some sort of horrid beast of “nuh uh!” “Uh huh!” At some point it is important to try to reiterate the meat of what the other person is saying and simply focus on your root disagreement. The nit-picky is often just a distraction and a way to bicker. If you find that you can’t let a single thing that the other person says go and need to be right about ABSOLUTELY EVERY PIECE, you might be arguing, not discussing.

4. Are insults flying?

This one’s fairly easy. I’m not trying to tone police, but if it turns into what’s essentially a shouting match you’re not getting much done. A choice insult here or there to spice up your argument can be great but if your argument consists of “You f*** b** c** w*** I f*** hate you” it might be time to stop.

5. Has everyone else stopped listening?

So this one might seem a little odd, but I think that it’s a good signifier that nothing of substance is happening in your dialogue if no one else is interested anymore. If you started off with a variety of voices piping in, and it’s dwindled down to two going back and forth over and over, you’re probably worn over the same territory and nobody wants to hear it again. If only the people who are angry and emotionally attached to the conversation have any interest in the conversation, you’re probably not there for intellectual betterment: you might be there to win.

So with these things in mind, let’s go forth and do our best to engage where useful and conserve our energy and voice when we start to get sucked into conversations that are just arguing.

Previous post

Awesome Sauce Music Friday! Caffeine Caffeine Edition

Next post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 6.3



Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

No Comment

Leave a reply