Conversational Etiquette: Dinosaurs, Chupacabras and ad hominim attacks


Apparently the idea of ‘polite society’ has gone the way of the dinosaur.   Requiring a modicrum of respect and civility in these rapidly shifting days and times seems almost as difficult as finding the Yeti. Or a living Chupacabra.

I suppose a lot of that has to do with culture wars and people being raised in different kinds of environments. Not everybody has what we used to call “home training”.   What that meant in the culture that I come from – Southern, Black and Baptist – was that children were generally seen and not heard, Elders were respected, conversation was polite and families took care of their own. And others too, if it became necessary.

Times have changed. A lot of that is now considered to be quaint. People don’t know each other and fear seems to have changed the world into an almost unrecognizeable place in the past couple of decades.   Regular civility has suffered as a result. Maybe it was the advent of the Internet that started it. Email replaced letters, chat and texting replaced phone calls. The lack of face-to-face contact encourages a false companionship and surface conversation.

In that context, asking people to be kind to each other is like asking them for a vital organ.   People want to retain the sovereignty.

And if being polite impinges upon their right to be ornery then, by all the angels in the sky and demons in hell, politeness must be a tool of the New World Order. It must support an old metanarrative thats day is done. It must be a part of the patriarchy. It must be about oppression. It must be about limiting freedom of speech.   Right?

Wrong. Politeness is harmonic. Being resonant to others in your environment indicates your vibratory state. Purposefully inculcating disharmonic intonations is choosing cacaphony over harmony. Sometimes, if the cause is just, that is necessary. But most times, the cause is not just, the cause is egocentric argumentation. Or the attempt to guide and control another’s perspective. Which is never just.

Being respectful and polite is the same as two tuning forks resonating harmonically. Being respectful and polite accords with the laws of conservation of energy. It takes less energy to vibrate at the same pitch as others, it takes more energy to choose a dischordant tone and hold it.   In formal debating, it is drilled into the participants that their disagreement and discourse must be courteous and respectful. Debates rarely get contentious and argumentative and the participants never end up talking about each other’s mamas or sexual preferences. The function of debate is to work through ideas and find the most mathematically precise form of the equation, the argument, that leads to an irreducible and remorseless conclusion.

The correct answer, or truth, in a debate, is always the clearest and most concise argument put forth that presents an answer in a format that fulfills the conditions set by the intial question. In a debate, specious arguments, arguments without foundation and arguments that do not address the main points are quickly seen for what they are.   Informal debates turn into arguments that turn into fights.

Which is why, in places where the participants are not bound by the rules of formal debate, it is necessary to enforce a certain etiquette in order for the conversation to remain civil. When the partipants in discussions that turn into debates are not trained in how to leverage their emotions into precise language focused upon the crux of their argument it devolves into personal ad hominim attacks.

Down in the small, country towns of West Texas, where I’m from, the old folks would just watch in wonder at folks like that, shaking their heads and clucking, “Lord, have mercy. Now that person don’t have no home training at all.”   Polite society may no longer be in vogue, but polite conversation is an absolute requirement for comfortable growth and a sense of psychological safety in an environment where such is the exception rather than the rule.

And, maybe, someday, even the dinosaurs will return.

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2 Comments

  1. Sadly, thoughtful observations like yours may be more like the lone voice crying in the wilderness. I’ve gotten over being shocked at the casual, unconscious rudeness of folks these days (particularly the young), and simply accept that everything at its extreme will eventually turn into its opposite. In the meantime, the best way we can serve is to be an example of kindness and graciousness. Perhaps we can plant some seeds, and let those with whom we interact experience how nice it feels to be treated with respect.

    Thanks, Brother!

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