In 2010, Time magazine made Mark Zuckerberg its person of the year. It described Facebook’s mission as being to “tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world”. During the first decade of mass internet use, this was a popular theory: the more that people were able to communicate with others, the more friendly and understanding they would become, the result being a more peaceable and harmonious world.
In 2021, that vision seems painfully naive. Howling online mobs clash day and night, and some of them commit real-world violence. The internet is connecting people, but it isn’t necessarily creating fellow feeling. At its worst, it can resemble a vast machine for the production of mutual antipathy.
Technology is at least partially responsible for a world in which toxic disagreement is ubiquitous; in which offence seems to be constantly given and taken; in which we do ever more talking and ever less listening. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Graham has observed that the internet is a medium that engenders disagreement by design. Digital media platforms are inherently interactive and, well, people are disputatious.
As Graham puts it, “agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing”. Readers are more likely to comment on an article or post when they disagree with it, and in disagreement they have more to say (there are only so many ways you can say “I agree”). People also tend to get more animated when they disagree, which usually means getting angry.
But while it is tempting to blame Facebook and Twitter for making us this way, that would be to miss the significance of a wider and more profound shift in human behaviour – one that has been decades, even centuries, in the making. Socially, as well as electronically, there are fewer one-way channels than ever. Everyone is starting to talk back to everyone else. If we are becoming more disagreeable, it’s because the modern world demands we speak our minds.
The American anthropologist Edward T Hall introduced a distinction between two types of communication culture: high context and low context. In a low-context culture, communication is explicit and direct. What people say is taken to be an expression of their thoughts and feelings. You don’t need to understand the context – who is speaking, in what situation – to understand the message. A high-context culture is one in which little is said explicitly, and most of the message is implied. The meaning of each message resides not so much in the words themselves, as in the context. Communication is oblique, subtle, ambiguous.
Most of us, wherever we are in the world, are living increasingly low-context lives, as more and more of us flock to cities, do business with strangers and converse over smartphones. Different countries still have different communication cultures, but nearly all of them are subject to the same global vectors of commerce, urbanisation and technology – forces that dissolve tradition, flatten hierarchy and increase the scope for confrontation. It’s not at all clear that we are prepared for this.
For most of our existence as a species, humans have operated in high-context mode. Our ancestors lived in settlements and tribes with shared traditions and settled chains of command. Now, we frequently encounter others with values and customs different to our own. At the same time, we are more temperamentally egalitarian than ever. Everywhere you look, there are interactions in which all parties have or demand an equal voice. Everyone expects their opinion to be heard and, increasingly, it can be. In this raucous, irreverent, gloriously diverse world, previously implicit rules about what can and cannot be said are looser and more fluid, sometimes even disappearing. With less context to guide our decisions, the number of things on which “we all agree” is shrinking fast.
Think about what defines low-context culture, at least in its extreme form: endless chatter, frequent argument; everyone telling you what they think, all the time. Remind you of anything? As Ian Macduff, an expert in conflict resolution, puts it, “the world of the internet looks predominantly like a low-context world”.
If humans were purely rational entities, we would listen politely to an opposing view before offering a considered response. In reality, disagreement floods our brain with chemical signals that make it hard to focus on the issue at hand. The signals tell us that this is an attack on me. “I disagree with you” becomes “I don’t like you”. Instead of opening our minds to the other’s point of view, we focus on defending ourselves.
Animals respond to threat with two basic tactics, first identified by the Harvard biologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915: fight or flight. Humans are no different. A disagreement can tempt us to become aggressive and lash out, or it can induce us to back off and swallow our opinions out of a desire to avoid conflict. These atavistic responses still influence our behaviour in today’s low-context environments: we either get into hostile and mostly pointless arguments, or do everything we can to avoid arguing at all. Both responses are dysfunctional.
You don’t have to look far to see the fight response to disagreement: just open your social media feeds or read the comments section on your favourite website. The internet is reputed to create “echo chambers”, in which people only encounter views they already agree with, but the evidence points in precisely the opposite direction. Research tells us that social media users have more diverse news diets than non-users. You are almost bound to encounter opinions that upset you on Twitter; much more so than if your only information source is a daily newspaper. Instead of creating bubbles, the internet is bursting them, generating hostility, fear and anger.
One reason online discourse is so often so furious is because it has been designed to be this way. Studies have shown that content that outrages is more likely to be shared. Users who post angry messages get the status boost of likes and retweets, and the platforms on which those messages are posted gain the attention and engagement that they sell to advertisers. Online platforms therefore have an incentive to push forward the most extreme versions of every argument. Nuance, reflection and mutual understanding are not just casualties of the crossfire, but necessary victims.
But it would be a profound mistake to conclude from all this that we are arguing too much. The hollow outrage we see online is actually evidence of the absence of real, reflective disagreements: fight as a smokescreen for flight.
It’s often said that if humanity is to rise to the existential threats it faces, we must put our differences aside. But when we all agree – or pretend to – it becomes harder to make progress. Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy. We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. Instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.
To do so, we will have to overcome a widespread discomfort with disagreement. Disagreeing well is hard, and for most of us, stressful. But perhaps if we learn to see it as a skill in its own right, rather than as something that comes naturally, we might become more at ease with it. I believe we have a lot to learn from those who manage adversarial, conflict-ridden situations for a living; people whose job it is to wring information, insight and human connection out of even the most hostile encounter.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in West Germany, a group of Palestinian terrorists seized 11 Israeli athletes. The terrorists made their demands, the authorities refused them. The Munich police resorted to firepower. Twenty-two people were killed, including all the hostages. In the wake of what became known as the Munich Massacre, law-enforcement agencies around the world realised they had an urgent problem. Officers communicating with hostage-takers in order to avoid or minimise violence had no protocol to follow. Police departments realised that they needed to learn negotiation skills.
Hostage negotiators, who may be specialists or trained officers with other responsibilities, are now deployed in a wide range of situations. The best ones are not just expert in tactics; they understand the importance of what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “face-work”. In Goffman’s terms, “face” is the public image a person wants to establish in a social interaction. We put effort into establishing the appropriate face for each encounter: the face you want to show a potential boss will be different to the face you want to show someone on a date. This effort is face-work.
With people we trust and know well, we don’t worry so much about face, but with those we don’t know – especially when those people have some power over us – we put in the face-work. When someone puts in face-work and yet doesn’t achieve the face they want, they feel bad. If you strive to be seen as authoritative and someone treats you with minimal respect, you feel embarrassed and even humiliated. In some circumstances you might try to sabotage the encounter to feel better.
People skilled in the art of disagreement don’t just think about their own face; they’re highly attuned to the other’s face. One of the most powerful social skills is the ability to give face; to confirm the public image that the other person wishes to project. In any conversation, when the other person feels their desired face is being accepted and confirmed, they’re going to be a lot easier to deal with, and more likely to listen to what you have to say.
No one knows this better than hostage negotiators. Hostage crises can be divided into two types. In “instrumental” crises, the interaction tends to be relatively rational in character. The hostage-taker sets out clear demands, and a bargaining process ensues. In “expressive” crises, the hostage-takers want to say something – to people at home, to the world. They are usually people who have acted impulsively: a father who has kidnapped his daughter after losing custody, a man who has tied up his girlfriend and is threatening to kill her. Most often, negotiators are dealing with individuals who have taken themselves hostage: people who have climbed to the top of a tall building and are threatening to jump. The hostage-taker in an expressive scenario is usually on edge, emotionally – angry, desperate, deeply insecure, and liable to act in unpredictable ways.
Negotiators are taught to soothe and reassure the hostage-taker before getting to the negotiation. William Donohue, a professor of communication at the University of Michigan, has spent decades studying conflict-ridden conversations – some successful, some failed – involving terrorists, pirates, and people on the brink of suicide. He talked to me about a key component of face: how powerful a person feels. Hostage-takers in expressive situations want their importance to be recognised in some way – to have their status acknowledged.
Donohue and his collaborator Paul Taylor, of Lancaster University, coined the term “one-down” to describe the party, in any kind of negotiation, who feels most insecure about their relative status. One-down parties are more likely to act aggressively and competitively, at the expense of finding common ground or coming up with solutions. In 1974, Spain and the US opened negotiations over the status of certain US military bases on Spanish soil. The political scientist Daniel Druckman looked at when American and Spanish negotiators adopted “hard tactics” or “soft tactics”. He found that the Spanish team used threats and accusations three times as often as the American team. The Spanish, one-down, were aggressively asserting their autonomy.
When a hostage-taker feels dominated, he is more likely to resort to violence. “That’s when words fail,” Donohue told me. “In effect, the hostage-taker says: ‘You haven’t acknowledged respect for me, so I have to gain it by controlling you physically.’” People will go to great, even self-destructive lengths to avoid the perception that they are being walked over. One-down parties often play dirty, attacking their adversary from unexpected, hard-to-defend angles. Instead of looking for solutions that might work for everyone, they treat every negotiation as a zero-sum game in which someone must win and the other must lose. Instead of engaging with the content, they attack the person as a way of asserting their status.
By contrast, there are those who enter a negotiation expecting to succeed because they are, or perceive themselves to be, in the stronger position. They may well therefore adopt a more relaxed and expansive approach, focusing on the substance of the disagreement and looking for win-win solutions. They may also take more risks with their face, making moves that might otherwise be seen as weak, offering a more friendly and conciliatory dialogue. Since they don’t fear losing face, they can reach out a hand.
This is why giving face is so important. It is in a negotiator’s interest for their counterpart to feel as secure as possible. Skilled negotiators are always trying to create the adversary they want. They know that when they’re one-up, the smart thing to do is to narrow the gap.
In any conversation where there is an unequal power balance, the more powerful party is more likely to be focused on the top line – on the content or matter at hand – while the one-down party focuses on the relationship. Here are a few examples:
A parent says: “Why did you come home so late?” The teenage daughter thinks: “You’re treating me like a little kid.”
A doctor says: “We can’t find anything wrong with you.” The patient thinks: “You don’t care about me.”
A politician says: “The economy is growing more strongly than ever.” A voter thinks: “Stop talking to me like I’m an idiot.”
When a debate becomes volatile and dysfunctional, it’s often because someone in the conversation feels they are not getting the face they deserve. This helps to explain the pervasiveness of bad temper on social media, which can sometimes feel like a status competition in which the currency is attention. On Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, anyone can get likes, retweets or new followers – in theory. But although there are exceptions, it is actually very hard for people who are not already celebrities to build a following. Gulled by the promise of high status, users then get angry when status is denied. Social media appears to give everyone an equal chance of being heard. In reality, it is geared to reward a tiny minority with massive amounts of attention, while the majority has very little. The system is rigged.
So far, we’ve been talking about one aspect of face-work: status. However, there is another, closely related yet distinct component of a person’s face, which is not so much about how high or low they feel, as who they feel they are.
Elisa Sobo, a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University, has interviewed parents who refuse vaccines. Why were these people, many of them smart and highly educated, ignoring mainstream medical advice that was based on sound science? Sobo concluded that for these individuals opposition to vaccines is not just a belief, but an “act of identification” – that is, it’s more about opting in to a group than opting out of a treatment, like “getting a gang tattoo, slipping on a wedding ring, or binge-watching a popular streamed TV show”. The refusal is “more about who one is and with whom one identifies than who one isn’t or whom one opposes”. Sobo points out that this is also true of those who opt in to vaccines: our desire to be associated with mainstream views on medicine is also a way of signalling who we are. That’s why arguments between the two sides quickly become clashes of identity.
According to William Donohue, what drags participants into destructive conflict is usually a struggle over who they are. “I’ve seen it in hostage situations, in politics, in marital arguments,” he said. “You don’t know anything, you have problems, you’re insensitive. One person feels like the other is attacking who they are, so they defend themselves, or hit back. It escalates.”
That our opinions come tangled up with our sense of ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something we need to be aware of when trying to get someone to do something they do not want to do, whether that’s stop smoking, adapt to a new working practice, or vote for our candidate. Our goal should be to prise the disputed opinion or action away from the person’s sense of self – to lower the identity stakes. The skilful disagreer finds a way of helping their adversary conclude that they can say or do something different, and still be themselves.
One way to do that is to have the disagreement away from an audience. In Boston in 1994, in the wake of a shooting at an abortion clinic, the philanthropist Laura Chasin reached out to six abortion activists, three of them pro-life, three pro-choice, and asked them to meet in secret to see if they could build some kind of understanding. Hard and even painful as it was, the six women met, clandestinely, over a period of years. At first, they found their positions hardening, and none of them ever changed their minds on the fundamental points. But over time, as they got to know each other, they felt able to think, communicate and negotiate in more unconstrained, less simplistic ways. The less that people feel compelled to maintain their face in front of allies, the more flexible they feel able to be.
The same principle applies to workplace conflicts. In front of an audience of colleagues, people are more likely to focus on how they want to be seen, rather than on the right way to solve the problem. If it is important to me to be seen as competent, I might react angrily to any challenge to my work. If I want to be seen as nice and cooperative, I might refrain from expressing my strongly felt opposition to a proposal in terms strong enough for anyone to notice. That’s why, when a difficult work conversation arises, the participants often propose to “take it offline”. The phrase used to mean simply an in-person discussion, but it has gained an additional nuance: “Let’s take this potentially tough conversation to a place where there is less at stake for our faces.”
Taking a disagreement offline can work, but it should only ever be seen as a second-best option. It means the problem at hand is exposed to the scrutiny of fewer minds, losing the benefits of open disagreements. The best way to lower the identity stakes is to create a workplace culture in which people do not feel much need to protect their face; a culture in which different opinions are explicitly encouraged, mistakes are expected, rules of conduct are understood, and everyone trusts that everyone else cares about the collective goal. Then you can really have it out.
Still, in most disagreements, face is at stake in some way, and while getting out of sight of an audience is one way of lowering the identity stakes, another way is to give face – to affirm your adversary’s ideal sense of themselves. When you show me that you believe in who I am and want to be seen as, you make it easier for me to reconsider my position. By being personally gracious, you can depersonalise the disagreement.
Sometimes that can be as simple as offering a compliment at the very moment your adversary feels most vulnerable. Jonathan Wender, a former cop who co-founded an organisation called Polis that trains US police officers in de-escalation, has written a book about policing in which he notes that the act of arrest is a moment of potential humiliation for the suspect. Wender argues that when police officers are making an arrest, they should do what they can to make the person being arrested feel better about themselves.
He gives the example of arresting a man he calls Calvin, suspected of violent assault: “The officer and I each took hold of one of Calvin’s arms and told him he was under arrest. He began to struggle and was clearly ready to fight. Given his large stature and history of violence, we wanted to avoid fighting with Calvin, which would inevitably leave him and officers injured. I told Calvin, ‘Look, you’re just too big for us to fight with.’”
Wender writes: “Officers can de-escalate a potential fight by … affirming his dignity, especially in public.” It is in a cop’s interest to make the person they have arrested feel good, or at least less bad, about themselves. This is common sense – or at least it ought to be. It is amazing how often people commit what you might call the overdog’s mistake: when, having achieved a dominant position, they brutally ram their advantage home, wounding the other party’s sense of self. By doing so, they might gain some fleeting satisfaction, but they also create the adversary they do not want.
Wounded people are dangerous. In Memphis, when I visited a Polis training session, I watched as the instructor told the class that when he was a cop, he had seen officers hit suspects after they had been cuffed, sometimes in front of the suspect’s friends or family. Not only was that wrong, he said, it was dumb: the act of humiliating someone in an arrest “can kill your colleagues”. There was a grave murmur of assent in the room. Suspects who have been humiliated do not forget it, and some extract terrible revenge on a cop – any cop – years down the line. Humiliation hurts the humiliators and those associated with them. In a study of 10 international diplomatic crises, the political scientists William Zartman and Johannes Aurik described how, when stronger countries exert power over weaker countries, the weaker ones accede in the short term but look for ways to retaliate later on.
The US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has described how to have a conversation with someone with whom you strongly disagree. You don’t have to share her politics to see that it is good advice:
“I have this mentor. And one of the best pieces of advice that he gave me is ‘always give someone the golden gate of retreat’, which is: give someone enough compassion, enough opportunity in a conversation for them to look good changing their mind. And it’s a really important thing to be able to do, because if you’re just like, ‘Oh you said this thing! You’re racist!’, you’re forcing that person to say, ‘No I’m not’. Et cetera. There’s no golden gate of retreat there. The only retreat there is to just barrel right through the opposing opinion.”
When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good – maintain or even enhance their face – at the same time. Often this is very hard to do in the moment of the dispute itself, when opinion and face are bound even more tightly together than they are before or after (the writer Rachel Cusk defines an argument as “an emergency of self-definition”). However, by showing that we have listened to and respected our interlocutor’s point of view, we make it more likely that they will come around at some later point. If and when they do, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along. It’s amazing quite how often people in polarised debates do this; it hardly makes it more tempting to switch sides. Instead, we should remember that they have achieved something we have not: a change of mind.
• Adapted from Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together by Ian Leslie, published by Faber on 18 February and available at guardianbookshop.co.uk
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