Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Art of the Argument

I believe I've written in the past (though now I can't find the post) about the Israeli style of arguing, which is to yell and scream and hurl accusations at each other, vent every feeling of frustration you have down to your guts, and when it's all over and you've said everything you want to say, to stop feeling angry, wish each other a hearty Shalom-have-a-good-day, and go about your business.

The advantage of this style is that once it's over, it's over. Israelis don't often bear grudges for long.

The disadvantage, as I have discussed, is that Americans who observe this behavior think the argument will erupt into World War III. Americans don't often yell at each other like that -- not in public anyway. Decorum is more important to us than not feeling angry anymore.

Lately I've discovered another disadvantage. What I'm about to say about Israelis may not sound very nice, but this is my blog about my life in Israel, and it wouldn't be true to myself or my readers if I pretended that Israel was a perfect place.

What I've realized is that the reason Israelis can drop their grudge is that arguments, to them, do not have the goal of solving problems. The goal is to say everything you wanted to say, to get everything off your chest, without ever once admitting that you yourself did anything wrong. Once you have finished talking and you have the sense the other person isn't going to argue back, you are done and can walk away, regardless of whether anyone has learned anything.

I've noticed that when an American and an Israeli get into an argument, the American will often keep trying to make the Israeli understand their point of view. All the American wants is some indication that they have been heard and understood. The Israeli then feels that, since you are not accepting all the blame, they must start all over again and restate their case, because clearly you did not hear them the first time. If you have not admitted defeat by shutting up, then they have not done their job properly.

The far better approach, if you have the nerves for it, is simply to let the Israeli talk until they are done and then say "O.K." After that, peace and quiet returns.

The nifty trick that Israelis play is that if they are on the "losing" end -- if they are the first to give up and stop yelling because they are tired of arguing -- they will then tell themselves that, though they lost the argument, they have the higher moral ground, because the other guy had lost his head and has no patience. By admitting defeat, you also show that you are the calmer, less confrontational one. The argument's winner thinks you are a frier, but you can see yourself as infinitely more patient. Everyone wins.

And nothing changes.

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