It's Not a Fight When We Frame it Right: Toning Down the Fire

In our second installment on tone, we consider the role that the media plays in promoting the use of argumentative rhetoric on social issues.

Deborah Tannen, author of the “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words,” is a foremost expert on this issue. She is is a linguist, psychologist, and researcher and has looked extensively at the ways in which the media uses argumentative language in order to drive ratings. 

So what can we learn from her about using tone in communications strategy? It is important to recognize the types of tone that exist in communications for your social issue. Rhetorical or argumentative tone is one that is partisan, ideological, and opinionated. When social problems are communicated in a rhetorical tone, audiences tend to respond with skepticism regarding the messenger’s motives and hear that this is about politics and factionalizing. They are less likely to be open to new information and solutions-based thinking.

Unfortunately, the media environment in the U.S. encourages and supports highly rhetorical and argumentative communications about social issues. Tannen notes, “The argument culture urges us to approach the world – and the people in it – in an adversarial frame of mind.”

Tannen elaborates further,

“In this argument culture, the best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; to cover news is to find extreme spokespeople and represent them as “both sides”; to settle disputes is litigation; to begin an essay is to attack someone; and to show you’re really thinking is to criticize. While public discourse requires making an argument in order to advance a point of view, this is different than having an argument in order to create a fight.”

Tannen notes that most important social issues are portrayed by the media as having two opposing sides, which has several implications. First, the word “debate” as a way of representing issues – i.e. the health care debate, the global warming debate – predisposes the public discussion to be polarized. Second, it can prompt journalists to dig up an “other side” even when one doesn’t exist. Finally, it obscures solutions that lie in the middle or are more complex.

A reasonable tone activates a villager approach and a can-do attitude. When people are presented with a reasonable discussion of the problem, they are much better at understanding and processing new information. Your audience begins to think about how to solve the problem rather than how to identify the agendas of the messengers.

Here is a quick checklist to check on your tone when developing your communications strategy:

  • Make sure you are not inadvertently communicating partisan or political cues.
  • Establish a reasonable tone and an “American can-do” style to engage your audience.
  • Use a strong value to provide a universal, rather than narrow partisan cue, as the standard by which the issue should be evaluated.

For more information on tone see:




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