Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Naive Theories of Argument: Avoiding Interpersonal Arguments or Cutting Them Short

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Naive Theories of Argument: Avoiding Interpersonal Arguments or Cutting Them Short

Article excerpt

A wife is frustrated when her husband forgets to record a check in the register and she finds that her calculations about how much money remains in the checking account are inaccurate. She avoids the argument by deciding not to make it an issue.

Jack is furious when he discovers that the food he bought for the next week has been eaten by his roommate. When the roommate returns home, Jack confronts him. Both are angry and Jack stomps out of the room. The argument is cut short.

Both these incidents have recently been informally reported to us, In everyday usage, there is an understanding that some arguments are not complete. These arguments are "avoided" or "cut off" before the issues that prompted them are resolved. Yet the literature on interpersonal arguments that details the strategies and outcomes of everyday conflicts generally assumes that arguments have an extended trajectory producing "developed" or "completed" arguments (W. Benoit & P. Benoit, 1987; P. Benoit & W. Benoit, 1990; Canary & Sillars, 1992; Canary, Weger, & Stafford, 1991; Meyers, Seibold, & Brashers, 1991).

While this might suggest that arguments are predisposed toward the resolution of substantive disagreements, some of the argumentative tactics that have been described belie this interpretation. For instance, Vuchinich's (1990) analysis of dinnertime conversations displayed stand-offs as a common strategy that could be accomplished through physical withdrawal or topic change. Arguments are often perceived by participants as unproductive and unresolved (W. Benoit & P. Benoit, 1987; P. Benoit & W. Benoit, 1990; Hicks, 1991). Conceiving of arguments that are "undeveloped" or "incomplete" leads to a new set of questions. Specifically, avoiding and cutting short an argument appear to be cultural categories, symbolic resources for constructing meaning for participants (Hall & Valde, 1995). Attention to incomplete arguments and participants' understandings can advance theories characterizing the nature of interpersonal argument.

An earlier paper (P. Benoit & Hample, 1998) reports a qualitative study in which participants were asked to keep a diary of arguments they had avoided or cut short. But the diarists' accounts often appeared to be examples of fully developed argumentative interactions. After reexamining the diarists' descriptions, however, Benoit and Hample speculated it was the occurrence of violence that participants had avoided or curtailed in these conflicts, which seemed complete to Benoit and Hample but which had been labeled as cut off or avoided by the diarists.

Benoit and Hample therefore construed two dimensions to account for participants' understandings of their incomplete arguments. A destructive/constructive dimension made the contrast between a "violent, full blown fight" and a "calm, pleasant discussion." An explicit/not explicit dimension reflected the awareness of whether an interaction was clearly identifiable as an argument or potentially interpretable as some other form of interaction. Assuming these dimensions are orthogonal, there would be four equal quadrants: 1) constructive and explicit, 2) constructive but not explicit, 3) destructive and explicit, and 4) destructive but not explicit. However, Benoit and Hample argue that these dimensions are actually oblique, for participants do not see arguments as an alternative to violence. Rather, the explicitness of an argument and its destructiveness seemed to co-occur in the diary accounts. This perceived potential for destructiveness in arguments is consistent with P. Benoit's (1982) finding that participants see arguments as volatile events that are difficult to de-escalate once they have begun, as well as Trapp's (1990) conclusion that arguments can escalate quickly to verbal aggression.

This earlier study (P. Benoit & Hample, 1998) also considered the tactics participants described for avoiding and cutting arguments short. …

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