Argument Cultures and Unregulated Aggression
March 14, 2015
There's an online meme that goes, "Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud; after a couple of hours, you realize the pig likes it." It's a prevalent enough form of communication in our field that most of us can think of an argument we had recently. Vim versus Emacs. Test-driven development versus whatever is the opposite of test-driven development. Python versus Ruby. JK, that's totally not a debate. Python is clearly superior in every way [**insert smiley, winky, troll face here**]. Argument as a problem-solving tool is one of the big issues hurting diversity on engineering teams.

First, let me explain what I mean by an argument culture. An argument is the use of aggressive opposition to weed out weak logic, keeping the strongest ideas possible. The philosophy behind using arguments for problem-solving is that attacking the weak parts of an idea will leave the best solutions. The metaphor for argument in our culture is war. We think of people we argue with as opponents, we attack their position and defend our own, we can gain or lose ground, and ultimately we can win or lose arguments—just like battles [1]. Arguments are combative and competitive interactions, and can lead to aggressive behavior between opponents. As Deborah Tannen says in her book The Argument Culture, "[An] argument culture urges us to approach the world—and the people in it—in an adversarial frame of mind" [2].
Why do people argue?
The most popular theory as to why humans argue is that it is a tool for asserting dominance [3]. Evolutionarily speaking, the ability to climb the social hierarchy would be advantageous for the procreation and survival of an individual. Dominance, however, is more concerned with winning than truth. We find that to be true when humans argue; the truth often takes a back seat to beating one's opponent, and people will argue a point even after being presented with irrefutable evidence that they are wrong.

In modern-day American culture, we use arguments for decision making in two prominent arenas: courtrooms and political debates. It's no accident that both these forums use arguments as a form of competition, and each has a rigid argument structure with two or more points of opposition and a third party to declare a winner.
Slightly deflated football.
In a perfect world, people win arguments through the use of logic, facts, and better information. In reality, most people are pretty terrible at using logic, facts, and information. People make decisions from a place of emotion. We know this because if the emotional centers of a person's brain are damaged, they become incapable of making even the most basic decisions [4]. Arguments are inherently emotional interactions where the goal is winning, and if we have learned anything from sports it's that people will do anything to win. They will dope, cheat, break people’s legs, deflate footballs, and any number of other stupid, harmful, or ridiculous things to be declared the victor. This is why sports have refs, debates have moderators, and courtrooms have judges.

The arenas that use arguments as competition have strict regulations and oversight. Becoming a lawyer requires courses in legal ethics, and lawyers who lie are usually disbarred and lose their license [5]. By contrast, engineering environments are the wild, unregulated west. Without strict rules around the use of arguing and designated referees, people can use arguments to assert authority over coworkers. The desire to win will be so tempting to some people they will even engage in unethical behavior. These people will use almost anything they can get their hands on as a weapon against their opponent.
What type of behavior does an argument culture promote?
An argument culture creates an environment where winning is paramount. As we've talked about, when winning is the goal people can start to cross ethical boundaries. Crossing boundaries and using aggression to win an argument includes making personal remarks, interrupting, speaking much more loudly than an opponent, or entering someone's personal space. Instead of staying on topic and trying to find the best solution, people might use personal attacks to undermine their opponent in order to win. Size and loudness are also ways to make another person back off in a disagreement, leaving the louder, larger person the winner regardless of the content of their argument [6].

Here's an example of how this can play out in the workplace. Let's say the topic of integrating a new technology into your existing platform comes up. Maybe you need to implement caching. Maybe you’re adding a new data store. Maybe you need to build a new service and you’re trying to decide what framework to use. Whatever the topic, it's likely that someone will have a strong opinion on what to do. Many engineers have a habit of jumping right into arguments on behalf of their favorite new technology or architectural scheme. When things get heated, as they often do, one tactic a person can use to win the argument is to undermine the credibility of their opponent.
In the heat of the moment, one opponent says to the other: “You seem really frustrated.”
On the surface this might seem like a kind or thoughtful remark - one person is showing concern for the other person’s feelings, right? In reality, they are using the social stereotype that emotions interfere with rational thinking to undermine the credibility of his or her opponent. While personal remarks like this can be used as a weapon against anyone, it's a particularly potent weapon when used against women. This is because it plays into the historical stereotype that woman are more emotional and less rational than men.
The reason the modern social stereotype “women are emotional and men are rational” exists is the result of 70s psychology. In the 70s, psychologists thought people were essentially rational creatures. People only departed from their rational thoughts if they were interrupted by emotions. Back then psychologists also thought women were nervous and emotional, thus lacking the same rational capabilities as men. This line of reasoning has been thoroughly debunked by modern social science. The book Thinking Fast and Slow documents many studies that show how people are not rational or objective in their decision-making. The authors conducted studies that "traced these errors to the design of the machinery of cognition rather than to the corruption of thought by emotion" [7]. In other words, their studies show that people are bad at using logic to make decisions not because of interruption by emotion, but because of the way we're fundamentally wired. Regardless of gender.
During a heated argument, however, it doesn’t matter that frustration has no significant impact on logic. What matters is that the statement undermines the other person's credibility, making it easier for whoever makes the statement to win a point. In an environment where winning is paramount and aggression is tolerated, these kinds of ethical breaches are going to happen. Even if most people on the team believe these are inappropriate interactions, the environment encourages and allows this behavior so public opinion isn't enough to stop it from happening. Arguments work well in our society as a form of regulated verbal competition for courtrooms and debates, but unregulated arguments in the workplace promote aggression and the use of social stereotypes as weapons.
What kind of behavior does arguing discourage?
If you create a culture where people attack ideas to weed out weakness, it's understandable that some people will be shy about speaking up. IDEO, a famous design consultancy firm in Palo Alto, has put in place rules to eradicate negative responses during brainstorming for this reason. During an IDEO brainstorm, there is no such thing as a bad idea and no idea is too crazy to say out loud. In order to create a safe space for ideas, people have to defer judgement and stay any criticism [8]. Similarly, in improvisation troupes, the rule for responding to another member of your troupe is always, “yes and.” In both cases, the goal is to create an environment that fosters creativity where people build off each other's ideas. Negative responses or arguments, which often use words like “no” and “don’t,” halt discussions and prevent the expansion of ideas. Argument cultures discourage people from speaking out for fear of attack, limiting viewpoints and creativity.
Why are arguments worse for women than men?
What I've outlined so far shows that arguments hurt a lot of people on engineering teams, not just women and minority groups. As I said in my introductory blog post, women and minorities are the "canary in the coal mine". High attrition rates from these groups indicate a toxic environment, which will hurt more than the canary in the long run but kill the canary first. So how do unregulated argument cultures hurt women before they hurt men?

There are a few key factors to take into account. First, society does not tolerate aggression in women the way it tolerates aggression in men. Women are more likely to be called "bossy" or "pushy" in the workplace, despite exhibiting less aggression overall [9]. Creating an environment that encourages aggression gives men an edge because it's more socially acceptable for men to be aggressive.

Second, men are conditioned to be more competitive towards women than men. In studies on boys and girls in gym class, boys try harder in competitive foot races against girls versus their male peers [10]. There is the potential for men to be more competitive in an argument against a woman because of social conditioning that men are supposed to win mixed-gender competitions.

Finally, in a competitive environment people are more likely to use inappropriate weapons to win. The groups of people who have the most weapons that can be used against them are the groups that have the most social stereotypes to their disadvantage. In other words, the most marginalized groups have the most weapons that can be used against them in a combative environment.
What can you do to change this in your workplace?
There are a few things you can do in your company to promote the kind of communication that’s healthy and productive for different situations. Understand when your goal is to expand ideas and when your goal is to narrow ideas down. During idea expansion, every idea and thought should be welcome. There should be a “yes and” attitude so that arguments (which are worthless at this point anyways) don’t get in the way of creativity. Work to create environments where it is safe for any and all voices to speak out.

Second, recognize when you’re paring down ideas to make a decision. This is often where heated arguments crop up, so have a system in place for how you select ideas to prevent unnecessary arguing. If you want to use arguments as a tool for decision-making, put in place rules for presenting arguments and selecting winners. A good way to reduce bias and increase objectivity in presenters is to have people argue for ideas they didn't originally suggest. Just remember, when winning and egos are involved, people will do all sorts of crazy things.

However you choose to regulate arguments and decide on solutions, make sure the rules are clear to everyone on the team.
Conclusion
Unregulated arguments are one of the most caustic environmental factors on engineering teams. They harm creativity, expression of ideas, and diversity while promoting aggression and competitive behavior. Stephen Hawking—general badass and genius extraordinaire—believes the greatest threat to mankind today is aggression:

“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression...It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all" [11].

So consider finding ways to reduce or remove unregulated arguments from your engineering culture, thus reducing aggressive behavior and creating a more enjoyable, creative environment for everyone.
Resources
Blog Posts Series: How our Engineering Environments are Killing Diversity
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