Being "argumentative" is often seen in U.S. culture as something negative. You've heard many times someone complain about someone else being too argumentative. However, disagreements can be stimulating, thrilling, productive, and fun. To illustrate this, consider televised discussions on certain social topics. Do we watch these shows to revel in others' conflict? Or to gain insights into the topic being discussed?
One definition of an argument is merely stating a position and backing it up. It doesn't necessarily mean a back and forth of opposing views, as voices and emotions escalate. An argument means the latter, as well, as you might engage in with your family members and significant partners, and engage in conflict. This article, however, takes the former definition of an argument. Here, we are talking about an argument as a statement of your views, needs, and beliefs, backed with reason and logic. In this context, being argumentative is a positive thing, as it allows us to express ourselves.
In the theory of aggressive communication, argumentativeness and assertiveness are considered constructive traits, with assertiveness the more global of the two. Conversely, hostility and aggressiveness are considered destructive traits, with aggressiveness a subset of hostility.
The trait of assertiveness includes a tendency to be interpersonally dominant and forceful, and to use this trait to achieve personal goals, while creating positive feelings in others. Assertiveness is considered constructive, because it uses verbal and nonverbal cues to exert control, obtain justified rewards, and avoid violating one's rights. Assertive individuals might use cues aggressively, but in a socially acceptable manner. Assertive people stand up for their rights and express their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in appropriate ways that are direct and honest, and do not violate another person's rights. Assertiveness also includes behaviors of openness, refusal of unreasonable requests, and refusal to be intimidated, as well as absence of interpersonal anxiety, initiation of requests, spontaneous feelings and expressions, being outgoing, willingness to take initiative, and disagreeing actively, rather than passively.
Several additional behaviors characterized assertive individuals. Some research has identified assertive people as those predisposed to verbal behavior, as opposed to experiencing anxiety in communications; they are precise, not easily persuadable, and contentious, which can sometimes mean overly quarrelsome. They are also talkative, leave impressions on others who may communicate with them, hold their own within their interpersonal relationships, and are generally memorable to others.
Assertiveness is the effort of one person to influence another's thoughts or actions, and is contrasted with responsiveness which reflects an individual's ability to express feelings and emotions. Both assertiveness and responsiveness are considered important dimensions of communication competence. Assertive personality traits include defense of own beliefs, independence, forcefulness, strong personality assertiveness, dominance, willingness to take a stand, leader-like behavior, and competitiveness. Assertiveness is often deemed a personality trait, sometimes innate, but one which can be learned and improved.
Argumentativeness is also considered a constructive communication trait, and a subset of assertiveness, because all argument is considered assertive, but not all assertiveness involves arguments.
Argumentativeness has been defined as a trait that predisposes individuals to advocate positions on controversial issues, and to attack verbally other people's contradictory perspectives. In short, it is an underlying motivation to argue. It is important to note that the focus of the argument is on the position, rather than on the person. This is a fundamental difference between constructive communication and destructive communication.
We now turn our attention to communication traits classified as destructive. These include hostility and aggressiveness.
Hostility manifests in communications when people use verbal and nonverbal messages to express irritability, negativity, resentment, and suspicion. People with hostile communication traits tend to have a quick temper, little patience, exhibit moodiness, and become exasperated when something goes wrong. They might be excessively pessimistic about outcomes that others find more favorable, refuse to cooperate, and be antagonistic toward authority, rules, and social conventions. Resentments involve expressions of jealousy and hatred, and sulking about real or imagined slights, which causes anger to escalate. They are suspicious, which comes out in their distrust of others, and believe that others want to harm them.
Some research suggests hostility is "an attitude, a dislike of a particular person, object, or issue, accompanied by a desire to see this target injured or even destroyed." When a person shows a predisposition toward hostility, they are generally classified as possessing a hostile personality. Hostile people tend to exhibit some common themes: They see themselves as victims of persecution from others (people want to be mean to me); they view their world as a mean one (people like doing things just to bother me; and view themselves as more aggressive than others (you don't want to mess with me). Some research concludes that hostility is a facet of neuroticism. Other research suggests that aggressive behavior is learned from aggressive people responding aggressively to aggressive situations. More specifically, frustrating and anger-inducing experiences create hostility and aggression. Therefore, hostile behavior is learned and can become habitual.
It can also be created and influenced by how a person was punished during childhood. Aggressiveness emerges, in particular, when a person is attempting to influence another. The route taken in these efforts to influence can be a direct result of this person's environment and training. Indeed, a study of school bullying found that bullies tend to be hit more often at home and hit as a way of solving problems. Research shows that a predisposition toward hostility and aggressiveness is quite stable and can persist long-term. Young hostile communicators will very likely remain hostile communicators later in life.
Verbal aggressiveness, like hostility, is considered a trait of neuroticism, and is a subset of hostility. Verbal aggressiveness means a tendency to attack the self-concepts of others, rather than, or in addition to, their positions on issues. Attacks on self-concepts are expressions of verbal aggressiveness.
Research shows three main areas of self-concept attacks: group membership (your family are all liars and cheats), personal failings (you totaled your car three years ago), and relationship failings (maybe your ex wasn't actually the problem). Attacks on another person's positions are considered argumentative, while attacks on another person's self-concept are considered verbally aggressive.
There are several types of attacks in verbally aggressive communication. The first of these has been identified as competence attacks, or attacks on another's ability to do something (you can't do anything right), which can instill hurt, pain, and embarrassment. Competence attacks focused in one area can indeed lead that person to diminished competence in that area and weaken that person's desire to continue to perform that task.
The second type of attack is character attacks, such as, "You're a liar." These also result in embarrassment, hurt, and psychological pain. Profanity is ubiquitous in verbally aggressive communications and often involves the use of obscene words, epithets, and vulgarities. Calling someone a cheap bastard fits in this category.
The third area of attack is teasing and ridicule. When people tease, they make fun of, or playfully mock, someone else. It is a more playful form of verbal aggression, yet it can inflict psychological harm and damage, thus fulfilling the objective of verbal aggression to inflict harm and pain on another. Some teasing episodes are so painful that we remember them years later, along with the hurt and embarrassment they evoked.
Ridicule is closely related to teasing, and involves using words or deeds to evoke condescending laughter directed at someone else. Teasing can be affectionate, thus strengthening a relationship, or aggressive, which is destructive. Aggressive teasing is a masked expression of anger or hostility.
Maledictions are wishes for someone's ill-being and provide the next category of aggressive behaviors. Examples are, "get lost," or, "drop dead." Threats are another form and explicitly suggest an intention to inflict physical or psychological pain, injury, or some other harm on another. Siblings engage in this all the time with examples such as, "If you tell dad I'll kill you."
The next area of verbal aggressiveness is nonverbal and verbal aggression. These include gestures, such as flipping the bird, or making an L with your thumb and forefinger placed on your forehead to symbolize loser. Additional categories of verbal aggressiveness include personality attacks, such as, "He's a jackass," negative comparison, such as, "You're not as pretty as your sister," attacking the significant others of the target, such as, "Your kids are so ill-mannered," blame, "You are the reason I'm broke," and disconfirmation, which means completely ignoring another person or making like they simply don't exist.
Five causes have been identified as explaining verbal aggressiveness: psychopathology, disdain, social learning, argumentative skill deficiency, and genetics. Psychopathology means an individual expresses hostility that was previously repressed. Disdain is severe dislike or hatred for another. Social learning suggests that we learn verbal aggressiveness from those around us. Finally, verbal aggressiveness might be genetically inherited.
-In dating relationships, research suggests that the use of verbal aggressiveness begets verbal aggressiveness.
-Within families, verbal aggressiveness is most often destructive, while argumentativeness is most often constructive.
-Within marriages, work by Gottman suggests that hostility leads to relational dissatisfaction and, quite often, a breakup.
-From parents to children, some countries have recognized verbal aggressiveness as so damaging to children's healthy development, that they have banned the use of parental verbal aggression by law. These countries include Austria, Denmark, Germany, Israel, and Sweden. These laws were instituted in the recognition that verbal aggressiveness is a form of violence that inflicts psychological injury on children.
Most parent-child verbal aggressiveness comes in the form of threats of physical violence and swearing. Research shows that when parents use verbal aggressiveness with their children, children commonly develop depression, antisocial behavior, and eating disorders.
Three major parenting styles have been identified: autonomy-love, which supports and encourages the child's individuality; control-hostility, which is highly demanding and not responsive to the child's needs; and control-love, in which the parent gives in to the child's whims, uses ridicule, and love withdrawal. Parents high in argumentativeness and low in verbal aggressiveness reported autonomy-love behaviors, while parents low in argumentativeness and high and verbal aggressiveness reported control-hostility behaviors. Verbally aggressive communication in parents to their children characterizes a potentially destructive parenting style.
Some research has shown that levels of argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness in both sons and daughters correlated highly with their mothers' levels of these traits. Further research has found that children of verbally aggressive mothers have more difficulty in interpersonal relationships later in life, and tend to use more verbal aggressiveness within their own romantic relationships. As their mother's use of verbal aggression increased, these adult children reported less emotional support and interpersonal solidarity in their own romantic relationships.
These researchers suggest that maternal verbal aggressiveness creates a cycle that leads to less satisfying and less productive adult relationships. Also, verbal aggressiveness may not be a cause of physical violence, but is always present in physical violence.
In short, regardless of the relationship, relational satisfaction exists in relationships with high levels of argumentativeness and low levels of verbal aggressiveness. In our work relationships, the same applies. Employees with argumentative supervisors report much greater employment satisfaction than those with aggressive supervisors. The same is true of instructor-student relationships. Unfortunately, the mass media has a profound influence on society and guides behavior implicitly through example. High levels of hostility and verbal aggressiveness make good TV in the eyes of networks and cable channels seeking to grow their bottom line. Unfortunately, at the same time, these types of shows model hostile and aggressive communication behaviors.
Children are not immune to this, even when watching children's TV, as many -- or perhaps most -- children's shows contain high levels of aggressive communication. For some reason, as a society we find insults, mockery, and other forms of hostile communication behaviors entertaining. Because we find humor in observing such hostility, we are prone to adopting these behaviors in our own communications.
Passive-aggressiveness is performing vengeful acts while denying having aggressive feelings. For example, when a woman is angry at someone, she withholds permissions and favors from that person, all with a smile on her face and polite excuses. Another example is that a woman runs up the balance on a family member's credit card overtly innocuous, but subversively, in fact. It is a way of avoiding conflict.
Research suggests that women tend to engage in passive-aggressive behavior more frequently than men, with the suggested explanation being that women may feel they have to fight with men for whatever resources they receive, and won't win a direct conflict because of men's social dominance.
This article has discussed facets and dynamics of argumentative and aggressive communication.
We have examined assertive and argumentative communication behaviors as constructive, because they stick to a topic.
Similarly, we have seen hostile and verbally aggressive behaviors as destructive to our relationships, because they attack the person's self-concept, rather than sticking to the issue.
We have seen the ways in which assertive communication can be positive, while aggressive and hostile communication can be deeply damaging.
Relating these communication behaviors to feelings about the self, research shows that people high in argumentativeness tend to feel better about themselves, suggesting that self-esteem and argumentativeness go together. While argumentative and verbally aggressive traits might actually be part of our genetic makeup, it is possible to move verbal aggressiveness into the argumentativeness realm through focused attention.