One of the key pieces advice the Emily Post Institute offers is how to engage in controversial or difficult conversations. That advice contains one critical point: refrain from making personal comments about the other person. When your responses become personal—for instance “I can’t believe you actually think that” or “You’re lying”—then the conversation leaves the realm of civil discourse and becomes an ad hominem attack.
Over the weekend Congressman Darrell Issa proved the truth of this piece of advice. Here’s what happened:
Issa’s committee has been investigating the IRS and on Sunday, June 2 Issa appeared on CNN’s State of the Union with Cindy Crowley. During a part of the interview focusing on the IRS, Issa (R California) referred to White House press secretary Jay Carney as “their paid liar, their spokesperson”.
Instead of focusing on the IRS issue, Issa deviated and attacked the press secretary personally. What happened next?
The story shifts to Issa’s attack and away from the situation at the IRS. Now the conversation is about: Did the White House press secretary lie? I was watching MSNBC on Monday morning when former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was interviewed about the incident. Gibbs pointed out that the conversation has now side-tracked to what Issa has said about Carney. Then, I saw that Politico.com reported on Gibbs’ comments and one upped the ante by headlining its story: Robert Gibbs: "Darrell Issa must apologize.” So now the focus isn’t just on Issa’s comment about Carney, it’s about whether Issa will apologize to Carney. It may blow over or it may not unless Issa apologizes. But for at least a couple of days and a couple of news cycles the story is about what Issa called Carney and not about what happened at the IRS.
When you find yourself in an argument or a discussion about a controversial topic, do yourself a favor: Keep your focus on the issue and stay away from personal attacks.
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About the author
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."