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In every aspect of our lives we have to deliver or respond to negative messages at times--whether it's giving an employee a poor appraisal or disciplining a child or defending our political or religious beliefs from attack. But these simple disagreements often degenerate unnecessarily into belligerent exchanges and pointless arguments. Some say that human beings are born to argue and that language is simply another weapon of survival. Suzette Haden Elgin heartily disagrees and in this new book shows how to disarm hostile language and radically improve communication with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Readers will learn a variety of proven techniques for conveying negative messages in a clear and assertive manner, but without antagonistic and destructive language.

Lots of people think verbal self-defense means fighting back. Their image of verbal self-defense is a collection of killer smart cracks plus strategies for using language to wipe the floor with their opponents. It's not an accurate image.

In this edition of How Stuff Works, I'd like to show you a different way to relate to other people, especially when you disagree. Let's talk about it a minute.

Why Verbal Self-Defense?

It has undoubtedly happened to you. There you are, in the middle of a fierce argument with someone, and suddenly you realize that you not only don't particularly care about the subject of the argument but you can't understand how you got into the altercation in the first place!

This isn't trivial. Hostile language is dangerous to your health and well-being; it's toxic stuff. People who are frequently exposed to hostile language get sick more often, are injured more often, take longer to recover from illness and injury, and suffer more complications during recovery. As an obvious result, they tend to die sooner than those not so exposed.  What's more, hostile language is just as dangerous to the person dishing it out (and to innocent bystanders who can't leave the scene) as it is to the person on the receiving end.

Obviously it's to your advantage to stay out of arguments in both your personal and your professional life, unless something truly important -- something about which you care profoundly -- is at stake. Even then, most of us are aware that it's possible to have intense discussions that don't turn into altercations. How is it, then, that intelligent people keep finding themselves involved in arguments almost by accident?

The answer is pretty simple, and it's a relic of the days when humankind dealt with sabertooth tigers at close range on a regular basis. One of the parts of your brain (the amygdala) is on constant duty, and one of its primary tasks is to scan for danger. When it spots an incoming perception that meets its criteria for danger, it has the ability to send a message that provokes an immediate fight-or-flight reaction, and it can do that without first going through the reasoning part of your brain. It can literally short-circuit your thinking process. In the sabertooth tiger days this was a good thing. You saw something vaguely big and furry, and you either left the scene fast or threw your club. You acted first, and then you thought about it, which increased your odds of survival a good deal.

This part of your brain can still be a good thing on those very rare occasions when you do face imminent life-threatening sudden peril from tornadoes or terrorists or mad gun-toters. The problem is that it's just as likely to kick in when the only threat you face is some klutz who wants to argue about whether his computer is more powerful than your computer. If the amygdala thinks the klutz is a threat, it bypasses your reasoning brain -- and shortly you're thinking, "I don't even CARE whether my computer has more memory than this turkey's computer! How  the heck did I get INTO this?? And how the heck do I get OUT of it so I can get on with my day??" This can happen to anybody now and then; we all just lose it sometimes. But if it happens often, it's a grave threat to your well-being. It's a lot more dangerous to you than most of the risk factors you spend time and money trying to guard against. You need to know how to put an end to this nonsense.