Todd Moody’s recent article gave some excellent suggestions on how to answer skeptics. He also pointed out that, perhaps to justify their lack of knowledge, many people express a certain hostility to Esperanto, and attempt to “prove” its insufficiencies. Todd gave us some good factual answers to their “hard questions.” I would like to make a few suggestions about dealing with their emotional resistance.
The most convincing presentation is useless, if it goes unheard. A skeptic often assumes an adversarial posture, and thinks only of how to attack Esperanto and your support of it, ignoring the content of all your responses. Some people are so firmly committed to hostile defense of their ignorance that discussion is useless. Others, who are just unsure about themselves and any unknown subject, simply adopt an adversarial role as a defense mechanism. The best chance of changing the atmosphere of discussion into an amicable, productive one is with a sort of rhetorical aikido, in which the attacker’s own arguments and energy are used to sway his position, rather than being directly resisted. Three elements of strategy are needed to make this successful: we must understand the skeptics’ arguing technique, respond in an unexpected way (generally agreeing with them instead of disagreeing), and get them to think more deeply about their own views and arguments, as a preparation to thinking about other points of view and new information.
Let us imagine a typical conversation between a potentially convinceable skeptic, Mr. Ian P. Dubon, and our skillful varbisto, Vera K. Saĝul. Ian comes on as a negative know-it-all, because that style seems “cool” in our society, and it protects him from having to express his true viewpoints. This is a good defense mechanism. Ian doesn’t really care about the reasoning that he presents, so he doesn’t have anything to lose, if Vera shoots holes in it.
Ian says, “Esperanto will never have as many speakers as English, so why should I learn it?” Of course, Mr. Dubon is not studying Chinese, which shows that he really doesn’t care how many speakers a language has. Good move! Ian has set up a clever decoy to draw Vera’s fire.
Vera is in a tight spot. She can’t dodge the question, but even the most withering rebuttal will leave Ian unscathed. In fact, he’s so busy preparing his next decoy argument that he’s hardly paying attention. Vera knows he is looking for an argument, so she throws him off balance by agreeing with him. “Jes,” she says (shoving in a little Esperanto to get things rolling). “English is definitely the biggest international language right now.” Vera notes that her surprise agreement has recaptured about half of Ian’s attention. She presses her advantage by asking him a personal question. “Have you ever travelled to another country?”
“Yeah, I’ve been to Europe a couple of times.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Well, I visited my brother when he was stationed near Frankfurt, Germany, and then visited London and Paris.”
Vera continues her questioning, knowing that she must get Ian personally involved in the discussion. “Which did you like best?”
Ian goes through his memories, only partially conscious of how nice it is to have someone take an interest in his personal experiences. “Well, it was great to see my brother, and he knew the place, so he could kind of show me around.”
Vera, fully aware that her eagerness to learn about his travels will stimulate Ian’s interest in her experiences, says, “I’ve never been to France. What was that like?”
“It was really interesting. I saw the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, all that stuff that I knew from books. It’s so much more impressive in person.”
Vera returns to the language issue. “How did you talk with people, do you speak any French?”
Ian senses a trap. “Well, I’ve studied a few years of it in high school, but I just used English. Everyone speaks it over there.”
Vera plays her trump. “You know, I’ve heard that the French sometimes won’t speak English, even when they know it. Did you find any of that?”
Ian responds vigorously, remembering his tourist problems. ‘They are so arrogant. They always know enough English to take your money, but when you need some help, suddenly they forget it all. It’s like a game, they seem to enjoy making things difficult for Americans.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” thinks Vera. There is no need to press that point any further, so she takes up another issue. “I bet you saw a lot more when you were with your brother.”
“Yeah, we did all the touristy stuff in the first few days, but then he showed me things that I never would have found on my own. There are some really great old castles in the area that no one ever goes to. And we went biking along the river there, they have these beautiful bike paths for hundreds of kilometers. It’s great.”
Vera senses that she has found the key for gaining Ian’s interest. “That’s what I found when I was in Europe. When I visited some place alone, it was interesting, but when I had someone to show me around, then it was really exciting.”
Now it’s Ian’s turn to ask, “Do you have family over there?”
“No,” Vera replies. “When I first went over, I didn’t know anyone. But I went to an Esperanto congress, and made a bunch of new friends, who invited me to come visit them. So I did. And almost everywhere I went, someone would call up one of their Esperanto friends in the next place I was going, to arrange a contact, and often get me a place to stay.”
“Now wait a minute, are you saying that perfect strangers would invite you into their homes just ‘cause you speak this silly language?”
“That’s really weird. Tell me more about this…”
And so we leave Ian Pasantan Dubon and Vera Konvinka Saĝul discussing where they’ve been and what they’ve done. Ian still has some questions and doubts, but he is now truly interested in hearing Vera’s answers. By showing a genuine interest in Ian, asking questions, and not pressing her argument, Vera broke the adversarial relationship, and established friendly communication. The varbado can come later.
To influence a skeptic, our strategy is to change the tone of the discussion. Three tactical elements are often useful: ask direct, personal questions about the skeptic’s views and experiences; limit the amount of information that you try to present; and speak chiefly from your own personal experiences. Questions can be of a personal nature, as detailed above, or they may be more scientific, for example asking the skeptic’s viewpoints on how well English works, where, with what results, economic, social and political consequences. Ask what an international language needs to be effective. Ask how well English meets these criteria. With a little practice, it is not hard to guide a conversation entirely with questions. These questions will also tell you what is important to the skeptic, so that you can guide the discussion effectively. When the skeptic sees that his own views contradict his conclusions about English in an international role, he may begin to ask about Esperanto (perhaps with the hope of showing that it also lacks what is necessary). Resist the urge to flood him with information and proof. If one is humble, and concise in answering, the questions will continue. Proceed slowly. Stimulate a little interest, give a little information, and stimulate their curiosity. Speak about what Esperanto gives to you. Your personal experiences may be more inspiring and convincing than academic studies, and are more likely to be believed. Be honest about what you like and don’t like in the movement. Honest criticism will often elicit trust and acceptance in a way that hyperbole and effusiveness never can.
Only after we replace the adversarial relationship with an interested, friendly one, get the skeptic personally involved with the discussion, and show a genuine interest in their viewpoint, can we give a little information about Esperanto. We don’t need to answer all their questions and tell them all the reasons for studying the language. If we leave them wanting to find out more about us and about Esperanto, we will have made the most convincing, lasting and effective argument.