Why Americans Can’t Argue
“You know why Americans are so fat? They drink too much water.”
It was late at night on the Italian Riviera, and I was eating with two local entrepreneurs, Gianni and Carlo, in the beautiful seaside town of Sestri Levanti. We had already debated politics, the state of education, even the fish population in the Mediterranean (we were in a fish restaurant, and the owner jumped in).
Gianni took up the subject of water after a couple of hours and too much wine. “I went to America last month, everybody is with a bottle of water. And”—he leaned significantly across the table—“everybody is fat.” This launched an argument that took us through another bottle or two of (non-fattening) wine. You could hardly call it high discourse, and I doubt that Gianni even believed what he said. But he was following the age-old European custom that turns argument into a bonding experience.
If it weren’t for the wine, I would have shrunk in embarrassment. People at other tables were looking at us, and they were laughing—with us, most likely, but still. Here in the States, only the rude and the insane disagree in private conversation.
Then again, our aversion to argument is part of our tradition, right? Not if you go back before the mid-nineteenth century. Europeans who visited the States early in our history commented on how argumentative we were. What happened?
What happened was that we lost the ability to argue. Rhetoric once formed the core of education, especially in colleges. It died out in the 1800s when the classics in general lost their popularity and when even academia forgot what the liberal arts were for: to train an elite for leadership.