In this chapter, Heinrichs will discuss the importance of concession for ethos, the appeal to authority. The Latin term for this kind of concession is decorum: character-based agreeability. Literally, decorum means “suitable,” and indeed, one way to use decorum is to blend in with one’s audience. However, this doesn’t mean being exactly like one’s audience. For example, when making a speech, it’s often a good idea to dress slightly better than the average audience member. Decorum is sometime seen as fussy and impractical, but it’s very important for persuasion: rhetoricians need to be aware of an audience’s speech and manner in order to persuade. It’s impossible to be indecorous and persuasive at the same time.
Decorum is important because it allows a persuader to win an argument by conceding, in an abstract sense, to the audience’s culture, manners, and language. Decorum has a reputation for being old-fashioned and overly fussy, but Heinrichs isn’t necessarily talking about decorum in the sense of etiquette and politeness. Decorum simply means fitting in with an audience in any way the persuader deems necessary.
In the climax of the movie 8 Mile, Eminem shows up at a hip-hop competition. In the final round, he faces off against his opponent, rapping before a huge audience. Eminem shows the proper decorum by wearing clothes that help him blend in: baggy pants, skullcap, etc. However, in order to fully blend in with his mostly black audience, he needs to surmount the fact that he’s white. Thus, he brings up the fact that his opponent, a wannabe gangster, went to an elite prep school. In doing so, he gets the audience on his side and makes his opponent’s hip-hop manner seem phonier than his own.
To emphasize that decorum and etiquette aren’t synonyms, Heinrichs cites Eminem (who few people would name as an exemplar of proper etiquette). Eminem exhibits masterful decorum, unlikely though it may sound: he blends in with his predominately black Detroit audience and makes himself seem like an insider by strategically ribbing his opponent for going to an elite prep school. One of the best ways for a speaker to exhibit decorum is to unite the audience against someone else (here, the other rapper and, more generally, elite, predominately white prep schools).
When trying to find the right decorum, rhetoricians should ask themselves, “What do these people expect of me?” This can be a tricky question. Once, Heinrichs and his brother John were in Washington, D.C., together. John bought a rose and gave it to a woman, calling her “doll.” The woman was flattered. When Heinrichs tried to do the same thing, the woman told him to “go to hell.” In short, “what works for one can wreak disaster for the other.” Therefore, decorum doesn’t only mean blending in with the crowd; it means honoring one’s own personality.
Another misconception about decorum is that it’s “one size fits all”—in other words, the rules of decorum for one person are the same as the rules for anybody else. Heinrichs suggests (through this rather crude example) that the trick of good decorum is finding a middle ground between the audience’s culture and one’s own personality.
When it comes to dressing with decorum, the best rule of thumb is, “look the way you think your audience will want you to look.” It’s often useful to dress slightly above one’s rank—but not too far above it. One useful tip that Heinrichs uses is to scope out the people in his intended audience who have the fanciest shoes, and then imitate those people’s clothing and color patterns.
In addition to being a book about rhetoric, Thank You for Arguing contains a lot of concrete advice that’s seemingly pitched at businessmen and aspiring professionals.
Decorous persuaders must understand how to imitate an audience’s language and adapt to different audiences. It may seem dishonest to adapt one’s language for different groups, but persuasion is about “the beliefs and expectations” of an audience. Thus, being true to the audience can be a noble act—one could say that “decorum is the better part of valor.”
Again, Heinrichs implicitly tries to defend rhetoric from the allegation that it’s an inherently manipulative, insincere art. In fact, he argues, good rhetoric is about reaching an agreement between an audience’s desires and one’s own—rather than simply lying and pandering to an audience.