This post shouldn’t exist.

Or at least, it shouldn’t have to. It’s about something every debater should know. Each round should exemplify it. It should be as natural as breathing.

But it’s not.

Although the point of debate is to communicate and persuade winsomely, sometimes that ideal gets lost in a minefield of secondary goals. Sometimes we lost sight of the basics. Sometimes we forget to have manners.

Debaters have a tendency to sacrifice courtesy in order to pursue a more aggressive style. To show they’re in control, that they have more authority, that they’re more credible. In some paradigms, that trumps being polite. But it also misses the point entirely. To reestablish the groundwork, let’s do a quick recap of why everyone ought to debate with courtesy.

Aristotle proposed that there are three components of effective persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Ethos is arguably the most essential, emphasizing the importance of persuasion through character. According to Aristotle, “We believe fair minded people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others.” There are, in turn, three elements that make up Ethos: good sense, good character, and goodwill. Many debaters get hung up on the first one—they want to appear credible and confident—but they shortchange the character part. According to Aristotle’s idea of ‘good character’ (arete), you need to cultivate virtues in yourself that will then be manifested in your interactions with other people. Aristotle says this about a speaker: “His character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” So while it’s important to appear confident and assertive, it’s essential that you balance that with good character—and this is displayed in the way you treat your opponent. It’s not just the judge you need to respect. You must be courteous to your opponent, as well.

If you’re still not sure that it’s worth the effort, look at these two practical impacts of implementing manners in your rounds.

First, of course, there is the purely ethical reason for having good manners in a debate round. If you’re really doing debate for the right reasons, then you will want to focus on building good character instead of building a good record of wins. You will prioritize conduct above the ballot, and emphasize integrity over victory.

Second, there’s a strategic reason for it: you don’t want to come across as a jerk. A classic example of this played out in a round I watched recently. All of the debaters were exceptionally talented, but it was the persona contrast that was striking. On one side, the team was polished, assertive, and had an exhaustive knowledge base. The other team was warm, engaging, persuasive, and funny. Both styles were legitimate, but the first team started to get frustrated. They didn’t seem to like that the audience was enjoying their opponents’ lighter approach and humor. An edgy tone began to creep into their speeches, and phrases like, ‘It’s really quite simple,’ began appearing in Cross Examination. As the round went on, the second team maintained their easy-going demeanor, and the first team got more frustrated. So they upped the intensity. When they said, “You’ve gotten nothing from the other team but jokes and smiles,” I thought Woah. Yes, it’s okay to point out a weak point of refutation, but you cannot do it in a way that demeans the other team. While I saw that their argumentation was better than their opponents, they had lost me as an ally. I started to debate them in my head, and literally sought out ways to justify voting against them, simply because of their lack of courtesy. Remember, having humor in a debate round is perfectly okay—in fact, many judges will appreciate it, and setting yourself up as an antagonist won’t win you many friends.

Manners. They have an extremely practical impact. Don’t make yourself the bad guy.

To have the right balance of assertion and courtesy, there are a couple of things you can do. The first thing to do is to respect your opponent. Don’t just act like it. The way I act when I’m pretending to respect someone looks very different than when I actually respect them. You need to be genuine, both for idealistic and utilitarian reasons. When you don’t actually feel any regard for the other team, it shows up as being patronizing, and people see through that in a heartbeat.

Patronize. ˈpātrəˌnīz, verb. Treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority.

There is always something to respect, regardless of skill or experience. If you’re a Nats-class debater hitting a first-year novice team, you can still respect them for their guts and tenacity; their drive and willingness to risk. They’re taking a bigger risk than you—in actuality, they’re probably way more courageous than you at this point, so don’t look down on them. Instead, find ways to develop a genuine regard for your opponents.

While you work on cultivating that mentality (something that can, admittedly, take a while to internalize), there are a few quick fixes you can implement in the meantime. Start by checking your Cross Ex vocabulary for these phrases to avoid.

-Don’t interrupt someone with, “Can I ask a question now?” Instead, replace it with something along the lines of, “Moving on to my next question…”

-Don’t say, “Just yes or no.” There is a polite way to cut in. You can try a calm, “So in answer to the question, you’d say ___?”

-If your opponent asks you to rephrase a question, don’t respond with, “It’s really quite simple.” While I admire Westley of the Princess Bride in many ways, you don’t actually want to imitate his altercation with Prince Humperdink.

“I’ll explain, and I’ll use small words so that you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog faced buffoon.”

Lastly, watch the tone you use. Seriously, anything can be made to sound condescending, or innocuous, depending on how you say it. Be above reproach. How are you portraying your character and your opponent’s? Are you setting them up to look like a simpleminded blatherskite? It’s completely fine to get them to make admissions; it’s perfectly alright to trip them up. But do it in a way that is utterly gracious.

In the end, it really comes down to this: your manners say a lot about you. Your attitude dictates how you treat fellow debaters, judges, audience members, novices, coaches, and all the rest. It seeps through regardless of how much you try to disguise it, so be careful what that attitude is. You should want every round to be a paragon of courtesy.

I wish that every round was amicable, gracious, and well-mannered.

I wish this post didn’t exist.


Anna Johansen is a TP and advanced speech coach in the Chicago area. During her two years in NCFCA, she competed at Nationals in eight speech events and Team Policy debate (taking 3rd place at Nationals in Original Interpretation her novice year, and IronManning at Nats the year after). After graduation, Anna moved into a teaching position at her local club, EverReady, where she discovered her passion for coaching and seeing lives transformed.
Currently, she is also working part time for an executive level recruiting company. In addition to providing targeted research and support, she works in the internal hiring sphere, screening resumes and interviewing candidates.
Anna is pursuing a degree in English, and hopes to continue teaching and writing long-term. Whether it is through editing others’ work or creating her own, teaching the tools or using them, she wants to pass on a love of speaking and writing and communicating to everyone she comes in contact with.