The Chronicle Review

We’re All in Agreement, Right?

August 31, 2015

Like any good bureaucrat, I spend a fair amount of time attending academic conferences or sitting through campus presentations. I’ve even been known to enjoy a good webinar every now and again.

And in these many hours of symposia, colloquia, and assorted fora, I’ve begun to dread a particular, coercive punctuation that has taken hold among the most-practiced speakers.

The problem is clear to everyone, right? So the only question is how to deal with it, OK?

I speak, of course, of those up-lilting, faux-interrogative, consensus-faking capstones to otherwise unsupported statements. Take any mildly controversial idea — "Student loans are destroying America" — tack on a comma, an affirmation, and a question mark, and voilà! You’ve got a common premise, whether your listener agrees with it or not. "Student loans are destroying America, right? And colleges have to be part of the solution."

Beware the verbal consensus nudge. It manipulates our instinct to be social, to offer support. It turns our civility against us.

The key is to rush ahead to the next sentence, leaving no room for your audience to examine the blanket statement you’ve just presented as a shared understanding. There is no dialogue, no opportunity for assent or dissent. There is scarcely even a pause before the speaker hustles along to the next talking point, the next assertion for which agreement will be audibly presumed and unilaterally affirmed.

This is a huckster’s trick, a salesman’s bluff, a verbal nudge toward a consensus that hasn’t been earned. It’s bullying, right? (You feel the urge to nod, yes?) It manipulates our instinct to be social, to offer affirmation and support. It turns our civility against us.

Busta Rhymes gave the game away in the swaggering hook to 2009’s "Respect My Conglomerate," which offers perhaps the purest explanation of the consensus nudge. "Since we are the best and you agree with me right?/No need to debate … the way we run s**t." Indeed. No need to debate at all, since that blustering verbal tic presettles the matter.

The habit is grating enough in conversation, where it often serves to disguise monologue as duologue. One domineering speaker can cloak an extended, breathless harangue by tossing in fake interrogatives.

But the habit is truly maddening in its native environment: single-speaker presentations.

At least in a conversation or small group, a courageous or cantankerous soul might hazard a leap into the fray and actively dispute something. But during a presentation, when etiquette demands forbearance and heckling is frowned upon, the audience can be herded into false agreement. Through a chorus of lilting "rights?," an entire auditorium of varying opinion can be remade into polite unanimity.

This is a well-worn rhetorical technique in sales and politics. It’s a form of priming — a way to build agreement around small, seemingly noncontroversial premises before pushing on to larger, more important points. It’s a more aggressive subspecies of the hypophora, in which an orator asks and then immediately answers a self-serving question. Here the answer is just an implied assent on behalf of the listener.

"You need a car that’s reliable, right? So let’s take a look at some new models." You’re halfway to the showroom floor before remembering that your current car is perfectly fine, and you came in only for an oil change and a tuneup. The premise needed disputing, but the fake affirmation whisked you toward a concession.

"We have an immigration crisis in this country, OK? It’s time for the people in Washington to take action!" You’re already thinking about what kind of action needs taking before you consider whether we actually have an immigration crisis. That premise was preordained, the curtain of consensus brought down without so much as a pause.

We can expect this sort of thing in sales pitches and political rhetoric, but we should work to banish it from the lecture hall. False inquiry is the enemy of genuine inquiry. Right?

So enough, OK? We all find this intolerable, yes? So in the name of honest disputation and good manners, let us retire the bombastic, neurotic "right?" from scholarly discourse. May it live on happily and productively with the demagogues and management consultants whose livelihoods depend on it.

Don’t you agree?

Correction (8/31/2015, 3:09 p.m.): This article originally placed the wrong accent over the "a" in "voilà!" The spelling has been corrected.

Eric Johnson works in student-aid communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.