convince, persuade You may be convinced that something or of something. You must be persuaded to do something.
-AP Stylebook, 39th Edition
I don’t like either of these words. In high school, I invested a lot of time and effort into Lincoln-Douglas debate. Early mornings, late nights, Friday evenings–I was grinding out research and case revisions, or talking forcefully to the wall, practicing my stock rebuttals so the real ones would rain down like arrows at that weekend’s tournament.
I went to tournaments most weekends, sometimes on foot, sometimes by car, sometimes by plane. My performance at these mattered more to me than my grades. I usually did well enough to motivate trying even harder for the next one.
But there were times when I would debate before a judge who couldn’t care less about my intricate, trapdoor-laden arguments and my briefcase full of factoids. I would unleash the beast on some lesser-prepared opponent and then kick the mangled corpse until my toes ached.
And the judge, either disliking my style or just not paying attention, would dismiss the heaps of evidence I had presented and sign the ballot against me with a simple note explaining that I “was not persuasive” or that I failed to “convince” him or her.
In retrospect these were probably good lessons in humility, but at the time they were crushing. I would be sullen and angry for the rest of the weekend. It seemed so unfair. Once, after such a decision eliminated me from a prestigious tournament with real silver-plated trophies, I vented my aggression on a sawtooth oak in a university quad with predictable results for my knuckles.
So that’s why I cringe a little whenever I read or am tempted to write “persuade” or “convince”. The ghosts of poorly considered decisions and quarterfinalist awards begin to taunt me from the rafters.
This is juvenile, of course, and I’m getting over it. These words describe a basic, essential process in how we interact with others and with ourselves: When we didn’t want to do something, or weren’t sure if we wanted to do something, and then someone or something changed our minds. We’re all convincing and persuading and being convinced and being persuaded every day.
And it’s good to understand how they differ, because until now I saw them as melded together in one molten lump. A convincing never has to manifest itself outside the brain of the convinced. A persuasion always leads to specific action.
It’s curious that convince derives from the Latin for “conquer”, considering it’s the gentler of the two in that it doesn’t necessarily compel action. Persuade, which by definition has more real-world influence, derives from the Latin for “advise, make appealing, sweeten”.
Perhaps this is an etymological reminder that to get people to do what you want, a sly, gentle hand beats brute force every time.
April 17, 2012