“That’s just the way I am!” Arguments: The Red Herring

"Drop Cloth" by Mimi Stuart
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A “Red Herring” is a verbal ploy to distract a person’s attention away from a real issue. It’s a tactic used to hide a weakness from the listener by changing the subject. The phrase “Red Herring” comes from using the strong scent of herring fish to trick dogs into following the wrong trail.

Example:
A: “I’d like you to stop being so critical of me; It’s really unpleasant.”
B: “It could be a lot worse. At least I don’t come home drunk and scream at you.”

One type of Red Herring is the ad hominem—an attack on the speaker rather than a relevant explanation. This feeds the cycle of offense and hurt. An ad hominem is not productive, although there are some classics that are very witty.

Lady Astor to Churchill: “Sir, you’re drunk!”
Winston Churchill: “Yes, Madam. But in the morning, I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

The best response to a red herring is to continue to focus on the real issue, by repeating the question without anger. People who use red herrings a lot generally dread strong reactions, anger, and criticism. They’d rather deflect any uncomfortable questions. So it’s important to be persistent but without being threatening.

Response to Red Herring:
A: “Why are you late?”
B: “That’s just the way I am!”
A: “That may be the way you are, but I’d still like to know why you’re late this time.”

Response to Red Herring:
A: “I’d like you to stop being so critical of me; It’s really unpleasant.”
B: “It could be a lot worse. At least I don’t come home drunk and scream at you.”
A: “I really feel bad when you’re so critical. Would you be willing to stop criticizing me?”

As for Lady Astor and Churchill, thankfully they didn’t resolve their differences. Or we’d miss some great quips.

Lady Astor: “If you were my husband, I’d poison you.”
Churchill: “If you were my wife, I’d take it.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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