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Pathos | Persuading People to Care (YouTube Script)

Cue the sentimental music and sad-eyed dogs: today’s the day we’re talking about pathos.

Emotions get a bad rap these days. In our modern, sophisticated world, we want to be all intellect all the time. Logic is supreme, and emotions are for the weak. We only want the facts, and we think everything would be better if everyone could just be more rational and objective.

But here’s the thing. Computers are rational. People aren’t. Like it or not, people have emotions.

Emotions are not some villainous force that we need to overcome in order to have grown-up conversations. Emotions are an important and unavoidable part of human life, and they can often be the deciding factor when it comes to persuasion.

Because of that, rhetoricians for centuries have talked about pathos, a sort of short-hand term for the emotional side of rhetoric.

[A small pronunciation rant]

Before we go to far, I want to talk about the word pathos. For my whole life, I only ever heard people say pathos. Then, one day I got to graduate school in another part of the country, and everyone was saying peithos. Peithos? It seemed weird to me.

But I’ll confess that I did some research before putting myself on the internet saying the word. Turns out that not a single dictionary I consulted recognizes pathos as a legitimate pronunciation for the word. So I suppose I should admit defeat.

But I’m not going to go down without a fight. Pathos is a Greek word {πάθος} You know what definitely isn’t the correct Greek pronunciation? Peithos. There isn’t a universe in the world where that vowel would make that sound.

In fact, my light internet research indicates that it would be pronounced pahthos, with a vowel that isn’t as far back as English a or as far forward as english ae. But you know, for me, pathos seems closer to the original than peithos.

And what’s more, there are a lot of other words in English with the same root as pathos—and not one of them makes an ei sound. It’s not peithology, psychopeith, or empeithy.

So, peithos might be the most officially correct pronunciation for this word, but it seems like a random anomaly when compared with the original Greek and all the other related words in English.

I’m sticking with pathos, and I’m probably wrong, but at least I have good reasons for it.

[Back to your originally scheduled video]

Now, I sort of get why pathos gets a bad reputation. It seems like we usually talk about it as all the dirty tricks that people use to manipulate our emotions and hide the fact they don’t have any good reasons. When you learn about pathos, you probably hear about the advertisements with the sad music and puppies in cages. Those kinds of ads aren’t really about persuading you. They’re about manipulating your emotions.

And whether it’s for a good cause or not, manipulating people’s emotions is not what I’m talking about when I’m talking about pathos. In fact, I’m not ever going to be talking about manipulating people ever. Manipulation is rhetoric’s evil twin, and that’s not what we’re about here.

But that doesn’t mean that all appeals to emotion are manipulative, and it definitely doesn’t mean that good writers aren’t aware of their audience’s emotions. You have to be tuned in to what your audience is feeling if you want to persuade them.

And that brings me to our definition of pathos: Pathos is whatever you do to get your audience emotionally invested in your argument.

Pathos is about emotions, but it’s not about tears or guilt—it’s about emotional investment. If people don’t care about what you’re saying, they definitely aren’t going to be persuaded by it.

Because here’s the thing, even if we like to pretend that we’re really smart and super logical, our emotions play a big role in what we do. We don’t just do things because they make the most sense but also because we like them. That’s the reason, maybe, you’re putting off going to the dentist: even though you know it’s good for you and your health, you just can’t bring yourself to sit in one of those chairs with one of those lights in your face and let someone poke around in your mouth for an hour. Going to the dentist makes objective sense—but that’s not enough to get you to go if your negative emotions get in the way.

When I was a kid, I went to a dentist who seemed to know a thing about pathos. He didn’t advertise by talking about all his cutting-edge equipment or highly trained staff. He didn’t talk about the statistics or facts associated with good dental hygiene. He didn’t need to give people the facts: people already know the facts.

He knew that it wasn’t just ignorance keeping people away from the dentist. He knew it was fear and any other number of negative emotions. He didn’t need to educate his potential patients—he needed to address their emotions, to downplay the fears of the dentist’s office, in order to get his audience invested in his approach to dentistry. He had to get them to care about they way he did his job.

So instead of listing the facts, he decided to talk about how he had tvs at every chair. He advertised the train-station décor of the waiting room and the model trains that ran through his office. He even talked about how his office didn’t smell like a dentist’s office. He knew people would have negative emotional reactions to that typical dentist’s office smell, so he made sure to address even that. He didn’t talk about how his staff was skilled—he talked about how they were friendly. He had picture books and a Nintendo in the waiting room to make it feel more like someone’s living room.

Why go to all the trouble and expense of making a dentist’s office look like a train station and smell like a fancy candle? None of that made him a better dentist, none of it gave his audience the facts, none of it really makes rational sense.

Of course he went to all the trouble because he knew that emotions run high when it comes to dentists. He knew that if he wanted to persuade his audience to make him their dentist he was going to have to deal with those strong emotions.

People don’t care about your skills or equipment or experience if they’re too scared or angry or upset to even listen. The only way that dentist could make his case to his audience was if he used strategies that fall under the umbrella of pathos. If he was going to get his audience to care at all—instead of run away—he had to talk about people’s feelings first.

And it must have worked: he was our family dentist for years.

Needless to say, how you work with your audience’s feelings will depend on the situation. If you’re my old dentist, your audience’s feelings are front and center. If you’re writing a scientific research article, you might not put your feelings front and center, but you can’t ignore them altogether. You will still want to present your findings in a way that will help your readers to be invested in what you’re saying—you might talk about the significance of your findings and what they mean for the world, for example. But, even if you’re being very objective and scientific, you still need your audience to be emotionally invested in what you have to say or else they won’t stick around to hear you out. They might not be very strong emotions that you’re working with in that case, but they’re emotions nonetheless.

And as we talk about other categories of rhetorical strategies— we’ll see that they don’t work independently or separately. You might see a lot of pathos in a dentist’s rhetorical strategies and you might see less in a scientific researcher’s—but you’ll still see it in both places, just in different ways and to varying degrees.

So to wrap up, whenever you’re looking at pathos, you’re looking at rhetorical strategies for getting an audience emotionally invested in an argument. Anything that gets an audience excited, reminds them of the “good ol’ days,” makes them laugh, eases their fears, stokes their righteous indignation, or fires up their empathy is covered by pathos.

Emotions are an unavoidable and essential part of human experience—and they’re powerful too. Sure, they can be manipulated, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them or wish them away.

Instead, we should be aware of how emotions work and how arguments can affect the way people feel. Then we can write more carefully and more sensitively, not just hammering our audience with facts but also giving them reasons to care and letting them know that we’re on their side.

Really, helping your audience to feel comfortable with you and with your argument is, on some level, what pathos is all about.

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