We have all heard it. “The world’s problems could be fixed if people would just sit down with a good cigar and a strong drink.” It’s aggrandized and oversimplified, but we all know there is a germ of truth there. I can’t recall a time when I’ve devolved into a belligerent simply trying to win an argument while exchanging ideas over a great smoke. I can, however, recall countless times were simple debates or disagreements in the absence of cigar smoking has turned into intense gridlock with each party getting deeper entrenched into their own hyperbole. So whats the difference? Why do we seem to have a deeper level of communication when enjoying a cigar? Why were so many great and persuasive men in history cigar smokers? The answer is somewhere in the throes of phycology and physiology, with data ranging from scientific to anecdotal.
Debate and the exchange of ideas is something unavoidable in human interaction. You will never outrun the conversations on politics or religion, nor should you! Today’s men are far too timid in discussing their own beliefs. Many suggest you should keep conversations centered on safe topics like sports and work, but that’s boring. Isn’t it much more satisfying to explore your own ideas and learn more from others? Many of the strong and persuasive personalities of the past likely spent the majority of their interactions debating the more important questions of the day. Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro, Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy, Sigmund Frued, and Thomas Eddison, whether you like them or not, were all influential and powerful figures who smoked cigars, and they are just a few. So were they on to something? Does smoking a cigar open you mind, and can it open someone else’s in a debate?
First lets examine the science of arguing. In a traditional argument people have a tendency to double down when challenged or provided proof in the contrary. It’s partly because of the “sunk cost fallacy,” by which our minds refuse to change based on the amount of time and other investment we have at stake. Many of our beliefs hinge on other beliefs and so on. In psychologist Drew Weston’s book,*The Political Brain,*He discusses experiments which show brain activity when an individual is presented with an argument they disagree with. Basically, the fight or flight area of the brain gets very active while the area involving logic doesn’t. When this happens, the mentality of all parties debating narrows, focusing solely on the quest of winning. Processing ideas and rational thought ceases and you simply dig in. Why? Because like it or not, there are certain physiological effects that take place when you win or lose and your body already knows this. Winning, or persuading, released dopamine and makes you feel good. Losing threatens your public and personal image of intelligence. No Dopamine.
So what changes when you when you sit down for a smoke and a difference of opinion perks up the ears of conversation? A few things. First, you have a controlled environment conducive to conversation. This is very important. Because cigar smoking is entrenched in ritual, and the setting is soothing and familiar, your mindset is already primed for better conversation. According to a*Scientific American*article by Francesca Gino and Micheal I. Norton, research shows that rituals “Reduce anxiety and increase peoples confidence.” With anxiety levels low, and confidence high, a conversation is far less likely to turn into what philosopher Daniel Cohen calls the “Argument-as-War metaphor.” In his TED talk lecture he claims “Argument-as-War,” elevates tactics over substance, magnifies the Us vs. Them paradigm, and results in only victory or defeat. Cohen also projects his belief that answering the question, “cui bono?” has an inverse answer. The “loser” is the one who gains by learning a new battle tested thought. He believes falling victim to the war metaphor prohibits collaboration and critical thinking which can produce a win-win outcome.
Remember when we were in the argument before and our fight or flight activated? Cortisol and norepinephrine started pumping up causing anxiety. It’s all related. But in our controlled environment with our ritual we have already combatted the elements of rising anxiety. We are more relaxed and confident. Confident, our mind’s fears of status loss or intellectual inferiority decrease. An important step has been achieved in transforming the conversation from war, to an exchange of ideas.
When your sitting down with your cigar, your doing something you enjoy, which automatically triggers your mind to be more open, and conversation to be more interactive, but thats not where it ends. Dr. William Douglass asserts in his book, *The Health Benefits of Tobacco: A Smoker’s Paradox*, that nicotine improves memory and concentration. Concentration and active listening go hand in hand, and can only benefit conversation. Nicotine itself has also been proven increase neurotransmitter activity responsible for dopamine and serotonin. Remember, this is what also happens when your perceive winning an argument, so if you are already getting it from nicotine, it may be fair to say your brain will not try so hard to win and be more open to exchanging ideas in a more beneficial manner. Dan Hurley’s book, *Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, reports nicotine being a powerful chemical in dealing with ADHD and enhancing cognitive ability. His book quotes professor of experimental psychology, Dr. Jennifer Rusted’s assertion that nicotine is a superior brain booster which yields better results than popular smart drugs.
The claims made by many of these professionals aren’t endorsements of smoking, but we are talking about the art of conversation, and why there seems to be a palatable difference between a standard argument and one involving the ritual of cigar smoking. The tone seems completely different. There are, absolutely, arguments among friends having cigars which get heated. This is undeniable. They are far less however, than the amount of constructive debates which reach reasonable conclusions.
Virtually any article you read on arguing lays out similar principles. The most important, LISTEN. Being a good listener is proven to be effective in becoming a better persuader. When you listen completely, especially in the start of a debate, you help the other person to feel comfortable and less likely to fall into the “war metaphor.” This just seems to happen naturally when puffing on a cigar. Walls get lowered. Another recommendation of the experts is to ask questions. Asking questions gets the brain functioning in different ways. It tells your opponent you are actively listening. I have paid close attention to this and notice a significant increase in debate through questioning among groups of cigar smokers.
So what’s the takeaway? In argument A you are usually thrust into it by chance in an environment you don’t control. You are taken off guard, and often enter the debate due to an annoying comment of which you have taken offense. Your goal is to prove your point and win. If you fail, your brain knows dopamine production will suffer and status may be at risk. Everything you are experiencing, the other person is too. Lines are drawn and battle commences. It usually becomes a circular process that compounds these problems and ends with no resolution, and nothin learned by anyone. In argument B you are in an environment controlled by ritual. Your anxiety is lower and your confidence is higher. You are most likely not surprised by a comment, but already engaged in conversation by someone enjoying the same ritual as you. There is a built-in kinship. The disagreement is less likely to offend you, and more likely to spark your curiosity and invite you to investigate further and interject your opinion and reason. You are both stimulated and relaxed, and your cognitive and concentration abilities are enhanced. You listen, gain trust, ask questions, and respond accordingly and, most likely, much more amicably. In the end, everyone get up, says they enjoyed the conversation, and has most likely learned something about their debater, themselves, and maybe even life in general.
When a serious topic comes up, don’t run away. Grab some stogies. Delay the conversation until you light up in a comfortable setting. Give it a few minutes. Ask some questions. listen. Then enjoy a debate of discovery rather than draw down into a war of words.