Perspiration Stains

Pleasing others is the first step toward persuasion.


We had to abort take off.

We were told “the plane was not configured properly.”

The pilot said this twice; as if that made it any better. No one around me knew what that meant.

The cockpit told us not to be alarmed, they just had to make a phone call.

Who are you calling?


What can someone else do about something called “configurement”?

50 people are sitting in a large vehicle which is about to be catapulted into the sky, flying 30,000 feet above the ground.

But I should not be alarmed.

When someone tells you not to be alarmed there is cause for alarm. Plane travel can be scary; a soothing voice is in order. To settle our collective spirits I think the pilot could have been a bit more persuasive. James K.A. Smith calls persuasion

A conviction, a settled assurance, a commitment to a particular vision. Only if you have persuasion can you tak up the task of persuading others. . . . Persuasion is logical and beautiful, coherent and convincing, well-thought and winsome, convinced and moved. [1]

Blaise Pascal, a Christian philosopher from 17th century France said the art of persuasion

consists as much in pleasing as it does in convincing, humanity being so much more governed by caprice [whim, feeling in the gut] than by reason. . . . The manner of pleasing is incomparably more difficult, more subtle, more useful, and more admirable [2]

The art of subtlety, persuading by pleasing, depends a great deal on context.

I spoke to a Christian school group in Superior, Wisconsin over the weekend. I heard people discussing their governor Scott Walker being at the opening of fishing season, four-wheelers, snow in May, and the local hockey team. If I were in New York City, I would have been hearing about the Knicks, the rain, Smart cars, and why the mayor won’t let people drink Big Gulps at 7-11. This is what Anne Snyder means when she says persuasion begins with an appreciation of context. [3]

There is a reason some communities refer to visitors as “outsiders”: we don’t all have the same context. Trust is built on knowing, then understanding. But acceptance is won by living, then being. Being with people is important. Place and home are important to folks. If Jesus taught us anything it was the need to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be. We put welcome mats outside our front doors for a reason. Hospitality is an important part of persuasion. Anne Snyder says,

Welcome breeds mutual familiarity, which breeds trust, which breeds authority . . . few successful arguments can stand apart from tone or relationship. [4]

The pilot came on the intercom to try and build relationship after take off.

He wanted to “keep us in the loop” so that no one would be “concerned.” It seems the plane’s computer indicated its flaps were mispositioned. The phone call was to maintenance who reassured the cockpit that all was well. Repeating that we were being “kept in the loop” the pilot’s relationship skills were dull. Perspiration stains dotted every shirt and blouse on that plane.

Communication that persuades should be beautiful, convincing, winsome, and subtle.

How can I say what I need to say in a way that is pleasing, that persuades my listener with a gracious tone, a generous spirit, and words that sooth?

Perhaps I should send a copy of this essay to the pilot.

“The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness” (Proverbs 16.21, ESV). Mark constantly works toward graciousness, generosity, and gentleness in his words, encouraging his students in the same, wherever he teaches.

[1] James K.A. Smith, “The Lost Art of Persuasion” Comment, Spring, 2013, p. 3.

[2] Blaise Pascal, “Minor Works: The Art of Persuasion,” Harvard Classics, v. 48, p. 403.

[3] Anne Snyder, “Persuading in a Divided Age: The Christian’s Privilege,” Comment, Spring, 2013, p. 11.

[4] Snyder, p. 13.


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