3.8 Ethos: Building Relationships and Authority

Anna Mills

An Argument Implies a Relationship

scrabble tiles spelling out 'I trust you'
Spelling It Out. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash under the Unsplash License

Arguments attempt to affect our emotions, but their success depends on how well writers have gauged their readers’ values and cultural associations. Now we can back up and look at readers’ responses through a different lens: that of trust. Trust provides an underlying foundation for the success of emotional and logical appeals. If we don’t have a certain degree of trust in the writer, we will be less willing to let an argument affect us. We may not allow even a skillfully worded emotional appeal to move us, and we may not be ready to agree even with a well-supported claim.

How does a writer build trust if they never come face to face with the reader? This section will look at various approaches to creating trust in written argument, including establishing the writer’s authority on the subject, convincing readers of the writer’s moral character, showing respect and goodwill, and creating a sense of closeness or shared identity. To understand each of these approaches to trust, it will help to think of an argument not as words blared through a loudspeaker into the void, but as an offering within the context of a relationship. Even as the writer explains their ideas, they are also consciously or unconsciously implying a particular relation between reader and writer.

What do I mean by relationship here? Each relationship implies expected ways people interact, and it often involves a shared identity, whether a family connection, an ethnic similarity, a job they need to complete together, or a situation they are concerned about. A relationship can be casual or formal, intimate or distanced. The writer draws the reader close, beckons the reader to their side, or holds the reader at arm’s length. They choose a style typical of the role they imagine, whether of a friend, confidante, preacher, doctor, or expert. The way they address us affects how we warm to their words. When we analyze an argument, we can ask ourselves what kind of roles and interactions the words imply. Is the writer talking to us as if we were buddies? As if we were students in a lecture hall? As if we were spiritual followers? As if we were professional colleagues working together? Or as if we were the jury at a trial?

Focusing on trust and relationship allows us to see how nuanced an argument can be and how varied its effects on different readers. An argument is not an equation. Not only does it affect our emotions, but, like a movie, a song, a novel, or a poem, it invites us into a lived experience. If we accept, we grapple with ideas in an imagined encounter with another human being.

two hands reaching for each other in a drawing
Reaching Out. Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay under the Pixabay License


One kind of relationship of trust is between a person who is an authority on the subject and a person who is less of an authority. The writer relates to us as a teacher and we defer to their greater knowledge. So the most common and ready way to establish trust is to make sure readers know what makes the writer an authority on the subject at hand. Here are some messages that writers send, either explicitly or implicitly, to readers about why they should be regarded as authorities. This kind of trust depends on the qualifications of the writer rather than on the style of writing. It is sometimes called extrinsic ethos.

“I am a recognized expert”

How can a writer convince us that they are an expert on a topic? In general, they need to show that experts in their field have recognized some level of competence or leadership in them. Different topics require different forms of expertise. If the topic fits within a particular academic field, the writer can refer to their degree and to the college, university, or think tank where they do research. The reputation of the institution they are affiliated with will affect their reputation as an expert. Readers will expect a higher level of expertise from a Yale professor, for example, then from a state college professor. Sometimes specific departments develop reputations for excellence, however. For example, those familiar with the field will know that the University of Michigan has a top sociology department.

Any work the person has produced can also serve as evidence. Publishing a book on a topic lends credibility, but if the writer can point to positive reviews of the book, robust sales, and examples where other experts have cited the book, so much the better. Newspaper and magazine articles will gain credibility from the reputation of the newspaper or magazine. We can assume that the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have high standards and make sure that their articles represent expert knowledge.

If the topic requires professional expertise, the writer will want to point to job experience, title, role in any professional associations, and any professional awards or certifications. For example, a lawyer must pass a bar examination to be allowed to practice law, so identifying a person as a lawyer implies a certain level of expertise. If the lawyer works for a firm that is well known in its specific area of law, naming that firm will boost the lawyer’s credibility further. Of course, a partner at a prestigious firm will have much more credibility than an intern.

If the writer has a public reputation as an expert above and beyond the items that could be listed on a resume, they can provide evidence of that reputation in the form of praise from other experts, the number of times their work has been cited, radio or television shows where they have been interviewed, or any other sign of public recognition of expertise.

If we want to prove or assess the level of expertise of a writer, we may want to review the following list:

  • Degrees earned
  • Institutional affiliation
  • Job title
  • Job rank
  • Job experience
  • Awards
  • Publications
  • Public reputation

To be relevant, of course, all of these need to be related to the topic of the argument at hand. Dr. Phil McGraw, for example, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has focused his career on mental health. He is not medically trained. Readers should only appeal to him as an expert on psychological matters.

“I have personal experience”

We are all authorities on our own experiences, feelings, and values. If something in our experience is relevant to our topic, we can speak with authority even without expertise. Using “I,” also called speaking in the first person, can allow a writer to speak honestly and with conviction to further an argument. Maybe a story from our lives illustrates a larger point we want to make. Or maybe an emotional reaction to something becomes part of our argument. The sample argument about immigration which we analyzed earlier describes what the writer herself would do if she were in a desperate situation in another country and needed to flee in order to protect her children. Even though she has no experience of immigration, she can be considered an authority on her own sense of morality. Thus, the claim that she would feel justified in crossing illegally is hard to refute. From this starting point, she launches into a broader argument, claiming that others would feel the same way and that therefore, Americans need to rethink how they criminalize undocumented immigrants.

Sometimes the authority of personal experience is combined with the authority of power. This allows the CEO of a company or the director of a nonprofit or the president of a country to use the pronoun “we” to speak for their group. Thus, David Drummond, Google’s senior vice-president for corporate development and chief legal officer, can title an opinion piece “Google: We will bring books back to life.” In the same Guardian opinion piece published in February 2010, he supports a legal settlement to make copyrighted books available online, arguing, “We at Google could make that wealth of knowledge available at a click. And authors would earn too.”

“I’ve done my research”

When a writer has no particular qualification in relation to the subject, they can still establish a certain degree of authority by citing authoritative sources. The essence of a journalist or a science writer’s job, for example, is to find and present authoritative sources. In academic research papers, we want readers to see that we have done due diligence and can represent a range of authorities on the subject. We can build credibility by describing for readers what kind of expertise each source has. MLA and APA in-text citations and Works Cited pages are designed to help us showcase our authoritative sources and allow readers to check up on them.

Practice Exercises

  1. Use a popular search engine like Google to find an article about a controversial topic. Then, investigate the source of the information, such as the author, organization, or institution that published it. Consider the following questions:
    • Is the source of information an authority in the topic they discuss?
    • Where does the source gain their authority (i.e., by being recognized experts, by having relevant personal experience, or by doing research)?
  1. Do a quick brainstorm about your life’s experiences, education, and personal interests. Then, with a pair or small group, describe some areas you have authority in, and explain if you got that authority by being a recognized expert, by having relevant personal experience, or by doing research.

Attributions: 9.1: An Argument Implies a Relationship is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). 9.2: Authority is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). Editing and re-mixing by Dr. Tracey Watts and Dr. Dorie LaRue as part of the LOUIS Interactive OER for Dual Enrollment project, 2022. It is licensed under a CC-BY NC SA 4.0 International license.

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3.8 Ethos: Building Relationships and Authority Copyright © 2022 by Anna Mills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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