Ethos was one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion, standing alongside logos (logical argument) and pathos (emotions). Ethos is the trickiest of the three to define, but it roughly means credibility or character. It’s the strategy of showing your audience that you’re trustworthy and honorable, and you know what you’re talking about. This is usually done through tone, but there are other subtle techniques as well, which we’ll explore.
It’s important to remember that ethos is about establishing the author’s credibility and expertise – it isn’t about relying on someone else’s credibility. That would be an appeal to authority. For example:
Ethos: “As a dentist, I recommend flossing daily.”
Appeal to authority: “9/10 dentists recommend flossing daily.”
So, when you cite sources in your papers (a good habit!), you’re actually appealing to authority rather than establishing ethos. These are both important skills, but they’re very different in practice.
However, you shouldn’t confuse the appeal to authority with an introduction. In speeches, it’s common for someone to introduce the speaker and give a sense of their background and accomplishments, which helps establish that person’s ethos for the audience. But when the speaker herself talks about another person’s expertise, it’s an appeal to authority.
II. Examples of Ethos
“My dad carried mail on his back. They called him John the Mailman, and they loved him because he looked out for everyone.” (Political ad for John Kasich)
This is a very common technique for establishing ethos in American politics – you present yourself as an ordinary person, or at least the child of ordinary people, so that the voters believe that you’re more likely to be honest.
In personal communication, we have all kinds of subtle ways of establishing ethos when we speak. For example, if you’re trying to persuade someone of your view, it helps to make eye contact and show that you’re listening to them as well. Similarly, a good firm handshake is an important sign of ethos – too weak, and you’ll seem lifeless, too firm and you’ll seem aggressive. These clues are extremely small, but they add up to our overall impression of the speaker and his or her level of ethos.
III. The Importance of Ethos
We sometimes like to imagine that we can look at an argument through pure logic – we can just analyze its structure and evidence, and make a fully rational decision about whether or not it’s correct. But in fact this never happens. People are always influenced by the way an argument is presented, never solely by its content. So in order to write a persuasive argument, you have to account for this fact. You have to make sure that people respond positively to your presentation rather than negatively.
Imagine that you took a highly persuasive speech about, say, gun control, and then took a big breath of helium right before you read it. At the very least, your squeaky delivery would distract the audience and lessen the impact of your speech. And at worst, it might make people question your basic ethos! (“What a weird thing to do! Why should we listen to this lunatic with the helium?”) At the end of the day, how you present yourself affects how people receive your ideas, and that’s the essence of ethos.
IV. How to Establish Ethos
- Know your audience. Everything comes down to this. Ethos is all about perception – if your audience perceives you as trustworthy and reliable, then you’ve established your ethos. For different audiences, that will mean different things!
- Understand your relationship to the audience. As we’ll see in the next section, it matters whether your audience perceives you as “one of them” or as an outsider. Being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself – people often like to hear fresh perspectives from outsiders. But it would be a mistake to pretend to be an insider if the audience doesn’t perceive you that way. If you do want to present yourself as an insider, carefully insert “jargon” (specialized terms within a particular field or profession) into your work. In small doses, jargon, can go a long way to establishing your insider status (see the information in “shibboleth” in section 6). But be careful, using too many becomes annoying.
In addition, your relationship to the audience is affected by your perceived level of expertise. Does the audience view you as an authority on the subject? Or simply as an interested amateur? If they view you as an expert, you can build on that in establishing ethos. If they don’t view you that way, you shouldn’t act as though they do.
- Set your tone appropriately. For an academic audience, one of the main features of ethos is an appropriate formal tone. If your tone is too informal (for example, if it has improper grammar or misused words), then academic readers won’t take you seriously, and you will have a much harder time persuading them. On the other hand, other readers (e.g. on a blog) might prefer a more informal tone. This applies to body language as well – certain gestures, ways of standing, etc., seem more “formal” than others, and it’s important to match your behavior with your tone. (Obviously this only applies to establishing ethos in speeches, not in writing.)
- Acknowledge those who disagree and respond patiently. If you’re making an argument, there must be some kind of counter-argument – some kind of viewpoint for people who disagree with you. (If there isn’t, why bother to argue at all?) A good argument always acknowledges these other views and shows respect to them. This can be hard to do when you feel passionately about the topic, but if you fail to respect other views your readers will suspect that you’re being biased and dishonest, and this will undermine your ethos.
V. When to Use Ethos
Ethos is a feature of rhetoric (persuasion), not literature, so it makes more sense in formal essays than creative writing. In formal essays, it’s particularly important to establish ethos, because otherwise your argument will be unpersuasive to the reader. However, there is a place for ethos even in creative writing. This happens whenever your personal perspective is important to the piece you’re writing.
Say you’re working on a nonfiction piece about heavy metal culture. It makes a big difference whether you’re a part of that culture or not! If you’re an insider, you have a certain kind of ethos – the kind that makes you deeply aware of all the nuances in the culture and how it works. If you’re an outsider, you have a different kind of ethos – the kind that allows you to see and analyze general trends that insiders can easily miss. Whichever perspective you adopt, you’ll want to find ways to signal that particular kind of ethos to your audience.
VI. Examples of Ethos in Scholarship
“Stout…was involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements in his teens and twenties. He was graduated from Brown University in 1972, and received his doctorate from Princeton in 1976. At Brown, he chaired a student strike in 1970, ran the Rhode Island Draft Information Center…” (Online Bio, Jeffrey Stout)
This is the online bio of scholar Jeffrey Stout, author of Blessed Are the Organized and many other books on politics. Notice how this bio is trying to establish Stout’s ethos from two different directions: on one side, the bio points out that he has academic credentials – two degrees from highly respected institutions. On the other hand, it demonstrates that he has political credibility as an activist.
Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life (book by Matthew McKay, PhD, Martha Davis, PhD, and Patrick Fanning)
This book title is pretty standard for popular psychology. It’s also pretty standard for the authors to list “PhD” after their names. This establishes that they are well-educated experts in (we hope) the field of psychology. When we see “PhD” next to the authors’ names, we’re more likely to believe whatever they say in the book. These three letters on the cover do a lot of work to establish ethos.
VII. Examples of Ethos in Media and Popular Culture
“We’re joined now by Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, a professor at University of California, Riverside.” (Don Lemon on CNN)
On the news, it’s common courtesy to introduce guests by telling the audience who they are and what their background is. This helps to establish their credibility, or ethos, with the audience. When anchors fail to do this (as happened in another interview with Prof. Aslan), it’s often regarded as unfair and unprofessional.
“Runnin’ through the 6 with my woes, countin’ money, you know how it goes. Pray the real live forever, man, pray the fakes get exposed.” (Drake, Know Yourself)
For decades, rappers have used slang to show their insider status, and gain the ethos that comes with it. Only someone who truly understood the hip hop culture would be able to use obscure slang terms, so it functions almost like a shibboleth (see §6). In this case, the phrase “The 6” refers to the city of Toronto (which was formed out of six earlier cities). Most people outside the Toronto hip hop scene wouldn’t have known that, so Drake is establishing ethos with that particular subculture.
VIII. Related Terms
A shibboleth is an idea, word, or practice that only insiders know. To use a simple example, a club might have a secret handshake that demonstrates membership. On a more complex level, politicians and scholars use certain words to indicate their political philosophy – the words “base” and “superstructure,” for example, are frequently used by Marxists, but rarely used (or even properly understood) by those from other philosophical schools. These words function as a shibboleth for Marxists.
Ad Hominem Argument
Although it’s important to establish your own ethos, attacking someone else’s ethos is considered an unfair strategy in formal rhetoric. An ad hominem argument might be saying something like, “Well, you’re a liar, so we all know what you’re saying isn’t true.” That would be unfair. You have to show the problems with what someone is saying, rather than just going after them personally.