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Thoughts on Communication
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
[This post is inspired by several interactions with various people over the past few months. If you think it is About You, you may be right, but only partially. (Unless you're me. Me, me, me, it's all about me!)]

Sometimes one person says something which is misunderstood by someone else. Often, in such cases, bad feelings result. I've been musing on this a lot lately. Is it useful to assign blame in such cases? What can be done to minimize them? Or at least to minimize the damage that happens when they occur?

Some things that I believe:
I. People should state what they mean as clearly as they can manage.
Ia. People should not say false things.
Ib, People should not say deliberately hurtful things.
II. People are responsible for their own reactions.

Point II is subtle, and worth going into more detail about. My mom (after years of therapy) used to occasionally say that a given thing made her uncomfortable, but that she "owned" that feeling. That is, she acknowledged that the feeling originated within herself, and that the exterior stimulus was not to blame for her reaction to it.

Some people may think that this attitude is unfair. "Isn't this just blaming the victim?" I don't think so. English is inherently ambiguous. Despite the best efforts at clarity (I), sometimes there will be failures. As long as what was said was neither false (Ia), nor deliberately hurtful (Ib), I think that any negative reaction on the part of the listener rightfully belongs to the listener themselves. Or to put things another way, to whom *would* you cede authority over your own emotions? And under what circumstances? It seems to me distinctly unhealthy to assign responsibility for one's own emotional state to anyone but oneself.

It has been stated, by people whose opinions I generally respect, that there is a further principle that should be followed: "Ic. People should not cause offence." But, to me, this is fundamentally incompatible with Principle II. Which is not to say that there is not a fuzzy middle ground. While I cannot *control*, or be completely *responsible for* a listener's reactions, I can, with a greater or lesser expectation of success, *predict* those reactions. Indeed, Principle Ib is fundamentally based on such predictions. I cannot *know* what will be hurtful, but it is incumbent upon me to make my best guess.

So, how much responsibility *do* I have to guess my listeners' mental state(s)? As a reductio ad absurdum, I clearly cannot fully and correctly model their mental state at all times -- even were such a thing possible in theory, doing so for even one person would leave me no room to think thoughts of my own. So clearly I must use simple approximations as my mental models of other people.

In practice, the detail of these mental models varies widely. Here's a list of some mental models I have, in increasing order of detail and complexity.
A random human being.
A typical citizen of Japan.
A typical citizen of England.
A typical citizen of the USA.
A distant family member.
A typical Bostonian.
A typical Carolingian.
A casual friend.
A co-worker of several years.
A close friend.
An ex-girlfriend.
A close family member.
A really close friend I have been close to for decades.
kestrell.

My mental model of kestrell happens to be at least one, if not two orders of magnitude more complex than the next most detailed. I've known her almost a decade now, and for most of that time I've been deeply invested in making her happy. For purely selfish motives -- her happiness makes me happy in turn! Hence, it's very important to me to predict her reactions to the best of my ability. And that ability is notably deficient; I still occasionally offend her without meaning to. The frequency is dropping as I improve, but perfetion seems likely to be unattainable.

So if I unwittingly give offense to you, it is only because I don't understand you well enough. Of course, some people may take that as further cause for offence: "What?!? You think me unimportant enough that you haven't studied all my nuances in depth and memorized them!" To which I can only shrug sheepishly and reply, "Yeah, fair cop." You're welcome to try and convince me that understanding you *should* matter more to me -- but at the moment, it clearly doesn't, and I'm OK with that.

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"Ic. People should not cause offence."

hmm. I think I would say that offense-causing is a tool with sharp edges, which should be used deliberately, cautiously, and rarely.

And while it is true that one is responsible for one's own reactions, there are a great many people who do not put this into practice, and it is relatively easy to thus use the tool on them, if needed.

Unfortunately, this reminds me too much of the passive-agressive people who have so often helped create a lot of my truly awful relationships. This is the sort of person who is very good at saying things while sticking to a line where they can claim they didn't mean anything by it, but at the same time you know they did, because they make a regular pattern of inflicting such emotional damage. Yes, I now have the knowledge and agency to say, I don't need to stick around for this, but many times walking away was not an option, as int he case of being a child, or dealing with a teacher, psychologist, or counselor with whom I was required to deal, and let's not forget the romantic relationships, where your partner can use that model of how you react as a negative instead of a positive "tool."
In short, if you can form a model like the ones discussed here and they work for you, I think you have been very fortunate in having basically sane relationships with mostly sane people, but this leaves out a lot of the more insidious forms of abusive relationships that are out there, and such a rational model is not going to be able to explain or help with the experience of those relationships.

An earlier draft of this post included discussion of the late lamented Patri du Chat Gris' principle that "a gentleman never accidentally causes offence". But it seemed a distraction from the main points I was trying to make.

Indeed. I believe this was Samuel Johnson by way of Oscar Wilde, and then of course, by way of Patri. A good phrase.

Yeah, I heard echoes of that line above.

It is, of course, impossible in the general case, but I've found it a reasonably good goal. And using it as a guideline forces me to *consciously* ask myself, "Do I *want* to piss this person off?" To which the answer is rarely Yes, but the exercise of making that decision often cools me down...

I think you have the a very good view.

You discuss differentiating intent from impact (here I steal the vocabulary from "Difficult Conversations", which addresses this topic head-on). I have an intent; I perform a (possibly conversational) action; you observe it, and your perception of it causes an impact on you. This can simultaneously proceed in the opposite direction.

But despite having only "my" view of the action, and knowledge of the impact on me, I make assumptions about the other guy's intentions, and on my impact on them. Often, these are wrong, because we're upset about something and it makes it hard to understand what other reasons the other person had for doing that thing. (As a friend of mine says, "emotions are much louder on the inside".) And it's hard to believe an accidental incident could hurt so much -- surely they meant it!

It's a very, very common trap to fall into: we want to believe in a meaningful world, and that the magnitude of the action equals the magnitude of the reaction. If I'm this upset, someone must have done something really horrible. But as your II points out, that isn't the case.

I used to firmly believe Ic, but now believe it's impossible: that way lies madness. Instead I ascribe to Ib and Ic.v2, which is something like "try to generally avoid upsetting people", i.e., "don't be a dick". But even when trying to follow that rule, it's impossible to avoid upsetting someone eventually. And even if you *could* model everyone around you, your models would necessarily be incomplete; people change constantly. It's a way of trying to assume complete responsibility, which is to say control, over the world, and therefore attractive to the geek as a solution, but it just doesn't work. You can't model the universe except at 1:1 scale.

I also find that no one can avoid being a jerk 100% of the time. (And that's okay; perfect people would scare me, if any existed.) People are people.

The responsibility for interaction lies in both people, not just the other guy. If you took offense, perhaps they said something offensive -- but perhaps not. If the other person took offense, perhaps they're overly sensitive -- but perhaps not. Perhaps it was the contributions of both parties.

Also horribly important is III, which is "acknowledge the impact you have had on others (without thinking you intended it)". I think that's what your last paragraph is all about, and that's a rare trait.

"Is it useful to assign blame in such cases?"

YES! I have found that I fare far better if I always assign blame for any miss communication to myself. First it you can point out what you see as contradictions, without invoking (as much of) a defensive attitude in your conversant. Second, it defuses any anger, on the part of your conversant (your own anger is your lookout).

I liked the rest of what you said.

...not always. In fact, taking all the blame can lead to lots of bad situations, where the root cause is never discovered and the situation repeats over and over. And of course, it can eventually make you feel awful. Finally, the person may simply not believe you -- if you claim it's your fault, and that's not the whole story (i.e. you both had contributions to the situation ending up as it was), your attempts to minimize the situation and defuse the anger (instead of acknowledging it and moving on from there) can backfire.


I was perhaps unclear, The purpose of taking the blame is not to absolve the other person. But to have them try again, without rancor. Or to take another stab yourself at an argument, by in effect disclaiming what you said that did not make it intact to the other person.

That, by the way, is how it is done.

It has been stated, by people whose opinions I generally respect, that there is a further principle that should be followed: "Ic. People should not cause offence."

To the extent that one can judge an action as Generally Offensive by Normally-Predictable Standards of the Given Audience [tm] one should attempt to avoid giving offense...unless that, in fact, is your purpose and intent. As I'm told Patri used to say, a gentlemen should not accidentally cause offense. OTOH, (1) you can't always predict where your audience sets their personal trigger-level for offense, and (2) sometimes you can, but that trigger is so sensitive that it's impossible to avoid tripping it, so it may be best to just be forthright and let them own their reaction, or not. There are folks like that on several SCA fora, gawd knows, and I have patients like that as well.

I think I agree with II in some cases, and not in others. In a hypothetical case that has nothing to do with you personally, what if someone makes a racist remark which offends another person? Is that reaction, in your schema, the responsibility of the offended party? I would argue not.

The vast majority of racist remarks already violate Ia, Ib, or both. In the small fraction that violate neither, yeah, I'd say that II applies.

There's another neat way of stating your first three points:
I. People should state what they mean as clearly as they can manage.
Ia. People should not say false things.
Ib. People should not say deliberately hurtful things.

And that is:
Say what you mean.
Mean what you say.
Don't say it mean.

(Hi, I was browsing through james_nicoll's friends page when your post caught my eye.)

Recent observations suggest this one:

Id. People should put some effort into finding out what other people might consider hurtful.

How much effort would be reasonable is a fuzzy sort of thing.

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