Thursday, January 21, 2016

Splain it to Me

[ed. Ugh, randos?]

Imagine you’re telling a story. Great story, unbelievable story. A series of events that if you saw them in a movie you’d roll your eyes and groan, but they actually happened, and you were there to witness them. While you’re in the middle of the story, just as you get to a particularly interesting twist, the person listening to you scrunches up their face and shouts, “Get the fuck out of here!”

How would you react?

Everyone should have default heuristics. A simple set of rules you fall back on when you lack enough information to make a situation-specific judgment. It’s important to evaluate them for reliability and update as needed. Also important to remain aware of what they are and the fact that you are using them. The goal is to make reasonable guesses about the qualities of an unknown–just about the worst thing you can do, and what many people tend to do, is look up in memory the most similar known quantity and then handle the unknown as if it were that. This is the difference between thinking on one’s feet and hardly thinking at all.

Some heuristics are well-known and useful enough that we gives them names, a subset of which are the philosophical razors. Hanlon’s–“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”–is one of my favorites, but with the added qualification “or miscommunication.” There’s a line by Goethe roughly equivalent to this, in fact: “Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.” Assuming good faith and attempting to translate between disparate communication protocols has generally worked out pretty well for me. Good default.

So, New Yorkers tend to have a very high-engagement conversation style. What many from other places might think of as “good listening”–patient silence, thoughtful expressions that telegraph concentration–we see as rude. A listener should be talking along with the speaker, shouting their feelings about what they hear, finishing sentences, asking questions that they know will be answered by the next thing the speaker says anyway–not to alter the flow, but like setting them up for an alley-oop. Silence means you’re bored or distracted. What might cause speakers from other places to feel they’re being interrupted–say, for instance, yelling, “Get the fuck out of here!”–not only doesn’t break the conversation, but improves it. You’re demonstrating that you are fully engaged in their telling, and they ramp up their energy and excitement to match, encouraged they’re doing a good job.

To a “respectful silence == listening” speaker, the listener’s interjection would probably be seen as horribly rude, maybe even menacing. “I think you are lying to me and this makes me angry.” But to an “enthusiastic participation == listening” speaker, it means something along the lines of, “That’s amazing! Please keep going, I’m really enjoying this.” Any attempt to push state from one brain to another necessarily involves lossy compression, and one of the ways we try to save bandwidth is by implicitly referencing complex ideas that we take for granted the other person has in their head already. Whether the speaker concludes from the aforementioned interjection “This asshole thinks I’m dishonest” or “This person really loves my story” depends on shared culture–they just know what is meant, maybe without even knowing how they know–or on their heuristics leading them toward interpreting it as cooperative rather than combative.

Here’s a series of events that happens many times daily on my favorite bastion of miscommunication, the bird website. Person tweets some fact. Other people reply with other facts. Person complains, “Ugh, randos in my mentions.” Harsh words may be exchanged, and everyone exits the encounter thinking the other person was monumentally rude for no reason.

While some folks in some circles make hay over “well-actuallys” and being “splained to” by “randos,” seeing such replies as bad-faith social posturing or indicative of deep-seated bias, more often than not I chalk up the friction to, like our yelling New Yorker being taken for rude, cross-cultural communication breakdown. The dynamics at play behind “ugh, randos” are so pernicious because it isn’t a simple problem of definitions or message integrity, but different views on what communication is or is for. What it often comes down to is people with fundamentally different, perhaps totally irreconcilable, values systems assuming “malice or stupidity” where the real explanation is values mismatch and miscommunication.

by Alice Maz, Status 451 |  Read more:
Image: Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy