Defecting by Accident - A Flaw Common to Analytical People

post by lionhearted · 2010-12-01T08:25:47.450Z · score: 99 (129 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 431 comments

Contents

  Background - On Analytical Skills and Rhetoric
  Defecting by Accident
  "Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate"
  On Being Pedantic, Sarcastic, Disagreeable, Non-Complimentary, and Otherwise Defecting by Accident
  Becoming More Self-Aware and Strategic; Some Practical Social Guidelines
  Further reading:
None
431 comments

Related to: Rationalists Should Win, Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate, Can Humanism Match Religion's Output?, Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic, Paul Graham's "Why Nerds Are Unpopular"

The "Prisoner's Dilemma" refers to a game theory problem developed in the 1950's. Two prisoners are taken and interrogated separately. If either of them confesses and betrays the other person - "defecting" - they'll receive a reduced sentence, and their partner will get a greater sentence. However, if both defect, then they'll both receive higher sentences than if neither of them confessed.

This brings the prisoner to a strange problem. The best solution individually is to defect. But if both take the individually best solution, then they'll be worst off overall. This has wide ranging implications for international relations, negotiation, politics, and many other fields.

Members of LessWrong are incredibly smart people who tend to like game theory, and debate and explore and try to understand problems like this. But, does knowing game theory actually make you more effective in real life?

I think the answer is yes, with a caveat - you need the basic social skills to implement your game theory solution. The worst-case scenario in an interrogation would be to "defect by accident" - meaning that you'd just blurt out something stupidly because you didn't think it through before speaking. This might result in you and your partner both receiving higher sentences... a very bad situation. Game theory doesn't take over until basic skill conditions are met, so that you could actually execute any plan you come up with.

The Purpose of This Post: I think many smart people "defect" by accident. I don't mean in serious situations like a police investigation. I mean in casual, everyday situations, where they tweak and upset people around them by accident, due to a lack of reflection of desired outcomes.

Rationalists should win. Defecting by accident frequently results in losing. Let's examine this phenomenon, and ideally work to improve it.

Contents Of This Post

Background - On Analytical Skills and Rhetoric

From Paul Graham's "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" -

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.
[...]
The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don't smart kids make themselves popular? If they're so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?
[...]
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don't really want to be popular.
If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.
But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart.

I believe that "defecting by accident" is a result of not learning how different phrasing of words and language can dramatically effect how well your point is taken. It's been a general observation of mine that a lot of people in highly intellectual disciplines like mathematics, physics, robotics, engineering, and computer science/programming look down on social skills.

Of course, they wouldn't phrase it that way. They'd say they don't have time for it - they don't have time for gossip, or politics, or sugarcoating. They might say, "I'm a realist" or "I say it like it is."

I believe this is a result of not realizing how big the difference in your effectiveness will be depending on how you phrase things, in what order, how well you appeal to another person's emotions. People in highly analytical disciplines often care about "just the facts" - but, let's face it, we highly analytical people are a great minority of the population.

Sooner or later, you're going to have something you care about and you're going to need to persuade someone who is not highly analytical. At that point, you run some serious risks of failure if you don't understand basic social skills.

Now, most people would claim that they have basic social skills. But I'm not sure this is borne out by observation. This used to be a very key part of any educated person's studies: rhetoric. From Wikiedpia: "Rhetoric is the art of using language to communicate effectively and persuasively. ... From ancient Greece to the late 19th Century, it was a central part of Western education, filling the need to train public speakers and writers to move audiences to action with arguments."

Rhetoric is now frequently looked down upon by highly intelligent and analytical people. Like Paul Graham says, it's not that intellectuals can't learn it. It's that they think it's not a good use of their time, that they'd rather be smart instead.

Defecting by Accident

Thus, you see highly intelligent people do what I now term "defecting by accident" - meaning, in the process of trying to have a discussion, they insult, belittle, or offend their conversational partner. They commit obvious, blatant social faux pases, not as a conscious decision of the tradeoffs, but by accident because they don't know better.

Sometimes defecting is the right course of action. Sometimes you need to break from whoever you're negotiating with, insist that things are done your way, even at their expense, and take the consequences that may arise from that.

But it's rarely something you should do by accident.

I'll give specific, clear examples in a moment, but before I do so, let's look at a general example of how this can happen.

If you're at a meeting and someone gives a presentation and asks if anyone has questions, and you ask point-blank, "But we don't have the budget or skills to do that, how would we overcome that?" - then, that seems like a highly reasonable question. It's probably very intelligent.

What normal people would consider, though, is how this affects the perception of everyone in the room. To put it bluntly - it makes the presenter look very bad.

That's okay, if you decide that that's an acceptable part of what you're doing. But you now have someone who is likely to actively work to undermine you going forwards. A minor enemy. Just because you asked a question casually without thinking about it.

Interestingly, there's about a thousand ways you could be diplomatic and tactful to address the key issue you have - budgeting/staffing - without embarrassing the presenter. You could take them aside quietly later and express your concern. You could phrase it as, "This seems like an amazing idea and a great presentation. I wonder how we could secure the budgeting and get the team for it, because it seems like it'd be a profitable if we do, and it'd be a shame to miss this opportunity."

Just by phrasing it that way, you make the presenter look good even if the option can't be funded or staffed. Instead of expressing your concern as a hole in their presentation, you express it as a challenge to be overcome by everyone in the room. Instead of your underlying point coming across as "your idea is unfeasible," it comes across as, "You've brought this good idea to us, and I hope we're smart enough to make it work."

If the real goal is just to make sure budgeting and funding is taken care of, there's many ways to do that without embarrassing and making an enemy out of the presenter.

Defecting by accident is lacking the awareness, tact, and skill to realize what the secondary effects of your actions are and act accordingly to win.

This is a relatively basic problem that the majority of "normal" people understand, at least on a subconscious level. Most people realize that you can't just show up a presenter and make them look bad. Or at least, you should expect them to be hostile to you if you do. But many intelligent people say, "What the hell is his problem? I just asked a question."

This is due to a lack of understanding of social skills, diplomacy, tact, and yes, perhaps "politics" - which are unfortunately a reality of the world. And again, rationalists should win. If your actions are leading to hostility and defection against you, then you need to consider if your actions are the best possible.

"Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate"

Eliezer's "Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate" is a masterpiece. I'm only going to excerpt three parts, but I'd recommend the whole article.

From when I was still forced to attend, I remember our synagogue's annual fundraising appeal. It was a simple enough format, if I recall correctly. The rabbi and the treasurer talked about the shul's expenses and how vital this annual fundraise was, and then the synagogue's members called out their pledges from their seats.

Straightforward, yes?
Let me tell you about a different annual fundraising appeal. One that I ran, in fact; during the early years of a nonprofit organization that may not be named. One difference was that the appeal was conducted over the Internet. And another difference was that the audience was largely drawn from the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer/etc crowd. (To point in the rough direction of an empirical cluster in personspace. If you understood the phrase "empirical cluster in personspace" then you know who I'm talking about.)
I crafted the fundraising appeal with care. By my nature I'm too proud to ask other people for help; but I've gotten over around 60% of that reluctance over the years. The nonprofit needed money and was growing too slowly, so I put some force and poetry into that year's annual appeal. I sent it out to several mailing lists that covered most of our potential support base.
And almost immediately, people started posting to the mailing lists about why they weren't going to donate. Some of them raised basic questions about the nonprofit's philosophy and mission. Others talked about their brilliant ideas for all the other sources that the nonprofit could get funding from, instead of them. (They didn't volunteer to contact any of those sources themselves, they just had ideas for how we could do it.)
Now you might say, "Well, maybe your mission and philosophy did have basic problems - you wouldn't want tocensor that discussion, would you?"
Hold on to that thought.
Because people were donating. We started getting donations right away, via Paypal. We even got congratulatory notes saying how the appeal had finally gotten them to start moving. A donation of $111.11 was accompanied by a message saying, "I decided to give **** a little bit more. One more hundred, one more ten, one more single, one more dime, and one more penny. All may not be for one, but this one is trying to be for all."
But none of those donors posted their agreement to the mailing list. Not one.

So far as any of those donors knew, they were alone. And when they tuned in the next day, they discovered not thanks, but arguments for why they shouldn't have donated. The criticisms, the justifications for not donating - only those were displayed proudly in the open.
As though the treasurer had finished his annual appeal, and everyone not making a pledge had proudly stood up to call out justifications for refusing; while those making pledges whispered them quietly, so that no one could hear.

Indeed, that's a problem. Eliezer continues:

"It is dangerous to be half a rationalist."

And finally, this point, which is magnificent -

Our culture puts all the emphasis on heroic disagreement and heroic defiance, and none on heroic agreement or heroic group consensus. We signal our superior intelligence and our membership in the nonconformist community by inventing clever objections to others' arguments. Perhaps that is why the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/Silicon-Valley/programmer/early-adopter crowd stays marginalized, losing battles with less nonconformist factions in larger society. No, we're not losing because we're so superior, we're losing because our exclusively individualist traditions sabotage our ability to cooperate.

On Being Pedantic, Sarcastic, Disagreeable, Non-Complimentary, and Otherwise Defecting by Accident

You might not realize it, but in almost all of human civilization it's considered insulting to just point out something wrong someone is doing without any preface, softening, or making it clear why you're doing it.

It's taken for granted in some blunt, "say it like it is" communities, but it's usually taken as a personal attack and a sign of animosity in, oh, 90%+ of the rest of civilization.

In these so-called "normal people's societies," correcting them in front of their peers will be perceived as trying to lower them and make them look stupid. Thus, they'll likely want to retaliate against you, or at least not cooperate with you.

Now, there's a time and place to do this anyways. Sometimes there's an emergency, and you don't have time to take care of people's feelings, and just need to get something done. But surfing the internet is not that time.

I'm going to take some example replies from a recent post I made to illustrate this. There's always a risk in doing this of not being objective, but I think it's worth it because (1) I tend to read every reply to me and carefully reflect on it for a moment, (2) I understand exactly my first reactions to these comments, and (3) I won't have to rehash criticisms of another person. Take a grain of salt with you since I'm looking at replies to myself originally, but I think I can give you some good examples.

The first thing I want to do is take a second to mention that almost everyone in the entire world gets emotionally invested in things they create, and are also a little insecure about their creations. It's extraordinarily rare that people don't care what others' think of their writing, science, or art.

Criticism has good and bad points. Great critics are rare, but they actually make works of creation even in critique. A great critic can give background, context, and highlight a number of relevant mainstream and obscure works through history that the piece they're critiquing reminds them of.

Good critique is an art of creation in and of itself. But bad critique - just blind "that's wrong" without explaining why - tends to be construed as a hostile action and not accomplish much, other than signalling that "heroic disagreement" that Eliezer talks about.

I recently wrote a post titled, "Nahh, that wouldn't work". I thought about it for around a week, then it took me about two hours to think it through, draw up key examples on paper, choose the most suitable, edit, and post it. It was generally well-received here on LW and on my blog.

I'll show you three comments on there, and how I believe they could be subtly tweaked.

1.

> I wizened up,
I don't think that's the word you want to use, unless you're talking about how you finally lost those 20 pounds by not drinking anymore.

2.

FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it's kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations. It would be like reading a history of quantum mechanics or relativity with all mentions of things like the laser or double-slit experiment or Edding or Michelson-Morley removed.

3.

An interesting start, but I would rather see this in Discussion -- it's not fully adapted yet, I think...

Now, I spend a lot of time around analytical people, so I take no offense at this. But I believe these are good examples of what I'd call "accidental defection" - this is the kind of thing that produces a negative reaction in the person you're talking to, perhaps without you even noticing.

#1 is kind of clever pointing out a spelling error. But you have to realize, in normal society that's going to upset and make hostile the person you're addressing. Whether you mean to or not, it comes across as, "I'm demonstrating that I'm more clever than you."

There's a few ways it could be done differently. For instance, an email that says, "Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

That would point out the error (if that's the main goal), and also engender a feeling of gratitude in whoever received it (me, in this case). Then I would have written back, "Hey, thanks... I don't worry about spelling too much, but yeah that one's embarrassing, I'll fix it. Much appreciated. Anyways, what are you working on? How can I help?"

I know that's how I'd have written back, because that's how I generally write back to someone who tries to help me out. Mutual goodwill, it's a virtuous cycle.

Just pointing out someone is wrong in a clever way usually engenders bad will and makes them dislike you. The thing is, I know that's not the intention of anyone here - hence, "defecting by accident." Analytical people often don't even realize they're showing someone up when they do it.

I'm not particularly bothered. I get the intent behind it. But normal people are going to be ultra-hostile if you do it to them. There's other ways, if you feel the need to point it out publicly. You could "soften" it by praising first - "Hey, some interesting points in this one... I've thought about a similar bias of not considering outcomes if I don't like what it'd mean by the world. By the way, you probably didn't mean wizen there..." - or even just saying, "I think you meant 'wisen' instead of 'wizen'" - with links to the dictionary, maybe. Any of those would go over better with the original author/presenter whom you're pointing out the error to.

Let's look at point #2. "FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it's kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations."

This is something which makes people trying to help or create shake their head. See, it's potentially a good point. But after someone takes some time to create something and give it away for free, then hearing, "Your work would be more valuable if you did (xyz) instead. Your way is kind of odd."

People generally don't like that.

Again, it's trivially easy to write that differently. Something like, "Thanks for the post. I was wondering, you mentioned (claim X), but I wonder if you have any examples of claim X so I can understand it better?"

That one has - gratitude, no unnecessary criticism, explains your motivation. All of which are good social skill points, especially the last one as written about in Cialdini's "Influence" - give a reason why.

#3 - "An interesting start, but I would rather see this in Discussion -- it's not fully adapted yet, I think..."

Okay. Why?

The difference between complaining and constructive work is looking for solutions. So, "There's some good stuff in here, but I think we could adapt it more. One thing I was thinking is (main point)."

Becoming More Self-Aware and Strategic; Some Practical Social Guidelines

From Anna Salamon's "Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic" -

But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out. We do not automatically:

Anna points out that people don't automatically ask what they're trying to achieve. You don't, necessarily, ask what you're trying to achieve.

But I would recommend you do ask that before speaking up socially. At least for a while, until you've got the general patterns figured out.

If you don't, you run the risk of antagonizing and making people hostile to you who would otherwise cooperate and work with you.

Now, I've heard smart people say, "I don't have time for that." This is akin to saying, "I don't have time to achieve what I want to achieve."

Because it doesn't take much time, and it makes you much more effective. Asking, "What am I trying to achieve here?" goes a long way.

When commenting on a discussion site, who are you writing for? For the author? For the regular readers? What's your point in replying? If your main point is just to "get to truth and understanding," then what should your secondary considerations be? If there's a conflict between the two, would you prefer to encourage the author to write more, or to look clever by pointing out a pedantic point?

I understand where you're coming from, because I used to come from the same place. I was the kid who argued with teachers when they were wrong, not realizing the long term ramifications of that. People matter, and people's feelings matter, especially if they have sway over your life, but even if they don't have sway over your life.

To that, here's some suggestions I think would make you more effective:

Following some of these simple points will make you much more effective socially. I feel like a lot of times analytical and intelligent people study really hard, difficult problems, while ignoring basic considerations that have much more immediate and larger impact.

Further reading:

Edit: Lots of comments on this. 130 and counting. The most common criticism seems to be that adding fluff is a waste of time, insincere, and reduces signal:noise ratio. I'd encourage you to actually try it instead of just guessing - a quick word of thanks or encouragement before criticizing creates a more friendly, cooperative environment and works well. It doesn't take very long, and it doesn't detract from S:N ratio much, if at all.

Don't just guess here. Try it out for a month. I think you'll be amazed at how differently people react to you, and the uptake on your suggestions and feedback and ability to convince and teach people. Of course, you can construct examples of going overboard and it being silly. But that's not required - just try to make everything 10% more gracious, and watch how much your effectiveness increases.

431 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-01T15:32:38.162Z · score: 64 (64 votes) · LW · GW

(hmm) The organization of this post is very good; it's easy to follow from point A to point B throughout and makes effective use of references. Predictably, I'm also on board with the general project described.

That having been said, the specific style of politeness presented here seems tedious, noisy, slightly condescending, and potentially even obfuscating. The virtues of brevity and clarity can be maintained alongside the virtue of politeness.

Multi-sentence thanks for "insights" to soften a criticism take up space, may sound sarcastic, and aren't even the most warming kind of softening praise. "Thanks for these insights" and similar sound token at best and fake at worst. If someone wants to soften a criticism of one of my posts, I'd rather hear what their favorite line is or be informed that they upvoted it. But if all they have to say that's nice about the post is a stock phrase that could be equally well applied to any original text, I'd prefer they skip it.

Consider the brief reply to a correction, "Fixed, thanks". This could be interpreted as abrupt or even rude, but it is short, it acknowledges the help as received and useful and implemented, and it's clear in those functions. It's as polite as makes sense: more humble dancing about would only be annoying to many people, and replacing it with an extended "Oh, thanks so much, silly me not paying attention to the squiggly red lines, hey do you need any help on your projects that I might be able to offer?" would be weird and not productive.

comment by pjeby · 2010-12-01T16:37:56.127Z · score: 37 (35 votes) · LW · GW

if all they have to say that's nice about the post is a stock phrase that could be equally well applied to any original text, I'd prefer they skip it.

What I find interesting about this is that you're basically saying that their signal isn't costly enough to make you feel good. I wonder if that's the essence of the conflict under normal circumstances, i.e., by being direct (and thus not paying the additional costs of being polite) you are signaling that you do not value your audience as alliance partners very much, or that you are so far above them as to not need to make an investment in pleasing them.

Perhaps us geeky types simply prefer our costly signaling to be in the form of someone actually having thought about what we said. ;-)

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-12-01T21:20:39.830Z · score: 14 (10 votes) · LW · GW

What I find interesting about this is that you're basically saying that their signal isn't costly enough to make you feel good.

It's not about the effort or cost, as if I expect people to be more honest when they are using more resources. The problem is that the same stock phrase could be said of anything, because it is vague and difficult to interpret at lower levels of abstraction where its truth value could be evaluated. Writing a sonnet in general praise of insights would not be nearly as valuable as identifying a single specfic insight and why it is useful, though it would be a costlier signal.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T17:02:38.877Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed that this is part of it, but I think there's more to it.

Yes, one thing that makes a compliment rewarding is the implication that someone considers me worth devoting effort to establishing a social bond with, and the degree of effort they devote to it (either in the form of time spent thinking carefully, or of time spent paying attention, or of time spent earning resources to gift to me, or whatever) is a big component of that. Absolutely.

But also, it's rewarding to contrast myself positively with my surroundings... to reflect on my superiority in whatever areas I feel superior in. And the more detailed and specific that contrast, the better. And if I've internalized the idea that "tooting my own horn" in this way is a Bad Thing, then it's even more rewarding if someone else does it.

And, also, my perception of the status of the person of the person making the effort is an important component. In a forum like this where perceived status is tied to perceptiveness/intelligence/etc., a compliment that demonstrates perception and intelligence is therefore more rewarding than one that doesn't.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-01T23:23:31.846Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

if all they have to say that's nice about the post is a stock phrase that could be equally well applied to any original text, I'd prefer they skip it.

What I find interesting about this is that you're basically saying that their signal isn't costly enough to make you feel good.

This is something that seems to apply more generally when complimenting. Direct praise seems cheap, at best a signal of supplication. It is often better to identify something that the person does and express approval of that activity in general, and hence compliment their identity.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-12-15T03:44:43.721Z · score: 19 (16 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be assuming that what you want to hear is how people should be learning to communicate ("I'd prefer they skip it"), but part of the point is that we are not like most people. If you want to communicate effectively with the broader population, then you have to focus on what they like to hear, not judge communication suggestions based on whether you would like hearing it.

Also, I love brevity, but I charitably assumed that the politeness examples were exaggerated to make the point. Exaggerated examples, while they often bother analytical types who already get the point ("but that's too far the other way!") are (IMHO) quite useful at helping get across new ideas by magnifying them.

And compactness is hard, as is habit change. So developing compact politeness seems harder than developing politeness and then polishing it with brevity and clarity. Maybe too hard for some people - one habit at a time is often easier.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-02T04:50:09.606Z · score: 9 (12 votes) · LW · GW

That having been said, the specific style of politeness presented here seems tedious, noisy, slightly condescending, and potentially even obfuscating.

Are you guessing, or did you test this?

Because I used to think the same way, but I now find I get better results with just a dash of politeness. I don't think it takes very much time or is so bad for signal:noise ratio either.

"Oh, thanks so much, silly me not paying attention to the squiggly red lines, hey do you need any help on your projects that I might be able to offer?" would be weird and not productive.

Well, I think the "oh silly me" is fluffy, you could just say thanks. But offering to help in return I think is a great think. Most people won't take you up on it, but it goes over really well.

Maybe try it for a month or two and see how it goes? I'm always really grateful when someone offers me a hand, and then I'm more likely to ask them a question or for a book recommendation or whatever. Even small things, most people won't ask you for them if you don't invite them to. Which is a shame, because then we miss opportunities to connect with people.

I'm not saying politeness is good because it's good. I'm saying it's good because it makes people more effective. I reckon that's true in most non-emergency cases.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-12-02T09:15:54.014Z · score: 8 (19 votes) · LW · GW

I strongly agree with Alicorn's comment. When you suggested

"Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

as the appropriate way to point out a typo, I had to resist the urge to flame you. While there are people for whom such verbosity is the most effective mode of communication, I and the people I enjoy communicating with are not among them. Like Alicorn, I read that paragraph as tedious and condescending; if such a message were written to me, I would think that the author was either vacuous or thought I was an idiot.

But offering to help in return I think is a great thin[g]. Most people won't take you up on it, but it goes over really well.

I would find such an offer confusing at best and pretty creepy in the average case. "Politeness" is not a natural category and you should not expect an audience to consider something polite because you or another audience does.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-02T23:29:42.341Z · score: 12 (15 votes) · LW · GW

It's not the "right" way. Just one choice out of a thousand possible.

Here's a sample email:

--

Subject: Typo in your article

Hi author,

I saw your article and liked it, but wanted to give you a heads up. You spelled (word) wrong. Best wishes,

Writer

--

What's that take? 15 seconds? You'd probably have some goodwill afterwards.

While there are people for whom such verbosity is the most effective mode of communication, I and the people I enjoy communicating with are not among them.

Okay. And you're highly analytical, right? Normal people don't work well with ultra-direct communication.

I would find such an offer confusing at best and pretty creepy in the average case.

So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice on how to become one of the most productive and connected people in any work environment? Offer to help anyone on anything, do double duty on work, and be gracious of it?

Because that is, in fact really common advice. I'd really, really encourage you to try it. I used to believe in being a "straight shooter", "all content no fluff", etc, etc, etc. Seriously, try it the other way for a couple weeks. I think you'll be amazed as what happens.

Try it! Don't guess, try it. Seriously, it might change your life.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-02T23:35:42.199Z · score: 7 (15 votes) · LW · GW

So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice on how to become one of the most productive and connected people in any work environment? Offer to help anyone on anything, do double duty on work, and be gracious of it?

Because that is, in fact really common advice. I'd really, really encourage you to try it. I used to believe in being a "straight shooter", "all content no fluff", etc, etc, etc. Seriously, try it the other way for a couple weeks. I think you'll be amazed as what happens.

Try it! Don't guess, try it. Seriously, it might change your life.

While there may be environments in which this is in fact spectacular advice and would be well-received, I find these paragraphs so obnoxious that they set my teeth on edge. Why should I believe advice about making people feel good which sets my teeth on edge?

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-02T23:48:24.997Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Why should I believe advice about making people feel good which sets my teeth on edge?

Because whether it works or not is independent of whether it sets your teeth on edge. That would be a reason not to act on it, but not a reason to dismiss its validity.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-02T23:50:45.477Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Because whether it works or not is independent of whether it sets your teeth on edge.

I am a person. I belong to the same reference class as those who this sort of thing would be expected to work on.

I do not find this style of politeness to "work" for me.

It is, I grant, a weak reason to dismiss the claims, but it is a reason, and conjoined with other, similar replies under this post, it adds up to a more compelling reason.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-02T23:57:12.998Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My style, or Lionhearted's? If mine, please do comment on problems in my comments. If not mine, you may be typing too fast.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-02T23:58:06.205Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bah, sorry, Lionhearted's, I lost track of who was saying what. Editing.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-02T23:59:34.866Z · score: 5 (8 votes) · LW · GW

While there may be environments in which this is in fact spectacular advice and would be well-received, I find these paragraphs so obnoxious that they set my teeth on edge. Why should I believe advice about making people feel good which sets my teeth on edge?

Honestly, that surprises me. I could see disagreeing for signal:noise ratio reasons, or not having time - actually, I spent time addressing those in my post since I knew they'd be common objections.

But I'm surprised it actually results in a strong negative emotion from you - "sets your teeth on edge."

Honestly, I'm not sure why. For the record, I'd advocate you do this sincerely, and never insincerely. Me, if I don't like anything someone is saying and all the points are dumb, I just ignore it. I'll only venture to give feedback if I see some merit, and then I highlight that merit.

But seriously, I want to get to the bottom of this. Eliezer writes about how when he was fundraising, lots of people wrote in to criticize, but no one was comfortable publicly announcing and praising the cause and expressing their donation.

This can't be the best way, can it? If it is, much less analytical groups that are comfortable being cohesive, complimentary, and encouraging will out-recruit us, out-perform us in charity, and cooperate more than us.

At least, that's how I see it... anyway, I'd like to explore this more. In the comments and/or via PM's or email, if you like. I wrote this post because I'd like to see our kind of people, groups, and areas of concern be more effective. The fact that there's a very strong negative emotion from a prolific contributor to the community is surprising to me, and I'd like to find out why and reconcile our points of view to some extent if possible.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-03T00:05:24.978Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

This can't be the best way, can it? If it is, much less analytical groups that are comfortable being cohesive, complimentary, and encouraging will out-recruit us, out-perform us in charity, and cooperate more than us.

I have said, and repeat the sentiment: I'm in favor of being nice and polite and kind and cooperative with each other. It's this style, the specific sort you use in your examples, that gets the skin-crawling/teeth-on-edge/etc. reaction from me. If I had to characterize the style I'd call it something like "saccharine earnestness".

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-03T00:46:05.430Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder whether that "skin-crawling/teeth-on-edge" reaction only arises when this style appears as text, or whether you get the same reaction from spoken word. Same style, but here (in this vid) it is being used to actually communicate, rather than simply to illustrate a point.

It does give me the same teeth-on-edge reaction, only stronger. But then I may be atypical. I never cared for Mr. Rogers either.

If I had to characterize the style I'd call it something like "saccharine earnestness".

Me too. Even politicians don't usually come across as that nice. Which I interpret as evidence that it is too extreme to be really effective.

Edit: fixed broken link.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-03T01:16:46.389Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

get the same reaction from .

Link didn't come through properly, but I'm curious.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-03T01:25:22.145Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fixed now. Sorry about that.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-03T01:29:18.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I find listening to the linked person only slightly grating. I can't make out most of the words, though, so most of my reaction is "this needs subtitles".

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-03T00:29:39.395Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Alright, I think we're on the same page. I picked very, very basic examples of the most literal interpretation of my suggestions. Even adding "Interesting point" or "That's thought provoking" or "Cool, though I wonder..." before a criticism/concern can make things go over better.

That said, that's a little more subtle, and I wanted extremely clear and obvious examples.

Feel free to ditch my examples if they're not helpful for you at all, or replace with your own. I read your linked post on politeness and agree with the sentiment of it, so I think we're mostly on the same page. Toss all my examples if you understand the underlying principles - there's almost certainly a more subtle, elegant, less saccharine-earnest-seeming way of doing it in any given case.

comment by lsparrish · 2010-12-03T01:01:53.336Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it helps if you define "impolite" as "status-grabby". Thus when someone says "nice" things in what comes across as a condescending tone it can be recognized as impolite on that basis -- regardless of their intent.

It's a relativistic criteria though: a given statement can offend some but not others. As an example, the degree of technical explanation afforded for a complex topic. If you put in too much, the experts feel like they are being condescended to. If you put in too little, the less trained feel excluded because they cannot follow all the jargon enough to relate it to anything they know.

Perhaps the real cheat code in this case would be the skill of writing things in a manner that people can interpret into their own preferred range.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-03T19:57:04.696Z · score: 6 (15 votes) · LW · GW

But I'm surprised it actually results in a strong negative emotion from you - "sets your teeth on edge."

Honestly, I'm not sure why.

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think I can explain this for you.

It sets her teeth on edge because it's condescending and dismissive. Specifically, with the line "So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice" you're adopting a professorial tone--purporting to teach Alicorn something she may find surprising about the expert consensus on the subject, with which she is presumed to be unfamiliar. So right from the beginning she's going to react by feeling insulted, because you're "talking down" to her.

A way of making the exact same point without adopting the condescending tone would have been simply to say, "I offered that advice because I read it in How to Win Friends and Influence People and in [a few other sources]." If you proceeded to give direct quotes, that would be even better, because then Alicorn could judge for herself whether you're accurately representing what you judge to be expert consensus (and whether or not she accepts your sources as expert). By asserting yourself as the expert you're making a subtle attack on Alicorn's status, whether you mean to or not.

You compound this insult when you dismiss Alicorn's criticism as "guessing" and when you suggest that your advice will change her life--because you're implying that she's struggling with social interactions now. In fact Alicorn's writings would indicate that her experience in mastering social niceties is at least equal to yours, and you should be addressing her as a peer rather than adopting this tone of superior wisdom.

The above is much more a matter of tone rather than substance, but your reply is also annoying because you're only re-iterating your initial claims rather than engaging with the specifics of Alicorn's criticism. As it happens, an example of a better reply is this one, from you, which addresses what Alicorn actually said in a perfectly nice and reasonable way.

Again, I'm sorry if this seems to be just "piling on." You expressed a confusion (that I assume to be sincere) about why your writing provoked a strong negative emotion from Alicorn, and even though I'm not Alicorn I thought I could explain it to you. I hope she'll correct me if she disagrees with my analysis.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-03T23:44:26.172Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

even though I'm not Alicorn I thought I could explain it to you. I hope she'll correct me if she disagrees with my analysis.

You did a fine job :)

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-12-03T00:25:20.114Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But seriously, I want to get to the bottom of this. Eliezer writes about how when he was fundraising, lots of people wrote in to criticize, but no one was comfortable publicly announcing and praising the cause and expressing their donation.

There is a wide middle ground between being uncomfortable saying out loud the good things you believe about a cause you donate to, and being unwilling to criticize something without also finding something nice to say about it.

comment by thomblake · 2010-12-03T00:32:10.921Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This can't be the best way, can it? If it is, much less analytical groups that are comfortable being cohesive, complimentary, and encouraging will out-recruit us, out-perform us in charity, and cooperate more than us.

I think you have that backwards. I assume that by 'this' you mean the situation that obtained while Eliezer was fundraising. I assume that if 'this' is the best way, then a group employing 'this' will have better outcomes (by definition?), but you conclude the opposite.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T03:28:44.742Z · score: -4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Honestly, that surprises me. I could see disagreeing for signal:noise ratio reasons, or not having time - actually, I spent time addressing those in my post since I knew they'd be common objections.

This far into the thread it shouldn't surprise you. You have had the causes of the objection explained to you multiple times by multiple people from multiple perspectives. Read through this thread again with the assumption that those who are speaking to you understand the value of tact and politeness, probably better than you. They have an intuitive feel of social dynamics, what works, what is inappropriate and what is insulting. They are also analytical people - they have the ability to describe a model of social behaviour that demonstrates why 'polite and nice' can also be a condescending slight depending on how it is done.

siduri's comment is a good place to start. Then you can look further and try to understand how you have managed to alienate your audience to the extent that they have completely written you off. WrongBot's reaction is in no way bizarre or unusual. It's what you should expect from humans if you provide the verbal stimulus like what you have provided here.

Me, if I don't like anything someone is saying and all the points are dumb, I just ignore it. I'll only venture to give feedback if I see some merit, and then I highlight that merit.

The person one is correcting is not always the intended benefactor of one's reply.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-03T04:24:35.345Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This far into the thread it shouldn't surprise you.

Well, that's just it. I'm not surprised people disagree. That's to be expected. I'm surprised people had a significant emotional reaction to it.

Then you can look further and try to understand how you have managed to alienate your audience to the extent that they have completely written you off.

Actually, there's been overwhelmingly more appreciation of this than disagreement. It got submitted to HN and was +110 there, and 80%+ of the comments were positive. I also got a half dozen emails saying thanks.

It's what you should expect from humans if you provide the verbal stimulus like what you have provided here.

But you know what? You're right. I thought I would try to address everyone's concerns, criticisms, and share my experiences. And some people are taking personal offense, on an emotional level. That's not my intent - so yes, indeed, I'll bow out of the discussion now. If anyone has any questions or comments, they're welcome to email me. Really, I do think this is an area that some minor changes can produce huge dividends. Or maybe I'm mistaken - happy to discuss via email if anyone has questons or comments and wants to discuss, but I'll move on from the comments now.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T05:16:51.637Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think you should take your surprise as a sign that your model of tact is in need of updating. You were not mistaken when you claimed that following the social norms we do here would tend to serve one ill in real life, but the approach you've suggested substituting for it seems like a case of reversed stupidity. I think it would be a good idea for you to review the suggestions others have made in this thread so that you can apply your own advice in a more effective manner.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T04:47:44.314Z · score: -9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, there's been overwhelmingly more appreciation of this than disagreement. It got submitted to HN and was +110 there, and 80%+ of the comments were positive. I also got a half dozen emails saying thanks.

'This far into the thread' references comments not the initial post. You can get 110 upvotes on HN based purely based on having a trivially obvious premise that relates to nerds.

But you know what? You're right. I thought I would try to address everyone's concerns, criticisms, and share my experiences. And some people are taking personal offense, on an emotional level. That's not my intent - so yes, indeed, I'll bow out of the discussion now.

Others are noting that you are doing things offensive as a matter of academic interest.

Note that the 'for now' sounds ominous. A threat, if you will, of polluting the epistemic environment in the future. You appear to be unable or unwilling to learn or understand feedback - yet another example of what will be considered an accidental defection, here more than elsewhere.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-04T00:04:27.290Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

the 'for now' sounds ominous

He didn't say 'for now'.

Don't you hate it when that happens? :)

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-04T04:41:06.404Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Don't you hate it when that happens?

Yes. Yet I'm not surprised in retrospect. Contempt is the brain killer. At least, that is the one state that I've learned provokes me to simple mistakes. Far more than drunkenness for example. Every time I've said stupid things (in my best retrospective judgement) it has been when the context has provoked me to contempt. Sometimes I remember to eject before it is too late but I evidently haven't fully made a habit of it just yet.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-04T04:54:34.360Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Every time I've said stupid things (in my best retrospective judgement) it has been when the context has provoked me to contempt.

Almost every time for me. I've managed one or two stupidities even without that preparation.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-04T05:30:40.979Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Almost every time for me. I've managed one or two stupidities even without that preparation.

It's just so much more embarrassing to realise that other people being foolish doesn't preclude being stupid myself. :P

comment by WrongBot · 2010-12-03T00:19:51.562Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice on how to become one of the most productive and connected people in any work environment? Offer to help anyone on anything, do double duty on work, and be gracious of it?

Offering to help a coworker and offering to help a stranger from an internet forum are two radically different things. The former is something I do on a regular basis; I agree that it is produces good results.

Standards of politeness are incredibly sensitive to context, and from your first line in the parent I take it you agree. Why do you believe this standard of politeness is appropriate to the contexts of both work and a semi-anonymous internet forum?

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-03T00:37:36.244Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Offering to help a coworker and offering to help a stranger from an internet forum are two radically different things. The former is something I do on a regular basis; I agree that it is produces good results.

Okay, cool. You might try offering after a decent exchange - if you look at my profile or "About Me" section on any place I hang out, or any site, I encourage people to look me up for a coffee, or if they have any questions, or I can help at all. Most people don't take me up on it, but some do - I've helped people with their marketing, I've helped people get pay raises, improve their writing and creative output, I've recommended books and places to stay and go in various cities... and it's been good. I've made friends and colleagues like that.

I learned this because I met one of my best friends this way. When he was a stranger, he emailed me a technical question, and I went over and above the call of duty and wrote him back a 5 page reply with specs and details. He then referred me to a job because I sounded like I knew what I was talking about and invited me to stay with him if I was ever in Los Angeles. I did, and he became one of my best friends. Later, he helped me close a $60,000 deal when I bought out half of a company. We've been skiing together in Japan and had lots of cool memories and insights. All because I helped a random stranger, and he was really cool about it afterwards.

It might seem different, but I think most people appreciate it. A fairly prolific photographer/technical blogger emailed me a while back, and after a short exchange, he asked if there's anything he could help me with. I asked how he made a few of the pictures that were really beautiful? And he shared some software recommendations with me. We're now friendly acquaintances, and we'll probably go out for food together next time I'm in San Francisco.

Some people might take it poorly. But who cares? The upside of making a new friend or colleague because you're always happy to help anyone is huge. Someone doesn't like it? Well, what's the downside? Who cares? Most people are grateful anyways, actually, but if a couple people don't like it... so what? You offer to help someone and they take it the wrong way? Well, nothing significant lost on anyone's end. The friends and colleagues you make, and the general good you do for the world more than compensates for the (very rare, if ever) negative reaction.

Standards of politeness are incredibly sensitive to context, and from your first line in the parent I take it you agree. Why do you believe this standard of politeness is appropriate to the contexts of both work and a semi-anonymous internet forum?

Good comment/question. I generally try to err on the side of being more polite and gracious unless there's a reason not to, because I don't see any real downside to it. You're right - we're all strangers on the net, so there's no real repercussions if something goes over poorly. But I think there are opportunities to connect with people, make new friends and colleagues, share good information, and help each other. I think is generally good and virtuous, and try to encourage it when possible.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-04T17:28:08.697Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Some people might take it poorly. But who cares?

Isn't this a rejection of the entire point of your main post?

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T22:22:28.393Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Who cares is very context-specific here. When dealing with someone you don't naturally interact with, high variance in responses is good up to a certain point. Get a good reaction and you can make a valuable friend and ally, whereas it's not likely anyone is going to think you were so polite they should come at you with an axe.

comment by FAWS · 2010-12-03T03:49:16.133Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Good comment/question. I generally try to err on the side of being more polite and gracious unless there's a reason not to, because I don't see any real downside to it.

Does that mean you think the politeness - effect curve is usually much flatter on the right side of the maximum (optimal politeness) than on the left?
Exaggerated politeness often seems insincere, distancing or worse so I'm skeptical of the merits of systematically overshooting like that.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-03T05:18:33.460Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Exaggerated politeness often seems insincere, distancing or worse

Upvoted for this. The 'or worse' also includes making people disregard the content of what you're trying to say because you're signalling low-status/self-effacement so hard that it's difficult for anyone to take you seriously

comment by WrongBot · 2010-12-03T01:06:15.320Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

You're right - we're all strangers on the net, so there's no real repercussions if something goes over poorly.

That does not bear any resemblance to anything I have said. In fact, I vehemently disagree with your assertion that no harm is caused when you annoy or creep someone out on the internet.

I am sufficiently annoyed by this conversation that I will probably not be able to comment further in a productive fashion.

comment by thomblake · 2010-12-03T00:28:48.800Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks - I was looking for a good way of saying that.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T10:59:47.490Z · score: 7 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe try it for a month or two and see how it goes?

This is the kind of defection by accident that analytical more often fall in to. Condescension with advice!

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-02T23:39:54.512Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is the kind of defection by accident that analytical more often fall in to. Condescension with advice!

I'm not saying you should always be polite. Just you should be aware of the consequences and secondary effects for not being so.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T01:11:43.563Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you on that point, yet I'm making my own. Analytical people are usually aware of politeness but take somewhat longer to realise that advice, instruction and offers to assist can be far more of a significant social slight than merely being curt. Those who are familiar with analytical types can see that they mean well and are just making nerdy faux pas. There are some, however, who will take offence - because the exact same words could be used by less nerdy person as deliberate one upmanship.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T22:26:58.415Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I second wedrifid's reaction. Trying an entire different social approach for a month is a very high cost, especially if it's one that makes our skin crawl. Alicorn's not alone in that, as that is exactly my instinctive reaction to hearing it. It doesn't make sense to give that kind of slack unless the prior for it working is high.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-02T14:19:01.778Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Are you guessing, or did you test this?

It's about one part historical experimentation with styles of politeness, and one part noticing how your post made my skin crawl.

I second everything WrongBot said in the sibling comment.

comment by simplicio · 2010-12-02T15:17:38.959Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

...one part noticing how your post made my skin crawl.

A lot of that feeling is probably explained by the mere fact that we are discussing social calculations openly. Doing so almost always leaves a bad taste in people's mouths.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-02T15:49:03.383Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I don't ordinarily feel skin-crawly when discussing social norms/calculations/scripts/etc.

comment by simplicio · 2010-12-02T16:08:42.256Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

That's right, I almost forgot you had posted on the subject before, which is odd because I've actually used your "Considerations in favour of niceness" post to convince people to rein in their conversational aggression.

A couple of lionhearted's sentences sounded slightly cringeworthy to me too, but many times I have been surprised at how well such things actually go over with non-analytical people. For example, my mother prefaces even the tiniest criticism with 42 caveats and compliments (which feel like mostly white noise to me), but I can't help but notice that she also appears to be a social genius, with at least 30 genuinely close friends. (Bla bla anecdote bla bla correlation not causation).

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-02T16:41:03.218Z · score: 15 (9 votes) · LW · GW

For example, my mother prefaces even the tiniest criticism with 42 caveats and compliments (which feel like mostly white noise to me), but I can't help but notice that she also appears to be a social genius, with at least 30 genuinely close friends.

Yep. Play to your audience. This requires you to gain genuine skill in communication and in assessing the situation, but this is really not optional if achieving your goals requires interacting with humans. Failure to communicate appropriately in a variety of situations will lead to failure.

(No-one said instrumental effectiveness was easy.)

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T22:31:33.740Z · score: 10 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I'm often shocked how much completely (to me) over the top super-politeness is optimal when dealing with average people, often more than enough to make me tempted to say "Get on with it!" in a British accent. In fact a good instinct for many of us when dealing with non-nerds is to use just enough politeness to actively piss ourselves off were we in the other person's shoes.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-01T23:19:22.973Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Consider the brief reply to a correction, "Fixed, thanks". This could be interpreted as abrupt or even rude, but it is short, it acknowledges the help as received and useful and implemented, and it's clear in those functions. It's as polite as makes sense: more humble dancing about would only be annoying to many people

I would add that acceding to the corrections of another is somewhat of a compliment - particularly to nerds. In fact it is a strong enough status signal that I don't expect high status people to acknowledge such correction unless they cannot get away with not doing so.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-07T13:53:42.907Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I don't expect high status people to acknowledge such correction unless they cannot get away with not doing so.

Saying out loud "I was wrong and you were right" is a most amusing piece of judo to use on Usenet. It tends to explode people's heads.

comment by christopherj · 2013-12-05T05:37:24.821Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's probably more because you hacked into their computers to access their speakers, than what specifically you said out loud.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-07T14:41:39.173Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The additional delightful irony of this is that doing so in most contexts is an enormous status-booster... third parties who observe the exchange tend to conclude all kinds of positive things about you.

comment by anonym · 2010-12-03T08:06:09.777Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I would add that acceding to the corrections of another is somewhat of a compliment - particularly to nerds. In fact it is a strong enough status signal that I don't expect high status people to acknowledge such correction unless they cannot get away with not doing so. [emphasis added]

This is one of the things that bothers me most about LessWrong, and intelligent people in general. Of all the silly status games that I would think and hope people here are mature enough to see through and realize the silliness of playing in this environment, avoiding giving thanks and acknowledging errors is one that should be close to the top of the list -- but sadly, it isn't.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T13:16:11.773Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Alas there's no escape from status games, silly or otherwise. The solution to the problem is to explicitly give high status to those who give thanks and correct errors. Ideally this force is sufficiently strong to more than counteract the status lost through revealing the original mistake or the need you are giving thanks for. I think we're at least close to that for the level of thanks and error correction we want on this site.

comment by Kevin · 2010-12-07T13:42:41.742Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Wow, I was wrong and you were right, thanks!

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-07T13:42:49.778Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure if I agree. Sometimes these things are important parts of the learning process, and though it is possible to see through many social norms, many of them actually facilitate communication. (For example: politeness, showing that you are leaving a line of retreat, etc.)

comment by anonym · 2010-12-08T05:20:41.321Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The one that bothers me the most is when there's an insightful criticism or question attached to a comment, and the criticism gets voted up because it makes a valid point that illustrates what seems like a fatal flaw in the parent comment's argument, but the author of the parent comment never bothers to respond, because they'd rather just pretend they never saw the comment or that it doesn't make a good point that needs addressing. I don't see how one could argue that that is a way of "facilitating communication".

Anyway, I think you switched the topic from status games to social norms, which are not quite the same thing. My example above of not responding to strong criticisms to avoid admitting error or weakness is a status game (a pathetic and silly one, in my opinion), but it's not a social norm. I have no problem with stereotypical social norms like politeness.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-08T15:53:40.295Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Consider that some authors may have precommitted to not responding to such criticisms because they judged they would not have the emotional capacity to sanely respond.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T05:41:00.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The one that bothers me the most is when there's an insightful criticism or question attached to a comment, and the criticism gets voted up because it makes a valid point that illustrates what seems like a fatal flaw in the parent comment's argument, but the author of the parent comment never bothers to respond, because they'd rather just pretend they never saw the comment or that it doesn't make a good point that needs addressing. I don't see how one could argue that that is a way of "facilitating communication".

I agree but at the same time would be wary about advocating a strong norm against not replying. Rules can and will be gamed. It is not hard for a clever arguer to exploit such norms and play the crowd with highly undesirable results.

comment by anonym · 2010-12-08T16:02:48.450Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I thought there actually was a strong norm already that was being flouted.

The model I had in mind was:

LW's "Strong critique of comment in direct reply to a comment or post" is to "ignoring the critique and failing to reply"

as

Academia's "Strong paper that criticizes methodology, etc., of a published paper" is to "not publishing a response to the critique".

In academia, a researcher that habitually failed to address serious flaws in their publications would quickly lose status and become irrelevant. I thought something like that was a norm at LW.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T16:23:57.371Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The judgement behind 'strong paper' and 'strong critique' is important and similar judgement must be used to decide whether to reply to criticism. This is particularly the case when the critic is not acting in good faith (again, in your judgement) and has a talent for obfuscation and rhetoric.

comment by anonym · 2010-12-08T17:03:49.814Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Strongly agree.

I'm not advocating anything like "always respond". I'm advocating that when people actually think it's a strong critique, they should respond rather than playing the status game of pretending they don't really think it's a strong critique by ignoring it. Additionally, even if they don't think it's a strong critique, if many other people 'whose judgment they would trust in other similar situations' do think it's a strong critique, then they should also respond.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-08T05:26:41.253Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think voting tends to be a function of social norms rather than status games. For example: voting tends to follow the policy "upvote if you want to see more like this."

comment by anonym · 2010-12-08T15:44:34.106Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. My point thought was not primarily about the child comment being voted up, but about the child comment being an insightful critique of or counter-argument to the parent. In the example, the child comment being voted up was just meant as evidence that the comment actually 'does' make a great point that needs a response from the parent, which is why it's so disappointing to see the comment ignored.

The status game I had in mind was "if I ignore that comment that points out serious flaws in my argument, people will be more likely to get the impression that the comment is not worthy of reply and that my argument really isn't flawed, and I can avoid a response that might lower my status, even if that compromises the rational, educational aspect of this site." The irony is that for many of us here, responding would actually be a status-enhancing act.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T05:44:08.580Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think voting tends to be a function of social norms rather than status games.

Social norms only work because they piggy back on status games. They are also created and determined by status games and power plays. The trick is to accept that and harness that force the best we can!

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-07T13:28:48.049Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've gotten upvotes for publicly accepting correction.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-07T13:45:18.426Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I concur, and I don't see that as much of a problem. Though it incentives signaling that you have changed your mind, that generally means that you have to actually change your mind, which is, after all, the whole point.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-12-01T17:08:46.649Z · score: 42 (42 votes) · LW · GW

Imagine a group discussion intended to chose one of four options. Language being what it is, the names of the options come with emotional baggage, the good option, the wise option, the bad option, the foolish option. A group of mundanes will have a lively discussion. Having picked either the good option or the wise option, they will go away believing that they discussed the matter thoroughly, little suspecting that bad option and the foolish option never stood a chance in the discussion, whatever their merits.

The emotional baggage of terminology plays out in different ways in different contexts. If you are playing to win, you will try to crank up the level of emotion. In the abortion debate in America one side tries to win by framing it as choice versus slavery while the other side tries to win by framing it as life versus death.

If you are trying to find the truth, you need to push back against language doing your thinking for you. When smart people are having a group discussion intended to chose one of four options they notice that they labeled the options wise, good, foolish, bad, and spot the danger. The convention among smart people is to level the playing field, by relabeling the options wise => smug, good => priggish, foolish => subtle, bad => hard-headed,... something like that.

Once the labels have been neutralised, the options can be discussed objectively. The mainstream guy doesn't feel under social pressure to argue for the common-sense option, the contrarian guy doesn't feel under social pressure to argue to the wacky option. They can talk mechanisms and consequences.

Conflict arises when a mundane slaps a feelgood label on their preferred option and a smart person rips off the feelgood label and replaces it with a snarky label. The top level post frames this as the smart person being rude and needing to solve this by being polite. That might be correct, but I'm unhappy about the way that the conclusion is prejudged by the choice of labels.

The Purpose of This Post: I think many smart people "defect" by accident.

Accident? That is a slippery concept with the conscious layered over the sub-conscious running on untrusted hardware. Mundanes aren't using emotional labels willy-nilly and accidentally trashing their preferred option with a label with negative emotional connotations. Its all neuro-typical, all the time. If you ask a mundane "I know that you are awfully proud of your ape ancestry and hate having to talk like we are in the Logic Room on Planet Vulcan, but can you please give it a rest for five minutes so that we can get some work done?", well, you are so not going to get five minutes of calm logic.

The rules of politeness are there to be gamed and they get gamed hard.

If you're at a meeting and someone gives a presentation and asks if anyone has questions, and you ask point-blank, "But we don't have the budget or skills to do that, how would we overcome that?" - then, that seems like a highly reasonable question. It's probably very intelligent.

Yeah, well, how did that happen? It's not like the presenter was unaware of the importance of budget and skills.

"This seems like an amazing idea and a great presentation. I wonder how we could secure the budgeting and get the team for it, because it seems like it'd be a profitable if we do, and it'd be a shame to miss this opportunity."

Now you have conceded that the idea is a really good one, upgrading it because you felt obliged to be polite about the presenters lack of concern over budget and skills. That wasn't an accident; you've been out maneuvered.

I'm in strong agreement with lionhearted about the importance of developing social skills, both by reading books and cultivating awareness in real life. But where does it take you?

One place it takes you is a greater awareness of setups. You try to be polite but you start noticing the person who wants to get their way has set things up so that if you disagree you will come across as rude. You could develop a thick skin about the social awkwardness. You could try to avoid them. You could try to see it coming and engage in a social fencing match, trying to dodge being backed into a corner where you must either submit or give offense. None of this works all that well.

There is a fork ahead in your personal path. Do you exploit the rules of politeness and become the kind of person that others find it difficult to say no to? Do you deliberately reject that path, and leave other people polite outs?

And what of your role as passive participant in social set ups? If you suspect that some-one deliberately left obvious stuff out of their presentation, intending to run out the clock on the question and answer session before it got on to the tough questions, how are you going to feel about somebody else falling for the gambit and taking up time in the meeting with polite padding on their questions?

The deep problem here is that it is never deliberate. Mr A gives his presentation and accidently leaves out some obvious points. Mr B is there when Mr A gets an easy time of it because the weaknesses in Mr A's presentation got passed over in favour of going over the stuff that got left out. Mr B learns by example (not analysis) that this is the way you do things: leave out some obvious stuff so that there are some obvious questions to ask with easy answers. Mr B can probably feel the emotional comfort of not facing awkward questions even though he doesn't know how the trick works. He does it, but he doesn't intend it, and if you call him on it you will get a perfectly genuine blank look.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-12-15T04:07:27.995Z · score: 12 (8 votes) · LW · GW

If we're going to talk about the cognitive framing effects of language, as the original post did, how about your use of the word "Mundane"?

To me, it seems actively harmful to accurate thinking, happiness, and your chance of doing good in the world. The implication is characterizing most humans as a separate lower class, with the suggestion of contempt and/or disgust for those inferior beings, which has empirically led to badness (historically: genocide. in my personal experience: it has been poisonous to Objectivism and various atheist groups I've been in).

I'd like to hear some examples where framing most people as both "lesser" and "other" has led to good for the world, because all the ones I'm pullin' up are pretty awful...

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-15T04:26:36.199Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

To me, it seems actively harmful to accurate thinking, happiness, and your chance of doing good in the world.

Interesting. The terms 'mundane' and 'smart' always pointed out to me that I am part of a group that is perceived as 'other' by some people. I have to be more Machiavellian at times when dealing with mundane people ('opposed to smart' more than 'not smart'), but I don't consider most people mundane. That said, I have no idea if this interpretation is how other people see it, or if it's not the intended interpretation.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2014-01-17T09:18:43.247Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Two examples. Sexual selection and speciation. Nuff' said.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-06-08T18:52:05.816Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What do you think about cultivating a reputation for social awkwardness for the explicit purpose of opting out of these kinds of games? If you always just speak your mind, politeness be damned, wouldn't people excuse you for it after a while? Plus, you can free up a lot of mental resources for other purposes.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-06-08T19:28:22.334Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Tried it as a kid. They don't. Not sure why, their explicit justification seems to be that social norms are morally good. Or maybe you just make a sucky ally.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-06-08T19:33:07.318Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Not working as a kid would be expected, since you have nothing of value to offer other kids for them to put up with your social awkwardness. Might be different in the workplace (if your job is mainly to contribute a technical skill instead of a social one).

comment by MichaelVassar · 2014-01-17T09:17:07.420Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yep, but the vast majority of people in a workplace, even those nominally there to deliver technical skills, are there to deliver social skills in reality, and all of the most highly paid people are paid for social skills.
That said, your right, still worth it. Being officially a foreigner is possibly the best approach.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-12-15T04:01:02.529Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is an awesome response and extension, although it doesn't invalidate the point that we should learn what signals our words will give and choose them consciously. It's basically always better to understand and use the subtext. Whether using it to make sure you don't accidentally press the emotional buttons of a good-willed collaborator, or understanding when others are using it to exploit you.

In my experience, relentless politeness + authenticity (don't give up your basic point, but phrase it very nicely) is a great help at defeating setups. In the presentation case, sure, the questioner has upgraded the idea. But he has still pointed out it's core flaw! A less adept questioner might either a) not question at all, knowing that it looks like a rude challenge, or b) question rudely because he doesn't know how to be polite. Either one of which would make it more likely for the bad idea to pass unchallenged.

The key is authenticity: politeness shouldn't stop you from putting the knife into something that should die, it should just make it so smooth that it hurts the minimum and shows everyone that you are acting in the common interest. It's an empowering tool so that you can play the game of fighting back against bad gaming without looking like a gamer or a fighter.

Anyway, I have a sunny disposition so I don't share your negative framing of this, but your meta-point about how others can use these rules for evil and/or selfishness is great (although maybe at too high a level of Slytherin to be really useful to most LWers).

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T22:45:52.501Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think the point is: If you make enemies, do it on purpose, and rudeness is similar. There is a time and a place for it, but be fully aware of what you're doing. It's impossible to game something you're not conscious of let alone game it hard. And hard it shall and should be gamed!

"This seems like an amazing idea and a great presentation. I wonder how we could secure the budgeting and get the team for it, because it seems like it'd be a profitable if we do, and it'd be a shame to miss this opportunity."

I agree that this is being bend-over-backwards polite to the point of conceding a lot of ground. Maybe it was a great presentation and an amazing idea, if only we had the budget for it. But maybe you don't think that. In that case, there has to be middle ground; praising the presentation but not the idea, for example, is rhetorically safe since it doesn't matter that he gave a good presentation. However, I do think this is a legitimate question you should be able to ask directly. I work with non-nerds and would feel very comfortable asking this question directly - and would expect someone to, if I didn't.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-12-01T21:40:30.660Z · score: 32 (34 votes) · LW · GW

I have a theory about "dumb blonde syndrome", the idea that beautiful women are dumb. Folk psychology says that everybody gets the same number of character points to distribute among their attributes, so some people get intelligence while others get beauty. But reality says that beauty is correlated with health, which is correlated with intelligence. Beautiful people should tend to be smart. I think there is some positive beauty/intelligence correlation.

But I remember taking a class with a stunningly beautiful woman, who every week would loudly make some inane comment or question, and not realize it was inane because no one would tell her so. And I developed the theory that beautiful people don't learn to self-censor, because they don't need to. Anybody else would get ridiculed when they said something stupid, and learn to be more shy.

Maybe this also applies to smart people. They're more likely to be correct, and so less likely to be made fun of when speaking their mind, and so less needful of learning how to phrase a question in a way that reduces their chances of being made fun of.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T21:42:28.814Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I'm stunningly smart and I loudly make inane comments all the time. This is because I am also stupid.

(Now that I'm older and fatter, I'm realising just how much shit I got away with by being pretty when I was younger. It would have been worse if I hadn't been oblivious to it.)

It is quite important to be aware of one's stupidities, particularly when smart, or one will never be able to even start to alleviate them.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-12-04T15:36:13.308Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Just the other day, Robin Hanson quoted a paper that showed a 0.3 correlation between people's judgements from photos of beauty and intelligence. So people seem to not believe in dumb blonde syndrome. It cited a survey [broken link] that, if I read the abstract correctly, also observes this correlated judgement, but denies that there is an actual correlation between beauty and intelligence. RH also linked to a study which not only claims that beauty and intelligence are correlated, but that this explains the wage premium for beauty. You may recall the study a few years ago that intelligence explains the wage premium for height.

I am surprised that there is disagreement in the psychological literature about whether beauty and intelligence are correlated.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2011-01-04T02:22:55.374Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The most surprising thing to me about that link is that it indicates beautiful women are disadvantaged when seeking employment.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-01-04T03:44:22.238Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Robin also mentioned an interesting recent study on that counterintuitive finding.

comment by juliawise · 2011-10-08T13:04:27.640Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think kids learn to specialize, to some extent. I was a goofy-looking kid who specialized in reading, while my cuter sister specialized in people-pleasing. (More of this might have to do with birth order.) But I think it's plausible that more attractive children lean towards social rather than intellectual pursuits.

My understanding is that beauty and health are correlated in a very broad, do-all-your-limbs work, are-you-malnourished sense. I would be surprised to learn that higher cheekbones are correlated with health.

comment by kilobug · 2011-10-08T13:20:44.078Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Especially since there is a cultural part in "beauty". In some African cultures, a "fat" woman is considered beautiful, because (unconsciously) it means someone who has access to lots of food. In Western culture, the fashion shows and TV series tend to propagate the opposite : a very slim, even anorexic woman (to the point of being unhealthy) is considered beautiful.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-02T01:00:45.674Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's an interesting possibility, but do you have more than one data point to base it on? I don't think it's clear that beautiful people having a general tendency to behave in an inane manner is an actual phenomenon requiring explanation.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T01:14:48.078Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But I remember taking a class with a stunningly beautiful woman, who every week would loudly make some inane comment or question, and not realize it was inane because no one would tell her so.

The Emperor's New Clothes? If only... ;)

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-04T16:22:02.335Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Beauty affects development of social skills; perception of others as smart is influenced as much by social skills as by 'raw' intelligence?

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T01:15:41.153Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But I remember taking a class with a stunningly beautiful woman, who every week would loudly make some inane comment or question, and not realize it was inane because no one would tell her so.

The Emperor's New Clothes? If only... ;)

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-12-04T15:36:43.986Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Just the other day, Robin Hanson quoted a paper that showed a 0.3 correlation between people's judgements from photos of beauty an intelligence. So people seem to not believe in dumb blonde syndrome. It cited a survey that, if I read the abstract correctly, also observes this correlated judgement, but denies that there is an actual correlation between beauty and intelligence. RH also linked to a study which not only claims that beauty and intelligence are correlated, but that this explains the wage premium for beauty. You may recall the study a few years ago that intelligence explains the wage premium for height.

I am surprised that there is disagreement in the psychological literature about whether beauty and intelligence are correlated.

comment by bentarm · 2010-12-01T23:28:25.258Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But reality says that beauty is correlated with fitness, which is correlated with intelligence. Beautiful people should tend to be smart. I think there is some positive beauty/intelligence correlation.

"is correlated with" is not transitive, the conclusion is true, but it doesn't follow from the premises.

I guess this is exactly the sort of comment that the original post was supposed to be warning people against making - does the fact that I've noticed this, and am pointing it out here in apology help to mitigate it?

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T22:22:27.701Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

But reality says that beauty is correlated with fitness, which is correlated with intelligence. Beautiful people should tend to be smart.

That is a surprising mistake to make in reasoning. Did you somehow get the causality arrows reversed in your mind when writing this? Temporarily imagine that fitness was causing brains and beauty, rather than the other way around?

I think there is some positive beauty/intelligence correlation.

Quite possibly true. But surely not for the reason you suggested above.

comment by timtyler · 2010-12-01T23:25:51.952Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

With correlations it isn't necessarily clear which way the causality arrows are pointing - or even if they run between the correlated items at all. In this case, one of the most obvious way to draw the arrows is from genes to all of these traits.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-12-02T04:58:07.888Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is a surprising mistake to make in reasoning. Did you somehow get the causality arrows reversed in your mind when writing this?

There are no causality arrows in my reasoning.

Perhaps you think that by "fitness" I meant evolutionary fitness, and that both beauty and intelligence cause fitness. But by "fitness" I meant health. Sorry, poor choice of words.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-02T05:13:22.722Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Fitness meaning health. That works. But I think that your model does involve causality - from health to both beauty and intelligence. And, of course then beauty and intelligence will be correlated. I apologize for not anticipating that possible meaning. Since you post about evolutionary theory so often, that denotation of "fitness" never entered my mind.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-02T05:00:07.657Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Say X and Y are two independent random variables. X is correlated to X+Y is correlated to Y, but X and Y are (by hypothesis!) not correlated.

comment by wiresnips · 2010-12-02T02:54:55.204Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't beauty a set of built-in fitness testing heuristics? If so, fitness really does cause beauty.

It's worth pointing out that beauty also really does cause fitness. The runaway cycle is the peacock effect.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-02T04:30:12.944Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't beauty a set of built-in fitness testing heuristics?

As far as I can tell, beauty is a combination of health heuristics and status markers which are developed in particular societies-- some of the status markers are about rarity and others are about costly signals.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T05:37:05.684Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The runaway cycle is the peacock effect.

Also known as Fisherian Runaway.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-02T06:26:57.068Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Evolution's Goodhart Law.. Man, there is just no escaping it, is there?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-12-02T05:01:22.190Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By "fitness" I meant "health".

comment by wnoise · 2010-12-01T23:23:18.491Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

He only talked about correlation, not causation. The most likely causation is indeed the one you posited.

EDIT: ignore the following.

But two things that are both (positively) correlated with a third are (positively) correlated with each other, no matter the the direction or even existence of causal relations.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-01T23:31:08.370Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But two things that are both (positively) correlated with a third are (positively) correlated with each other, no matter the the direction or even existence of causal relations.

I don't believe this is the case. Two things things both being positively correlated with a third are more likely to be correlated with each other, all things being equal. Yet there are causal relations which could make those things negatively correlated with each other while both positively correlated with the third. The most obvious examples would be of partisan behaviors where the 'third' is a generic factor that encourages someone to pick a side.

comment by wnoise · 2010-12-01T23:39:17.291Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're right. I should have said "are generally", rather "are".

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T23:55:23.428Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think "are generally" applies "no matter the the direction or even existence of causal relations".

If A causes E and B independently causes E, then there will be correlation between A and E and between B and E, but no reason to expect correlation between A and B.

comment by wnoise · 2010-12-02T00:36:00.814Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're right, and I really should have known better. This is one of the examples used in Judea Pearl's Casaulity, about how to assign plausible causation structures given only correlations.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-12-02T05:03:07.288Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A pair of correlations between A and B, and between B and C, is correlated with a correlation between A and C. :P

comment by Jack · 2010-12-03T04:36:59.671Z · score: 27 (25 votes) · LW · GW

This is really good advice for the workplace and how I would write criticisms for people who I didn't know but wanted the help of. But it is a really terrible suggestion as a norm for Less Wrong.

Here, we've all more or less agreed to not take arguments personally and reward people for admitting they are wrong. Part of what is special about this place is that while it is good to be nice I can focus on whether comments are right instead of whether or not I am threatening a poster's status. As much as possible we try to avoid status maneuvers here - so following your suggestion that we undermine the community's signal to noise ratio in order to make allies (in a way other than being right) is a rather straightforward defection.

This doesn't make being mean is acceptable. I agree with Alicorn's classic post. But you seem to be advocating not just taking steps to avoid being mean but to expend extra efforts and page space on meaningless niceties instead of making forthright and respectful comments. While perhaps too confrontational in most workplaces nearly all of the examples are just fine here. If you're going to bother correcting spelling at all (and only in certain cases is it worth it) be brief for goodness sake!

I hereby pre-commit to downvoting anyone who corrects one of my many spelling errors by writing a paragraph like

Hey Jack, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

...

Wisen, not wizen.

will suffice. If you can't leave it like that "Wisen, not wizen, you idiot." does less psychic damage than making me read that paragraph. The funny joke that was made in the original example would be the best, though.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-12-15T04:12:24.508Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I have also found that being able to speak bluntly and off the top of my head about what I believe to be true is enormously valuable for me in truth-seeking. Having friends and forums where that is the culture is immensely valuable. Yet learning how to not do that - how to use my "polite pen" - has also been immensely valuable to me in getting my ideas across to a broader audience.

Each has it's place, and I think what most LWers need to hear is the point in this post, but I think it would have been clearer if all the examples were from the workplace / regular life. Then it wouldn't have had this challenge to LW culture you perceived.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T04:52:22.354Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I hereby pre-commit to downvoting anyone who corrects one of my many spelling errors by writing a paragraph like

I do not make a precommitment. I don't need to. I do make the observation that any such comment would provoke a downvote from me based on merit.

(Note that the very fact that you declared a precommitment essentially as a threat very nearly prompted me to declare that I would downvote you every time you made a spelling mistake and upvote the corrector. I stifled that impulse because the promised action was so obviously reasonable.)

comment by Jack · 2010-12-03T05:42:42.965Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how it was a threat anymore than all precommitments to do negative things are 'threats'. I don't really understand why you would take issue with me here.

The OP is promoted with 34 upvotes, apparently we do have to clarify our commenting standards. I don't see any difference between a precommitment and your 'observation' regarding future downvotes.

comment by Kingreaper · 2010-12-03T13:04:28.961Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how it was a threat anymore than all precommitments to do negative things are 'threats'.

One reasonable definition of a threat would be: "A precommitment to harm someone else if they perform, or fail to perform, certain actions."

So, it's not more of a threat than any other precommitment to do negative things in response to others actions.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T05:58:14.743Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how it was a threat anymore than all precommitments to do negative things are 'threats'.

It isn't.

I don't really understand why you would take issue with me here.

I'm not. I'm agreeing with you. Just noting that if I didn't strongly agree with you I would counter the use of force with my own. Expressing what my initial reaction was until I read as far as the actual quote.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-01T10:53:42.715Z · score: 22 (22 votes) · LW · GW

#1 is kind of clever pointing out a spelling error.

You know the thing that horrified me? When I realized that my "wizened" snark was my most upvoted contribution to this site. All I did was point out the intersection of a typo and an amusing mental image!

You're totally right, though, that I should have found a politer way to do it- focus on the mental image instead of status-seeking sarcasm. Indeed, that's probably the heart of politeness- wording things in ways that they don't threaten the other person's status.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-02T05:50:10.599Z · score: 21 (17 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I think I would have taken more offense at the suggested substitution

Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

As someone with a fairly extensive vocabulary and good spelling, I wouldn't mind having someone poke fun at an accidental misspelling or wrong usage, but I would be inclined to feel patronized if I thought that the person didn't think I would recognize on reexamination that what I had written was a mistake.

Even with a well thought out set of social heuristics, if you don't know the people you're dealing with very well, you run the risk of inadvertently giving offense. This is where it comes in handy to be a good guesser rather than an asker.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-02T05:56:51.349Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I think I would have taken more offense at the suggested substitution

Is that because the wording changed, or because the location changed? Split the two apart- compare the thing I wrote PMed to you vs. posted as a comment and the thing he wrote PMed vs. posted as a comment. My guess is the optimal combination for you is the thing I wrote PMed.

How much of the dance to do is not clear unless you know the person in question, but where to dance seems pretty clear.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-02T06:13:09.445Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That depends on the nature of the group I was in, I think. If I cared particularly about the regard of the other members of the group, and did not feel like I had a secure position of status in it, then I would probably prefer receiving the message by PM. If I felt secure in my social position, I would probably prefer that the message be posted openly, so that other people could appreciate it.

People are complicated. I've put a lot of effort into working out how to deal effectively with others in social situations (working my way up from a very low starting point I'm afraid,) and one of the lessons that has served me best is to not to suppose that even my best tried and tested heuristics will apply to everyone, and to be prepared to discard them when necessary.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-01T12:01:05.137Z · score: 17 (19 votes) · LW · GW

FWIW, I thought your "wizened" remark was a witty way of making the correction, and doing the "great article but I just wanted to say just a teeny tiny correction that I happened to notice and I'm sure it was just a typo but" dance would have been merely tedious, and no more polite.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-02T00:19:35.972Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

See, that's the thing- the dance isn't the important part. I already did the dance with "I don't think that's the word you want to use." lionhearted's absolutely correct point is doing the correction in public is the "look at me" option and correcting him in private would have been the polite option, regardless of how much dancing went on in either. Unless people are thick-skinned by intention or ignorance, they notice when you take the impolite option.

comment by derefr · 2010-12-01T21:14:46.051Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

It's pretty common, though. You wanted the other people reading to think of you as clever, and considered that to be "worth" making the author feel a bit bad. This is what the proxy-value of karma, as implemented by the Reddit-codebase discussion engine of this site, reflects: the author can only downvote once (and even then they are discouraged from doing so, unlike with, say, a Whuffie system), but the audience can upvote numerous times.

Thinking back, I've had many discussions on the Internet that devolved into arguments, where, although my interlocutor was trying to convince me of something, I had given up on convincing them of anything in particular, and was instead trying to convince any third-parties reading the post that the other person was not to be trusted, and that their advice was dangerous—at the expense of making myself seem like even less trustworthy to the person I was nominally supposed to be convincing. This is what public fora do.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-02T00:09:49.900Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Thank You For Smoking has a wonderful moment along these lines (and is a thoroughly enjoyable film for other reasons).

This describes what I do on the other forum I frequent; I treat anyone politely for about 3 posts, and then if they're still an idiot I just start tearing them apart for the amusement of myself and others. But I was surprised that I did it here (I wasn't planning to), and even more surprised that it was so well received.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-12-15T04:50:40.425Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Apparently this community really values the combination of wit, brevity & correctness, which are all good things.

Unfortunately, since your brief witty correct remark was about something irrelevant, that means we are rewarding entertainment that wins status/appreciation without contributing to meaningful discussion, relative to deep and/or thoughtful insights. Quite understandable, but I can see why you were horrified - one expects better of LWers.

I interpret this as evidence against the correctness of the elitism strain in LW culture. We are all monkeys, the great thing about LW is that we know it and want to change it - not that we have.

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-12-01T11:26:08.873Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

When I realized that my "wizened" snark was my most upvoted contribution to this site. All I did was point out the intersection of a typo and an amusing mental image!

When one's opinion is expressed as a flat yes/abstain/no, a natural consequence is that an item that elicits wide, mild approval but little or no disapproval will be more successful than an item that elicits narrow, ecstatic approval with significant disapproval. This applies as much to blog commenting as it does to democratic politics.

On LW, a partial fix is the "controversial" rating, which ranks a +20/-10 comment higher than a +10/0 one since it's likely to be a more substantive one, and the "top comments" page which is ranked purely by upmods.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-03T02:26:13.761Z · score: 21 (23 votes) · LW · GW

I am neurotypical in the sense that I'm not on the Asperger's/autism spectrum at all. And I think, because I'm a woman, I've internalized a fair bit of social finesse/politeness/ways to signal deference and avoid ego challenges. Given that overestimating our own competence is a common bias, I'm hesitant to say "my social skills are good" or anything like that, but I can at least report that I don't generally provoke hostility where I'm not anticipating it.

I agree that niceness is important, for all the reasons Alicorn has laid out. But I also agree with Alicorn and other commentators that the examples you give are off-putting. To me, they do not actually read as nice. They read as smarmy and condescending. At the same time, your advice: "Don't just guess here. Try it out for a month. I think you'll be amazed at how differently people react to you" is off-putting for its condescension. You are dismissing all your critics as not knowing what they're talking about ("just guessing"), and implying that people react poorly to them now--or at least much more poorly than they react to you. In this way you're implicitly claiming superior social status, which is ego-challenging behavior, and likely to provoke a hostile reaction.

So, like Alicorn etc, I agree with your premise but disagree with your suggestions for successful execution of the goal. Also, as others have pointed out, it's important to tailor your style for the audience. The three examples of criticism which you brought up as overly blunt strike me as perfectly tailored to the audience--the first uses friendly humor, which is actually a great method of softening criticism, and the second two are direct and succinct without being hostile.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-03T03:11:47.152Z · score: 2 (14 votes) · LW · GW

But I also agree with Alicorn and other commentators that the examples you give are off-putting. To me, they do not actually read as nice. They read as smarmy and condescending.

I can see how it'd look like that in the abstract, but in out in the world it really does seem to work. That's the standard I'm using here - works-in-world.

Let me see if I can come up with a good real world example. Here's one from Hacker News:

In response to someone saying Google Chrome has ugly design -

"I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless, but I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. This is partly, I guess, because its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful, I think."

That's an example of what I mean. "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless, but I think " is filler. It doesn't add anything, we already know it's his opinion and it's subjective. But if what if he'd been more blunt? What if he'd written -

"That's weird. I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. Its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful. I don't get how you could think otherwise."

See that second one? I see the equivalent of that sometimes among smart people. And it's bad. The first one - well, maybe it adds a little fluff. But it's not going to make the person he's replying to hostile. The second way would.

At the same time, your advice: "Don't just guess here. Try it out for a month. I think you'll be amazed at how differently people react to you" is off-putting for its condescension. You are dismissing all your critics as not knowing what they're talking about ("just guessing"),

Well, again, context. That reply is to someone who is saying, "I don't think that would work" - and I don't know what to say other than, "Why not give it a try?" I'm advocating change in phrasing based on real world observations of what's effective. If someone disagrees but has no data of trying it, I don't know what else to say...

and implying that people react poorly to them now--or at least much more poorly than they react to you.

Ah, that's not my intention at all. I know I used to do it the other way, and my results have gone up since I changed. Really, the counterarguments I'm seeing are exactly what I would have argued ten years ago, and I believe greatly held me back at the time. So I really, really, really would encourage someone to try a little softening and praise, even if it's unnatural or doesn't "seem right" - because it works in the real world.

Also, tangentially, it's been kind of strange for me to have a discussion after writing a piece like this. Normally I'd start this comment with, "Thanks for the feedback, Siduri" - because I do appreciate it - but it'd feel kind of strange to do so now, and I'd fear coming across as insincere. So perhaps I'm going a little too far in the other direction now that that I'm self aware of the words I'm using? It's a strange feeling for me, I'm kind of suppressing and editing out some polite/gracious things I'd normally use.

Anyway, that's kind of meta. Thanks for the feedback. I don't hold out myself out as an expert or a shining example of any good things - rather, I want to highlight an area that could lead to massive utility increase for people. To that end, I do encourage people to try it, even if it feels unnatural at first. (Maybe especially if that's the case) In raw, abstract form it might not seem right, but I've had good results in a variety of situations since I moved in this direction.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-12-03T13:29:47.818Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless,

I find that really upsetting.

I'm just back from shopping at Lidl. Those yummy German chocolate coated marzipan bars are back for Christmas. Hurray! Should I get one for Robert too? No. He hates marzipan. He even cuts the marzipan out of the stollen and gives it to me.

When I read "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless,..." I get the parental voice starting up: Why are you eating that crap, its mostly sugar, it will rot your teeth, I don't care that you like it, you're just being childish,.... The parental voice has a go at Robert too: What do you think you are doing cutting the marzipan out of the stollen. That is fussy beyond belief. Its just food. Eat it!. Everybody else likes it, what makes you so special?

Huh? What's that all about? It is slowly dawning on me that I carry a lot of mental scar tissue from playing social games with people who play rough. In my experience minimising the importance of subjective factors is an aggressive move. It is made by a player to whom subjective factors are very important. They say "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless,..." as a prelude to declaring that your subjective preferences are fairy meaningless. Having belittled subjective preferences, they impose theirs on every-one, and your objections carry little weight because "it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless."

I'm very attached to, and defense about, the little areas of my life that are subjective. My taste in food, my taste in music, my taste in web-browser user interfaces. Being advised to apologise in advance for my "fairly meaningless" love of Chopin hits my hot button.

There had better be a more general point to this comment than "Alan likes marzipan." I think it is that I am not unique; other people have issues too. Which means that there will always be problems with bits of harmless filler, inserted out of politeness, unexpectedly rubbing people the wrong way.

Given that both my comments in this thread have turned out more negative in tone than I intended, I should clarify that I think that lionhearted has written an excellence post. I have up-voted it. He deserves a medal for being brave enough to write on a fraught and important topic.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T13:47:45.552Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

He deserves a medal for being brave enough to write on a fraught and important topic.

Fraught topic? The topic itself is utterly trivial and commonly acknowledged. Pretending that it is the topic itself that is dangerous is rather insulting to the community.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-03T04:30:35.210Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · LW · GW

I can see how it'd look like that in the abstract, but in out in the world it really does seem to work. That's the standard I'm using here - works-in-world.

But the commentators who are telling you "this doesn't work for us" are part of the world. This conversation is part of the world. You're getting commenters right now, in the world, telling you that you are provoking a hostile reaction when presumably you don't mean to. So there's something about your style that isn't working right for at least a significant minority of the target audience.

I can imagine situations where the style you're advocating or modeling here would work well. In a specific kind of corporate environment, it would work well.But in an intellectual discussion forum, I think it can have an effect opposite from the one you intend. That's why you're hearing from people saying that it's "irritating" or "sets their teeth on edge" or that it's coming across as condescending.

"That's weird. I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. Its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful. I don't get how you could think otherwise." See that second one? I see the equivalent of that sometimes among smart people. And it's bad.

Because of the final sentence, yes, that WOULD be likely to provoke a hostile reaction. Without that last bit it would be fine--a simple statement of personal preference, unlikely to cause any offense.

See, though, I stated up front that I believe in niceness. We don't have any argument over whether niceness is better than rudeness: we have a difference in perception about what's actually nice (and likely to make people react positively) and what's condescending and/or dismissive (and likely to make people react poorly).

Also, tangentially, it's been kind of strange for me to have a discussion after writing a piece like this.

It is odd, and meta, but also interesting, so thank you for starting the discussion--and for responding politely to criticism, which is always difficult.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T03:26:49.210Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless, but I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. This is partly, I guess, because its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful, I think."

That's an example of what I mean. "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless, but I think " is filler. It doesn't add anything, we already know it's his opinion and it's subjective. But if what if he'd been more blunt? What if he'd written -

"That's weird. I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. Its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful. I don't get how you could think otherwise."

Leave out the last sentence, and I would definitely respond to the second better than the first. Pointing out that one's opinions are subjective is vacuous, it's obvious enough that I'm inclined to think less of someone who bothers calling attention to it, and the "and therefore fairly meaningless" part makes it considerably worse. It's way too self effacing, and triggers in me the kneejerk response "if it's so meaningless, why bother bringing it up?"

Whenever I encounter someone prefacing a statement with "this is just my subjective opinion," or some variation on that, it immediately causes me to revise my opinion of them downwards.

The examples you keep bringing up seem to be sledgehammer approaches to politeness. It's better than sledgehammer rudeness, but it's not well optimized for smoothing social interactions.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-03T03:36:51.457Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you keep the hedge phrase "I think" in your improved version?

After all, "I think" is just as meaningless as the hedge phrases you remove: I already assumed that you think it, otherwise you wouldn't have said it. So, if hedge phrases are bad, "Chrome is the most visually appealing..." would be even better.

Unless you agree that hedge phrases have some value, in which case this is much more of a "haggling over the price" sort of disagreement than it seemed at first.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T03:55:12.218Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I do agree that hedge phrases have some value. They have more or less use depending on the social circles you're dealing with. Here, you could probably leave out the "I think" as implicit, but in many circles dropping it would be taken as abrasive and overprivileging of one's opinion. Remember that there is no shortage of people to whom "other people don't have to share your opinion" seems like a genuine insight.

I'm not taking issue with lionhearted's general point that social signals that would seem fluffy in this community can be legitimately useful in many situations, but like many others in this thread, I question his grasp of what sort of signaling actually tends to be most effective.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2011-10-23T12:14:17.004Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

An introductory phrase need not be a 'hedge phrase' in the sense of demoting the following statement - it can just serve to position it properly.

I find a good medium to be 'I find', or 'It strikes me', or 'It occurs to me', depending on context. These are clearly indications of subjectivity without denigrating subjectivity.

"I find Chrome to be the most visually appealing…" is not confrontational at all, and in terms of added length it's 3 short words ('I find', and using 'to be' instead of 'is'), barely a cost at all.

It doesn't bring up the fact/opinion divide, it just uses it.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-10-23T15:06:19.606Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It seems we understand 'hedge phrase' somewhat differently, but I certainly agree that adding phrases that convert what would otherwise be a statement about the world (e.g. "Chrome is the most etc.") into a statement about my own thoughts, feelings or experiences (e.g., "I think Chrome is..." or "I find Chrome to be..." or "In my experience Chrome is..." or whatever) makes the statement seem less confrontational, and that the difference in statement length is negligible.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-23T15:35:40.130Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

adding phrases...makes the statement seem less confrontational, and that the difference in statement length is negligible.

"It would be great if you could pass the salt."

"There is no objective criteria by which it could be 'great' if - "

"I would appreciate it if you would pass the salt."

"If you think so, then it's probably true, although there are limits to introspection - "

"Trust me."

" - but even granting that, that's really a lame counterfactual scenario to raise - "

"Salt motherfucker. Can you pass it?!"

"I can."

(A short interval of time elapses. Salt is not passed.)

"Pass the salt!"

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-10-23T18:20:26.045Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In my more pedantic youth, I entertained myself endlessly by playing this game when people tried to ask me for the time.

"Do you have the time?"
"Yes."
"Will you tell me the time?"
"It depends."
"On what?"
"Whether you ask me."
(sigh) "All right, then, will you tell me the time?!?"
"As I say: it depends!"

It astonished me how difficult it was for people to forego polite indirection.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-23T19:10:26.829Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"What time is it?!"

"It's five o'clock somewhere."

comment by lsparrish · 2010-12-03T03:33:26.380Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Whenever I encounter someone prefacing a statement with "this is just my subjective opinion," or some variation on that, it immediately causes me to revise my opinion of them downwards.

I agree that it sounds lame. But couldn't there be a variation that makes them look cool?

"While it could be argued that all such opinions are subjective, my personal opinion is definitely X."

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T03:41:59.169Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think a simple "in my opinion" serves better. All opinions are subjective, otherwise they wouldn't be opinions, and it comes across as passive and weasel-wordy.

There are variations that can improve on the basic "in my opinion" disclaimer, but they're situation appropriate. For instance, you might use "In my objective and incontestable opinion," which is clearly facetious, and signals a deliberate reaction to overly self effacing disclaimers, but it won't earn you points in circles where self aggrandizing humor is frowned upon.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:28:59.829Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've met people who get huffy about the suggestion that they preface their opinions with "in my opinion" or "I think that." For a long time I had trouble explaining what good came of doing so; the best I've got so far is "it distinguishes you from the people who think their opinions are facts." Does this make sense? Any suggestions for making it clearer?

Edit: I just found a couple more ways to explain this in my notes file. One is that "x is bad" invites the conversation "no it's not!" "yes it is!" (because it's a disagreement of fact) whereas "I think x is bad" invites the conversation "why do you think that?" (because it's a disagreement of opinion). The second argument is more interesting. Another is that when you say "x is bad" as an absolute, you're implying that anyone who likes it is wrong; you're insulting their taste. When you say "I don't like x" you're merely disagreeing with their taste.

I haven't yet figured out to do with people who actually do believe that their opinions or experiences represent objective truths.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T22:55:46.278Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That reply is to someone who is saying, "I don't think that would work" - and I don't know what to say other than, "Why not give it a try?" I'm advocating change in phrasing based on real world observations of what's effective. If someone disagrees but has no data of trying it, I don't know what else to say...

I understand the difficulty in finding more evidence for this sort of thing. Once could do a study, and that's not a bad idea, but right now I can't think of any. I suspect what you need to do is not say "for a month." These types of things tend to give immediate feedback if you're interacting in person and paying attention, so trying it "the next time you're dealing with non-nerds." I know that most of my social experiments get a sample size of one and I suspect that is typical.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-12-03T00:22:45.426Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

Why call this "defection"? I interpret "defection" as meaning not just "a bad thing people do" but as deliberately deviating from a previous agreement. The relationship between the prisoner's dilemma and not being sufficiently polite seems forced, or at least like it could have used more thorough explanation.

I agree with Alicorn and others who find the sort of forced extreme politeness of some of the suggested responses (especially to #1) off-putting. I can't quite explain why, but if I had to guess, it would be for two reasons. First, politeness level indicates status, and when someone uses excessive politeness that ascribes to me extremely high status that I don't feel I've earned, I suspect they're trying to manipulate me. Given that many of the arguments in this post are explicitly about politeness as a tool for manipulating people, this seems to be a valid suspicion.

Second, lack of politeness is a countersignalling method to indicate friendship and community by showing you are close enough to a person that politeness is unnecessary (consider the relatively common story of the friends who greet each other with racial slurs, like "Hey n*gga!", "Hey cracker!" partly as a bonding mechanism to show that they're close enough to allow what would normally be offensive). If everyone is on board with this, someone who goes around being extremely polite and telling others to be extremely polite might seem to be distancing eirself from the community and denying friendship.

I realize you don't intend polite comments that way, but as you say in this post, it doesn't matter what you intend so much as how other people interpret it. I'd agree that politeness is generally a good thing, but carpet-bombing all social interactions with politeness will tend to freak a lot of people out, and Less Wrong is probably more prone to that than other places.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-03T00:48:02.542Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Why call this "defection"? I interpret "defection" as meaning not just "a bad thing people do" but as deliberately deviating from a previous agreement. The relationship between the prisoner's dilemma and not being sufficiently polite seems forced, or at least like it could have used more thorough explanation.

I wanted to put this into a context of how you could cooperate, raising everyone's payoffs - or defect, raising your payoff at the expense of the other person.

Which might be fine, if you do it consciously. But is really something you should be aware of. Certain kinds of public statements have this effect - raising your standing at the expense of who you're criticizing, like in the meeting example. This might be okay to do, but you really, really should be aware of it. A lot of smart people don't realize that their action/criticism comes across as defection - raising themselves at the expense of lowering the other person.

Second, lack of politeness is a countersignalling method to indicate friendship and community by showing you are close enough to a person that politeness is unnecessary

Yes, but I don't think this is what the majority of technical people are doing when they're going around accidentally offending people. Think of the I.T. Guy stereotype who constantly insults everyone else in the office for being so stupid, but is unaware of it. That's a stereotype, but there's a grain of truth in it. There's a huge difference between that and being loose and easy around your friends.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:35:47.291Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Second, lack of politeness is a countersignalling method to indicate friendship and community by showing you are close enough to a person that politeness is unnecessary

As you say, that only works if everyone is already on board with this. What the OP is talking about is, effectively, the situation where you're saying "hey nigga wassup!" to someone you've just met or barely know. In order to use direct communication to signal closeness, you need to be sure that you're on the same page first.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-01T11:27:44.636Z · score: 16 (20 votes) · LW · GW

You make a good case for being polite in general, but one of the things I enjoy about this corner of the Internet is that it's not overflowing with the constant thanking and thanking-for-thanking and dancing around the point that most people apply in real life, and which in my opinion actually undermine attempts to communicate. (there's a top-level post in there that I'll make one of these days..)

To paraphrase something I read a while back: "Normal people apply tact to everything they say, while nerds apply tact to everything they hear."

As long as people are aware that this 10% is unlike the other 90%, I see no strong reason to change those percentages, since it means that here is one of the few places that I can get to the point fairly quickly rather than trying to work out which arcane rituals I need to perform today.

You may also want to link back to Alicorn's post about why it's useful to be nice

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T14:09:55.817Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

To paraphrase something I read a while back: "Normal people apply tact to everything they say, while nerds apply tact to everything they hear."

This is something nerds tell themselves, but in practice they seem to me to be as susceptible to being infuriated by what non-nerds think is social rudeness as non-nerds are. Just because you think you shouldn't be affected by lack of social niceties, doesn't mean you aren't affected by lack of social niceties.

In particular: demanding of others that they be less affected by social niceties while simultaneously not bothering to use them oneself is a common antipattern in Internet discourse.

Thankfully, Postel's Law - "Be conservative in what you send; be liberal in what you accept." - is a nerd meme, and some nerds even apply it.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-01T20:15:13.754Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I admit, I oversimplified. My real-life experience isn't that nerds have fewer social conventions, it's that they have different ones which just happen to look like fewer from a non-nerd perspective. And since nerd/non-nerd isn't a binary distinction you get all the levels of politeness in between as well.

The nerd social rules as I know them include things like getting to the point faster and welcoming minor corrections mid-sentence, but don't include hostile language.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T21:19:16.428Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The nerd social rules as I know them include things like getting to the point faster and welcoming minor corrections mid-sentence, but don't include hostile language.

Unfortunately, practical experience of what people mean when they advocate less politeness in the cause of more communication says otherwise. Follow that link and you'll see people over and over defending not just being inconsiderate but actual hostility - blatant rudeness and direct intentional offensiveness - as "honest communication" and treating people wanting them to stop as "suppressing communication" or "being politically correct". And this is just one set of examples.

As such, the argument in practice appears to be that people don't like being asked to consider others when transmitting, and - and this is a key part - aren't especially keen on listening unless it's in the precise terms they want. That is, they are observably not filtering on output and are observably very fussy indeed on input.

Of course, you could argue that that's not real nerd communication, but using a claim of "politeness hampers honest communication" seems to happen when people say "hey, could you, y'know, stop blatantly being a dick?"

So such an argument is slightly tainted in practice by the uses it's been put to before. And perhaps that's not how an ideal world works, but it does appear to be how this one with people in it works. It's possible to make the argument honestly, and I'm not saying you're not; I am saying that by using that argument, you're welcoming others using the argument as an excuse for making the communication space much more hostile than it needs to be.

And it remains unclear to me how the repeated special pleading for bad communication skills in this thread constitutes a refinement in the art of human rationality.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-01T22:08:21.774Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I am reminded by this comment of Dan Ariely's analysis of market norms versus social norms - namely that if you replace a social norm with a market norm and then try to remove the market norm, it takes a long time to re-establish social norms.

I think this is what tends to happen in nerd communities - not that social norms are being replaced by market norms but that social norms are removed on the grounds that they can make communication more difficult, and then people act badly because we're not well-equipped to operate without norms. The successful nerd communities that I've seen (here and a couple of other places) have either involved the founder exercising strong control over the tone of the comments and banning the offensive ones, or strong social norms that were instituted as soon as the community was founded, so that people conformed to the new norm.

And it remains unclear to me how the repeated special pleading for bad communication skills in this thread constitutes a refinement in the art of human rationality

Implicit value judgement of what constitutes good and bad communication. The norms are different in different environments. One of my lecturers likes to use the example of when she lived in New York - she was verbally abused by the vendors there for wasting their time with small talk. This doesn't mean that New Yorkers are rude (well, the ones that actually abused her may have been), it means they're operating by different politeness conventions that prioritise brevity.

Question: do you consider the tone here at LW to be an example of bad communication? I find the vast majority of comments to be quite polite, pointing out flaws and other points to consider without resorting to personal attacks or empty statements of value like "this post was awesome/terrible".

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T22:12:07.282Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The successful nerd communities that I've seen (here and a couple of other places) have either involved the founder exercising strong control over the tone of the comments and banning the offensive ones, or strong social norms that were instituted as soon as the community was founded, so that people conformed to the new norm.

Maintaining a non-repellent tone is part of tending the garden.

Question: do you consider the tone here at LW to be an example of bad communication? I find the vast majority of comments to be quite polite, pointing out flaws and other points to consider without resorting to personal attacks or empty statements of value like "this post was awesome/terrible".

No, in fact it's remarkably good. The comment section is fantastically good and the karma system here - vote up not for agreement but for "more like this" - seems to really work well.

This is why it surprises me to see so many people attempting to justify a lack of or wish not to bother learning communication skills or dismiss such as mere "polite words", "noise" or "grease", as if communication were not an incredibly important part of being effective in dealing with humans.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-01T22:36:55.159Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This is why it surprises me to see so many people attempting to justify a lack of or wish not to bother learning communication skills or dismiss such as mere "polite words", "noise" or "grease", as if communication were not an incredibly important part of being effective in dealing with humans.

My pet theory based on my own reaction is that Lionhearted erred too far in the other direction while trying to advocate politeness. Here are two methods of framing the same idea that I would find equally rude but for opposite reasons:

"this post would suck less if it had more examples"

"this post was great! It really gave me a lot to think about. Just one tiny thing, I'm really slow so I would appreciate it a lot if you just added a couple of examples to illustrate your points so that people like me can get it more easily :) Thanks!"

Lionhearted isn't quite advocating the second type of comment but comes fairly close. Politeness is hugely important, but there comes a point where it crosses over into fakeness, passive-aggressiveness, and a bunch of other negative behaviours, and I felt like some of his examples crossed that line, or at least stuck a few toes over.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-12-03T14:49:38.252Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Intellectual authors crave audience engagement. A lack of examples is usually the result of the author being uncertain where they are required. Bulking up the text with unnecessary examples makes it worse and is work, so the natural tendency is to put in too few examples.

The author is really hoping for comments such as

When you say "a means of transport", does that include a bicycle. It strikes me that a bicycle would be too slow. Some examples would make your article suck less.

or perhaps

When you say a "means of transport", does that include a bicycle. It strikes me that a bicycle would be too slow. Some examples would perfect your already brilliant article.

Either of these would be much more welcome than any response that asked non-specifically for more examples, no matter how generically flattering. The author already knows that he didn't put in enough examples. The information he is lacking is clues as to where his readers are getting lost through a lack of examples. That would let the author add the right examples. More important, evidence of the audience's intellectual engagement would make the author happy.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T22:48:41.881Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh yeah, happy medium for sure.

"this post would suck less if it had more examples"

I would personally be inclined to downvote this on the principle of "less like this", even if I agreed. It strikes me as unduly abrasive and more likely to cause not just the poster, but other people, to feel scared of posting. LessWrong is intimidating enough.

(I have been downvoted for such unhelpful abrasiveness before and, frankly, deserved it.)

"this post was great! It really gave me a lot to think about. Just one tiny thing, I'm really slow so I would appreciate it a lot if you just added a couple of examples to illustrate your points so that people like me can get it more easily :) Thanks!"

The minimum number of words I would respond with would likely be "Good post. Could do with examples for each point. Tell, then show."

Commenting on LessWrong is difficult because smart nerd audiences are incredibly picky, so one must write anticipating as many possible objections as one can come up with. This is why I end up post-editing a lot. (Could really do with a "preview" button to check it renders as intended.) But good communication always takes effort.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T23:35:11.195Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, practical experience of what people mean when they advocate less politeness in the cause of more communication says otherwise.

That is a rather offensive piece of pattern completion you just did there. If you want to characterize what you have seen on this thread as "repeated special pleading for bad communication skills" then you may be putting your finger on something important. But when you try to conflate that with the incidents reported in your link, then you are engaging in a particularly inappropriate form of stereotyping. Where, on this thread, have you seen overt hostility to women? Or any other form of nastiness?

As with any other male-dominated community, we exhibit traces of sexism. But I see no evidence that rationalizations against politeness here are some kind of cryptic anti-woman signaling. Some of us, of both sexes, really do prefer to receive our negative feedback undiluted.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-01T23:40:18.134Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I upvoted for the the rest of the comment but object to this:

As with any other male-dominated community, we exhibit traces of sexism.

Lesswrong exhibits traces of sexism (of more than one kind) and this is an example of it.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2011-10-23T11:29:12.903Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's not the incidents themselves - its the arguments about the incidents. That there are arguments, and the style of those arguments, shows the hypocrisy.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T23:39:44.879Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It was, of course, posted as a real-world example of how the "let's be unvarnished" meme tends to work out in practice: people who claim they want unvarnished communication tend to lash out when they actually get some back.

I see no evidence that rationalizations against politeness here are some kind of cryptic anti-woman signaling.

And, of course, I didn't say that, or anything like it. I said that people who demand unvarnished speech tend to mean they want to transmit it, and tend to show little sign of being able to receive it and decode it sensibly.

Put it this way: if erratio got it and you didn't, your inward filtering may need adjustment.

comment by AstroCJ · 2010-12-02T00:57:00.757Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"Or any other form of nastiness?"

I've noticed over the past week just how often LW posters talk about (to create a typical example) a "generic rational agent, who does something, then he...", attributing all generic rational agents the male gender. It's extremely irritating to read that being rational means one is ¬¬male! (modus tollens).

(But David_Gerard wasn't making a point about sexism; rather, a point about defending for too long signalling that other people find impolite.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-03T14:00:23.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

At this point, anything one can do with third person pronouns has the potential of being seen as impolite by a fair number of people.

I look at that sentence, and it's true, and I know how the situation happened, and there's a virtue in not being shocked at the real world..... but this is a very weird situation.

In other news, I considered making a button that said "red is the new blue" with the words printed in reverse colors, but too many people thought it was intended as a political reference.

comment by rwallace · 2010-12-02T03:14:39.544Z · score: -3 (17 votes) · LW · GW

The pronoun in the English language for a person of indeterminate gender is "he". Yes, it's spelled the same way as the pronoun for a person of specifically male gender; it's far from the only case of different words being spelled the same way. (I was about to say minor defects like that are part of using languages that were evolved instead of designed, but then, designed languages have them too.)

Now, if somebody was always using "he" for rational agents and "she" for irrational ones, or vice versa, that could reasonably be taken as insulting. I don't think anyone has been doing that?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-02T05:04:16.203Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I've thought a little bit about gender pronouns (and other gendered language.)

  1. There are circumstances where using "he" to mean "indeterminate gender" is misleading. To say, in 2007, "Whoever wins the US election, he will be a wartime president" is inaccurate because Hillary Clinton was a candidate for president. The writer is referring to a small group of people, that is known to include women, as if there were no women. That's using language to obscure the truth. (Another example: addressing an audience that visibly contains women as "Gentlemen.")

  2. There are examples where using male words for humans in general is much better for language flow. "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." I like the sentence just fine like that. It's obvious that it means humankind, but the language has a deliberately historical feel.

  3. Everything else is intermediate. If hypothetical examples are given as "he", I generally don't have a problem with it -- it's understood to mean "he or she." If nobody, ever, gives female hypothetical examples, though, I might start to worry that it's spreading the impression that there are no female rationalists. My own preference is for a mix of hypothetical "he"s and hypothetical "she"s, instead of the clunky "he or she" or the ungrammatical "they." If your post has more than one hypothetical example, make some male and some female.

  4. But aren't most rationalists male? Aren't most scientists? Entrepreneurs? etc. Isn't it appropriate to assume a male norm when there actually is a male majority? Isn't it just "PC fantasy" that a hypothetical individual in any group is female? Well, how much you decide to treat the majority as if it were the norm is a judgment call. My own perspective is that where women are a minority, it does not mean women are absent or anomalous.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T05:59:29.969Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Everything else is intermediate. If hypothetical examples are given as "he", I generally don't have a problem with it -- it's understood to mean "he or she." If nobody, ever, gives female hypothetical examples, though, I might start to worry that it's spreading the impression that there are no female rationalists. My own preference is for a mix of hypothetical "he"s and hypothetical "she"s, instead of the clunky "he or she" or the ungrammatical "they." If your post has more than one hypothetical example, make some male and some female.

I tend to divide my constructed hypothetical actors approximately equally. I bias the distribution such that females are more likely to receive the more impressive sounding roles because that is more politically correct (and it also just seems more natural and polite to me to put the 'other group' actors into the more positive position.)

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-02T05:36:03.453Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

He who hesitates is lost. She who hesitates just asks for directions.

comment by FAWS · 2010-12-02T03:52:39.428Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The pronoun in the English language for a person of indeterminate gender is "he".

Or singular they.

Yes, it's spelled the same way as the pronoun for a person of specifically male gender; it's far from the only case of different words being spelled the same way.

Claiming that they are different words that just happen to be spelled the same is disingenuous when they deflect the same. It's the same word with two different meanings / usages.

Language is convention, and conventions can be changed. Yes, usage following the existing convention need not be sexist even when that convention itself is somewhat sexist, it may be merely conservative. But I don't think it's reasonable to expect people not to be even so much as slightly annoyed when when you follow the sexist convention. And the fact that people on this site are regularly provoking this slight annoyance rather than make the effort to rephrase or accept the minor aesthetic displeasure of using a non-standard pronoun also speaks for itself.

comment by rwallace · 2010-12-02T04:18:14.756Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't particularly object to singular "they"; while not strictly grammatical, it at least lacks the obnoxious clumsiness of "he or she".

But as for whether the correct usage is sexist: Do you think a significant number of people here actually regard one sex as inherently inferior to the other and signal that view by their choice of pronoun?

If you do, well, I think you are mistaken, but I can see how someone who holds that belief on the fact of the matter could reasonably hold your view on the language issue.

But if not, then you are effectively claiming that the primary purpose of language is to be perverted into a weapon in political power struggles. If that is the case, then suffice it to say we have resolved our disagreement down to a difference of moral axioms.

comment by FAWS · 2010-12-02T04:57:37.476Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

But as for whether the correct usage is sexist:

I explicitly said that usage need not be sexist (the convention itself is to a degree), just that it's understandably annoying.

Do you think a significant number of people here actually regard one sex as inherently inferior to the other and signal that view by their choice of pronoun?

No, but they may, well, not exactly forget that female people exist, but something to me inexplicable happens that makes it look like they do forget that. I can remember only one specific example that led to a flame war, but then I'm male and it doesn't annoy me anywhere near as much.

And that's not even the issue. One time I was debating something with another poster here and started talking about an unspecified psychologist. I intentionally didn't use any gendered pronouns at first, but in the reply the other poster started using male pronouns for the psychologist so I made a point of using female ones in my reply, and subsequently both of us used them for the rest of the debate without either of us commenting on it explicitly. I don't think the other poster was sexist, let alone intentionally sexist, but once the male pronouns were used I simply found it impossible to think of my psychologist as an ungendered generic psychologist and I found both that and the fact that the psychologist should deterministically end up as male in my imagination just because of an artifact of language highly annoying. If anything I imagine that these and similar things annoy the female posters here a lot more than me.

But if not, then you are effectively claiming that the primary purpose of language is to be perverted into a weapon in political power struggles.

Languages primary purpose is communication, obviously. It undeniably also is a weapon in political power struggles and it should not be. I don't see how using the male third person singular pronoun as indeterminate gender third person singular pronoun either helps communication (as far as I can tell it obstructs slightly) or is power struggle neutral.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-02T03:42:16.376Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Are you asserting that if I start talking about person X in a conversation... talk about what he does for a living, how he raises his children, how he gets along with his parents and so forth, that a typical listener will reliably understand person X's gender to have not been specified? Will, for example, not be at all startled if I talk about him going in for a gynecological or prostrate exam?

Because I suspect that that claim is demonstrably wrong.

On the other hand, if you're instead claiming that although a typical listener will reliably assume person X is male, they'd be incorrect to do so, because "he" is also a gender-neutral pronoun... well, OK. I won't contest that claim, and I'll agree that it matters in any situation where I'm not primarily interested in the actual meanings that get reliably communicated to other people by my speech.

comment by rwallace · 2010-12-02T03:59:56.344Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"He" can refer to a person who is known to be male, or a person whose gender is indeterminate or unknown. In your example, the gender is neither indeterminate nor unknown.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-02T04:18:34.507Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Person X's gender sure seems unknown to me. Do you know it? What is it, and how did you figure that out?

comment by rwallace · 2010-12-02T04:21:35.795Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You claim to know Person X; do you not know his gender? I don't know anything about him, so I would refer to him as "he" until you inform me of his gender, at which point I would use one of the gender specific pronouns.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-02T04:42:20.753Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I never claimed to know person X's gender, and in fact I don't, so I can't inform you of it.

Anyway, to repeat my original question: are you asserting that, after I spend a conversation talking about person X's job and his family and various other aspects of his life, a typical listener will understand his gender to not have been specified?

It seems like a simple question to me.

comment by rwallace · 2010-12-02T05:00:56.656Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I never claimed to know person X's gender, and in fact I don't, so I can't inform you of it.

As a matter of fact, you did.

comment by AstroCJ · 2010-12-02T10:20:04.716Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

(On the theme of the post, I think that bluntness is most polite here - this conversation doesn't look like it's about to progress further without prodding.)

  • TheOtherDave did claim to know person X's gender? Unlikely, given the point of the example.

  • TheOtherDave did inform you of person X's gender? Then, to repeat the question: What is that gender?

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-02T06:33:02.968Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The singular they well predates the genderless he, which gained popularity largely due to the efforts of the grammarian Ann Fisher in the 18th century . I see no reason to object to a shift back in the other direction.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T07:49:59.799Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Which other direction is this? I lost track with the negatives. Are you advocating 'he', 'they' or something else?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-02T13:19:41.421Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I understood desrtopa as referring to a reversal of the shift from singular they to genderless he... that is, as advocating 'they'.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-02T14:04:56.493Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That was it.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-03T13:54:52.895Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hofstadter on language and defaults The essay has a postscript that I don't think I've seen before.

I think the evidence is that using "he" to mean people in general evokes a powerful default which leads to less accurate thinking.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-02T06:21:18.998Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The pronoun in the English language for a person of indeterminate gender is "he". Yes, it's spelled the same way as the pronoun for a person of specifically male gender; it's far from the only case of different words being spelled the same way.

This may be true according to official grammatical rules, but it isn't true for the purposes of conveying an understanding. When I hear the word "he" used with no other identifying characteristics, I don't imagine a person of indeterminate gender. Even if I'm actively trying to avoid assigning a gender to the person, my immediate reaction is to imagine a man, because that's what the word "he" usually means when I see it in writing. My conscious control means that I can afterwards respond as if the person is ungendered, but my mental impression is of a male.

For most people, reading and comprehending text has become an automatic process. It can't be easily controlled by an order from the conscious mind to "always interpret pronoun 'he' as if gender indeterminate when in X context." I expect most people don't even try, because it isn't worth the mental effort.

I generally get around this problem by using the singular "they," which I expect will eventually become accepted by the grammatical establishment, since it's already becoming common in colloquial speech. And then for cases where "they" is awkward, I simply alternate between using "he" and "she." Gender neutral pronouns like "ze" and "ey" are an option too, but parsing them can also take too much mental effort for some readers and break the flow, so I usually don't use them.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-07-03T12:18:12.088Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Why was this downvoted? Seems to make sense to me...

To me the only thing that charges a usage of "he" with sexism is the people who comment on it to artificially make a big deal of it. Until that occurs, it's just a way of presenting an example, and does not interfere with understanding of what is being said, or exclude the possibility of a female example.

Well, unless someone's primed themselves to be sensitive to it instead of just focusing on the content of the text they're reading. But that's about as valid an objection as "religious feelings": just because you choose to get worked up about something trivial, doesn't mean anyone else is obliged to take it seriously...

comment by [deleted] · 2011-07-03T13:24:42.570Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

To me the only thing that charges a usage of "he" with sexism is the people who comment on it to artificially make a big deal of it.

You realize your criticism is textbook standard anti-egalitarian rhetoric.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-07-03T14:12:21.839Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe, I wouldn't know. Slapping a not-nice-sounding label on what I said doesn't tell me what's wrong with it, though.

The way I see it, if you actually see sexes as equal and don't discriminate, then things like this don't need much thought. Unless the author of a given text is trying to say something about sex differences, or making the male-ness of the hypothetical agent somehow necessary (as in, painting a stereotype), hypothetical male and female agents are equivalent. I don't have a problem with when someone's example agent is a "she" in it rather than "he" - what's the big deal?

It's when "she" is fine, yet "he" is a big deal, or when people feel the need to go to great lengths to pursue this silly notion of political correctness (like needing a special method to decide what pronoun they'll use this time), that they shoot the whole idea of equality in the foot by showing that gender should be made a big deal out of in discussions that have inherently nothing to do with gender.

It was particulary weird to see someone say this:

I bias the distribution such that females are more likely to receive the more impressive sounding roles because that is more politically correct

I had to read that twice to realize this was serious. I don't know what this is, but doesn't strike me as egalitarian.

I do have a feeling I stepped into one of those mind-killer minefields, though.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-07-03T15:21:42.696Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe, I wouldn't know. Slapping a not-nice-sounding label on what I said doesn't tell me what's wrong with it, though.

Here's the cached version of the counter-response, then.

Practically every equality movement deals with the belief that, "If only these people wouldn't make a big deal out of being X, there wouldn't be a problem!" The problem with this belief is that all kinds of things get conflated with "big deal".

Since you invoke mind-killer later, I'll do the standard thing and pick an anachronistic example. I would be unsurprised if somewhere in Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic War" he said somewhere, "If only the Gauls stopped making a big deal out of their territorial soverignty, they could be a colony of Rome and enjoy practically the same authority." The difference is that as a separate nation, the Gauls are first-class citizens, whereas as a colony of Rome, they become second-class citizens (with possible social mobility, but that's another story).

This situation is directly analogous with the gender pronoun situation. The Blues believe that the status quo doesn't harm the Greens because being a Blue means rarely being in a position in which the problem comes up. So of course to a Blue the resulting Green outrage seems ridiculous, when really it's justified.

The way I see it, if you actually see sexes as equal and don't discriminate, then things like this don't need much thought.

That's exactly the wrong way to go about doing things, though! Just because you think you're ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. Just because something's a mind-killer doesn't mean you stop thinking about it. One just has to be a bit more careful.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-07-03T16:55:36.020Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hm... okay, that's not a bad example to work with. Let me see if I can make sense in response.

It seems to me that your argument would apply if I were saying that gender equality isn't an issue to make a big fuss about. Re-reading myself, I can see that perhaps you could in good faith think so, that that's what I believe. I will clarify that it is not the case. Equality, in general, is something I see as a Big Deal. There are real issues with gender discrimination that could use looking at: women not getting equal pay for equal work, men being denied custody rights over children unfairly, etc. This stuff matters.

However, using your analogy, I don't object to Gauls clamoring for their territorial souvereinty. I object to Gauls making a fuss because some Roman thinker used an example of a Roman citizen in some mathematical problem or philosophical parable of his, rather than a Gaul. Which is a trivial thing to make a big deal of, wouldn't you say? (Especially if - by analogy - the language they're using doesn't let him just say "a man", he has to specifiy -some- nationality if he wants to use singular). It's not one of the things that matter, it's not relevant to their territorial souvereinty except in a way so remote, that to try to impose cultural norms on how you should speak based on such weak relevance is something I find silly, and when it gets aggressive, offensive.

Consider the ideal society where genders and races are equal. To members of such a society, equality would be obvious, wouldn't it? Now I, following the ideal of equality, try to emulate such an ideal citizen ("If I can predict what i'll think in the future, I might as well think it now"). I find I have little trouble taking women on their merit without needing to let others tell me how to choose my pronouns, so I obviously resist people trying to tell me how to speak in the name of "political correctness" because it doesn't strike me as doing anything useful.

In fact I suspect one could make a case about this sort of a thing reinforcing the image of woman as the second class citizen, in need of special protections and norms, rather than to be treated straightforwardly as a fellow human being.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-07-03T17:29:29.591Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Consider the ideal society where genders and races are equal. To members of such a society, equality would be obvious, wouldn't it? Now I, following the ideal of equality, try to emulate such an ideal citizen ("If I can predict what i'll think in the future, I might as well think it now").

This is not a correct application of the reflection principle you invoke. 1) You do not have reliable information to the effect that the ideal society you have in mind is on the horizon. 2) Some policies might be necessary or appropriate in some circumstances but not others, even if the goal of the policy is to bring about the counterfactual circumstance. 3) I find it unlikely that you have enough information about what an ideal citizen would be like that you can unbiasedly choose features of such a person to emulate.

I find I have little trouble taking women on their merit without needing to let others tell me how to choose my pronouns, so I obviously resist people trying to tell me how to speak in the name of "political correctness" because it doesn't strike me as doing anything useful.

There's a quote somewhere... I can't seem to dig up the exact wording, but it's something about how if there's an (obviously artificial) object lying around and you don't see the use of it, you shouldn't discard it; only when you know what it was supposed to be for (and can say that the task is no longer necessary or is being better accomplished by something else) is that safe to do.

In fact I suspect one could make a case about this sort of a thing reinforcing the image of woman as the second class citizen, in need of special protections and norms, rather than to be treated straightforwardly as a fellow human being.

This looks to me like bottom-line thinking (starting with the conclusion that going out of one's way to choose gender-neutral pronouns is a bad idea).

comment by Unnamed · 2011-07-03T17:53:57.373Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There's a quote somewhere... I can't seem to dig up the exact wording, but it's something about how if there's an (obviously artificial) object lying around and you don't see the use of it, you shouldn't discard it; only when you know what it was supposed to be for (and can say that the task is no longer necessary or is being better accomplished by something else) is that safe to do.

Sounds like you're thinking of Chesterton's fence. "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up" is the concise version, commonly attributed to him (although those don't seem to actually be his words). The longer version that he did write:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

  • G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I am a Catholic
comment by Alicorn · 2011-07-03T18:01:42.042Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes! That's it. Thank you.

comment by CuSithBell · 2011-07-03T17:32:51.119Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's a quote somewhere... I can't seem to dig up the exact wording, but it's something about how if there's an (obviously artificial) object lying around and you don't see the use of it, you shouldn't discard it; only when you know what it was supposed to be for is that safe to do.

Yes yes yes yes yes yes YES YES YES. Exactly this. And don't be too quick to think you know, either.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-04T03:22:15.496Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, I posted the Chesterton quote without scrolling down far enough.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-07-04T02:45:52.313Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The way I see it, if you actually see sexes as equal and don't discriminate, then things like this don't need much thought.

Yes, if. But that's not the default state, and it's observably a hard state to reach, even if one wants to.

For people who do want to - actually want to, not just want to signal that they want to - changing language is a popular tool, because it acts as a full-time mindfulness exercise and highlights situations where the user still needs to make an effort to reach their goals. (It's a popular signaling tool, for those who want to signal, and of course it's popular with people who want to do both; my point is that signaling is not the only reason for it.)

It's possible, I suppose, that one might be so enlightened with regards to gender that one can use gender-biased language without that indicating anything in particular about one's internal states of mind regarding gender. I don't find that very plausible, but I suppose it's possible. Since that seems to be what you're claiming, though, I'd like to ask this, which might make my incredulity clearer if your answer is as I expect it to be: Do you find it just as natural and automatic to use the supposedly-nongendered 'he' to describe nurses, kindergarten teachers, flight attendants, and parents of small children?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-03T15:22:04.284Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You may be immune to male-as-default, but a lot of people aren't. I'm still trying not to have that reaction.

It's at least plausible that using "he" for people in general reinforces male-as-default.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-07-03T17:46:14.625Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

just because you choose to get worked up about something trivial, doesn't mean anyone else is obliged to take it seriously

This is well put and a principle that applies far beyond any bickering about 'eirs'.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-07-03T17:48:22.600Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But there should be a counterpart: "Just because you choose to see something as trivial, doesn't mean anyone else is obliged to treat it that way."

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-07-04T18:47:20.261Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you. I more or less stole that from Richard Dawkins.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T14:07:20.306Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

(nods) Agreed, what you describe is a perfectly fine attitude for a corner of the Internet that is willing to reinforce social habits that are inappropriate for dealing with the wider population.

It is, of course, a counterproductive attitude for a corner of the Internet that wishes to train its members to deal increasingly effectively with the wider population. An entry-level skill for that is complying with the communication protocol your listener is likely to use.

It's a matter of what this corner of the Internet conceives of its purpose as being, and what it is willing to do in support of that purpose.

Of course, it is possible to do both... to train fluency with the popular communications protocol in a specialized opt-in channel, for example, and allow interactions elsewhere to use "nerd-default" protocols.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-01T20:18:27.229Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My ideal would be that people be explicitly taught that social conventions are just that, and not a universal mode of interaction. We already have cached wisdom like "when in Rome" but we (both LW and society in general) can and should be doing much better. And part of that would be learning that politeness is a matter of context, with examples of places where default polite behaviour is perceived as rude.

comment by wnoise · 2010-12-01T23:33:09.296Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Another such cached wisdom:

Pardon him, Theodotus; he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

-- George Bernard Shaw

comment by sketerpot · 2010-12-01T18:33:17.538Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

To paraphrase something I read a while back: "Normal people apply tact to everything they say, while nerds apply tact to everything they hear."

Here's the link, for people who'd like to read a bit more on that: the tact filter theory.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-02T00:30:49.692Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It was very convenient that your link included a link to fanspeak-- a description of a speech therapist's presentation to fans about distinctive features of how sf fans talk with each other.

In particular: "She also seemed quite concerned that we would feel offended by what she had to say, but what she told us was so interesting, and often so recognizably true, that I don't think anyone was."

I haven't heard about any further research on fan speech habits, or on whether they're the same as geek speech habits.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T23:18:32.330Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I found that link quite interesting as well. I think that the comment about "talking in written English" is an apt description of much of what was happening and the details all resonated with my experience. I am proud of the Fanspeakers for moving to a different and in my opinion superior equilibrium provided they know when and where to use it.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T23:06:53.822Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is our corner that large? I would be very happy to learn that you can use the LW style of politeness with 10% of the population. It isn't obvious who most of them would be if there are that many, and that raises the question of how best to identify when you're dealing with a member of that 10% without being rude to the other 90% in the process. There's definitely a top level post in there, somewhere.

comment by piguy314 · 2010-12-01T13:07:52.334Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

One of the editing guidelines for Wikipedia is "Assume good faith" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Assume_good_faith). It strikes me that is precisely what "normal" people do not do when criticized but what analytical people tend to do, especially when communicating with one another (assume that criticism is not a personal attack or status seeking, but rather is taken at face value). In that vein I think your suggestions are useful and valuable for dealing with regular people in real life or people on the more vanilla internet climes like Facebook, but they might not be appropriate for the frank and analytical types of discussions that take place on sites like LW (and HN).

comment by cata · 2010-12-01T15:12:03.343Z · score: 22 (22 votes) · LW · GW

As someone who is often (as the article describes) willfully indifferent to the finer arts of conversation, I personally appreciate the directness and sharpness of discussion here. I feel like I can take people's comments at face value, and that I can usually assess a fair consensus about something by reading people's reactions to it, rather than having to figure out what social factors are influencing the posts. So I'm anti-politeness!

I do know, though, that a lack of grace in these areas can totally drive away some personalities, which is probably a much more severe consequence than making life a little more ambiguous for us few social pariahs. To the extent that LW is made up of people who are willing to assume good faith on everything, I worry that it might be because we insulted everyone else until they went away, or never registered at all.

comment by apophenia · 2010-12-01T17:17:07.901Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As usual, I wish it was possible to upvote things more than once.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T23:32:58.490Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have an alternate theory. Perhaps LW is made up of people who actually have good faith on everything most of the time, and we insulted or puzzled everyone else until they went away, or they never registered at all, thus leaving us free to assume it.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-12-15T04:45:26.178Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think this is true. I know people who "assume good faith", and they are amazing a a pleasure to debate with - it never becomes argument. But I have not found this to be correlated with analytical thinking - if anything, the opposite.

Rather, my experience with analytical people (incl. myself) is that they just don't see the emotional subtext. They see the argument, the logical points, and they don't even think about the status implications, who challenged whose authority, and so forth. It's not as pleasant to think of we non-neurotypicals as oblivious rather than charitable, but it seems more accurate to me.

For example, the idea that all that matters is whether my argument is good is so natural to me and core to my family upbringing that it's taken me many years to unlearn it. To learn that people care how an argument is phrased, how openly you suggest they are wrong, and who the authority figure is (ie whether the challenger is of low status in that context).

In some ways, my obliviousness was very powerful for me, because ignoring status cues is a mark of status, as are confidence and being at ease with high-status people - all of which flow from my focus on ideas over people or their status. Yet as I've moved from more academic/intellectual circles to business/wealth circles, it's become crucial to learn that extra social subtext, because most of those people get driven away if you don't have those extra layers of social sense and display it in your conversational maneuvering.

comment by pjeby · 2010-12-01T13:55:13.224Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

think your suggestions are useful and valuable for dealing with regular people in real life or people on the more vanilla internet climes like Facebook, but they might not be appropriate for the frank and analytical types of discussions that take place on sites like LW (and HN).

How do you see politeness of this sort as hurting discussion here?

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T17:19:54.193Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

How do you see politeness of this sort as hurting discussion here?

One example: I had a strong negative reaction to this advice:

Consider correcting someone privately while praising them publicly. This combination has been observed to engender loyalty and good feelings throughout history.

My reasons:

  • I dislike receiving feedback which has been distorted by the desire to "engender loyalty and good feelings". Such feedback is worse than worthless since the recipient wastes time analyzing the motivation and discarding the feedback, rather than analyzing the feedback and updating on it.
  • If I make a mistake, which is corrected publicly, and the correction receives 9 upvotes, I fix the mistake, thank the corrector, and I'm done. If instead, the correction is private, I have to read 10 PMs and respond with 10 thank you notes.
  • The advice referred to "correction" rather than "disagreement". That is good, because in a community like this one, disagreement should always be public rather than private. The trouble is that in many cases, what was originally thought to be a disagreement turns into a correction and what was originally thought to be a correction turns out to be a disagreement. It seems best to make almost everything public. Even lurkers can gain something in a public forum. You don't have to play to win.

The advise offered by the OP strikes me as generally good in a typical corporate or academic environment, but quite frequently wrong in an environment like LessWrong. One the other hand, I know that our "direct and unvarnished" style sometimes drives away newcomers who could contribute a lot to our community.

I'm perplexed. Is there a way for us to become more polite without becoming fawning and insincere? It is a tough balancing act, but it may be worthwhile to give it a try.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T19:49:30.202Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A suggestion: use polite words in order to help your communication be received.

Strunk & White were on the money: "Omit needless words."

However, I think it's clear from the examples given that polite words are not necessarily noise - if they help the communication be received, rather than deprecated or even ignored, then they are important to the communication and should be considered part of it.

Your objection appears to be to application of a specific rule in a specific situation. This means, of course that one needs to adjust one's communication style to the situation. This takes work, but that doesn't mean it's optional to success.

If it's redundant, it's redundant in the good computers and communications sense of "makes the signal more likely to get through." I submit that this is actually quite important.

(If you look through my comments, you'll see I post-edit almost all of them. I take care not to change the meaning (that would be extremely socially rude) - but I frequently dash off something, realise it's brash enough it may affect it being received, and go back and fix it. Impolite words hamper communication, and IME just because nerds say they prefer unvarnished communication does not mean they like receiving it rather than feeling free to send it. So I consider it "adding signal." I continue to take pride in being a good writer with an excellent turn of phrase, despite the evidence I need to think more before hitting "comment" ...)

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T20:45:47.178Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with much of what you say here and in your linked suggestion. I particularly endorse your suggestion that if politeness "greases the way" to the understanding of a message, then it is an integral part of the message.

However, I still believe that there is some value in "pushing on the envelope", in doing one's bit toward shifting societal norms in the direction of greater honesty and less ego massage.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-01T14:07:38.341Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How do you see politeness of this sort as hurting discussion here?

Decreasing signal-to-noise ratio, creates a precedent for pure noise posts (which currently - correctly - suffer prejudice).

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T15:12:54.078Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

How do you see politeness of this sort as hurting discussion here?

Decreasing signal-to-noise ratio, creates a precedent for pure noise posts (which currently - correctly - suffer prejudice).

It is a nerd commonplace that an increase in politeness results in a decline in signal.

However, I'd suggest we need actual quantified evidence. After over fifteen years, there should be people by now who've done the numbers.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-01T17:42:13.492Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I mean there will literally be more words in each comment. The signal-to-noise ratio will decrease because we have the same signal with slightly more noise (polite words).

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T19:57:43.893Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with the general position that excessive politeness can harm the quality of communication. But I strongly disagree that the harm is due to there simply being more words. The harm is due to the presence of actual ("white") lies.

The prescription that seems to flow from your analysis - "Don't waste words" - strikes me as a bad direction to go. I fear that our comments and criticisms are often already too cryptic and confusing due to their terseness. I would advise people to use more words: provide a second example to clarify, quote the passage you are critiquing, explain the point of a link. As the saying goes, words are cheap. Trying to be frugal in their use is false economy.

My advice: aim for maximum clarity. If you are considering adding some polite words simply to soften your criticism ... don't. It damages clarity. On the other hand, if you are considering whether to prefix your criticism with "I liked the first part, but ..." then go ahead. It clarifies the scope of your criticism. Even though it "costs" some words.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T19:38:20.370Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

slightly more noise (polite words).

You just assumed your conclusion: that polite words are not part of the signal.

Opposite plausible assumption: If the communication is deprecated or even ignored because of the absence of polite words, then the polite words are important to the communication and should be considered part of it.

As I said, to make assertions like this one needs actual numbers. If you don't have any, that's fine, I don't either ;-) But I can recognise that we've reached the stage of opposed but plausible statements, which means we have something falsifiable, and maybe should have a go at doing so. If no-one has already.

Exercise for the reader: Which words in this comment are noise?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T19:52:16.707Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

We could, I suppose, experiment.

But I share your intuition, both that this is probably well-covered in the sociolinguistics literature, and that politeness markers can increase the effectiveness of a communication.

It's also worth noting that what counts as "noise" (in the sense we're using it here, which includes redundant signal) depends on my audience. If I know who is reading my words and I know what their priors are, I can communicate way more efficiently -- I only have to provide evidence for the places where our priors differ. (Case in point: in pretty much any other community, I would have needed to use more words to express that thought, rather than rely on a shared understanding of "evidence" and "priors".)

Anyway, I don't feel like actually, you know, doing research, but I'll ask around among the appropriate cohort of my friends and see what comes up.

ETA: Heh. Your most recent comment said essentially the same thing. Ah well.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-01T20:44:57.782Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Which words in that comment are noise?

If you don't have any, that's fine, I don't either ;-)

and

If no-one has already.

That is, at least, my view on noise. Sure, it's no major problem; I parsed your comment just as easily, it took barely any extra effort on my part, it didn't obscure anything - it wasn't actively bad at all. But it wasn't good either, it was just grease. I don't see a need to counsel people towards more grease on LessWrong specifically. In almost all cases, yes, smart people need a lot more grease than they use. But part of the LessWrong aesthetic is a sort of soft Crocker's rules.

What I am mostly concerned about: about halfway down the comment, when AlanCrowe talks about the budget meeting example: that 'upgrading' of an idea is not desirable on LessWrong. To illustrate the point, if we upgraded Ben Goertzel's ideas on AGI from 'flawed' to 'great idea, have you thought about friendliness?', we would be making an error.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T21:09:00.161Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The answer is, of course: none of it was "grease." It was superfluous to you, but would not have been superfluous to others. A public comment intended to be read by many people on a blog expressly aimed at effectiveness in all regards, including communication, requires comments to be constructed robustly and with an eye to alleviating misinterpretation. Failure to do so is failure.

If you don't agree, then do please consider there are other people than you reading it and that you may be incorrect.

Exercise: Was this sufficiently unvarnished or could it have been unvarnished further? Would the unvarnishing have contributed an element to the communication that advanced the quality of LessWrong or put it back?

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-07T23:44:33.180Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You just assumed your conclusion: that polite words are not part of the signal.

I think the word signal is being overloaded here. The signal here can be seperated into the core signal and the social signal. The social signal is also a signal and is necessary for the interaction to succeed but in the context of a signal-to-noise ratio it counts as noise because our goal is to extract the core signal; the social signal/noise should be there to the extent it is necessary to allow the core's extraction without unwanted side effects.

I don't consider anything in your comment to be the bad kind of noise and there's nothing I would cut, but the third paragraph contains far more words than it would have to if it could be pure core signal.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T17:56:48.921Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, the maximally concise polite post likely uses more words to express the same number of thoughts than the maximally concise non-polite post.

That said, a typical LW post is far from maximally concise.

The question is, does a typically concise polite post use more words per thought communicated?

I agree with David_Gerard here: if the answer matters, I'd like to see some actual measurements.

Conversely, if we don't care about the measurements, maybe the answer doesn't actually matter.

comment by piguy314 · 2010-12-01T17:01:48.788Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think politeness can be a range of possible values rather than a discrete quality. Being polite but also direct is fine, it's just when you start to edge down the spectrum of politeness towards being politic that it might detract from the quality of the dialogue. I do believe that one should still adhere to the rule of thumb: "Don't be a dick" even if one is being direct though.

comment by cata · 2010-12-01T15:05:54.279Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As someone who is often (as the article describes) willfully indifferent to the finer arts of conversation, I personally appreciate the directness and sharpness of discussion here. I feel like I can take people's comments at face value, and that I can usually assess a fair consensus about something by reading people's reactions to it, rather than having to figure out what social factors are influencing the posts. So I'm anti-politeness!

I do know, though, that a lack of grace in these areas can totally drive away some personalities, which is probably a much more severe consequence than making life a little more ambiguous for us few social pariahs.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T19:52:58.955Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Assume good faith" is really hard work in an environment of massive collaboration. (It's as hard work as "neutral point of view.") I believe I am the first person to have noticed that "assume good faith" translates as "never assume malice when stupidity will suffice." Although calling the stupid stupid violates the "no personal attacks" rule.

You know how Wikipedia can't keep idiots out of experts' faces? Wikipedia can't keep idiots out of anyone else's faces either. This is a special case of "people are a problem."

comment by rwallace · 2010-12-02T03:22:48.764Z · score: 24 (24 votes) · LW · GW

I think a more complete translation would be something like "never assume malice when stupidity will suffice; never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice; never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice; never assume error when information you hadn't adequately accounted for will suffice."

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-02T08:49:22.923Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is quite excellent. I'd copy it to the Wikipedia project page if I thought it had any chance of lasting more than a second. (So I'll put it on RW, where you get a free lesson in French as well.)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-18T09:35:38.391Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Great heuristic!

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2010-12-07T23:34:03.664Z · score: 13 (12 votes) · LW · GW

This post could have been custom-written for me. I have the problems you listed; I was definitely "that kid" in school,... and just five minutes ago I wrote a comment pointing out someone's unclear phrasing. I just went and edited it.

comment by wstrinz · 2010-12-07T23:50:09.823Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW · GW

despite all of the concerns raised in lionhearted's post, and everything that's been written on LW about how analytic types have trouble getting along without getting defensive and prickly, I still think I wouldn't see a response like this just about anywhere else on the internet. karma points to you

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2011-10-08T10:53:24.048Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Yes.

But it also proves lionhearted's point: You can get great results, if you speak with people the right way.

The right way has different ratio of ingredients in LW and outside LW. The carefulness described in the article is nice to have in LW, but absolutely necessary in most of the world.

comment by Bongo · 2010-12-01T20:28:20.674Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Good advice for the real world, maybe. But consider that here on LW, we are among analytical people, and wouldn't have it otherwise.

comment by cata · 2010-12-01T19:34:36.818Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

You know, if you wanted to look at conversation between two people as a prisoner's dilemma, I think it's quite the other way around, isn't it?

Consider the "payoff" of this situation to be the amount which the person you're talking to has considered and valued your concerns, suggestions, ideas, or requests.

C = Say what you mean as clearly and accurately as possible, and interpret the other person's actions as such

D = Choose your words and actions to be polite and non-confrontational

(You C, I C) = We both understand each other and we both wind up communicating to the best of our ability.

(You C, I D) = I am irritated with you for being rude to me and don't care for what you said very much. You probably heard me out, although you think I'm too sensitive and beat around the bush.

(You D, I D) = We both say what we have to say, but it might take longer and there might be minor misunderstandings that neither of us wanted to step on.

We'd all be better off, I think, if we could learn to C, and give and receive criticism in an accurate way, in good faith, without playing status and politeness games about it. But since the majority of the world is D, and probably won't change, we might need to D as well if we ever want anyone to put up with us.

So if you buy this interpretation, we're not defecting by accident -- we're cooperating by default, even when we're playing against Defection Rock and getting poor outcomes as a result.

comment by nerzhin · 2010-12-01T22:49:08.917Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

A major point of the post is that it is possible to both say what you mean clearly and accurately and choose your words to be polite and non-confrontational.

There are two games: a communication game and a social game. You (and the analytical people in the post) only see the communication game, thinking that if you cooperate in it you must defect in the social game.

In fact, you are allowed to cooperate in both games, and receive good payoffs whether or not your opponent is in the analytical cluster.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2014-01-17T09:54:41.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is possible to play both, but difficult, and you can't play both at once as well as equally smart non-analytical types will play just the social game.

comment by duckduckMOO · 2016-01-27T08:52:51.158Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why not? Purely In terms of the social game, isn't "being smart and analytical" just one style of play?

Disadvantages: less natural concern for offense or feelings

Advantages: more concern and ability for logical politeness, finding the truth, and focusing on ideas (not taking offense).

That's^ if you want to really enter the game and play it the standard way.

You can also just be yourself, which gets you points and naturally crafts a reputation/expectations, and be idea-focused, which naturally does the same.

from an above comment, which has also been my experience:

"In some ways, my obliviousness was very powerful for me, because ignoring status cues is a mark of status, as are confidence and being at ease with high-status people - all of which flow from my focus on ideas over people or their status. Yet as I've moved from more academic/intellectual circles to business/wealth circles, it's become crucial to learn that extra social subtext, because most of those people get driven away if you don't have those extra layers of social sense and display it in your conversational maneuvering."

I'm not even sure of the necessity of the second part, but it's a good ability to have regardless. I don't see where the cap on communication plus socialising comes from, because communicating well score someone a lot of social points, especially in terms of reputation, but also immediately -if they do it "right" for their environment, which is usually fairly straightforward (be polite and respectful and/or friendly and/or humble and/or oblivious, probably etc).

Imo one of the best things you can do specifically for social games, is to pay 0 attention to them. Very few people are such explicit, calculated, and committed status seekers that they can't accept someone who isn't playing (and being described by those 3 adjectives wouldn't even cause them to either). Instead what usually happens is that some people are suspicious of people who don't appear to be playing, and prone to turning on them (not usually out of active malice/calculation: on the basis of something like "subconsciously felt hostility") but if the person who is oblivious/uninterested is either friendly, polite, "cool", or just oblivious-enough, this suspicion will dissapear over time. Because the basic suspicion, imo, is that someone is not genuinely uninterested/oblivious, but actively posing as high status.

If they then e.g. see the person doing things which would deliberately lower their status, -if they were being deliberate-, then most people will figure out what's going on. e.g. self deprecating comments, coming over to people and being friendly, respectfulness and politeness, explaining things well and with understanding -any of that kind of thing-, then they'll see (perhaps over time rather than quickly) that the person is not posing as high status.

If one doesn't have any of those habits then I guess that maybe they'd have to adopt them, if they want to be sure to have an easy time, but then again just acting "naturally high status" for a long time will generally result in people seeing someone that way so these meta level considerations are unnecessary in any case. Plus there's bound to be some signs.

And of course if you're in a discussion with such a person and they give you a confused/that's weird look, you can just explain yourself. Most people aren't, like, status-demons. Status is just a "working model"/overlay; most people don't worship it/explicitly value it; they just want to be respected, though well, of, and feel safe in their social environment. (or if this isn't technically true, it's an equally good overlay to status, in my case a much better one.)

Anyway here's some things smart and analytical people can naturally do/have better than others socialwise:

  1. Present interesting and useful ideas. Offer them to others/ the group. Includes just making conversation with others, even very anti-abstract people: speak with enthusiasm as broadly as is necessarry for the listener, with tone something like "isn't it such a rich tapestry of varied human experience and perspectives in this wide world", i.e. an aesthetic rather than intelectual focus. Most people like this kind of thing and, even if absolutely nothing else, and even the most anti-abstract people, can feel the good intentions of trying to lift their spirit with lofty/fancy ideas, or grow fond of it in a patronising "isn't that cute/nice/smart" way.

  2. Have a genuine focus on ideas rather than people. Many people value this, and people who don't are generally not enemies to it. And people who are, are generally enemies by default rather than as an active and deliberate thing (and therefore are open to suasion from that stance WRT to individuals and even sometimes such people in general. This also naturally "signals high status", as detailed above, though I don't know how much that usually really means anything in this general case. (a lot of modifiers on that last clause, but I wanted to be precise). Being genuinely oblivious or uninterested is by far the absolute best way to occupy (incidentally or otherwise) such a social role. If you desire to not worry about this stuff, the best way to do it is to start not worrying about it, and that's a social skill because it's a really low energy/ other-expenditure way to navigate a social world. Efficiency is a positive in much the same way that efficacy is. (if one does not have a reputation for obliviousnes/disinterest, they can just tell/ announce to others that they've decided to be a more focused individual or something, and be rightly applauded if they frame it properly/the people around them respect/like/have good intentions towards them. (because people don't generally support status in the abstract: it's an overlay for viewing people's actions, {imo on par with something like the mbti personality index, or a bit below actually}, not something most people explicitly value.)

  3. Explain things well. Imo this is one of the best social skills (it's also a skill of course, but it becomes a social skill if you do it right), -to learn how to explain things to people, not with patience, which can imply benificently tolerated irritation, but with understanding that others actually and literally don't understand or sometimes even have the framework to understand what they don't understand. This is much easier for analytical people because they can break down the concept of "obvious" from a one-place to a (correct) two-place understanding, and of course because analytical people can move more easily through the world of ideas in which people can get lost. (Imo this is a great natural crossover point between analytical thinking and social skills, or more specifically empathy/simulating others experiences, so it's also a good way to practice being social for analytical people that aren't currently very good at it).

  1. Analytical people can learn to analyse situations/reality, and analyse how they would be better attuned to that reality. Making such changes is largely an intuitive/emotional skill, but imo that part of it is much easier to learn than how to analyse reality unbiasedly, comprehensively, and well. (Not 100% strictly speaking an advantage, as emotional/intuitive/social people have other peaks they have easier access to, and probably every kind of person does, but still)
comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T10:01:48.078Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Elaborating on nerzhin's comment, which I think is well stated: the tradeoff between clarity and politeness is not absolute. If politeness is non-habitual and thus difficult, it requires a lot of your energy and attention, and you have to give up some of the energy you could otherwise have spent being clear. This is much less the case when you're very practiced at speaking courteously, because that action becomes automatic; you can then use all your conscious focus on clarity.

It's much the same as the speed/accuracy tradeoff in, say, typing, or playing a musical instrument. When you're still learning how to do it, you have to type or play slowly if you want to make sure to get it right. Once you gain the muscle memory to do it right, you can speed up because it's not so much work to be accurate any more.

comment by James_Miller · 2010-12-01T15:35:15.859Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

I've been told by my Korean college students that in Korean high schools the students with the highest grades are usually the most popular.

Koreans have an extremely strong aversion to correcting the errors of others to such an extent that a Korean airline crashed because the co-pilot who knew that his Captain had made an error which if uncorrected would cause the plane to crash didn't do more then suggest to the Captain that he had made an error. (Source: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell).

comment by derefr · 2010-12-01T21:05:57.598Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The errors of others, or the errors of those of superior social ranking? Do Korean teachers refrain from correcting students?

comment by James_Miller · 2010-12-01T22:45:54.389Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No, students get hit with rulers for mistakes. I think it's that you don't correct your social superiors, and (but I'm not as sure) you don't correct those at your social level.

comment by Zvi · 2010-12-08T13:30:24.201Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Does that cause them to attempt to create as many distinct social strata as possible?

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-12-01T22:28:38.878Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This is a great point you're making. At the risk of being perceived as antagonistic, I've gotta say I don't think the prisoner's dilemma is the best frame for it. It's not that people are trying to cooperate and failing, it's that they just haven't developed the skills they need to accomplish the ends they seek. It's rather like not working on your short game in golf because you're really good at the long game. I think it's a good effort to make the issue topical, but the issue is already so topical that I think it distracts from rather than enhances your point.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:55:52.139Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with this; I found the metaphor choice sort of disconcerting. (Given that I agreed very much with the overall point, I didn't find it important enough to comment on, but I have a lower threshold for agreeing with someone else.)

comment by Mattyfo · 2010-12-01T13:32:41.899Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Lionhearted,

Thanks for the post, I think this hits on an issue that makes our community weaker. I'm always surprised by how focused and pedantic geeks feel they need to be, I guess they enjoy showing how clever they are. I don't know if there's an easy way to fix this problem but as someone who runs meetings for our local hackerspace and other groups it can be difficult to keep things on track.

Anyhow, in the name of offering constructive criticism, is there a way to shorten your writing style? This blog post lost me along the way at a few points but I stuck with it and finished it much to my liking. Perhaps some refined editing out of quotes/etc would shorten it?

Thanks for writing!

comment by Elizabeth · 2010-12-03T05:24:57.687Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This post helped coalesce a number of observations I had made in the past, so I would like to leave aside the debate over whether the examples of politeness are optimal and look at a couple of other points.

One point which I haven't seen much of in comments is the relationship between how well people know each other and how polite they need to be. If people know you well, then they know enough to give you the benefit of the doubt if a comment can be taken multiple ways. If, however, they have only just met you or interact with you mostly in formal settings, that extra bit of politeness can go a very long way.

  • A little politeness is particularly effective when dealing with people who are being paid to do something for you, such as waiters or salespeople, or with people in bureaucracies from whom you need something. While it is not strictly necessary to be polite in these cases, it will often get you better service.

  • Unless you have a particularly close-knit workplace, that is also an arena where a little extra politeness is a good idea. You certainly don't want to offend your boss, and your coworkers will likely react better to constructive criticism than straight criticism.

  • The last, and most overlooked, of the areas where social niceties are important is the internet. Here, not only are you often talking to people who don't know you well, but they are also deprived of tone of voice and facial expressions, which provide important clues about intent. A comment which would be perfectly polite with a pleasant smile can seem downright rude in plain text.

Another point is that Less Wrong is not a place without social codes, it simply has it's own. Whether these codes are more rational than standard social mores is irrelevant when it comes to dealing with people who don't know them. Social codes are another type of language, and the most important factor in communication with language is speaking a common tongue. If the lojbanists succeeded in creating a perfect, logical, utilitarian language, the fact remains that it would not be particularly useful in ordering a milkshake at McDonald's. When someone butchers the English language, even if I did understand what they meant to say, I am bothered, and it affects my impression of their statement. This holds true for politeness as well.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:24:15.407Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is dead on; if I'd thought of it, I would have written it myself. ;) One thing you're missing, though, is an example of where it is okay to be blunter--with very close friends, with whom you already have an understanding of a certain amount of respect. This doesn't obviate the need for politeness, of course, but it does lower the threshold of importance at which it's okay to be blunt. If I'm in a hurry in a shop, I'll still be polite to the clerk, because they don't know me well enough to know that I'm impatient and stressed, rather than just a jerk. I worry about this less when talking to a close friend who already knows I'm not a jerk.

I'm actually not a very good example of this, because my default setting for the courtesy slider is fairly high. I can do this because it comes naturally to me, so it takes very little effort for me to reap the benefits of showing respect to the people around me. It took me a LONG time to realize that this is not true for everyone, i.e. that it is very difficult for some people to understand, remember, or apply these social rules, and therefore only do so in select situations.

ETA: ... and this of course doesn't make me better or smarter or more useful than people who have trouble with it. I'm incredibly frustrated with how slowly I think in arguments or debates, and my inability to remember details which help in them. The people I know who aren't good at showing respect in casual conversation tend to be good at these things. Another tradeoff, probably, although I'm not sure why it would be the case. (I know at least one person who's good at both, but I think he's made a conscious effort to be so.)

comment by Nornagest · 2010-12-07T20:02:57.173Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So you're essentially using politeness signals as a way of dodging fundamental attribution error. This seems to be a pretty useful guideline for situations in which conspicuous politeness-signaling could be expected to be productive: more intimacy means better motivational models and thus less expectation of politeness, while more stressful situations or greater cultural or situational distance between actors means their model of you is on average less reliable and increases politeness's relative importance. I can't think of any situations offhand where these predictions would fail.

It ignores the status and situational formality dimensions, though. I've had friends working in retail tell me that they feel awkward when a customer thanks them for an ordinary transaction, which probably comes out of a violation of status expectations -- of course, I thank clerks anyway.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T06:17:23.632Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, interesting. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before but it does immediately make sense.

It's true about status, though. It works out okay in my current time and place, where I very rarely encounter people whose status is so drastically and publicly different from mine that it would call for significantly different behavior. Or at least, that's my perception; if I encountered one of your friends on the other side of a cash register, we'd apparently have different ideas about what our relative status was and what level of courtesy was called for. I wonder what leads to that difference.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-01T15:03:44.264Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'm confused. If you believe being nasty is suboptimal, then why the analogy to the Prisoner's Dilemma? And if you believe it's optimal, then why be polite? It's not as if the universe cares why you play a winning strategy.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-12-04T17:32:15.066Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I, too, was distracted by the mention of the prisoners' dilemma, especially before the social situation was made clear, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good rhetorical technique.

One answer to your question is that it's a repeated PD. Being nasty may produce an advantage in the short term, but it takes attention from positive-sum cooperation, the ostensible purpose of the conversation.

Another point is that it is the game has incomplete information. Alice may be surprised by Bob's apparent belief that he can gain advantage, but it's a pretty strong signal.

But I think quite often the situation is that it is quite clear to Alice that Bob is confused and she records him not as a defector, but as a loose cannon who can't even backstab properly, let alone do complicated things like cooperate.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T12:13:12.610Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Something I have trouble remembering:

To someone for whom it is normal to choose words carefully and connote respect, it's obvious that this is the right way to go about things--it gets other people on your side, so you don't have to fight as much to get what you want or convince people of something. It's also more pleasant to be around, and is the way you wish to be treated.

To someone for whom it is normal to be as direct, clear, and efficient in language as possible, it's obvious that this is the right way to go about things--it's much more honest than insincere fluff and doesn't waste everybody's time. It's also more pleasant to be around, and is the way you wish to be treated.

The bit I particularly have trouble remembering is that neither person would believe that if their method didn't work for them. If you practice one of the above policies, I can reasonably assume that you get results from it which are acceptable to you. There appears to be a fairly strong division between people who have that experience with the former strategy, and those who have that experience with the latter strategy. Seeing that, I find myself wondering which of these scenarios is most accurate:

  • Does one strategy work better for some people, and the other work better for other people? Each is certainly easier for different people, but I'm asking about results.
  • Is the difference instead in the situation--so people who often find themselves in situations where one strategy is better prefer that strategy?
  • Are these just two different tools which are both often valuable?
  • Or of course, is it really just that one of these is a better strategy, and a lot of people are just so stuck to the other one that they won't accept it?

The reason I care about which of these scenarios is most accurate is that they change what kind of conversation about them is appropriate. If different strategies work for different people, then trying to convince someone else to use yours is unproductive other-optimizing. If they apply to different situations, it might be interesting to examine the differences in experience that lead to each preference. If they're both good tools, that suggests it could be worthwhile for each of us to work on the one we're worse at. And, finally, if one of them is actually better, we can carry on trying to convince each other of which one that is.

My intuition is that defaulting to courtesy, if it is not uniformly the more useful strategy, is at least more useful in the vast majority of cases. However, I do not trust my intuition on this, because that is the strategy which is much easier and more enjoyable for me to use. When I try to think of real reasons to hold that belief, other than "it's worked for me," two come to mind: one is that the courteous strategy seems like it requires more skill/effort (even people who don't prefer it seem to think so), and I don't see why that would have developed if it weren't valuable; the other is that I've read or heard several people (including the OP) say that they used to prefer the blunt strategy, but have learned to use and now see the value in the other one; I have never seen anyone describe the opposite experience.

If I'm wrong, I would like to be convinced that I'm wrong, and I feel strongly enough that I'm right that I don't think I can do that on my own. Here are some ways you could convince me:

  • Describe a common situation where there is clearly more utility in stating x bluntly than stating x politely. Note that I don't consider the extra few seconds to say a few more words to be significantly detrimental to utility. If you can come up with one which is common for you but not for me, this will lend weight to the second scenario; if you want to convince me that the blunt strategy is really generally better, I would want an example that's common even when you're not, say, working in a technical field.
  • Are you someone who is naturally inclined towards being more consciously respectful/courteous, but has switched to the other strategy because you found it more useful? What experiences led to this switch and what's different now that you've switched?
comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-06T22:11:36.211Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Describe a common situation where there is clearly more utility in stating x bluntly than stating x politely.

Here is a fairly narrow one: when you are correcting someone who has made a serious error which they will immediately recognize as an error when it is pointed out to them.

An example took place earlier here on this thread. Lionhearted had just stated that he would bow out of the discussion now. Wedrifid misread what was written, seeing "I'm bowing out for now", where lionhearted had actually written "I'm bowing out now". Wedrifid responded intemperately, making a particularly big deal of the withdrawal "for now", interpreting it as a kind of threat to return. (This comment has since been deleted by its author.)

I pointed out wedrifid's error bluntly, and was even so discourteous as to tease him on his embarrassing error. I am confident that this was the right way to handle this kind of mistake. Anything softer would have been condescending.

So that is one situation where bluntness strikes me as clearly best. But I'm not sure that this situation generalizes well. If the mistake were less serious (a typo, say) then the superiority of bluntness is debatable. If the mistake were less clearcut, then it would probably be wise to include some justification of the judgment that it really is a mistake.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-07T05:05:19.564Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Anything softer would have been condescending.

Do you find this condescending?

"You seem to have misread his comment--he said 'bowing out now,' not 'for now.'"

If so, can you explain why? Whether you do or not, what significantly worse result would you expect from that response, as opposed to teasing him about it?

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-07T13:52:35.362Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you find this condescending?

No. That is fine too. The teasing was inessential.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T05:36:07.818Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that's as much politeness as I was talking about, so I still think it's no worse than bluntness would have been.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-07T05:40:56.193Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Whether you do or not, what significantly worse result would you expect from that response, as opposed to teasing him about it?

Perplexed visibly gained respect and rapport using his response. Yours would probably have just been given no response. This is just an instance where Perplexed is just better able to read the social landscape than you and so better able to calibrate his response toward gaining social capital. If he wasn't familiar with the situation, less tuned in to the social dynamics, then he would have been well served by 'playing it safe'. Presuming too much rapport would have been a risk - politeness is a better default.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T05:35:21.073Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm--my goal is to inform the other person of the error. This does not require them to respond.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T05:52:08.554Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm--my goal is to inform the other person of the error. This does not require them to respond.

Your goal is a lot more than pointing out an error. You have social ends you wish to achieve - hence your whole participation in the thread. It is that element of communication that is not mere information that we are all discussing.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T06:18:59.072Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In actual practice I behave the way I described; I like to think that if this were drastically counterproductive for my goals, I would have noticed by now.

At any rate, the goal under discussion was informing the other person of the error in a way that didn't result in defensiveness or aggression.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T06:36:38.523Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

At any rate, the goal under discussion was informing the other person of the error in a way that didn't result in defensiveness or aggression.

I am comfortable with the relevance of my statements to the goal under discussion as described by yourself, above. I can attest to the superiority of Perplexed's approach to precisely said goal. When done well it will produce less defensiveness and aggression.

What you do personally in your life isn't a subject that I have or would comment on - I speak only to the specific context here wherein Perplexed presented a near-optimal solution.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-07T05:26:28.463Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I pointed out wedrifid's error bluntly, and was even so discourteous as to tease him on his embarrassing error. I am confident that this was the right way to handle this kind of mistake. Anything softer would have been condescending.

Absolutely! You gave no insult at all. You could have, if you wanted to play the polite courtier.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-06T21:20:02.587Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I think your points about why courtesy is better are missing a crucial point; which is that social interaction is all about standardisation.

Consider the old VHS versus Betamax problem (or Blu-ray versus HDD for the modern version): two systems that achieved more or less the same goals, each of which had certain advantages and disadvantages going for it. But inevitably one system became popular and it stopped being economical for manufacturers to keep making both players and media of the other type, because not enough people would have used it. And this is a good thing because it means manufacturers don't have to produce media in both types, which means that the cost for the media that they do produce is slightly lower, and everyone except the die-hard users of the dead format wins.

Methods of social interaction are the same: you need both people who produce a certain kind of interaction and people who welcome those kinds of interactions. Regardless of which is better, the equilibrium point is towards one standard dominating - and the one that does dominate isn't necessarily better, it was just the first to gain critical mass.

That said, my intuition is that politeness is better than not-politeness in most contexts because it allows more plausible deniability. And that intuition is resting on the assumption that most people are highly protective of their status and therefore avoid status hits at all costs, even if that means taking twice as long to get to the point.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-07T05:11:04.799Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed about standardization; knowing what to expect is useful in communication generally. My dad (former pilot) is fond of pointing out that this is how pilots and ATC people understand each other over crackly radios. There's only a small set of possible things they could be saying, and they know what to expect, so they only have to listen for whether the crackly voice matches what they're expecting.

even if that means taking twice as long to get to the point

I still find the time argument odd. The difference doesn't seem like that much to me, and the couple of seconds seem trivial weighed against the social currency you gain by taking them.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-07T08:52:32.151Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

On further thought I think it's less about the time than about the number of operations involved. For you a typical polite sentence probably looks more like [concept expressed politely], while to me it looks more like [[positive opener][compliment to audience][concept][indicator that my opinion is subjective][self-deprecation/joke]]. At least that's my best guess as to why direct types complain endlessly about the effort and inefficiency of politeness while nice types don't see what the fuss is about. It's the difference between being able to speak the dialect fluently versus having to string a sentence together out of smaller components. Of course, my model of how you communicate may be completely off too :)

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T06:07:10.719Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. I think you're onto something, but that doesn't quite fit for me. Off the top of my head, I think I do something more like this:

I run the words I'm considering saying through my mental simulation of the person I'm talking to--which is going to have "like me" or "like normal" as defaults where I lack details--and check for snags like "does not acknowledge hearer's agency/competence" or "implies hearer smells bad." If I find one, I'll either remove/change the problematic wording or add words to counterbalance them.

Of course, as I get better at it, I also improve a lower-level filter on "things to not say at all," like giving advice to people in any situation where I don't actually have more knowledge or experience than they do. That's another kettle of worms, though.

The difference between that and your model of me is that it's also a multi-stage process; it's just fast. It may bear noting that I find it really interesting how much small word choices affect implication and connotation, which probably helps a lot with not being frustrated by the task. It's work, but it's fun work--like a productive debugging session.

The difference between the above and your model of you is that rather than taking a concept and adding semantically null politeness indicators around it, I'm making small adjustments to the presentation of the concept.

We may not actually be doing or imagining such different things, but I think that difference in our perception of the task is very telling. Your second model definitely lends itself to descriptors like "fluff" and "inefficient" and "time-consuming," whereas even in cases where it actually is noticeably time-consuming, the model I described above feels much more like an intellectual puzzle.

But then the question becomes: is it our different models of the mental process of diplomacy which causes us to have different feelings about it, or is it the other way around? The former seems like it would be easy to change in one's own mind, if one wanted; the latter puts us back where we started.

Something else I notice on rereading my description is that my model depends on having fairly reliable simulations of listeners, and fairly robust defaults when a specific data is not available. I expect that being able to build those simulations is an improveable skill. Empathy is a good head start on it, but one can care enough to try and still not have enough practice to do it well. As for the defaults: as I mentioned, I'll use myself when I don't know any better, and the accuracy of doing so would logically correlate to neurotypicality and otherwise being more like more potential listeners.

Summary: More agreeable models of what diplomacy requires may lead to more agreeable feelings about it, or vice versa. Some skills which make it easier can probably be learned; being empathetic and being neurotypical probably give you a leg up. Nothing earth-shaking, but an interesting puzzle nonetheless.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-11T10:42:54.067Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Related: Women apologise more because they have lower thresholds for what constitutes possible offense

First off, I'm not sure I agree with your argument that it's easier for you to be polite because you find it to be an interesting puzzle. There are many things that I find interesting or rewarding but that I often don't have sufficient patience to do all the time - eg. certain types of maths problems, linguistic translation puzzles (where you get a bunch of phrases and translations and need to tease apart the meanings of the words and affixes), and really challenging computer games. Politeness falls into the same category of interestingness, but because it's usually mandatory it's a bit like having to complete a captcha every time I open my mouth - I know why it's there, it's not that onerous most of the time, but all the same I would prefer not to have to do it.

Hmm, there's a lot more rambly stuff I've been thinking about on the topic but I'm not sure how well it relates to our main discussion. Anyway, relevant bits: I've done enough reading and observed and participated in enough interactions to have a good idea of how to gauge politeness levels and how to achieve them (which is to say, I'm neurotypical and have average or above-average levels of empathy. I'm just lacking several years of socialisation experience to make it automatic). I think that most of the time I succeed in saying nice things and not saying offensive things. But it still feels like a lot of effort. I wouldn't expect someone to go to that level of effort for me and in fact find it annoying and tedious to endure thanking-for-thanking, long buildups to requests, apologising for things which are clearly not the other persons' fault, and other highly 'polite' behaviour. How much have you considered the level of politeness you prefer to receive as opposed to the potentially interesting/fun problem of working out what to transmit?

comment by nshepperd · 2010-12-13T10:40:41.301Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

thanking-for-thanking, long buildups to requests, apologising for things which are clearly not the other persons' fault

I find it utterly mystifying when people apologise to me for things that are not only clearly not their fault, but probably mine. I have no idea if this sort of thing is expected in polite company but people seem to do it all the same. I assume it's probably involved with status signalling of some sort, but that doesn't make it make sense to me.

I guess this is why I prefer to be in a culture with low levels of (expected) politeness. Politeness brings status into everything, introducing complicated rules that seem to just make it easier to cause unintentional offence.

Actually I'm reminded of the rather extreme example of the culture of elves in Eragon. Because of various factors including low fertility and their expertise in killing, they decided they couldn't afford to have elves fighting amongst themselves. Apparently they then decided to introduce a complicated system of honorifics and greetings depending on the status levels, genders and occupations of the people involved.

Our hero perceives, of course, that this is exactly the wrong way to go about it. The existence of a right greeting for a particular situation out of 30 implies the existence of 29 wrong ones: 29 new ways to give offence.

So uh, make of that what you will.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-13T16:43:32.566Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You make it sound like the alternative, where everyone has idiosyncratic notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable and there's no way to generalize from one person to another, leads to less offense being taken.

I guess that would be true if everyone treated every possible utterance as inoffensive. Which, OK, if you can get a community to actually do that, great... but it's far from easy to pull off.

Otherwise, not so much.

The point of etiquette is to avoid giving offense unintentionally.

When everyone knows the rules, we don't think of it as following rules of etiquette, we think of it as not being a jerk.

comment by nshepperd · 2010-12-14T04:06:00.943Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't follow at all.

The point is that in a culture where one is expected to greet someone by saying X if the other is male and above you in status, Y if they are female and above, Z if they're a blacksmith... etc. it is much easier to give offence by accidentally using the wrong greeting than in one where you greet people with X regardless of the situation.

How does having simpler rules lead to "idiosyncratic notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable"? We seem to do fine without a rule on how to greet a one-legged chess player on a tuesday.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-14T04:41:08.231Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, if what you mean by "a culture with low levels of (expected) politeness" is one in which there is one standard greeting, X, with which you greet people "regardless of the situation," then you're absolutely correct: that is not at all idiosyncratic.

I guess I misunderstood you: I thought you were proposing an approach where people just greet one another however they wish and they don't worry about etiquette at all, rather than an approach where there is a single approved way of greeting everyone.

The former I think does lead to idiosyncratic standards; the latter I agree does not.

Sorry for the confusion and thanks for the clarification.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-13T14:36:03.009Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think I've broken the habit, but I used to apologize for things which were clearly the other person's fault and as far as I can tell, my motivation was a strong feeling that an apology was supposed to happen, and if the other person didn't supply it, I would.

This was a fairly strong and very fast reflex.

It seems plausible that it was the result of niceness training done a little too young or unthinkingly.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-13T08:42:09.172Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

thanking-for-thanking, long buildups to requests, apologising for things which are clearly not the other persons' fault

(Assuming you mean "not the apologizer's fault" in the last one.) I don't do these things, and I don't think they're necessary forms of courtesy, at least in a peer situation--customer service calls for jumping through hoops sometimes but I don't think that's what we're discussing.

How much have you considered the level of politeness you prefer to receive as opposed to the potentially interesting/fun problem of working out what to transmit?

I suspect that I'm similar to most people in that I notice mostly when someone uses a politeness level which is not what I wanted. ;) I'm not sure what terms I could use to clarify what that level is, though.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2011-10-08T11:06:51.552Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Describe a common situation where there is clearly more utility in stating x bluntly than stating x politely.

I guess it would be when you don't have enough skill to speak both politely and clearly. So your actual choice is just between "bluntly" and "inarticulately".

The long-term solution to this situation is to develop the necessary skill. But the person may misunderstand the nature of situation; s/he may not understand the it's the missing skill that causes this kind of dilemma.

comment by pure-awesome · 2013-09-04T00:00:58.243Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, Viliam_Bur, do I understand correctly?

You are saying the major tradeoff isn't between:

  • Speak 'bluntly' in situation X
  • Speak 'politely' in situation X

It is between:

  • Speak 'bluntly' in every situation (default)
  • Invest effort to learn to speak more 'politely'

(The costs-benefit calculation is a long-term one performed over all potential situations, not a short-term one performed over each specific situation)

I agree; this makes sense to me.


In certain cases, bluntness can be useful. However, by this I mean it can be useful if you are able to let people be blunt to you. See Crocker's Rules and the related article on Radical Honesty.

If everyone in a certain social context operate on such a system (whether explicitly or implicitly), then there is some benefit to these people in terms of saving time and cognitive effort in the short term, and in the long term if they haven't yet spent time on developing 'politeness'.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-09-07T11:07:37.816Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No, I was saying that a good long-term solution is not helpful in a short term.

Let's suppose that I completely agree with you that politeness is always the best solution. But to reach that level of politeness, a person starting from my position would have to visit therapy, then a social skill course, a presentation skill course, a diplomacy course, and this all would take at least two years. As a good rationalists I immediately join the therapy and book the courses. But how am I going to solve all the situations during those two years?

It does not help me to know that two years later I will have a perfect solution for a situation that is happening now. Therefore, during those two years, I may solve the situations bluntly, when I think it is better than not speaking at all.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-12-06T17:14:59.189Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Now that I've seen the issue framed in those terms, I can think of several cases where someone spent so long on niceness-padding that I got annoyed, lost interest, or interrupted to ask them to get to the point. I would like to add that the niceness/efficiency tradeoff is continuous, not discrete, bounded on the maximally-efficient end and unbounded on the maximally-nice end, and that there must be some amount of niceness-padding so excessive that will annoy even those who prefer prefer more of it in general.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T20:41:11.850Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, yes, I'll certainly agree with that. Even the examples in the original post were a little too fluffy for my taste, and I'm the one who's a stickler for courtesy. There's certainly a balance to be struck--enough, but no more--which I haven't emphasized enough for how important it is. Thanks for the reminder.

I wonder how much striking that balance is part of the skill of being useful and courteous at the same time.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-12-04T16:17:00.603Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

"Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

"Hey, thanks... I don't worry about spelling too much, but yeah that one's embarrassing, I'll fix it. Much appreciated. Anyways, what are you working on? How can I help?"

I find this insanely inefficient. The proper protocol is as follows (communicated privately, so as not to take other people's time; the emotional reception on both sides is neutral):

"Typo: "wizen""

"Thanks"

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-04T19:36:19.062Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This may be ideal in telling you or me about a typo, but I know that there actually exist those who would hit the roof at such a blunt communication. You may consider them fools and come up with a string of reasons not to take them seriously (and I am likely to agree), but that doesn't get any typos fixed, and I'm assuming that's the actual aim.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-05T16:52:37.305Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure you are familiar with the strategy "tit-for-tat" in the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. The basic idea is reciprocity - you notice who you are playing with and what you have learned about the other player by past experience, and then you answer cooperation with cooperation and defection with defection. That is the basic idea, but there is one other crucial ingredient in this strategy: start with cooperation when facing someone for the first time.

May I suggest that both sides in this debate ought to be rational enough to recognize people who they have interacted with before, and to know whether that person responds best to a blunt approach or a cushioned one. None of us are idiots. We all realize that different people require different approaches.

The question which divides us ought to be which approach is best with people whose preferences are unknown to us. I have my opinions on this modified question, but I would be curious to hear what other people think. And more importantly, what kinds of evidence should be brought to bear in deciding this modified question. Empirical statistics as to how people prefer to be treated? Considerations of how we would prefer that people would prefer to be treated? Empirical evidence about what works best? Empirical evidence regarding the importance of a first impression?

Suggestions, anyone?

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:07:53.544Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think respectful behavior is a good default. It doesn't need to be as padded as the OP's example, but what I have done in the past on LW is give a quick response to the overall post (so as to not be totally ignoring it just to point out little things), and then say "oh, by the way, a couple of things you might want to fix: x and y."

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-05T16:08:50.881Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You may consider them fools and come up with a string of reasons not to take them seriously (and I am likely to agree), but that doesn't get any typos fixed, and I'm assuming that's the actual aim.

Off-topic, but I have run across this line of thinking recently, in regards to Wikileaks for example. Some expressed the view that since people on average are not good at dealing with information (jump to conclusions, cherry-pick to support hating or loving conclusion x, etc), revealing all this information actually makes people make worse decisions.

I couldn't articulate it at the time, but I feel like the reason people aren't good with information is because we don't give them enough, and that if we gave them this amount of information regularly, they would develop the skills to use it properly.

Something similar for blunt communication. People aren't good with it, so don't do it vs people aren't good with it, so do it to let them learn to be good with it.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-05T17:30:32.314Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But people are used to blunt communication: it's what rude people do when attempting to dominate them by showing that social rules don't apply to the rude people.

And a list of reasons why blunt communication is more efficient does not mean that this effect does not happen.

And as I've noted, I've seen over and over people say they prefer unvarnished communication but mean they want to be free to send it; when they receive it, particularly when they receive it back, they tend to lash out.

My rough heuristic: A certain amount of wrapping is required for your message to be received. No-one said this would be easy, but it's still not optional. Hang out on a community for a bit before diving in. If you're a newbie, use a bit more politeness wrapper than you would when comfortable, because n00b questions get closer inspection. Etc., etc. Try not to be a dick, even if that's quite difficult.

(This reads back to me a bit like platitudes, but is actually bitterly-won heuristics.)

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-05T18:35:40.291Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But people are used to blunt communication: it's what rude people do when attempting to dominate them by showing that social rules don't apply to the rude people.

Yeah, unfortunately. That reads like "people are used to information: it's what officials manipulate and deceive you with when they attempt to dominate you." It's the wrong understanding. Of course, as much as I'd like to justify my desire to be blunt, simply being blunt isn't going to solve this problem.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:12:11.866Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's the wrong understanding.

I think that when one finds oneself writing this sentence, it is time to take a step back and think pretty hard about what one is saying.

We're not talking about a mathematical fact that can be proven or disproven as correct; we're not taking about people having the "wrong understanding" of, say, how Bayes's Theorem works. What we are doing is describing a culture in which behaving in x way signals y, to wit, being blunt and direct signals rudeness. This is hard to stomach for people who are part of a subculture where that is not the case, but being part of that subculture and having that preference does not make that particular meme in the larger culture "wrong." It's not even meaningful to give it a value; it's just an observation of the way it is. You can play along and be accepted/effective in that culture, or not. It's your choice.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-06T12:00:53.131Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's the prescriptive/descriptive divide. When I say it's the wrong understanding, I mean that if I were to prescribe what understandings people ought to have of communication protocols, I would be in error if I prescribed this one. This understanding is worse than another understanding they could have. There doesn't seem to be any point being purely descriptive about anything.

You can play along and be accepted/effective in that culture, or not. It's your choice.

False dilemma. I can agitate for change in that culture.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T12:54:43.596Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's the prescriptive/descriptive divide.

Oh hey, so it is. Well observed. (This is not sarcasm; I actually hadn't noticed.)

ought ... error ... worse

The meaningfulness of these words relies on sharing the relevant parts of a value system, and we haven't come anywhere near establishing that that's the case. If you mean that it's definitely more useful for people to behave in the way you prefer, you have not yet convinced me of that.

There doesn't seem to be any point being purely descriptive about anything.

That depends on the goal, doesn't it? If you're a mapmaker, being purely descriptive rather than prescriptive is the whole point. When I'm setting about to choose my own behavior, I would like to have as good a descriptive map as possible of the way the world is now; if I find a part I dislike, I might then choose a behavior with which I intend to change it, but even while doing that I'm best served by having an accurate description in place.

False dilemma. I can agitate for change in that culture.

Fair point, but as above, it's useful to have a very good understanding of what you're trying to go about changing; and even then, simply contradicting it or behaving as if social norms aren't what they are may not be sufficient to convince anyone of the rightness of your position.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-06T14:36:50.705Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you're a mapmaker, being purely descriptive rather than prescriptive is the whole point.

Indeed, excellent counter-example. I was wrong to say there is no point in being descriptive.

If you mean that it's definitely more useful for people to behave in the way you prefer, you have not yet convinced me of that.

I am not sure that it is more useful. There appears, to me, to be some correlation between intelligence and blunt communication (nerds speak bluntly, mundanes politely) but that could be intelligence and contrarianism, or any other of many potential factors. I am not giving it any weight. However, I do think it's the case that it is useful for "people who behave in this way" to congregate and continue to behave in this way with each other.

That is, when their value systems are sufficiently similar in relevant areas, I can say that being more polite is an error for them. And LessWrong is one place where the value systems sufficiently coincide.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-06T21:29:17.416Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There appears, to me, to be some correlation between intelligence and blunt communication (nerds speak bluntly, mundanes politely) but that could be intelligence and contrarianism, or any other of many potential factors

My pet theory about this is that intelligence correlates with not fitting in socially, which then correlates with deliberately doing things differently to prove that not-fitting-in is a choice. If you hang out in any subcultures (goth, roleplaying, etc), you'll tend to see a lot of that kind of countersignalling. I guess that's a point in favour of your contrarianism argument.

Another alternative is that intelligence correlates with realising that communication styles are just styles and not the natural order, which then frees them up to switch between styles at will.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-06T15:46:44.518Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There appears, to me, to be some correlation between intelligence and blunt communication

I'd really, really, really want to see any sort of numbers before presuming to make any such statement. You are talking about the nerd subculture, not about the world. I could just as well compare academics to stevedores and get the opposite plausible statement.

And LessWrong is one place where the value systems sufficiently coincide.

This comes across as wishful thinking on your part.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-06T16:38:59.375Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Since this dispute began, I have been trying to be more analytical in my reactions to comments - trying to determine what it is about them, in style or content, that I like.

I liked this comment, and upvoted it, partly because of its well-chosen counter-illustration, but also for reasons of style. It is relatively blunt, but the padding that it carries has a nice "rationalist" flavor. "I'd ... want to see ... numbers ... before presuming ...". "This comes across as ..." rather than simply "This is ...".

But in the course of making this analysis, it occurred to me that I am conducting the analysis as a bystander, rather than as the direct recipient of this feedback. I'm living in a forum where everything I write is perused by one recipient and ten bystanders. I know that the reaction of the recipient (and my reaction when I am in the recipient's role) will be witnessed by these ubiquitous bystanders. The bystanders will judge - vote responses up or down. One reason we communicate differently here is that we are playing to an audience - not just conducting one-to-one communication.

You (David_Gerard) keep pointing out that we LessWrong denizens can cheerfully "dish out" bluntness, but we are not so happy about receiving it. True enough, but also a rather shallow observation. Surely, the ability to receive criticism without taking offense is a life skill every bit as important as the ability to dispense criticism without giving offense. One virtue of the culture of observed blunt communication that we cultivate here is that we get plenty of practice at receiving criticism, plus plenty of negative feedback if we respond by taking offense.

This may sound like more rationalization, but it is not. This environment has helped me to improve my own ability to "take coaching", though I know I have a long way to go. Unfortunately, and this is the point you and Lionhearted have been consistently making, operating in this culture does not provide useful practice and feedback on the other important life-skill - offering criticism or correction without giving offense.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-06T17:10:31.052Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I liked this comment, and upvoted it, partly because of its well-chosen counter-illustration, but also for reasons of style. It is relatively blunt, but the padding that it carries has a nice "rationalist" flavor. "I'd ... want to see ... numbers ... before presuming ...". "This comes across as ..." rather than simply "This is ...".

You have correctly reverse-engineered how I wrote it ;-)

One virtue of the culture of observed blunt communication that we cultivate here is that we get plenty of practice at receiving criticism, plus plenty of negative feedback if we respond by taking offense.

I really don't see it as a very blunt culture. (I suppose I should stress this more.) A frequently difficult one, but not blunt. Most comments are thoughtful and the commenters take due care. Some are indeed blunt to the point of rudeness, and you'll see their good but blunt comments get lots of upvotes for content and downvotes for tone.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-06T18:20:55.753Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd really, really, really want to see any sort of numbers before presuming to make any such statement.

Hence why I said

I am not giving it any weight.

Now.

This comes across as wishful thinking on your part.

Really? Can you give me some examples of groups that do share the same value systems? I feel like LessWrong is at the extreme end of 'well established value system', as it regards bluntness/politeness.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-06T22:13:22.938Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

There are many places on the Internet that are less polite than here. For example, youtube comments.

Quick summary of some politeness protocols that most LW users employ:

  • Avoidance of ad-hom attacks and empty statements of emotion/opinion ("this is a bad idea" without any supporting evidence)
  • Being charitable - frequently people will write something along the lines of "It looks like you're arguing X. X is bad because..." This is a very important aspect of politeness - it means taking the potential status hit to yourself of having misinterpreted the other person and provides them a line of retreat in case they really did mean X and now want to distance themselves from it.
  • In the same vein, clarifying what it is that you're disagreeing about and why before descending with the walls of text.
  • Acknowledging when someone has made a particularly good post/argument even if you disagree with many of their points.
comment by shokwave · 2010-12-07T06:15:07.295Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Apart from 2, they seem more like being rational than being polite. Possibly there is some overlap between politeness protocols in normal experience and rationality protocols on LessWrong. Possibly there is also some overlap between rudeness indicators in normal experience and rationality protocols on LessWrong.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-07T09:05:28.575Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think the name of the overlap in rationality and politeness is called "not responding emotionally when someone has a different opinion" ;)

comment by ata · 2010-12-07T03:23:58.705Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

frequently people will write something along the lines of "It looks like you're arguing X. X is bad because..." This is a very important aspect of politeness - it means taking the potential status hit to yourself of having misinterpreted the other person and provides them a line of retreat in case they really did mean X and now want to distance themselves from it.

I'd say that that part (the bolded section) is bad if true, whether or not it is a "polite" thing to do. People should get used to being able to say "I was wrong" when they find out they were wrong. If someone's post is genuinely ambiguous, then it's fine to say "That sounds like you're saying X, if so then I think that's wrong, here's why", but if I say something that's actually wrong and not particularly open to misinterpretation, and someone corrects me, then I wouldn't consider them to be doing me a favour by giving me an out to allow me to change my mind while claiming that I didn't mean it that way in the first place.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-07T04:40:15.510Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't consider them to be doing me a favour by giving me an out to allow me to change my mind while claiming that I didn't mean it that way in the first place.

Why is it my responsibility to force you to admit your mistakes? Whether you take that line of retreat is more a reflection of your character than mine.

But one of the funny things about being polite is that by leaving them a graceful way out it's actually easier for them to admit that they were wrong. Attack their status by making it clear that they were wrong and all you do is encourage status-saving behaviour. Now maybe you might say that this is a good thing because people need to learn how to admit to their mistakes even when they feel under attack, but most people are very very bad at that kind of graciousness. It's much easier for someone to admit that they're wrong if they don't feel like it would lead to further attacks.

comment by ata · 2010-12-07T05:43:18.170Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But one of the funny things about being polite is that by leaving them a graceful way out it's actually easier for them to admit that they were wrong. Attack their status by making it clear that they were wrong and all you do is encourage status-saving behaviour. Now maybe you might say that this is a good thing because people need to learn how to admit to their mistakes even when they feel under attack, but most people are very very bad at that kind of graciousness. It's much easier for someone to admit that they're wrong if they don't feel like it would lead to further attacks.

Good points; what you say ("by leaving them a graceful way out it's actually easier for them to admit that they were wrong") sounds quite plausible. (And I will admit that when I wrote the "I wouldn't consider them to be doing me a favour..." bit, I was thinking "...and neither should anyone else", which neglects the fact that getting to that point can be a difficult process and that saying that everyone should do it isn't helpful.) Though I would still say that I'd support a norm of encouraging newer users to get used to acknowledging mistakes, not taking disagreements/counterarguments/corrections as personal attacks, not taking unembellished corrections as meanness, etc.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-07T09:01:34.202Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Though I would still say that I'd support a norm of encouraging newer users to get used to acknowledging mistakes, not taking disagreements/counterarguments/corrections as personal attacks, not taking unembellished corrections as meanness, etc.

Upvoted for complete agreement - although this community is already far better at it than anywhere else I've ever been.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-07T03:54:02.962Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be asserting that if I give you an out you will take it and change your mind without admitting you were wrong, but if I don't give you an out you will change your mind and admit you were wrong.

Which, OK, good for you. Of course, even better would be to not take the out if offered, and admit you were wrong even when you aren't forced to... but still, the willingness to admit error when you don't have a line of retreat is admirable.

The problem arises if we're dealing with people who lack that willingness... who, given the choice between changing their minds and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their minds on the other, will choose not to change their minds.

Are you suggesting that such people don't exist? That trying to change their minds isn't worthwhile? Something else?

comment by ata · 2010-12-07T05:36:55.380Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be asserting that if I give you an out you will take it and change your mind without admitting you were wrong, but if I don't give you an out you will change your mind and admit you were wrong.

I do not assert that, and I'm not just saying that because you proved me wrong but gave me an out by saying "You seem to be asserting". :)

If I, personally, have been convinced that I was wrong about something, then I'll say so, whether or not I have the option of pretending I actually meant something else. And that's certainly encouraged by LW's atmosphere (and it's been explicitly discussed and advocated here at times). What I was disagreeing with was erratio's implication that giving people that option is a polite and desirable thing to do.

You say that there are people "who, given the choice between changing their minds and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their minds on the other, will choose not to change their minds," and you are correct, and I also don't claim that trying to change their minds isn't worthwhile. But on Less Wrong, if a commenter would prefer to (and would be able to) actually hold onto a mistaken belief rather than acknowledge having been mistaken, then they have bigger rationality problems than just being wrong about some particular question; helping them solve that (which requires allowing ourselves to notice it) seems more important. I can't say I've actually seen much of this here, but if we observed that some user frequently abandoned debates that they seemed to be losing, and later expressed the same opinions without acknowledging the strong counterarguments that they had previously ignored... then I'd just say that Less Wrong may not be a good fit for them (or that they need to lurk more and/or read more of things like "How To Actually Change Your Mind", etc.). I would not say that we should have been more accommodating to their aversion to admitting error.

(Also, we should stop using the phrase "line of retreat" as we're using it here, because it will make people think of the post "Leave a Line of Retreat" even though we're talking about something pretty different.)

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-07T14:37:47.374Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed that a commenter who chooses to hold onto a mistaken belief rather than admit error is being imperfectly rational, and agreed that we are under no obligation to be "accommodating to their aversion."

I'm more confused about the rest of this. Perhaps a concrete example will clarify my confusion.

Suppose Sam says something that's clearly wrong, and suppose I have a choice between two ways of framing the counterarguments. One frame (F1) gives Sam a way of changing their mind without having to admit they're wrong. The other (F2) does not.

Suppose further that Sam is the sort of person who, given a choice between changing their mind and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their mind on the other, will choose not to change their mind.

You seem to agree that Sam is possible, and that changing Sam's mind is worthwhile. And it seems clear that F1 has a better chance of changing Sam's mind than F2 does. (Confirm?) So I think we would agree that in general, using F1 rather than F2 is worthwhile.

But, you say, on Less Wrong things are different. Here, using F2 rather than F1 is more likely to help Sam solve their "bigger rationality problems," and therefore the preferred choice. (Confirm?)

So... OK. If I've understood correctly thus far, then my question is why is F2 more likely to solve their rationality problems here? (And, relatedly, why isn't it also more likely to do so elsewhere?)

You mention that to help Sam solve those problems, we have to "allow ourselves to notice" those problems. You also suggest that Sam just isn't a good fit for the site at all, or that they need to lurk more, or that they need to read the appropriate posts. I can sort of see how some of those things might be part of an answer to my question, but it's not really clear to me what that answer is.

Can you clarify that?

(Incidently, it seems to me that that post is all about the fact that people are more likely to change their minds when it's emotionally acceptable to do so, which is precisely what I'm talking about. But sure, I'm happy to stop using the phrase if you think it's misleading.)

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-07T15:42:23.196Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So... OK. If I've understood correctly thus far, then my question is why is F2 more likely to solve their rationality problems here? (And, relatedly, why isn't it also more likely to do so elsewhere?)

F2 forces Sam to admit they were wrong. Not being able to admit you are wrong is a rationality problem, because not all truths are presented as F1 counterarguments - some, including experimental results, are F2 counterarguments to your state of mind. So F1 doesn't attempt to solve the aversion to being wrong; F2 does.

The question of whether F2's attempt succeeds often enough to be worth it is another question, one I don't have any numbers or impressions on.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-07T16:45:57.310Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I said:

Suppose further that Sam is the sort of person who, given a choice between changing their mind and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their mind on the other, will choose not to change their mind.

You said:

F2 forces Sam to admit they were wrong.

If the first statement is true, F2 doesn't force Sam to admit they were wrong. What it does is force Sam not to change their mind.

If you're rejecting my supposition... that is, if you're asserting that Sam as described just doesn't exist, or isn't worth discussing... then I agree with you. But I explicitly asked you if that was what you meant, and you said it wasn't.

If you're accepting my supposition... well, that suggests that even though Sam won't change his mind under F2, F2 is good because it makes Sam change his mind. That's just nonsense.

If there's a third possibility, I don't see what it is.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-07T16:54:41.096Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, no, my idea was that F2 forces Sam to admit they were wrong, given that they change their mind. When considering the case of 'on LessWrong', I skipped the bit that says Sam that does not change their mind. Ooops. Yeah, I don't think there are many Sams on LessWrong.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-07T17:13:24.469Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OK, glad we cleared that up.

Moving on... let me requote the line that started this thread:

frequently people will write something along the lines of "It looks like you're arguing X. X is bad because..." This is a very important aspect of politeness - it means taking the potential status hit to yourself of having misinterpreted the other person and provides them a line of retreat in case they really did mean X and now want to distance themselves from it.

That seems to me to be a pretty good summary of the strategy I used here... I summarized the position I saw you as arguing, then went on to explain what was wrong with that position.

Looking at the conversation, that strategy at least seems to have worked well... at least, it got us to a place where we could resolve the disagreement in a couple of short moves.

But you seem to be saying that, when dealing with people as rational as the typical LWer, it's not a good strategy.

So, OK: what ought I have said instead, and how would saying that have worked better?

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-07T17:27:56.038Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You said:

F2 forces Sam to admit they were wrong.

If the first statement is true, F2 doesn't force Sam to admit they were wrong. What it does is force Sam not to change their mind.

This by itself would have worked, and to the extent it could be described as working better, it would have punished me for not properly constructing your model in my head, something which I consider required for a response.

edit: the differences are very slight.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-06T21:09:58.167Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm just realising that our scales aren't calibrated very similarly, and that you seem to think LessWrong is more "blunt"/less "nice" than I do.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-06T21:47:27.409Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My theory is that some folks here really value the perceived freedom to not spare people's feelings with their posts/comments. I assume these folks experience the implied obligation in other social contexts to spare people's feelings as onerous, though of course I don't know.

Of course, that doesn't mean they actually go around hurting people's feelings all the time, no matter how much they may value the fact that they are free to do so.

Meanwhile, other folks carry on being kind/attentive/polite. I assume they don't consider this an onerous obligation and behave here more or less as they do elsewhere along this axis.

And the sorts of folks who in most Internet channels create most of the emotional disturbance don't seem to post much at all... either because karma works, or because they haven't found the place, or because the admins are really good at filtering them out, or because the conversations here bore them, or some combination of those and other reasons.

The end result seems to be a "nice" level noticeably higher than most of the Internet, coupled with strong emotional support for not being "nice." I found the dichotomy a little bewildering at first, but I'm kind of used to it now.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-12-07T07:29:45.176Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And the sorts of folks who in most Internet channels create most of the emotional disturbance don't seem to post much at all... either because karma works, or because they haven't found the place, or because the admins are really good at filtering them out, or because the conversations here bore them, or some combination of those and other reasons.

Yeah, why haven't we attracted more trolls?

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-06T22:01:06.059Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The end result seems to be a "nice" level noticeably higher than most of the Internet, coupled with strong emotional support for not being "nice." I found the dichotomy a little bewildering at first, but I'm kind of used to it now.

If you browse the -1 comments, you'll see people being voted down for behaving dickishly. Some of these then get upvoted.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-07T03:00:13.769Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is there a way to browse within a given karma tier? Or do you just mean browsing through the recent comments tier?

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-07T08:38:33.544Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I just meant going through recent comments, and threads with collapsed posts. I don't know of a way to browse "worst comments" ... it's not clear it'd even be a good idea to have one.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-07T06:09:53.576Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On reflection, I don't think the blunt --- nice scale is serving us very well at all. You see me endorsing some elements of "blunt" styles that are definitely negative, and I see you endorsing some elements of "nice" styles that are definitely negative. Neither of us are actually endorsing the negative elements, we're just accidentally including them because our language is too imprecise. I think.

LessWrong has adopted some elements of bluntness because those elements serve the community well. Some of the elements would not serve us well in other social settings. When someone points out in a top-level post that this is the case, those who already know this instead see them suggesting that LessWrong should abandon these elements of bluntness.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T20:38:58.392Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For calibration purposes, where on that spectrum would you place the conversation we're having right now? :)

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-07T06:27:48.174Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

On an arbitrary scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is Crocker's Rules for everyone and 10 is horrifying, mincing politeness... 3. LessWrong on average is 3, but the good bits are 2.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T05:38:22.081Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. Getting an answer forced me to figure out exactly why I was asking. ;) I guess the followup question is, where on that scale would you put the threshold for everyday, out-in-public polite conversation between neurotypical adults? That is, the expected level, below which someone would come across as rude.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-08T14:53:58.154Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Between strangers, 7. Between acquaintances or friends, variation but it would congeal into two large groups hovering around 6 and 4.

If you want to see 9s and 10s you have to look for certain types of unstable power dynamics.

Basically, I like LessWrong's approach because it feels more like 'friendship group where politeness of 4-3 is okay' and less like 'strangers you should be polite to'.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T05:49:03.399Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I guess the followup question is, where on that scale would you put the threshold for everyday, out-in-public polite conversation between neurotypical adults?

Not enough information. Are the adults male, female or mixed? How much status do they have? What national background? Polite means a very different thing here (Australia) than it does in the US for example.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-08T06:20:23.102Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, but the scale we're using isn't very precise. The variables you mention will move the threshold around, certainly, but not so much that shokwave can't at least give me a smallish range. We can limit it to modern, Western, and no significant status differences from each other.

Polite means a very different thing here (Australia) than it does in the US for example.

Yeah, I can tell. ;)

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-08T07:19:59.410Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I can tell. ;)

This kind of statement is one of the reasons I consider 'politeness' to be an almost irrelevant metric to consider when evaluating people's statements. The relationship between politeness and social 'defection' is utterly negligible.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-05T17:35:58.516Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

On the subject of Wikileaks, I strongly recommend this blog post and the 2006 paper it analyses. Assange sets out in detail precisely what he's trying to achieve and how he plans to do it. It's the roadmap for Wikileaks. Casual commentators on the subject, particularly in the media, seem almost completely unaware of it.

On a personal note, I was somewhat perturbed to discover that Wikileaks is slightly my fault. Um, whoops.[/brag]

comment by Mononofu · 2010-12-05T15:09:17.276Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I liked the original comment ( I wizened up -- I don't think that's the word you want to use, unless you're talking about how you finally lost those 20 pounds by not drinking anymore.) - it made me laugh for some reason.

Mind you, I didn't laugh about the author or whatever, I just found the meaning of those two words funny. And imho, that's half the purpose of the internet: making me laugh. Can you guess the other half? ^^

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-05T15:25:07.494Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

And imho, that's half the purpose of the internet: making me laugh. Can you guess the other half? ^^

Received wisdom leads me to believe that the Internet is for porn.

comment by MBlume · 2010-12-06T03:55:47.751Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

important reference

comment by dejb · 2010-12-01T14:29:32.509Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

You could phrase it as, "This seems like an amazing idea and a great presentation. I wonder how we could secure the budgeting and get the team for it, because it seems like it'd be a profitable if we do, and it'd be a shame to miss this opportunity."

"This seems like a fantastic example of how to rephrase a criticism. I wonder how it could be delivered in a way that also retained enough of the meaning, because it seems like it would work well if it did, and it'd be a shame not to be able to use it. "

Does this just come of as sarcasm to people of higher intelligence. I guess you've got to alter your message to suit the audience.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T15:41:18.925Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Either the switch from "we can't get the budget or the resources!" to "how can we get the budget and the resources?" retains the essential meaning, or it doesn't. Only the original speaker can know that for sure.

If it does, then I'd say the restatement is better. Not just because it's polite, but because it's efficient: we can now focus our energies on brainstorming ways to secure the funding and the resources to implement a good idea.

If it doesn't -- that is, if the original speaker didn't think it was a worthwhile opportunity in the first place and doesn't actually care about the funding or the resources -- then I agree with you that the proposed restatement is a bad one... but the original wording kinda sucked, too. (Not least of which because it offered a false rejection.)

The speaker in that case would have done better to think clearly about their actual reasons for rejecting the idea, and then construct a polite expression of those reasons.

Just because you're being rude doesn't mean you're communicating efficiently.

comment by AstroCJ · 2010-12-01T10:41:28.912Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Strong agree and upvote, with some caveats.

I very much agree that politiking is a way to be more effective in any situation involving another person, and I think this post is a pretty nice defence of "Why should I bother to be polite?". I've several suggestions, and I've decided to try to explicitly bear in mind your bulleted advice rather than rely on my - usually pretty good - sense of what is polite.

I think you could extend the class of people of who could use this advice to be not just those who aren't interested in politeness, but those who are and aren't good at it but assume that they are. I've certainly met a few nice people who simply aren't aware that they're rude - for example, the young man who accidentally pushed in line at a bar whilst making a sarcastic comment relevant to the previous conversation, and had no idea until we told him how close he'd been to getting punched by a man that he never even looked at. They are unlikely to read this post in its current form, since they will assume they already know how to be polite. How would you feel about restating this advice in a "humorous angry rant" or something similar?


I think I disagree with some of your examples, but in such a way that it doesn't affect the main point of your post. The first example - "wizened" - I had just skipped over when I first saw it, since it wasn't really relevant to the post. I further assumed that the poster wouldn't particularly mind this, and hadn't intended eir post to have a high signal/noise ratio. I get the sense that this website favours a very high signal/noise ratio even at the expense of niceties - for example, the very first line of this comment. This might make some people resistant to adding what they might view as "noise" - things like saying "Thanks" when they might consider "Thanks" to be implicit, given that they're bothering to comment at all.


The second post I think they already had applied something of what you're saying. If I take this

"FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it's kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations."

and rephrase it as a knee-jerk thought

"Why has this been posted without observations? It's idiotic to put up your beliefs without giving us a good reason to go along with them."

then we can ask if this knee-jerk example is a realistic example of something one might say. I think it is; I think that Poster #2 was genuinely being polite. Perhaps there's some different cultural context in the background? I read "odd" as being quite a gentle word to use to criticise someone.


(I've now thought of some examples for your previous post re threats; I'll post them soon. Thanks for reminding me to do so!)

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T14:17:10.966Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You make an excellent point here: polite isn't a on/off kind of property.

As you say, "it's kind of odd to read a post without " is more polite (in the standard mode) than "You should add !"

It's also less polite than "Great post! I'd love to see , though."

And there are many still-better (along that axis) formulations.

In the long run, where I am on that axis matters less than whether I am improving.

comment by cata · 2010-12-01T15:53:29.580Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"It's kind of odd to read a post without " is more polite (in the standard mode) than "You should add !"

That's an interesting evaluation, actually. In many (non-LW!) contexts, I might interpret the first as being a sort of passive-aggressive sniping, a criticism that is intended to make the author feel foolish about his obvious omission, whereas at least the second lays it all on the table.

In my opinion, for maximum politeness, you could say the same thing ("please add examples of observations") without forming it as a criticism of anything except your own lack of imagination:

"I'm interested in your description of how you moved from theory A to theory B, but I found myself curious about what specific observations helped change your mind. Were there any individually compelling things that prompted your conversion?"

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T16:14:44.940Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you (as I said initially) that the first is far from optimal, and in particular I agree with you that it has insulting overtones.

My intention was not to offer a maximally polite rephrasing (which depends on one's audience anyway), but to offer some points that suggest an improvement slope. Clearly, though, I failed to do that unambiguously.

Your version is, I agree, a further improvement. In particular, it stops being a criticism of the original post at all, and becomes instead an invitation to continued conversation.

Unrelatedly: the only context I can think of where I'd interpret the bare imperative as more polite is one among friends close enough to play the "we're close enough friends that I can be rude to you" metagame.

Or maybe one in which I'm not sure the speaker is from my culture at all (I have Chinese coworkers who often make bare imperative comments like this, for example, and I've learned to assume that they are being polite by their own social norms).

comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-03T14:07:32.020Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

About your edit:

Don't just guess here. Try it out for a month. I think you'll be amazed at how differently people react to you

This is not a valid argument, and using it puts you in the same reference class with many nasty quack cures.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2011-10-23T11:55:52.220Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Suggestions of gathering evidence make you suspicious? The author is not selling anything, and the medicine here would definitely get FDA approval, if it were within their jurisdiction.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-02T06:43:25.552Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Oddly enough, I actually became very popular for some time in school, largely by accident and without developing my social fluency in the process. It was intensely unpleasant having so much social attention, even though it was mostly positive, without having the faculties to deal with it effectively. I think this may have delayed my process of developing my social skills considerably, because I became convinced that being popular was not a desirable state of affairs, and lost interest in pursuing the approval of others.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:37:32.306Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is really interesting; thanks for adding it to the conversation. (I haven't chewed on it mentally enough to have an actual comment, but I wanted to elaborate on the upvote.)

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-05-04T02:33:44.546Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

(Small mod note: Fixed formatting that got kind of janky in the LW->LW2 move)

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-07-31T19:20:40.749Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Reading this again three years later: I'm still a massive arsehole - I think it's an intrinsic personality problem - but I do occasionally succeed in catching myself and not fucking up my relations with others yet again. (This is actually a conscious thing I actually do.)

That's the really good news: This stuff is actually susceptible to thoughtful consideration!

comment by Friendly-HI · 2013-05-09T21:53:17.474Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Random Tip:

If you intend to criticize an idea, then I agree that it is socially productive to first point out something you liked about that idea, and if you didn't like its contents at all, then go with "I like that you brought up this topic/point, because I too find it important, however / yet I think..."

The magic words in the sentence above are "however" and "yet", the latter being superior. Notice how the same sentence would sound if I replaced "yet" with "but" to link the praise/concession with my criticism. "But" can (and often enough is) perceived in contexts like this as a harsh word, and is parsed as if anything you mentioned in the sentence beforehand is completely negated by this single word. The reason why it can feel this way is because many people actually use it in exactly this way. They say something and offer concessions or even praise, and then use the word "but" to really mean "I didn't actually mean any of what I just said, so here's what I actually think on this matter..."

I believe I picked up this simple trick from "How to Win Friends and Influence People" what must have been close to 10 years ago, and every time I'm about to use a "carrot and stick" sentence I remind myself to use "however" or "yet" instead of "but" to link them. I believe the book even offered "and" (though I was reading the German translation of that book) as a potential linking word, but I can't quite warm up to that and my intuition says it might actually even weird out your conversation partner.

If you use "but" the person you talk to is likely to assume a defensive role, whereas if you use "yet" it can feel more like an invitation for a joint venture to genuinely explore the topic.

comment by wedrifid · 2013-05-10T00:52:00.278Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I believe the book even offered "and" (though I was reading the German translation of that book)

I remember reading 'and' too (English translation).

comment by pure-awesome · 2013-09-03T23:38:01.931Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I also recall reading 'and', if not in that book then in one on a similar topic.

I believe the basic format for using 'and' is: "I believe X is good, and it could be even better if you did Y".

Contrast:

  • "Your speech was good, but consider using more specific examples"
  • "Your speech was good. However, it could be improved with more specific examples."
  • "Your speech was good. Yet I think that using more specific examples would improve it."
  • "Your speech was good, and I think you could increase the impact even further if you also included more specific examples."

(Note: The one with 'yet' sounds a bit awkward to me, I'm not sure I know how to use it in this situation).

Sure the use of the word 'and' is neither neccessary nor sufficient to make the sentence more positive, but I think that (given a bit of practice) it naturally causes you to do so. Much the same as the word 'yet', but (I think) more strongly.


I could theoretically say "Your speech was good, but I think you could increase the impact even further if you also included more specific examples.", but using the word 'but' doesn't really force me to do so the way that using 'and' would, and doesn't come across as quite as supportive. The word 'but' actually sounds slightly wrong to me in this sentence.

comment by wedrifid · 2013-09-04T13:39:15.613Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I believe the basic format for using 'and' is: "I believe X is good, and it could be even better if you did Y".

That's a useful template and in some cases the advice goes as far as to explicitly advocate just replacing 'but' with 'and' even when it is barely grammatical. This may vary somewhat with the audience and I believe the claim that most typical humans will either not notice or care about the improved tone than the impaired syntax. Mind you the particularly logically minded will also not mind the arbitrary change since 'and' does technically fit correctly in every case that 'but' fits, albeit with rather different connotations.

comment by pure-awesome · 2013-09-17T11:53:41.891Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's a useful template and in some cases the advice...

This may vary somewhat with the audience and I believe the claim...

Note, that I did notice the change. I do think that to facilitate proper understanding of a sentence, 'but' should be used slightly differently from 'and', even if both are technically correct.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-07-31T19:18:06.275Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's the general response format:

  • Paragraph thanking person (sincerely) for considering the issue.
  • Paragraph noting possible problem.
  • Paragraph again thanking person (sincerely) for considering the issue.

This works shockingly well IME.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-05-09T22:27:12.536Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes you can even get away with 'and' or without using a conjunction.

Like, "This can be a very effective method. One concern will be looking out for X."

Or, "That's a good argument. It brings us as far as the question of Y."

comment by wstrinz · 2010-12-07T17:44:45.690Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I like this post a lot, it speaks to some of my concerns about this community and about the sorts of people I'd like to surround myself with. As an analytical/systematizing/whatever (I got a 35 on the test Roko posted a while back, interpret from that what you will), I felt very strange about all of these rhetorical games for most of my life. It was only when I discovered signalling theory in my study of economics that it started to make sense. If I frame my social interactions as signalling problems, the goals and the ways I should achieve them seem to become a lot clearer. It's also a useful outsider perspective; I find that I can (occasionally) recognize what people are really trying to do and how better than them simply because they have a richer and more complicated view of human socializing.

While I agree with most everything you've posted in the abstract, assuming your whole goal really is to have a reasoned discussion to provide evidence on which to update your beliefs, I think we often misunderstand our own intentions. Although the most common counterargument to "you should be nicer in how you frame your responses" is "I don't have time for all that fluff", there is a whole lot more going on there. First there are the personal signaling goals; not just to demonstrate that you are clever, but also that you are the sort of person who is upfront and honest (something people value) and not overly concerned with status in the eyes of your peers. This second one is amusing, since the purpose of the signal is to raise your status with the people who value not valuing status too much. I think children acting "too cool" to try hard in school is a good example of this, among other things. Additionally, there is the enforcement of group norms, not all of which have to be in perfect harmony. For example, LW has a group norm of open discussion with an eye toward gathering information about and improving human rationality. However, we also have the norm of not suffering fools gladly (what would happen if some nut posted stuff about The Secret as a comment on the quantum physics sequence?). Oftentimes these two sync up, since we don't want the discussion polluted by noisy nonsense, but sometimes they don't; I've seen more than a few people with valuable ideas leave this community because of hostile treatment.

None of this is to say that people shouldn't be nicer if they want to achieve their higher goals. That's a principle I've tried to operate on, and I think it's a good one. My point is that, just like the player who seems to play the ultimatum game irrationally by denying unfair offers, people who respond acrimoniously to their peers are often playing a game with a different goal, whether they know it or not. It may still be irrational, but its irrational in a complex and multifaceted way, and I doubt one post, or even a whole sprawling sequence of posts, would be enough to touch on all the complicated signals involved in this. The fact that the norm enforcement algorithm feels a lot more individualistic and noble from the inside than it looks from the outside makes the whole problem a lot worse.

comment by Hyena · 2010-12-03T04:15:10.090Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've struggled with this for years and have done a lot of the things you've described, both the bad behaviors and the good suggestions. I still have trouble with it, especially over the Internet.

I'd like to point out that, at least in my experience, it takes a lot of practice to avoid offending others without offending your sense of self. I've also found it much easier in person, where I can use tone and a natural lack of seriousness to paper over any rough edges.

comment by clarissethorn · 2010-12-03T04:07:32.520Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I generally like this essay on this topic: http://pdf23ds.net/implications-and-debate/

If you read the comments, however, please note that the original essay contained a lot of language that was pretty aggressive and insulting to feminists and sex/gender writers. Some writers (including myself) called out that language in the comments. The essay was then edited multiple times, but no notes were left that it had been edited. This was a great way to make commenters who had complained about the original essay (such as myself) look like crazy bitches, which doesn't seem like a very charitable debating tactic to me. ;)

Otherwise, though, yeah, it's a good essay.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:26:02.606Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted on spec; I tabbed out the essay to read later. (Commenting mostly as a reminder to myself.)

ETA: Okay, yes, upvote stands, that was good.

comment by orthonormal · 2010-12-01T20:46:36.281Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with your point where it concerns interactions in most social forums, but strongly disagree with your implied suggestion of a social norm for Less Wrong. I prefer a community that produces the given examples to one that produces your suggested corrections.

The karma system somewhat mitigates the "silent approval, vocal dissent" phenomenon here, though I agree with NihilCredo that there still exist confusing side effects, and that a more nuanced system would be superior. But as it stands, the community norm for an author of a post should be that criticism is meant at face value without further implied disapproval, and that the post karma is the better clue to readers' overall impressions.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-12-01T19:02:37.510Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If I say an idea in public that doesn't work for some reason such as lack of resources, I'd rather someone bluntly tell me. The issue in many of these examples doesn't seem to be so much "defecting" as much as some people preferring their own status over honest discussion. The long-term solution is to change the culture, and in the meantime, just make sure not to other-optimize when trying to talk to people.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T19:19:37.712Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A relatively simple in-the-meantime solution for this situation is to create a channel whereby people can offer up anonymous criticism to your idea, and then publicly make a big deal about a specific anonymous criticism that was really useful, so as to encourage people to use that channel. (You can even seed the mechanism by making that anonymous criticism yourself.)

Sure, that's not as pervasively useful as changing the culture so that everyone acts as you prefer, but it's more cost-effective.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T20:27:00.403Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm afraid I don't understand this at all. You want me to encourage people to use an anonymous channel by publicly praising their anonymous advise? Why would any normal status-seeking individual want that kind of praise? Wouldn't they prefer private praise for private advise, or better yet, public praise for public advise.

As for the question of individual action rather than changing the culture, you are the one advocating a change to the culture here on LW. (Your prescription makes no sense at all as advise to an LW person seeking to interact with the outside world.) So, you should be advising sensitive people on LW to post including a boilerplate notice that only private or anonymous criticism will be considered by this author, should they prefer to operate that way. And let the rest of us continue to operate in public.

Or did I miss your point?

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-01T23:12:34.143Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You want me to encourage people to use an anonymous channel by publicly praising their anonymous advise? Why would any normal status-seeking individual want that kind of praise?

Because they are bugged. We do not correctly account for anonymity since it is a relatively new phenonemon. This is most obviously visible in voting habits. (Humans vote as if they are making declarations of support in a public arena.)

comment by witzvo · 2013-12-05T05:58:33.295Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Humans vote as if they are making declarations of support in a public arena.

Interesting. Can you point me to an example of something surprising that's predicted by this interpretation? I'm a little confused, though, because for many people they're very public about how they voted anyway (it seems unlikely they're lying), so it is effectively public, no?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-12-05T06:27:46.222Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are some examples that suggest that at least people think that voting actions have aspects of that sort,. The campaign slogans in the 1948 Italian election seem potentially relevant, where one famous slogan was " "In the secrecy of the polling booth, God sees you - Stalin doesn't." Evidence against people voting like they are in public is the Bradley effect, so called because in the US, more people would in some elections say they were going to vote for a minority candidate than actually did so. However, there's some question if the Bradley effect was ever genuine and not just a function of noise in the polls. This is potentially connected to social desireabiility bias.

comment by wedrifid · 2014-01-31T19:16:47.822Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you point me to an example of something surprising that's predicted by this interpretation?

No. This prompts a tangential observation: I can't give any examples of anything surprising that's predicted by any belief that is coherently integrated into my mental model (ie. believed and understood). Things that occur exactly how I expect them to occur tend not to be surprising.

What I can do is point to an intuition that you have which I share and additional consider to be a related insight into trends in human behaviour:

I'm a little confused, though, because for many people they're very public about how they voted anyway (it seems unlikely they're lying)

There is something about you that makes it seem to you that they are unlikely to be lying. In addition, there is something about most humans that means you are likely to be right. There is a clear distinct difference in the payoff structure for the anonymous action and the unrelated verbal signalling game but we both expect humans to behave in part as though there isn't.

, so it is effectively public, no?

Wedrifid_2010 could perhaps have appended the following to the comment you quoted: "in fact, human status-seeking behavioural heuristics are so bad at accounting for anonymous ballots that it seems to some observers that anonymous ballots are effectively public".

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T21:27:40.747Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You want me to encourage people to use an anonymous channel by publicly praising their anonymous advise?

That would be even better, if they make praiseworthy anonymous advice. What I was actually suggesting, though, was encouraging people by publicly praising other people's anonymous advice, which I'm guessing makes even less sense to you.

Why would any normal status-seeking individual want that kind of praise?

  • Theory aside, I do observe that many people seem to be motivated when their output is praised publicly, even when they aren't identified as the author. I can take advantage of this even if I don't understand why it happens.

  • Similarly, I observe that publicly praising an act often encourages others to mimic it.

  • Neither of those observations strike me as implausible: they identify the action as praiseworthy. Many people are motivated to do things their culture identifies as praiseworthy.

you are the one advocating a change to the culture here on LW.

I don't think I am, actually... certainly not in this thread.

Here, I'm responding to JoshuaZ's proposed "in the meantime" solution for a scenario that lionhearted introduced as "If you're at a meeting and someone gives a presentation and asks if anyone has questions."

If I'm advocating cultural changes to LW in some other thread, it might be helpful to point to it, so we both know what advocacy you're referring to.

Your prescription makes no sense at all as advise to an LW person seeking to interact with the outside world.

In that case, of course, it's a useless comment. Naturally, I thought it made sense in that context when I wrote it. (And I haven't yet understood why it is senseless, actually.)

you should be advising sensitive people on LW to post including a boilerplate notice that only private or anonymous criticism will be considered by this author, should they prefer to operate that way.

The issue I was concerned with was not that people might be too sensitive to receive criticism. It was that in a culture where people won't "bluntly tell" JoshuaZ there's a problem, they might still be willing to anonymously do so, so setting up a channel that allows them to do so would be an "in-the-meantime solution" that gets him the feedback he wants without first altering the entire culture (his proposed "long-term solution").

And let the rest of us continue to operate in public.

The rest of you hereby receive my official permission to operate in public.

Or did I miss your point?

I don't know if you did or not. Nor am I especially motivated right now to work with you to figure it out. Perhaps my replies helped clarify things; perhaps not.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-01T22:08:52.353Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Or did I miss your point?

I don't know if you did or not.

It seems I did miss your point. I was confused by the switch, from JoshuaZ's "in the meantime" advice to the critic, to your advice directed to the potential target of criticism. And in particular I missed that the motivation was to allow the target to get the feedback he needs from an audience culture which is disinclined to provide negative feedback.

My apologies for misunderstanding. I didn't try hard enough to find a sympathetic reading.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-01T23:06:23.496Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Apology accepted; thanks. I'm glad we could clear that up.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T10:18:03.613Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It isn't dishonest to say "this is a good idea, but it might be difficult for these reasons" rather than "your idea isn't feasible for these reasons" (unless of course you don't like the idea, in which case pick a different way of expressing politeness). The first one is stating the objection and also implying respect; the second one is stating the objection and also implying disrespect.

If you really wanted to state the objection without making any implication of respect at all, the nearest thing which comes to mind right now would be phrasing it as a question. "How would you deal with such and such obstacles?" This is a little dangerous, because if they don't have a good answer, they get stuck looking dumb and might blame you for it--but I think that's probably true regardless of how you raise the objection, so I don't think I'd worry about it.

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-06T11:37:38.283Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It isn't dishonest to say "this is a good idea, but it might be difficult for these reasons" rather than "your idea isn't feasible for these reasons"

Part of my criteria for determining goodness of ideas is feasibility. I would be being dishonest if the idea was not feasible.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T12:43:22.780Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Mm, okay, let's put it another way than "good" then. Perhaps: "That's a desireable outcome and your method would work if we had the resources, but we don't."

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-06T12:55:04.859Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, okay, I think I see something. This post and this comment communicate that people often use arguments to support monolithic beliefs. People might be thinking that the first option you gave earlier is saying "I'm on your side, we need to work together to kill this 'unfeasible' enemy soldier" whereas the second is more like "Your idea is dumb and I will throw arguments at you until you retreat or surrender".

A kind of politeness, then, I could use, encourage, and appreciate when receiving would be an effort to communicate that we both want the outcome, your method has obstacles, can we fix these obstacles or find another route?

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T13:06:29.266Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's exactly it.

comment by luminosity · 2010-12-01T12:21:02.074Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

While I agree with the thrust of your article, I think your examples could possibly use a little tweaking. Being polite definitely makes sense, but the impression I get from your examples is that being polite means dancing around the issues / taking longer to get to the point / disclaiming everything.

For example, you give the example

"I enjoyed this post a lot - thanks for that - but one thing that's tough for me is that all the examples are about martial arts [...]

The thanks for that is somewhat superfluous. Your example is already polite by starting off with "I enjoyed this post a lot."

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-01T11:28:53.596Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

All++ social rules are special cases of "don't be a dick". I suppose the hard part is not inadvertently behaving like a dick.

++ pretty much. I'm sure someone will be along in a moment with a list of exceptions.

comment by Kevin · 2010-12-01T11:15:11.847Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

On Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1957354

comment by Gust · 2011-12-20T03:05:10.221Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Very, very good post.

I realized I had this problem, and how much it could cost me, a few months ago.

I was going to write a small column for a newspaper made by students from my faculty. The subject was a delicate one, and the positon I would argue against was strongly popular among one of the colors in the faculty. I already saw the irrationality in the old false dillemas and the groupthink that guided most color politics, and I thought I could use a chance to criticize the "movement" as well as the specific cause.

I wrote a text with a strongly ironical introduction. I showed it to my father, and he said "This is going to get you in trouble with these people in the future. You probably don't want that." My first reaction was something like this. But as I thought about it, I realized there was no need for provoking the "greens". It would accomplish nothing and would possibly gain enemies. I rewrote that first paragraph, and the tone of the text changed completely, without removing or changing a single argument. When it was published, I even received compliments from one of the "greens".

Since then, I'm careful about what I say, and more so about what I write. I think one thing aggravates the problem you described: when we write something, we can "hear" the specific tone we would use to say that, but the reader can't. Normal statements may seem ironic, and ironic statements may seem to carry much more criticism than intended.

-- Edited for markdown syntax correction.

comment by tenshiko · 2010-12-07T23:15:23.377Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Current comment count is past 300, and now the most common criticism has become "You're condescending to us, how dare you act like we never try to be polite in our everyday lives." What I would actually say is the biggest problem is that in this form of communication, what you're communicating to the other person is completely distinct of and perhaps even the exact opposite of the exact meaning your sentence has. It becomes a "the wine before me" situation over and over. Examples that happen to me all the time:

English: "Oh, this story of yours isn't that bad. I liked the part where they were talking in the meadow while it was raining. You've been making a lot of progress."

Transmission: "I really don't like your story that much. It had one good part in it, but I want to see you get better."

English: "Uh, the twenty-first? That's a Saturday, right? I think I'm going to have a lot of chemistry homework then... probably some other stuff too. Maybe another time?"

Transmission: "Did I hear you correctly? No, I don't want to go at all, but I don't want to socially reject you completely."

The transmission many of us are receiving from you is "you're being stupid jerks right now, you have to actually try the superior method of actual politeness and you'll see immediately that it'll be way better for you". It's one I'd rather not hear, and I'm a little ashamed of that, on multiple levels.

comment by ernop · 2010-12-01T16:19:06.166Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hi! This is great. I got into the same line of thought when I heard my dad mention "How to win friends and influence people" and tried it. I loved it. It can be pretty nice to stop having to constantly heroically disagree.

It's also amazing to think about how many people's instantaneous reaction to a new idea is instantly "no", even when talking to people they allegedly trust.

comment by kybernetikos · 2010-12-01T15:01:26.237Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I have to admire the cunning of your last sentence.

Or have I accidentally defected? I can't tell.

EDIT: I think the 'wizened' correction was intended to be a joke. When I read your piece originally the idea of you 'wizening up' made me smile, and I suspect that the corrector just wanted to share that idea with others who may have missed it.

comment by MrUst · 2010-12-03T12:07:40.605Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Great post. I think this form of self-sabotage is one that many analytical people don't realize they are engaging in. As a computer programmer and a mathematician, I definitely fall into the category of analytical people.

One way I've managed to reduce this problem in my life comes from public speaking. When we give other speakers feedback, we always commend something they've done, recommend how they can improve, and finish with another commendation.

This kind of feedback is much more effective than just praise alone, which can be rejected especially in certain cultures as being unrealistic or insincere. The feedback is also more effective than pure criticism, which, as you pointed out in your post, can make the speaker hostile and therefore less likely to listen to you.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:16:17.704Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

A friend of mine described a creative writing class in which the students would read pieces on a workshop day and then have other students respond. The responses came in phases. First, anybody who wished to praise something about the piece had the opportunity to say that. When they were finished with that, anyone who wished to criticize something about the piece could do so. There was a third phase, but I don't remember what it was--specific recommendations, maybe.

This always seemed like a very sensible model to me. It prevents the reader from feeling jumped on with criticism and internalizing the impression that the piece isn't any good before anyone's said anything nice yet. It also prevents the error mentioned in one of the EY excerpts in the OP--good and bad are both made explicit. Also, praise is useful. It tells someone what parts to keep!

comment by thomblake · 2010-12-03T00:25:03.622Z · score: 2 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Consider dropping it altogether if it's not a big deal. This about learning to prioritize - I had someone comment on my site thinking mistakenly that The Richest Man in Babylon and The Greatest Salesman in the World were by the same author. It wasn't, but who cares? It makes no difference. It's not worth pointing it out - almost everyone has an aversion to being corrected, so only do it if there's actually tangible gain. Otherwise, go do something more important and not engender the potential bad will.

I consider this particularly selfish and evil. If you know there's a place where someone's map doesn't correspond to the territory, you should tell them before they inadvertently drive off a cliff. Even if it would be a status hit to yourself. And you can't tell me that's a part of their map they weren't even using, as they had just used it!

comment by lionhearted · 2010-12-03T02:57:24.925Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I consider this particularly selfish and evil. If you know there's a place where someone's map doesn't correspond to the territory, you should tell them before they inadvertently drive off a cliff.

It's about picking and choosing battles. It's like when someone is giving a presentation on money policy, and gets the current interest rate wrong by .1%. If it doesn't affect the main point, it's better to let it go. There world is full of mistakes and errors - if you stopped and corrected every one you saw, that'd be a full-time, nonstop job. And moreover, you'd waste a lot of people's time by bringing up minutia that doesn't make a difference.

So I think you have to pick and choose your battles, and let some things slide if they make no real-utility based difference. Mistaking the author of a 30 year old, not-all-that-important book doesn't lead someone off a cliff. That's basic prioritizing.

comment by thomblake · 2010-12-03T14:22:08.684Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Line in the sand time. I can stomach advice to "let unimportant untruths slide" in other fora, but not here. Falsehoods left unchecked can cascade and corrupt one's entire epistemic landscape. If you're lucky, on encountering an inconsistency in your beliefs, you'll have a good enough framework to update in the right direction, but not all of us are so fortunate.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T15:31:17.155Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Can you think of any realistic example of how the specific mistaken belief that those two books had the same author could contribute to a cascade that would corrupt their entire epistemic landscape? Because it's certainly not difficult to see how a habit of confronting others on issues they see as trivial could cause them to marginalize your opinion, leading to a great loss of utility. Remember, we're not just trying to maximize truth, but utility, and if you're not advocating truth for an actual purpose, your rationality will be of little use.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-03T04:35:32.858Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good analogy for a noble goal, but I think the topic at hand demands a bit more than a cliff. If someone's map doesn't mark bumps and cliffs marked on your superior map, don't spend the car ride pointing out all the little bumps when the person is unwittingly driving toward a cliff!

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T04:09:21.156Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But how much utility does that portion of the map hold for them in any case? That specific mistake seems unlikely to ever have greater repercussions for them than causing a bit of embarrassment, and if you correct them in a public forum, that's exactly what you're going to cause. If you did not provide the correction, there are other ways in which the person might have made the same discovery without as much embarrassment, such as looking one of the authors or books up on Wikipedia, but I suspect that there is a low probability of them ever facing greater repercussions due to their mistake.

If you judge the correction to really have a positive expected utility for them, then it may be for the best, but if you make a general habit of correcting others without considering the necessity of each case, you're liable to lose status to no benefit.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-03T01:06:47.672Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Evil? Really?

comment by thomblake · 2010-12-03T01:20:29.783Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Evil? Really?

Yep. Ignorance kills. Seeing an opportunity to do good, and then avoiding it because of a perceived status hit to oneself, is evil.

comment by lsparrish · 2010-12-03T01:21:49.750Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Ignorance kills.

Not if it is an inconsequential detail like who wrote what book...

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T01:24:41.698Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Yep. Ignorance kills.

Ignorance also saves lives. Depending on the culture I could save your life, for example, by refraining from giving you information. Fortunately we don't condone casual murder by leaders in western civilisation. So correcting people when it is inappropriate could just get you fired. Arrested too - don't correct cops on points of law unless you have a lot of witnesses present.

Seeing an opportunity to do good, and then avoiding it because of a perceived status hit to oneself, is evil.

I disagree. I think this attitude is naive, bad math and dangerous.

because of a perceived status hit

Status matters. A lot. Really. I read this as similar to "because of a percieved potential loss of a limb" (calibrate limb loss probability to match the expected value of the status risk).

comment by thomblake · 2010-12-03T14:22:56.348Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So correcting people when it is inappropriate could just get you fired. Arrested too - don't correct cops on points of law unless you have a lot of witnesses present.

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-12-03T14:36:02.902Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.

But it might be best to wait for an opportune time.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T14:55:52.008Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.

Even when the thing that would be destroyed by the truth would be your daughter? Or 3^^^3 puppies?

When Eliezer first made that claim the sentiment appealed to me but at the same time I hoped there wouldn't be people who went and took it literally, without the clearly necessary disclaimers. Note that Eliezer censors things that are true when he believes it suits his purposes.

comment by waitingforgodel · 2010-12-03T14:56:53.314Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

well said

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-12-06T08:10:33.992Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's no accident that the aphorism says "should" and not "must".

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-03T15:02:20.190Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I must ask: to what degree do you act on your stated belief that not correcting someone's map when you can is evil as such? How assiduously do you attempt to correct error in interaction on the Internet? Please describe the process you apply in practice here. Is the cartoon an exaggeration, or your life? To what degree?

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T15:07:12.446Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Is the cartoon an exaggeration, or your life?

Given that sex helps you save the world this is a surprisingly important question! ;)

comment by katydee · 2010-12-03T14:56:07.432Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What are your thoughts on WikiLeaks?

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:30:49.128Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's not a status hit to you. It's a status hit to them. Feel free to make whatever noble choices you want about being willing to make yourself look stupid in a public forum, but you don't have the right to make that choice for someone else.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-03T01:20:19.164Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Wow. I don't usually expect people to be more epistemilogically idealistic than I. Yet when I remember to curb my impulses I occasionally bite my tongue and let unimportant things go. I don't consider it evil. But come to think of it my personal emotional aversion is centred around bullshit - a different kind of 'evil'.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-02T01:19:21.096Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Can anyone recommend an online discussion group which displays neurotypical communication at its best? It seems to me that the politeness examples in this discussion are a little hypothetical.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:50:21.209Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is not the answer to your question, but it might be relevant/interesting that communicating respectfully/politely by default is one of the stated rules of #xkcd. Obviously it doesn't actually happen every moment, and people aren't kicked for being rude once, but there is an atmosphere of not tolerating rudeness for its own sake. The ops are reluctant, but willing if it goes on long enough, to get rid of someone whose only crime is being incredibly unpleasant to interact with. This is in line with the community's goal of being pleasant and entertaining; if the goal were getting some sort of work done, it might be important to tolerate people who are rude but useful, but that's not the case.

The specific relevant text in the channel rules (in a section on "generalities," not specific things to do/not do) is this:

Be nice. There are plenty of places on the internet where you can be cruel, but not many where you can be nice, and #xkcd is one of them. If you're not usually nice, give it a try. You might be amazed.

There's also a simplified version of the rules page that exists to give people a general sense of how to behave without swamping them in specific examples. It includes:

Act like an adult, whether or not you are one.

Speak to each other with respect, whether or not you actually have any.

...

Don't be offensive without being funny. The more offensive you are, the funnier you also have to be.

You are not the arbiter of whether you're too offensive or funny enough.

Just because your gay black female friend doesn't mind you saying it doesn't mean you can say it anywhere.

...

If someone asks you politely to stop doing something, stop doing it.

It's clearly possible to abuse that last one by asking someone politely to stop doing something which is totally reasonable, but in actual practice that hasn't been a problem.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-06T12:50:21.771Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. It's an interesting example of balancing the need for clear rules without having so much specificity that it's easy to game.

I found this experiment with requiring non-redundant communication, but nothing about how long it went on or how it worked out in the long run.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T13:01:36.742Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's an interesting example of balancing the need for clear rules without having so much specificity that it's easy to game.

Yeah, that was one of the major goals in the channel rules. Both the long and the short versions are explicit that if you come up with a way to be a pain in the ass that we haven't already thought of, we'll still kick you, even though it's not already in the rules. :P If you're curious, the long version is here and the short version is here. I didn't compose all of them but I did write them. (That is, I didn't choose everything that went in them, but I picked most of the words and put them on a page.)

but nothing about how long it went on or how it worked out in the long run.

It's still going on, in #xkcd-signal on Foonetic. I don't follow the channel actively right now, but my experience when I was there and the channel's continuing reputation are that it has high-quality conversations at very long intervals. That is, it tends to be quiet for long periods, but the conversations that do happen are relatively free of noise.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-02T02:25:03.945Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What do you consider to be 'best'? I've been part of a couple of communities that drove me away because it cost me too much effort to match their levels of praise and politeness. I'd be happy to try to dig up links if I can remember what they're called..

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-02T02:27:06.279Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Good question, and I'm not sure. However, neurotypicality can't be totally incapacitating, or they wouldn't be in the majority.

If you remember the names of those communities, please post them.

comment by erratio · 2010-12-02T03:03:32.498Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that neurotypicality is incapacitating in general, only for me and other people who didn't acquire neurotypical social skills for whatever reason. It cost me a lot of effort to participate in those communities because I was effectively trying to speak a foreign language, and I'd only just started to learn how at the time.

One of them appears to have died. Here's(I would recommend just skimming the first 5 pages or so to get a feel for it) a forum thread I was reading recently. I haven't participated but the tone in there strikes me as simultaneously extremely polite and quite focussed on the subject at hand.

comment by cata · 2010-12-02T01:49:28.154Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps Metafilter? There are sometimes a few flame wars, but the discussions are usually informed and sincere, with a variety of nice people, and the moderator team is good at keeping things on-topic and on-track.

The majority of it isn't one-on-one conversation, though, since the comments aren't threaded. So it might be a little hard to find really awesome examples pertinent to our discussion here.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T01:24:55.687Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

At its best? That would be when the social payoffs were set up in such a way as to penalise the most 'stereotypical neurotypical' default behaviours.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-02T02:25:29.038Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You might be right, or you might be defining neurotypicality by its worst features.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-02T02:32:35.062Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

you might be defining neurotypicality by its worst features.

More precisely, I may be defining "most stereotypical neurotypical default behaviours" by the worst features, where each of 'most', 'stereotypical' and 'default' is a significant qualifier. 'Default' is particularly interesting - our civilisation devotes a large amount of resources to setting up institutions to prevent 'default' behaviour.

comment by lsparrish · 2010-12-01T14:46:57.540Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you so much for writing this.

Of course, not all defection is accidental. There do exist people who use snark and pedantry in place of argument, perhaps supplementing their snark with just barely enough argument to be taken seriously. When debating with you their primary goal is not to prove a point or get you to update your map to match the territory, but to lower your social status and raise theirs.

comment by Davorak · 2010-12-02T06:09:31.926Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Is a group with a "blunt" norm or a "polite" norm more susceptible to being influenced by these conscience defectors?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-01T12:51:54.380Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I liked this post. One thing I'd like to add is that you encourage rationality, in yourself and others, when you don't make disagreements adversarial.

If you want to know what a non-adversarial disagreement looks like, check out Bloggingheads. It's two bloggers, every day or so, having a discussion about current issues, and they never rant -- they always maintain friendly collegiality. I've always admired that.

comment by teageegeepea · 2010-12-01T15:16:50.779Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Did you see Ann Althouse going off on Garance Franke-Ruta?

comment by michaelsullivan · 2012-04-25T15:45:35.391Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's funny, I don't remember seeing this post initially. I just followed a link from a more recent discussion post. Just yesterday I had the experience of reading a comment I posted on a popular blog and realizing that I was being a jerk in precisely this way. I only wish I could have edited it after I caught myself, but posting an apologetic followup was helpful anyway.

I learned this general principle a long, long time ago, and it has made a huge difference in the way people respond to me.

That said, to this day, I haven't been able to fully ingrain the habit. When I don't think about my presentation, it's very easy to fall into the habit of being brusque with corrections and arguments where there is no need to be combative.

comment by trlkly · 2012-04-25T01:35:43.737Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is that your examples already go overboard. You describe a good upper bound of how nice to be, but you can usually get away with less, and not have to constantly be constructing bullshit in your brain. This is what I think causes people to object.

For example, is this comment really going to upset you? I seriously doubt it. There would be no reason for me to write, say, "You have made a really good point, but I wonder if you perhaps went a tiny bit overboard in your examples, and thus this decreased your effectiveness."

The basic message, and the one I agree with, is to not be quite so combative when you criticize, and to make sure your criticism would cause more good than harm.

Also, you didn't need to spend so much time explaining, either. That probably also led to the idea that your methodology has a low signal-to-noise ratio. I mean, I personally skipped most of the middle, as you were just repeating yourself. I think you'd be more convincing if you learned about brevity.

comment by wgd · 2012-04-25T02:22:26.634Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Since the topic of this post is on sub-optimal communication, I thought I'd point out that

I think you'd be more convincing if you learned about brevity.

reads as rather more condescending than I think you intended from the tone of the rest of your comment. Specifically, it implies not just that he needs to practice revising for brevity, but that he doesn't even know what it is.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T08:51:15.780Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is the kind of thing I'd like to see more of on here; explaining how to use e.g. language to get along with people who are socially unlike you is hard and being able to do it is important. I laughed at this:

The most common criticism seems to be that adding fluff is a waste of time, insincere, and reduces signal:noise ratio.

... because as I was reading the post, I was hearing in my head every time I've heard that excuse from a friend. "It's just fluff, it shouldn't matter, it doesn't mean anything if you just say it automatically ..."

It does mean something. It means that you respect the person you're talking to enough to follow these social mores and support them rather than just sticking pins in their ego. Speaking directly and simply isn't neutral--it's actively disrespectful, with the results you describe.

comment by Dapple · 2010-12-05T15:51:00.865Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This reminds me of another post Yudkowsky made on a very similar topic.

I would consider most of the people here to be informally operating on at least a milder version of Crocker's rules.

comment by rquire · 2010-12-05T05:37:18.653Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I do understand the idea that criticism is best given in a way that considers social implications rather than just the practical ones, but... what if you have nothing to praise? I do some critique (informal, granted, and of nonpublished writing) and I have noticed that, surprise, hammering people with everything that's wrong with their work is not the best way to get them to fix things. Even when I know I'm right and have more experience than they do. But oftentimes the work is of such a quality that there really isn't anything to compliment. So, are you suggesting that it's best to /make up/ a compliment or strain yourself to find something to praise rather than risk offending the writer? (Or speaker, or whichever.)

On a related note, is it necessary to use such indirect means of communicating a change you'd like to see made? Indirect meaning "/Maybe/ some examples from your experience as an accountant?" (note the question mark). Is that more or less effective than directly stating, "I'd like to see some examples from your experience as an accountant."?

I don't think so. I'd say that sometimes--oftentimes--it's best to be direct. That encourages understanding, and with indirect requests or criticism you run the risk of the recipient having a sense that your criticism is somehow optional, that since you're not stating it forcefully they must have a choice whether or not to make the change. This is circumventive and, in my opinion, gets nothing done.

Interesting article, and solidly written, but I do have to say that I'm not convinced you're completely right.

--Rachel Q.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T08:53:47.191Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What makes the direct statement more "effective"? It makes it more forceful, to be sure, for exactly the reason you state:

with indirect requests or criticism you run the risk of the recipient having a sense that your criticism is somehow optional, that since you're not stating it forcefully they must have a choice whether or not to make the change

That's exactly the point. They DO have a choice. The other person has agency, and it's their idea. When you state your criticism directly, implying they must do it the way you state, you're expressing that you have greater power or status than they do and this entitles you to direct them to do things differently. This isn't true unless you are actually their boss, and whether you are or not it's belittling and rude; this is why it puts people on the defensive.

comment by Hey · 2010-12-03T18:40:07.122Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My speculation: people in "our" personspace cluster tend to be pattern mismatchers/polarity responders (NLP lingo, there are probably some googleable descriptions). Whereas "normals" get good emotions from rapport, "we" are the opposite. A lot of nerd awkwardness probably comes from the failure to understand and utilize rapport.

comment by beriukay · 2010-12-01T11:53:17.208Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First, I'm trying to put some of this advice into immediate practice. I think there are many excellent points in this piece. I have found that in my experience, I am best at not accidentally defecting when I am not emotionally involved in the topic, and that asking myself "What am I doing here?" has saved me tons of time and effort. I still sometimes relish battling the masses of the Just Plain Wrong, but more often I find it wearying.

People matter, and people's feelings matter,especiallyif they have sway over your life, but even if they don't have sway over your life.

I wanted to point out that the last bit is especially true because there are many who judge a person based on how they treat those who have no sway over your life, and this is one reason why I strive to be polite to waiters/waitresses/janitors/etc. I would also like to point out that I think your keyboard stuck on the 'especiallyif.'

The suggestions at the end are pretty good. I was surprised about how many of those habits I have picked up, dropped, and relearned over the years.

comment by Abisashi · 2010-12-01T22:18:47.584Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It actually looks to me like every time the article has italics start or end, a space is missing. Is there an issue with how the site deals with italic tags? I'm viewing this on Chrome in Windows 7.

comment by beriukay · 2010-12-02T10:44:37.257Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wow, I didn't even notice all the other ones. Nice catch. One counter-example to consider is in the first paragraph:

However, if both defect, then they'll both receive higher sentences than if neither of them confessed.

I added the formatting for italics back in, since it didn't survive transcription. Is there any way to view your comment before posting? I'm always kinda nervous to submit without an opportunity to see what I wrote as the world sees it.

comment by Abisashi · 2010-12-02T20:53:28.408Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know of a way to preview comments, but each comment has an "edit" button if you made a mistake.

For the italics I'll do a test in this comment.

Edit: I didn't lose my spaces, but comments might work differently than articles.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-16T16:52:22.268Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I want to reference this post, and it'd be slightly handy if the formatting was cleaned up a little (i.e. paragraph spaces inserted)

comment by zslastman · 2013-05-10T06:53:41.147Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent point. Something I've observed is that one's ability to deal with frank, no bullshit criticism is highly context dependent, and well approximated by the magnitude of the bayesian update it requires to the status of those involved.

I find myself perfectly willing to give and receive sentences like 'here's why that's bullshit', from colleagues of roughly equal social status. I've noticed that the few other people I can do that with share with me a fair amount of confidence in their own intelligence. I don't have to revise my social status relative to theirs if I correct them or they correct me.

If however a superior who's opinion of me I'm not sure of corrects me, my stomach falls out.

It's not just that other's have different values, or are less focused on truth seeking. It's also that they may be occupying a different, more vulnerable position in the game. Imagine a very attractive person tells you that you have the seductive prowess of a pug in heat. You'd take it harder than they would.

I've also noticed since I started trying to modify my interactions with people, that they've begun voicing more of their opnions to me. They used to avoid doing that out of intimidation (or so I'd been told several times).

Trying to prove yourself the smartest kid in the class is a childish goal. It's something we all have to let go of sooner or later if we want to be effective.

comment by Delta · 2012-09-06T09:41:00.406Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Really enjoyed the article, and thanks for the link to the nerds article. I think it is easy to underestimate how big an effect this has. When growing up my mother was always incredibly helpful with schoolwork, but because she focussed on the negative, stating mistakes directly rather than praising the good first and then carefully broaching the subject, she came across as very harsh and demanding. Despite the best possible motives her delivery made me less happy and made me more resistent to suggestions and mutinous.

Unfortunately I think I've fallen into the same trap (I wrote a comment on my sister's blog which rather upset her because I didn't follow the advice here) so thanks for flagging this and pointing me to some reading material.

comment by booyabazooka · 2010-12-04T17:47:55.865Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The golden rule prevents me from padding my criticism with a layer of poetic fluff. I (and I assume others) readily see through obligatory rhetorical nonsense. I find it irritating and insulting, because it implies that you think you're tricking me into thinking that I'm not receiving criticism, and that I would have irrationally overreacted to your criticism if you hadn't cunningly veiled it.

If we are working together, I want your honesty, and I do not want us to fail together because I've done something wrong and you were too "polite" to express your genuine disapproval. If I'm dealing with a child, or someone who is very emotional and not very smart, perhaps, I should adopt your patronizing scheme. But I will not treat my technical coworkers like children, and I expect the same of them.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-12-06T09:05:41.721Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

You're fooling yourself if you think that polite criticism doesn't work better on you than rude criticism. You may prefer directness and honesty, but you're still human, and you've still got an ego.

Also, following the golden rule to the letter is an example of the typical mind fallacy--and it's particularly bizarre when you know you're atypical in that regard. The golden rule is best used as a default--a heuristic for how to treat people in general when you have no more specific data about how a particular person would prefer you to treat them. Can you imagine if masochists applied the golden rule when sleeping with someone new? "Well, I like being beaten, so clearly that's okay to do to someone else." No. If you have atypical preferences, a better base heuristic is what's common, especially when the common thing is considered more respectful. On which note:

But I will not treat my technical coworkers like children, and I expect the same of them.

You've got this backwards. Being direct and telling people what to do without showing any regard for their own ability or status is how you treat children. When you're respectful to other people, you're treating them like adults.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2011-10-23T11:40:27.424Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you just tell children what to do without regard for their own ability or status, you aren't getting very far.

The only other way to secure their cooperation involves beating them…

comment by Relsqui · 2011-10-23T11:56:18.276Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, thoroughly agreed. That was an observation, not an advocation.

comment by araneae · 2010-12-01T15:45:44.931Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, I'm not defecting by accident :). In high school, I was, because I didn't have enough self-awareness to realize that the reason I had no friends was because I was too argumentative. In fact, I didn't really get it until I got the "Most argumentative" superlative in the school year book.

Then I got to college, and I decided I wanted to have friends. So I got some. And it was fun for a while, but it turns out that social interactions put me in this awful sort of yo-yo emotional state. It would make me really happy, and then I would crash, hard.

Now that I'm out in the "real world" I discovered that not having friends makes me happier overall - the crashes were really bad - and that I can satisfy my taste for "defection" by arguing anonymously on the Internet. It perhaps doesn't help me, but it doesn't hurt me either.

comment by ratdreams · 2010-12-09T22:35:36.236Z · score: -4 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Haha! At first glance, I thought the title read, "defecating by accident."