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Defecting by Accident - A Flaw Common to Analytical People

84 Post author: lionhearted 01 December 2010 08:25AM

Related to: Rationalists Should WinWhy 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

  • I'll define "defecting by accident."
  • I'll explain a common outcome of defecting by accident.
  • I'll give some recent, mild examples of accidental defections.
  • I'll give examples of how to turn accidental defections into cooperation.
  • I'll give some examples of how this can make you more successful at your goals.
  • I'll list some books I recommend if you decide to learn more on the topic.
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:

  • (a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve; 
  • (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress; 
  • (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal; 
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:
  • Generally, be gracious and thankful. This goes immensely far. Things like starting a reply with, "Thanks for this" or "Thanks for sharing these insights."
  • Praising someone makes it more likely they'll accept your criticisms. "I thought your point A was excellent, however point B..."
  • If you're going to disagree, summarize the person's main argument beforehand - this has a few positive effects. First, it forces you make sure you actually understand. Second, if the author has a different main point and wasn't clear, that comes out. Third, it shows some respect that you actually took the time to read and understand the post. So you could write, "I know your main argument is A, but I wanted to explore your minor point X."
  • If you think something is wrong, give an explanation of what would be correct and better. "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, and I don't really understand martial arts so much. Maybe next time you could provide some examples from other fields? For instance, I remember reading you're an accountant and you write poetry, maybe some examples from there?"
  • If you point out something is wrong, do your best to make the mistake-maker not feel stupid. This makes them massively appreciate that. "Hey, you got your math on example X wrong... I think it actually works to 11.7. Anyways, I only recognize that because I made that mistake dozens of times myself, it's a common one to make, just wanted to point it out."
  • Explain why you care about a point. This has a few positive effects. First, it lets the author cater a reply to exactly what you want. Second, you'd be amazed at how many people assume evil intent and worst-possible motives - it neutralizes that. Third, it forces you to think through how you'd like things to be, which is again good. "Hey man, I really liked this post, but I wonder if you could have split it into pieces and made it a three-parter? I ask because I surf the web from work, and I can only read in 10 minute chunks... longer posts are harder for me to get through, and I like reading your writing." 
  • Consider correcting someone privately while praising them publicly. This combination has been observed to engender loyalty and good feelings throughout history. I recently read an example of a samurai encouraging lords to do this from the early 1700's book "Hagakure." It works.
  • 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.
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.

Comments (419)

Comment author: Vaniver 01 December 2010 10:53:42AM *  21 points [-]

#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 author: Desrtopa 02 December 2010 05:50:10AM 15 points [-]

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 author: derefr 01 December 2010 09:14:46PM 8 points [-]

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 author: Vaniver 02 December 2010 12:09:49AM 4 points [-]

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 author: NihilCredo 01 December 2010 11:26:08AM 3 points [-]

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 author: RichardKennaway 01 December 2010 12:01:05PM 11 points [-]

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 author: Vaniver 02 December 2010 12:19:35AM 4 points [-]

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 author: patrissimo 15 December 2010 04:50:40AM 5 points [-]

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 author: Yvain 03 December 2010 12:22:45AM *  15 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 09:35:47AM *  5 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 03 December 2010 12:48:02AM 11 points [-]

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 author: Alicorn 01 December 2010 03:32:38PM 56 points [-]

(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 author: pjeby 01 December 2010 04:37:56PM 30 points [-]

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 author: JGWeissman 01 December 2010 09:20:39PM 7 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 01 December 2010 05:02:38PM 3 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 01 December 2010 11:23:31PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: patrissimo 15 December 2010 03:44:43AM 10 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 01 December 2010 11:19:22PM 3 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 07 December 2010 01:53:42PM 7 points [-]

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 author: christopherj 05 December 2013 05:37:24AM 1 point [-]

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

Comment author: anonym 03 December 2010 08:06:09AM 3 points [-]

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 author: Kevin 07 December 2010 01:42:41PM 2 points [-]

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

Comment author: Zvi 07 December 2010 01:16:11PM 1 point [-]

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 author: lionhearted 02 December 2010 04:50:09AM *  2 points [-]

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 author: WrongBot 02 December 2010 09:15:54AM 16 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 02 December 2010 11:29:42PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: Alicorn 02 December 2010 11:35:42PM 7 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 02 December 2010 11:48:24PM 6 points [-]

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 author: Alicorn 02 December 2010 11:50:45PM *  7 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 02 December 2010 11:57:12PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: Alicorn 02 December 2010 11:58:06PM 2 points [-]

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

Comment author: lionhearted 02 December 2010 11:59:34PM 2 points [-]

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 author: [deleted] 03 December 2010 07:57:04PM 12 points [-]

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 author: Alicorn 03 December 2010 11:44:26PM 2 points [-]

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 author: Alicorn 03 December 2010 12:05:24AM 9 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 03:28:44AM *  3 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 03 December 2010 04:24:35AM 0 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 03 December 2010 05:16:51AM 4 points [-]

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 author: WrongBot 03 December 2010 12:19:51AM 2 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 03 December 2010 12:37:36AM *  2 points [-]

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 author: FAWS 03 December 2010 03:49:16AM 3 points [-]

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 author: erratio 03 December 2010 05:18:33AM 2 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 04 December 2010 05:28:08PM 3 points [-]

Some people might take it poorly. But who cares?

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

Comment author: WrongBot 03 December 2010 01:06:15AM 2 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 02 December 2010 10:59:47AM 6 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 02 December 2010 11:39:54PM 0 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 01:11:43AM 6 points [-]

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 author: Zvi 07 December 2010 10:26:58PM 1 point [-]

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 author: Alicorn 02 December 2010 02:19:01PM 0 points [-]

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 author: Normal_Anomaly 07 December 2010 11:34:03PM 11 points [-]

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 author: wstrinz 07 December 2010 11:50:09PM 5 points [-]

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 author: Viliam_Bur 08 October 2011 10:53:24AM 5 points [-]

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 author: PhilGoetz 01 December 2010 09:40:30PM *  31 points [-]

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 <edit>health</edit>, 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 author: Douglas_Knight 04 December 2010 03:36:13PM 4 points [-]

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 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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 09:42:28PM *  7 points [-]

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 author: juliawise 08 October 2011 01:04:27PM 2 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 02 December 2010 01:00:45AM 2 points [-]

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 author: James_Miller 01 December 2010 03:35:15PM *  9 points [-]

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 author: derefr 01 December 2010 09:05:57PM 2 points [-]

The errors of others, or the errors of those of superior social ranking? Do Korean teachers refrain from correcting students?

Comment author: James_Miller 01 December 2010 10:45:54PM 5 points [-]

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 author: Zvi 08 December 2010 01:30:24PM 1 point [-]

Does that cause them to attempt to create as many distinct social strata as possible?

Comment author: Mattyfo 01 December 2010 01:32:41PM 9 points [-]

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 author: AlanCrowe 01 December 2010 05:08:46PM 35 points [-]

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 author: Wei_Dai 08 June 2011 06:52:05PM 4 points [-]

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 author: MixedNuts 08 June 2011 07:28:22PM 7 points [-]

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 author: Wei_Dai 08 June 2011 07:33:07PM *  4 points [-]

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 author: MichaelVassar 17 January 2014 09:17:07AM 1 point [-]

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 author: patrissimo 15 December 2010 04:01:02AM 4 points [-]

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 author: Zvi 07 December 2010 10:45:52PM 4 points [-]

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 author: patrissimo 15 December 2010 04:07:27AM 4 points [-]

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 author: shokwave 15 December 2010 04:26:36AM 1 point [-]

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 author: Psychohistorian 01 December 2010 10:28:38PM *  8 points [-]

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 author: Jack 03 December 2010 04:36:59AM *  20 points [-]

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 author: patrissimo 15 December 2010 04:12:24AM 6 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 04:52:22AM *  3 points [-]

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 author: Jack 03 December 2010 05:42:42AM 0 points [-]

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 author: Kingreaper 03 December 2010 01:04:28PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 December 2010 04:17:00PM *  7 points [-]

"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 author: David_Gerard 04 December 2010 07:36:19PM *  5 points [-]

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 author: Perplexed 05 December 2010 04:52:37PM *  3 points [-]

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 author: shokwave 05 December 2010 04:08:50PM 2 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 05 December 2010 05:30:32PM 5 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 05 December 2010 05:35:58PM *  1 point [-]

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 author: Mononofu 05 December 2010 03:09:17PM 1 point [-]

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 author: Alicorn 05 December 2010 03:25:07PM 8 points [-]

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 author: Elizabeth 03 December 2010 05:24:57AM *  7 points [-]

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 author: [deleted] 03 December 2010 02:26:13AM 19 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 03 December 2010 03:11:47AM *  2 points [-]

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 author: AlanCrowe 03 December 2010 01:29:47PM *  12 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 01:47:45PM *  0 points [-]

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 author: [deleted] 03 December 2010 04:30:35AM 11 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 03 December 2010 03:26:49AM *  4 points [-]

"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 author: TheOtherDave 03 December 2010 03:36:51AM 3 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 03 December 2010 03:55:12AM *  5 points [-]

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 author: Luke_A_Somers 23 October 2011 12:14:17PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 23 October 2011 03:06:19PM 2 points [-]

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 author: lessdazed 23 October 2011 03:35:40PM *  6 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 23 October 2011 06:20:26PM 3 points [-]

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 author: pedanterrific 23 October 2011 07:10:26PM 1 point [-]

"What time is it?!"

"It's five o'clock somewhere."

Comment author: Zvi 07 December 2010 10:55:46PM 2 points [-]

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 author: dejb 01 December 2010 02:29:32PM *  6 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 01 December 2010 03:41:18PM 6 points [-]

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 author: AstroCJ 01 December 2010 10:41:28AM 6 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 01 December 2010 02:17:10PM 2 points [-]

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 <like yours> without <revision>" is more polite (in the standard mode) than "You should add <revision>!"

It's also less polite than "Great post! I'd love to see <revision>, 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 author: piguy314 01 December 2010 01:07:52PM 14 points [-]

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 author: cata 01 December 2010 03:12:03PM *  22 points [-]

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 author: patrissimo 15 December 2010 04:45:26AM 5 points [-]

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 author: pjeby 01 December 2010 01:55:13PM 5 points [-]

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 author: Perplexed 01 December 2010 05:19:54PM 10 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 07:49:30PM 4 points [-]

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 author: shokwave 01 December 2010 02:07:38PM 4 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 03:12:54PM *  5 points [-]

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 author: shokwave 01 December 2010 05:42:13PM 1 point [-]

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 author: Perplexed 01 December 2010 07:57:43PM 9 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 07:38:20PM *  6 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 01 December 2010 07:52:16PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: shokwave 01 December 2010 08:44:57PM *  1 point [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 07:52:58PM 3 points [-]

"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 author: rwallace 02 December 2010 03:22:48AM 18 points [-]

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 author: erratio 01 December 2010 11:27:44AM 16 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 02:09:55PM *  18 points [-]

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 author: erratio 01 December 2010 08:15:13PM 3 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 09:19:16PM *  7 points [-]

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 author: erratio 01 December 2010 10:08:21PM 5 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 10:12:07PM *  1 point [-]

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 author: erratio 01 December 2010 10:36:55PM 8 points [-]

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 author: AlanCrowe 03 December 2010 02:49:38PM 4 points [-]

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 author: Perplexed 01 December 2010 11:35:11PM 1 point [-]

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 author: wedrifid 01 December 2010 11:40:18PM 4 points [-]

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 author: Luke_A_Somers 23 October 2011 11:29:12AM 1 point [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 01 December 2010 02:07:20PM 4 points [-]

(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 author: erratio 01 December 2010 08:18:27PM *  3 points [-]

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 author: wnoise 01 December 2010 11:33:09PM 3 points [-]

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 author: sketerpot 01 December 2010 06:33:17PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: NancyLebovitz 02 December 2010 12:30:49AM 8 points [-]

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 author: Zvi 07 December 2010 11:18:32PM 1 point [-]

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 author: clarissethorn 03 December 2010 04:07:32AM *  4 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 02 December 2010 06:43:25AM 4 points [-]

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 author: orthonormal 01 December 2010 08:46:36PM 4 points [-]

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 author: Kevin 01 December 2010 11:15:11AM 4 points [-]
Comment author: cata 01 December 2010 07:34:36PM *  10 points [-]

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 author: nerzhin 01 December 2010 10:49:08PM 13 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 10:01:48AM 2 points [-]

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 author: cousin_it 01 December 2010 03:03:44PM *  8 points [-]

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 author: Bongo 01 December 2010 08:28:20PM 11 points [-]

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 author: Friendly-HI 09 May 2013 09:53:17PM *  3 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 10 May 2013 12:52:00AM 2 points [-]

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 author: pure-awesome 03 September 2013 11:38:01PM *  1 point [-]

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 author: Luke_A_Somers 09 May 2013 10:27:12PM 2 points [-]

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 author: wstrinz 07 December 2010 05:44:45PM 3 points [-]

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 author: Hyena 03 December 2010 04:15:10AM 3 points [-]

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 author: JoshuaZ 01 December 2010 07:02:37PM 3 points [-]

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 author: TheOtherDave 01 December 2010 07:19:37PM 2 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 10:18:03AM *  1 point [-]

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 author: ernop 01 December 2010 04:19:06PM 3 points [-]

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 author: kybernetikos 01 December 2010 03:01:26PM *  3 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 12:13:12PM *  6 points [-]

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 author: Perplexed 06 December 2010 10:11:36PM *  7 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 07 December 2010 05:05:19AM 1 point [-]

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 author: wedrifid 07 December 2010 05:40:56AM *  -1 points [-]

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 author: erratio 06 December 2010 09:20:02PM 6 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 07 December 2010 05:11:04AM 1 point [-]

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 author: erratio 07 December 2010 08:52:32AM *  7 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 08 December 2010 06:07:10AM 3 points [-]

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 author: erratio 11 December 2010 10:42:54AM *  2 points [-]

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 author: Viliam_Bur 08 October 2011 11:06:51AM 4 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 01 December 2010 11:28:53AM *  4 points [-]

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 author: tenshiko 07 December 2010 11:15:23PM 2 points [-]

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 author: NancyLebovitz 02 December 2010 01:19:21AM 2 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 09:50:21AM *  4 points [-]

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 author: [deleted] 01 December 2010 12:51:54PM 2 points [-]

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 author: cousin_it 03 December 2010 02:07:32PM *  5 points [-]

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 author: Luke_A_Somers 23 October 2011 11:55:52AM *  3 points [-]

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 author: luminosity 01 December 2010 12:21:02PM *  3 points [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 31 July 2013 07:20:40PM *  2 points [-]

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 author: Gust 20 December 2011 03:05:10AM *  2 points [-]

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 author: MrUst 03 December 2010 12:07:40PM 2 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 09:16:17AM 3 points [-]

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 author: lsparrish 01 December 2010 02:46:57PM 2 points [-]

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 author: thomblake 03 December 2010 12:25:03AM 1 point [-]

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 author: David_Gerard 03 December 2010 01:06:47AM 4 points [-]

Evil? Really?

Comment author: thomblake 03 December 2010 01:20:29AM 2 points [-]

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 author: lsparrish 03 December 2010 01:21:49AM *  5 points [-]

Ignorance kills.

Not if it is an inconsequential detail like who wrote what book...

Comment author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 01:24:41AM *  1 point [-]

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 author: nickernst 03 December 2010 04:35:32AM 3 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 03 December 2010 04:09:21AM *  3 points [-]

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 author: lionhearted 03 December 2010 02:57:24AM 5 points [-]

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 author: thomblake 03 December 2010 02:22:08PM 2 points [-]

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 author: Desrtopa 03 December 2010 03:31:17PM 3 points [-]

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 author: wedrifid 03 December 2010 01:20:19AM 1 point [-]

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 author: Hey 03 December 2010 06:40:07PM 1 point [-]

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 author: trlkly 25 April 2012 01:35:43AM *  1 point [-]

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 author: wgd 25 April 2012 02:22:26AM *  3 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 08:51:15AM 1 point [-]

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 author: booyabazooka 04 December 2010 05:47:55PM *  -1 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 06 December 2010 09:05:41AM 4 points [-]

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 author: Luke_A_Somers 23 October 2011 11:40:27AM *  3 points [-]

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 author: Relsqui 23 October 2011 11:56:18AM 1 point [-]

Oh, thoroughly agreed. That was an observation, not an advocation.

Comment author: michaelsullivan 25 April 2012 03:45:35PM *  1 point [-]

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.