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Tell Culture

109 BrienneYudkowsky 18 January 2014 08:13PM

Followup to: Ask and Guess

Ask culture: "I'll be in town this weekend for a business trip. Is it cool if I crash at your place?" Response: “Yes“ or “no”.

Guess culture: "Hey, great news! I'll be in town this weekend for a business trip!" Response: Infer that they might be telling you this because they want something from you, conclude that they might want a place to stay, and offer your hospitality only if you want to. Otherwise, pretend you didn’t infer that.

The two basic rules of Ask Culture: 1) Ask when you want something. 2) Interpret things as requests and feel free to say "no".

The two basic rules of Guess Culture: 1) Ask for things if, and *only* if, you're confident the person will say "yes". 2) Interpret requests as expectations of "yes", and, when possible, avoid saying "no".

Both approaches come with costs and benefits. In the end, I feel pretty strongly that Ask is superior. 

But these are not the only two possibilities!

"I'll be in town this weekend for a business trip. I would like to stay at your place, since it would save me the cost of a hotel, plus I would enjoy seeing you and expect we’d have some fun. I'm looking for other options, though, and would rather stay elsewhere than inconvenience you." Response: “I think I need some space this weekend. But I’d love to get a beer or something while you’re in town!” or “You should totally stay with me. I’m looking forward to it.”

There is a third alternative, and I think it's probably what rationalist communities ought to strive for. I call it "Tell Culture".

The two basic rules of Tell Culture: 1) Tell the other person what's going on in your own mind whenever you suspect you'd both benefit from them knowing. (Do NOT assume others will accurately model your mind without your help, or that it will even occur to them to ask you questions to eliminate their ignorance.) 2) Interpret things people tell you as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance.

Suppose you’re in a conversation that you’re finding aversive, and you can’t figure out why. Your goal is to procure a rain check.

  • Guess: *You see this annoyed body language? Huh? Look at it! If you don’t stop talking soon I swear I’ll start tapping my foot.* (Or, possibly, tell a little lie to excuse yourself. “Oh, look at the time…”) 
  • Ask: “Can we talk about this another time?”
  • Tell: "I'm beginning to find this conversation aversive, and I'm not sure why. I propose we hold off until I've figured that out."

Here are more examples from my own life:

  • "I didn't sleep well last night and am feeling frazzled and irritable today. I apologize if I snap at you during this meeting. It isn’t personal." 
  • "I just realized this interaction will be far more productive if my brain has food. I think we should head toward the kitchen." 
  • "It would be awfully convenient networking for me to stick around for a bit after our meeting to talk with you and [the next person you're meeting with]. But on a scale of one to ten, it's only about 3 useful to me. If you'd rate the loss of utility for you as two or higher, then I have a strong preference for not sticking around." 

The burden of honesty is even greater in Tell culture than in Ask culture. To a Guess culture person, I imagine much of the above sounds passive aggressive or manipulative, much worse than the rude bluntness of mere Ask. It’s because Guess people aren’t expecting relentless truth-telling, which is exactly what’s necessary here.

If you’re occasionally dishonest and tell people you want things you don't actually care about--like their comfort or convenience--they’ll learn not to trust you, and the inherent freedom of the system will be lost. They’ll learn that you only pretend to care about them to take advantage of their reciprocity instincts, when in fact you’ll count them as having defected if they respond by stating a preference for protecting their own interests.

Tell culture is cooperation with open source codes.

This kind of trust does not develop overnight. Here is the most useful Tell tactic I know of for developing that trust with a native Ask or Guess. It’s saved me sooooo much time and trouble, and I wish I’d thought of it earlier.

"I'm not asking because I expect you to say ‘yes’. I'm asking because I'm having trouble imagining the inside of your head, and I want to understand better. You are completely free to say ‘no’, or to tell me what you’re thinking right now, and I promise it will be fine." It is amazing how often people quickly stop looking shifty and say 'no' after this, or better yet begin to discuss further details.

Mental Metadata

28 Alicorn 30 March 2011 03:07AM

Once when I was probably eleven-ish, I asked a friend of my family who had just gotten a new car, "What kind of car is it?"  He began to tell me the make and model and the interesting features of this particular vehicle.

I interrupted him, and said, "I meant, what color is it?"

This is just a mildly cute story about how little I knew or cared about cars at age eleven-ish, but it uncovers a communication issue that applies to people who are not eleven-ish anymore.  I should have just asked in the first place what color the car was, since that was what I wanted to know.  Asking what kind it was allowed a misunderstanding to creep into the interaction, since "kind" doesn't have a fixed meaning as regards cars and my interlocutor attached his own understanding of the question when he interpreted it.  I didn't correctly pin down the metadata of my question, so he didn't know what kind of answer I was looking for.

Garbled or missing metadata can cost time and cause fights, so I have developed a number of techniques to mitigate or eliminate it, both incoming and outgoing.  They're pretty simple to apply, and bringing them to bear early is very instrumentally useful both for social and informational reasons.

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Levels of communication

52 Kaj_Sotala 23 March 2010 09:32PM

Communication fails when the participants in a conversation aren't talking about the same thing. This can be something as subtle as having slightly differing mappings of verbal space to conceptual space, or it can be a question of being on entirely different levels of conversation. There are at least four such levels: the level of facts, the level of status, the level of values, and the level of socialization. I suspect that many people with rationalist tendencies tend to operate primarily on the fact level and assume others to be doing so as well, which might lead to plenty of frustration.

The level of facts. This is the most straightforward one. When everyone is operating on the level of facts, they are detachedly trying to discover the truth about a certain subject. Pretty much nothing else than the facts matter.

The level of status. Probably the best way of explaining what happens when everyone is operating on the level of status is the following passage, originally found in Keith Johnstone's Impro

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