PSYCHOLOGY: Politeness in Communication

David Musick (
Sat, 18 Jan 97 03:23:11 UT

Lee Daniel Crocker is concerned that I have fallen prey to some dangerous,
evil memes, such as "Argument is a zero-sum contest.", "You shouldn't offend
people.", and "People can be hurt by words.". I am grateful that he is
concerned for my mental welfare, but I am not clear on why these memes are
dangerous or evil. My comments on each meme follow:

-- "Argument is a zero-sum contest." --

The typical argument, that people generally engage in, where each is pitted
relentlessly against the other to prove their point *is* a zero-sum game (most
often a negative-sum game), and I don't recommend that people engage in these
sorts of exchanges if their purpose is to develop a healthy relationship with
each other. If both participants are open-minded and rational, then the
argument can be used to help them each develop their understanding of the
issue and would then be a positive-sum game. So, an argumentative
conversational style could be either a negative, zero or positive-sum
exchange, depending on the approach of the participants.

However, I believe that a discussion-based conversational style works even
better than an argumentative one in exploring most issues. It allows all
participants to point out the strengths and weaknesses in the ideas under
disscussion rather than constraining the participants to point out only the
strengths of their own position and the weaknesses of the other participants'
positions, as the argumentative style does. Each participant is encouraged to
consider all viewpoints and express their analysis of each one. The purpose
of the discussion is to explore and come to an understanding of whatever is
under discussion. No one is pitted against another; all the participants are
working cooperatively to assist each other's understanding of the issue under
discussion. This conversational style encourages participants to be open to
each other's views and to think about things from different perspectives than
they are accustomed to.

-- "You shouldn't offend people." --

As for the meme, "You shouldn't offend people."; perhaps it should be
qualified, to say, "You shouldn't offend people, if your intent is to develop
a healthy relationship with them." Whether you should offend people or not
depends on your goals. Since I am very interested in developing healthy,
supportive relationships with many people, I am careful not to say or do
things which I believe will be offensive to those I am dealing with. I
sometimes consider my entire life to be my own, personal business, and I
intend to have an excellent Customer Service department. I want people to
like me and to trust me and to give others good references to me.

Of course, sometimes I don't know what will offend a person and what wont.
For example, someone reading this may become rantingly furious because I left
out an apostrophe in my last sentence. How am I to know that beforehand,
since most people *aren't* deeply offended by missing punctuation? But if I
discover that my behavior is upsetting to someone, and if I value my
relationship with them more than I value the effort required to alter my
actions, I will alter my actions, so that I do not damage my relationship with
them. If I don't value my relationship with them enough, and if I do not
think they will interfere with my goals too much when they are angry at me,
then I will act however I please towards them.

-- "People can be hurt by words." --

"People can be hurt by words.", is not literally true, but it is true that
certain belief structures will cause their hosts to feel anger or humiliation
or fear or many other emotions. In most cultures there are many words and
phrases which members of the culture are expected to react to in certain ways.
For example, in American culture, if someone says something like, "You're an
asshole!" to someone else, the recipient of the message is expected to feel
the emotion, 'anger', and then proclaim something equally ridiculous about the
one delivering the message. The exchange is expected to end when one of them
stomps away, feeling great anger, or often the participants will be expected
to disrupt the normal functioning of each other's bodies by sharply impacting
each other's bodies with their own bodies (usually their hands, tensed up into
fists) or with other objects, such as clubs, knives or guns.

Words may not literally hurt people, but while living in a human culture that
encourages much conflict among its members (as the American culture does), I
am careful not to inadvertantly (or deliberately) challenge another to a duel.
I don't wish to be in conflict with others. I don't enjoy injuring others or
being injured by others. I don't generally enjoy giving others their cues
that they are to become upset now. I know the cue I give is not *causing*
them to be upset, but I also know that most people *will* react in the
expected manner to their cues; they're very well trained.

I'm still unsure why Mr. Crocker believes these memes are dangerous or evil.
I see them as fairly useful pieces of advice when applied appropriately and
when one's goal is to develop many strong and beneficial relationships with
other people. I suppose that if one interpreted those statements to mean that
one should sacrafice one's own freedom to please other people, that would be
harmful, but if one realizes that being considerate of other people's desires
and prefrences will generally help one achieve one's goals more effectively
than antagonizing others will, then the statements are good advice.

- David Musick

-- The most selfish acts are usually the most beneficial to everyone; working
cooperatively with others is generally the best way to accomplish your own
goals. --