Monday, February 6, 2017

It's the Wording, Stupid!

It’s the wording, stupid!

Sometimes, how you say it is as important as what you say.

When someone asks you do something that you don’t want to do, how should you respond? Do you say that you have another engagement, thus that you cannot do it, or do you simply refuse to do it?

The former is polite. The latter is rude. Naturally, a recent study suggests that you should opt for rudeness, for being confrontational and direct. It’s bad advice, but let’s examine it anyway.

… in a recent post on Mental Floss, Shaunacy Ferro highlighted some advice for getting better at “no,” in work and in life: Choose your words carefully. A refusal that includes “don’t” — as in, “I don’t answer emails on a Saturday night” — is more powerful than one centered around “can’t.”

It may be more powerful, but if you receive an email that calls for your immediate attention, saying that you don’t answer emails on Saturday night makes you look churlish, rude and dismissive. It makes you look like a perfectly self-involved fool. You would do better to say that you did not receive it. But, if you do receive it and it requires your attention, telling yourself that you don’t respond to emails on Saturday night will make you look like you have bad character.

This example concerns how you interact with other human beings. What you tell yourself is a different story. Take these examples, from the article:

Saying “I don’t eat X” when tempted by an unhealthy snack, for example, made participants feel more “psychologically empowered” than using “can’t.” The same held true with a scenario about resolving to exercise each day: “I don’t skip my workout” was a more powerful motivator to get to the gym than “I can’t skip my workout.”

Of course, if someone offers you an unhealthy snack, the best response is: No, thank you. I would rather not. Telling yourself: “I don’t eat chips” will not make you look very good in the eyes of other people. 

As for your workout, I will confess to you that the phrase: “I don’t skip my workout” is poorly expressed and borderline agrammatical. Besides, why all the negativity? How about telling  yourself that you should do your workout, that it is good for your health, that it will provide manifold benefits for body and mind. At worst, you should say that you have to do your workout, or attend a yoga class, or whatever. The phrases chosen by the so-called experts are simply off the mark.

To balance out the issue here Jane Brody has written a column about the right and the wrong ways to apologize. Her column is based on a new book on the subject by Harriet Lerner. I do not know that book, but Brody’s column is first rate.

When you offend someone, by word or deed, you are obligated to repair the damage by offering an apology. When you apologize you are saying that you are taking back what you said, undoing what you did, by saying that it was unintended and that you will never do it again.

As Lerner and Brody point out, apologies only have value if they are unambiguous, if the person apologizing takes full responsibility for his actions, does not tack on an excuse and does not try to weasel out of by saying: “I am sorry you feel that way.” A sincere apology requires that you humble yourself for something you did. The latter sentence shifts the focus and the blame.

Moreover, Lerner notes, a sincere apology should not contain a request for forgiveness. If the other person chooses to forgive you, that is a good thing. If you ask for forgiveness you are depriving the other person of the freedom to judge whether the apology was sincere, thus, that your offense was unintentional and that you really will not do it again.

Importantly, Brody says, apologies are designed to repair relationship conflict, to eliminate the drama. It is better to apologize than to talk it out or even to act it out. Apologies are designed to restore harmony, not to produce even more cacophony. The powers of a sincere apology are almost medicinal.

She describes an interesting conflict she had with a neighbor:

After learning that a neighbor who had assaulted me verbally was furious about an oversight I had not known I committed, I wrote a letter in hopes of defusing the hostility. Without offering any excuses, I apologized for my lapse in etiquette and respect. I said I was not asking for or expecting forgiveness, merely that I hoped we could have a civil, if not friendly, relationship going forward, then delivered the letter with a jar of my homemade jam.

Expecting nothing in return, I was greatly relieved when my doorbell rang and the neighbor thanked me warmly for what I had said and done. My relief was palpable. I felt as if I’d not only discarded an enemy but made a new friend, which is indeed how it played out in the days that followed.

Note that the neighbor’s anger was a message. She was communicating something to Brody. She was telling asking her to recognize that she had committed an offense. The neighbor was not simply getting it off her chest or expressing her feelings. One does better to consider the expression of anger like a move in a chess game than a dramatic outburst purging a negative emotion.

Once Brody recognized her own failing, she apologized. As for the neighbor’s anger, it dissipated. It is important for those who belong to the psycho world to recognize that these feelings of anger have a place in a human interaction and can be eliminated by righting the human connection.

Importantly, Brody does not try to render her own bad behavior meaningful. She does not try to understand where it came from. She does not submit it to therapeutic introspection. She does not seek out infantile causes. She does not try to find a diagnosis.

In other words she does not do what therapists have always promoted as the way to resolve unruly, negative emotions. The therapeutic approach invites people not to apologize. It invites them to try to discover why they did what that did. If they should choose to apologize, they will have learned from therapy to qualify the apology with an explanation. They will explain that they did it because of their bad upbringing or a childhood trauma or because they were mad at someone else—i.e. transference. The therapeutic approach might even tell them that if they humble themselves by offering an apology they have a constitutional right to receive something in return.

Rather than resolve dramatic confrontation, the therapy culture promotes a way of behaving that will compound your problems. Thus, the approach promoted by Harriet Lerner and Jane Brody represents a great leap forward. 


Trigger Warning said...

SS: "When you offend someone, by word or deed, you are obligated to repair the damage..."

No, Schneiderman, you are not.

To begin with, having hurt feelings is not "damage". At least in any meaningful sense of the word.

More important, however, is the simple fact that individuals exist whose feelings are so exquisitely sensitive to "microaggressions" that common words and simple questions could create an "obligation to repair".

Fox News headline: "Texas County Official Sees Race in Term 'Black Hole'"


Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

Trigger Warning has a good point. The whole problem with "offense" is that it subjective, and some people will be offended at the slightest "trigger", while others will avoid confrontation on "mistakes", as long as it seems the offense wasn't intentional.

Stuart may be 100% right in the context of "true shame cultures", but there maybe different contexts and each may demand different strategies,

I remember Thom Hartmann gave a personal story where he made some teasing remark about someone, and he didn't realize he was breaking a cultural taboo. But rather than reprimand him, the group members offered stories of other situations where similar transgressions were expressed, and after 2 or 3 testimonials, it was clear to Thom that he had been rude, and their example helped him find the proper words to correct himself and apologize.

That was interesting to me because it suggested "showing you're offended" can be as taboo as "being offensive." So communication styles were designed to side-step the personal in the moment, and keep it safely ritualized into proper behavior.

Myself, I've never done well with being teased, however friendly, and usually I'll pretend it didn't even happen if I can get away with that. But I've seen families where teasing is almost constant, and actually a sign of affection, and the "proper" response is a good comeback, rather than sulking away hurt until the offender steps up and apologizes.

Avoiding rudeness can go so far that no actual conflicts can be expressed, and perhaps inferior results will come out. And Trump's "I don't have time for being politically correct" may sometimes be necessary to break open topics that need discussion despite the discomfort.

Probably the middle ground is having the skills to be able to inhabit both contexts, the impersonal, where technical problems are faced, where no personal offense is allowed to be expressed, and the personal, where you really are responsible to for other people's hurt feelings. And the real skills are knowing where you are and how to move between these, and what to do when someone falls on the wrong side.

This article sort of deals with this subject too, looking at contempt and power, basically putting responsibility on the powerful to not abuse their power to silence potentially weaker voices.
In his essay, “Freedom and Resentment,” P.F. Strawson described it as the difference between a participant attitude and an objective attitude. When we view others with a participant attitude, we regard them as fellow moral agents, accountable for what they say and do.

When we view them with an objective attitude, we see them not as agents, but as objects to be managed or perhaps obstacles to be overcome. Contempt functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency.

This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community.

Contempt occurs in the context of social relationships that are themselves characterized by power differences. Those power differences have a profound effect on the shape of contempt and its effectiveness in diminishing the agency of its target. A contemptuous protest sign directed at the president is not on par with a contemptuous remark made by that president. ... Contempt expressed by the socially powerful toward the socially vulnerable is a much greater moral danger than contempt that flows in the opposite direction.

David Foster said...

AO..."A contemptuous protest sign directed at the president is not on par with a contemptuous remark made by that president"

How about a contemptuous comment or protest sign directed at the broad range of the president's *supporters*, especially calling out those who are blue-collar workers and other non-college-degree holders, where the source of the contempt is a tenured professor, a well-known journalist, a wealthy celebrity, or a Silicon Valley CEO?

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster said... How about a contemptuous comment or protest sign directed at the broad range of the president's *supporters*, especially calling out those who are blue-collar workers and other non-college-degree holders, where the source of the contempt is a tenured professor, a well-known journalist, a wealthy celebrity, or a Silicon Valley CEO?

You'll have no argument from me on that, although obviously the whole problem is a conman like Trump takes easy advantage of class resentment, while having no real idea how to help. Many people hate unions that protect workers from competition, while that's about all Trump can potentially offer - protectionism.

Henry Ford had the right idea - make products that employees can afford to buy. Of course if we were willing drive Model-Ts, cars would be a lot cheaper. America car makers are not interested in making modest cars - they just need easier zero-down financing on overpowered vehicles to keep the false-dreams going, and another year of dividends for their shareholders.

We simply don't know what we should be able to expect, and the marketing world tell us lies, that we deserve the best, and financing will always be available if you sign your soul over to the devil.

And it would be nice if we could build new house for under $300k, although we have to decide we don't need 3000 square feet, 3 bathroom houses for modern a 2.8 person family.

We've designed an economy that can be great if you earn 6-figure incomes, and expect everyone else get into life-long debt in a false hope they can catch up later.

I don't see Trump telling the middle to stay out of debt and demanding modest affordable housing and cars. I suppose we can feel good at least we don't have ghost cities like China has.

And when the next economic crisis hits, families in debt will lose their jobs and will not be able to make their payments, and while too-big-to-fail corporations will demand bailouts, individual bankruptcy laws will continue to demand blood.

Adam Curtis's "The Century of Self" seems a good history lesson, how marketing took over our expectations. If you don't defend yourself against it, you become a victim, and then you pick scoundrals like Trump to punish other people for your failed choies. The Century of the Self

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares, you are the King of Kontempt.