Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture

by Ruby 5 min read9th Nov 201870 comments


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Note: This post is intended as descriptive rather than prescriptive. This post describes the cultures as I see them, together with some of their underlying rationales, arguments, advantages, and disadvantages. This post does not contain any strong or well-formed opinions of mine about ideal conversational norms, which culture is better, etc.

My foremost aim is that readers of this post will share my perception of the different conversation cultures, at which point we can begin to explore all the questions of ideal cultures, how to interact cross-culturally, culturally-mixed venues, etc., etc.

Edit: This post now has a sequel. Combat vs Nurture: Cultural Genesis clarifies some points, discusses the true difference between the cultures, and opines on the circumstances which give rise to the different cultures.

Combat Culture

I went to an orthodox Jewish high school in Australia. For most of my early teenage years, I spent one to three hours each morning debating the true meaning of abstruse phrases of Talmudic Aramaic. The majority of class time was spent sitting opposite your chavrusa (study partner, but linguistically the term has the same root as the word “friend”) arguing vehemently for your interpretation of the arcane words. I didn’t think in terms of probabilities back then, but if I had, I think at any point I would have given roughly even odds to my view vs my chavrusa’s view on most occasions. Yet that didn’t really matter. Whatever your credence, you argued as hard as you could for the view that made sense in your mind, explaining why your adversary/partner/friend’s view was utterly inconsistent with reality. That was the process. Eventually, you’d reach agreement or agree to disagree (which was perfectly legitimate), and then move onto the next passage to decipher.

Later, I studied mainstream analytic philosophy at university. There wasn’t the chavrusa, pair-study format, but the culture of debate felt the same to me. Different philosophers would write long papers explaining why philosophers holding opposite views were utterly confused and mistaken for reasons one through fifty. They’d go back and forth, each arguing for their own correctness and the others’ mistakeness with great rigor. I’m still impressed with the rigor and thoroughness of especially good analytic philosophers.

I’ll describe this style as combative, or Combat Culture. You have your view, they have their view, and you each work to prove your rightness by defending your view and attacking theirs. Occasionally one side will update, but more commonly you develop or modify your view to meet the criticisms. Overall, the pool of arguments and views develops and as a group you feel like you’ve made progress.

While it’s true that you’ll often shake your head at the folly of those who disagree with you, the fact that you’re bothering to discuss with them at all implies a certain minimum of respect and recognition. You don’t write lengthy papers or books to respond to people whose intellect you have no recognition of, people you don’t regard as peers at all.

There’s an undertone of countersignalling to healthy Combat Culture. It is because recognition and respect are so strongly assumed between parties that they can be so blunt and direct with each other. If there were any ambiguity about the common knowledge of respect, you couldn’t be blunt without the risk of offending someone. That you are blunt is evidence you do respect someone. This is portrayed clearly in a passage from Daniel’s Ellsberg recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (pp. 35-36):

From my academic life, I was used to being in the company of very smart people, but it was apparent from the beginning that this was as smart a bunch of men as I have ever encountered. That first impression never changed (though I was to learn, in the years ahead, the severe limitations of sheer intellect). And it was even better than that. In the middle of the first session, I ventured--though I was the youngest, assigned to taking notes, and obviously a total novice on the issues--to express an opinion. (I don’t remember what it was.) Rather than showing irritation or ignoring my comment, Herman Kahn, brilliant and enormously fat, sitting directly across the table from me, looked at me soberly and said, “You’re absolutely wrong.”
A warm glow spread throughout my body. This was the way my undergraduate fellows on the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson (mostly Jewish like Herman and me) had routinely spoken to each other: I hadn’t experienced anything like it for six years. At King’s College, Cambridge, or in the Society of Fellows, arguments didn’t take this gloves-off, take-no-prisoners form. I thought, “I’ve found a home.” [emphasis added]

That a senior member of the RAND group he had recently joined was willing to be completely direct in shooting down his idea didn’t cause the author to shut down in anguish and rejection, on the contrary, it made it author feel respected and included. I’ve found a home.

Nurture Culture

As I’ve experienced more of the world, I discovered that many people, perhaps even most people, strongly dislike combative discussions where they are being told that they are wrong for ten different reasons. I’m sure some readers thinking are hitting their foreheads and thinking “duh, obvious,” yet as above, it’s not obvious if you’re used to a different culture. Still, I’ve found that the dominant culture I am now exposed to, living in the Bay Area, is what I’m terming Nurture Culture.

If Combat Culture has a spirit of “let’s smash our ideas against each other until the strongest ones survive”, then Nurture Culture is “let’s work together to excavate the truth from beneath all the dirt of uncertainty” or “let’s work together to sculpt this beautiful sculpture.”

In Nurture Culture, the fundamental principle is that we’re all on the same team working for the same goals, we value and respect each other, and by extension, we appreciate all contributions and ideas. These attitudes should be expressed in how you interact with people.

These attitudes inform the priors which shape how you relate to them. If you actually respect someone’s mind and contributions, then you start with the prior that their ideas are worth taking seriously. So if someone’s idea is different from yours or seems mistaken, you orient with openness and curiosity. You don’t start listing why they must be wrong, you instead ask clarifying questions to see what it is that you missed, you be curious to see what knowledge and experience they are bringing which you might lack.

To a fair extent, it doesn’t even matter if you believe that someone is truly, deeply mistaken. It is important foremost that you validate them and their contribution, show that whatever they think, you still respect and welcome them.

In truth, I think Nurture Culture actually makes sense as the default. Combat Culture is precisely that - combative - and the body language, tone, and overall stances used are those used in Combat Culture bear resemblance to those used when are genuinely being aggressive and hostile towards others. In fact, it would only be in a minority of contexts that saying to someone “you’re absolutely wrong” would not be considered hostile. It follows that barring unusual cultural training and very specific contexts, the default is to be averse to body language and tone which is in the direction of aggression, judgment, and hostility.

The norms of Nurture Culture aren’t just about protecting feelings, however. They’re crucial to the truth-seeking purpose of communication. I think it is true universally that when someone feels genuinely threatened in conversation or fears that they might be attacked, then they will not be willing or able to fully participate in any such conversation. This applies to those whose native style is Combat Culture too, it is merely that people of different cultures do not feel threatened in all the same circumstances.

If you have not been culturally trained to view some aggressive body language and tone as not implying disrespect and dismissal, then perceiving such aggression will impede your ability to participate in conversation. The norms of Nurture Culture are designed to make people feel safe enough to engage in discussion.

It is legitimately often risky to speak up given the real chance that someone might think you’re dumb, think less of you, and like you less. This applies especially in groups and public forums. Nurture Culture assumes that only in a culture that expressly assures people that they and their ideas are wanted that they will speak up. (And crucially, you can’t allow displays of aggression which demonstrate a disturbing lack of safety).

Moreover, many very clever and knowledgeable people operate with Nurture Culture norms and assumptions. If you are not sensitive to this, you will lose out on their contributions. (I present this as a statement of fact, not as a definitive prescription for action)

This post now has a sequel. Combat vs Nurture: Cultural Genesis clarifies some points, discusses the true difference between the cultures, and opines on the circumstances which give rise to the different cultures.

Now in the Comments: Advice & Ideal/Degenerate Forms of the Cultures

Originally this post had some brief advice here as well as description of healthy/degenerate forms of the cultures. To clean up the post, I've moved it to a comment below.