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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.

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This content was moved from the main body of the post to this comment. After receiving some good feedback, I've decided I'll follow the template of "advice section in comments" for most of my posts.

Some Quick Advice


  • See if you can notice conversational cultures/styles which match what I’ve described.
  • Begin noticing if you lean towards a particular style.
  • Begin paying attention to whether those you discuss with might have a particular style, especially if it’s different from yours.
  • Start determining if different groups you’re a member of, e.g. clubs or workplaces, lean in one cultural direction or another.


  • Reflect on the advantages that cultures/styles different to your own have and others might use them instead.
  • Consider that on some occasions styles different to yours might be more appropriate.
  • Don’t assume that alternatives to your own culture are obviously wrong, stupid, bad, or lacking in skills.


  • Push yourself a little in the direction of adopting a non-default style for you. Perhaps you already do but push yourself a little more. Try doing so and feeling comfortable and open, if possible.

Ideal and Degenerate Forms of Each Culture

Unsu... (read more)

There is another story I have heard of the chavrusa. Two Talmudic students were going hammer and tongs, as they do, when one of them found himself at a loss how to reply to the other's latest argument. As he struggled in thought, the other stepped in and said, such-and-such is how you should argue against what I just said.

6mako yass5y
This is a great example of how people should go about playing competitive games with their friends, always be ready to point out ways they can do better, even if that would let them win against you. Not so sure about treating conversation as a competitive game though heh
I think this is why we make the debate/conversation distinction. It's not a perfect line, and your culture informs where it lies in any situation, but there's an idea that you switch from "we're just talking about whatever or exploring some idea" vs "we're trying to dig deep into the truth of something". Knowing when one or the other mode is appropriate is something that's often lacking in online discussions.

This is a good post; thank you for writing it. I think this dichotomy, while perhaps not a perfect categorization, is pretty good, and clarifies some things.

My background and preference is what you call “Combat Culture”. “Nurture Culture” has always seemed obviously wrong and detrimental to me, and has seemed more wrong and more detrimental the more I’ve seen it in action. This, of course, is not news, and I mention it only to give context to what I have to say.

I have two substantive comments to make:

First, “It devolves into a status game.” is something that easily can, and often does, happen to “Nurture Culture” spaces also. What this looks like is that “you are not communicating in a [ nurturing | nonviolent | prosocial | etc. ] way” gets weaponized and used as a cudgel in status plays; meanwhile, participants of higher social status skirt the letter of whatever guidelines exist to enforce a “nurturing” atmosphere, while saying and doing things whose effects are to create a chilling atmosphere and to discourage contrarian or opposing views. (And the more that “nurturing” communities attempt to pare down their “nurturing”-enforcement rules to the basics of “be nice”, the more the

... (read more)


I agree that Nurture Culture can be exploited for status too, perhaps equally so. When I was writing the post, I was thinking that Combat Culture more readily heads in that direction since in Combat Culture you are already permitted to act in ways which in other contexts would be outright power-plays, e.g. calling their ideas dumb. With Nurture Culture, it has to be more indirect, e.g. the whole "you are not conforming to the norm" thing. Thinking about it more, I'm not sure. It could be they're on par for status exploitability.

An increase in combativeness alongside familiarity and comfort matches my observation too, but I don't think it's universal - possibly a selection effect for those more natively Combative. To offer a single counterexample, my wife describes herself as being sickeningly nurturing when together with one of her closest friends. Possibly nurturing is one way to show that you care and this causes it to become ramped up in some very close relationships. Possibly it's that receiving nurturing creates warm feelings of safety, security, and comfort for some such that they provide this to each other to a higher extent in closer relationships. I'm not sure, I haven't thought about this particular aspect in depth.

To offer a single counterexample, my wife describes herself as being sickeningly nurturing when together with one of her closest friends.

I don't think they're mutually exclusive. My response in close relationships tends to be both extra combative and extra nurturing, depending on the context.

The extra combativeness comes from common knowledge of respect, as has already been discussed. The extra nurturing is more interesting, and there are multiple things going on.

Telling people when they're being dumb and having them listen can be important. If those paths haven't been carved yet, it can be important to say "this is dumb" and prove that you can be reliably right when you say things like that. Doing that productively isn't trivial, and the fight to get your words respected at full value can get in the way of nurturing. In my close relationships where I can simply say "you're being dumb" and have them stop and say "oops, what am I missing?" I sometimes do, but I'm also far more likely to be uninterested in saying that because they'll figure it out soon enough and I actually am curious why they're doing someth... (read more)

3Mary Chernyshenko5y
...I still don't get it why one needs to say "you're being dumb", when obviously the intended meaning is "you're saying/doing something dumb", in virtually all settings. If people are that close, can't they just growl at each other? Or use one of the wonderfully adaptable short words that communicate so much?..
The precise phrasing isn't important, and often "growls" do work. The important part is in knowing that you can safely express your criticisms unfiltered and they'll be taken for what they're worth.
At the risk of tediously repeating what Mary Chernyshenko said, I don’t think a key point was really addressed: If “the exact phrasing is not important” implies unbiased errors in phrasing, then it’s quite surprising that people tend to round off “your argument is bad” to “you’re dumb” so often. If, as therefore seems probable, there is a motivated tendency to do that, then it’s clearly important for some purpose and we ought to be curious about what, when we’re trying to evaluate the relation of various conversational modes to truth-seeking vs other potentially competing goals.

An outright "You're dumb" is a mistake, period, unless you actually meant to say that the person is in fact dumb. This rounding is a pure bad, and there's no need of it. Adding 'being' or 'playing' or 'doing something' before the dumb is necessary.

Part of a good combative-type culture is that you mean what you say and say what you mean, so the rounding off here is a serious problem even before the (important) feelings/status issue.

Your response here and Ruby's both seem rude to me: you're providing a (helpful) clarification, but doing that without either addressing the substantive issue directly or noting that you're not doing that. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a big deal, but when the whole point of my comment was that jimmy ignored Mary's substantive point I think it's obnoxious to then ignore my substantive point about Mary's substantive point being ignored.
FWIW, “jimmy ignored Mary’s substantive point” is both uncharitable and untrue, and both “making uncharitable and untrue statements as if they were uncontested fact” and “stating that you find things obnoxious in cases where people might disagree about what is appropriate instead of offering an argument as to why it shouldn’t be done” stand out as far more obnoxious to me. I normally would just ignore it (because again, I think saying “I think that’s obnoxious” is generally obnoxious and unhelpful) but given your comment you’ll probably either find the feedback helpful or else it’ll help you change your mind about whether it's helpful to call out things one finds to be obnoxious :P
I emphatically agree with Zvi about the mistakeness of saying "you're dumb." In my own words: 1) "You're absolutely wrong" is strong language, but not unreasonable in a combative culture if that's what you believe and you're honestly reporting it. 2a) "You're saying/doing something dumb" becomes a bit more personal than when making a statement about a particular view. Though I think it's rare that one have need to say this, and it's only appropriate when levels of trust and respect are very high. 2b) "You're being dumb" is a little harsher than "saying/doing something dumb." The two don't register as much different to me, however, though they do to Mary Chernyshenko? 3) "You're dumb" (introduced in this discussion by Benquo) is now making a general statement about someone else and is very problematic. It erodes the assumptions of respect which make combative-type cultures feasible in the first place. I'd say that conversations where people are calling others dumb to their faces are not situations I'd think of as healthy, good-faith, combative-type conversations. [As an aside, even mild "that seems wrong to me"-type statements should be recognized as potentially combative. There are many contexts where any explicit disagreement registers as hostile or contrarian.]
7Mary Chernyshenko5y
(Not important, but my supervisor was a great man who tended to revel in combat settings and to say smth like "You're being dumb" more often than other versions, & though everybody understood what he meant, it destroyed his team eventually. People found themselves better things to do, as, of course, people generally should. This is where I'm coming from.)

The exact phrasing isn't important, but conveying the right message is. As Zvi and Ruby note, that “being”/”doing”/etc part is important. “You’re dumb” is not an acceptable alternative because it does not mean the same thing. “Your argument is bad” is also unacceptable because it also means something completely different.

"Your argument is bad" only means “your argument is bad”, and it is possible to go about things in a perfectly reasonable way and still have bad arguments sometimes. It is completely different than a situation where someone is failing to notice problems in their arguments which would be obvious to them if they weren’t engaging in motivated cognition and muddying their own thinking. An inability to think well is quite literally what “dumb” is, and “being dumb” is a literal description of what they’re doing, not a sloppy or motivated attempt to say or pretend to be saying something else.

As far as “then why does it always come out that way”, besides the fact that “you’re being dumb” is far quicker to say than the more neutral “you’re engaging in motivated cognition”, in my experience it doesn’t always or even usually come out that way — and in fact oft... (read more)

2Mary Chernyshenko5y
yeah, it's not important, it just keeps happening that way, doesn't it.
I'm in agreement with you, with the caveat that there's a paradox of, "bring yourself". Where people show courage in the face of potential pain for vulnerability and they feel stronger and better about the whole thing. However this courage thing is complicated by the fact that emotions don't bite in the same way as physical dogs bite. There is a lot more space to be in uncomfortable emotions and not die than is expected from the sense of discomfort that comes with them.

Two dimensions independent of the two cultures

Having been inspired by the comments here, I'm now thinking that there are two communication dimensions at play here within the Cultures. The correlation between these dimensions and the Cultures is incomplete which has been causing confusion.

1) The adversarial-collaborative dimension. Adversarial communication is each side attacking the other's views while defending their own. Collaborative communication is openness and curiosity to each other's ideas. As Ben Pace describes it:

I'll say a thing, and you'll add to it. Lots of 'yes-and'. If you disagree, then we'll step back a bit, and continue building where we can both see the truth. If I disagree, I won't attack your idea, but I'll simply notice I'm confused about a piece of the structure we're building, and ask you to add something else instead, or wonder why you'd want to build it that way.

2) The "emotional concern and effort" dimension. Communication can be conducted with little attention or effort placed on ensuring the emotional comfort of the participants, often resulting in a directness or bluntness (b... (read more)

I think this is 2-dimension schema is pretty good. The original dichotomy bothered me a bit (like it was overwriting important detail) but this one doesn’t.

One more correlated but distinct dimension I’d propose is whether the participants are trying to maximize (and therefore learn a lot) or minimize (and therefore avoid conflict) the scope of the argument.

US courts tend to take an (adversarial, low emotional concern, minimize) point of view, while scientific experiments are supposed to maximize the implications of disagreement.

Interesting, though I'm not sure I fully understand your meaning. Do you mind elaborating your examples a touch?

American judges like to decide cases in ways that clarify undetermined areas of law as little as possible. This is oriented towards preserving the stability of the system. If a case can be decided on a technicality that allows a court to avoid opining on some broader issue, the court will often take that way out. Consider the US Supreme Court's decision on the gay wedding cake - the court put off a decision on the core issue by instead finding a narrower procedural reason to doubt the integrity of the decisionmaking body that sanctioned the baker. Both sides in a case have an incentive to avoid asking courts to overturn precedents, since that reduces their chance of victory.

Plea bargains are another example where the thing the court is mainly trying to do is resolve conflicting interests with minimal work, not learn what happened.

In general, if you see the interesting thing about arguments as the social conflict, finding creative ways to avoid the need for the argument helps you defuse fights faster and more reliably, at the expense of learning.

By contrast, in science, the best experiments and ones scientists are rewarded for seeking out are ones that overturn existing models ... (read more)

6Ben Pace5y
That is such a respectable social norm, to try and make as conservative a statement about norms as possible whenever you're given the opportunity (as opposed to many people's natural instincts which is to try to paint a big picture that seems important and true to them).
Could you clarify your references a bit? None of my guesses as to the connection between my comment and your reply are such a good fit as to make me confident that I've understood what you're saying.
Thanks, that was clarifying and helpful.

[Update: the new version is now live!!]

[Author writing here.]

The initial version of this post was written quickly on a whim, but given the value people have gotten from this post (as evidenced by the 2018 Review nomination and reviews), I think it warrants a significant update which I plan to write in time for possibly publication in a book, and ideally the Review voting stage.

Things I plan to include in the update:

  • Although dichotomies (X vs. Y) are easy to remember and talk about, different conversational cultures differ on multiple dimensions, and that ought to be addressed explicitly.
  • It's easy to round-off the cultures to something simpler than I intended, and I want to ward against that. For example, the healthy Combat Culture I advocate requires a a basis of trust between participants. Absent that, you don't have the culture I was pointing at.
  • Relatedly, an updated post should incorporate some of the ideas I mentioned in the sequel about the conditions that give rise to different cultures.
  • A concept which crystallized for me since writing the post is that of "the significance of a speech act" and how this crucially differs between cultures.
  • The tradeoffs between the two cultures
... (read more)

This is a false dichotomy. But whenever someone marks two points on an otherwise featureless map, typically the rest of the space of possibilities that the world explodes with disappears from the minds of the participants. People end up saying "combat good, nurture bad", or the reverse, and then defend their position by presenting ways in which one is good and ways in which the other is bad. Or someone expatiates on the good and bad qualities of each one, in multiple permutations, and ends up with a Ribbonfarm post.

Said Achmiz has spoken eloquently of bad things that happen in "nurture culture". For examples of bad things in "combat culture", see any snark-based community, such as 4chan or rationalwiki. All of these things are destructive of epistemic quality. (If anything, nurture goes more wrong than combat, because it presents a smile, a knife in the back, and crocodile tears, while snark wields its weapons openly.)

When you leave out all of the ways that either supposed culture can go wrong, what is left of them? In a culture without snark or smothering, good ideas will be accepted, and constructively built on, not extinguished. Bad ideas will be po... (read more)

One might even say that all functioning communities are alike; each dysfunctional community is dysfunctional in its own way. "For men are good in but one way, but bad in many."
Communication can be direct and unambiguous when it doesn’t need to be “cushioned” to protect feelings.

I don't believe that communication becomes direct in a combative discussion. Participants in a combative discussion usually try to hide spots where they or their arguments are vulnerable. This means it's harder to get at the true rejection of the other person.

There's a huge problem in our Western culture where having knowledge is seen as the ability to have a opinion about a topic that can be effectively defended intellectually instead of knowledge being the ability to interact directly with the real world or to make predictions about it.

In a combative environment I can't speak about those things that I know to be true where I can make good predictions but that I can't defend intellectually in a way that makes sense to the person I'm speaking with.

I find this to be true, but only to a point. Those blind spots in our beliefs are usually subconscious, and so in non-combative discussion they just never come up at all. In combative discussion you find yourself defending them even without consciously realizing why you're so worried about that part of your belief (something something Belief in Belief). I almost always find that when I've engaged in a combative discussion I'll update around an hour later, when I notice ways I defended my position that are silly in hindsight.

This is an excellent point, and I too have had this experience.

Very relevant to this are Arthur Schopenhauer’s comments in the introduction to his excellent Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten (usually translated as The Art of Controversy). Schopenhauer comments on people’s vanity, irrationality, stubbornness, and tendency toward rationalization:

If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim than the discovery of truth; we should not in the least care whether the truth proved to be in favour of the opinion which we had begun by expressing, or of the opinion of our adversary. That we should regard as a matter of no moment, or, at any rate, of very secondary consequence; but, as things are, it is the main concern. Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not suffer us to allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary’s right. The way out of this difficulty would be simply to take the trouble always to form a correct judgment. For this a man would have to think before he spoke. But, with most men, innate vanity is accompanied by loquacity and innate dishonesty. They spe

... (read more)
I see no apriori reason to think that the average adversarial collaboration was combative in nature. The whole idea was to get the people to collabarate and that collabartion will lead to a good outcome.
Understanding the blind spots of the person you are talking with and bringing them to their awareness is a skill. It might very well be that you are not used to talking to people who have that skill set. If you follow a procedure like double crux and the person you are talking with have a decent skill-level there's a good chance that they will point out blind spots to you. "silly" is a pretty big requirement. It would be better if people don't need to believe that there old positions are silly to update to be able to do so. Professional philosophers as a class who's culture is combative have a bad track record of changing their opinion when confronted with opposing views. Most largely still hold those position that were important to them a decade ago.
As opposed to whom? Who's good?
In Silicon Valley startup culture there are many people who are able to pivot when it turns out that there initial assumptions were wrong. Nassim Taleb makes in his books the claim that successful traders are good at changing their opinion when there are goods arguments to change positions. CFAR went from teaches Bayes rule and Fermi estimation to teaching parts work. A lot of their curriculum manages to change.
I second that experience.

Great essay!

Another aspect of this divide is about articulability. In a nurturing context, it's possible to bring something up before you can articulate it clearly, and even elicit help articulating it.

For example, "Something about <the proposal we're discussing> strikes me as contradictory -- like it's somehow not taking into account <X>?". And then the other person and I collaborate to figure out if and what exactly that contradiction is.

Or more informally, "There's something about this that feels uncomfortable to me". This can be very useful to express even when I can't say exactly what it is that I'm uncomfortable with, IF my conversation partner respects that, and doesn't dismiss what I'm saying because it's not precise enough.

In a combative context, on the other hand, this seems like a kind of interaction you just can't have (I may be wrong, I don't have much experience in them). Because there, inarticulateness just reads as your arguments being weak. And you don't want to run the risk of putting half-baked ideas out there and having them swatted down. So your only real choices are t... (read more)

Most people who commented on this post seemed to recognise it from their experience and get a general idea of what the different cultures look like (although some people differ on the details, see later). This is partly because it is explained well but also because I think the names were chosen well.

Here are a few people saying that they have used/referenced it: 1, 2, 3 plus me.

From a LW standpoint thinking about this framing helps me to not be offended by blunt comments. My family was very combat culture but in life in general I find people are unwilling to say “you’re wrong” so it now comes as a bit of a shock. Now when someone says something blunt on LW I just picture it being said by my older brother and realise that probably no offense is meant.

Outside of LW, this post has caused me to add a bit into my induction of new employees at work. I encourage a fairly robust combat culture in my department but I realise that some people aren’t used to this so I try to give people a warning up front and make sure they know that no offense is meant.


There were a few examples in the comments where it seemed like the distinction between the two cultures wasn&#... (read more)

Just to keep this up-to-date, I think V2 of this post addresses my concerns and I consider this an excellent fit for the 2018 review.
I agree it should be clear about which normative stances taken in the post are statements about what should be true of LW. At the time I wrote this post, I'd begun discussions about joining the LW team and had done maybe a couple dozen hours of remote analytics work, and I began a full-time trial but I didn't become a full-time team member until March 2019. I'd be more careful now. The LW team doesn't currently have a firm stance on where LW should fall on the dimensions outlined in the OP/discussion, that's something we're likely to work on in the next quarter. We've got the Frontpage commenting guidelines so far, but that doesn't really state things in these the terms of Combat/Nurture. My own thinking on the topic has been enriched by my much greater participation in LW discussion, including discussion around communication styles. I'd begun typing a paragraph here of some of my current thoughts, but probably it's best to hold off till I've thought more at length and am speaking alongside the rest of team. (An update in recent discussions of moderation and conversation norms is that the team should be careful to not confuse people by saying different things individually.) I think it is safe for me to say that while I still think that something in the Nurture cluster is a good default for most contexts, that doesn't mean that LW might not have good reasons to deviate from that default.
4Ben Pace4y
I was gonna leave a comment reminding you that you should always feel free to speak for yourself, and then I hit If I read you right, this hasn't been my own update, so I guess I'll tell you to be careful what you say on behalf of the team without checking for consensus ;-) I agree some users have been confused, but the result mustn't be to retreat to only saying consensus things. I might be open to adding more disclaimers or something, but overall I really care that I don't give up the ability to just think for myself out loud on LW on basically all topics relating to LW.  I agree writing about moderation in particular is an unusually careful topic where I want to take extra care to signal what is consensus/actionable and what is me just thinking aloud. But I still stand by that you should share your own thoughts, saying "I" everywhere (I just edited this very comment to own all of my thoughts more), is still pretty great and it'd be bad if you felt the general need to get team consensus.
FWIW, I agree that it is good/important for mods to be able to state their own opinions freely. My only worry was that a book form of the review might lose this nuance if this is not stated explicitly.

This post is well written and not over-long. If the concepts it describes are unfamiliar to you, it is a well written introduction. If you're already familiar with them, you can skim it quickly for a warm feeling of validation.

I think the post would be even better with a short introduction describing its topic and scope, but I'm aware that other people have different preferences. In particular:

  • There are more than two 'cultures' or styles of discussion, perhaps many more. The post calls this out towards the end (apparently this is new in
... (read more)

I read this post when it initially came out. It resonated with me to such an extent that even three weeks ago, I found myself referencing it when counseling a colleague on how to deal with a student whose heterodoxy caused the colleague to make isolated demands for rigor from this student.

The author’s argument that Nurture Culture should be the default still resonates with me, but I think there are important amendments and caveats that should be made. The author said:

"To a fair extent, it doesn’t even matter if you believe that someone... (read more)

In the Less Wrong community, Anti-Nurture comments are afraid of laxity with respect to the mission, while Anti-Combat commenters are afraid of a narrow dogmatism infecting the community.


Please do post comments at the top level.


Changes from V1 to V2

This section describes the most significant changes from version 1 to version 2 of this post:

  • The original post opened with a strong assertion that it intended to be descriptive. In V2, I’ve been more prescriptive/normative.
  • I clarified that the key distinction between Combat and Nurture is the meaning assigned to combative speech-acts.
  • I changed the characterization of Nurture Culture to be less about being “collaborative” (which can often be true of Combat), and more about intentionally signaling friendliness/non-hostility.
  • I expanded the description of Nurture Culture which in the original was much shorter than the description of Combat, including the addition of a hopefully evocative example.
  • I clarify that Combat and Nurture aren’t a complete classification of conversation-culture space– far from it. And further describe degenerate neighbors: Combat without Safety, Nurture without Caring.
  • Adding appendices which cover:
    • Dimensions along which conversations and conversations vary.
    • Factors that contribute to social trust.


Shout out to Raemon, Bucky, and Swimmer963 for their help with the 2nd Version.

Appendix 4: Author's Favorite Comments Something I've never had the opportunity to do before, since I've never revised a post before, is collect the comments that I think that added the most to the conversation by building on, responding to, questioning, or contradicting the post. Here's that list for this post: * This comment from Said Achmiz that seems correct to me in both its points: 1) that Nurture-like Cultures can be abused politically, and 2), that close interpersonal relationships trend Combative as the closeness grows. * Benquo's comment about the dimension of whether participants are trying to minimize or maximize the scope of a disagreement. * Ben Pace's comment talking about when and where the two cultures fit best, and particularly regarding how Nurture Culture is required to hold space when discussing sensitive topics like relationships, personal standards, and confronting large life choices. * PaulK's comment about "articulability": how a Nurturing culture makes it easier to express ill-formed, vague, or not yet justifiable thoughts. * AdrianSmith's comment about how Combat Culture can help expose the weak points on one's belief which wouldn't come up in Nurture Culture (even if only updates after the heat of "battle"), and Said Achmiz's expansion of this point with quotes from Schopenhauer, claiming that continuing to fight for one's position without regard for truth might actually be epistemically advantageous.  Best humorous comments: * Richard_Kennaway's retelling of the story of two Talmudic students going at it hammer and tongs. * Alephwyr's comment about their own communication experiences.
Appendix 3: How to Nurture These are outtakes from a draft revision for Nurture Culture which seemed worth putting somewhere: A healthy epistemic Nurture Culture works to make it possible to safely have productive disagreement by showing that disagreement is safe. There are better and worse ways to do this. Among them: * Adopting a “softened tone” which holds the viewpoints as object and at some distance: “That seems mistaken to me, I noticed I’m confused” as opposed to “I can’t see how anyone could possibly think that”. * Expending effort to understand: “Okay, let me summarize what you’re saying and see if I got right . . .” * Attempting to be helpful in the discussion: “I’m not sure what you’re saying, is this is it <some description or model>?” * Mentioning what you think is good and correct: “I found this post overall very helpful, but paragraph Z seems gravely mistaken to me because <reasons>.” This counters perceived reputational harms and can put people at ease. Things which are not very Nurturing: * “What?? How could anyone think that” * A comment that only says “I think this post is really wrong.” * You’re not accounting for X, Y, Z. <insert multiple paragraphs explaining issues at length> Items in the first list start to move the dial on the dimensions of collaborativeness and are likely to be helpful in many discussions, even relatively Combative ones; however, they have the important additional Nurturing effect of signaling hard that a conversation has the goal of mutual understanding and reaching truth-together– a goal whose salience shifts the significance of attacking ideas to purely practical rather than political. While this second list can include extremely valuable epistemic contributions, they can heighten the perception of reputational and other harms [1] and thereby i) make conversations unpleasant (counterfactually causing them not to happen), and ii) raise the stakes of a discussion, making participants less likely to update. N
Appendix 2: Priors of Trust I’ve said that that Combat Culture requires trust. Social trust is complicated and warrants many dedicated posts of its own, but I think it’s safe to say that having following priors help one feel safe in a “combative” environment:  * A prior that you are wanted, welcomed and respected, * that others care about you and your interests, * that one’s status or reputation are not under a high-level of threat,  * that having dumb ideas is safe and that’s just part of the process, * that disagreement is perfectly fine and dissent will not be punished, and  * that you won’t be punished for saying the wrong thing. If one has a strong priors for the above, you can have a healthy Combat Culture.
Appendix 1: Conversational Dimensions Combat and Nurture point at regions within conversation space, however as commenters on the original pointed out, there are actually quite a few different dimensions relevant to conversations. (Focused on truth-seeking conversations.) Some of them: * Competitive vs Cooperative: within a conversation, is there any sense of one side trying to win against the others? Is there a notion of “my ideas” vs “your ideas”? Or is there just us trying to figure it out together. * Charitability is a related concept. * Willingness to Update: how likely are participants to change their position within a conversation in response to what’s said? * Directness & Bluntness: how straightforwardly do people speak? Do they say “you’re absolutely wrong” or do they say, “I think that maybe what you’re saying is not 100%, completely correct in all ways”? * Filtering: Do people avoid saying things in order to avoid upsetting or offending others? * Degree of Concern for Emotions: How much time/effort/attention is devoted to ensuring that others feel good and have a good experience? How much value is placed on this? * Overhead: how much effort must be expended to produce acceptable speech acts? How many words of caveats, clarification, softening? How carefully are the words chosen? * Concern for Non-Truth Consequences: how much are conversation participants worried about the effects of their speech on things other than obtaining truth? Are people worrying about reputation, offense, etc? * Playfulness & Seriousness: is it okay to make jokes? Do participants feel like they can be silly? Or is it no laughing business, too much at stake, etc.? * Maximizing or Minimizing the Scope of Disagreement: are participants trying to find all the ways in which they agree and/or sidestep points of disagreement, or are they clashing and bringing to the fore every aspect of disagreement? [See this comment by Benquo.] Similarly, it’s worth noting the differen
[2] A third possibility is someone who is not really enacting either culture: they feel comfortable being combative towards others but dislike it if anyone acts in kind to them. I think is straightforwardly not good.
[1] I use the term attack very broadly and include any action which may be cause harm to a person acted upon. The harm caused by an attack could be reputational (people think worse of you), emotional (you feel bad), relational (I feel distanced from you), or opportunal (opportunities or resources are impacted).

At first, I felt that 'nurture' was a terrible name, because the primary thing I associated with the idea you're discussing is that we are building up an axiomatised system together. Collaboratively. I'll say a thing, and you'll add to it. Lots of 'yes-and'. If you disagree, then we'll step back a bit, and continue building where we can both see the truth. If I disagree, I won't attack your idea, but I'll simply notice I'm confused about a piece of the structure we're building, and ask you to add ... (read more)

I think one of the key motivations for nurturing culture is that we don’t have common knowledge that everything will be okay in many part of our lives, and in the most important decisions in our lives way more is at stake than in academia. Some example decisions where being wrong about them has far worse consequences for your life than being wrong about whether Fermat’s Last Theorem is true or false:

I do not really agree with your view here, but I think what you say points to something quite important.

I have sometimes said that personal loyalty is one of the most important virtues. Certainly it has always seemed to me to be a neglected virtue, in rationalist circles. (Possibly this is because giving personal loyalty pre-eminence in one’s value system is difficult, at best, to reconcile with a utilitarian moral framework. This is one of the many reasons I am not a utilitarian.)

One of the benefits of mutual personal loyalty between two people is that they can each expect not to be abandoned, even if the other judges them to be wrong. This is patriotism in microcosm: “my country, right or wrong” scaled down to the relation between individuals—“my friend, right or wrong”. So you say

... (read more)

Thanks for your reply, I also do not agree with it but found that it points to something important ideas. (In the past I have tended to frame the conversation more about 'trust' rather than 'personal loyalty', but I think with otherwise similar effect.)

The first question I want to ask is: how do you get to the stage where personal loyalty is warranted?

From time to time, I think back to the part of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone where Harry, Hermione and Ron become loyal to one another - the point where they build the strength of relationship where they can face down Voldemort without worrying that one another may leave out of fear.

It is after Harry and Ron run in to save Hermione from a troll.

The people who I have the most loyalty to in the world are those who have proven that it is there, with quite costly signals. And this was not a stress-free situation. It involved some pressure on each of our souls, though the important thing was that we came out with our souls intact, and also built something we both thought truly valuable.

So it is not clear to me that you can get to the stage of true loyalty without facing some trolls together, and risking ... (read more)

There’s a lot I have to say in response to your comment.

I’ll start with some meta commentary:

From time to time, I think back to the part of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where Harry, Hermione and Ron become loyal to one another—the point where they build the strength of relationship where they can face down Voldemort without worrying that one another may leave out of fear.

It is after Harry and Ron run in to save Hermione from a troll.

Harry and Ron never ran in to save Hermione from a troll, never became loyal to one another as a result, never built any strength of relationship, and never faced down Voldemort. None of these events ever happened; and Harry, Ron, and Hermione, in fact, never existed.

I know, I know: I’m being pedantic, nitpicking, of course you didn’t mean to suggest that these were actual events, you were only using them as an example, etc. I understand. But as Eliezer wrote:

What’s wrong with using movies or novels as starting points for the discussion? No one’s claiming that it’s true, after all. Where is the lie, where is the rationalist sin? …

Not every misstep in the precise dance of rationality consists of outright belief in a falsehood; there are

... (read more)
I'm surprised to here that sentiment from you when you also speak against the value of rationalists doing community things together. Doing rituals together is a way to create the emotional bonds that in turn create mutual loyality. That's why fraternities have their initiation rituals.
1Said Achmiz5y
These sentiments are not only not opposed—they are, in fact, inextricably linked. That this seems surprising to you is… unfortunate; it means the inferential distance between us is great. I am at a loss for how to bridge it, truth be told. Perhaps someone else can try. You cannot hack your way to friendship and loyalty—and (I assert) bad things happen if you try. That you can (sort of) hack your way to a sense of friendship and loyalty is not the same thing (but may prevent you from seeing the fact of the preceding sentence).
What does it look like for this sort of thing to be done well? Can you point to examples?
-1Said Achmiz5y
I am unsure what you’re asking. What is “this sort of thing”? Do you mean “friendship and loyalty”? I don’t know that I have much to tell you, on that subject, that hasn’t been said by many people, more eloquent and wise than I am. (How much has been written about friendship, and about loyalty? This stuff was old hat to Aristotle…) These are individual virtues. They are “done”—well or poorly—by individuals. I do not think there is any good way to impose them from above. (You can, perhaps, encourage a social environment where such virtues can more readily be exercised, and avoid encouraging a social environment where they’re stifled. But the question of how to do this is… complex; beyond the scope of this discussion, I think, and in any case not something I have anything approaching a solid grasp on.)
I thought that's what you were talking about: that some ways of organizing people fight or delegitimize personal loyalty considerations, while others work with it or at least figure out how not to actively destroy it. It seemed to me like you were saying that the way Rationalists try to do community tends to be corrosive to this other thing you think is important.
6Said Achmiz5y
That’s… at once both close to what I’m saying, and also not really what I’m saying at all. I underestimated the inferential distance here, it seems; it’s surprising to me, how much what I am saying is not obvious. (If anything, I expected the reaction to be more like “ok, yes, duh, that is true and boring and everyone knows this”.) I may try to write something longer on this topic, but I fear it would have to be much longer; the matters that this question touches upon range wide and deep…

I hope you do find the time to write about this in depth.

Seconded. Would like to hear the in-depth version.
Sure, but as such, there's a lot of different approaches to how to do them well (some mutually exclusive), so pinpointing which particular things you're talking about seems useful. (I do think I have an idea of what you mean, and might agree, but the thing you're talking about is probably about as clear to me Ben's "fight trolls" comment was to you) Seems fine to table it for now if it doesn't seem relevant though.
Do you think that existing societal organisations like fraternities aren't build with the goal of facilitating friendship and loyalty? Do you think they fail at that and produce bad results?
2Said Achmiz5y
It varies. That is a goal for some such organizations. I think they produce bad results, while failing at the above goal, approximately to the degree that they rely on “emotion hacking”.
Interesstingly there's currently a highly upvoted question on Academia.StackExchange titled Why don't I see publications criticising other publications? which suggests that academics don't engage in combat culture within papers.
Most academic work raises little emotions but that's not true for all academic work. Ionnadis wrote about how he might be killed for his work. Whenever work that's revolutionary in the Khunian sense is done there's the potential for the loss of social status.

There's a subtle difference in focus between nurture culture as described here, and what I'd call "collaborative truthseeking." Nurture brings to mind helping people to grow. Collaborative brings to mind more like "we're on a team", which doesn't just mean we're on the same side, but that we each have some responsibilities to bring to the table.

3Said Achmiz5y
But you can have collaborative truthseeking with “Combat Culture”—which is precisely what the example in the OP (the Ellsberg quote) illustrates.
Hmm. Naming things is hard. I agree you can have collaboration in combat culture. It feels like a different kind of collaboration though. Double hmm. Before continuing, noticing an assumption I was making: in Ben Pace's comment elsethread, he frames "nurture" culture as involving lots of "yes-and", which roughly matched my stereotype. Correspondingly, combat culture felt like it involved lots of "no-but". Each person is responsible for coming up with their ideas and shoring them up, and it's basically other people's responsibility to notice where those ideas are flawed. And this seemed like the main distinction. (I'm not sure how much this matches what you mean by it.) What's sort of funny (in a "names continue to be hard" way), is that I instinctively want to call "each person is responsible for their ideas" culture "Group Collaboration" (as in "group selection"). It's collaborative on the meta level, since over time the best ideas rise to the top, and people shore up the weaknesses of their own ideas. Whereas... I'd call the "yes and" thing that Ben describes as.... (drumroll) "Group Collaboration" (as in "group project."). Which is yes obviously a terrible naming schema. :P Comparing this to corporations building products: between corporations, and maybe between teams within a single corporation, is group selection. There is competition, which hopefully incentivizes each team to build a good product. Within a team, you still need to be able to point out when people are mistaken and argue for good ideas. But you're fundamentally trying to build the same thing together. It doesn't do you nearly as much good to point out that a coworker's idea is bad, as to figure out how to fix it and see if their underlying idea is still relevant. If you don't trust your coworker to be generally capable of coming up with decent ideas that are at least pointed in the right direction, your team is pretty doomed anyhow.
5Said Achmiz5y
I don’t see these as contradictory, or even opposed. How can you fix something, unless you can first notice that it needs to be fixed? Isn’t this just a policy of “don’t explicitly point out that an idea is flawed, because it would hurt the originator’s feelings; only imply it (by suggesting fixes)”? (And what do you do with unsalvageable ideas?) Sure, “generally”, maybe, but it’s the exceptions that count, here. I don’t necessarily trust myself to reliably come up with good ideas (which is the whole point of testing ideas against criticism, etc., and likewise is the whole point of brainstorming and so on), so it seems odd to ask if I trust other people to do so! More generally, though… if it’s the distinction between “yes, and…” and “no, but…” which makes the difference between someone being able to work in a team or being unable to do so, then… to be quite honest, were I in a position to make decisions for the team, I would question whether that person has the mental resilience, and independence of mind, to be useful.

Wow, I really love that this has been updated and appendix'd. It's really nice to see how this has grown with community feedback and gotten polished this from a rough concept.

Creating common knowledge on how 'cultures' of communication can differ seems really valuable for a community focused on cooperatively finding truth.

Promoted to curated: I think this post is quite exceptionally clear in pointing at an important distinction, and I've already referenced it a few times in the last two weeks, which is a good sign. I don't think this post necessarily says anything massively new, but I don't remember any write-up of similar clarity, and so I do think it adds a bunch to the intellectual commons.

Addressing ...
... "The tradeoffs between the two cultures" and the advantages of one or the other and ...
... examining these takeoffs is for purposes of evaluating  Combat vs. Caring as truth-seeking tools —

We must bear in mind that when applying Caring norms, the claims made by a sufficiently emotionally brittle and/or exquisitely sensitive interlocutor can become unquestionable and unassailable by the truth-seeking process.

Any any attempt to invoke Caring norms needs to remain clearly cognizant that reality does not care about your feelings.


I’ve referred back to this multiple times and it has helped (e.g. at work) to get people to understand each other better.

This post highlighted one of the two main disagreements I see about LW conversationsal culture (the other being contextualizing vs. decoupling). Having a handle to refer to this thing is quite handy for common knowledge.

mod note: this post probably shouldn't have been included in the 2020 review. It was behaving a bit weirdly because it had appeared in a previous review, and it'd be a fair amount of coding work to get it to seamlessly display the correct number of reviews. It's similar to a post of mine in that it was edited substantially for the 2018 review and re-published in 2020, which updated it's postedAt date which resulted in it bypassing the intended filters of 'must have been published in 2020'

I had previously changed the postedAt date on my post to be pre-2020 so that it wouldn't appear here, and just did the same for this one.

I found the ideas behind Radical Candor to be quite useful. I think they're similar to ones here. Link

I've won practically every interaction I've ever had. I've become so good at winning that most people won't actually interact with me anymore.


This reminds me of the distinction between debate and dialectic. Both can be means to truth seeking, both have their own failure modes (debate can become about winning instead of the truth; dialectic can become confused without adequate experience with synthesis), and different people can have a preference for one over the other. Thinking in terms of a culture though is perhaps better suited to what's going on than talking about preference for a particular technique because it gets at something deeper fueling that preference for particular methods.

Als... (read more)

I propose these amendment to the essay at top:
1)  "Nurture Culture makes a lot of sense in a world where criticism and disagreement are often [or are perceived to be] an attack or threat."

2)  I question the reasonability of describing intellectual "criticism and disagreement" as "an attack or threat".  I propose that this change "an attack or threat" -> "a threat to the ego of the target of the criticism or rebuttal".

My waving a knife can be reasonably inferred to be "an attack or threat"  My statement that "your logic is faulty beca... (read more)