Related to: Rationalists Should Win, Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate, Can Humanism Match Religion's Output?, Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic, Paul Graham's "Why Nerds Are Unpopular"

The "Prisoner's Dilemma" refers to a game theory problem developed in the 1950's. Two prisoners are taken and interrogated separately. If either of them confesses and betrays the other person - "defecting" - they'll receive a reduced sentence, and their partner will get a greater sentence. However, if both defect, then they'll both receive higher sentences than if neither of them confessed.

This brings the prisoner to a strange problem. The best solution individually is to defect. But if both take the individually best solution, then they'll be worst off overall. This has wide ranging implications for international relations, negotiation, politics, and many other fields.

Members of LessWrong are incredibly smart people who tend to like game theory, and debate and explore and try to understand problems like this. But, does knowing game theory actually make you more effective in real life?

I think the answer is yes, with a caveat - you need the basic social skills to implement your game theory solution. The worst-case scenario in an interrogation would be to "defect by accident" - meaning that you'd just blurt out something stupidly because you didn't think it through before speaking. This might result in you and your partner both receiving higher sentences... a very bad situation. Game theory doesn't take over until basic skill conditions are met, so that you could actually execute any plan you come up with.

The Purpose of This Post: I think many smart people "defect" by accident. I don't mean in serious situations like a police investigation. I mean in casual, everyday situations, where they tweak and upset people around them by accident, due to a lack of reflection of desired outcomes.

Rationalists should win. Defecting by accident frequently results in losing. Let's examine this phenomenon, and ideally work to improve it.

Contents Of This Post

  • I'll define "defecting by accident."
  • I'll explain a common outcome of defecting by accident.
  • I'll give some recent, mild examples of accidental defections.
  • I'll give examples of how to turn accidental defections into cooperation.
  • I'll give some examples of how this can make you more successful at your goals.
  • I'll list some books I recommend if you decide to learn more on the topic.

Background - On Analytical Skills and Rhetoric

From Paul Graham's "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" -

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.
The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don't smart kids make themselves popular? If they're so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don't really want to be popular.
If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.
But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart.

I believe that "defecting by accident" is a result of not learning how different phrasing of words and language can dramatically effect how well your point is taken. It's been a general observation of mine that a lot of people in highly intellectual disciplines like mathematics, physics, robotics, engineering, and computer science/programming look down on social skills.

Of course, they wouldn't phrase it that way. They'd say they don't have time for it - they don't have time for gossip, or politics, or sugarcoating. They might say, "I'm a realist" or "I say it like it is."

I believe this is a result of not realizing how big the difference in your effectiveness will be depending on how you phrase things, in what order, how well you appeal to another person's emotions. People in highly analytical disciplines often care about "just the facts" - but, let's face it, we highly analytical people are a great minority of the population.

Sooner or later, you're going to have something you care about and you're going to need to persuade someone who is not highly analytical. At that point, you run some serious risks of failure if you don't understand basic social skills.

Now, most people would claim that they have basic social skills. But I'm not sure this is borne out by observation. This used to be a very key part of any educated person's studies: rhetoric. From Wikiedpia: "Rhetoric is the art of using language to communicate effectively and persuasively. ... From ancient Greece to the late 19th Century, it was a central part of Western education, filling the need to train public speakers and writers to move audiences to action with arguments."

Rhetoric is now frequently looked down upon by highly intelligent and analytical people. Like Paul Graham says, it's not that intellectuals can't learn it. It's that they think it's not a good use of their time, that they'd rather be smart instead.

Defecting by Accident

Thus, you see highly intelligent people do what I now term "defecting by accident" - meaning, in the process of trying to have a discussion, they insult, belittle, or offend their conversational partner. They commit obvious, blatant social faux pases, not as a conscious decision of the tradeoffs, but by accident because they don't know better.

Sometimes defecting is the right course of action. Sometimes you need to break from whoever you're negotiating with, insist that things are done your way, even at their expense, and take the consequences that may arise from that.

But it's rarely something you should do by accident.

I'll give specific, clear examples in a moment, but before I do so, let's look at a general example of how this can happen.

If you're at a meeting and someone gives a presentation and asks if anyone has questions, and you ask point-blank, "But we don't have the budget or skills to do that, how would we overcome that?" - then, that seems like a highly reasonable question. It's probably very intelligent.

What normal people would consider, though, is how this affects the perception of everyone in the room. To put it bluntly - it makes the presenter look very bad.

That's okay, if you decide that that's an acceptable part of what you're doing. But you now have someone who is likely to actively work to undermine you going forwards. A minor enemy. Just because you asked a question casually without thinking about it.

Interestingly, there's about a thousand ways you could be diplomatic and tactful to address the key issue you have - budgeting/staffing - without embarrassing the presenter. You could take them aside quietly later and express your concern. You could phrase it as, "This seems like an amazing idea and a great presentation. I wonder how we could secure the budgeting and get the team for it, because it seems like it'd be a profitable if we do, and it'd be a shame to miss this opportunity."

Just by phrasing it that way, you make the presenter look good even if the option can't be funded or staffed. Instead of expressing your concern as a hole in their presentation, you express it as a challenge to be overcome by everyone in the room. Instead of your underlying point coming across as "your idea is unfeasible," it comes across as, "You've brought this good idea to us, and I hope we're smart enough to make it work."

If the real goal is just to make sure budgeting and funding is taken care of, there's many ways to do that without embarrassing and making an enemy out of the presenter.

Defecting by accident is lacking the awareness, tact, and skill to realize what the secondary effects of your actions are and act accordingly to win.

This is a relatively basic problem that the majority of "normal" people understand, at least on a subconscious level. Most people realize that you can't just show up a presenter and make them look bad. Or at least, you should expect them to be hostile to you if you do. But many intelligent people say, "What the hell is his problem? I just asked a question."

This is due to a lack of understanding of social skills, diplomacy, tact, and yes, perhaps "politics" - which are unfortunately a reality of the world. And again, rationalists should win. If your actions are leading to hostility and defection against you, then you need to consider if your actions are the best possible.

"Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate"

Eliezer's "Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate" is a masterpiece. I'm only going to excerpt three parts, but I'd recommend the whole article.

From when I was still forced to attend, I remember our synagogue's annual fundraising appeal. It was a simple enough format, if I recall correctly. The rabbi and the treasurer talked about the shul's expenses and how vital this annual fundraise was, and then the synagogue's members called out their pledges from their seats.

Straightforward, yes?
Let me tell you about a different annual fundraising appeal. One that I ran, in fact; during the early years of a nonprofit organization that may not be named. One difference was that the appeal was conducted over the Internet. And another difference was that the audience was largely drawn from the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer/etc crowd. (To point in the rough direction of an empirical cluster in personspace. If you understood the phrase "empirical cluster in personspace" then you know who I'm talking about.)
I crafted the fundraising appeal with care. By my nature I'm too proud to ask other people for help; but I've gotten over around 60% of that reluctance over the years. The nonprofit needed money and was growing too slowly, so I put some force and poetry into that year's annual appeal. I sent it out to several mailing lists that covered most of our potential support base.
And almost immediately, people started posting to the mailing lists about why they weren't going to donate. Some of them raised basic questions about the nonprofit's philosophy and mission. Others talked about their brilliant ideas for all the other sources that the nonprofit could get funding from, instead of them. (They didn't volunteer to contact any of those sources themselves, they just had ideas for how we could do it.)
Now you might say, "Well, maybe your mission and philosophy did have basic problems - you wouldn't want tocensor that discussion, would you?"
Hold on to that thought.
Because people were donating. We started getting donations right away, via Paypal. We even got congratulatory notes saying how the appeal had finally gotten them to start moving. A donation of $111.11 was accompanied by a message saying, "I decided to give **** a little bit more. One more hundred, one more ten, one more single, one more dime, and one more penny. All may not be for one, but this one is trying to be for all."
But none of those donors posted their agreement to the mailing list. Not one.

So far as any of those donors knew, they were alone. And when they tuned in the next day, they discovered not thanks, but arguments for why they shouldn't have donated. The criticisms, the justifications for not donating - only those were displayed proudly in the open.
As though the treasurer had finished his annual appeal, and everyone not making a pledge had proudly stood up to call out justifications for refusing; while those making pledges whispered them quietly, so that no one could hear.

Indeed, that's a problem. Eliezer continues:

"It is dangerous to be half a rationalist."

And finally, this point, which is magnificent -

Our culture puts all the emphasis on heroic disagreement and heroic defiance, and none on heroic agreement or heroic group consensus. We signal our superior intelligence and our membership in the nonconformist community by inventing clever objections to others' arguments. Perhaps that is why the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/Silicon-Valley/programmer/early-adopter crowd stays marginalized, losing battles with less nonconformist factions in larger society. No, we're not losing because we're so superior, we're losing because our exclusively individualist traditions sabotage our ability to cooperate.

On Being Pedantic, Sarcastic, Disagreeable, Non-Complimentary, and Otherwise Defecting by Accident

You might not realize it, but in almost all of human civilization it's considered insulting to just point out something wrong someone is doing without any preface, softening, or making it clear why you're doing it.

It's taken for granted in some blunt, "say it like it is" communities, but it's usually taken as a personal attack and a sign of animosity in, oh, 90%+ of the rest of civilization.

In these so-called "normal people's societies," correcting them in front of their peers will be perceived as trying to lower them and make them look stupid. Thus, they'll likely want to retaliate against you, or at least not cooperate with you.

Now, there's a time and place to do this anyways. Sometimes there's an emergency, and you don't have time to take care of people's feelings, and just need to get something done. But surfing the internet is not that time.

I'm going to take some example replies from a recent post I made to illustrate this. There's always a risk in doing this of not being objective, but I think it's worth it because (1) I tend to read every reply to me and carefully reflect on it for a moment, (2) I understand exactly my first reactions to these comments, and (3) I won't have to rehash criticisms of another person. Take a grain of salt with you since I'm looking at replies to myself originally, but I think I can give you some good examples.

The first thing I want to do is take a second to mention that almost everyone in the entire world gets emotionally invested in things they create, and are also a little insecure about their creations. It's extraordinarily rare that people don't care what others' think of their writing, science, or art.

Criticism has good and bad points. Great critics are rare, but they actually make works of creation even in critique. A great critic can give background, context, and highlight a number of relevant mainstream and obscure works through history that the piece they're critiquing reminds them of.

Good critique is an art of creation in and of itself. But bad critique - just blind "that's wrong" without explaining why - tends to be construed as a hostile action and not accomplish much, other than signalling that "heroic disagreement" that Eliezer talks about.

I recently wrote a post titled, "Nahh, that wouldn't work". I thought about it for around a week, then it took me about two hours to think it through, draw up key examples on paper, choose the most suitable, edit, and post it. It was generally well-received here on LW and on my blog.

I'll show you three comments on there, and how I believe they could be subtly tweaked.


> I wizened up,
I don't think that's the word you want to use, unless you're talking about how you finally lost those 20 pounds by not drinking anymore.


FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it's kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations. It would be like reading a history of quantum mechanics or relativity with all mentions of things like the laser or double-slit experiment or Edding or Michelson-Morley removed.


An interesting start, but I would rather see this in Discussion -- it's not fully adapted yet, I think...

Now, I spend a lot of time around analytical people, so I take no offense at this. But I believe these are good examples of what I'd call "accidental defection" - this is the kind of thing that produces a negative reaction in the person you're talking to, perhaps without you even noticing.

#1 is kind of clever pointing out a spelling error. But you have to realize, in normal society that's going to upset and make hostile the person you're addressing. Whether you mean to or not, it comes across as, "I'm demonstrating that I'm more clever than you."

There's a few ways it could be done differently. For instance, an email that says, "Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

That would point out the error (if that's the main goal), and also engender a feeling of gratitude in whoever received it (me, in this case). Then I would have written back, "Hey, thanks... I don't worry about spelling too much, but yeah that one's embarrassing, I'll fix it. Much appreciated. Anyways, what are you working on? How can I help?"

I know that's how I'd have written back, because that's how I generally write back to someone who tries to help me out. Mutual goodwill, it's a virtuous cycle.

Just pointing out someone is wrong in a clever way usually engenders bad will and makes them dislike you. The thing is, I know that's not the intention of anyone here - hence, "defecting by accident." Analytical people often don't even realize they're showing someone up when they do it.

I'm not particularly bothered. I get the intent behind it. But normal people are going to be ultra-hostile if you do it to them. There's other ways, if you feel the need to point it out publicly. You could "soften" it by praising first - "Hey, some interesting points in this one... I've thought about a similar bias of not considering outcomes if I don't like what it'd mean by the world. By the way, you probably didn't mean wizen there..." - or even just saying, "I think you meant 'wisen' instead of 'wizen'" - with links to the dictionary, maybe. Any of those would go over better with the original author/presenter whom you're pointing out the error to.

Let's look at point #2. "FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it's kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations."

This is something which makes people trying to help or create shake their head. See, it's potentially a good point. But after someone takes some time to create something and give it away for free, then hearing, "Your work would be more valuable if you did (xyz) instead. Your way is kind of odd."

People generally don't like that.

Again, it's trivially easy to write that differently. Something like, "Thanks for the post. I was wondering, you mentioned (claim X), but I wonder if you have any examples of claim X so I can understand it better?"

That one has - gratitude, no unnecessary criticism, explains your motivation. All of which are good social skill points, especially the last one as written about in Cialdini's "Influence" - give a reason why.

#3 - "An interesting start, but I would rather see this in Discussion -- it's not fully adapted yet, I think..."

Okay. Why?

The difference between complaining and constructive work is looking for solutions. So, "There's some good stuff in here, but I think we could adapt it more. One thing I was thinking is (main point)."

Becoming More Self-Aware and Strategic; Some Practical Social Guidelines

From Anna Salamon's "Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic" -

But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out. We do not automatically:
  • (a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve;
  • (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress;
  • (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal;

Anna points out that people don't automatically ask what they're trying to achieve. You don't, necessarily, ask what you're trying to achieve.

But I would recommend you do ask that before speaking up socially. At least for a while, until you've got the general patterns figured out.

If you don't, you run the risk of antagonizing and making people hostile to you who would otherwise cooperate and work with you.

Now, I've heard smart people say, "I don't have time for that." This is akin to saying, "I don't have time to achieve what I want to achieve."

Because it doesn't take much time, and it makes you much more effective. Asking, "What am I trying to achieve here?" goes a long way.

When commenting on a discussion site, who are you writing for? For the author? For the regular readers? What's your point in replying? If your main point is just to "get to truth and understanding," then what should your secondary considerations be? If there's a conflict between the two, would you prefer to encourage the author to write more, or to look clever by pointing out a pedantic point?

I understand where you're coming from, because I used to come from the same place. I was the kid who argued with teachers when they were wrong, not realizing the long term ramifications of that. People matter, and people's feelings matter, especially if they have sway over your life, but even if they don't have sway over your life.

To that, here's some suggestions I think would make you more effective:

  • Generally, be gracious and thankful. This goes immensely far. Things like starting a reply with, "Thanks for this" or "Thanks for sharing these insights."
  • Praising someone makes it more likely they'll accept your criticisms. "I thought your point A was excellent, however point B..."
  • If you're going to disagree, summarize the person's main argument beforehand - this has a few positive effects. First, it forces you make sure you actually understand. Second, if the author has a different main point and wasn't clear, that comes out. Third, it shows some respect that you actually took the time to read and understand the post. So you could write, "I know your main argument is A, but I wanted to explore your minor point X."
  • If you think something is wrong, give an explanation of what would be correct and better. "I enjoyed this post a lot - thanks for that - but one thing that's tough for me is that all the examples are about martial arts, and I don't really understand martial arts so much. Maybe next time you could provide some examples from other fields? For instance, I remember reading you're an accountant and you write poetry, maybe some examples from there?"
  • If you point out something is wrong, do your best to make the mistake-maker not feel stupid. This makes them massively appreciate that. "Hey, you got your math on example X wrong... I think it actually works to 11.7. Anyways, I only recognize that because I made that mistake dozens of times myself, it's a common one to make, just wanted to point it out."
  • Explain why you care about a point. This has a few positive effects. First, it lets the author cater a reply to exactly what you want. Second, you'd be amazed at how many people assume evil intent and worst-possible motives - it neutralizes that. Third, it forces you to think through how you'd like things to be, which is again good. "Hey man, I really liked this post, but I wonder if you could have split it into pieces and made it a three-parter? I ask because I surf the web from work, and I can only read in 10 minute chunks... longer posts are harder for me to get through, and I like reading your writing."
  • Consider correcting someone privately while praising them publicly. This combination has been observed to engender loyalty and good feelings throughout history. I recently read an example of a samurai encouraging lords to do this from the early 1700's book "Hagakure." It works.
  • Consider dropping it altogether if it's not a big deal. This about learning to prioritize - I had someone comment on my site thinking mistakenly that The Richest Man in Babylon and The Greatest Salesman in the World were by the same author. It wasn't, but who cares? It makes no difference. It's not worth pointing it out - almost everyone has an aversion to being corrected, so only do it if there's actually tangible gain. Otherwise, go do something more important and not engender the potential bad will.

Following some of these simple points will make you much more effective socially. I feel like a lot of times analytical and intelligent people study really hard, difficult problems, while ignoring basic considerations that have much more immediate and larger impact.

Further reading:

Edit: Lots of comments on this. 130 and counting. The most common criticism seems to be that adding fluff is a waste of time, insincere, and reduces signal:noise ratio. I'd encourage you to actually try it instead of just guessing - a quick word of thanks or encouragement before criticizing creates a more friendly, cooperative environment and works well. It doesn't take very long, and it doesn't detract from S:N ratio much, if at all.

Don't just guess here. Try it out for a month. I think you'll be amazed at how differently people react to you, and the uptake on your suggestions and feedback and ability to convince and teach people. Of course, you can construct examples of going overboard and it being silly. But that's not required - just try to make everything 10% more gracious, and watch how much your effectiveness increases.

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(hmm) The organization of this post is very good; it's easy to follow from point A to point B throughout and makes effective use of references. Predictably, I'm also on board with the general project described.

That having been said, the specific style of politeness presented here seems tedious, noisy, slightly condescending, and potentially even obfuscating. The virtues of brevity and clarity can be maintained alongside the virtue of politeness.

Multi-sentence thanks for "insights" to soften a criticism take up space, may sound sarcastic, and aren't even the most warming kind of softening praise. "Thanks for these insights" and similar sound token at best and fake at worst. If someone wants to soften a criticism of one of my posts, I'd rather hear what their favorite line is or be informed that they upvoted it. But if all they have to say that's nice about the post is a stock phrase that could be equally well applied to any original text, I'd prefer they skip it.

Consider the brief reply to a correction, "Fixed, thanks". This could be interpreted as abrupt or even rude, but it is short, it acknowledges the help as received and useful and implemente... (read more)


if all they have to say that's nice about the post is a stock phrase that could be equally well applied to any original text, I'd prefer they skip it.

What I find interesting about this is that you're basically saying that their signal isn't costly enough to make you feel good. I wonder if that's the essence of the conflict under normal circumstances, i.e., by being direct (and thus not paying the additional costs of being polite) you are signaling that you do not value your audience as alliance partners very much, or that you are so far above them as to not need to make an investment in pleasing them.

Perhaps us geeky types simply prefer our costly signaling to be in the form of someone actually having thought about what we said. ;-)

What I find interesting about this is that you're basically saying that their signal isn't costly enough to make you feel good.

It's not about the effort or cost, as if I expect people to be more honest when they are using more resources. The problem is that the same stock phrase could be said of anything, because it is vague and difficult to interpret at lower levels of abstraction where its truth value could be evaluated. Writing a sonnet in general praise of insights would not be nearly as valuable as identifying a single specfic insight and why it is useful, though it would be a costlier signal.

Agreed that this is part of it, but I think there's more to it. Yes, one thing that makes a compliment rewarding is the implication that someone considers me worth devoting effort to establishing a social bond with, and the degree of effort they devote to it (either in the form of time spent thinking carefully, or of time spent paying attention, or of time spent earning resources to gift to me, or whatever) is a big component of that. Absolutely. But also, it's rewarding to contrast myself positively with my surroundings... to reflect on my superiority in whatever areas I feel superior in. And the more detailed and specific that contrast, the better. And if I've internalized the idea that "tooting my own horn" in this way is a Bad Thing, then it's even more rewarding if someone else does it. And, also, my perception of the status of the person of the person making the effort is an important component. In a forum like this where perceived status is tied to perceptiveness/intelligence/etc., a compliment that demonstrates perception and intelligence is therefore more rewarding than one that doesn't.
This is something that seems to apply more generally when complimenting. Direct praise seems cheap, at best a signal of supplication. It is often better to identify something that the person does and express approval of that activity in general, and hence compliment their identity.

You seem to be assuming that what you want to hear is how people should be learning to communicate ("I'd prefer they skip it"), but part of the point is that we are not like most people. If you want to communicate effectively with the broader population, then you have to focus on what they like to hear, not judge communication suggestions based on whether you would like hearing it.

Also, I love brevity, but I charitably assumed that the politeness examples were exaggerated to make the point. Exaggerated examples, while they often bother analytical types who already get the point ("but that's too far the other way!") are (IMHO) quite useful at helping get across new ideas by magnifying them.

And compactness is hard, as is habit change. So developing compact politeness seems harder than developing politeness and then polishing it with brevity and clarity. Maybe too hard for some people - one habit at a time is often easier.

7lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Are you guessing, or did you test this? Because I used to think the same way, but I now find I get better results with just a dash of politeness. I don't think it takes very much time or is so bad for signal:noise ratio either. Well, I think the "oh silly me" is fluffy, you could just say thanks. But offering to help in return I think is a great think. Most people won't take you up on it, but it goes over really well. Maybe try it for a month or two and see how it goes? I'm always really grateful when someone offers me a hand, and then I'm more likely to ask them a question or for a book recommendation or whatever. Even small things, most people won't ask you for them if you don't invite them to. Which is a shame, because then we miss opportunities to connect with people. I'm not saying politeness is good because it's good. I'm saying it's good because it makes people more effective. I reckon that's true in most non-emergency cases.

I strongly agree with Alicorn's comment. When you suggested

"Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

as the appropriate way to point out a typo, I had to resist the urge to flame you. While there are people for whom such verbosity is the most effective mode of communication, I and the people I enjoy communicating with are not among them. Like Alicorn, I read that paragraph as tedious and condescending; if such a message were written to me, I would think that the author was either vacuous or thought I was an idiot.

But offering to help in return I think is a great thin[g]. Most people won't take you up on it, but it goes over really well.

I would find such an offer confusing at best and pretty creepy in the average case. "Politeness" is not a natural category and you should not expect an audience to consider something polite because you or another audience does.

7lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
It's not the "right" way. Just one choice out of a thousand possible. Here's a sample email: -- Subject: Typo in your article Hi author, I saw your article and liked it, but wanted to give you a heads up. You spelled (word) wrong. Best wishes, Writer -- What's that take? 15 seconds? You'd probably have some goodwill afterwards. Okay. And you're highly analytical, right? Normal people don't work well with ultra-direct communication. So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice on how to become one of the most productive and connected people in any work environment? Offer to help anyone on anything, do double duty on work, and be gracious of it? Because that is, in fact really common advice. I'd really, really encourage you to try it. I used to believe in being a "straight shooter", "all content no fluff", etc, etc, etc. Seriously, try it the other way for a couple weeks. I think you'll be amazed as what happens. Try it! Don't guess, try it. Seriously, it might change your life.

So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice on how to become one of the most productive and connected people in any work environment? Offer to help anyone on anything, do double duty on work, and be gracious of it?

Because that is, in fact really common advice. I'd really, really encourage you to try it. I used to believe in being a "straight shooter", "all content no fluff", etc, etc, etc. Seriously, try it the other way for a couple weeks. I think you'll be amazed as what happens.

Try it! Don't guess, try it. Seriously, it might change your life.

While there may be environments in which this is in fact spectacular advice and would be well-received, I find these paragraphs so obnoxious that they set my teeth on edge. Why should I believe advice about making people feel good which sets my teeth on edge?

Because whether it works or not is independent of whether it sets your teeth on edge. That would be a reason not to act on it, but not a reason to dismiss its validity.

Because whether it works or not is independent of whether it sets your teeth on edge.

I am a person. I belong to the same reference class as those who this sort of thing would be expected to work on.

I do not find this style of politeness to "work" for me.

It is, I grant, a weak reason to dismiss the claims, but it is a reason, and conjoined with other, similar replies under this post, it adds up to a more compelling reason.

My style, or Lionhearted's? If mine, please do comment on problems in my comments. If not mine, you may be typing too fast.
Bah, sorry, Lionhearted's, I lost track of who was saying what. Editing.
6lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Honestly, that surprises me. I could see disagreeing for signal:noise ratio reasons, or not having time - actually, I spent time addressing those in my post since I knew they'd be common objections. But I'm surprised it actually results in a strong negative emotion from you - "sets your teeth on edge." Honestly, I'm not sure why. For the record, I'd advocate you do this sincerely, and never insincerely. Me, if I don't like anything someone is saying and all the points are dumb, I just ignore it. I'll only venture to give feedback if I see some merit, and then I highlight that merit. But seriously, I want to get to the bottom of this. Eliezer writes about how when he was fundraising, lots of people wrote in to criticize, but no one was comfortable publicly announcing and praising the cause and expressing their donation. This can't be the best way, can it? If it is, much less analytical groups that are comfortable being cohesive, complimentary, and encouraging will out-recruit us, out-perform us in charity, and cooperate more than us. At least, that's how I see it... anyway, I'd like to explore this more. In the comments and/or via PM's or email, if you like. I wrote this post because I'd like to see our kind of people, groups, and areas of concern be more effective. The fact that there's a very strong negative emotion from a prolific contributor to the community is surprising to me, and I'd like to find out why and reconcile our points of view to some extent if possible.

But I'm surprised it actually results in a strong negative emotion from you - "sets your teeth on edge."

Honestly, I'm not sure why.

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think I can explain this for you.

It sets her teeth on edge because it's condescending and dismissive. Specifically, with the line "So, are you surprised that it's commonly offered advice" you're adopting a professorial tone--purporting to teach Alicorn something she may find surprising about the expert consensus on the subject, with which she is presumed to be unfamiliar. So right from the beginning she's going to react by feeling insulted, because you're "talking down" to her.

A way of making the exact same point without adopting the condescending tone would have been simply to say, "I offered that advice because I read it in How to Win Friends and Influence People and in [a few other sources]." If you proceeded to give direct quotes, that would be even better, because then Alicorn could judge for herself whether you're accurately representing what you judge to be expert consensus (and whether or not she accepts your sources as expert). By asserting yourself as the expe... (read more)

You did a fine job :)

This can't be the best way, can it? If it is, much less analytical groups that are comfortable being cohesive, complimentary, and encouraging will out-recruit us, out-perform us in charity, and cooperate more than us.

I have said, and repeat the sentiment: I'm in favor of being nice and polite and kind and cooperative with each other. It's this style, the specific sort you use in your examples, that gets the skin-crawling/teeth-on-edge/etc. reaction from me. If I had to characterize the style I'd call it something like "saccharine earnestness".

I wonder whether that "skin-crawling/teeth-on-edge" reaction only arises when this style appears as text, or whether you get the same reaction from spoken word. Same style, but here (in this vid) it is being used to actually communicate, rather than simply to illustrate a point. It does give me the same teeth-on-edge reaction, only stronger. But then I may be atypical. I never cared for Mr. Rogers either. Me too. Even politicians don't usually come across as that nice. Which I interpret as evidence that it is too extreme to be really effective. Edit: fixed broken link.
Link didn't come through properly, but I'm curious.
Fixed now. Sorry about that.
I find listening to the linked person only slightly grating. I can't make out most of the words, though, so most of my reaction is "this needs subtitles".
-1lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Alright, I think we're on the same page. I picked very, very basic examples of the most literal interpretation of my suggestions. Even adding "Interesting point" or "That's thought provoking" or "Cool, though I wonder..." before a criticism/concern can make things go over better. That said, that's a little more subtle, and I wanted extremely clear and obvious examples. Feel free to ditch my examples if they're not helpful for you at all, or replace with your own. I read your linked post on politeness and agree with the sentiment of it, so I think we're mostly on the same page. Toss all my examples if you understand the underlying principles - there's almost certainly a more subtle, elegant, less saccharine-earnest-seeming way of doing it in any given case.
Perhaps it helps if you define "impolite" as "status-grabby". Thus when someone says "nice" things in what comes across as a condescending tone it can be recognized as impolite on that basis -- regardless of their intent. It's a relativistic criteria though: a given statement can offend some but not others. As an example, the degree of technical explanation afforded for a complex topic. If you put in too much, the experts feel like they are being condescended to. If you put in too little, the less trained feel excluded because they cannot follow all the jargon enough to relate it to anything they know. Perhaps the real cheat code in this case would be the skill of writing things in a manner that people can interpret into their own preferred range.
There is a wide middle ground between being uncomfortable saying out loud the good things you believe about a cause you donate to, and being unwilling to criticize something without also finding something nice to say about it.
I think you have that backwards. I assume that by 'this' you mean the situation that obtained while Eliezer was fundraising. I assume that if 'this' is the best way, then a group employing 'this' will have better outcomes (by definition?), but you conclude the opposite.
This far into the thread it shouldn't surprise you. You have had the causes of the objection explained to you multiple times by multiple people from multiple perspectives. Read through this thread again with the assumption that those who are speaking to you understand the value of tact and politeness, probably better than you. They have an intuitive feel of social dynamics, what works, what is inappropriate and what is insulting. They are also analytical people - they have the ability to describe a model of social behaviour that demonstrates why 'polite and nice' can also be a condescending slight depending on how it is done. siduri's comment is a good place to start. Then you can look further and try to understand how you have managed to alienate your audience to the extent that they have completely written you off. WrongBot's reaction is in no way bizarre or unusual. It's what you should expect from humans if you provide the verbal stimulus like what you have provided here. The person one is correcting is not always the intended benefactor of one's reply.
6lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Well, that's just it. I'm not surprised people disagree. That's to be expected. I'm surprised people had a significant emotional reaction to it. Actually, there's been overwhelmingly more appreciation of this than disagreement. It got submitted to HN and was +110 there, and 80%+ of the comments were positive. I also got a half dozen emails saying thanks. But you know what? You're right. I thought I would try to address everyone's concerns, criticisms, and share my experiences. And some people are taking personal offense, on an emotional level. That's not my intent - so yes, indeed, I'll bow out of the discussion now. If anyone has any questions or comments, they're welcome to email me. Really, I do think this is an area that some minor changes can produce huge dividends. Or maybe I'm mistaken - happy to discuss via email if anyone has questons or comments and wants to discuss, but I'll move on from the comments now.
I think you should take your surprise as a sign that your model of tact is in need of updating. You were not mistaken when you claimed that following the social norms we do here would tend to serve one ill in real life, but the approach you've suggested substituting for it seems like a case of reversed stupidity. I think it would be a good idea for you to review the suggestions others have made in this thread so that you can apply your own advice in a more effective manner.
Offering to help a coworker and offering to help a stranger from an internet forum are two radically different things. The former is something I do on a regular basis; I agree that it is produces good results. Standards of politeness are incredibly sensitive to context, and from your first line in the parent I take it you agree. Why do you believe this standard of politeness is appropriate to the contexts of both work and a semi-anonymous internet forum?
2lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Okay, cool. You might try offering after a decent exchange - if you look at my profile or "About Me" section on any place I hang out, or any site, I encourage people to look me up for a coffee, or if they have any questions, or I can help at all. Most people don't take me up on it, but some do - I've helped people with their marketing, I've helped people get pay raises, improve their writing and creative output, I've recommended books and places to stay and go in various cities... and it's been good. I've made friends and colleagues like that. I learned this because I met one of my best friends this way. When he was a stranger, he emailed me a technical question, and I went over and above the call of duty and wrote him back a 5 page reply with specs and details. He then referred me to a job because I sounded like I knew what I was talking about and invited me to stay with him if I was ever in Los Angeles. I did, and he became one of my best friends. Later, he helped me close a $60,000 deal when I bought out half of a company. We've been skiing together in Japan and had lots of cool memories and insights. All because I helped a random stranger, and he was really cool about it afterwards. It might seem different, but I think most people appreciate it. A fairly prolific photographer/technical blogger emailed me a while back, and after a short exchange, he asked if there's anything he could help me with. I asked how he made a few of the pictures that were really beautiful? And he shared some software recommendations with me. We're now friendly acquaintances, and we'll probably go out for food together next time I'm in San Francisco. Some people might take it poorly. But who cares? The upside of making a new friend or colleague because you're always happy to help anyone is huge. Someone doesn't like it? Well, what's the downside? Who cares? Most people are grateful anyways, actually, but if a couple people don't like it... so what? You offer to help someone and they t
That does not bear any resemblance to anything I have said. In fact, I vehemently disagree with your assertion that no harm is caused when you annoy or creep someone out on the internet. I am sufficiently annoyed by this conversation that I will probably not be able to comment further in a productive fashion.
Isn't this a rejection of the entire point of your main post?
Who cares is very context-specific here. When dealing with someone you don't naturally interact with, high variance in responses is good up to a certain point. Get a good reaction and you can make a valuable friend and ally, whereas it's not likely anyone is going to think you were so polite they should come at you with an axe.
Does that mean you think the politeness - effect curve is usually much flatter on the right side of the maximum (optimal politeness) than on the left? Exaggerated politeness often seems insincere, distancing or worse so I'm skeptical of the merits of systematically overshooting like that.
Upvoted for this. The 'or worse' also includes making people disregard the content of what you're trying to say because you're signalling low-status/self-effacement so hard that it's difficult for anyone to take you seriously
Thanks - I was looking for a good way of saying that.

Maybe try it for a month or two and see how it goes?

This is the kind of defection by accident that analytical more often fall in to. Condescension with advice!

-1lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
I'm not saying you should always be polite. Just you should be aware of the consequences and secondary effects for not being so.
I agree with you on that point, yet I'm making my own. Analytical people are usually aware of politeness but take somewhat longer to realise that advice, instruction and offers to assist can be far more of a significant social slight than merely being curt. Those who are familiar with analytical types can see that they mean well and are just making nerdy faux pas. There are some, however, who will take offence - because the exact same words could be used by less nerdy person as deliberate one upmanship.
I second wedrifid's reaction. Trying an entire different social approach for a month is a very high cost, especially if it's one that makes our skin crawl. Alicorn's not alone in that, as that is exactly my instinctive reaction to hearing it. It doesn't make sense to give that kind of slack unless the prior for it working is high.
It's about one part historical experimentation with styles of politeness, and one part noticing how your post made my skin crawl. I second everything WrongBot said in the sibling comment.
A lot of that feeling is probably explained by the mere fact that we are discussing social calculations openly. Doing so almost always leaves a bad taste in people's mouths.
I don't ordinarily feel skin-crawly when discussing social norms/calculations/scripts/etc.
That's right, I almost forgot you had posted on the subject before, which is odd because I've actually used your "Considerations in favour of niceness" post to convince people to rein in their conversational aggression. A couple of lionhearted's sentences sounded slightly cringeworthy to me too, but many times I have been surprised at how well such things actually go over with non-analytical people. For example, my mother prefaces even the tiniest criticism with 42 caveats and compliments (which feel like mostly white noise to me), but I can't help but notice that she also appears to be a social genius, with at least 30 genuinely close friends. (Bla bla anecdote bla bla correlation not causation).

I'm often shocked how much completely (to me) over the top super-politeness is optimal when dealing with average people, often more than enough to make me tempted to say "Get on with it!" in a British accent. In fact a good instinct for many of us when dealing with non-nerds is to use just enough politeness to actively piss ourselves off were we in the other person's shoes.

For example, my mother prefaces even the tiniest criticism with 42 caveats and compliments (which feel like mostly white noise to me), but I can't help but notice that she also appears to be a social genius, with at least 30 genuinely close friends.

Yep. Play to your audience. This requires you to gain genuine skill in communication and in assessing the situation, but this is really not optional if achieving your goals requires interacting with humans. Failure to communicate appropriately in a variety of situations will lead to failure.

(No-one said instrumental effectiveness was easy.)

I would add that acceding to the corrections of another is somewhat of a compliment - particularly to nerds. In fact it is a strong enough status signal that I don't expect high status people to acknowledge such correction unless they cannot get away with not doing so.
Saying out loud "I was wrong and you were right" is a most amusing piece of judo to use on Usenet. It tends to explode people's heads.
That's probably more because you hacked into their computers to access their speakers, than what specifically you said out loud.
The additional delightful irony of this is that doing so in most contexts is an enormous status-booster... third parties who observe the exchange tend to conclude all kinds of positive things about you.
This is one of the things that bothers me most about LessWrong, and intelligent people in general. Of all the silly status games that I would think and hope people here are mature enough to see through and realize the silliness of playing in this environment, avoiding giving thanks and acknowledging errors is one that should be close to the top of the list -- but sadly, it isn't.
Alas there's no escape from status games, silly or otherwise. The solution to the problem is to explicitly give high status to those who give thanks and correct errors. Ideally this force is sufficiently strong to more than counteract the status lost through revealing the original mistake or the need you are giving thanks for. I think we're at least close to that for the level of thanks and error correction we want on this site.
Wow, I was wrong and you were right, thanks!
I'm not sure if I agree. Sometimes these things are important parts of the learning process, and though it is possible to see through many social norms, many of them actually facilitate communication. (For example: politeness, showing that you are leaving a line of retreat, etc.)
The one that bothers me the most is when there's an insightful criticism or question attached to a comment, and the criticism gets voted up because it makes a valid point that illustrates what seems like a fatal flaw in the parent comment's argument, but the author of the parent comment never bothers to respond, because they'd rather just pretend they never saw the comment or that it doesn't make a good point that needs addressing. I don't see how one could argue that that is a way of "facilitating communication". Anyway, I think you switched the topic from status games to social norms, which are not quite the same thing. My example above of not responding to strong criticisms to avoid admitting error or weakness is a status game (a pathetic and silly one, in my opinion), but it's not a social norm. I have no problem with stereotypical social norms like politeness.
Consider that some authors may have precommitted to not responding to such criticisms because they judged they would not have the emotional capacity to sanely respond.
I agree but at the same time would be wary about advocating a strong norm against not replying. Rules can and will be gamed. It is not hard for a clever arguer to exploit such norms and play the crowd with highly undesirable results.
I thought there actually was a strong norm already that was being flouted. The model I had in mind was: LW's "Strong critique of comment in direct reply to a comment or post" is to "ignoring the critique and failing to reply" as Academia's "Strong paper that criticizes methodology, etc., of a published paper" is to "not publishing a response to the critique". In academia, a researcher that habitually failed to address serious flaws in their publications would quickly lose status and become irrelevant. I thought something like that was a norm at LW.
The judgement behind 'strong paper' and 'strong critique' is important and similar judgement must be used to decide whether to reply to criticism. This is particularly the case when the critic is not acting in good faith (again, in your judgement) and has a talent for obfuscation and rhetoric.
Strongly agree. I'm not advocating anything like "always respond". I'm advocating that when people actually think it's a strong critique, they should respond rather than playing the status game of pretending they don't really think it's a strong critique by ignoring it. Additionally, even if they don't think it's a strong critique, if many other people 'whose judgment they would trust in other similar situations' do think it's a strong critique, then they should also respond.
I think voting tends to be a function of social norms rather than status games. For example: voting tends to follow the policy "upvote if you want to see more like this."
I agree. My point thought was not primarily about the child comment being voted up, but about the child comment being an insightful critique of or counter-argument to the parent. In the example, the child comment being voted up was just meant as evidence that the comment actually 'does' make a great point that needs a response from the parent, which is why it's so disappointing to see the comment ignored. The status game I had in mind was "if I ignore that comment that points out serious flaws in my argument, people will be more likely to get the impression that the comment is not worthy of reply and that my argument really isn't flawed, and I can avoid a response that might lower my status, even if that compromises the rational, educational aspect of this site." The irony is that for many of us here, responding would actually be a status-enhancing act.
Social norms only work because they piggy back on status games. They are also created and determined by status games and power plays. The trick is to accept that and harness that force the best we can!
I've gotten upvotes for publicly accepting correction.
I concur, and I don't see that as much of a problem. Though it incentives signaling that you have changed your mind, that generally means that you have to actually change your mind, which is, after all, the whole point.

Imagine a group discussion intended to chose one of four options. Language being what it is, the names of the options come with emotional baggage, the good option, the wise option, the bad option, the foolish option. A group of mundanes will have a lively discussion. Having picked either the good option or the wise option, they will go away believing that they discussed the matter thoroughly, little suspecting that bad option and the foolish option never stood a chance in the discussion, whatever their merits.

The emotional baggage of terminology plays out in different ways in different contexts. If you are playing to win, you will try to crank up the level of emotion. In the abortion debate in America one side tries to win by framing it as choice versus slavery while the other side tries to win by framing it as life versus death.

If you are trying to find the truth, you need to push back against language doing your thinking for you. When smart people are having a group discussion intended to chose one of four options they notice that they labeled the options wise, good, foolish, bad, and spot the danger. The convention among smart people is to level the playing field, by relabeling ... (read more)

If we're going to talk about the cognitive framing effects of language, as the original post did, how about your use of the word "Mundane"?

To me, it seems actively harmful to accurate thinking, happiness, and your chance of doing good in the world. The implication is characterizing most humans as a separate lower class, with the suggestion of contempt and/or disgust for those inferior beings, which has empirically led to badness (historically: genocide. in my personal experience: it has been poisonous to Objectivism and various atheist groups I've been in).

I'd like to hear some examples where framing most people as both "lesser" and "other" has led to good for the world, because all the ones I'm pullin' up are pretty awful...

Interesting. The terms 'mundane' and 'smart' always pointed out to me that I am part of a group that is perceived as 'other' by some people. I have to be more Machiavellian at times when dealing with mundane people ('opposed to smart' more than 'not smart'), but I don't consider most people mundane. That said, I have no idea if this interpretation is how other people see it, or if it's not the intended interpretation.
Two examples. Sexual selection and speciation. Nuff' said.
6Wei Dai
What do you think about cultivating a reputation for social awkwardness for the explicit purpose of opting out of these kinds of games? If you always just speak your mind, politeness be damned, wouldn't people excuse you for it after a while? Plus, you can free up a lot of mental resources for other purposes.

Tried it as a kid. They don't. Not sure why, their explicit justification seems to be that social norms are morally good. Or maybe you just make a sucky ally.

7Wei Dai
Not working as a kid would be expected, since you have nothing of value to offer other kids for them to put up with your social awkwardness. Might be different in the workplace (if your job is mainly to contribute a technical skill instead of a social one).
Yep, but the vast majority of people in a workplace, even those nominally there to deliver technical skills, are there to deliver social skills in reality, and all of the most highly paid people are paid for social skills. That said, your right, still worth it. Being officially a foreigner is possibly the best approach.
This is an awesome response and extension, although it doesn't invalidate the point that we should learn what signals our words will give and choose them consciously. It's basically always better to understand and use the subtext. Whether using it to make sure you don't accidentally press the emotional buttons of a good-willed collaborator, or understanding when others are using it to exploit you. In my experience, relentless politeness + authenticity (don't give up your basic point, but phrase it very nicely) is a great help at defeating setups. In the presentation case, sure, the questioner has upgraded the idea. But he has still pointed out it's core flaw! A less adept questioner might either a) not question at all, knowing that it looks like a rude challenge, or b) question rudely because he doesn't know how to be polite. Either one of which would make it more likely for the bad idea to pass unchallenged. The key is authenticity: politeness shouldn't stop you from putting the knife into something that should die, it should just make it so smooth that it hurts the minimum and shows everyone that you are acting in the common interest. It's an empowering tool so that you can play the game of fighting back against bad gaming without looking like a gamer or a fighter. Anyway, I have a sunny disposition so I don't share your negative framing of this, but your meta-point about how others can use these rules for evil and/or selfishness is great (although maybe at too high a level of Slytherin to be really useful to most LWers).
I think the point is: If you make enemies, do it on purpose, and rudeness is similar. There is a time and a place for it, but be fully aware of what you're doing. It's impossible to game something you're not conscious of let alone game it hard. And hard it shall and should be gamed! I agree that this is being bend-over-backwards polite to the point of conceding a lot of ground. Maybe it was a great presentation and an amazing idea, if only we had the budget for it. But maybe you don't think that. In that case, there has to be middle ground; praising the presentation but not the idea, for example, is rhetorically safe since it doesn't matter that he gave a good presentation. However, I do think this is a legitimate question you should be able to ask directly. I work with non-nerds and would feel very comfortable asking this question directly - and would expect someone to, if I didn't.

I have a theory about "dumb blonde syndrome", the idea that beautiful women are dumb. Folk psychology says that everybody gets the same number of character points to distribute among their attributes, so some people get intelligence while others get beauty. But reality says that beauty is correlated with health, which is correlated with intelligence. Beautiful people should tend to be smart. I think there is some positive beauty/intelligence correlation.

But I remember taking a class with a stunningly beautiful woman, who every week would loudly make some inane comment or question, and not realize it was inane because no one would tell her so. And I developed the theory that beautiful people don't learn to self-censor, because they don't need to. Anybody else would get ridiculed when they said something stupid, and learn to be more shy.

Maybe this also applies to smart people. They're more likely to be correct, and so less likely to be made fun of when speaking their mind, and so less needful of learning how to phrase a question in a way that reduces their chances of being made fun of.

I'm stunningly smart and I loudly make inane comments all the time. This is because I am also stupid. (Now that I'm older and fatter, I'm realising just how much shit I got away with by being pretty when I was younger. It would have been worse if I hadn't been oblivious to it.) It is quite important to be aware of one's stupidities, particularly when smart, or one will never be able to even start to alleviate them.
Just the other day, Robin Hanson quoted a paper that showed a 0.3 correlation between people's judgements from photos of beauty and intelligence. So people seem to not believe in dumb blonde syndrome. It cited a survey [broken link] that, if I read the abstract correctly, also observes this correlated judgement, but denies that there is an actual correlation between beauty and intelligence. RH also linked to a study which not only claims that beauty and intelligence are correlated, but that this explains the wage premium for beauty. You may recall the study a few years ago that intelligence explains the wage premium for height. I am surprised that there is disagreement in the psychological literature about whether beauty and intelligence are correlated.
The most surprising thing to me about that link is that it indicates beautiful women are disadvantaged when seeking employment.
Robin also mentioned an interesting recent study on that counterintuitive finding.
I think kids learn to specialize, to some extent. I was a goofy-looking kid who specialized in reading, while my cuter sister specialized in people-pleasing. (More of this might have to do with birth order.) But I think it's plausible that more attractive children lean towards social rather than intellectual pursuits. My understanding is that beauty and health are correlated in a very broad, do-all-your-limbs work, are-you-malnourished sense. I would be surprised to learn that higher cheekbones are correlated with health.
Especially since there is a cultural part in "beauty". In some African cultures, a "fat" woman is considered beautiful, because (unconsciously) it means someone who has access to lots of food. In Western culture, the fashion shows and TV series tend to propagate the opposite : a very slim, even anorexic woman (to the point of being unhealthy) is considered beautiful.
That's an interesting possibility, but do you have more than one data point to base it on? I don't think it's clear that beautiful people having a general tendency to behave in an inane manner is an actual phenomenon requiring explanation.
The Emperor's New Clothes? If only... ;)
Beauty affects development of social skills; perception of others as smart is influenced as much by social skills as by 'raw' intelligence?
The Emperor's New Clothes? If only... ;)
Just the other day, Robin Hanson quoted a paper that showed a 0.3 correlation between people's judgements from photos of beauty an intelligence. So people seem to not believe in dumb blonde syndrome. It cited a survey that, if I read the abstract correctly, also observes this correlated judgement, but denies that there is an actual correlation between beauty and intelligence. RH also linked to a study which not only claims that beauty and intelligence are correlated, but that this explains the wage premium for beauty. You may recall the study a few years ago that intelligence explains the wage premium for height. I am surprised that there is disagreement in the psychological literature about whether beauty and intelligence are correlated.
"is correlated with" is not transitive, the conclusion is true, but it doesn't follow from the premises. I guess this is exactly the sort of comment that the original post was supposed to be warning people against making - does the fact that I've noticed this, and am pointing it out here in apology help to mitigate it?
That is a surprising mistake to make in reasoning. Did you somehow get the causality arrows reversed in your mind when writing this? Temporarily imagine that fitness was causing brains and beauty, rather than the other way around? Quite possibly true. But surely not for the reason you suggested above.
Isn't beauty a set of built-in fitness testing heuristics? If so, fitness really does cause beauty. It's worth pointing out that beauty also really does cause fitness. The runaway cycle is the peacock effect.
As far as I can tell, beauty is a combination of health heuristics and status markers which are developed in particular societies-- some of the status markers are about rarity and others are about costly signals.
Also known as Fisherian Runaway.
Evolution's Goodhart Law.. Man, there is just no escaping it, is there?
By "fitness" I meant "health".
There are no causality arrows in my reasoning. Perhaps you think that by "fitness" I meant evolutionary fitness, and that both beauty and intelligence cause fitness. But by "fitness" I meant health. Sorry, poor choice of words.
Fitness meaning health. That works. But I think that your model does involve causality - from health to both beauty and intelligence. And, of course then beauty and intelligence will be correlated. I apologize for not anticipating that possible meaning. Since you post about evolutionary theory so often, that denotation of "fitness" never entered my mind.
Say X and Y are two independent random variables. X is correlated to X+Y is correlated to Y, but X and Y are (by hypothesis!) not correlated.
With correlations it isn't necessarily clear which way the causality arrows are pointing - or even if they run between the correlated items at all. In this case, one of the most obvious way to draw the arrows is from genes to all of these traits.
He only talked about correlation, not causation. The most likely causation is indeed the one you posited. EDIT: ignore the following. But two things that are both (positively) correlated with a third are (positively) correlated with each other, no matter the the direction or even existence of causal relations.
I don't believe this is the case. Two things things both being positively correlated with a third are more likely to be correlated with each other, all things being equal. Yet there are causal relations which could make those things negatively correlated with each other while both positively correlated with the third. The most obvious examples would be of partisan behaviors where the 'third' is a generic factor that encourages someone to pick a side.
You're right. I should have said "are generally", rather "are".
I don't think "are generally" applies "no matter the the direction or even existence of causal relations". If A causes E and B independently causes E, then there will be correlation between A and E and between B and E, but no reason to expect correlation between A and B.
You're right, and I really should have known better. This is one of the examples used in Judea Pearl's Casaulity, about how to assign plausible causation structures given only correlations.
A pair of correlations between A and B, and between B and C, is correlated with a correlation between A and C. :P

This is really good advice for the workplace and how I would write criticisms for people who I didn't know but wanted the help of. But it is a really terrible suggestion as a norm for Less Wrong.

Here, we've all more or less agreed to not take arguments personally and reward people for admitting they are wrong. Part of what is special about this place is that while it is good to be nice I can focus on whether comments are right instead of whether or not I am threatening a poster's status. As much as possible we try to avoid status maneuvers here - so following your suggestion that we undermine the community's signal to noise ratio in order to make allies (in a way other than being right) is a rather straightforward defection.

This doesn't make being mean is acceptable. I agree with Alicorn's classic post. But you seem to be advocating not just taking steps to avoid being mean but to expend extra efforts and page space on meaningless niceties instead of making forthright and respectful comments. While perhaps too confrontational in most workplaces nearly all of the examples are just fine here. If you're going to bother correcting spelling at all (and only in certain cases is it wort... (read more)

I have also found that being able to speak bluntly and off the top of my head about what I believe to be true is enormously valuable for me in truth-seeking. Having friends and forums where that is the culture is immensely valuable. Yet learning how to not do that - how to use my "polite pen" - has also been immensely valuable to me in getting my ideas across to a broader audience. Each has it's place, and I think what most LWers need to hear is the point in this post, but I think it would have been clearer if all the examples were from the workplace / regular life. Then it wouldn't have had this challenge to LW culture you perceived.
I do not make a precommitment. I don't need to. I do make the observation that any such comment would provoke a downvote from me based on merit. (Note that the very fact that you declared a precommitment essentially as a threat very nearly prompted me to declare that I would downvote you every time you made a spelling mistake and upvote the corrector. I stifled that impulse because the promised action was so obviously reasonable.)
I don't see how it was a threat anymore than all precommitments to do negative things are 'threats'. I don't really understand why you would take issue with me here. The OP is promoted with 34 upvotes, apparently we do have to clarify our commenting standards. I don't see any difference between a precommitment and your 'observation' regarding future downvotes.
One reasonable definition of a threat would be: "A precommitment to harm someone else if they perform, or fail to perform, certain actions." So, it's not more of a threat than any other precommitment to do negative things in response to others actions.
It isn't. I'm not. I'm agreeing with you. Just noting that if I didn't strongly agree with you I would counter the use of force with my own. Expressing what my initial reaction was until I read as far as the actual quote.

I am neurotypical in the sense that I'm not on the Asperger's/autism spectrum at all. And I think, because I'm a woman, I've internalized a fair bit of social finesse/politeness/ways to signal deference and avoid ego challenges. Given that overestimating our own competence is a common bias, I'm hesitant to say "my social skills are good" or anything like that, but I can at least report that I don't generally provoke hostility where I'm not anticipating it.

I agree that niceness is important, for all the reasons Alicorn has laid out. But I also agree with Alicorn and other commentators that the examples you give are off-putting. To me, they do not actually read as nice. They read as smarmy and condescending. At the same time, your advice: "Don't just guess here. Try it out for a month. I think you'll be amazed at how differently people react to you" is off-putting for its condescension. You are dismissing all your critics as not knowing what they're talking about ("just guessing"), and implying that people react poorly to them now--or at least much more poorly than they react to you. In this way you're implicitly claiming superior social status, which is... (read more)

2lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
I can see how it'd look like that in the abstract, but in out in the world it really does seem to work. That's the standard I'm using here - works-in-world. Let me see if I can come up with a good real world example. Here's one from Hacker News: In response to someone saying Google Chrome has ugly design - "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless, but I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. This is partly, I guess, because its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful, I think." That's an example of what I mean. "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless, but I think " is filler. It doesn't add anything, we already know it's his opinion and it's subjective. But if what if he'd been more blunt? What if he'd written - "That's weird. I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. Its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful. I don't get how you could think otherwise." See that second one? I see the equivalent of that sometimes among smart people. And it's bad. The first one - well, maybe it adds a little fluff. But it's not going to make the person he's replying to hostile. The second way would. Well, again, context. That reply is to someone who is saying, "I don't think that would work" - and I don't know what to say other than, "Why not give it a try?" I'm advocating change in phrasing based on real world observations of what's effective. If someone disagrees but has no data of trying it, I don't know what else to say... Ah, that's not my intention at all. I know I used to do it the other way, and my results have gone up since I changed. Really, the counterarguments I'm seeing are exactly what I would have argued ten years ago, and I believe greatly held me back at the time. So I really, really, really would encourage someone to try a little softening and praise, even if it's unnatural or doesn

I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless,

I find that really upsetting.

I'm just back from shopping at Lidl. Those yummy German chocolate coated marzipan bars are back for Christmas. Hurray! Should I get one for Robert too? No. He hates marzipan. He even cuts the marzipan out of the stollen and gives it to me.

When I read "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly meaningless,..." I get the parental voice starting up: Why are you eating that crap, its mostly sugar, it will rot your teeth, I don't care that you like it, you're just being childish,.... The parental voice has a go at Robert too: What do you think you are doing cutting the marzipan out of the stollen. That is fussy beyond belief. Its just food. Eat it!. Everybody else likes it, what makes you so special?

Huh? What's that all about? It is slowly dawning on me that I carry a lot of mental scar tissue from playing social games with people who play rough. In my experience minimising the importance of subjective factors is an aggressive move. It is made by a player to whom subjective factors are very important. They say "I guess it's totally subjective and therefore fairly ... (read more)

Fraught topic? The topic itself is utterly trivial and commonly acknowledged. Pretending that it is the topic itself that is dangerous is rather insulting to the community.

I can see how it'd look like that in the abstract, but in out in the world it really does seem to work. That's the standard I'm using here - works-in-world.

But the commentators who are telling you "this doesn't work for us" are part of the world. This conversation is part of the world. You're getting commenters right now, in the world, telling you that you are provoking a hostile reaction when presumably you don't mean to. So there's something about your style that isn't working right for at least a significant minority of the target audience.

I can imagine situations where the style you're advocating or modeling here would work well. In a specific kind of corporate environment, it would work well.But in an intellectual discussion forum, I think it can have an effect opposite from the one you intend. That's why you're hearing from people saying that it's "irritating" or "sets their teeth on edge" or that it's coming across as condescending.

"That's weird. I think Chrome is the most visually appealing of any browser right now. Its primary virtue is minimalism, but the parts that are there are beautiful. I don't get how you could think otherwise.

... (read more)
Leave out the last sentence, and I would definitely respond to the second better than the first. Pointing out that one's opinions are subjective is vacuous, it's obvious enough that I'm inclined to think less of someone who bothers calling attention to it, and the "and therefore fairly meaningless" part makes it considerably worse. It's way too self effacing, and triggers in me the kneejerk response "if it's so meaningless, why bother bringing it up?" Whenever I encounter someone prefacing a statement with "this is just my subjective opinion," or some variation on that, it immediately causes me to revise my opinion of them downwards. The examples you keep bringing up seem to be sledgehammer approaches to politeness. It's better than sledgehammer rudeness, but it's not well optimized for smoothing social interactions.
Why do you keep the hedge phrase "I think" in your improved version? After all, "I think" is just as meaningless as the hedge phrases you remove: I already assumed that you think it, otherwise you wouldn't have said it. So, if hedge phrases are bad, "Chrome is the most visually appealing..." would be even better. Unless you agree that hedge phrases have some value, in which case this is much more of a "haggling over the price" sort of disagreement than it seemed at first.
I do agree that hedge phrases have some value. They have more or less use depending on the social circles you're dealing with. Here, you could probably leave out the "I think" as implicit, but in many circles dropping it would be taken as abrasive and overprivileging of one's opinion. Remember that there is no shortage of people to whom "other people don't have to share your opinion" seems like a genuine insight. I'm not taking issue with lionhearted's general point that social signals that would seem fluffy in this community can be legitimately useful in many situations, but like many others in this thread, I question his grasp of what sort of signaling actually tends to be most effective.
An introductory phrase need not be a 'hedge phrase' in the sense of demoting the following statement - it can just serve to position it properly. I find a good medium to be 'I find', or 'It strikes me', or 'It occurs to me', depending on context. These are clearly indications of subjectivity without denigrating subjectivity. "I find Chrome to be the most visually appealing…" is not confrontational at all, and in terms of added length it's 3 short words ('I find', and using 'to be' instead of 'is'), barely a cost at all. It doesn't bring up the fact/opinion divide, it just uses it.
It seems we understand 'hedge phrase' somewhat differently, but I certainly agree that adding phrases that convert what would otherwise be a statement about the world (e.g. "Chrome is the most etc.") into a statement about my own thoughts, feelings or experiences (e.g., "I think Chrome is..." or "I find Chrome to be..." or "In my experience Chrome is..." or whatever) makes the statement seem less confrontational, and that the difference in statement length is negligible.
"It would be great if you could pass the salt." "There is no objective criteria by which it could be 'great' if - " "I would appreciate it if you would pass the salt." "If you think so, then it's probably true, although there are limits to introspection - " "Trust me." " - but even granting that, that's really a lame counterfactual scenario to raise - " "Salt motherfucker. Can you pass it?!" "I can." (A short interval of time elapses. Salt is not passed.) "Pass the salt!"
In my more pedantic youth, I entertained myself endlessly by playing this game when people tried to ask me for the time. "Do you have the time?" "Yes." "Will you tell me the time?" "It depends." "On what?" "Whether you ask me." (sigh) "All right, then, will you tell me the time?!?" "As I say: it depends!" It astonished me how difficult it was for people to forego polite indirection.
"What time is it?!" "It's five o'clock somewhere."
I agree that it sounds lame. But couldn't there be a variation that makes them look cool? "While it could be argued that all such opinions are subjective, my personal opinion is definitely X."
I think a simple "in my opinion" serves better. All opinions are subjective, otherwise they wouldn't be opinions, and it comes across as passive and weasel-wordy. There are variations that can improve on the basic "in my opinion" disclaimer, but they're situation appropriate. For instance, you might use "In my objective and incontestable opinion," which is clearly facetious, and signals a deliberate reaction to overly self effacing disclaimers, but it won't earn you points in circles where self aggrandizing humor is frowned upon.
I've met people who get huffy about the suggestion that they preface their opinions with "in my opinion" or "I think that." For a long time I had trouble explaining what good came of doing so; the best I've got so far is "it distinguishes you from the people who think their opinions are facts." Does this make sense? Any suggestions for making it clearer? Edit: I just found a couple more ways to explain this in my notes file. One is that "x is bad" invites the conversation "no it's not!" "yes it is!" (because it's a disagreement of fact) whereas "I think x is bad" invites the conversation "why do you think that?" (because it's a disagreement of opinion). The second argument is more interesting. Another is that when you say "x is bad" as an absolute, you're implying that anyone who likes it is wrong; you're insulting their taste. When you say "I don't like x" you're merely disagreeing with their taste. I haven't yet figured out to do with people who actually do believe that their opinions or experiences represent objective truths.
I understand the difficulty in finding more evidence for this sort of thing. Once could do a study, and that's not a bad idea, but right now I can't think of any. I suspect what you need to do is not say "for a month." These types of things tend to give immediate feedback if you're interacting in person and paying attention, so trying it "the next time you're dealing with non-nerds." I know that most of my social experiments get a sample size of one and I suspect that is typical.

#1 is kind of clever pointing out a spelling error.

You know the thing that horrified me? When I realized that my "wizened" snark was my most upvoted contribution to this site. All I did was point out the intersection of a typo and an amusing mental image!

You're totally right, though, that I should have found a politer way to do it- focus on the mental image instead of status-seeking sarcasm. Indeed, that's probably the heart of politeness- wording things in ways that they don't threaten the other person's status.

Personally, I think I would have taken more offense at the suggested substitution

Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

As someone with a fairly extensive vocabulary and good spelling, I wouldn't mind having someone poke fun at an accidental misspelling or wrong usage, but I would be inclined to feel patronized if I thought that the person didn't think I would recognize on reexamination that what I had written was a mistake.

Even with a well thought out set of social heuristics, if you don't know the people you're dealing with very well, you run the risk of inadvertently giving offense. This is where it comes in handy to be a good guesser rather than an asker.

Is that because the wording changed, or because the location changed? Split the two apart- compare the thing I wrote PMed to you vs. posted as a comment and the thing he wrote PMed vs. posted as a comment. My guess is the optimal combination for you is the thing I wrote PMed. How much of the dance to do is not clear unless you know the person in question, but where to dance seems pretty clear.
That depends on the nature of the group I was in, I think. If I cared particularly about the regard of the other members of the group, and did not feel like I had a secure position of status in it, then I would probably prefer receiving the message by PM. If I felt secure in my social position, I would probably prefer that the message be posted openly, so that other people could appreciate it. People are complicated. I've put a lot of effort into working out how to deal effectively with others in social situations (working my way up from a very low starting point I'm afraid,) and one of the lessons that has served me best is to not to suppose that even my best tried and tested heuristics will apply to everyone, and to be prepared to discard them when necessary.

FWIW, I thought your "wizened" remark was a witty way of making the correction, and doing the "great article but I just wanted to say just a teeny tiny correction that I happened to notice and I'm sure it was just a typo but" dance would have been merely tedious, and no more polite.

See, that's the thing- the dance isn't the important part. I already did the dance with "I don't think that's the word you want to use." lionhearted's absolutely correct point is doing the correction in public is the "look at me" option and correcting him in private would have been the polite option, regardless of how much dancing went on in either. Unless people are thick-skinned by intention or ignorance, they notice when you take the impolite option.

It's pretty common, though. You wanted the other people reading to think of you as clever, and considered that to be "worth" making the author feel a bit bad. This is what the proxy-value of karma, as implemented by the Reddit-codebase discussion engine of this site, reflects: the author can only downvote once (and even then they are discouraged from doing so, unlike with, say, a Whuffie system), but the audience can upvote numerous times.

Thinking back, I've had many discussions on the Internet that devolved into arguments, where, although my interlocutor was trying to convince me of something, I had given up on convincing them of anything in particular, and was instead trying to convince any third-parties reading the post that the other person was not to be trusted, and that their advice was dangerous—at the expense of making myself seem like even less trustworthy to the person I was nominally supposed to be convincing. This is what public fora do.

Thank You For Smoking has a wonderful moment along these lines (and is a thoroughly enjoyable film for other reasons). This describes what I do on the other forum I frequent; I treat anyone politely for about 3 posts, and then if they're still an idiot I just start tearing them apart for the amusement of myself and others. But I was surprised that I did it here (I wasn't planning to), and even more surprised that it was so well received.
Apparently this community really values the combination of wit, brevity & correctness, which are all good things. Unfortunately, since your brief witty correct remark was about something irrelevant, that means we are rewarding entertainment that wins status/appreciation without contributing to meaningful discussion, relative to deep and/or thoughtful insights. Quite understandable, but I can see why you were horrified - one expects better of LWers. I interpret this as evidence against the correctness of the elitism strain in LW culture. We are all monkeys, the great thing about LW is that we know it and want to change it - not that we have.
When one's opinion is expressed as a flat yes/abstain/no, a natural consequence is that an item that elicits wide, mild approval but little or no disapproval will be more successful than an item that elicits narrow, ecstatic approval with significant disapproval. This applies as much to blog commenting as it does to democratic politics. On LW, a partial fix is the "controversial" rating, which ranks a +20/-10 comment higher than a +10/0 one since it's likely to be a more substantive one, and the "top comments" page which is ranked purely by upmods.

Why call this "defection"? I interpret "defection" as meaning not just "a bad thing people do" but as deliberately deviating from a previous agreement. The relationship between the prisoner's dilemma and not being sufficiently polite seems forced, or at least like it could have used more thorough explanation.

I agree with Alicorn and others who find the sort of forced extreme politeness of some of the suggested responses (especially to #1) off-putting. I can't quite explain why, but if I had to guess, it would be for two reasons. First, politeness level indicates status, and when someone uses excessive politeness that ascribes to me extremely high status that I don't feel I've earned, I suspect they're trying to manipulate me. Given that many of the arguments in this post are explicitly about politeness as a tool for manipulating people, this seems to be a valid suspicion.

Second, lack of politeness is a countersignalling method to indicate friendship and community by showing you are close enough to a person that politeness is unnecessary (consider the relatively common story of the friends who greet each other with racial slurs, like "Hey n*gga!&qu... (read more)

Why call this "defection"? I interpret "defection" as meaning not just "a bad thing people do" but as deliberately deviating from a previous agreement. The relationship between the prisoner's dilemma and not being sufficiently polite seems forced, or at least like it could have used more thorough explanation.

I wanted to put this into a context of how you could cooperate, raising everyone's payoffs - or defect, raising your payoff at the expense of the other person.

Which might be fine, if you do it consciously. But is really something you should be aware of. Certain kinds of public statements have this effect - raising your standing at the expense of who you're criticizing, like in the meeting example. This might be okay to do, but you really, really should be aware of it. A lot of smart people don't realize that their action/criticism comes across as defection - raising themselves at the expense of lowering the other person.

Second, lack of politeness is a countersignalling method to indicate friendship and community by showing you are close enough to a person that politeness is unnecessary

Yes, but I don't think this is what the majority of techn... (read more)

As you say, that only works if everyone is already on board with this. What the OP is talking about is, effectively, the situation where you're saying "hey nigga wassup!" to someone you've just met or barely know. In order to use direct communication to signal closeness, you need to be sure that you're on the same page first.

One of the editing guidelines for Wikipedia is "Assume good faith" ( It strikes me that is precisely what "normal" people do not do when criticized but what analytical people tend to do, especially when communicating with one another (assume that criticism is not a personal attack or status seeking, but rather is taken at face value). In that vein I think your suggestions are useful and valuable for dealing with regular people in real life or people on the more vanilla internet climes like Facebook, but they might not be appropriate for the frank and analytical types of discussions that take place on sites like LW (and HN).


As someone who is often (as the article describes) willfully indifferent to the finer arts of conversation, I personally appreciate the directness and sharpness of discussion here. I feel like I can take people's comments at face value, and that I can usually assess a fair consensus about something by reading people's reactions to it, rather than having to figure out what social factors are influencing the posts. So I'm anti-politeness!

I do know, though, that a lack of grace in these areas can totally drive away some personalities, which is probably a much more severe consequence than making life a little more ambiguous for us few social pariahs. To the extent that LW is made up of people who are willing to assume good faith on everything, I worry that it might be because we insulted everyone else until they went away, or never registered at all.

As usual, I wish it was possible to upvote things more than once.
I have an alternate theory. Perhaps LW is made up of people who actually have good faith on everything most of the time, and we insulted or puzzled everyone else until they went away, or they never registered at all, thus leaving us free to assume it.
I don't think this is true. I know people who "assume good faith", and they are amazing a a pleasure to debate with - it never becomes argument. But I have not found this to be correlated with analytical thinking - if anything, the opposite. Rather, my experience with analytical people (incl. myself) is that they just don't see the emotional subtext. They see the argument, the logical points, and they don't even think about the status implications, who challenged whose authority, and so forth. It's not as pleasant to think of we non-neurotypicals as oblivious rather than charitable, but it seems more accurate to me. For example, the idea that all that matters is whether my argument is good is so natural to me and core to my family upbringing that it's taken me many years to unlearn it. To learn that people care how an argument is phrased, how openly you suggest they are wrong, and who the authority figure is (ie whether the challenger is of low status in that context). In some ways, my obliviousness was very powerful for me, because ignoring status cues is a mark of status, as are confidence and being at ease with high-status people - all of which flow from my focus on ideas over people or their status. Yet as I've moved from more academic/intellectual circles to business/wealth circles, it's become crucial to learn that extra social subtext, because most of those people get driven away if you don't have those extra layers of social sense and display it in your conversational maneuvering.
How do you see politeness of this sort as hurting discussion here?

How do you see politeness of this sort as hurting discussion here?

One example: I had a strong negative reaction to this advice:

Consider correcting someone privately while praising them publicly. This combination has been observed to engender loyalty and good feelings throughout history.

My reasons:

  • I dislike receiving feedback which has been distorted by the desire to "engender loyalty and good feelings". Such feedback is worse than worthless since the recipient wastes time analyzing the motivation and discarding the feedback, rather than analyzing the feedback and updating on it.
  • If I make a mistake, which is corrected publicly, and the correction receives 9 upvotes, I fix the mistake, thank the corrector, and I'm done. If instead, the correction is private, I have to read 10 PMs and respond with 10 thank you notes.
  • The advice referred to "correction" rather than "disagreement". That is good, because in a community like this one, disagreement should always be public rather than private. The trouble is that in many cases, what was originally thought to be a disagreement turns into a correction and what was originally thought to be a correc
... (read more)
A suggestion: use polite words in order to help your communication be received. Strunk & White were on the money: "Omit needless words." However, I think it's clear from the examples given that polite words are not necessarily noise - if they help the communication be received, rather than deprecated or even ignored, then they are important to the communication and should be considered part of it. Your objection appears to be to application of a specific rule in a specific situation. This means, of course that one needs to adjust one's communication style to the situation. This takes work, but that doesn't mean it's optional to success. If it's redundant, it's redundant in the good computers and communications sense of "makes the signal more likely to get through." I submit that this is actually quite important. (If you look through my comments, you'll see I post-edit almost all of them. I take care not to change the meaning (that would be extremely socially rude) - but I frequently dash off something, realise it's brash enough it may affect it being received, and go back and fix it. Impolite words hamper communication, and IME just because nerds say they prefer unvarnished communication does not mean they like receiving it rather than feeling free to send it. So I consider it "adding signal." I continue to take pride in being a good writer with an excellent turn of phrase, despite the evidence I need to think more before hitting "comment" ...)
I agree with much of what you say here and in your linked suggestion. I particularly endorse your suggestion that if politeness "greases the way" to the understanding of a message, then it is an integral part of the message. However, I still believe that there is some value in "pushing on the envelope", in doing one's bit toward shifting societal norms in the direction of greater honesty and less ego massage.
Decreasing signal-to-noise ratio, creates a precedent for pure noise posts (which currently - correctly - suffer prejudice).
It is a nerd commonplace that an increase in politeness results in a decline in signal. However, I'd suggest we need actual quantified evidence. After over fifteen years, there should be people by now who've done the numbers.
I mean there will literally be more words in each comment. The signal-to-noise ratio will decrease because we have the same signal with slightly more noise (polite words).

I agree with the general position that excessive politeness can harm the quality of communication. But I strongly disagree that the harm is due to there simply being more words. The harm is due to the presence of actual ("white") lies.

The prescription that seems to flow from your analysis - "Don't waste words" - strikes me as a bad direction to go. I fear that our comments and criticisms are often already too cryptic and confusing due to their terseness. I would advise people to use more words: provide a second example to clarify, quote the passage you are critiquing, explain the point of a link. As the saying goes, words are cheap. Trying to be frugal in their use is false economy.

My advice: aim for maximum clarity. If you are considering adding some polite words simply to soften your criticism ... don't. It damages clarity. On the other hand, if you are considering whether to prefix your criticism with "I liked the first part, but ..." then go ahead. It clarifies the scope of your criticism. Even though it "costs" some words.

You just assumed your conclusion: that polite words are not part of the signal. Opposite plausible assumption: If the communication is deprecated or even ignored because of the absence of polite words, then the polite words are important to the communication and should be considered part of it. As I said, to make assertions like this one needs actual numbers. If you don't have any, that's fine, I don't either ;-) But I can recognise that we've reached the stage of opposed but plausible statements, which means we have something falsifiable, and maybe should have a go at doing so. If no-one has already. Exercise for the reader: Which words in this comment are noise?
Which words in that comment are noise? and That is, at least, my view on noise. Sure, it's no major problem; I parsed your comment just as easily, it took barely any extra effort on my part, it didn't obscure anything - it wasn't actively bad at all. But it wasn't good either, it was just grease. I don't see a need to counsel people towards more grease on LessWrong specifically. In almost all cases, yes, smart people need a lot more grease than they use. But part of the LessWrong aesthetic is a sort of soft Crocker's rules. What I am mostly concerned about: about halfway down the comment, when AlanCrowe talks about the budget meeting example: that 'upgrading' of an idea is not desirable on LessWrong. To illustrate the point, if we upgraded Ben Goertzel's ideas on AGI from 'flawed' to 'great idea, have you thought about friendliness?', we would be making an error.
The answer is, of course: none of it was "grease." It was superfluous to you, but would not have been superfluous to others. A public comment intended to be read by many people on a blog expressly aimed at effectiveness in all regards, including communication, requires comments to be constructed robustly and with an eye to alleviating misinterpretation. Failure to do so is failure. If you don't agree, then do please consider there are other people than you reading it and that you may be incorrect. Exercise: Was this sufficiently unvarnished or could it have been unvarnished further? Would the unvarnishing have contributed an element to the communication that advanced the quality of LessWrong or put it back?
We could, I suppose, experiment. But I share your intuition, both that this is probably well-covered in the sociolinguistics literature, and that politeness markers can increase the effectiveness of a communication. It's also worth noting that what counts as "noise" (in the sense we're using it here, which includes redundant signal) depends on my audience. If I know who is reading my words and I know what their priors are, I can communicate way more efficiently -- I only have to provide evidence for the places where our priors differ. (Case in point: in pretty much any other community, I would have needed to use more words to express that thought, rather than rely on a shared understanding of "evidence" and "priors".) Anyway, I don't feel like actually, you know, doing research, but I'll ask around among the appropriate cohort of my friends and see what comes up. ETA: Heh. Your most recent comment said essentially the same thing. Ah well.
I think the word signal is being overloaded here. The signal here can be seperated into the core signal and the social signal. The social signal is also a signal and is necessary for the interaction to succeed but in the context of a signal-to-noise ratio it counts as noise because our goal is to extract the core signal; the social signal/noise should be there to the extent it is necessary to allow the core's extraction without unwanted side effects. I don't consider anything in your comment to be the bad kind of noise and there's nothing I would cut, but the third paragraph contains far more words than it would have to if it could be pure core signal.
Yes, the maximally concise polite post likely uses more words to express the same number of thoughts than the maximally concise non-polite post. That said, a typical LW post is far from maximally concise. The question is, does a typically concise polite post use more words per thought communicated? I agree with David_Gerard here: if the answer matters, I'd like to see some actual measurements. Conversely, if we don't care about the measurements, maybe the answer doesn't actually matter.
I think politeness can be a range of possible values rather than a discrete quality. Being polite but also direct is fine, it's just when you start to edge down the spectrum of politeness towards being politic that it might detract from the quality of the dialogue. I do believe that one should still adhere to the rule of thumb: "Don't be a dick" even if one is being direct though.
As someone who is often (as the article describes) willfully indifferent to the finer arts of conversation, I personally appreciate the directness and sharpness of discussion here. I feel like I can take people's comments at face value, and that I can usually assess a fair consensus about something by reading people's reactions to it, rather than having to figure out what social factors are influencing the posts. So I'm anti-politeness! I do know, though, that a lack of grace in these areas can totally drive away some personalities, which is probably a much more severe consequence than making life a little more ambiguous for us few social pariahs.
"Assume good faith" is really hard work in an environment of massive collaboration. (It's as hard work as "neutral point of view.") I believe I am the first person to have noticed that "assume good faith" translates as "never assume malice when stupidity will suffice." Although calling the stupid stupid violates the "no personal attacks" rule. You know how Wikipedia can't keep idiots out of experts' faces? Wikipedia can't keep idiots out of anyone else's faces either. This is a special case of "people are a problem."

I think a more complete translation would be something like "never assume malice when stupidity will suffice; never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice; never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice; never assume error when information you hadn't adequately accounted for will suffice."

This is quite excellent. I'd copy it to the Wikipedia project page if I thought it had any chance of lasting more than a second. (So I'll put it on RW, where you get a free lesson in French as well.)
Great heuristic!

You make a good case for being polite in general, but one of the things I enjoy about this corner of the Internet is that it's not overflowing with the constant thanking and thanking-for-thanking and dancing around the point that most people apply in real life, and which in my opinion actually undermine attempts to communicate. (there's a top-level post in there that I'll make one of these days..)

To paraphrase something I read a while back: "Normal people apply tact to everything they say, while nerds apply tact to everything they hear."

As long as people are aware that this 10% is unlike the other 90%, I see no strong reason to change those percentages, since it means that here is one of the few places that I can get to the point fairly quickly rather than trying to work out which arcane rituals I need to perform today.

You may also want to link back to Alicorn's post about why it's useful to be nice

To paraphrase something I read a while back: "Normal people apply tact to everything they say, while nerds apply tact to everything they hear."

This is something nerds tell themselves, but in practice they seem to me to be as susceptible to being infuriated by what non-nerds think is social rudeness as non-nerds are. Just because you think you shouldn't be affected by lack of social niceties, doesn't mean you aren't affected by lack of social niceties.

In particular: demanding of others that they be less affected by social niceties while simultaneously not bothering to use them oneself is a common antipattern in Internet discourse.

Thankfully, Postel's Law - "Be conservative in what you send; be liberal in what you accept." - is a nerd meme, and some nerds even apply it.

I admit, I oversimplified. My real-life experience isn't that nerds have fewer social conventions, it's that they have different ones which just happen to look like fewer from a non-nerd perspective. And since nerd/non-nerd isn't a binary distinction you get all the levels of politeness in between as well. The nerd social rules as I know them include things like getting to the point faster and welcoming minor corrections mid-sentence, but don't include hostile language.
Unfortunately, practical experience of what people mean when they advocate less politeness in the cause of more communication says otherwise. Follow that link and you'll see people over and over defending not just being inconsiderate but actual hostility - blatant rudeness and direct intentional offensiveness - as "honest communication" and treating people wanting them to stop as "suppressing communication" or "being politically correct". And this is just one set of examples. As such, the argument in practice appears to be that people don't like being asked to consider others when transmitting, and - and this is a key part - aren't especially keen on listening unless it's in the precise terms they want. That is, they are observably not filtering on output and are observably very fussy indeed on input. Of course, you could argue that that's not real nerd communication, but using a claim of "politeness hampers honest communication" seems to happen when people say "hey, could you, y'know, stop blatantly being a dick?" So such an argument is slightly tainted in practice by the uses it's been put to before. And perhaps that's not how an ideal world works, but it does appear to be how this one with people in it works. It's possible to make the argument honestly, and I'm not saying you're not; I am saying that by using that argument, you're welcoming others using the argument as an excuse for making the communication space much more hostile than it needs to be. And it remains unclear to me how the repeated special pleading for bad communication skills in this thread constitutes a refinement in the art of human rationality.
I am reminded by this comment of Dan Ariely's analysis of market norms versus social norms - namely that if you replace a social norm with a market norm and then try to remove the market norm, it takes a long time to re-establish social norms. I think this is what tends to happen in nerd communities - not that social norms are being replaced by market norms but that social norms are removed on the grounds that they can make communication more difficult, and then people act badly because we're not well-equipped to operate without norms. The successful nerd communities that I've seen (here and a couple of other places) have either involved the founder exercising strong control over the tone of the comments and banning the offensive ones, or strong social norms that were instituted as soon as the community was founded, so that people conformed to the new norm. Implicit value judgement of what constitutes good and bad communication. The norms are different in different environments. One of my lecturers likes to use the example of when she lived in New York - she was verbally abused by the vendors there for wasting their time with small talk. This doesn't mean that New Yorkers are rude (well, the ones that actually abused her may have been), it means they're operating by different politeness conventions that prioritise brevity. Question: do you consider the tone here at LW to be an example of bad communication? I find the vast majority of comments to be quite polite, pointing out flaws and other points to consider without resorting to personal attacks or empty statements of value like "this post was awesome/terrible".
Maintaining a non-repellent tone is part of tending the garden. No, in fact it's remarkably good. The comment section is fantastically good and the karma system here - vote up not for agreement but for "more like this" - seems to really work well. This is why it surprises me to see so many people attempting to justify a lack of or wish not to bother learning communication skills or dismiss such as mere "polite words", "noise" or "grease", as if communication were not an incredibly important part of being effective in dealing with humans.
My pet theory based on my own reaction is that Lionhearted erred too far in the other direction while trying to advocate politeness. Here are two methods of framing the same idea that I would find equally rude but for opposite reasons: "this post would suck less if it had more examples" "this post was great! It really gave me a lot to think about. Just one tiny thing, I'm really slow so I would appreciate it a lot if you just added a couple of examples to illustrate your points so that people like me can get it more easily :) Thanks!" Lionhearted isn't quite advocating the second type of comment but comes fairly close. Politeness is hugely important, but there comes a point where it crosses over into fakeness, passive-aggressiveness, and a bunch of other negative behaviours, and I felt like some of his examples crossed that line, or at least stuck a few toes over.
Intellectual authors crave audience engagement. A lack of examples is usually the result of the author being uncertain where they are required. Bulking up the text with unnecessary examples makes it worse and is work, so the natural tendency is to put in too few examples. The author is really hoping for comments such as or perhaps Either of these would be much more welcome than any response that asked non-specifically for more examples, no matter how generically flattering. The author already knows that he didn't put in enough examples. The information he is lacking is clues as to where his readers are getting lost through a lack of examples. That would let the author add the right examples. More important, evidence of the audience's intellectual engagement would make the author happy.
Oh yeah, happy medium for sure. I would personally be inclined to downvote this on the principle of "less like this", even if I agreed. It strikes me as unduly abrasive and more likely to cause not just the poster, but other people, to feel scared of posting. LessWrong is intimidating enough. (I have been downvoted for such unhelpful abrasiveness before and, frankly, deserved it.) The minimum number of words I would respond with would likely be "Good post. Could do with examples for each point. Tell, then show." Commenting on LessWrong is difficult because smart nerd audiences are incredibly picky, so one must write anticipating as many possible objections as one can come up with. This is why I end up post-editing a lot. (Could really do with a "preview" button to check it renders as intended.) But good communication always takes effort.
That is a rather offensive piece of pattern completion you just did there. If you want to characterize what you have seen on this thread as "repeated special pleading for bad communication skills" then you may be putting your finger on something important. But when you try to conflate that with the incidents reported in your link, then you are engaging in a particularly inappropriate form of stereotyping. Where, on this thread, have you seen overt hostility to women? Or any other form of nastiness? As with any other male-dominated community, we exhibit traces of sexism. But I see no evidence that rationalizations against politeness here are some kind of cryptic anti-woman signaling. Some of us, of both sexes, really do prefer to receive our negative feedback undiluted.
I upvoted for the the rest of the comment but object to this: Lesswrong exhibits traces of sexism (of more than one kind) and this is an example of it.
It's not the incidents themselves - its the arguments about the incidents. That there are arguments, and the style of those arguments, shows the hypocrisy.
It was, of course, posted as a real-world example of how the "let's be unvarnished" meme tends to work out in practice: people who claim they want unvarnished communication tend to lash out when they actually get some back. And, of course, I didn't say that, or anything like it. I said that people who demand unvarnished speech tend to mean they want to transmit it, and tend to show little sign of being able to receive it and decode it sensibly. Put it this way: if erratio got it and you didn't, your inward filtering may need adjustment.
"Or any other form of nastiness?" I've noticed over the past week just how often LW posters talk about (to create a typical example) a "generic rational agent, who does something, then he...", attributing all generic rational agents the male gender. It's extremely irritating to read that being rational means one is ¬¬male! (modus tollens). (But David_Gerard wasn't making a point about sexism; rather, a point about defending for too long signalling that other people find impolite.)
At this point, anything one can do with third person pronouns has the potential of being seen as impolite by a fair number of people. I look at that sentence, and it's true, and I know how the situation happened, and there's a virtue in not being shocked at the real world..... but this is a very weird situation. In other news, I considered making a button that said "red is the new blue" with the words printed in reverse colors, but too many people thought it was intended as a political reference.
(nods) Agreed, what you describe is a perfectly fine attitude for a corner of the Internet that is willing to reinforce social habits that are inappropriate for dealing with the wider population. It is, of course, a counterproductive attitude for a corner of the Internet that wishes to train its members to deal increasingly effectively with the wider population. An entry-level skill for that is complying with the communication protocol your listener is likely to use. It's a matter of what this corner of the Internet conceives of its purpose as being, and what it is willing to do in support of that purpose. Of course, it is possible to do both... to train fluency with the popular communications protocol in a specialized opt-in channel, for example, and allow interactions elsewhere to use "nerd-default" protocols.
My ideal would be that people be explicitly taught that social conventions are just that, and not a universal mode of interaction. We already have cached wisdom like "when in Rome" but we (both LW and society in general) can and should be doing much better. And part of that would be learning that politeness is a matter of context, with examples of places where default polite behaviour is perceived as rude.
Another such cached wisdom: Pardon him, Theodotus; he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature. -- George Bernard Shaw
Here's the link, for people who'd like to read a bit more on that: the tact filter theory.
It was very convenient that your link included a link to fanspeak-- a description of a speech therapist's presentation to fans about distinctive features of how sf fans talk with each other. In particular: "She also seemed quite concerned that we would feel offended by what she had to say, but what she told us was so interesting, and often so recognizably true, that I don't think anyone was." I haven't heard about any further research on fan speech habits, or on whether they're the same as geek speech habits.
I found that link quite interesting as well. I think that the comment about "talking in written English" is an apt description of much of what was happening and the details all resonated with my experience. I am proud of the Fanspeakers for moving to a different and in my opinion superior equilibrium provided they know when and where to use it.
Is our corner that large? I would be very happy to learn that you can use the LW style of politeness with 10% of the population. It isn't obvious who most of them would be if there are that many, and that raises the question of how best to identify when you're dealing with a member of that 10% without being rude to the other 90% in the process. There's definitely a top level post in there, somewhere.

Good advice for the real world, maybe. But consider that here on LW, we are among analytical people, and wouldn't have it otherwise.


You know, if you wanted to look at conversation between two people as a prisoner's dilemma, I think it's quite the other way around, isn't it?

Consider the "payoff" of this situation to be the amount which the person you're talking to has considered and valued your concerns, suggestions, ideas, or requests.

C = Say what you mean as clearly and accurately as possible, and interpret the other person's actions as such

D = Choose your words and actions to be polite and non-confrontational

(You C, I C) = We both understand each other and we both wind up communicating to the best of our ability.

(You C, I D) = I am irritated with you for being rude to me and don't care for what you said very much. You probably heard me out, although you think I'm too sensitive and beat around the bush.

(You D, I D) = We both say what we have to say, but it might take longer and there might be minor misunderstandings that neither of us wanted to step on.

We'd all be better off, I think, if we could learn to C, and give and receive criticism in an accurate way, in good faith, without playing status and politeness games about it. But since the majority of the world is D, and probably won't change, we might need to D as well if we ever want anyone to put up with us.

So if you buy this interpretation, we're not defecting by accident -- we're cooperating by default, even when we're playing against Defection Rock and getting poor outcomes as a result.

A major point of the post is that it is possible to both say what you mean clearly and accurately and choose your words to be polite and non-confrontational.

There are two games: a communication game and a social game. You (and the analytical people in the post) only see the communication game, thinking that if you cooperate in it you must defect in the social game.

In fact, you are allowed to cooperate in both games, and receive good payoffs whether or not your opponent is in the analytical cluster.

It is possible to play both, but difficult, and you can't play both at once as well as equally smart non-analytical types will play just the social game.
Why not? Purely In terms of the social game, isn't "being smart and analytical" just one style of play? Disadvantages: less natural concern for offense or feelings Advantages: more concern and ability for logical politeness, finding the truth, and focusing on ideas (not taking offense). That's^ if you want to really enter the game and play it the standard way. You can also just be yourself, which gets you points and naturally crafts a reputation/expectations, and be idea-focused, which naturally does the same. from an above comment, which has also been my experience: "In some ways, my obliviousness was very powerful for me, because ignoring status cues is a mark of status, as are confidence and being at ease with high-status people - all of which flow from my focus on ideas over people or their status. Yet as I've moved from more academic/intellectual circles to business/wealth circles, it's become crucial to learn that extra social subtext, because most of those people get driven away if you don't have those extra layers of social sense and display it in your conversational maneuvering." I'm not even sure of the necessity of the second part, but it's a good ability to have regardless. I don't see where the cap on communication plus socialising comes from, because communicating well score someone a lot of social points, especially in terms of reputation, but also immediately -if they do it "right" for their environment, which is usually fairly straightforward (be polite and respectful and/or friendly and/or humble and/or oblivious, probably etc). Imo one of the best things you can do specifically for social games, is to pay 0 attention to them. Very few people are such explicit, calculated, and committed status seekers that they can't accept someone who isn't playing (and being described by those 3 adjectives wouldn't even cause them to either). Instead what usually happens is that some people are suspicious of people who don't appear to be playing, and pron
Elaborating on nerzhin's comment, which I think is well stated: the tradeoff between clarity and politeness is not absolute. If politeness is non-habitual and thus difficult, it requires a lot of your energy and attention, and you have to give up some of the energy you could otherwise have spent being clear. This is much less the case when you're very practiced at speaking courteously, because that action becomes automatic; you can then use all your conscious focus on clarity. It's much the same as the speed/accuracy tradeoff in, say, typing, or playing a musical instrument. When you're still learning how to do it, you have to type or play slowly if you want to make sure to get it right. Once you gain the muscle memory to do it right, you can speed up because it's not so much work to be accurate any more.

Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

I've been told by my Korean college students that in Korean high schools the students with the highest grades are usually the most popular.

Koreans have an extremely strong aversion to correcting the errors of others to such an extent that a Korean airline crashed because the co-pilot who knew that his Captain had made an error which if uncorrected would cause the plane to crash didn't do more then suggest to the Captain that he had made an error. (Source: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell).

The errors of others, or the errors of those of superior social ranking? Do Korean teachers refrain from correcting students?
No, students get hit with rulers for mistakes. I think it's that you don't correct your social superiors, and (but I'm not as sure) you don't correct those at your social level.
Does that cause them to attempt to create as many distinct social strata as possible?

This post could have been custom-written for me. I have the problems you listed; I was definitely "that kid" in school,... and just five minutes ago I wrote a comment pointing out someone's unclear phrasing. I just went and edited it.

despite all of the concerns raised in lionhearted's post, and everything that's been written on LW about how analytic types have trouble getting along without getting defensive and prickly, I still think I wouldn't see a response like this just about anywhere else on the internet. karma points to you
Yes. But it also proves lionhearted's point: You can get great results, if you speak with people the right way. The right way has different ratio of ingredients in LW and outside LW. The carefulness described in the article is nice to have in LW, but absolutely necessary in most of the world.

This is a great point you're making. At the risk of being perceived as antagonistic, I've gotta say I don't think the prisoner's dilemma is the best frame for it. It's not that people are trying to cooperate and failing, it's that they just haven't developed the skills they need to accomplish the ends they seek. It's rather like not working on your short game in golf because you're really good at the long game. I think it's a good effort to make the issue topical, but the issue is already so topical that I think it distracts from rather than enhances your point.

I agree with this; I found the metaphor choice sort of disconcerting. (Given that I agreed very much with the overall point, I didn't find it important enough to comment on, but I have a lower threshold for agreeing with someone else.)

I'm confused. If you believe being nasty is suboptimal, then why the analogy to the Prisoner's Dilemma? And if you believe it's optimal, then why be polite? It's not as if the universe cares why you play a winning strategy.

I, too, was distracted by the mention of the prisoners' dilemma, especially before the social situation was made clear, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good rhetorical technique. One answer to your question is that it's a repeated PD. Being nasty may produce an advantage in the short term, but it takes attention from positive-sum cooperation, the ostensible purpose of the conversation. Another point is that it is the game has incomplete information. Alice may be surprised by Bob's apparent belief that he can gain advantage, but it's a pretty strong signal. But I think quite often the situation is that it is quite clear to Alice that Bob is confused and she records him not as a defector, but as a loose cannon who can't even backstab properly, let alone do complicated things like cooperate.


Thanks for the post, I think this hits on an issue that makes our community weaker. I'm always surprised by how focused and pedantic geeks feel they need to be, I guess they enjoy showing how clever they are. I don't know if there's an easy way to fix this problem but as someone who runs meetings for our local hackerspace and other groups it can be difficult to keep things on track.

Anyhow, in the name of offering constructive criticism, is there a way to shorten your writing style? This blog post lost me along the way at a few points but I stuck with it and finished it much to my liking. Perhaps some refined editing out of quotes/etc would shorten it?

Thanks for writing!

"Hey Sebastian, I wanted to give you a heads up. I saw your recent post, but you spelled "wisen" as "wizen" - easy spelling error to make, since they're uncommonly used words, but I thought you should know. "Wizen" means for things to dry up and lose water. Cheers and best wishes."

"Hey, thanks... I don't worry about spelling too much, but yeah that one's embarrassing, I'll fix it. Much appreciated. Anyways, what are you working on? How can I help?"

I find this insanely inefficient. The proper protocol is as follows (communicated privately, so as not to take other people's time; the emotional reception on both sides is neutral):

"Typo: "wizen""


This may be ideal in telling you or me about a typo, but I know that there actually exist those who would hit the roof at such a blunt communication. You may consider them fools and come up with a string of reasons not to take them seriously (and I am likely to agree), but that doesn't get any typos fixed, and I'm assuming that's the actual aim.
I'm sure you are familiar with the strategy "tit-for-tat" in the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. The basic idea is reciprocity - you notice who you are playing with and what you have learned about the other player by past experience, and then you answer cooperation with cooperation and defection with defection. That is the basic idea, but there is one other crucial ingredient in this strategy: start with cooperation when facing someone for the first time. May I suggest that both sides in this debate ought to be rational enough to recognize people who they have interacted with before, and to know whether that person responds best to a blunt approach or a cushioned one. None of us are idiots. We all realize that different people require different approaches. The question which divides us ought to be which approach is best with people whose preferences are unknown to us. I have my opinions on this modified question, but I would be curious to hear what other people think. And more importantly, what kinds of evidence should be brought to bear in deciding this modified question. Empirical statistics as to how people prefer to be treated? Considerations of how we would prefer that people would prefer to be treated? Empirical evidence about what works best? Empirical evidence regarding the importance of a first impression? Suggestions, anyone?
I think respectful behavior is a good default. It doesn't need to be as padded as the OP's example, but what I have done in the past on LW is give a quick response to the overall post (so as to not be totally ignoring it just to point out little things), and then say "oh, by the way, a couple of things you might want to fix: x and y."
Off-topic, but I have run across this line of thinking recently, in regards to Wikileaks for example. Some expressed the view that since people on average are not good at dealing with information (jump to conclusions, cherry-pick to support hating or loving conclusion x, etc), revealing all this information actually makes people make worse decisions. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but I feel like the reason people aren't good with information is because we don't give them enough, and that if we gave them this amount of information regularly, they would develop the skills to use it properly. Something similar for blunt communication. People aren't good with it, so don't do it vs people aren't good with it, so do it to let them learn to be good with it.
But people are used to blunt communication: it's what rude people do when attempting to dominate them by showing that social rules don't apply to the rude people. And a list of reasons why blunt communication is more efficient does not mean that this effect does not happen. And as I've noted, I've seen over and over people say they prefer unvarnished communication but mean they want to be free to send it; when they receive it, particularly when they receive it back, they tend to lash out. My rough heuristic: A certain amount of wrapping is required for your message to be received. No-one said this would be easy, but it's still not optional. Hang out on a community for a bit before diving in. If you're a newbie, use a bit more politeness wrapper than you would when comfortable, because n00b questions get closer inspection. Etc., etc. Try not to be a dick, even if that's quite difficult. (This reads back to me a bit like platitudes, but is actually bitterly-won heuristics.)
Yeah, unfortunately. That reads like "people are used to information: it's what officials manipulate and deceive you with when they attempt to dominate you." It's the wrong understanding. Of course, as much as I'd like to justify my desire to be blunt, simply being blunt isn't going to solve this problem.
I think that when one finds oneself writing this sentence, it is time to take a step back and think pretty hard about what one is saying. We're not talking about a mathematical fact that can be proven or disproven as correct; we're not taking about people having the "wrong understanding" of, say, how Bayes's Theorem works. What we are doing is describing a culture in which behaving in x way signals y, to wit, being blunt and direct signals rudeness. This is hard to stomach for people who are part of a subculture where that is not the case, but being part of that subculture and having that preference does not make that particular meme in the larger culture "wrong." It's not even meaningful to give it a value; it's just an observation of the way it is. You can play along and be accepted/effective in that culture, or not. It's your choice.
It's the prescriptive/descriptive divide. When I say it's the wrong understanding, I mean that if I were to prescribe what understandings people ought to have of communication protocols, I would be in error if I prescribed this one. This understanding is worse than another understanding they could have. There doesn't seem to be any point being purely descriptive about anything. False dilemma. I can agitate for change in that culture.
Oh hey, so it is. Well observed. (This is not sarcasm; I actually hadn't noticed.) The meaningfulness of these words relies on sharing the relevant parts of a value system, and we haven't come anywhere near establishing that that's the case. If you mean that it's definitely more useful for people to behave in the way you prefer, you have not yet convinced me of that. That depends on the goal, doesn't it? If you're a mapmaker, being purely descriptive rather than prescriptive is the whole point. When I'm setting about to choose my own behavior, I would like to have as good a descriptive map as possible of the way the world is now; if I find a part I dislike, I might then choose a behavior with which I intend to change it, but even while doing that I'm best served by having an accurate description in place. Fair point, but as above, it's useful to have a very good understanding of what you're trying to go about changing; and even then, simply contradicting it or behaving as if social norms aren't what they are may not be sufficient to convince anyone of the rightness of your position.
Indeed, excellent counter-example. I was wrong to say there is no point in being descriptive. I am not sure that it is more useful. There appears, to me, to be some correlation between intelligence and blunt communication (nerds speak bluntly, mundanes politely) but that could be intelligence and contrarianism, or any other of many potential factors. I am not giving it any weight. However, I do think it's the case that it is useful for "people who behave in this way" to congregate and continue to behave in this way with each other. That is, when their value systems are sufficiently similar in relevant areas, I can say that being more polite is an error for them. And LessWrong is one place where the value systems sufficiently coincide.
My pet theory about this is that intelligence correlates with not fitting in socially, which then correlates with deliberately doing things differently to prove that not-fitting-in is a choice. If you hang out in any subcultures (goth, roleplaying, etc), you'll tend to see a lot of that kind of countersignalling. I guess that's a point in favour of your contrarianism argument. Another alternative is that intelligence correlates with realising that communication styles are just styles and not the natural order, which then frees them up to switch between styles at will.
I'd really, really, really want to see any sort of numbers before presuming to make any such statement. You are talking about the nerd subculture, not about the world. I could just as well compare academics to stevedores and get the opposite plausible statement. This comes across as wishful thinking on your part.
Since this dispute began, I have been trying to be more analytical in my reactions to comments - trying to determine what it is about them, in style or content, that I like. I liked this comment, and upvoted it, partly because of its well-chosen counter-illustration, but also for reasons of style. It is relatively blunt, but the padding that it carries has a nice "rationalist" flavor. "I'd ... want to see ... numbers ... before presuming ...". "This comes across as ..." rather than simply "This is ...". But in the course of making this analysis, it occurred to me that I am conducting the analysis as a bystander, rather than as the direct recipient of this feedback. I'm living in a forum where everything I write is perused by one recipient and ten bystanders. I know that the reaction of the recipient (and my reaction when I am in the recipient's role) will be witnessed by these ubiquitous bystanders. The bystanders will judge - vote responses up or down. One reason we communicate differently here is that we are playing to an audience - not just conducting one-to-one communication. You (David_Gerard) keep pointing out that we LessWrong denizens can cheerfully "dish out" bluntness, but we are not so happy about receiving it. True enough, but also a rather shallow observation. Surely, the ability to receive criticism without taking offense is a life skill every bit as important as the ability to dispense criticism without giving offense. One virtue of the culture of observed blunt communication that we cultivate here is that we get plenty of practice at receiving criticism, plus plenty of negative feedback if we respond by taking offense. This may sound like more rationalization, but it is not. This environment has helped me to improve my own ability to "take coaching", though I know I have a long way to go. Unfortunately, and this is the point you and Lionhearted have been consistently making, operating in this culture does not provide useful practice and feedback
You have correctly reverse-engineered how I wrote it ;-) I really don't see it as a very blunt culture. (I suppose I should stress this more.) A frequently difficult one, but not blunt. Most comments are thoughtful and the commenters take due care. Some are indeed blunt to the point of rudeness, and you'll see their good but blunt comments get lots of upvotes for content and downvotes for tone.
Hence why I said Now. Really? Can you give me some examples of groups that do share the same value systems? I feel like LessWrong is at the extreme end of 'well established value system', as it regards bluntness/politeness.
There are many places on the Internet that are less polite than here. For example, youtube comments. Quick summary of some politeness protocols that most LW users employ: * Avoidance of ad-hom attacks and empty statements of emotion/opinion ("this is a bad idea" without any supporting evidence) * Being charitable - frequently people will write something along the lines of "It looks like you're arguing X. X is bad because..." This is a very important aspect of politeness - it means taking the potential status hit to yourself of having misinterpreted the other person and provides them a line of retreat in case they really did mean X and now want to distance themselves from it. * In the same vein, clarifying what it is that you're disagreeing about and why before descending with the walls of text. * Acknowledging when someone has made a particularly good post/argument even if you disagree with many of their points.
Apart from 2, they seem more like being rational than being polite. Possibly there is some overlap between politeness protocols in normal experience and rationality protocols on LessWrong. Possibly there is also some overlap between rudeness indicators in normal experience and rationality protocols on LessWrong.
I think the name of the overlap in rationality and politeness is called "not responding emotionally when someone has a different opinion" ;)
I'd say that that part (the bolded section) is bad if true, whether or not it is a "polite" thing to do. People should get used to being able to say "I was wrong" when they find out they were wrong. If someone's post is genuinely ambiguous, then it's fine to say "That sounds like you're saying X, if so then I think that's wrong, here's why", but if I say something that's actually wrong and not particularly open to misinterpretation, and someone corrects me, then I wouldn't consider them to be doing me a favour by giving me an out to allow me to change my mind while claiming that I didn't mean it that way in the first place.
Why is it my responsibility to force you to admit your mistakes? Whether you take that line of retreat is more a reflection of your character than mine. But one of the funny things about being polite is that by leaving them a graceful way out it's actually easier for them to admit that they were wrong. Attack their status by making it clear that they were wrong and all you do is encourage status-saving behaviour. Now maybe you might say that this is a good thing because people need to learn how to admit to their mistakes even when they feel under attack, but most people are very very bad at that kind of graciousness. It's much easier for someone to admit that they're wrong if they don't feel like it would lead to further attacks.
Good points; what you say ("by leaving them a graceful way out it's actually easier for them to admit that they were wrong") sounds quite plausible. (And I will admit that when I wrote the "I wouldn't consider them to be doing me a favour..." bit, I was thinking "...and neither should anyone else", which neglects the fact that getting to that point can be a difficult process and that saying that everyone should do it isn't helpful.) Though I would still say that I'd support a norm of encouraging newer users to get used to acknowledging mistakes, not taking disagreements/counterarguments/corrections as personal attacks, not taking unembellished corrections as meanness, etc.
Upvoted for complete agreement - although this community is already far better at it than anywhere else I've ever been.
You seem to be asserting that if I give you an out you will take it and change your mind without admitting you were wrong, but if I don't give you an out you will change your mind and admit you were wrong. Which, OK, good for you. Of course, even better would be to not take the out if offered, and admit you were wrong even when you aren't forced to... but still, the willingness to admit error when you don't have a line of retreat is admirable. The problem arises if we're dealing with people who lack that willingness... who, given the choice between changing their minds and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their minds on the other, will choose not to change their minds. Are you suggesting that such people don't exist? That trying to change their minds isn't worthwhile? Something else?
I do not assert that, and I'm not just saying that because you proved me wrong but gave me an out by saying "You seem to be asserting". :) If I, personally, have been convinced that I was wrong about something, then I'll say so, whether or not I have the option of pretending I actually meant something else. And that's certainly encouraged by LW's atmosphere (and it's been explicitly discussed and advocated here at times). What I was disagreeing with was erratio's implication that giving people that option is a polite and desirable thing to do. You say that there are people "who, given the choice between changing their minds and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their minds on the other, will choose not to change their minds," and you are correct, and I also don't claim that trying to change their minds isn't worthwhile. But on Less Wrong, if a commenter would prefer to (and would be able to) actually hold onto a mistaken belief rather than acknowledge having been mistaken, then they have bigger rationality problems than just being wrong about some particular question; helping them solve that (which requires allowing ourselves to notice it) seems more important. I can't say I've actually seen much of this here, but if we observed that some user frequently abandoned debates that they seemed to be losing, and later expressed the same opinions without acknowledging the strong counterarguments that they had previously ignored... then I'd just say that Less Wrong may not be a good fit for them (or that they need to lurk more and/or read more of things like "How To Actually Change Your Mind", etc.). I would not say that we should have been more accommodating to their aversion to admitting error. (Also, we should stop using the phrase "line of retreat" as we're using it here, because it will make people think of the post "Leave a Line of Retreat" even though we're talking about something pretty different.)
Agreed that a commenter who chooses to hold onto a mistaken belief rather than admit error is being imperfectly rational, and agreed that we are under no obligation to be "accommodating to their aversion." I'm more confused about the rest of this. Perhaps a concrete example will clarify my confusion. Suppose Sam says something that's clearly wrong, and suppose I have a choice between two ways of framing the counterarguments. One frame (F1) gives Sam a way of changing their mind without having to admit they're wrong. The other (F2) does not. Suppose further that Sam is the sort of person who, given a choice between changing their mind and admitting they were wrong on the one hand, and not changing their mind on the other, will choose not to change their mind. You seem to agree that Sam is possible, and that changing Sam's mind is worthwhile. And it seems clear that F1 has a better chance of changing Sam's mind than F2 does. (Confirm?) So I think we would agree that in general, using F1 rather than F2 is worthwhile. But, you say, on Less Wrong things are different. Here, using F2 rather than F1 is more likely to help Sam solve their "bigger rationality problems," and therefore the preferred choice. (Confirm?) So... OK. If I've understood correctly thus far, then my question is why is F2 more likely to solve their rationality problems here? (And, relatedly, why isn't it also more likely to do so elsewhere?) You mention that to help Sam solve those problems, we have to "allow ourselves to notice" those problems. You also suggest that Sam just isn't a good fit for the site at all, or that they need to lurk more, or that they need to read the appropriate posts. I can sort of see how some of those things might be part of an answer to my question, but it's not really clear to me what that answer is. Can you clarify that? (Incidently, it seems to me that that post is all about the fact that people are more likely to change their minds when it's emotionally acceptabl
F2 forces Sam to admit they were wrong. Not being able to admit you are wrong is a rationality problem, because not all truths are presented as F1 counterarguments - some, including experimental results, are F2 counterarguments to your state of mind. So F1 doesn't attempt to solve the aversion to being wrong; F2 does. The question of whether F2's attempt succeeds often enough to be worth it is another question, one I don't have any numbers or impressions on.
I said: You said: If the first statement is true, F2 doesn't force Sam to admit they were wrong. What it does is force Sam not to change their mind. If you're rejecting my supposition... that is, if you're asserting that Sam as described just doesn't exist, or isn't worth discussing... then I agree with you. But I explicitly asked you if that was what you meant, and you said it wasn't. If you're accepting my supposition... well, that suggests that even though Sam won't change his mind under F2, F2 is good because it makes Sam change his mind. That's just nonsense. If there's a third possibility, I don't see what it is.
Yeah, no, my idea was that F2 forces Sam to admit they were wrong, given that they change their mind. When considering the case of 'on LessWrong', I skipped the bit that says Sam that does not change their mind. Ooops. Yeah, I don't think there are many Sams on LessWrong.
OK, glad we cleared that up. Moving on... let me requote the line that started this thread: That seems to me to be a pretty good summary of the strategy I used here... I summarized the position I saw you as arguing, then went on to explain what was wrong with that position. Looking at the conversation, that strategy at least seems to have worked well... at least, it got us to a place where we could resolve the disagreement in a couple of short moves. But you seem to be saying that, when dealing with people as rational as the typical LWer, it's not a good strategy. So, OK: what ought I have said instead, and how would saying that have worked better?
This by itself would have worked, and to the extent it could be described as working better, it would have punished me for not properly constructing your model in my head, something which I consider required for a response. edit: the differences are very slight.
I'm just realising that our scales aren't calibrated very similarly, and that you seem to think LessWrong is more "blunt"/less "nice" than I do.
My theory is that some folks here really value the perceived freedom to not spare people's feelings with their posts/comments. I assume these folks experience the implied obligation in other social contexts to spare people's feelings as onerous, though of course I don't know. Of course, that doesn't mean they actually go around hurting people's feelings all the time, no matter how much they may value the fact that they are free to do so. Meanwhile, other folks carry on being kind/attentive/polite. I assume they don't consider this an onerous obligation and behave here more or less as they do elsewhere along this axis. And the sorts of folks who in most Internet channels create most of the emotional disturbance don't seem to post much at all... either because karma works, or because they haven't found the place, or because the admins are really good at filtering them out, or because the conversations here bore them, or some combination of those and other reasons. The end result seems to be a "nice" level noticeably higher than most of the Internet, coupled with strong emotional support for not being "nice." I found the dichotomy a little bewildering at first, but I'm kind of used to it now.
Yeah, why haven't we attracted more trolls?
If you browse the -1 comments, you'll see people being voted down for behaving dickishly. Some of these then get upvoted.
Is there a way to browse within a given karma tier? Or do you just mean browsing through the recent comments tier?
Yes, I just meant going through recent comments, and threads with collapsed posts. I don't know of a way to browse "worst comments" ... it's not clear it'd even be a good idea to have one.
On reflection, I don't think the blunt --- nice scale is serving us very well at all. You see me endorsing some elements of "blunt" styles that are definitely negative, and I see you endorsing some elements of "nice" styles that are definitely negative. Neither of us are actually endorsing the negative elements, we're just accidentally including them because our language is too imprecise. I think. LessWrong has adopted some elements of bluntness because those elements serve the community well. Some of the elements would not serve us well in other social settings. When someone points out in a top-level post that this is the case, those who already know this instead see them suggesting that LessWrong should abandon these elements of bluntness.
For calibration purposes, where on that spectrum would you place the conversation we're having right now? :)
On an arbitrary scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is Crocker's Rules for everyone and 10 is horrifying, mincing politeness... 3. LessWrong on average is 3, but the good bits are 2.
Hmm. Getting an answer forced me to figure out exactly why I was asking. ;) I guess the followup question is, where on that scale would you put the threshold for everyday, out-in-public polite conversation between neurotypical adults? That is, the expected level, below which someone would come across as rude.
Between strangers, 7. Between acquaintances or friends, variation but it would congeal into two large groups hovering around 6 and 4. If you want to see 9s and 10s you have to look for certain types of unstable power dynamics. Basically, I like LessWrong's approach because it feels more like 'friendship group where politeness of 4-3 is okay' and less like 'strangers you should be polite to'.
Not enough information. Are the adults male, female or mixed? How much status do they have? What national background? Polite means a very different thing here (Australia) than it does in the US for example.
Yeah, but the scale we're using isn't very precise. The variables you mention will move the threshold around, certainly, but not so much that shokwave can't at least give me a smallish range. We can limit it to modern, Western, and no significant status differences from each other. Yeah, I can tell. ;)
This kind of statement is one of the reasons I consider 'politeness' to be an almost irrelevant metric to consider when evaluating people's statements. The relationship between politeness and social 'defection' is utterly negligible.
On the subject of Wikileaks, I strongly recommend this blog post and the 2006 paper it analyses. Assange sets out in detail precisely what he's trying to achieve and how he plans to do it. It's the roadmap for Wikileaks. Casual commentators on the subject, particularly in the media, seem almost completely unaware of it. On a personal note, I was somewhat perturbed to discover that Wikileaks is slightly my fault. Um, whoops.[/brag]
Actually, I liked the original comment ( I wizened up -- I don't think that's the word you want to use, unless you're talking about how you finally lost those 20 pounds by not drinking anymore.) - it made me laugh for some reason. Mind you, I didn't laugh about the author or whatever, I just found the meaning of those two words funny. And imho, that's half the purpose of the internet: making me laugh. Can you guess the other half? ^^

And imho, that's half the purpose of the internet: making me laugh. Can you guess the other half? ^^

Received wisdom leads me to believe that the Internet is for porn.

important reference

This post helped coalesce a number of observations I had made in the past, so I would like to leave aside the debate over whether the examples of politeness are optimal and look at a couple of other points.

One point which I haven't seen much of in comments is the relationship between how well people know each other and how polite they need to be. If people know you well, then they know enough to give you the benefit of the doubt if a comment can be taken multiple ways. If, however, they have only just met you or interact with you mostly in formal settings, that extra bit of politeness can go a very long way.

  • A little politeness is particularly effective when dealing with people who are being paid to do something for you, such as waiters or salespeople, or with people in bureaucracies from whom you need something. While it is not strictly necessary to be polite in these cases, it will often get you better service.

  • Unless you have a particularly close-knit workplace, that is also an arena where a little extra politeness is a good idea. You certainly don't want to offend your boss, and your coworkers will likely react better to constructive criticism than straight criticism.

... (read more)
This is dead on; if I'd thought of it, I would have written it myself. ;) One thing you're missing, though, is an example of where it is okay to be blunter--with very close friends, with whom you already have an understanding of a certain amount of respect. This doesn't obviate the need for politeness, of course, but it does lower the threshold of importance at which it's okay to be blunt. If I'm in a hurry in a shop, I'll still be polite to the clerk, because they don't know me well enough to know that I'm impatient and stressed, rather than just a jerk. I worry about this less when talking to a close friend who already knows I'm not a jerk. I'm actually not a very good example of this, because my default setting for the courtesy slider is fairly high. I can do this because it comes naturally to me, so it takes very little effort for me to reap the benefits of showing respect to the people around me. It took me a LONG time to realize that this is not true for everyone, i.e. that it is very difficult for some people to understand, remember, or apply these social rules, and therefore only do so in select situations. ETA: ... and this of course doesn't make me better or smarter or more useful than people who have trouble with it. I'm incredibly frustrated with how slowly I think in arguments or debates, and my inability to remember details which help in them. The people I know who aren't good at showing respect in casual conversation tend to be good at these things. Another tradeoff, probably, although I'm not sure why it would be the case. (I know at least one person who's good at both, but I think he's made a conscious effort to be so.)
So you're essentially using politeness signals as a way of dodging fundamental attribution error. This seems to be a pretty useful guideline for situations in which conspicuous politeness-signaling could be expected to be productive: more intimacy means better motivational models and thus less expectation of politeness, while more stressful situations or greater cultural or situational distance between actors means their model of you is on average less reliable and increases politeness's relative importance. I can't think of any situations offhand where these predictions would fail. It ignores the status and situational formality dimensions, though. I've had friends working in retail tell me that they feel awkward when a customer thanks them for an ordinary transaction, which probably comes out of a violation of status expectations -- of course, I thank clerks anyway.
Oh, interesting. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before but it does immediately make sense. It's true about status, though. It works out okay in my current time and place, where I very rarely encounter people whose status is so drastically and publicly different from mine that it would call for significantly different behavior. Or at least, that's my perception; if I encountered one of your friends on the other side of a cash register, we'd apparently have different ideas about what our relative status was and what level of courtesy was called for. I wonder what leads to that difference.

You could phrase it as, "This seems like an amazing idea and a great presentation. I wonder how we could secure the budgeting and get the team for it, because it seems like it'd be a profitable if we do, and it'd be a shame to miss this opportunity."

"This seems like a fantastic example of how to rephrase a criticism. I wonder how it could be delivered in a way that also retained enough of the meaning, because it seems like it would work well if it did, and it'd be a shame not to be able to use it. "

Does this just come of as sarcasm to people of higher intelligence. I guess you've got to alter your message to suit the audience.

Either the switch from "we can't get the budget or the resources!" to "how can we get the budget and the resources?" retains the essential meaning, or it doesn't. Only the original speaker can know that for sure. If it does, then I'd say the restatement is better. Not just because it's polite, but because it's efficient: we can now focus our energies on brainstorming ways to secure the funding and the resources to implement a good idea. If it doesn't -- that is, if the original speaker didn't think it was a worthwhile opportunity in the first place and doesn't actually care about the funding or the resources -- then I agree with you that the proposed restatement is a bad one... but the original wording kinda sucked, too. (Not least of which because it offered a false rejection.) The speaker in that case would have done better to think clearly about their actual reasons for rejecting the idea, and then construct a polite expression of those reasons. Just because you're being rude doesn't mean you're communicating efficiently.

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

Collider bias. Everyone knows the popular people. And you're smart, so you know the smart people. As a result, you are biased against knowing the dumb unpopular people. Which generates a negative correlation in your perception, even if there isn't a negative correlation overall.

Reading this again three years later: I'm still a massive arsehole - I think it's an intrinsic personality problem - but I do occasionally succeed in catching myself and not fucking up my relations with others yet again. (This is actually a conscious thing I actually do.)

That's the really good news: This stuff is actually susceptible to thoughtful consideration!

Random Tip:

If you intend to criticize an idea, then I agree that it is socially productive to first point out something you liked about that idea, and if you didn't like its contents at all, then go with "I like that you brought up this topic/point, because I too find it important, however / yet I think..."

The magic words in the sentence above are "however" and "yet", the latter being superior. Notice how the same sentence would sound if I replaced "yet" with "but" to link the praise/concession with my crit... (read more)

Sometimes you can even get away with 'and' or without using a conjunction. Like, "This can be a very effective method. One concern will be looking out for X." Or, "That's a good argument. It brings us as far as the question of Y."
I remember reading 'and' too (English translation).
I also recall reading 'and', if not in that book then in one on a similar topic. I believe the basic format for using 'and' is: "I believe X is good, and it could be even better if you did Y". Contrast: * "Your speech was good, but consider using more specific examples" * "Your speech was good. However, it could be improved with more specific examples." * "Your speech was good. Yet I think that using more specific examples would improve it." * "Your speech was good, and I think you could increase the impact even further if you also included more specific examples." (Note: The one with 'yet' sounds a bit awkward to me, I'm not sure I know how to use it in this situation). Sure the use of the word 'and' is neither neccessary nor sufficient to make the sentence more positive, but I think that (given a bit of practice) it naturally causes you to do so. Much the same as the word 'yet', but (I think) more strongly. ---------------------------------------- I could theoretically say "Your speech was good, but I think you could increase the impact even further if you also included more specific examples.", but using the word 'but' doesn't really force me to do so the way that using 'and' would, and doesn't come across as quite as supportive. The word 'but' actually sounds slightly wrong to me in this sentence.
That's a useful template and in some cases the advice goes as far as to explicitly advocate just replacing 'but' with 'and' even when it is barely grammatical. This may vary somewhat with the audience and I believe the claim that most typical humans will either not notice or care about the improved tone than the impaired syntax. Mind you the particularly logically minded will also not mind the arbitrary change since 'and' does technically fit correctly in every case that 'but' fits, albeit with rather different connotations.
Note, that I did notice the change. I do think that to facilitate proper understanding of a sentence, 'but' should be used slightly differently from 'and', even if both are technically correct.
It's the general response format: * Paragraph thanking person (sincerely) for considering the issue. * Paragraph noting possible problem. * Paragraph again thanking person (sincerely) for considering the issue. This works shockingly well IME.

Something I have trouble remembering:

To someone for whom it is normal to choose words carefully and connote respect, it's obvious that this is the right way to go about things--it gets other people on your side, so you don't have to fight as much to get what you want or convince people of something. It's also more pleasant to be around, and is the way you wish to be treated.

To someone for whom it is normal to be as direct, clear, and efficient in language as possible, it's obvious that this is the right way to go about things--it's much more honest than in... (read more)

Here is a fairly narrow one: when you are correcting someone who has made a serious error which they will immediately recognize as an error when it is pointed out to them. An example took place earlier here on this thread. Lionhearted had just stated that he would bow out of the discussion now. Wedrifid misread what was written, seeing "I'm bowing out for now", where lionhearted had actually written "I'm bowing out now". Wedrifid responded intemperately, making a particularly big deal of the withdrawal "for now", interpreting it as a kind of threat to return. (This comment has since been deleted by its author.) I pointed out wedrifid's error bluntly, and was even so discourteous as to tease him on his embarrassing error. I am confident that this was the right way to handle this kind of mistake. Anything softer would have been condescending. So that is one situation where bluntness strikes me as clearly best. But I'm not sure that this situation generalizes well. If the mistake were less serious (a typo, say) then the superiority of bluntness is debatable. If the mistake were less clearcut, then it would probably be wise to include some justification of the judgment that it really is a mistake.
Do you find this condescending? "You seem to have misread his comment--he said 'bowing out now,' not 'for now.'" If so, can you explain why? Whether you do or not, what significantly worse result would you expect from that response, as opposed to teasing him about it?
No. That is fine too. The teasing was inessential.
Well, that's as much politeness as I was talking about, so I still think it's no worse than bluntness would have been.
Perplexed visibly gained respect and rapport using his response. Yours would probably have just been given no response. This is just an instance where Perplexed is just better able to read the social landscape than you and so better able to calibrate his response toward gaining social capital. If he wasn't familiar with the situation, less tuned in to the social dynamics, then he would have been well served by 'playing it safe'. Presuming too much rapport would have been a risk - politeness is a better default.
Hmm--my goal is to inform the other person of the error. This does not require them to respond.
Your goal is a lot more than pointing out an error. You have social ends you wish to achieve - hence your whole participation in the thread. It is that element of communication that is not mere information that we are all discussing.
In actual practice I behave the way I described; I like to think that if this were drastically counterproductive for my goals, I would have noticed by now. At any rate, the goal under discussion was informing the other person of the error in a way that didn't result in defensiveness or aggression.
I am comfortable with the relevance of my statements to the goal under discussion as described by yourself, above. I can attest to the superiority of Perplexed's approach to precisely said goal. When done well it will produce less defensiveness and aggression. What you do personally in your life isn't a subject that I have or would comment on - I speak only to the specific context here wherein Perplexed presented a near-optimal solution.
Absolutely! You gave no insult at all. You could have, if you wanted to play the polite courtier.
I think your points about why courtesy is better are missing a crucial point; which is that social interaction is all about standardisation. Consider the old VHS versus Betamax problem (or Blu-ray versus HDD for the modern version): two systems that achieved more or less the same goals, each of which had certain advantages and disadvantages going for it. But inevitably one system became popular and it stopped being economical for manufacturers to keep making both players and media of the other type, because not enough people would have used it. And this is a good thing because it means manufacturers don't have to produce media in both types, which means that the cost for the media that they do produce is slightly lower, and everyone except the die-hard users of the dead format wins. Methods of social interaction are the same: you need both people who produce a certain kind of interaction and people who welcome those kinds of interactions. Regardless of which is better, the equilibrium point is towards one standard dominating - and the one that does dominate isn't necessarily better, it was just the first to gain critical mass. That said, my intuition is that politeness is better than not-politeness in most contexts because it allows more plausible deniability. And that intuition is resting on the assumption that most people are highly protective of their status and therefore avoid status hits at all costs, even if that means taking twice as long to get to the point.
Agreed about standardization; knowing what to expect is useful in communication generally. My dad (former pilot) is fond of pointing out that this is how pilots and ATC people understand each other over crackly radios. There's only a small set of possible things they could be saying, and they know what to expect, so they only have to listen for whether the crackly voice matches what they're expecting. I still find the time argument odd. The difference doesn't seem like that much to me, and the couple of seconds seem trivial weighed against the social currency you gain by taking them.

On further thought I think it's less about the time than about the number of operations involved. For you a typical polite sentence probably looks more like [concept expressed politely], while to me it looks more like [[positive opener][compliment to audience][concept][indicator that my opinion is subjective][self-deprecation/joke]]. At least that's my best guess as to why direct types complain endlessly about the effort and inefficiency of politeness while nice types don't see what the fuss is about. It's the difference between being able to speak the dialect fluently versus having to string a sentence together out of smaller components. Of course, my model of how you communicate may be completely off too :)

Hmm. I think you're onto something, but that doesn't quite fit for me. Off the top of my head, I think I do something more like this: I run the words I'm considering saying through my mental simulation of the person I'm talking to--which is going to have "like me" or "like normal" as defaults where I lack details--and check for snags like "does not acknowledge hearer's agency/competence" or "implies hearer smells bad." If I find one, I'll either remove/change the problematic wording or add words to counterbalance them. Of course, as I get better at it, I also improve a lower-level filter on "things to not say at all," like giving advice to people in any situation where I don't actually have more knowledge or experience than they do. That's another kettle of worms, though. The difference between that and your model of me is that it's also a multi-stage process; it's just fast. It may bear noting that I find it really interesting how much small word choices affect implication and connotation, which probably helps a lot with not being frustrated by the task. It's work, but it's fun work--like a productive debugging session. The difference between the above and your model of you is that rather than taking a concept and adding semantically null politeness indicators around it, I'm making small adjustments to the presentation of the concept. We may not actually be doing or imagining such different things, but I think that difference in our perception of the task is very telling. Your second model definitely lends itself to descriptors like "fluff" and "inefficient" and "time-consuming," whereas even in cases where it actually is noticeably time-consuming, the model I described above feels much more like an intellectual puzzle. But then the question becomes: is it our different models of the mental process of diplomacy which causes us to have different feelings about it, or is it the other way around? The former seems like it would be easy to change in one's own mind
Related: Women apologise more because they have lower thresholds for what constitutes possible offense First off, I'm not sure I agree with your argument that it's easier for you to be polite because you find it to be an interesting puzzle. There are many things that I find interesting or rewarding but that I often don't have sufficient patience to do all the time - eg. certain types of maths problems, linguistic translation puzzles (where you get a bunch of phrases and translations and need to tease apart the meanings of the words and affixes), and really challenging computer games. Politeness falls into the same category of interestingness, but because it's usually mandatory it's a bit like having to complete a captcha every time I open my mouth - I know why it's there, it's not that onerous most of the time, but all the same I would prefer not to have to do it. Hmm, there's a lot more rambly stuff I've been thinking about on the topic but I'm not sure how well it relates to our main discussion. Anyway, relevant bits: I've done enough reading and observed and participated in enough interactions to have a good idea of how to gauge politeness levels and how to achieve them (which is to say, I'm neurotypical and have average or above-average levels of empathy. I'm just lacking several years of socialisation experience to make it automatic). I think that most of the time I succeed in saying nice things and not saying offensive things. But it still feels like a lot of effort. I wouldn't expect someone to go to that level of effort for me and in fact find it annoying and tedious to endure thanking-for-thanking, long buildups to requests, apologising for things which are clearly not the other persons' fault, and other highly 'polite' behaviour. How much have you considered the level of politeness you prefer to receive as opposed to the potentially interesting/fun problem of working out what to transmit?
I find it utterly mystifying when people apologise to me for things that are not only clearly not their fault, but probably mine. I have no idea if this sort of thing is expected in polite company but people seem to do it all the same. I assume it's probably involved with status signalling of some sort, but that doesn't make it make sense to me. I guess this is why I prefer to be in a culture with low levels of (expected) politeness. Politeness brings status into everything, introducing complicated rules that seem to just make it easier to cause unintentional offence. Actually I'm reminded of the rather extreme example of the culture of elves in Eragon. Because of various factors including low fertility and their expertise in killing, they decided they couldn't afford to have elves fighting amongst themselves. Apparently they then decided to introduce a complicated system of honorifics and greetings depending on the status levels, genders and occupations of the people involved. Our hero perceives, of course, that this is exactly the wrong way to go about it. The existence of a right greeting for a particular situation out of 30 implies the existence of 29 wrong ones: 29 new ways to give offence. So uh, make of that what you will.
I think I've broken the habit, but I used to apologize for things which were clearly the other person's fault and as far as I can tell, my motivation was a strong feeling that an apology was supposed to happen, and if the other person didn't supply it, I would. This was a fairly strong and very fast reflex. It seems plausible that it was the result of niceness training done a little too young or unthinkingly.
You make it sound like the alternative, where everyone has idiosyncratic notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable and there's no way to generalize from one person to another, leads to less offense being taken. I guess that would be true if everyone treated every possible utterance as inoffensive. Which, OK, if you can get a community to actually do that, great... but it's far from easy to pull off. Otherwise, not so much. The point of etiquette is to avoid giving offense unintentionally. When everyone knows the rules, we don't think of it as following rules of etiquette, we think of it as not being a jerk.
I don't follow at all. The point is that in a culture where one is expected to greet someone by saying X if the other is male and above you in status, Y if they are female and above, Z if they're a blacksmith... etc. it is much easier to give offence by accidentally using the wrong greeting than in one where you greet people with X regardless of the situation. How does having simpler rules lead to "idiosyncratic notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable"? We seem to do fine without a rule on how to greet a one-legged chess player on a tuesday.
Sure, if what you mean by "a culture with low levels of (expected) politeness" is one in which there is one standard greeting, X, with which you greet people "regardless of the situation," then you're absolutely correct: that is not at all idiosyncratic. I guess I misunderstood you: I thought you were proposing an approach where people just greet one another however they wish and they don't worry about etiquette at all, rather than an approach where there is a single approved way of greeting everyone. The former I think does lead to idiosyncratic standards; the latter I agree does not. Sorry for the confusion and thanks for the clarification.
(Assuming you mean "not the apologizer's fault" in the last one.) I don't do these things, and I don't think they're necessary forms of courtesy, at least in a peer situation--customer service calls for jumping through hoops sometimes but I don't think that's what we're discussing. I suspect that I'm similar to most people in that I notice mostly when someone uses a politeness level which is not what I wanted. ;) I'm not sure what terms I could use to clarify what that level is, though.
I guess it would be when you don't have enough skill to speak both politely and clearly. So your actual choice is just between "bluntly" and "inarticulately". The long-term solution to this situation is to develop the necessary skill. But the person may misunderstand the nature of situation; s/he may not understand the it's the missing skill that causes this kind of dilemma.
So, Viliam_Bur, do I understand correctly? You are saying the major tradeoff isn't between: * Speak 'bluntly' in situation X * Speak 'politely' in situation X It is between: * Speak 'bluntly' in every situation (default) * Invest effort to learn to speak more 'politely' (The costs-benefit calculation is a long-term one performed over all potential situations, not a short-term one performed over each specific situation) I agree; this makes sense to me. ---------------------------------------- In certain cases, bluntness can be useful. However, by this I mean it can be useful if you are able to let people be blunt to you. See Crocker's Rules and the related article on Radical Honesty. If everyone in a certain social context operate on such a system (whether explicitly or implicitly), then there is some benefit to these people in terms of saving time and cognitive effort in the short term, and in the long term if they haven't yet spent time on developing 'politeness'.
No, I was saying that a good long-term solution is not helpful in a short term. Let's suppose that I completely agree with you that politeness is always the best solution. But to reach that level of politeness, a person starting from my position would have to visit therapy, then a social skill course, a presentation skill course, a diplomacy course, and this all would take at least two years. As a good rationalists I immediately join the therapy and book the courses. But how am I going to solve all the situations during those two years? It does not help me to know that two years later I will have a perfect solution for a situation that is happening now. Therefore, during those two years, I may solve the situations bluntly, when I think it is better than not speaking at all.
Now that I've seen the issue framed in those terms, I can think of several cases where someone spent so long on niceness-padding that I got annoyed, lost interest, or interrupted to ask them to get to the point. I would like to add that the niceness/efficiency tradeoff is continuous, not discrete, bounded on the maximally-efficient end and unbounded on the maximally-nice end, and that there must be some amount of niceness-padding so excessive that will annoy even those who prefer prefer more of it in general.
Oh, yes, I'll certainly agree with that. Even the examples in the original post were a little too fluffy for my taste, and I'm the one who's a stickler for courtesy. There's certainly a balance to be struck--enough, but no more--which I haven't emphasized enough for how important it is. Thanks for the reminder. I wonder how much striking that balance is part of the skill of being useful and courteous at the same time.

Oddly enough, I actually became very popular for some time in school, largely by accident and without developing my social fluency in the process. It was intensely unpleasant having so much social attention, even though it was mostly positive, without having the faculties to deal with it effectively. I think this may have delayed my process of developing my social skills considerably, because I became convinced that being popular was not a desirable state of affairs, and lost interest in pursuing the approval of others.

This is really interesting; thanks for adding it to the conversation. (I haven't chewed on it mentally enough to have an actual comment, but I wanted to elaborate on the upvote.)

I agree with your point where it concerns interactions in most social forums, but strongly disagree with your implied suggestion of a social norm for Less Wrong. I prefer a community that produces the given examples to one that produces your suggested corrections.

The karma system somewhat mitigates the "silent approval, vocal dissent" phenomenon here, though I agree with NihilCredo that there still exist confusing side effects, and that a more nuanced system would be superior. But as it stands, the community norm for an author of a post should b... (read more)