Combat vs Nurture: Cultural Genesis

by Ruby5 min read12th Nov 201812 comments


Communication Cultures

In my post Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture, I described two different sets of norms and assumptions norms used in discussion. In this follow-up post, I add some important clarifications, state the defining differences, and begin to explore the conditions which might give rise to each culture.

What these “cultures” are and are not

Though I have written as though there are these two distinct neat “cultures”, there are, of course, several giant fuzzy overlapping clusters of behaviors and correlated traits among people in this space of combat/nurture/etc. The specific clusters of behavior which I want to discuss are those related to the discussion of ideas, communication of information, and the ostensible goal of reaching agreement either about matters of fact or action to be taken.

Adjacent to these clusters is a host of broader cultural behaviors. For example, New Yorkers have a reputation for being more candid/impatient/blunt/arrogant/pushy than most. While also sociologically interesting, this post and my last post aren’t about the general spectrum of blunt/direct vs. polite/friendly, etc.

Lastly, the names I’ve used for the cultures are pretty fuzzy. They’re more successful at being easy to say and evocative than being definitely the best English words to point at the thing. “Adversarial”, “Direct”, “Cooperative”, “Collaborative”, and “Polite” is just a starting list the viable alternatives for names of the cultures.

Evaluations of the cultures

To be more prescriptive than I was in my last post, I want to be clear that I think there exist instantiations of both Combat and Nurture culture which are “relatively healthy”, i.e. their practitioners are benevolent, mostly not harmed by the culture, and they succeed at communication. While they’re both far from optimal as usually practiced, I strongly disagree with those who see one culture as deleterious and dysfunctional and the other as the obviously healthy and right one. I think that's true despite it being easy to find particular instances where each culture goes very wrong.

Perhaps it is predictable and cliche to have this opinion, but whatever the ideal communication culture is, it is going to involve modeling (and combining) behaviors from both each of the cultures. It’s probable, in fact, that no actual real-world functioning culture consists solely of people embodying acts from only one or other of the cultures. Different groups of actual humans will differ in the proportions of Nurture-ing and Combat-ive behaviors they enact, but all they’ll do some of both. And for all groups, improvement will come from better choosing when various behavior and assumptions are applied when rather than switching entirely from one cluster to the other.

Everyone is reminded to read the excellent posts: Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear and All Debates Are Bravery Debates. They do apply here and they’re real good for your sanity.

The key difference: the significance of speech acts

It’s possible to think that the fundamental difference between Combat and Nurture is their attitude towards people’s feelings. You might think that in Combat Culture conversants aren’t required to worry about their impact on others, you just say what you think and the other person has to handle their own reaction, whereas in Nurture you always maintain concern for your speech partners.

I think this isn’t true at all. In a healthy Combat Culture, people absolutely care about each other, but the same speech acts don’t have the same significance.

In healthy versions of both cultures, individuals intentionally avoid being rude, hurtful, dismissive, etc., It is only that the assumed meaning of speech acts (including tone and body language) is very different between the two cultures.


A new employee to the RAND Corporation joins a meeting of his older and more experienced colleagues. Though assigned to the low-status job of note-taking and aware of his inexperience with the topics, he risks asserting an opinion. In response he receives:

“You’re absolutely wrong.”

Depending on circumstances, assumptions, and culture, one might attach very different significance to such words and therefore feel very different emotions.


Inner interpretation: *You’re dumb. You’re a nobody here. Who are you to speak up when you don’t know anything? We don’t respect you.*

Inner response: [Oh god, that was so embarrassing, why did I open my big mouth? They’re so much older than me. They might never respect me. Man, it’s gonna take ages to make up for that.]


Inner interpretation: *Oh sweet, new guy has got spunk and is here to play. Show us what you can do! See if you can take me down! <inviting grin>*

Inner response: [Hell yeah! These guys are for real and they’re inviting me to join them! Okay, this is gonna tough, these are some smart cookies I’ve joined, but I am sooo down.]

As in my last post, this example is taken from The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a War-Planner by Daniel Ellsberg (pp. 35-36).

Which interpretation the new employee will make will depend on their particular psychology, together with assumptions they’re making about the culture within which their senior colleague is operating. In the book I’m drawing from, the new employee assumed the culture was Combative and interpreted the speech act accordingly.

But is there a reason different cultures assign different significance to the same acts?

The conditions that give rise to the cultures

One of the chief determiners of how speech acts get interpreted within a culture is the set of priors that individuals assume each other to have together with the priors that individuals apply to any given communication they’re party to.

I have a prior that I’m accepted and respected at my workplace; then when someone tells me my idea is stupid, I assume that’s all they’re saying. They’re saying they think my idea is stupid to me, not that they don’t like me or want me. It’s just their honest reaction, and perhaps an invitation to either drop the idea or defend it.

Yet if I harbor suspicions that I’m not really wanted, if it seems like I’m told everything I say is stupid, if the body language is dismissive and impatient when I talk, assuming I get to talk at all. . .well, then when I’m told I’m wrong, I suspect this isn’t just about my idea anymore. Maybe it’s status-games, maybe people have a reason to marginalize me, etc., but I don't trust it was them merely being direct.

We can begin to generalize the conditions that might lead one to either interpret ambiguously hostile acts as either benign or malicious:

  • Prior that you are wanted, welcomed and respected.
  • Prior that aggressiveness signifies true hostility or threat.
    • A high school football club will have a different prior here than abuse victims will.
  • Prior that status is roughly equal.
    • Even in my Talmud class, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable in sustained debate with the teacher because there wasn’t the same status equality as with my peers.
  • Prior that having dumb ideas is deeply shameful vs that everyone has dumb ideas and that’s just part of the process.
  • Prior that disagreement is perfectly fine vs we all need to align.

The aggregate priors of individuals give rise to the cultural priors, but the priors of an individual still influence their interpretation. For example, someone who has experienced severe abuse might absorb a deep S1 prior that aggression is a sign of genuine and imminent threat.

Beyond priors, a couple of factors come to mind as relevant for whether the Cultures can function:

  • Combat Culture relies on conversation partners being comfortable with their ability to articulate and defend verbal arguments to each other. [1]
  • Nurture Culture relies on participants having the social skill to model each other’s minds to a further extent and execute more complicated social routines.[2]

Cultures and Common Knowledge

Communication is of course coordination between multiple parties and that gives rise to these common-knowledge-esque situations where people’s models of people’s models of people’s models are relevant.

“The significance of a speech act” is necessarily significant only to people who give it significance, i.e. the speaker and receiver. The significance each of them gives it depends heavily on what significance they think the other will give it, and so on.

You say “you’re absolutely wrong” to me. How I interpret that depends on what I think you meant to convey by it (e.g., friendly or hostile speech act), but then your choice to say it may have depended on your prior about how I would interpret it . . . etc, etc.

At the group level, this means culture can become divorced from the reality and priors I listed above. Maybe we are in a place where everyone respects everyone, so based on priors, if I am critical, I probably was just trying to be direct, not disrespectful. However, if everyone believes that everyone believes that being critical means disrespect, no one will do so unless they are actually intending to be disrespectful. In which case it is the correct prior that any criticism is disrespect. And so on. In this way, you can have a stable entrenched culture/convention around the significance of speech acts different from what the straightforward priors might have been if you were to establish cultural priors anew.

I suspect that “everyone believes everyone believes . . .” representations can get encoded rather deeply and intransigently in human brains. And if someone has absorbed that a certain speech act or expression means something, it can be incredibly difficult to unlearn that, even if they’re surrounded by people who don’t assign that meaning. Even if you understand perfectly at the explicit, S2 level that you’re now in a different environment, S1 can lag behind for a long time. To the extent this is true, I think we all have to be very patient when communicating cross-culturally.

Thanks to David Vaughan, Tiffany, and Swimmer963 for feedback on this post.


[1] Because Nurture Culture doesn’t have the same presumption that individuals are able to articulate and defend clear arguments, it has an advantage at allowing conversation partners to voice ideas before they can fully articulate them. As per Paul K’s excellent comment:

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

[2] Consider a manager responding to a junior employee’s proposal with:

  1. “How would that work? How do you get around X and Y?”, vs
  2. “Hmm, that’s a really interesting idea, Alice! I can see various points for and against, can you walk me through your reasoning?” and only raising their objections several minutes in.

The second response might not be that difficult in absolute terms, but it is a higher social skills bar and more effort than the direct “combative” approach.