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.

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:43 AM

I don't really think nurture culture actually demands or implies people modelling each other mind well.

If they could make such a model it'd be never a problem to say "you are completely wrong" and make your partner understand it's not an offense.

I think it's quite the opposite, nurture culture reduces the cost of the possible misunderstanding so you have a lot of tries to explain and listen.

While at combat culture you can mistake real agression for discussion or look agressive to others if you didn't read the situation.

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]

This is an excellent point and one worth emphasizing. Nurture culture only really works with people capable of modeling each other in sufficient detail that they can really see the world from each others perspective. To use some jargon popular around here, they have to be able to pass each other's intellectual Turing test.

To go a step further, I think this is tied in with psychological development. If we were to think of this in terms of Kegan, I'd predict nurture only really works in cases where either everyone is at least at the third stage AND sufficient mentally similar that they can model each other as being essentially like themselves only with a different flavor, or where everyone is at least in the fifth stage (removing the need for a qualification about level of similarity). To speculate, this probably makes nurture unappealing to many people because it places demands on them about their ability to model others that they can't fulfill, assuming we ignore here the degenerate case of nurture that is just about being nice and polite rather than actually understanding each other.

Also, in the context of discussion and debate, Nurture Culture is a stance of:

"What you're saying sounds alien and crazy and wrong, but I will operate as though you have something valuable to say and I will orient towards you with openness, curiosity, and patience. Even though I don't understand what you're saying or think it's wrong, I still welcome you. We are not fighting."

This stance is warranted precisely when similarity is low and ITT-passing is a distant possibility (although this it is this attitude which could move you towards it).

Edit: Plausibly what I'm describing here is what you call a "degenerate case of nurture that is just about nice and polite" but I think there's a lot more to it than common notions of niceness and politeness. 1) In the ideal case, it's motivated by real caring, not social convention. 2) It's more demanding than mere pleases and thank yous.


I think you have something different in mind by "Nurture Culture" than what I do (possibly quite real, but still something else). For what I'm thinking of, ITT is two to three orders of magnitude more modeling than required, and probably the wrong kind of modeling, i.e., of beliefs rather than of feelings.

Here's a slightly longer example of what I was thinking of as Nurture Culture:

Bob: *Is at employee at Ad Corp. He enters the conference room to present the budget figures he's calculated to his manager, Alice, and some other colleagues.*
Alice: *Notices several bad mistakes in the budget.*
Alice: "Thanks Bob! We appreciate you putting in the long hours to get this done before the deadline. Okay, hmm. I like how you're breaking down ad spend across channels, that seems right . . . . can you walk me through columns F and G? Those aren't clear to me."

Alice isn't doing anything profound here, she isn't scrying Bob's soul or getting at any deep, difficult understanding of a complicate worldview that he has. She's just making a few assumptions about how someone new might feel and acting on them:

a) recognize that even if he made mistakes, Bob put in hard work, wants to do a good job, and probably wants her (his manager's approval).

b) although the mistakes were most immediately salient to her, she models that Bob might be hurt (and poorly conditioned) if she zeroes in them first. Instead, she starts by thanking and validating Bob so that he knows the overall context is one where's valued and is getting approval.

c) Once she's gone through the process of getting Bob comfortable, she starts to gently bring his attention towards the mistakes and surface them for discussion in a way that doesn't shame him.

This takes some skill and practice and effort which is why it gets taught in management books and feedback training courses HR runs at workplaces, but it's not beyond most people. I don't know the Keegan levels, but I don't think it should take a high one? When I say "more complicated social routine", I just mean it's more complicated than "say exactly what you're thinking and feeling with little filter."

[I'll also note that whatever the culture, if Bob is a new employee, then he might be right to be justifiably doubtful about he and his work are judged from the outset such that he benefits from being Nurtured rather than having his mistakes placed front and center in his first week on job. Though once this scene has played out fifty times and Alice and Bob deeply trust and respect each other - whatever the baseline culture was - I imagine that Alice will be a lot more direct because she doesn't need to freshly establish the trust and respect.

It seems that one the one hand you are making the case that there are basically two kinds of cultures and on the other hand you think it's meaningful to tell examples as being representative.

The example in particular needs no modeling of beliefs because it's a simple situation that assumes that giving Bob the ability to see his mistake is trivial and the subject is one in which nobody of the involved people has a deep personal investment.

Edit: Plausibly what I'm describing here is what you call a "degenerate case of nurture that is just about nice and polite" but I think there's a lot more to it than common notions of niceness and politeness. 1) In the ideal case, it's motivated by real caring, not social convention. 2) It's more demanding than mere pleases and thank yous.

I'd agree with that: I think what you are pointing at with nurture culture has to be much deeper and richer than you are saying before it's useful for more than just people getting along nicely while doing other things. Nurture culture is capable of the same kind of cutting, deep engagement that you are seeing with combat culture, but to do that it requires much more than shallow modeling of other people.

I completely agree that Nurture Culture has capabilities far beyond getting along without conflict.

When I think of examples of Nurture Culture at its most powerful, much of what comes to mind is the mode of relating used in Focusing, Internal Double-Crux, and Internal Family Systems. There's a mode of relating that facilitate hazy, not-necessarily articulate, reticent, even fearful parts of oneself to voice themselves by being open, encouraging, validating, and non-judgmental (i.e., traits which are not particularly the hallmarks of Combat Culture).

I've found that increased skill with "advanced" Nurture Culture helped me relate to parts of myself far better alongside relating to others better.

At the risk of being a little repetitive , I'll think the modeling required for this mode of relating is not that of beliefs but of feelings. You model (and are attentive and responsive to) the feelings of the other (internal or external) in the context: continuously gauging their comfort, willingness, and needs within the conversation. Pushing and giving space as required.

My experience is that nurture culture is far more common than combat culture (possible exceptions: Law, science?).

This means that almost everyone has experienced nurture culture at some point. They know how to act within it and have common knowledge of how to interpret each other. Even if they prefer combat culture they at least understand the rules of the game.

I think there is a significant minority of people who have no experience of combat culture and so are left confused when they come into contact with it. Over and above being upset at being told "You're absolutely wrong", such a person may not understand how anyone could ever say such a thing to another human being. They don't even understand that such a game can exist.

Maybe others have a different experience, I can imagine people who only know combat getting very confused when they first enter a nurture environment - "Why is everyone getting offended at me?". Probably this happens relatively early in life if nurture culture is dominant in the wider culture.

My experience is that nurture culture is far more common than combat culture

This is the diametric opposite of my experience. I have seen “Nurture Culture” much more rarely than “Combat Culture”. (Which is, to be clear, something I consider very much a good thing!)

I should note that the default, as far as I can see, is neither of these “cultures”, but rather a different sort of “culture”: a near-total absence of any drive toward “collaborative truthseeking” or “mutual support”, but rather an emphasis on avoiding confrontation. This is the “culture” one experiences with strangers, at dinner parties with distant acquaintances, at formal gatherings, in many corporate contexts, at Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family whom you don’t really have much in common with, etc. In such cases, if your interlocutor says something you disagree with, or even something you consider to be an absolutely idiotic, totally brain-dead view, you’re going to smile politely, nod, say “oh, hm, interesting”, and gently change the subject. You are not going to argue with them; neither are you going to invest effort into making them understand they’re wrong while assuring them that you respect them, etc. etc.

Social contexts where either of these “cultures” even come into play, are rare.

(And among those, my experience is that “Combat Culture” predominates.)

Edit: Fixed wording bug.

I guess I was including that default in the "nurture culture" box rather than a separate entity - I had it mentally listed as "nurture culture at its worst". Maybe this is an unhelpful categorisation as you're right that often there is no underlying truth-seeking goal.

(My experience in purely social circumstances is often the same as yours, in the workplace I'd say I find semi-functional nurture culture quite often, as the default gets somewhat modified to actually get stuff done)

I think the original point stands that many people are not used to being involved in a combat culture and will simply not know how to react when exposed to it. A functional combat culture may make the uninitiated think the culture is just rude, a functional nurture culture will not seem that far removed from a normal conversation without a truth-seeking goal. As such a combat culture will tend to exclude people who are not used to it and has an optics problem.

If I grant that combat culture at its best is the ideal for efficient truth seeking (which I would agree with) there is still the problem of getting from here to there which seems like a co-ordination problem. Possibly a functioning nurture culture is a good start which then allows the culture to move towards combat as people become more comfortable (similarly to your second point here?). But that leaves a problem when you have moved to a combat culture and want other people to join.

(This is not purely theoretical. I encourage a relatively combative approach in my department and it does often make newcomers a little uneasy. Going full combat would likely be even more difficult)

It may be that scaring away those who are not used to combat culture is worth it for the benefits of a good combat culture. It might also be arguable that exposure to combat culture would help people understand it, although I think there's a danger of this going the opposite way and putting people off combat culture completely.

I think that nurture culture also doesn't interact well with 'typical culture'. If someone expresses an idea that I disagree with, and I start offering them things like "Huh, I'm curious what's the cause of your belief that x?" or "Interesting, I disagree. Here's a picture of what it's like to be me in relation to that claim, does any of it resonate with you?" in many of the above situations the other person is just getting weirded out and not really sure what I'm doing. They were just saying words, they're not sure what game I'm trying to play, and they'll try to change the topic.

Loosely define nurture and combat culture as different truth seeking methods and typical culture as the absence of truth seeking. Then using nurture or combat won’t work in typical culture as only one of you is truth-seeking. If the other person is “just making conversation” then any attempt to change their mind will be seen as weird.

My hypothesis is that when someone who defaults to typical culture realises that truth seeking is required, nurture culture will seem less weird to them.

This is only based on my own experience of applying nurture and combat. In my work I often have to get people willing to seek for the truth together and be willing to disagree. Nurture is generally easier for newbies to cope with.

Getting people interested in seeking the truth in the first place is an even harder problem.