Epistemic status: real but incomplete observations.

In late February of 2020, I went to the grocery store at 2am with my husband (emptiest time), and we bought ~$1k of mostly canned or dry goods. We were the only customers in line. The cashier seemed interested in our purchases, and I felt myself stiffening as she looked. Then she asked me: “are you worried about that virus?”

And… I found myself reaching for a lie, trying to compose a lie, moving my speech-planning-bits as though the thing to do was to lie. I mean, not a technical lie. But I found myself looking for a way to camouflage or downplay my model of the virus.

Oddly, it felt more like a thing happening in me (“I found myself") than like a chosen thing. If you’ll pardon the analogy, it somehow felt at least a bit like throwing up, in that I remember once when I was trying not to throw up, and all of a sudden it was like an alien process took over my consciousness and throat, reached for the bucket, got my hair out of the way, and did the actual throwing up. And then returned my body to me when it was over. The "alien process" sensation felt a bit similar.

With the cashier, I wondered at my impulse as it was happening, but I couldn’t tell if the impulse’s source was “for the cashier's sake” (didn’t seem to make sense); “to prevent her from harming me” (didn’t seem to make sense); or … what exactly?

I forced myself to say “yes” to the cashier's question, and to elaborate a bit; to my surprise, she seemed sincerely curious, and told me several people had been in doing this and she would probably also prepare in some way. Even after this, my sentences wanted to (sound soothing? fit in? avoid disrupting others’ “normal”? I’m still not sure what), and it took me active effort to partially not do this.

I am somehow quite interested in what precisely was happening there, and in any related processes.

My guesses as to how to help with this puzzle-set, if you're so inclined:

  • Share observations (not theories) of any related-seeming things you’ve noticed (the rawer the better);
  • Share observations (not theories) of what it’s like to be you right now trying to look at this stuff. Do you have introspective access? Do you have sort of have introspective access, and in what way? Do you kind-of-like identify with it? Kind-of-like not-identify with it?
  • And okay, yes, also theories, I just hope the theory doesn’t overwhelm the observations at this confused stage.
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If I reply with the naive factual response, “Yes I’m stocking up to prep for the virus”, and leave it at that, there’s a palpable awkwardness because all participants and witnesses in the conversation are at some level aware that this carries the subtext, “Yes I’m smartly taking action to protect myself from a big threat while you are ignorantly exposing yourself to danger”, which means a listener has to wonder if they’re stupid or I’m crazy. Even if the listener is curious and doesn’t take any offense to the conversation, they know that I’ve made a social error in steering the conversation to this awkward state, because it’s mutual knowledge that a savvy conversationalist needs to be aware of the first-order subtext of the naive factual response. The objective social tactlessness of my naive response provides valid evidence to update them toward me being the crazy one.

I think a more tactful response is, “Yeah, I know a lot of people say it’s not a big deal and I hope they’re right, but I think there’s enough risk that extra supplies might come in handy”.

If I first acknowledge and validate or “pace” the background beliefs of mainstream society, then it’s socially graceful to segue to answering with my honest beliefs. Now I’ve portrayed myself as an empathetic character, where any listener can follow my reasoning and see that it’s potentially valid, even if it doesn’t identically match theirs.

More generally, “portray yourself as an empathetic character” is a social skill I find myself using often. Basically copy the way the protagonists talk on This American Life, where even the ones who’ve done crazy things tell you their side of the story in such a way that you think “sure, I guess I can relate to that”.

Sometimes when asked a threatening question, or an nonthreatening question in a threatening situation, I get a sense of total blankness and loss of memory. I have no ability to remember or grasp at content relating to the answer to their question. I can see this from the outside, and still probably talk about other things, or if I wish, talk around the blank spot and hope to spiral into it. It feels like the piece of me with relevant knowledge is 'playing dead' until the threat is gone.

My natural inclination is to hold still and watch myself, and see the parts of me that feel alive slowly expand until they include the 'playing dead' part, and it wakes up, and then it might be able to speak. This is somewhat socially awkward. What happens in a conversation going at normal speed without room for a pause is that I feel a strong pull to reach for something other than myself that can speak for me. Anything but my words. Sometimes it's something i can look up, like a book, or document, (that maybe I can pull from my phone or memory), if not I feel a pull towards confirming the question asker's expectations and worldview. Like I can imagine that if I was in a similar situation of buying tons of food and they asked me if it was for the virus, but actually I was buying it for my nuclear bomb shelter, I would feel really easy to say "sure... yeah". Then having said something that was at least slightly in the direction of the truth, I would feel more free to follow up with "well actually...". But sometimes I just end up saying the non-confrontational false thing and it never gets corrected.

Usually this only happens when there are other social norms and pressures going on that make it so I feel unable to talk about or mention the sense of threat.

Sometimes unconscious/visceral fears are kind of what I thought they were:

If I look down from a tall height, I experience: [vertigo, a slight increase in my heart rate, some similar change in my breathing, a slight increase in my tendency to "freeze" my muscles, a shift in my attention toward the height/downness, etc.].

I might've thought this response was a consciously chosen strategy for not falling. Except that it also occurs when I'm walking on a glass floor in a well-engineered building I trust. Still, I conceptualize it as something like "in-built fear of heights; designed to prevent falling but based partly on a bunch of visceral cues that persist even when my conscious mind knows I won't fall". My lead "rationalization" for the response ("I'm breathing more shallowly and refusing to walk to the edge of the cliff with you because I don't want to fall off the cliff") is at least partly post-hoc, and is causally downstream of a more visceral reaction... that is basically also evolved for not falling off cliffs.

And sometimes unconscious/visceral reactions are just not at all what I thought they were:

Some years ago, I was waiting impatiently for a friend to leave an event we'd both been at, so that I could "go home to do my important work with its urgent deadline." Then I took a better look at the feeling, and realized that I was actually cold and in need of a washroom. I found a washroom and some warmth, and felt suddenly at ease and untroubled about my task. I've related differently to such feelings ever since.

Similarly, some years ago I was hanging out with my cousins around a holiday, and I felt "bored" (as I saw it) "because" they weren't talking about anything interesting, and I couldn't share with them my thoughts about anything interesting, such as AI risk. And then we switched board games, and I started laughing more, and I realized that my previous "bored" has actually been made of "socially uncomfortable". And I got a bit better at identifying the "socially uncomfortable" visceral response, and calling it by that name instead of some other.

The interesting thing for me about the cashier incident above, was the rationalizations my brain produced around the "don't share my views" impulse in my cashier situation seemed pretty transparently unsound (in my situation, in contrast to e.g. Oliver's similar instance in-thread, or any number of previous times when I had more plausible ... rationalizations? reasons? for not breaking an Overton window). If I was concerned about the cashier's welfare: yes, she might find it uncomfortable to see our views, but "withholding practically relevant information from someone specifically asking about it" does not seem kind. If I was concerned about causing some sort of social drama that might do me harm: it didn't seem like there was much plausible harm. (The risk that she might object to selling me the groceries did not occur to me, I think correctly. The 24-hour Safeway just outside of Berkeley may have had different customers than the downtown Berkeley Trader Joe's that Oliver and Ben Pace mention. She seemed peaceable/stable/normal. I was with my husband, which is probably safer than alone. Etc.) There probably was still more social drama in telling the truth vs in evading, but its absolute amount seemed pretty small, to the point where the normal ratios at which I try to buy [human decency / communication / being helpful and honest] vs [avoiding harm to myself] seemed to pretty clearly favor talking.

So it was more a glass floor situation, than an actually being near a cliff situation. Useful for elucidating things. And I'm not yet sure what the analog of "avoid falling" is, that this reaction is actually triggered by cues of. Is there a pretty in-built visceral thing for "don't break Overton windows", that is quasi-independent of conscious knowledge that you're safe? Is its true name "don't break Overton windows", or something else? What's up with the way the impulse in me oscilated between selfish rationalizations ("she might harm me") and morality-related rationalizations ("it's wrong to upset people")?

And I'm not yet sure what the analog of "avoid falling" is, that this reaction is actually triggered by cues of

"Falling" might be "acknowledging a truth which someone really wants to keep hidden"? Some related examples:

  • A totalitarian ruler is trying to maintain a narrative that their country is prospering, by punishing anyone who calls attention to problems
  • A manager worried about legal liability for a problem, who is trying to avoid the creation of evidence that they knew about the problem
  • A criminal organization, which punishes anyone who draws attention to its crimes
  • Someone who would be obligated to do difficult things about the problem if it were acknowledged, who socially attacks anyone talking about the problem

My not-well-grounded impression is that these sorts of situations are common, are difficult to rule out without false negatives, and are at the heart of Maziness.

What's up with the way the impulse in me oscilated between selfish rationalizations ("she might harm me") and morality-related rationalizations ("it's wrong to upset people")?

If 'falling through a glass floor' in this instance is the fear of being humiliated and/or laughed at, you're definitely not alone in this sentiment. This is probably one of the most common social fears, as it can potentially cause you to 'fall down' the scale of social hierarchy, right? Of course this whole Pandemic has turned everything on it's head, so social norms come under the lens  to be reexamined, and who's to say what the new normal is in these now novel social situations?

Unironically, your canned goods shopping spree is a pretty typical response to a looming catastrophe of almost any kind; growing up poor and hungry I learned the value in a well stocked pantry later in life. Relatively speaking, I can empathize with you about the fear of seemingly disrupting the emotional and psychological status quo of one-time run-of-the-mill social interactions under extreme conditions. Trauma does bad things to people.

I tend to live in very poor, under-served, and neglected conservative areas these days - not really by choice - but I have found it to be really taxing for navigating normal life much less the 'new normal' of the Pandemic. All the stores I shop at seemed to resist the whole mask mandate, while disbelieving the experts about the entire Covid Pandemic. Not only was I bombarded with nonsense and conspiracy theories at every turn, I was often one of the only people in the store wearing a mask. 

Over the weeks and months, I saw shop keepers start to put on masks when they saw me walking up to the front door and, believe it or not, the more I had this experience, I actually found myself starting to worry I was making other people uncomfortable with my mask wearing, and that maybe I should remove my mask. 

Just for the sake of 'fitting in', even though I really don't identify with my local community on a whole range of issues regarding values and such, I contemplated putting my life at risk. At times I still feel the need to change some of my preferred natural, healthy behaviors to 'fit in' with people I think are ill informed and irresponsible (possibly even stupid and crazy.) Go figure.

I'm a teacher and in the country where I live we had a few weeks of school in-person this September-October until the fall wave got too high and we all went home.  School was run with a reduced class size and distancing rules in place, but try telling that to a sixth grader.  At one point a kid jumped out of his chair and ran up to me and I had to tell him to back up and go back to his seat.  Another kid asked, "Mr. Z, are you scared of coronavirus?"

What did that feel like?  It felt like being offended.  I sort of mentally seized up, and my chest muscles clenched.  I was able, with some effort, to acknowledge that yes, coronavirus was a concern for me.  I've thought about that moment a lot.

My theory at the time was that we're conditioned to avoid admitting to being afraid of something, especially publicly and on short notice.  At least when I was growing up, if I admitted fear, I'd generally be mocked for it, so I learned not to do it.  And when someone asks me if I'm afraid - or accuses me of being afraid - I get angry at them.  I want to tell them, "no, I'm not 'afraid' - I'm rationally concerned about bad outcomes."  I think in part the accusation of fear angers me because it implies that I am somehow being irrational, or letting my emotions get the best of me - whereas my belief is that if I'm "afraid" that means that there is real danger which is dangerous and likely enough to warrant some action to mitigate the danger.  But in general, if someone asks me if I'm afraid, what it feels like is they're accusing me of being irrational.  So my impulse is to deny it, or to try to "rationalize" the fear.

But I think this is a destructive impulse - I think being afraid to admit you're afraid leads people towards collective stupidity, like reopening schools before it is safe to do so.  Speaking of which...

This Monday we're supposed to return to in-person instruction, despite cases being almost as high now as they were when we closed.  Parents are just tired of their kids, I guess.  Anyway, because I have a specific risk factor, and live in a multi-generational household, I asked my principal if I could continue teaching online and just have them project me into the classroom for the seven kids at a time that will be allowed in the room in person.  I ended up speaking with the director of the school yesterday and she told me I sounded scared.  Without hesitation I agreed that I am indeed scared.  But being able to smoothly admit that seems to have taken, let's say, many hours over many months of introspection and reflection and mental preparation and specific resolve.  Basically I had to have so much confidence that my fear was justified and that mitigating the danger was necessary that I felt like I could absorb the hit to my social status or reputation that would come from being a person who admits to being afraid.  Or at least, that's what it looks like from the inside.  I know that I did the introspection and preparation, and I know that my physiological and mental reaction to being asked if I was afraid of coronavirus changed between October and February, but I obviously can't prove that the introspection and preparation caused the change.

Social acceptability , that is what all interaction are made off.


At the beggining of the pamdemic I wore a mask for non pandemic reason and a person made a joke to me laughing "Is that for the corona virus ?" , months everyone wore them for pandemic reason , and no one made a joke about it (and probebly didn't rembmer their previous attitude).

I experienced almost the exact same thing in almost the exact same situation. This was mid-February and we were getting ready to lock down and were buying about $500 worth of beans and pasta from the Trader Joe's nearby. The cashier asked whether we were worried about the virus, and I felt this really strong urge to lie or make up something that didn't sound concerning. 

I do think this was not completely unjustified. A day earlier we tried to buy food from Costco, but a lot of the staples were gone, and all the cashiers seemed very angry with the "preppers" who just bought all the shelf-stable food, and it didn't seem impossible this cashier would react similarly. 

In the end, I evaded the question, saying something technically true without speaking about the issue. I think I said we were in a large group house and were cooking food for everyone, which was true, but also didn't really respond to the question. 

I mentally came back to that scenario multiple times over the pandemic and also thought a lot about why I was so hesitant to say anything about my concerns. I definitely have a sense that you are not supposed to have "real" conversations with cashiers, because those would take up time and get in the way of other people, but I had a sense that bringing up such a concerning hypothesis in such a time limited context is bad. I also felt just object-level afraid that they might refuse to allow us to actually buy the food if I gave them a straightforward answer.

Habryka and I went together to buy food from the Trader Joe's. I don't recall what was or wasn't said.  All I recall is that I was concerned that they wouldn't let us buy so much food, that some staff member would come out and get angry at us and stop us, like I was at school and breaking the rules. But they were notably positive about it ("Wow! This is a fun order!"), and I felt relief and was extra friendly.

Added: We went at like 6pm I think? There was a lot of people around, and I felt a bit conspicuous. I acted normal. I think I was thinking about how to get around the system if they stopped us. I think I had some vague fantasy of coming in and out a lot in different wigs and noses, which is not a very realistic plan, but I was sure concerned that I wasn't allowed to buy so much, and was sort of mentally preparing for that world.

(Mod Note: I sent Adam Smith a mod warning for making a bunch of seemingly low-effort/low-quality comments. This is your first warning, we might ban you if you continue posting content of this level of quality.)

At least for me, I think the question of whether I'm buying too much for myself in a situation of limited supplies was more important for the decision than the fear of being perceived as weird. This depends of course on how limited the supplies actually were at the time of buying but I think it is generally important to distinguish between the shame because one might profit at the expense of others, and the "pure" weirdness of the action.

Totally. I was not AFAICT worried at the time about limited supply buying, or not very worried; the Safeway we were getting things from did not seem out of much and I hadn't heard people complain about shortages/buying yet as far as I can recall.

I can share observations/thoughts about some similar experiences.

Sometimes I lie.

But let me back up: for a long time, I've been aware of two different modes in which I speak -- one is fluent and "real-time"; the other is slow, halting, and feels somewhat like wearing mittens, somewhat like trying to squash high-dimensional objects down into a lower-dimensional space, somewhat like.. tasting alternatives for the right connotations and inflections. Sometimes this second mode is evoked when some part of me becomes concerned about doing PR with the person I'm talking to, or if its a topic where I care about nuance or precision. I'd estimate that ~80% of my speech is in the fluent mode.

A few years ago (a few years into my meditation practice) I realized that speech in the fluent mode is, in some, way non-conscious. Sometimes I could become aware of speech just... unspooling through me, without intervention from... "me". The part of me that calls itself "me". The "global work space" of consciousness. Sometimes it was sophisticated speech! This has never happened in mittens-mode. Needing to sieve up a new/novel/unusual semantic meaning from the depths of language-space seems to require... "me".

Once, fluent-mode upset someone and I tried to explain this to them. It... wasn't well-received.

More than 99.99% of the time, I'm entirely happy with what, fluent mode utters. Very rarely, though (probably on the order of once every year or two) it will just lie. "How do you know X?" "Oh, through my dance community" <I actually met them through OkCupid>.

This tends to happen when I sense that the other person will get a negative emotional charge out of the truth, and/or if I have some negative emotional content around it. @AnnaSalamon, you gave me the model I use for thinking about this years ago: the parent who on picking up the phone angrily asks "Why don't you call more often?!" and then wonders why their child doesn't call more often. If a person has shown me systematically in the past that they will have a strong negative emotional reaction to the truth, then I powerfully learn their revealed preference that in some situations they hate the truth. I also learn an upsetting reciprocal lesson about myself and find myself in an awkward to back out of situation.

These moments are particularly vexing because they're extremely difficult to "train against" -- I have to be caught unaware, and in the right mental state for this to happen.

(Conversely, sometimes the babble system which Scott dubs the guf isn't generative enough in real-time. There have been various babble exercises posted here in the past year; other ideas I've had include learning to rap (badly! Badly! I don't expect to learn to rap well!) and trying comedy or theatre improv (Keith Johnstone's Impro seemed to be recommended a lot in rationalist circles a few years ago). One thing I wonder about: will training the guf to be more generative increase the risk of the guf make utterances I wouldn't fully endorse?)

I've noticed a thing whereby sufficiently out of the norm behavior can feel accusatory of others' risk models along with a corresponding urge to paper over the friction that sounds similar to what is described here.

I don't know what you mean to imply by "cheating" (I had expected 'technical truths which are socially innocuous'), but some of these seem downright bad and wrong to say to someone.

I think I know the feeling quite well.  I think for me anyways, it's basically "fear of being made fun of", stemming back to childhood.  I got made fun of a lot, and physically bullied as well (a few examples that jump to mind are: having my face shoved into the snow until I was scared of suffocating, being body slammed and squished the whole 45-minute bus ride home because I sat in the back seat (which the "big kids" claimed as their right), being shoulder-checked in the hall).

At some point I developed an attitude of "fuck those people", and decided to try to notice this feeling and not let it hold me back ever.  It's hard and I'm still not great at it.  I still get this feeling kind of often, mostly when I know I'm standing out and will get looks or comments on it, e.g. wearing my Narwall mask to go grocery shopping.  But to me it's more like a sign to dig in my heels.

I view this as part of a ongoing project to overcome my inhibitions.  I try to remain aware of my inhibitions, although it can be painful to recognize them, since they can be really limiting, and make one feel weak and ashamed.  I would guess most people typically rationalize their discomforts as stemming from something legitimate.  This seems really bad from the point of view of having accurate beliefs. 


I just really like the clarity of this example. Noticing concrete lived experience at this level of detail. It highlights the feeling in my own experience and makes me more likely to notice it in real time when it's happening in my own life.

As a 2021 "best of" post, the call for people to share their experiences doesn't make as much sense, particularly should this post end up included in book form. I'm not sure how that fits with the overall process though. I don't wish Anna hadn't asked for more examples!

I live with someone who has anxiety.

This puts a strong damper on my ability to communicate with them in terms of likelihood or confidence levels. I don't have any expertise in the matter, but from the outside it sure looks like anxiety makes people hallucinate the I am under threat feeling, and that these hallucinations always appear whenever there is uncertainty.

This causes me to feel a similar impulse for dissembling whenever questions about how likely something is or what the might happen come up. Sort of like an artificial closing of the Overton Window.

The solution we have evolved is that I project strong confidence about the right thing to do (based on my internal estimates of the uncertainty), and they try not to think about what it is exactly that makes me so confident.

“Honesty is reached through the doorway of grief and loss. Where we cannot go in our mind, our memory, or our body is where we cannot be straight with another, with the world, or with our self. The fear of loss, in one form or another, is the motivation behind all conscious and unconscious dishonesties: all of us are afraid of loss, in all its forms, all of us, at times, are haunted or overwhelmed by the possibility of a disappearance, and all of us therefore, are one short step away from dishonesty. Every human being dwells intimately close to a door of revelation they are afraid to pass through. Honesty lies in understanding our close and necessary relationship with not wanting to hear the truth.

“The ability to speak the truth is as much the ability to describe what it is like to stand in trepidation at this door, as it is to actually go through it and become that beautifully honest spiritual warrior, equal to all circumstances, we would like to become. Honesty is not the revealing of some foundational truth that gives us power over life or another or even the self, but a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence, where we acknowledge how powerless we feel, how little we actually know, how afraid we are of not knowing and how astonished we are for the generous measure of loss that is conferred upon even the most average life.

“Honesty is grounded in humility and indeed in humiliation, and in admitting exactly where we are powerless. Honesty is not found in revealing the truth, but in understanding how deeply afraid of it we are. To become honest is in effect to become fully and robustly incarnated into powerlessness. Honesty allows us to live without not knowing. We do not know the full story, we do not know where we are in the story; we do not know who is at fault or who will carry the blame in the end. Honesty is not a weapon to keep loss and heartbreak at bay, honesty is the outer diagnostic of our ability to come to ground in reality, the hardest attainable ground of all, the place where we actually dwell, the living, breathing frontier where there is no realistic choice between gain or loss.”

- David Whyte, from a recent episode of Harris' Making Sense podcast. 

[I felt inclined to look for observations of this thing outside of the context of the pandemic.]

Some observations: 

I experience this process (either in full or the initial stages of it) for example when asked about my work (as it relates to EA, x-risks, AI safety, rationality and the like), or when sharing ~unconventional plan (e.g. "I'll just spend the next few months thinking about this") when talking to e.g. old friends from when I was growing up, people in the public sphere like a dentist, physiotherapist etc. This used to be also somewhat the case with my family but I've made some conscious (and successful) effort to reduce it.

My default reaction is [exagerating a bit for the purpose of pulling out the main contures] to sort of duck; my brain kicks into a process that feels like "oh we need to fabricate a lie now, focus" (though, lying is a bit misleading - it's more like "what are the fewest, least reveiling words I can say about this that will still be taken as a 'sufficient' answer"); my thinking feels restrained, quite the opposite of being able to think freely, clearly and calmly; often there is an experience (reminiscent) of something like shame ; also some feeling of helplessness, "I can't explain myself" or "they won't understand me"; sometimes the question feels a bit intrusive, like if they wanted to come in(to my mind?) and break things. (?)

Some reflections:

  • "Inferential distance and the cost of explaining":
    • This is very viscerally salient to me in the moment when the "alien process" kicks in. I basically have the thought pattern of "They won't understand what I'm talking about. Mhh I guess I could explain it to them? But that will be lengthy and effortful, and I don't want to spend that effort."
      • I think this pragmatic consideration is often legitimate. At the same time I also suspect that my mind often uses this as an excuse/cover-up for something else.
      • For example, I am on average much less reluctant to give answers to such questions in English compared to German or French. I think about my work in English, thus, explaining my beliefs in another language is extra costly because it requires lots of non-trivial translation. That said, speaking German or French is also correlated with being in specific environments, notably environments I grew up in and that trigger memories of older self-conceptions of mine, and where I generally feel more expectations from the society, or soemthing.
  • "Updating based on someone's conclusions (including their observed behaviour) is often misleading (as opposed to updating on based one someone's reasoning/map)":
    • Based on the above, if I inner sim telling someone about my belief X that is, say, slightly outside of their overton window , I feel kinda doomy, like things will go wrong or at the very least it won't be useful. So, it feels like I either want to get the chance to sit down with them for 2h+ or say as little as possible about my belief X.
    • I think it's interesting to double click on what "things go wrong" means here. The two main things that come up are:
      • An epsitemic worry: they will objectively-speaking make a wrong update and walk away with more wrong rather than less wrong beliefs
      • A ~social worry: all they will update about is me being ~weird. A decent part of the worry here is something like: they will distance themselves from me because they will feel like they can't talk to me/like we're not talking the same language, a sense of isolation. Another part seems more extrem: They will think I'm crazy(?) (I sort of crinche at this one. I don't really think they will think I'm crazy(?). Idk - there is something here, but I'm confused about what it is.)

I didn't downvote, but I think it's unclear what your proposed responses are supposed to achieve.

The first and fourth include a lie, the second and fifth come across as abrasively sarcastic, and the third seems passive-aggressive (are you implying that the unworried don't have loved ones, or that they're shirking their responsibility to them?).

If you're willing to lie, there are smoother options; if you want to tell the truth, why not do it in a nicer way, and leave an opening for the cashier to learn from your reasoning if they're interested?

Maybe 2,3, and 5 are intended to deflect the question while neither lying nor ceding status, hence the aggressive edge? I can sort of see the idea there, and although I would neither want to take that approach nor be able to pull it off, maybe it would work for some personality types. This approach might feel more appropriate if the cashier had been hostile or mocking, rather than just curious, but in any case it seems likely to escalate the tension rather than defuse it.

Or maybe 3 is not supposed to have an edge, and is only meant to imply that you're in an unusual position of responsibility for especially vulnerable loved ones. I guess I can see the point, but it still seems like that response would fall somewhere between dishonest (if the implication gets through clearly) and insulting (if it doesn't). And it does require willingness to admit that you're taking the virus seriously.

I didn't have any similar experience when I went covid-prep shopping; I was happy to tell people my reasoning, iirc. I think maybe one of the roommates I was with expressed some concern that I was spreading panic, and should avoid explaining myself. But my memory is fuzzy on that point.

I do remember that one cashier gave some serious pushback, saying people were "running around like chickens with their heads cut off" (or some similar expression) all due to "a cold virus" (or some similar phrase). The person behind us in line (not a roommate or acquaintance) backed us up, saying something like "that aint no cold virus, people are dying".

Later, an ex of mine who I occasionally keep up with was like "so you're one of those preppers who ruined things for everyone else by buying all the toilet paper". I experienced some indignation and a desire to defend my strategy as the one everyone should have followed.

A friend of mine reported that he discovered he was not nearly so ready to violate norms as he expected: suiting up to buy groceries felt viscerally wrong in a way that threatened his self-image as someone who readily violated norms. He formed the impression that really, he had just fallen into a role where he was the guy who "didn't fall into rolls", playing the part at parties, etc.

Share observations (not theories) of what it’s like to be you right now trying to look at this stuff.

Thinking about this situation, I feel that same sense of awkwardness and discomfort at the idea of saying something like, "Yes, I'm stocking up with a ton of food because I'm worried about the virus." I also get a sense of that same alien process driving me away from such an answer.


When I notice that an action I'm planning to take seems likely to lead to an awkward conversation (big grocery hauls in early/mid pandemic were such an action, but so are smaller things like dressing unconventionally), figuring out how to navigate conversations about it becomes the topic-of-interest that my brain dumps its idle cycles into until I cease anticipating awkardness. I start with the whole truth, which would sound bad and not fit into a polite reply anyway, and examine what kind of reaction I'd expect to get for each possible truth-based reply I could give to an awkward question. I'm aware of when this kind of rumination happens but I actually enjoy it, because it transforms a feeling of nervousness about uncertainty into a feeling of confidence from better planning. I find that when I feel confident and well-planned, I tend to recover better when the actual conversation goes off-script, compared to how I handle the same surprises when I don't take the time to prepare.

This pre-planning caches truth-based replies which seem beneficial. My favorite types of reply are the ones that encourage the listener to do something that I think would be good for them. For instance, when I was shopping for 2 households of elderly neighbors as well as myself, and I would happily volunteer that information because it seemed likely to influence others into shopping for their own elders rather than sending high-risk people to the store. That part of the reply also seemed to steer the conversation toward positive things we can do to have a bit more control over how things play out in our local areas, which feels far more useful to discuss than pure doom and gloom.

However, pre-planning also filled out my "don't say these things" cache, which helped me avoid truth-based replies which seemed detrimental to discuss. I was trying to get one household up to 6 months worth of non-perishables by putting a bit extra into each week's shopping, and I did not volunteer that detail, because if it was interpreted to mean "you should go buy 6 months of food right now" the resulting behaviors would worsen the rolling food shortages and result in a lot of waste if people bought things they didn't need.

I guess I could name that pre-planning "about to break an Overton window", but throughout the process, it's only the other person's window that I feel like I'm breaking. I can't think of any time when I've voluntarily broken my own Overton window -- I handle desires to do things outside my existing window by exposing myself to additional information which broadens the window, rather than just by disregarding it entirely.

I think this post has a lot to do with shifting Overton's windows:


Preventing autism induced ire from others throught masking sounds somewhat similar. Sometimes you want to mask tot he extent that you can but you just can't all the way. Expecting people to be weirded out but the "deficiency" not being an internal signal to change stance.

Depersonalization when trying forcefully to fit illfitting social roles is also not unheard of.

I did identify with this. Nothing concrete to share right now.

I can feel a pressure to try to guess the other person's worldview and conform to it. Recently I have been I think better at just trying to debate things out with others. Possibly I may get uncomfortable if consensus isn't reached. I'm getting maybe a little bit more comfortable with this possibility though. Something interesting that can come up is a strong indignant feeling: "how the hell could anyone NOT believe X!!", which can cause me to change those exclamation points into a question mark and start wondering, which could potentially take a long time (currently I am confused about God beliefs/unbeliefs, after realizing that I sort of identify as an atheist but have a hard time identifying clear reasons that I should). 

Another thing that I have noticed is the possibility to give silent responses rather than essentially lying. This can be very uncomfortable and sad, but may have benefits as well. I think it can feel pretty awful if I end up having to give a lot of silent responses over a period where I ALSO am not able to give myself much space to think (e.g. in a situation where I am constantly around people for a substantial period of time and not able to find a way to give myself "sufficient seclusion").