Truth & social graces

by irrational1 min read22nd Oct 201137 comments

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I've seen an article on LW about Santa Claus and most people were very keen on not lying to their kids (and I agree). I have a little kid who is generally quite truthful, innocent enough not to lie in most cases. I noticed recently that when someone asks him, "How are you", he usually answers in detail because, well, you asked, didn't you? When I was a teenager I hated people who lied and I tended to ignore these unwritten social rules to the extent I could. I.e. I didn't ask if I didn't want to know and people thought I was rude. So, my question is, should I teach him to lie upon these occasions?

More broadly, I was thinking, why am I committed to being truthful, in general? I guess because I would hate to be lied to myself. This is a kind of magical thinking maybe, or maybe it's a part of the social contract. This sort of lying in fact promotes the social well-being because to answer truthfully creates an unwelcome burden on my interlocutor who asked out of politeness and is not in truth interested. But it still feels wrong to lie. Even more wrong to teach your kid to do so.

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The phrase "how are you" is no different from a TCP Handshake. In order to establish communication, the first initiating computer will send out a synchronize, the responder sends a synchronize-acknowledge, then the initiator will give back a single acknowledge. This is just how human language does it, with a slight order change.

"How are you?" - Synchronize request

"Good, how are you?" - Acknowledge synchronize request, send sync request of your own

"I'm good too" - Acknowledge

Just like in computers, the purpose is not to convey information in itself. It is to establish communication including the rules of communication each side will be using. If you want to change the transfer protocol over to UDP, that is also acceptable (eg, "how are you?" "ugh terrible! ). You can also throw up halt flags before conversation begins (eg, "how are you?" "sod off"). The initial synack is also good for pinging (eg, "how are you?" ... "sorry I was busy thinking").

However, the one thing that neither humans nor computers use synack for is transmitting information. Doing so is simply a breach of information transfer protocol and may result in you defecting by accident.

[-][anonymous]9y 14

This is a brilliant analogy and I'm definitely stealing it for my own use.

Related metaphor from Robert Heinlein's Time Enough For Love:

Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untraveled, the naïve, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as "empty," "meaningless," or "dishonest," and scorn to use them. No matter how "pure" their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.

SInce we are on the subject of quotes, here's one from C.S. Lewis, who I am not generally a fan of, but this is something that struck me when I read it for the first time:

“Oh, Piebald, Piebald,” she said, still laughing. “How often the people of your race speak!”

“I’m sorry,” said Ransom, a little put out. “What are you sorry for?”

“I am sorry if you think I talk too much”

“Too much? How can I tell what would be too much for you to talk?”

“In our world when they say a man talks much they mean they wish him to be silent.”

“If that is what they mean, why do they not say it?”

“What made you laugh?” asked Ransom, finding her question too hard.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I really like this reply. The initial point about the TCP Handshake makes a lot of sense and relates to the core point, and the supporting parts about other communication types gives me some fresh insights that I can try to use in other conversations.

I've gotten in the habit of saying "I can't complain" when someone asks me how I am, since "I'm fine" is rarely the truth. I like that response because it's kind of meta the way I use it: in my head it's short for "I can't complain to you because you don't actually want to know and being made to listen to my complaints would alienate you."

Yes, and if the other person does not seem to like, "I can't complain," I might add, "Well, I could, but it would not do any good."

I have a little kid who is generally quite truthful, innocent enough not to lie in most cases. I noticed recently that when someone asks him, "How are you", he usually answers in detail because, well, you asked, didn't you? When I was a teenager I hated people who lied and I tended to ignore these unwritten social rules to the extent I could. I.e. I didn't ask if I didn't want to know and people thought I was rude. So, my question is, should I teach him to lie upon these occasions?

It becomes clear that no lying is necessary in this case when you realize that the actual purpose of producing the sequence of sounds "how are you" is often not to request a detailed description of the listener's current well-being, but only to greet them, foster good-will, show friendship, or something like that.

You must simply know the context. Sometimes the word "box" points to an object; other times to a sport. Similarly, sometimes the phrase "how are you" functions as a request for a detailed etc; other times it's for something somewhat different.

Well, it's one thing not to give details and another to misreport. Even now, as an adult, I say "I am OK" when I mean "things suck", and "I am great" when things are OK. I just shift them by a degree in the positive direction. Now, if he is unhappy, should he say "I am fine"? If he is not fine, he is lying.

I think the same principle applies.

If I'm checking out at a grocery store and the cashier asks me how I am, responding by producing the sequence of phonemes "good" doesn't really function as a way to put a map of my current well-being in their head; it's more just for signalling respect etc.

In other words, saying "things suck" would be about as off-topic as if I started putting on a pair of boxing gloves in response to you saying, "Hey, could you help me move these boxes?"

I don't disagree necessarily, but this is way too subtle for a kid, so it's not a practical answer.

Besides, as a semi-professional linguist, I must say you are confusing semantics (e.g. your boxes example) with pragmatics which is what we are talking about, where one uses words to mean something other than what the dictionary + propositional logic say they mean. These are often very confusing because they rely on cultural context and both kids and foreigners often screw up when they deal with them.

I don't disagree necessarily, but this is way too subtle for a kid

Too subtle? This is just one tiny part of growing up and learning to interact with other people. If it's too subtle for him at this point in his development, then you'll just have to wait.

so it's not a practical answer

It's a practical answer in that it shows why you shouldn't encourage him to respond like that in those situations. I would have to know a lot more about your kid (and perhaps also way more about parenting) to know whether you should try to discourage it (and how to go about that), but at least we now know that it's not a virtue in itself, but merely a social misunderstanding.

In other words, you were wondering whether to teach him to "lie" upon these occasions. I'm saying that you definitely shouldn't do the opposite (express affirmation to him about what he's doing). That's useful to know, right? About whether you should go about trying to fix this social misunderstanding though, I don't know. Is this normal for his age? Is this part of a trend? Will he simply update later with no bumps in the road? Etc.

You could try just telling him that sometimes "how are you" means that they want a long response about whether he's happy or sad or whatever and why, but sometimes it's just to be friendly and they don't want anything more than a quick "good" or "fine" or whatever. In fact, that simple insight might well launch him into a long, fruitful path of social inquiry and analysis for many years to come.

(If he asks how to know which is which and you don't think you could explain it or he wouldn't understand you, just say it's hard to tell but that he'll get it at some point if he keeps trying.)

Besides, as a semi-professional linguist, I must say you are confusing semantics (e.g. your boxes example) with pragmatics which is what we are talking about, where one uses words to mean something other than what the dictionary + propositional logic say they mean.

How exactly am I confusing those?

These are often very confusing because they rely on cultural context and both kids and foreigners often screw up when they deal with them.

Yes. Actual communication is quite difficult.

(That's sort of sarcastic or something, but it's not supposed to convey bad will; I'm simply trying to clarify my position. The attempt is sort of vague though, so I don't necessarily expect you to know where I'm going with it.)

The habit of asking "how are you" when one is not really interested in the answer is not a human universal; it's a distinctly Western phenomenon.

You can see this pointed out, for example, in Brat 2 (although the scene in question also goes on to engage in some rather less-accurate anti-American stereotyping).

It accords with my own experiences in Russia, which are that you should not ask this unless you are ready to accept an earful.

That specific thing is not a human universal. But the general behavior is, as far as I know. There are always little lies one is supposed to say. E.g. "no, that woman is not as beautiful as you", "he looks just like his dad", "nice to meet you", "please come again" (but I'll never invite you). In Russian, in particular, the very act of greeting is often a lie, since it means "be healthy" and there is effectively no way to "greet" an enemy without wishing him well.

In Klingon (fiction alert) the nearest thing to "hello" is nuQneH, which literally means "what do you want?"

distinctly Western phenomenon

The exact phrase is specific to few languages, not universal in the West. The literal translation would work e.g. in Spanish or Serbian, not in French (there the equivalent "(comment) ça va" means "(how) does it go", I am not sure how a Frenchman would interpret "comment es-tu") or Polish ("jak sie masz" = "how do you have yourself", direct "jak jesteś" would be ungrammatical). Each language usually has an arbitrary set of standard questions used for greeting, everything outside the set would likely be heard as genuine curiosity.

Personal experience: I have known that "how are you" and "how do you do" belong to this set for English, but somehow I was unaware of "how are you doing". Last time I visited Britain some activist on the street tried to establish conversation with me using this phrase, which got extremely awkward when I responded by "sorry?" and after he repeated his greeting, I replied "what exactly do you want to know?". He must have thought I was a moron.

In Chinese, "how are you?" ("ni zenmeyang?") is used, but it's relatively recent (most likely a western influence); previously "have you eaten?" ("ni chi fan le ma?") was the standard phrase.

I am not sure how a Frenchman would interpret "comment es-tu"

The perpetrator would be suspected of being Canadian.

Many languages do not use "How are you?" as a standard greeting. Mandarin speakers usually say "Ni hao," which word-for-word means "You good." It's not a question; the question form would be "Ni hao ma?", and is not used as a greeting at all.

My father, who spent a couple years in Thailand decades ago, says that the Thai phrase meaning "How are you?" was invented (or at least popularized) in response to Westerners' demand for such a phrase. Does anyone have any information supporting or undermining this?

My father, who spent a couple years in Thailand decades ago, says that the Thai phrase meaning "How are you?" was invented (or at least popularized) in response to Westerners' demand for such a phrase. Does anyone have any information supporting or undermining this?

My wife confirms that is the case for the Chinese phrase at least.

That's because the standard Russian greeting - здравствуйте - means "Be well!", more or less, " Как дела?", another standard greeting, means "How are things", the follow-up is usually "Xорошо" - "fine", and the greeting formalities are done. "How are you" does not register as a standard greeting, but rather as a genuine enquiry about one's condition.

My rule of thumb is something like: if I have to worry about it being uncovered, it's a (morally wrong) lie. If I don't care if it's uncovered, it doesn't really count as a lie. If I'm sick and frustrated and angry and tired and someone asks me how I am and I answer "I'm OK", it may be an incorrect representation of reality, but not one that I will try to protect from further investigation.

That conveniently extends to Santa Claus - if my son investigates the Santa Claus story and says it's false, I won't come up with more details to cover it up (unless I can come up with something sufficiently ludicrous that I can say with a straight face).

Teach him how the custom works ("how are you" doesn't mean much more than "hello"), not just a rote response (when someone says "how are you", answer "how are you").

ETA: And when he asks why, don't say "because it's polite", which is like explaining that things fall down because of gravity.

Your definition of a lie is unusual. Lie is generally defined as intentional deception. If you do not tell people how you are when they do not want to know, you are not lying. Teach him the difference between form ("Hi, how are you?") and substance ("Greetings, fellow earthling, I am happy to not be alone on this planet"), and that replying simply with "Hi" is completely appropriate and is in no way lying.

As for actual lying (intentional deception), you should certainly discourage it in most cases, as there are nearly always better alternatives.

More broadly, I was thinking, why am I committed to being truthful, in general?

I would of course need to know more about you to be in a position to know the answer, but I can venture a guess by relating why I personally have the same tendency.

Long story short, other-deception seems to go hand in hand with self-deception. It's extraordinarily epistemically hazardous to lie. Because I value my epistemic rationality to such a great extent, I would use dishonesty only as an absolute last line of defense.

other-deception seems to go hand in hand with self-deception

I would usually agree with this, but now it made me think... when we decide to ignore politeness and other social skills, and dismiss the consequences of our choice by saying "other-deception = self-deception", aren't we already involved in some serious self-deception?

As has been pointed out by Xachariah and Crux, perhaps you should think of "How are you?" as a set of symbols with multiple potential meanings rather than one whose meaning is determined by its literal interpretation.

Consider (yet another) analogy: homonymy across languages. Imagine that the sound "yeridan" refers in Language A to a puppy and in Language B to an army of bullet ants. If a speaker of A asked you whether you wanted to hold a yeridan, you might answer that you would, while you surely would decline if the one doing the asking were a speaker of B.

Similarly, we have (far more than) two languages, or registers, at work here. One is the language of social grace, to be used when signaling certain aspects of our social situation (e.g., loyal to whom, intimate with whom, aloof toward whom). When conversing in this language, the function of "How are you?" is to initiate conversation and display basic good will. The other language is the language of intimacy, to be used when giving details about our lives to others. In it, "How are you?" functions as a query about recent goings-on and one's general situation.

The meaning of "I'm fine" as a response similarly differs depending on the context, just as the meaning of "Yes, I would like to hold a yeridan" differs depending on who's asking. Saying "I'm fine" in a social-grace context is just as truthful as saying "No yerdidans for me, thanks" in a Language B context, regardless of how one would respond in the context of intimacy or Language A.

I don't usually find that lying is necessary in situations like this.
For example, when I'm at my lowest, my usual response to "How are you?" is "Eh... been better. You?"
No doubt there are communities in which even that is too much actual information; I don't hang out in such communities by preference, but if I found myself in one I'd give an even less informative answer.
As for what to teach kids... well, beats me, but I will say that knowing when a question doesn't merit a complete and exhaustive answer is a social skill worth learning.

Why interfering and not letting your kid develop his own ways? Answering "How are you?" in detail sounds to me as a fantastic trait of his personality.

When I was 7-years old I stopped calling my parents mom and dad and switched over to calling them by their names. I just couldn't understand the logic of other people call them one thing and me calling the something else. Happily nobody tried to "correct" me according to social rules, and still today it wouldn't cross my mind to call my mother 'mother'!

I call my mother "Mom" and my father "Norman". I'm not sure why; all I know is that I started when was small.

Is Norman his name?

Yes, it is.

I am in fact not planning to interfere for now.

Nobody ever actually told me, as a kid, that I should try modeling people, try getting inside their heads, as a mode of navigating social situations and understanding the world in general. Empathy develops gradually on its own in children, and we are generally left to just figure out that it's good for something other than making us feel guilty.

I suggest you do not say to your child, "Lie more." Instead say, "Try to imagine you are other people. Ask what states of mind they might be in that could make them say what they say and do what they do."

This could lead to the child understanding when lies actually matter in an instinctive way.

As a general rule, when I ask "how're you?" I actually mean the question, and I want an actual answer if the person I'm asking is willing to give it.

So yeah, I know it's used as a "social lubricant", but I myself generally ask it with the intent of actually finding out how the person is doing.

There are other methods for obtaining that information which don't use that exact phrase. Once greetings are done something as simple as 'how have you been recently' invites people to share that information. The issue is that the standard 'How are you' greeting isn't a request for information so responding to it as if it is one disrupts communication.

Maybe your child is an INTP

On the other hand, their ability to grasp complexity may also lead them to provide overly detailed explanations of simple ideas, and listeners may judge that the INTP makes things more difficult than they need to be. To the INTPs' mind, they are presenting all the relevant information or trying to crystallize the concept as clearly as possible.

I was definitely like this and I still am, although I'm finally getting better. I was always honest to a fault, especially as a child. In fact, I didn't even want to say things that were true but insincere, because I felt implicitly that it was too close to lying. So if I was eating a delicious meal, and everyone around the table was saying something nice, I would hesitate because I knew that I was expected to say something, but I may not have normally.

He probably is an INTP, although it's too early to tell. I am too. That doesn't really answer the question:)

Which question? Whether or not to teach him to lie? For that one my answers are: I don't know, it's not my place to say, no, yes and I'm not sure how. In that order. More concretely, I think it's important you teach him to be honest and teach him the social game because I personally benefited from learning both. As to how, it's hard to say, but if he's anything like me, he's a high level thinker, so go meta. Talk about economics, talk about the difference between content and form, talk about communication and signaling.. Explain that by responding in a limited way he is allowing another person to show interest without getting involved in a deep conversation. Treat this as a charitable service we can provide to one another.

As for why you personally feel it's wrong to lie here's my take on it. I personally tend to be very rigid about rules and principles. I believe that is something is bad on average then it's bad as a whole. I also believe that once you start making exceptions for rules like no lying, it's very easy to make exceptions for the wrong lies, thus defeating the purpose of the rule. So instead of drawing a line in the sand one expects to be wrong, one doesn't go in the sand at all.

Now arguably this is very rigid thinking and I've adapted to be more flexible as of late. But still, this sort of morality appeals to me on a fundamental level.