Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture

Note: This post is in­tended as de­scrip­tive rather than pre­scrip­tive. This post de­scribes the cul­tures as I see them, to­gether with some of their un­der­ly­ing ra­tio­nales, ar­gu­ments, ad­van­tages, and dis­ad­van­tages. This post does not con­tain any strong or well-formed opinions of mine about ideal con­ver­sa­tional norms, which cul­ture is bet­ter, etc.

My fore­most aim is that read­ers of this post will share my per­cep­tion of the differ­ent con­ver­sa­tion cul­tures, at which point we can be­gin to ex­plore all the ques­tions of ideal cul­tures, how to in­ter­act cross-cul­turally, cul­turally-mixed venues, etc., etc.

Edit: This post now has a se­quel. Com­bat vs Nur­ture: Cul­tural Ge­n­e­sis clar­ifies some points, dis­cusses the true differ­ence be­tween the cul­tures, and opines on the cir­cum­stances which give rise to the differ­ent cul­tures.

Com­bat Culture

I went to an or­tho­dox Jewish high school in Aus­tralia. For most of my early teenage years, I spent one to three hours each morn­ing de­bat­ing the true mean­ing of ab­struse phrases of Tal­mu­dic Ara­maic. The ma­jor­ity of class time was spent sit­ting op­po­site your chavrusa (study part­ner, but lin­guis­ti­cally the term has the same root as the word “friend”) ar­gu­ing ve­he­mently for your in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ar­cane words. I didn’t think in terms of prob­a­bil­ities back then, but if I had, I think at any point I would have given roughly even odds to my view vs my chavrusa’s view on most oc­ca­sions. Yet that didn’t re­ally mat­ter. What­ever your cre­dence, you ar­gued as hard as you could for the view that made sense in your mind, ex­plain­ing why your ad­ver­sary/​part­ner/​friend’s view was ut­terly in­con­sis­tent with re­al­ity. That was the pro­cess. Even­tu­ally, you’d reach agree­ment or agree to dis­agree (which was perfectly le­gi­t­i­mate), and then move onto the next pas­sage to de­ci­pher.

Later, I stud­ied main­stream an­a­lytic philos­o­phy at uni­ver­sity. There wasn’t the chavrusa, pair-study for­mat, but the cul­ture of de­bate felt the same to me. Differ­ent philoso­phers would write long pa­pers ex­plain­ing why philoso­phers hold­ing op­po­site views were ut­terly con­fused and mis­taken for rea­sons one through fifty. They’d go back and forth, each ar­gu­ing for their own cor­rect­ness and the oth­ers’ mis­tak­e­ness with great rigor. I’m still im­pressed with the rigor and thor­ough­ness of es­pe­cially good an­a­lytic philoso­phers.

I’ll de­scribe this style as com­bat­ive, or Com­bat Cul­ture. You have your view, they have their view, and you each work to prove your right­ness by defend­ing your view and at­tack­ing theirs. Oc­ca­sion­ally one side will up­date, but more com­monly you de­velop or mod­ify your view to meet the crit­i­cisms. Over­all, the pool of ar­gu­ments and views de­vel­ops and as a group you feel like you’ve made progress.

While it’s true that you’ll of­ten shake your head at the folly of those who dis­agree with you, the fact that you’re both­er­ing to dis­cuss with them at all im­plies a cer­tain min­i­mum of re­spect and recog­ni­tion. You don’t write lengthy pa­pers or books to re­spond to peo­ple whose in­tel­lect you have no recog­ni­tion of, peo­ple you don’t re­gard as peers at all.

There’s an un­der­tone of coun­tersig­nal­ling to healthy Com­bat Cul­ture. It is be­cause recog­ni­tion and re­spect are so strongly as­sumed be­tween par­ties that they can be so blunt and di­rect with each other. If there were any am­bi­guity about the com­mon knowl­edge of re­spect, you couldn’t be blunt with­out the risk of offend­ing some­one. That you are blunt is ev­i­dence you do re­spect some­one. This is por­trayed clearly in a pas­sage from Daniel’s Ells­berg re­cent book, The Dooms­day Ma­chine: Con­fes­sions of a Nu­clear War Plan­ner (pp. 35-36):

From my aca­demic life, I was used to be­ing in the com­pany of very smart peo­ple, but it was ap­par­ent from the be­gin­ning that this was as smart a bunch of men as I have ever en­coun­tered. That first im­pres­sion never changed (though I was to learn, in the years ahead, the se­vere limi­ta­tions of sheer in­tel­lect). And it was even bet­ter than that. In the mid­dle of the first ses­sion, I ven­tured—though I was the youngest, as­signed to tak­ing notes, and ob­vi­ously a to­tal novice on the is­sues—to ex­press an opinion. (I don’t re­mem­ber what it was.) Rather than show­ing ir­ri­ta­tion or ig­nor­ing my com­ment, Her­man Kahn, brilli­ant and enor­mously fat, sit­ting di­rectly across the table from me, looked at me soberly and said, “You’re ab­solutely wrong.”
A warm glow spread through­out my body. This was the way my un­der­grad­u­ate fel­lows on the ed­i­to­rial board of the Har­vard Crim­son (mostly Jewish like Her­man and me) had rou­tinely spo­ken to each other: I hadn’t ex­pe­rienced any­thing like it for six years. At King’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, or in the So­ciety of Fel­lows, ar­gu­ments didn’t take this gloves-off, take-no-pris­on­ers form. I thought, “I’ve found a home.” [em­pha­sis added]

That a se­nior mem­ber of the RAND group he had re­cently joined was will­ing to be com­pletely di­rect in shoot­ing down his idea didn’t cause the au­thor to shut down in an­guish and re­jec­tion, on the con­trary, it made it au­thor feel re­spected and in­cluded. I’ve found a home.

Nur­ture Culture

As I’ve ex­pe­rienced more of the world, I dis­cov­ered that many peo­ple, per­haps even most peo­ple, strongly dis­like com­bat­ive dis­cus­sions where they are be­ing told that they are wrong for ten differ­ent rea­sons. I’m sure some read­ers think­ing are hit­ting their fore­heads and think­ing “duh, ob­vi­ous,” yet as above, it’s not ob­vi­ous if you’re used to a differ­ent cul­ture. Still, I’ve found that the dom­i­nant cul­ture I am now ex­posed to, liv­ing in the Bay Area, is what I’m terming Nur­ture Cul­ture.

If Com­bat Cul­ture has a spirit of “let’s smash our ideas against each other un­til the strongest ones sur­vive”, then Nur­ture Cul­ture is “let’s work to­gether to ex­ca­vate the truth from be­neath all the dirt of un­cer­tainty” or “let’s work to­gether to sculpt this beau­tiful sculp­ture.”

In Nur­ture Cul­ture, the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple is that we’re all on the same team work­ing for the same goals, we value and re­spect each other, and by ex­ten­sion, we ap­pre­ci­ate all con­tri­bu­tions and ideas. Th­ese at­ti­tudes should be ex­pressed in how you in­ter­act with peo­ple.

Th­ese at­ti­tudes in­form the pri­ors which shape how you re­late to them. If you ac­tu­ally re­spect some­one’s mind and con­tri­bu­tions, then you start with the prior that their ideas are worth tak­ing se­ri­ously. So if some­one’s idea is differ­ent from yours or seems mis­taken, you ori­ent with open­ness and cu­ri­os­ity. You don’t start list­ing why they must be wrong, you in­stead ask clar­ify­ing ques­tions to see what it is that you missed, you be cu­ri­ous to see what knowl­edge and ex­pe­rience they are bring­ing which you might lack.

To a fair ex­tent, it doesn’t even mat­ter if you be­lieve that some­one is truly, deeply mis­taken. It is im­por­tant fore­most that you val­i­date them and their con­tri­bu­tion, show that what­ever they think, you still re­spect and wel­come them.

In truth, I think Nur­ture Cul­ture ac­tu­ally makes sense as the de­fault. Com­bat Cul­ture is pre­cisely that—com­bat­ive—and the body lan­guage, tone, and over­all stances used are those used in Com­bat Cul­ture bear re­sem­blance to those used when are gen­uinely be­ing ag­gres­sive and hos­tile to­wards oth­ers. In fact, it would only be in a minor­ity of con­texts that say­ing to some­one “you’re ab­solutely wrong” would not be con­sid­ered hos­tile. It fol­lows that bar­ring un­usual cul­tural train­ing and very spe­cific con­texts, the de­fault is to be averse to body lan­guage and tone which is in the di­rec­tion of ag­gres­sion, judg­ment, and hos­tility.

The norms of Nur­ture Cul­ture aren’t just about pro­tect­ing feel­ings, how­ever. They’re cru­cial to the truth-seek­ing pur­pose of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I think it is true uni­ver­sally that when some­one feels gen­uinely threat­ened in con­ver­sa­tion or fears that they might be at­tacked, then they will not be will­ing or able to fully par­ti­ci­pate in any such con­ver­sa­tion. This ap­plies to those whose na­tive style is Com­bat Cul­ture too, it is merely that peo­ple of differ­ent cul­tures do not feel threat­ened in all the same cir­cum­stances.

If you have not been cul­turally trained to view some ag­gres­sive body lan­guage and tone as not im­ply­ing dis­re­spect and dis­mis­sal, then per­ceiv­ing such ag­gres­sion will im­pede your abil­ity to par­ti­ci­pate in con­ver­sa­tion. The norms of Nur­ture Cul­ture are de­signed to make peo­ple feel safe enough to en­gage in dis­cus­sion.

It is le­gi­t­i­mately of­ten risky to speak up given the real chance that some­one might think you’re dumb, think less of you, and like you less. This ap­plies es­pe­cially in groups and pub­lic fo­rums. Nur­ture Cul­ture as­sumes that only in a cul­ture that ex­pressly as­sures peo­ple that they and their ideas are wanted that they will speak up. (And cru­cially, you can’t al­low dis­plays of ag­gres­sion which demon­strate a dis­turb­ing lack of safety).

More­over, many very clever and knowl­edge­able peo­ple op­er­ate with Nur­ture Cul­ture norms and as­sump­tions. If you are not sen­si­tive to this, you will lose out on their con­tri­bu­tions. (I pre­sent this as a state­ment of fact, not as a defini­tive pre­scrip­tion for ac­tion)

This post now has a se­quel. Com­bat vs Nur­ture: Cul­tural Ge­n­e­sis clar­ifies some points, dis­cusses the true differ­ence be­tween the cul­tures, and opines on the cir­cum­stances which give rise to the differ­ent cul­tures.

Now in the Com­ments: Ad­vice & Ideal/​De­gen­er­ate Forms of the Cultures

Origi­nally this post had some brief ad­vice here as well as de­scrip­tion of healthy/​de­gen­er­ate forms of the cul­tures. To clean up the post, I’ve moved it to a com­ment be­low.