Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

You are view­ing Ver­sion 2 of this post: a ma­jor re­vi­sion writ­ten for the LessWrong 2018 Re­view. The origi­nal ver­sion pub­lished on 9th Novem­ber 2018 can be viewed here.

See my change notes for ma­jor up­dates be­tween V1 and V2.

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 should 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 and para­graph break 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 are hit­ting their fore­heads and think­ing “duh, ob­vi­ous,” yet as above, it’s not ob­vi­ous if you’re used to a differ­ent cul­ture.

While Com­bat Cul­ture pri­ori­tizes di­rect­ness and the free ex­pres­sion of ideas, in con­trast, Nur­ture Cul­ture pri­ori­tizes the com­fort, wellbe­ing, and re­la­tion­ships of par­ti­ci­pants in a con­ver­sa­tion. It wants ev­ery­one to feel safe, wel­come, and well-re­garded within a gen­eral spirit of “we’re on the same side here”.

Since dis­agree­ment, crit­i­cism, and push­back can all lead to feel­ings of dis­tance be­tween peo­ple, Nur­ture Cul­ture tries to counter those po­ten­tial effects with sig­nals of good­will and re­spect. Nur­ture Cul­ture wants it to be clear that notwith­stand­ing that I think your idea is wrong/​stupid/​con­fused/​bad/​harm­ful, that doesn’t mean that I think you’re stupid/​bad/​harm­ful/​un­wel­come/​en­emy, or that I don’t wish to con­tinue to hear your ideas.

Nur­ture Cul­ture makes a lot of sense in a world where crit­i­cism and dis­agree­ment are of­ten an at­tack or threat– peo­ple talk at length about how their en­e­mies and out­groups are mis­taken, never about how they’re cor­rect. Even if I have no in­ten­tion to at­tack some­one by ar­gu­ing that they are wrong, I’m still pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence of their poor rea­son­ing when­ever I cri­tique.

There is a sim­ple en­tail­ment: hold­ing a mis­taken be­lief or mak­ing a poor ar­gu­ment is ev­i­dence of poor rea­son­ing such that when I say you are wrong, I’m im­ply­ing, how­ever slightly, that your rea­son­ing or in­for­ma­tion is poor. And each time you’re seen to be wrong, you (rightly) lose a few points in peo­ple’s es­ti­ma­tion of you. It might be a tiny frac­tional loss of a point of re­spect and re­gard, but it can’t be zero.

So some frac­tion of the time peo­ple ex­press dis­agree­ment be­cause they gen­er­ally be­lieve it, but also in the wider world, a large frac­tion of the time peo­ple ex­press dis­agree­ment it is as an at­tack [1]. A healthy epistemic Nur­ture Cul­ture works to make it pos­si­ble to safely have pro­duc­tive dis­agree­ment by show­ing that dis­agree­ment is safe and not in­tended as an at­tack.

To offer a con­crete ex­am­ple of Nur­ture Cul­ture and why you might want it, I wrote the fol­low­ing fic­tional ac­count of Alex Percy:

I was three months into my new role as an an­a­lyst at Euler As­so­ci­ates. It was my first pre­sen­ta­tion mak­ing any recom­men­da­tions of con­se­quence. It was at­tended by heads of three other de­part­ments. Se­nior man­agers who man­aged teams of hun­dreds and bud­gets of mil­lions. I was ner­vous. Sure, I had a doc­torate in op­er­a­tions man­age­ment, but that was merely class­room and book knowl­edge.

Ten min­utes into the meet­ing I’d finished my core pitch. Ms. Fritz seemed mildly ir­ri­tated, Mr. Wy­man ra­di­ated skep­ti­cism. My heart sank. I mean, I shouldn’t have been sur­prised. If (if!) I keep my job long enough, I’m sure I’ll get there...

“You lost me on slide 4, but let’s talk it through. It seems you’re as­sum­ing that re­gional sales growth is go­ing to plateau, which I hadn’t been as­sum­ing my­self, but I could see it be­ing true. Let’s as­sume it for now and can chat for a few min­utes to see if your right about the flow-through effects”, these were the first words from Dr. Li.

I felt ela­tion. En­gage­ment! A chance to ex­plain my rea­son­ing! Be­ing taken se­ri­ously! Maybe con­tribut­ing to Euler As­so­ci­ates wouldn’t be such a painful grind.


My heart sank. I mean, not re­ally sur­pris­ing. If (if!) I keep my job long enough, I’m sure I’ll get there...

“To get that re­sult, you as­sume re­gional sales growth is go­ing to plateau. That would be very sur­pris­ing. So that must be wrong.”

Such was the terse re­sponse to my months of work. I’d triple-checked that premise– it wasn’t cer­tain but it was rea­son­able. Was I sup­posed to ar­gue back with some­one who prob­a­bly doubted I was worth their time? Did I meekly ac­cept that I hadn’t jus­tified this enough in my pitch and try to do bet­ter next time? My boss gave no in­di­ca­tion when I look at him. Ach, I’m such a fool. I should have known you need to re­ally jus­tify the con­tro­ver­sial points. My first big pre­sen­ta­tion and I blew it.

It might be a virtue to be tough and re­silient, but it also costly to to bring that de­gree of emo­tional for­ti­tude to bare. Some­one might be push­ing against a strong prior that they are un­wel­come or that oth­ers are try­ing to make them push up­hill con­tribute.

The first sce­nario de­scribes Nur­tur­ing be­hav­ior. A busy se­nior man­ager sig­nal­ing to the new per­son: “I’m go­ing to give you a chance, I know you want to help.”
If noth­ing else, I ex­pect the con­sult­ing firm where Nur­tur­ing be­hav­ior is com­mon­place to be a far more pleas­ant place to work, and prob­a­bly bet­ter for peo­ple’s health and wellbe­ing.

The Key Cul­tural Distinc­tion: Sig­nifi­cance of a Speech-Act

It is pos­si­ble to de­scribe to Com­bat and Nur­ture cul­tures by where they fall on a num­ber of di­men­sions such as ad­ver­sar­ial-col­lab­o­ra­tive, “emo­tional effort and con­cern”, fil­ter­ing, etc. I dis­cuss these di­men­sions in Ap­pendix 1.

How­ever, I be­lieve that the key dis­tinc­tion be­tween Com­bat and Nur­ture cul­tures is found in one pri­mary ques­tion:

Within a cul­ture, what is the mean­ing/​sig­nifi­cance of com­bat­ive speech acts?

By com­bat­ive speech acts, I mean things like blatant dis­agree­ment, di­rectly tel­ling peo­ple they are wrong, and ar­gu­ing one-sid­edly against some­one’s ideas with no at­tempt to find merit. The ques­tion is, within a cul­ture, do these speech acts im­ply nega­tive at­ti­tudes or have nega­tive effects for the re­ceiver? Or, con­versely, are they treated like any other or­di­nary speech?

The defin­ing fea­ture of a Com­bat Cul­ture is that these tra­di­tion­ally com­bat­ive speech acts do not con­vey threat, at­tack, or dis­dain. Quite the op­po­site– when Her­man Kahn says to Daniel Ells­berg, “you’re ab­solutely wrong”, Ells­berg in­ter­prets this as a sign of re­spect and in­clu­sion. The same words said to Alex Percy by the se­nior man­agers of Euler As­so­ci­ates are likely to be in­ter­preted as a painful “I’m not in­ter­ested in you or what you have to say.”

And like in lan­guage in gen­eral, the sig­nifi­cance of speech acts (com­bat­ive or oth­er­wise) needs to be co­or­di­nated be­tween speak­ers and listen­ers. Ob­vi­ously, is­sues arise when peo­ple from differ­ent cul­tures as­sign differ­ent mean­ings to the same thing in an in­ter­ac­tion. Some­one with Nur­ture Cul­ture mean­ings as­so­ci­ated to speech-acts can feel at­tacked in a Com­bat­ive space. A Com­bat­ively-cul­tured per­son [2] in a Nur­ture cul­ture space can make oth­ers feel at­tacked.

The pre­vailing cul­ture of­ten isn’t clear, and of­ten spaces are mixed. You can imag­ine how that goes.

When does each cul­ture make sense?

In the origi­nal ver­sion of this post, I mostly re­frained from com­ment­ing on which cul­ture was bet­ter. At this point, I think I can say a lit­tle more.

Com­bat Cul­ture has a num­ber of benefits that make it at­trac­tive, par­tic­u­larly for truth-seek­ing dis­cus­sion: it has greater free­dom of speech, no ex­tra effort is re­quired to phrase things po­litely, one doesn’t need to filter as much or dance around, and less at­ten­tion is de­voted to wor­ry­ing about offend­ing peo­ple.

And as Said Ach­miz men­tioned in a com­ment on the origi­nal post, “gen­er­ally speak­ing, as peo­ple get to know each other, they tend to re­lax around each other, and drop down into a more “com­bat­ive” ori­en­ta­tion in dis­cus­sions and de­bates with each other. They say what they think.” Or they out­right coun­tersig­nal. That’s some rea­son to have a generic prefer­ence for a cul­ture where fewer speech acts parse as at­tacks or threats.

But Com­bat Cul­ture only works when you’ve es­tab­lished that the stan­dardly hos­tile speech acts aren’t un­friendly. It works when you’ve got a prior of friendli­ness, or have gen­er­ally built up trust. And that means it tends to work well where peo­ple know each other well, have com­mon in­ter­ests, or some other strong fac­tor that makes them feel al­igned and on the same team. Some­thing that cre­ates a sense of trust and safety that you’re not be­ing at­tacked even if your be­liefs, works, or choices are.

In­ter­est­ingly, while in any given par­tic­u­lar ex­change Com­bat Cul­ture might seem to be more effi­cient and “pay less com­mu­nica­tive over­head”, that’s only pos­si­ble be­cause the Com­bat Cul­ture pre­vi­ously in­vested “over­head” into cre­at­ing a high-safety con­text. It is be­cause you’ve spent so much time with a per­son and sig­naled so much car­ing and con­nec­tion that you’re now able to bluntly tell them that they’re ab­solutely wrong.

How­ever, there’s more than one path to be­ing able to tell some­one point-blank that they’re dead wrong. Be­ing old friends is one method, but you also get the rele­vant kind of trust and safety in con­texts where not ev­ery­one knows each other well, like in philos­o­phy and math­e­mat­ics de­part­ments, as well as my Tal­mud class and Ells­berg’s group at RAND.

In those con­texts, I be­lieve the me­chan­ics work out to pro­duce pri­ors such as ev­ery­one makes mis­takes; mis­takes aren’t a big deal; you point out mis­takes and move on. Per­haps it’s be­cause in math­e­mat­ics mis­takes are very leg­ible once iden­ti­fied and so ev­ery­one is seen to make them, or that for the whole en­deavor to work, peo­ple have to peo­ple to point them out and peo­ple get com­pletely used to it as nor­mal. In philos­o­phy, ev­ery­one’s been say­ing that ev­ery­one else is wrong for mil­len­nia. Some­one say­ing you’re wrong just means you’re part of the game.

Some­how, these do­mains have done the work re­quired to give blunt dis­agree­ment differ­ent sig­nifi­cance than is nor­mal in the wider world. They’ve set up con­ducive pri­ors [A2] for healthy com­bat.

Com­bat with­out Safety, Nur­ture with­out Caring

One of my re­grets with the origi­nal Com­bat vs Nur­ture post is that some peo­ple start­ing de­scribing gener­i­cally ag­gres­sive and com­bat­ive con­ver­sa­tion cul­tures as “Com­bat Cul­ture.” No! I meant more spe­cific and bet­ter! As clar­ified above, I meant speci­fi­cally a cul­ture where com­bat­ive speech-acts aren’t per­ceived as threat­en­ing by peo­ple. If peo­ple do feel threat­ened or at­tacked, you don’t have a real Com­bat Cul­ture!

Others pointed out that there are non-Com­bat­ive cul­tures that aren’t ac­tu­ally nur­tur­ing at all. This is en­tirely cor­rect. You can avoid blatantly be­ing ag­gres­sive while still be­ing neu­tral to hos­tile un­der­neath. That isn’t what I meant to call Nur­ture Cul­ture.

In a way, both Com­bat Cul­ture and Nur­ture are my at­tempted steel­men for two le­gi­t­i­mate con­ver­sa­tional cul­tures which are situ­ated within a larger space of many other con­ver­sa­tional cul­tures. Abram Dem­ski at­tempts to do a bet­ter job of carv­ing up the en­tire space.

Know thy­self and others

Com­pared to 5-10 years ago, I’ve up­dated that peo­ple op­er­at­ing in differ­ent cul­tures from my own are prob­a­bly not evil. To my own sur­prise, I’ve seen my­self both be an ad­vo­cate for Com­bat and Nur­ture at differ­ent points.

I con­tinue to think the most im­por­tant ad­vice in this space is be­ing aware of both your own cul­tural ten­den­cies and those of the peo­ple around you. Even if oth­ers are wrong, you’ll prob­a­bly do bet­ter by un­der­stand­ing them and your­self rel­a­tive to them.

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