Combat vs Nurture: Cultural Genesis

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.