Tell Culture

Fol­lowup to: Ask and Guess

Ask cul­ture: “I’ll be in town this week­end for a busi­ness trip. Is it cool if I crash at your place?” Re­sponse: “Yes“ or “no”.

Guess cul­ture: “Hey, great news! I’ll be in town this week­end for a busi­ness trip!” Re­sponse: In­fer that they might be tel­ling you this be­cause they want some­thing from you, con­clude that they might want a place to stay, and offer your hos­pi­tal­ity only if you want to. Other­wise, pre­tend you didn’t in­fer that.

The two ba­sic rules of Ask Cul­ture: 1) Ask when you want some­thing. 2) In­ter­pret things as re­quests and feel free to say “no”.

The two ba­sic rules of Guess Cul­ture: 1) Ask for things if, and *only* if, you’re con­fi­dent the per­son will say “yes”. 2) In­ter­pret re­quests as ex­pec­ta­tions of “yes”, and, when pos­si­ble, avoid say­ing “no”.

Both ap­proaches come with costs and benefits. In the end, I feel pretty strongly that Ask is su­pe­rior.

But these are not the only two pos­si­bil­ities!

”I’ll be in town this week­end for a busi­ness trip. I would like to stay at your place, since it would save me the cost of a ho­tel, plus I would en­joy see­ing you and ex­pect we’d have some fun. I’m look­ing for other op­tions, though, and would rather stay el­se­where than in­con­ve­nience you.” Re­sponse: “I think I need some space this week­end. But I’d love to get a beer or some­thing while you’re in town!” or “You should to­tally stay with me. I’m look­ing for­ward to it.”

There is a third al­ter­na­tive, and I think it’s prob­a­bly what ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­ni­ties ought to strive for. I call it “Tell Cul­ture”.

The two ba­sic rules of Tell Cul­ture: 1) Tell the other per­son what’s go­ing on in your own mind when­ever you sus­pect you’d both benefit from them know­ing. (Do NOT as­sume oth­ers will ac­cu­rately model your mind with­out your help, or that it will even oc­cur to them to ask you ques­tions to elimi­nate their ig­no­rance.) 2) In­ter­pret things peo­ple tell you as at­tempts to cre­ate com­mon knowl­edge for shared benefit, rather than as re­quests or as pre­sump­tions of com­pli­ance.

Sup­pose you’re in a con­ver­sa­tion that you’re find­ing aver­sive, and you can’t figure out why. Your goal is to pro­cure a rain check.

  • Guess: *You see this an­noyed body lan­guage? Huh? Look at it! If you don’t stop talk­ing soon I swear I’ll start tap­ping my foot.* (Or, pos­si­bly, tell a lit­tle lie to ex­cuse your­self. “Oh, look at the time…”)

  • Ask: “Can we talk about this an­other time?”

  • Tell: “I’m be­gin­ning to find this con­ver­sa­tion aver­sive, and I’m not sure why. I pro­pose we hold off un­til I’ve figured that out.”

Here are more ex­am­ples from my own life:

  • “I didn’t sleep well last night and am feel­ing fraz­zled and ir­ri­ta­ble to­day. I apol­o­gize if I snap at you dur­ing this meet­ing. It isn’t per­sonal.”

  • “I just re­al­ized this in­ter­ac­tion will be far more pro­duc­tive if my brain has food. I think we should head to­ward the kitchen.”

  • “It would be awfully con­ve­nient net­work­ing for me to stick around for a bit af­ter our meet­ing to talk with you and [the next per­son you’re meet­ing with]. But on a scale of one to ten, it’s only about 3 use­ful to me. If you’d rate the loss of util­ity for you as two or higher, then I have a strong prefer­ence for not stick­ing around.”

The bur­den of hon­esty is even greater in Tell cul­ture than in Ask cul­ture. To a Guess cul­ture per­son, I imag­ine much of the above sounds pas­sive ag­gres­sive or ma­nipu­la­tive, much worse than the rude blunt­ness of mere Ask. It’s be­cause Guess peo­ple aren’t ex­pect­ing re­lentless truth-tel­ling, which is ex­actly what’s nec­es­sary here.

If you’re oc­ca­sion­ally dishon­est and tell peo­ple you want things you don’t ac­tu­ally care about—like their com­fort or con­ve­nience—they’ll learn not to trust you, and the in­her­ent free­dom of the sys­tem will be lost. They’ll learn that you only pre­tend to care about them to take ad­van­tage of their re­ciproc­ity in­stincts, when in fact you’ll count them as hav­ing defected if they re­spond by stat­ing a prefer­ence for pro­tect­ing their own in­ter­ests.

Tell cul­ture is co­op­er­a­tion with open source codes.

This kind of trust does not de­velop overnight. Here is the most use­ful Tell tac­tic I know of for de­vel­op­ing that trust with a na­tive Ask or Guess. It’s saved me sooooo much time and trou­ble, and I wish I’d thought of it ear­lier.

“I’m not ask­ing be­cause I ex­pect you to say ‘yes’. I’m ask­ing be­cause I’m hav­ing trou­ble imag­in­ing the in­side of your head, and I want to un­der­stand bet­ter. You are com­pletely free to say ‘no’, or to tell me what you’re think­ing right now, and I promise it will be fine.” It is amaz­ing how of­ten peo­ple quickly stop look­ing shifty and say ‘no’ af­ter this, or bet­ter yet be­gin to dis­cuss fur­ther de­tails.