The Politeness Problem

One of the rules of “polite behavior” is not making other people feel uncomfortable, and that means not pointing out their shortcomings and failures, even (perhaps especially) obvious ones. Bringing up people’s flaws tends to be embarrassing, and harping on them comes across as cruel.

For example, if someone is clumsy due to a disability, it would be rude to draw attention to them dropping a glass. It would be

But politely not-mentioning-flaws is dependent on other people being already aware of their flaws–in this case, clumsy people are presumably not volunteering to carry your fine china. But what happens when people aren’t aware of their own failings? People don’t generally appreciate criticism, especially if they don’t believe they deserve that criticism.

There are three general approaches to the problem:

1. The Shit Sandwich 2. Be Rude 3. Retreat

“Shit sandwich” refers to the custom in fiction critiquing communities of “sandwiching” criticism of what’s wrong in a story between two compliments. For example, “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into your Smurfs/Harry Potter crossover. However, I think Gargamel defeated Voldemort with the flux capacitor a little too easily. Voldemort is pretty strong in the books and I think your story would have more tension if Gargamel had to work harder for his dastardly triumph. Overall I thought it was really creative and loved the part where Smurfette gave all of the house elves makeovers.”

Sometimes you can’t think of two nice things to say about a story. Then you lie and say you liked something about it, because “This story sucked from top to bottom and made me want to wash my eyes with bleach” tends not to inspire improvement. Even if a story has tons of problems, people can only focus on improving so many at once.

The shit sandwich works by softening the blow of the criticism and making the critiquer sound friendly and non-hostile. It reassures the writer that the critiquer is trying to approach the work evenly, appreciating its good and bad, rather than just looking for an excuse to insult someone.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes people react with anger and hostility to any criticism, no matter how softly it is framed. “How dare you not love my Thomas the Tank Engine Chainsaw Massacre? Horror is exactly what the toddler set needs!”

When the shit sandwich doesn’t work, people tend to escalate to option 2, Rudeness: “I threw up while reading this. There is no way I would read this out loud to my toddler.”

If that doesn’t work (or the mods step in,) people resort to option 3: avoid each other.

In online critique groups, avoiding problematic people works fine. Out i society where people often have to be around each other (you don’t get to pick your co-workers or fellow subway riders), it works much less effectively.

As a society, we are pretty bad at acknowledging our own flaws, politely pointing out unrecognized flaws, and acknowledging justified criticism. Instead we flail about yelling “I don’t suck, you suck!”

I could write a bunch of shit sandwiches about different groups, but chances are you’re already familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each group. Women are great at nurturing but can be over-emotional; men are courageous and daring but also commit the vast majority of crime; Asians are really smart but many don’t take time to relax with friends; whites run nice countries but many of them are lizard-people; blacks are really creative but often aggressive. Have I covered all of the stereotypes?

I’d like to think that people could dispassionately take stock of their personal weaknesses and try to do better. I’ll never be a quantum physicist, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about about it. But society seems more inclined to shut down any and all criticism on the grounds that self-improvement isn’t as useful as screaming your opponents into submission.

The alternatives to politely recognizing our own failings and trying to work on them are either becoming ruder or avoiding each other. People have been trying to avoid each other for decades–first in the Great Migration, blacks decided to avoid Jim Crow and Southern whites. Then crime skyrocketed in urban areas, and whites fled to avoid blacks. But this is incredibly inefficient–not only have whole transit systems had to be re-built to handle the flow of commuters going in and out of the cities every day, but millions of people lost money they’d put into their houses and communities were destroyed.

And there is only so much avoiding people can do: sooner or later we meet each other on the streets or in the office, at school or in the park. No matter what we think of each other, we are all–for the foreseeable future–stuck in the same country together. We live under presidents and lawmakers voted for by other people.

If we can’t avoid each other, then what? ? Rudeness? Violence? Anger? A world increasingly run by HR departments?

We’d better figure something out.


Increasing Diversity => Fascism: the difficulty of enforcing social norms via rules

I was recently reading a series of messageboard exchanges on the topic of increased integration of suburban neighborhoods, in which one person happily opined about the benefits of increased Section 8 housing in her neighborhood, and that any fears about declining home values could be solved by simply having stronger HOAs that enforced more rules.

And people call me aspie.

There are two major reasons why this is a bad strategy:

  1. Laws are, at best, an imperfect approximation of social norms; more laws => less freedom
  2. Disparate Impact

Let’s start with #1.

Most social norms are “unstated,” general rules of thumb that people understand almost intuitively, and apply with a fair amount of nuance. Failure to understand social nuance is annoying at best and a major symptom of certain mental disabilities; people who cannot understand social nuance are basically handicapped in social situations. The more rules are unstated, the worse off they are.

When two cultural groups mix, individuals often run into confusion due to having different cultural norms. In some cases these are easily worked out–just remember to take your shoes off when you arrive at your Chinese friend’s home–and in some cases they can’t be. If I think looking people in the eyes is rude, and you think not looking people in the eyes is rude, then we are going to have a conflict.

But let’s take an example that might actually come under an HOA’s jurisdiction. Let’s say you live in a community of about 100 households. The vast majority of the time–199 out of 2oo days, to be exact–everyone in the neighborhood takes their trash to the dumpsters, where it belongs. But 1 out of 200 days, each person has some unexpected thing come up–sickness, broken foot, whatever–and they leave a bag of trash out on their porch overnight. As such, even though everyone in the community agrees “people should not leave bags of trash on their porches at night, because rats,” every other night, there will be one bag of trash out on a porch somewhere in the neighborhood.

Then a new guy arrives. New Guy looks around, sees the bags of trash, and decides it must be okay in this neighborhood to leave bags of trash on one’s porch. New Guy starts putting his trash on his porch regularly–3 nights a week. The neighbors start to complain, but there’s not much they can do about it–the HOA has no rule on the subject, because it was never a problem before.

So after people get into shouting matches with the new guy a few times, the HOA passes a new rule: no trash on porches. New Guy gets a letter from the HOA notifying him that he’s going to get fined if there’s any more trash on his porch.

Pissed off, New Guy wanders around the neighborhood with his camera, photographing bags of trash on other people’s porches. By the end of the month, he has 15 photos of trash on other peoples’ porches, and accuses the HOA of singling him out for something other people are also doing.

The HOA now has to send letters to everyone. Now the vast majority of people getting letters about their trash are people who were leaving their trash out at socially acceptable rates in the first place, and the small utility of occasionally not hauling trash to the dumpsters due to crappy life circumstances has been eliminated.

The HOA could, if it were extremely motivated, pass a law based on frequency of trash bags, and keep track of exactly how often people leave trash on their porches. As long as your trash bags are separated by 200 days, you’re good. But put one out a mere 190 days after your previous one, and get fined. This is unlikely, would require an uncomfortable level of monitoring by the HOA, and would cost more. The more oversight you have to do, the more your HOA fees go up to pay for it all.

Now let’s suppose that there are several New Guys, and they run into more issue than just trash on their porches. They have large dogs, who bark a lot and whose pee starts killing the grass outside the building. There’s no rule against dogs, of course–lots of residents have one or two small dogs, but who has five big ones? The residents all scoop their dogs’ poop, but the New Guys don’t. The New Guys sublet their units to a bunch more new guys–there’s no rule against subletting, after all–creating a parking situation. Neighbors start complaining that their guests can’t park in the guest spots and have to walk a long way because the New Guys’ subletters are always parked in the guest spots, and there aren’t anymore parking spots in the lot. The New Guys have lots of friends who visit frequently, and neighbors complain about car doors slamming in the middle of the night and strangers coming and going in the halls. The New Guys complain that they just want to have a nice time with their friends, you assholes.

Are you going to make rules about all of these things? If you make a rule about subletting, will you also enforce it against guys whose gfs are sleeping over? They also contribute to the parking problem, after all. And how on earth are you going to enforce a rule about car doors at night or forbid people from having guests in their own units?

After about a hundred angry letters from the HOA, many fights with their neighbors, and a bunch of fines, let’s suppose the New Guys realize that they all come from a different ethno-cultural group than everyone else. If they’ve received more fines from the HOA than their ethnically different neighbors, then the HOA is guilty of Disparate Impact, (see, eg, Griggs,) and they can sue the HOA for being racist.

“In United States anti-discrimination law, the theory of disparate impact holds that practices in employment, housing, or other areas may be considered discriminatory and illegal if they have a disproportionate “adverse impact” on persons in a protected class. Although the protected classes vary by statute, most federal civil rights laws protect based on race, color, religion, national origin, and gender as protected traits, and some laws include disability status and other traits as well.” —Wikipedia

In the case of Griggs Vs. Duke Power, the SCOTUS found that Duke Power’s policy of only hiring employees with either a highschool diploma or who had received a particular score on an IQ test was racist because it disproportionately affected blacks, who are more likely than whites to drop out of highschool and score worse on IQ tests.

If the HOA’s rules impact people from different cultural groups with different norms of behavior at different rates–and it seems nearly impossible for them not to, given that, you know, different people are behaving differently–then you have disparate impact. If the HOA’s rules aren’t impacting people from different cultural groups differently, then you aren’t enforcing the community norms that you had in the first place.

The examples I have given are all minor ones. In real life, people have much larger issues. What do you do about the neighbor who decides to disassemble a car on his lawn, or the guy whose party guests crash drunkenly into your car? Or people with different norms about the acceptability of shoplifting or honor killing? Polygamy or child brides?

There’s a certain irony in this. When I think of “People I wish lived in my neighborhood,” (generally friends who have moved to far-flung places due to the vagaries of life, college, and jobs,) I don’t think, “So long as I clearly articulate all of my rules, my friends will be able to learn how to behave so they don’t crash the home values in my area,” because people I think are nice to be around are already people who share my ideas of acceptable behavior. Saying that people of other ethnic groups need to learn the rules of acceptable behavior implies, therefore, that you do not think these people know how to behave themselves or that their cultures are immoral/bad/incorrect.

I have mentioned before (though I can’t find it now, so maybe it wasn’t here,) that I think liberalism is (or ought to be) a meta-value of allowing other people in other places to do what they feel like without interfering, so long as they aren’t affecting you. The Amish can do their thing, and I can do my thing, and we don’t need to mess with each other. The Sentinelese and Pygmies aren’t hurting me, so I leave them alone. This breaks down when people with radically different beliefs live in close proximity to each other. If your neighbors believe in human sacrifice and you don’t, you will come into conflict. If your neighbors believe that women who don’t wear burkas are whores and you believe in sex-positive feminism, you will come into conflict. Then either someone will have to step in and start enforcing a bunch of new rules to sort the mess out, or you will punch each other until someone gives in.

There is nothing particularly wrong with trying to clearly articulate the rules, but it is not a solution for a lack of shared values and understanding of social norms.