DRMacIver's Notebook

The costs of being understood

The costs of being understood

Here's another abandoned draft, which is about the costs that being illegible impose on your interactions with the world.

Many to one interactions

Let me start with some experiences of mine that you may or may not share that I think are usefully illustrative of a broader problem.

Have you ever had a tweet, or blog post, or something similar become unexpectedly popular? The People don't work as much as you think piece was this for me recently. To a much lesser degree, this recent tweet about many versions of a thing being evidence that none of them are good is another one.

What happens is this: You get a lot of people responding in obvious ways. Maybe they've misunderstood you. Maybe they're picking up on something you missed, or didn't think was worth mentioning. Maybe they disagree with you on ideological grounds. There are plenty of reasons to make an obvious response.

At first, you can respond reasonably enough to these - pointing out their misunderstandings, acknowledging that yes thank you for pointing out that edge case but you were already aware of it and don't think it's a problem, etc.

By the fifth time someone has made the same point at you, it's much harder to stay polite, and by the hundredth message it doesn't really matter if the observation is novel you just want these people to shut up and leave you alone.

You can try getting cranky at them, and indeed it will probably be incredibly hard work not to get cranky at them, but fundamentally it doesn't work because the only reason crankiness can be a useful strategy is when other people notice it before you have to get cranky at them and modify their behaviour accordingly, and if the people doing this were actually paying attention to others' behaviour they wouldn't be repeating the same points you've already heard a dozen time.

This is an example of an asymmetric cost - although the cost of the interaction is about the same for you and the other party, when you are interacting with many people, the cost of their behaviour on you is effectively much larger than any cost you can impose on them, because they only have to pay it once, while you have to pay it once for each of them. The cost of the interaction is effectively multiplied by the number of people you have to have it with, which for you is large and for them is you.

This is not just a Twitter thing. Another (comparatively trivial) example of this is that I have to explain my name to people over and over again, and it gets tiresome. Yes that's a capital I, not a lower case l. No, it's pronounced Mack-ee-ver, not Mack-ay-ver. Yes, it's Scottish, but I'm not. No, it's not spelled or pronounced like the guy with the paperclips. Yes that joke you've just made about it is extremely witty and I definitely haven't heard if five hundred times before. Ha ha.

It's not a big deal, and I generally remain polite throughout these conversations, but there is definitely an internal sigh of resignation as I think "Oh, we're having this conversation again are we?" each time.

The problem with these sorts of asymmetric costs is that, like the Twitter thing, they're almost by definition invisible to those who impose them on you, because if they were there during That Conversation, even if it was initiated with someone else, they wouldn't have to have it again.

Many to few interactions

This comes up in more serious conversations too. Vegetarians are often tired of having a conversation justifying their vegetarianism, people are often tired of having a conversation justifying their religion or lack thereof. Coming out as queer, poly, trans, etc. is something you end up doing over and over again, and for most people it's tiring and scary every time.

The difference with these conversations however is that you're not the only one having them and, as a result, chances may be pretty good that someone you encounter outside of your group has already encountered one of you.

If you're in a population with a 50/50 split between two groups (e.g. gender), there is no asymmetry in the obvious conversations you have - there is one man for every woman, more or less, so the number of obvious day to day conversations you have is about equal. This falls apart in a whole number of cases - e.g. in environments with large gender skews (In either direction! There are large asymmetric costs in being e.g. a dad in parental spaces dominated by mums, as well as e.g. being a woman in software), and in situations in which the size of your demographic is in some sense "artificially lowered" because of visibility (e.g. you'll get to have all sorts of obvious conversations with men if you're a woman whose tweet goes unexpectedly popular). But, by default, regardless of how bad communication tends to be between the two groups there tends not to be asymmetry of the sort that I'm talking about because the numbers are broadly equal.

In contrast, as the groups get smaller the asymmetry grows sharply. If your group is x% of the conversation, then there are (100 - x) / x people not in your group for every member who is. For example if you're 20% of the population, there are four of them for every one of you, if you're 1% of the population there are 99 of them for every one of you, etc. This means that, all else being equal, the smaller your group is, the higher the asymmetric costs you experience as a member of it interacting with people outside it are.

Of course, all else is rarely equal. I am, for example, a member of the group of people with weird names. We're a relatively small group, but also the cost per interaction is relatively low, (Once you reach adulthood anyway. Children are brutal about this), so even though the costs imposed are highly asymmetric, the total costs are still not that bad.

Necessary conversations

A lot of the time this problem can be solved by just ignoring it. I don't have to correct people on my name, you don't have to tell people about your vegetarianism, or your religion, or any other thing that makes you unusual, unless it's directly relevant to the interaction. This often brings down the rate enough to be manageable even if the cost per interaction is relatively high.

This works great right up until the point where you need to do it. For example, if you're vegetarian, you will often need to explain this to people in order to be able to make sure you can eat something at a location. If you have disabilities (visible or otherwise) you may need to explain them in order to get accommodations.

Sometimes you need to be understood not for your sake, but because it's the only way to get other people off your back. For example I think about this Astral Codex Ten post about respecting preferences a lot:

I recently stayed at a B&B owned by a nice elderly couple. Very, very nice. The moment I stepped in the door, they asked how my flight was, where I was from, what I did, how I'd enjoyed my three minutes of visiting their city so far, what kind of food I liked, what my favorite color was, et cetera. I played along - no point in offending people - but I warned that my friend, who would be arriving a little later, was much more introverted, and would appreciate being efficiently directed to her room without the welcome committee.

A little later, my friend arrived. From my room, I could hear them start welcoming her, ask her how her flight had been, start trying to get to know her - until I ran out and rescued her, for which she reports gratitude. For the rest of our stay, they continued to talk both of our ears off, with my friend growing increasingly annoyed and uncomfortable.

We spent the trip back dissecting what had gone wrong. Neither of us believed the proprietors didn't care about her feelings: they were so very, very nice. They couldn't have forgotten my warning; my friend arrived less than an hour after I did. We concluded that they were just inexplicably bad at some sort of mental gear-shifting.

The worst part was, I knew this would happen. When I told them to please respect my friend's introversion, there was a voice in my head quietly adding "...even though you obviously won't and I have no idea why I am even making this request".

I don't think all that's going on here is a failure of understanding, but I do think it starts with a failure of understanding. People hear preferences and round them out to someone just making a fuss, because they can't internalise what an extremely big deal that preference is for the other person.

I think, to some degree, this is reasonable - people are constantly imposing their preferences on us, and it's impossible to respect all of them, so people tend to disregard a lot of things as unimportant, or as something they're not obliged to respect. Just because you have a preference to be referred to as Your Majesty and tithed 10% of my wealth annually, doesn't mean that I have to do that. In order for me to respect that preference you must either force or convince me to do so. Generally we frown upon the "force" option unless you're actually an imperial power, so you should try to convince me.

This happens with more reasonable preferences too - to continue the vegetarianism example, there's a lot of work that goes in to persuading people to respect your dietary preferences. Virtually everyone who has such preferences have stories of them being argued with or ignored (often covertly! Many people think it's perfectly reasonable to e.g. sneak butter into something that they serve to someone who has said they can't eat dairy. This is a really bad idea, but distressingly common).

You can argue that people shouldn't need to understand your preferences in order to respect them and you'd be, more or less, right, but the fact of the matter is regardless of whether they should do that people mostly do, and I'd argue that some degree of this is pretty much inevitable. It's really hard to respect preferences you don't understand - it goes against how memory works, you reliably fuck details up, etc.

Certainly people should be a lot better at this than they currently are, but expecting people to be maximally good at meeting preferences without understanding them very much goes against how humans work, and besides which can only possibly work at a very shallow level (though the shallow level is still important for interactions with strangers).

When you are hard to understand

So you want to respect people's dietary constraints and preferences? Thanks, that's great. I don't eat dairy, wheat (really most cereals in its family are bad. "gluten free" isn't quite right but to a first approximation is probably fine), brassicas, or lamb. Some onions are fine if they're cooked but too many is likely to be a problem. Lentil heavy dishes are probably a bad idea, but things that use lentil flour seem to be mostly fine. Also I prefer not to eat fish for ethical reasons, but don't worry about that as a one off.

You've probably almost immediately forgotten the details of that paragraph. As well you should. Why would you memorise the details of my food preferences if you're not cooking extremely regularly for me?

My experience is that almost nobody can keep track of my dietary preferences, even before you get to the complicated ones. I normally don't even mention anything past "No wheat, no dairy, no brassicas, and you're probably fine but maybe check in with me if you're unsure?", and this is usually still at least one too many details to keep track of (people never remember the brassicas one, but unfortunately it's very important).

This is actually completely reasonable, because there are two different asymmetric costs that are going on here: The first is the one to me, the annoying conversation around dietary preferences that I have to have with everyone who cooks for me. The second is the one that people have when they cook for others, trying to keep track of everyone's food preferences. Sometimes one cost dominates, sometimes the other, but either way it's really quite a lot of work to keep track of everything that everyone can and can't eat (I think I'm unusually good at this, and it's a lot of work to be good at it and also I still get things wrong.)

The problem with my particular set of food constraints is that there is no sensible organising principle to them. It's just a list of empirically derived things that trigger my digestive system to freak out. If there were a simple term that allowed people to check whether something was suitable for me (e.g. gluten-free and dairy-free are both examples of that, and people can usually stretch themselves to remembering two terms) and that they could remember as being normal problems for people to have, they would probably mostly remember.

(Though people absolutely can and do get these wrong. If you're not used to doing it it's really hard to remember to check the ingredients list and see if some asshole has snuck wheat into somewhere where wheat really doesn't need to go.)

Even with more reasonable food constraints, you end up with a problem that asymmetric costs are not always additive. It's much harder to cook for someone who is both dairy-free and gluten-free than it is to cook for someone who is one but not both. (It's also much harder to cook for two people where one is dairy-free and one is gluten-free at the same time, for much the same reason). It's not quite as hard to cook for them if you don't have to do it at the same time (e.g. one guest one night, one guest another), but it is easier to cook for two separate gluten-free or two separate dairy-free guests than it is to cook for one gluten-free and one dairy-free guest, because you learn skills and habits with each - it's not just a matter of not doing the thing after all, it's a matter of learning how to achieve your goal (producing a delicious meal) while not achieving the thing, and that takes actual effort.

It's easy to discount this effort, because you have curse of knowledge around your own experience - it's hard to remember how hard it is to understand something once you already understand it - but it is a real effort that people have to expend to understand you. And it's not just about diet, it's about everything else - things that annoy you, your preferences for social interaction, triggers, pronouns, etc. All things that it's completely reasonable to want other people to keep track of, but also all things that contribute to the cognitive load of what others have to keep track about us.

The web of legibility

At this point the post basically turns into an attempt to integrate the following two previous posts of mine here on the notebook:

I think this is another one where I did all the framing work and ran out of energy by the point I got to the meat of the post.