alice maz

splain it to me

Imagine you're telling a story. Great story, unbelievable story. A series of events that if you saw them in a movie you'd roll your eyes and groan, but they actually happened, and you were there to witness them. While you're in the middle of the story, just as you get to a particularly interesting twist, the person listening to you scrunches up their face and shouts, "Get the fuck out of here!"

How would you react?[1]

Everyone should have default heuristics. A simple set of rules you fall back on when you lack enough information to make a situation-specific judgment. It's important to evaluate them for reliability and update as needed. Also important to remain aware of what they are and the fact that you are using them. The goal is to make reasonable guesses about the qualities of an unknown—just about the worst thing you can do, and what many people tend to do, is look up in memory the most similar known quantity and then handle the unknown as if it were that. This is the difference between thinking on one's feet and hardly thinking at all.

Some heuristics are well-known and useful enough that we gives them names, a subset of which are the philosophical razors. Hanlon's—"never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity"—is one of my favorites, but with the added qualification "or miscommunication." There's a line by Goethe roughly equivalent to this, in fact: "Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent." Assuming good faith and attempting to translate between disparate communication protocols has generally worked out pretty well for me. Good default.

So, New Yorkers tend to have a very high-engagement conversation style. What many from other places might think of as "good listening"—patient silence, thoughtful expressions that telegraph concentration—we see as rude. A listener should be talking along with the speaker, shouting their feelings about what they hear, finishing sentences, asking questions that they know will be answered by the next thing the speaker says anyway—not to alter the flow, but like setting them up for an alley-oop. Silence means you're bored or distracted. What might cause speakers from other places to feel they're being interrupted—say, for instance, yelling, "Get the fuck out of here!"[2]—not only doesn't break the conversation, but improves it. You're demonstrating that you are fully engaged in their telling, and they ramp up their energy and excitement to match, encouraged they're doing a good job.

To a speaker who expects attentive silence, the listener's interjection would probably be seen as horribly rude, maybe even menacing. "I think you are lying to me and this makes me angry." But to a speaker used to enthusiastic participation, it means something along the lines of, "That's amazing! Please keep going, I'm really enjoying this." Any attempt to push state from one brain to another necessarily involves lossy compression, and one of the ways we try to save bandwidth is by implicitly referencing complex ideas that we take for granted the other person has in their head already. Whether the speaker concludes from the aforementioned interjection "This asshole thinks I'm dishonest" or "This person really loves my story" depends on shared culture—they just know what is meant, maybe without even knowing how they know—or on their heuristics leading them toward interpreting it as cooperative[3] rather than combative.

Here's a series of events that happens many times daily on my favorite bastion of miscommunication, Twitter. Person tweets some fact. Other people reply with other facts. Person complains, "Ugh, randos in my mentions." Harsh words may be exchanged, and everyone exits the encounter thinking the other person was monumentally rude for no reason.

While some folks in some circles make hay over "well-actuallys" and being "splained to" by "randos," seeing such replies as bad-faith social posturing or indicative of deep-seated bias, more often than not I chalk up the friction to, like our yelling New Yorker being taken for rude, cross-cultural communication breakdown. The dynamics at play behind "ugh, randos" are so pernicious because it isn't a simple problem of definitions or message integrity, but different views on what communication is or is for. What it often comes down to is people with fundamentally different, perhaps totally irreconcilable, values systems assuming "malice or stupidity" where the real explanation is values mismatch and miscommunication.

For clarity's sake, I'll name "ugh, randos" Sue and an archetypal "rando" Charlie.[4] I will also assume both are, initially anyway, operating in good faith—while there are certainly Sues and Charlies who are just unpleasant assholes, I think they are comparatively uncommon, and in any event picking apart their motivations wouldn't be particularly interesting.

From Sue's perspective, strangers have come out of the woodwork to demonstrate superiority by making useless, trivial corrections. Some of them may be saying obvious things that Sue, being well-versed in the material she's referencing, already knows, and thus are insulting her intelligence, possibly due to their latent bias. This is not necessarily an unreasonable assumption, given how social dynamics tend to work in mainstream culture. People correct others to gain status and assert dominance. An artifice passed off as "communication" is often wielded as a blunt object to establish power hierarchies and move up the ladder by signaling superiority. Sue responds in anger as part of this social game so as not to lose status in the eyes of her tribe.

From Charlie's perspective, Sue has shared a piece of information. Perhaps he already knows it, perhaps he doesn't. What is important is that Sue has given a gift to the commons, and he would like to respond with a gift of his own. Another aspect is that, as he sees it, Sue has signaled an interest in the topic, and he would like to establish rapport as a fellow person interested in the topic. In other words, he is not trying to play competitive social games, and he may not even be aware such a game is being played. When Sue responds unfavorably, he sees this as her spurning his gift as if it had no value. This is roughly as insulting to Charlie as his supposed attempt to gain status over Sue is to her. At this point, both people think the other one is the asshole. People rightly tend to be mean to those they are sure are assholes, so continued interaction between them will probably only serve to reinforce their beliefs the other is acting in bad faith.

Not every stranger who responds to Sue is necessarily deemed by her a "rando," however. Those who emphatically agree with her, for instance, before presenting their own information tend to get a much warmer response. It's a social cue, a way to signal friendliness. Additionally, people she sees as belonging to her in-group may be given the benefit of the doubt, while out-groupers are more often judged to be malicious or stupid. Even her tweeting "ugh, randos" serves as peer bonding, like complaining with strangers about bad weather or train delays, an announcement soliciting solidarity from those who have been in her situation and sympathy from those who have not.[5]

The reason these responses are seen as good-faith participation is because this model of communication emphasizes harmonious emotional experience. The responses that don't attempt to establish emotional rapport are merely coming from a different context, one in which communication is about information sharing.

For nerds, information sharing is the most highly valued form of communication possible.

I say all this having once been an "ugh, randos" person myself. I thought the "randos in my mentions" were playing social games, so I often responded harshly, and when they met my hostility with hostility, I felt vindicated in my initial judgment. But as my perspective shifted from "ugh, randos" to "awesome, information," virtually every signal I'd relied on to indicate an interaction was going to be unpleasant completely fell apart. Even many replies I'd pegged as obvious, blatant misogyny turned out to have been people eagerly offering me gifts of information bewildered that I rudely rejected them.

Two particular exchanges stick out in my mind, both "corrections" in response to a series of tweets of mine on esoteric Unix history. One of these replies was simply wrong, while the other assumed I was mistaken about something that I actually knew but had glossed over. I responded to both with information of my own that demonstrated this, and both people acknowledged that I was right. I thought they were attacking my credibility and that I'd defeated their attacks and won the status game. Except, both of them were happy I corrected them. This seemed bizarre to me at the time, and the only explanation I could come up with was that they must be attempting to save face. But, now that I realize they likely weren't attempting to play the status game at all, their responses make perfect sense. All they saw was that I had accepted their gift and given them yet another.

Thing is, status games and social signaling do not at all come naturally to me. I have gotten reasonably competent at playing their games only through thousands upon thousands of trials, run over a decade of working retail and food service while simultaneously trying to navigate a social scene that was totally alien to me at first, but one that I desperately wanted to fit into. Simple brute force, just trying whatever I could think of and sticking with what worked, like how a computer "plays" chess. Over time I built up a fairly robust translation layer, one that I was forced to rely on so much that I didn't even realize how much latency it added until I met people I could talk to without it, whose communication protocols matched my own. It is difficult to describe the relief, the comfort I feel navigating these interactions with people whose frame of reference is shaped like my own, as if I spent most of my life trying to translate all my thoughts by flipping through a phrase book but suddenly discovered a group with whom I shared a birth tongue.

A friend told me recently, after I'd explained what I believed to be the thought process behind a confusing interaction he had with someone, that I "have a very good model of how normal people think." This is probably the best way to put it. A model, a tool I can observe and utilize, but ultimately a thing apart from me.

The idea that the information-sharers are ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of power dynamics at play and must learn how to account for them ascribes to us a values system that we simply do not share. Rather, it presumes the status games played for dominance in mainstream culture must be universal and chides us for not playing them properly. I can appreciate that our way doesn't work for everyone, may not even work for most, and I try to determine who communicates the way I do so that I can communicate more with them. If the emotion-harmonizers prefer to be left alone, I'm generally happy to oblige.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that, rather than leaving us alone, they seem quite committed to dragging their social games into our spaces. The cruel irony is that many of us build these spaces precisely because they allow us to escape from those social games. We generally suck at their games, and we tend to lose when they're imposed on us, which raises some interesting questions about why exactly they want us to play their games in the first place. But that's a whole other topic.

Here is a view of the culture gap from the other side:

Nobody was mean to me, nobody consciously laughed at me. There's just a way that mathematicians have been socialized (I guess?!) to interact with each other that I find oppressive. If you have never had someone mansplain or whitesplain things to you, it may be hard for you to understand what I'm going to describe.

Usually, friendly conversation involves building a shared perspective. Among other things, mansplaining and whitesplaining involve one person of privilege forcing a marginalized person into a disagreeable perspective against their will, and not allowing them a way out. If you are someone averse to negative labels, it can be silencing. My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are "stupid"; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent. Maybe I would've successfully assimilated into this way of thinking if I had learned it at a time where I was at the same level as my peers, but as it was it was just an endless barrage of passive insults I was supposed to be in on.

I include it not because it is unusual—indeed, you only have to go as far as the comments to find other people who feel the same way—but because it is especially illustrative. The author prefers to communicate by "building a shared perspective" and contrasts this with the perceived hostility of the information sharing mode which, unlike general society, predominates in the community she describes. While she notes this is how her mathematician peers interact with each other as a matter of course, she frames her interactions in terms of social games, steeped in identity, privilege, and marginalization.

But I don't think that's what's on the minds of the people she describes, because I recognize this dynamic from circles I move in. Information is "trivial" and ideas are "stupid" because they lack utility. The point isn't to hurt feelings or demonstrate social rank. Those things simply do not matter. Whether this sounds cruel or liberating is as good a sorting algorithm as any to determine which camp one might fall into. What distinguishes this from the social games they like to play, however, is that our way isn't zero-sum. You have to knock someone down to move up the ladder. When you knock down an idea, no one loses standing. If your objection is irrefutable, you free up time to focus on more worthwhile targets. If not, you illuminate for the people focused on the problem new angles of attack.

I hate being wrong. So does almost everyone. The difference is how one deals with it. Some people want to look right. This desire is necessary to navigate a culture defined by emotive experience and social hierarchy, your best defense against assholes who want to make you look bad to accrue status or act out their absurd biases. Me, I want to get less wrong. I thrive in an environment where I can expect others to elevate honing collective knowledge and using it to get shit done over trivial concerns like identity politics and pecking order. This is strictly a liability when I have to move in the communities run by and for people who do care about these sorts of things, and while I've managed to cobble together a system decent enough to get by on, it is nothing like true native support.

Communication is hard. Like, really hard. Brain-to-brain state transfer is impossible, so we rely on an untold number of tools, signals, assumptions, wild guesses, and luck in the hopes that we can get someone else's black box to generate something vaguely similar enough to our original for practical purposes. (And the bastards usually don't even have the common courtesy to echo it back so we can see if we did it right.) What strikes me about "splaining" is that it's so widespread—both the ostensible act and the complaints about it—and so consistent. Two reasonably distinct groups of individuals speaking on arbitrary topics, but the interactions generally resemble the same form and end up in the same place. While it would flatter me greatly if the vast majority of the people in my out-group turned out to be malicious and/or stupid, it seems more reasonable to conclude the groups communicate differently and as a result have a difficult time communicating with each other.

This is the essence of culture. People drawn together by shared values, with history, lore, customs, speech, and thought all their own, working toward a common goal. Having done more than my share of bouncing around, I like to think I have some small insight into how these various spaces tend to operate. I'd very much like to see more genuine communication between the groups, that we may understand each other better, and maybe even share a bit of information. But it is difficult for that to happen when the ways we differ are dismissed out of hand, when we are held to a values system we do not subscribe to and punished for not living up to its standards. Because we are, actually, different.

See you randos in my mentions.

  1. ^ "Well, howdaya think? I'd get the fuck out of there!"
  2. ^ This Sopranos supercut is a better collection than I could ever have hoped for—found while looking up Elaine's "Get out!" but hers is often hyper-exaggerated for laughs—with plenty of examples of characters very interested in a story and characters who seriously want someone to get the fuck out of there. The difference is noticable!
  3. ^ Ok I totally used the word "cooperative" specifically so I could talk in a footnote about a really cool idea called the cooperative principle. We really don't notice how much of what we think we say we don't actually say. Quick example: At a party, Carol asks, "Hey Alice, where is Bob?" "Bob is sick." But… where the heck is "sick", right? When I say "Bob is sick," Carol infers that I mean "Bob didn't feel well enough to come out tonight." And I feel comfortable saying this because I already know this is what she is going to infer. (Besides the fact that before I even say anything, I'm inferring she cares about why Bob isn't there.) Taken literally, my statement is a total non-sequitur. It's entirely possible Bob is at some other, better party down the street and also just happens to be sick. But Carol assumes I mean my statement to relate to her question, and I assume she will assume this. This (Grice's maxim of relevance) is a very strong shared context that makes it much easier to communicate efficiently. It's also totally possible I'm lying, or that I have no idea what's the deal with Bob, but for such a mundane matter, she probably doesn't put my statement under any scrutiny at all (maxim of quality) unless she has reason to doubt. If I didn't make all these assumptions and just listened and spoke literally, the exchange might go like, "Hey Alice, where is Bob?" "Bob is not here." Carol would probably want to flout a maxim here and reply, "Wow, thanks bitch."
  4. ^ Alice would prefer to avoid this particular encounter entirely.
  5. ^ Another interesting notion here is the idea that someone can be "in my mentions." A common retort to people complaining about unwanted mentions is that Twitter is "public," which usually only serves to make the person complaining even angrier. What's interesting is, yes, of course it's public, but what do we mean by that? The complainer likely means "public" like a noisy cafe. You can hear other people's conversations, but inserting yourself into one is generally frowned upon absent some social pretense such as friendship, solicitation, or possession of extremely relevant information. The retorter, however, means "public" like an open forum, where participation is not just allowed but encouraged. Noteworthy is the fact that this is how Twitter used to work for years, and nerds are proportionately overrepresented among Twitter's early adopters. What is now "tweets and replies" on user pages used to be the only display option, and the timeline used to not filter out any replies—in fact, when this was changed, people got angry that Twitter had killed the best discovery feature the service had. Simple UX tweaks, but they alter how the site tends to be used and thus the social norms that govern "proper" use. "My" mentions is also curious, a sense that the "mentions" are a space owned by the user, rather than a dashboard alerting you to activity involving your account. Both paradigms have precedent online, and it isn't entirely clear which ought to apply. Is a mention an entry in someone's guestbook, or a reply on a bulletin board? A blog comment, or an IRC ping? Twitter lacks the notion of space explicitly defined by something like Facebook's wall, but people have applied that notion of space here regardless. Worth considering I think, especially given that the nebulosity of Twitter's featureset leads to both complaints that it's hard for new users to understand and praise from old users that its use is defined by the community.