Some notes toward hacking person-to-person communication

Using (the threat of) shame / social rejection to control people

– We use the threat of shame or social rejection to control people all the time, sometimes deliberately, but often without even noticing it.

– Some of the things we use shame / social rejection for make a lot of sense, for example: making someone feel ashamed for harassing or bullying others.

– Some of the things we use shame / social rejection for make no sense at all, for example: making someone feel ashamed for wearing clothes that aren’t fashionable enough.

– Some of the ways that shame / social rejection are used are incredibly destructive, for example: making someone feel ashamed for being gay or bisexual, or for not living up to gender stereotypes.

– Shame / social rejection is sometimes used to get someone to do a mundane task, for example: come in to work on time, do a household chore, or pay off a debt. Shame can be a really effective way to get people to do things that need to be done, but this is not ideal. Shame is a blunt instrument, and when we use it too often we restrict people’s freedom. It is better to use sympathy instead of shame to get people to change their behaviour. For example: “Friend, when you did THING it made life hard for me because CONSEQUENCES OF THING. So next time, could you help me out by doing OTHER THING instead?”

Implicit bias

We all have implicit bias. It exists below the conscious level, so you can’t get rid of it just by wanting to. Peer-reviewed science shows that most people perceive Black people as being more threatening than people of other races, that most people perceive men as being more intelligent than women, etc. etc.

I don’t think science can show what causes these implicit biases, but my guess for the main culprit would be: television. From childhood onwards we are bombarded with stereotyped representations of people, so it’s not surprising that some of that crap sticks in our minds.

What to do about implicit bias

We can compensate for our implicit biases by questioning our initial impressions of people. We can ask ourselves: what do I think of that person, how do I feel about them, what do I think motivates them to behave the way they do? How competent do I think they are, and how trustworthy? What is it about the person that gave me these impressions about them? Are these impressions backed up by the person’s behaviour? If a person of a different social group said or did the same thing, would it sound or look different to me?

Things you say matter

People are affected by what you say, but they don’t usually say so. When Alice casually makes a racist joke, Bob doesn’t say: “I know you intended that as a harmless bit of fun, but actually it made me feel isolated and angry and frustrated and sad.” He doesn’t say it, but he still feels it, and it will show up in his life in other ways.

We are used to thinking that the things we say don’t matter, especially in casual or social situations, but for better or worse they do matter, so we need to take responsibility for that. Treat everything you say as if your words were going to lodge themselves in someone else’s mind and alter that person’s perception of the world, because they probably will.