April 27th, 2006


Dramasphere (wherein I ramble on and on...)

Disclaimer: This rant is not directed toward anyone, nor is it in response to any particular situation, conversation, or action. These thoughts have just been bouncing around my head for a long time now, and today's a slow day so I finally have an opportunity to get this written up.

Dear Mankind,

I don't get you people. Really, I don't. Call me a robot if you like (goodness knows I take no offense at the term!), but many of the subtle nuances of human interaction are lost on me. I just doesn't pick up on things that are often obvious to others.

For the most part this isn't really a big deal. My friends and loved ones are patient folk (with the possible exception of one or two cold, unfeeling monsters in my circle of friends, but they tend to share the same basic problem so it's all good ;-) ) and are willing to explain things to me "in captain dummy talk".

Additionally (and most importantly for the purposes of this post), I've developed a few basic coping strategies that allow me to enjoy interactions with people even when I can't quite grasp why they feel certain ways about certain things. One of these has, I think, given me a bit of an outsider's perspective on human interpersonal conflict, and I'd like to share it with you all in the hope that you'll either gain a bit of insight or show me where I'm dead-ass wrong and naive.

I don't make assumptions about people's hidden intentions based on gut instinct. No, that's not quite right. Generally, I can't make assumptions about people's hidden intentions based on gut instinct, 'cuz it's simply not there. To compensate, I've tried to come up with some rules to apply to situations which are unclear.

Have you heard of Occam's Razor? It's an idea that roughly boils down to "when trying to explain a phenomenon, don't go with an unnecessarily complex explanation when a simpler one will suffice." I'd like to introduce a corollary for interpersonal conflict- "when trying to understand someone's motivation, don't assume any more malice or evil than is absolutely necessary." Am I being naive? I don't think so. This axiom has worked well for me. Actually, it has worked really, amazingly well. Off the top of my head I can't think of a single situation where it has proven to be wrong. Conversely, I have been hurt by falling into that trap. Sometimes badly.

The greatest shortcoming of mankind is unclear communication. The second greatest is the assumption of malice.

This isn't to say that we're all saints. Obviously we aren't. This isn't to say that there isn't true evil in the world. There probably is (no, I'm not willing to go so far as to say definitely). Sometimes we're inconsiderate, insecure, or greedy. But I'll bet you diamonds to dollars that more suffering is visited upon humanity by miscommunication, false assumption, or simple ignorance than outright evil or malice could ever hope to cause. So why do we seem to jump to the conclusion that "so-and-so did X because they're an asshole"? Maybe because it's easier to form a mental model of someone's bad behavior by filling in the gaps with "X is a bitch" or "X is a thief" or "X is trying to steal my boyfriend" or "X is psycho" than it is to find out what their actual thought process is. They're probably not an asshole, at least not most of the time. They're probably just stupid. The distinction between the two is important. Ignorance can usually be cured.

One nice thing about this axiom is that while it relates most specifically to interpersonal relationships it can often be scaled up.
Pop quiz: President Bush is opposed to educating school kids about condoms, for fear that it'll encourage pre-marital sex. Based only on this information, is he
A) An asshole
B) An ignoramus?
If you guessed 'B' then you're right. If you guessed 'A' then you may very well still be right, but you missed the part about "based only on this information". :-)

What's funny is that this seems to be a particularly human behavior. Ever accidentally step on a dog's tail? Unless the dog has been badly abused, their immediate response doesn't indicate that the dog thinks that you're a sadistic bastard- he assumes that he's done something to piss you off, but upon reassurance seems relieved and forgets it ever happened. Hell, this seems to hold true for cats as well, and they're notoriously unforgiving! Every watch two domestic animals accidentally annoy each other? The dog accidentally steps on the cat or the cat's tail keeps swishing in the dog's face, preventing him from sleeping? I see this kind of thing happen all the time with Trogdor and Reina (zensidhe and redheadlass's dog and cat, in case you didn't know). Trogdor thinks that Reina is the greatest toy on the planet, but for the most part Reina seems to view Trogdor as an aggressive, clumsy irritation. (Granted, she does seem to miss him when he's not around to make her life interesting.) Reina wigs when Trogdor chases her, but if his wagging tail is knocking her in the head she patiently puts up with it, even though she's already predisposed to not liking him. Why is this such a difficult thing for people to do?

Okay, so much for the assumption of malice. I do want to say one quick thing about unclear communication. Clear, direct communication between two people can be enormously difficult, especially when there's a lot of emotion involved. Throw a third person into the mix as a relay and you can forget about getting any signal with your noise, especially if that third person has any kind of bias whatsoever.

"I hate A because B told me they heard A say that he likes to rape kittens!"
Did you hear A say that he likes to rape kittens?
"No, but B is a reliable person who would never lie to me."
Very good- you're learning! I applaud your refusal to jump to the conclusion that B is speaking out of malice! Now why else might there be a disconnect here? If you can't think of a half-dozen possibilities off the top of your head then you're not trying.

"I think that A is a two-faced turd because they're nice to me in person but I've heard that they talk shit about me to other people."
Somebody is talking shit in this scenario, but it isn't A. See the irony here?

Statements like this set off warning bells for me, usually relating more to the person speaking than to the person being spoken about. These statements create what I call the Dramasphere (made up the term myself!). Again, they're usually not a sign of malice. Just misunderstanding gone horribly wrong. I've seen entire social communities torn apart by the Dramasphere. I've seen people alienate good friends simply because they refused to question the completeness and accuracy of their data.

I used to say that first-hand information is reliable, second-hand is questionable, third-hand is fiction. Nowadays I think that's being generous.

For Zogg's sake, Mankind! Is it too much to ask that you assume good intentions and insist on going straight to the source and being upfront to get information? I don't understand you people, but I do like you people! You're really much nicer than you give yourself credit for. It's a pity that it takes a brain damaged automaton like me to see the good in you.


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