[CW: Discussion of child abuse.]
We all know about the distinction between ask culture and guess culture
, right? If we've read about the difference between these two approaches to communication, we've probably read that ask culture is better, whether the writer phrases it subtly or not-so-subtly. Jonathan Chait, a guy who's wrong like it's his job, does his job here by saying:
"This is actually pretty simple: Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. What's more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us...
Lots of people agree with Chait. It's best to be explicit, to ask for what you want, to not play guessing games, right? If you wait for your roommate to notice that you end up with flies in the kitchen when they put the compost bin lid on loosely rather than just emptying the compost, for example, you're just going to get frustrated and treat them negatively because of your bottled-up resentment, right? And it'll all be your fault: if you had just said, "Hey, I prefer it if you take out the compost when it gets full," they would have known what you needed and probably would have done it; then your need would have been met. Isn't it best to be explicit, to ask for what you want, to not play guessing games? It's bad to be passive-aggressive. It's a sin.
Maybe you've read about learned helplessness
. If you have, you've probably come away with a lot of value judgments about people who experience it, too. They just sabotage themselves
. They just stand in their own
way. If your friend says, "I'm not going to ask my manager for help because he's just going to tell me I'm stupid," you should tell your friend, "You'll never get what you want if you don't ask for it, right?"
When it comes to school projects, open-source projects, or that job you get paid to do, it's best to collaborate, right? Nobody ever accomplished anything big by working on their own, so if somebody is more comfortable working alone, they just need to get over it, right? It's nobody else's responsibility to make them feel comfortable reaching out to others -- rather, they need to get over themselves and reach out. If you prefer to work alone, or you don't feel comfortable working with others, you must not want to be productive, and in a capitalist society, we know that it's bad to be unproductive.
In the valuation of ask culture over guess culture, of pulling yourself up by your emotional bootstraps over learned helplessness, of collaboration over solo working, there's a common pattern: the attachment of moral virtue to personality traits. In all three cases, the personality traits that get imbued with negative moral value are the ones that people who have survived trauma tend to have. (If you're a survivor and you don't feel that you're a guesser, that you experience learned helplessness, or you're a lone wolf on the job, great! That doesn't mean your trauma isn't real, too. It might mean that you've had some counterbalancing experience that helped you trust people more than your traumatic experiences would have taught you to do.)
Personality as Survival Strategy
"Personality is a strategy for getting out of childhood alive." -- Frank Sulloway
People who grow up in environments where it's not okay to express their feelings or needs, where they're punished for asking for things or where they just don't bother asking because they know that if they do, they won't be heard, learn that they need to take on all the emotional labor themselves. They learn that to ask explicitly for what they need is to step out of line, to do something incredibly dangerous. Other people operate by mysterious rules, and the only way to survive is to work as hard as possible to infer those rules based on what you can observe, because asking will just lead to the humiliation of being ignored altogether or worse, given an answer that shows that the person you thought you could rely on actually isn't listening.
For example, maybe you're a child with sensory sensitivity that causes most foods to taste overwhelmingly bitter or otherwise unpleasant to you, and when you tell your parents that you don't like the food you're being given, they just tell you that you have to eat it anyway. You've just learned that what you want doesn't matter -- there's no point in asking for food you can eat without experiencing intense discomfort, because when you say what you need, you'll be ignored. If you're raised by people who consistently respond this way, you learn pretty fast that the way to survive is to suck it up, perhaps to dissociate from discomfort rather than doing something to stop the discomfort. And that lesson will manifest itself when you're older in situations that seem very different, and which no one coerces you into: maybe you'll do a form of exercise that you think is good for you even if it's physically painful, or continue wearing clothing that no longer fits you because you feel buying new clothes would be un-frugal.
"Guess culture" is just the aftermath of being a child who's punished for asking things, or who grow up in environments where they can't rely on other people to be responsive to their feelings (whether because no one expresses feelings, or because when they
do, they're ignored). Similarly, passive-aggressive people are those who feel they're not allowed to say outright when someone hurt them. If your parents hit you, for example, and when you say you don't like being hit, you're told that they're "spanking" you, which everybody says is normal, and it's for your own good, then you learn that coping with other people violating your boundaries has to be done in any way other than directly defending your boundaries. To suppress all
communication when you're being hurt is highly self-destructive, so when saying it explicitly is forbidden (either because you fear retaliation for doing so, or when you've internalized those rules so well that nobody needs to retaliate), you have to let it out somehow
And lone wolves are just people who haven't had trustworthy people in their lives. Even if you desperately want to connect with other people, if your experience is that close relationships are dangerous -- that people who you need to rely on are likely to violate your boundaries and use you as if you're an object (say, by demanding physical affection that you don't want to give) -- then you'll do anything to avoid close relationships. That includes working relationships, since intellectual intimacy is still intimacy. To admit you don't know something, or to express a half-formed idea, or to rely on somebody else to carry out a commitment they've made to you: these all require the ability to be vulnerable without experiencing intense fear that you will be destroyed. If you grow up getting laughed at for not knowing the things other people know, or if people shame you for saying things they don't understand, or if they don't follow through when they say they're going to do something, that stays with you for the rest of your life. Better to do things for yourself. You might let yourself down, but at least in that case you experience famiiar shame -- rather than the feeling of disappointment in somebody else, something you've spent your life so far protecting yourself from.
Survivors survive. We "guess" because guessing allows us to survive an environment where it's not safe to ask for anything, and where we have to intuit others' emotional states in order to avoid physical or emotional violence and can't just ask people how they feel. We are passive-aggressive to preserve our autonomy in an environment where we can't express ourselves directly. And we are lone wolves because we've learned that intimacy is dangerous and likely to be disappointing. In many cases, we've been punished when we tentatively try to interact with people a different way. We learn that by punishing ourselves with isolation, we avoid a worse form of punishment.
So when you expect somebody to just ask their roommate to take out the compost, or to ask their co-worker for a review of some half-finished code, or to tell their partner they like this thing and not that thing sexually, you're expecting a person to change behavior patterns that have made their survival possible. Letting go of a survival mechanism is risky, and can rarely be done individually, but rather, sometimes happens when other people have established themselves as trustworthy.
Shame is Not a Motivator
My friends and I live in a culture where shame is considered a motivator. For example, we suppose that being thin is healthy (a questionable assumption on its own) and conclude from there that the way to make fat people healthier is to make them feel ashamed about their bodies. Likewise, people like Jonathan Chait shame those of us who don't ask; lots of people shame loners and passive-aggressive folks. Learned helplessness is considered shameful, without regard to how you might have learned that. But shame doesn't change behavior. Perhaps paradoxically, shame locks you into maintaining the exact behavior patterns you're being shamed about: if you
are inherently broken, then why should you change how you act? You're just bad, or broken, or unwanted, or unlikeable.
The relentless insistence on labeling character traits as "good" or "bad" is useful for making people feel inadequate, but not useful for helping people be everything they could be. What if we stopped judging people for being passive-aggressive, or for being guessers, and asked ourselves how we can understand the circumstances that lead somebody to be the way they are? It's scary to admit that "character" counts, in fact, for very little, and that we are largely the product of our experiences. To admit that we're strongly shaped by our experiences, especially childhood experiences, means admitting dependence on other people. We live in a culture that expects people to be able to collaborate, to make friends, to make small talk, but also expects people to be equally happy if they're denied social connections, as encapsulated in the pop-psychology lie "You have to love yourself before you can expect anybody else to love you." (This isn't true.) It's an impossible set of demands -- useful if you're trying to get people to channel their feelings of shame and inadequacy into buying lots of consumer goods, but not so much otherwise.
We also need to stop expecting trust as a given. When you say, "I say what I mean, and I expect you to say what you mean, or else I won't make any effort to understand you," you're demanding trust without necessarily having done anything to prove that you deserve trust. When you say, "Why don't you assume good faith? It seems like you're taking the worst possible interpretation of what I'm saying," you're talking to somebody who has had
to figure out the worst-case scenario in every interaction in order to defend themselves, somebody who has never had anybody to step in and defend them -- how can you expect them to assume, without proof, that you're different from the others? Sure, it's not fair that you might have to do more work to earn the trust of somebody who's survived trauma -- it isn't your fault that that happened to them. But it's not their fault, either.
And when you're a manager and you tell your employees that it's their responsibility to ask for help when they get stuck trying to solve a problem -- and then assess their performance negatively when those who have learned that asking for help is a trap -- you're setting trauma survivors up for failure. I guess you could take the approach of weeding out everybody who hasn't always been treated as if they were welcome in the world, but why would you do that when we have things to offer, too? Why not take on some of the work of communicating that your team is someplace where no one will be punished for not knowing? This goes against the "RTFM" attitude that's so popular in technical scenes particularly, but rarely do we benefit by picking an arbitrary group of people and deciding we're only interested in working with them.
In her article "Nurturance is About More Than 'Tasks'"
, Nora Samaran addresses the dismissal of survivors -- specifically women who've survived abuse -- as crazy or broken:
Rather than blame women who have had early trust bonds break (for instance by complaining about how ‘women like jerks,’ or attachment-shaming anxious, disorganized, or insecure attachers) feminist men can put the pieces together. Want to be a feminist man? Contextualize, don’t stigmatize, the insecure attachment that may show up in your romantic relationships, including short term ones.
While contextualizing insecure attachment styles is particularly important for men in romantic relationships with women, it's important in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. When someone behaves in a way that confuses or frustrates you, you have a choice: you can treat the other person as disposable, you can give up -- break up with them, fire them, or do all the work on the group project yourself instead of talking with them. Or you can try to figure out what you can to show that you're a safe person. In Samaran's words:
If you find yourself involved with women who don’t seem secure with you, consider the effects of patriarchy and misogyny across the lifespan, and ask yourself if perhaps you need to be more securitizing: available, responsive, and attuned.
When Samaran refers to "attachment-shaming", she's talking about the stigmatization of behavioral traits shown by people who have attachment styles
other than secure attachment. What popular culture calls guessers, loners, and passive-aggressive people tend to be, in psychological terms, people with insecure, avoidant, or disorganized attachment styles. But every attachment style is a completely sensible adaptation to the circumstances that a young child finds themselves in. A person's attachment style isn't an indicator of their inherent virtue, or their merit, but rather, how people treated them when they were helpless. You can demand that people with a different attachment style change to suit your needs, or you can recognize that people with different attachment styles exist in the world and that it's everybody's responsibility to figure out how to live with each other. If you're privileged enough to have been raised in circumstances that resulted in having a secure attachment style, you have the option of using that privilege to create safer spaces.
It might be difficult to confront the reality and pervasiveness of child abuse and trauma -- it might be easier to dismiss survivors as flawed, lazy or broken rather than people doing the best they can with what they were given. It's easier to believe in a just world than to accept that good people experience pain and suffering for no good reason, that in fact everyone
is born good. It's easier to blame individuals for their adverse experiences than to recognize how we all benefit from social structures of domination, from institutional sexism to domestic violence. Recognizing that personality differences aren't character flaws also puts you at odds with a criminal justice system centered around punishment, indeed, with a society fundamentally structured around discipline and punishment: when you start asking what you can do to make it easier for other people to do the right thing, rather than how you can coerce them into doing it, you become an outsider.
I can't convince you that the reward of challenging conventional wisdom about character, trust, and punishment is worth the cost. It's more comfortable to make fun of passive-aggressive people, to sneer at your frenemy who always seems to be fucking up their own life, than to create relationships and communities where it's safe to express feelings. The reason it's uncomfortable to try to understand why people do things you find shameful is that it forces you to admit that it could have been you
-- that you don't carry any protective crystals inside you that gives you the strength to ask, "hey, could I have some plain noodles instead?" no matter how many times you get ignored. It's easier to say, "No, I'm not like that -- I'm direct, I say what's on my mind, that could never have been me."
So when you react to someone's personality, consider: are you actually horrified at the circumstances
that must have caused them to adapt in the way that they have? Are you redirecting your anger at what you know they must have gone through onto them, because they're an easier target?
The cost of living comfortably is cognitive dissonance. If you believe that no child deserves abuse, how do you reconcile that with blaming and shaming adults with non-secure attachment styles? If you believe that guessers are just lazy and could be askers like you if they just pulled up their socks and dealt with it, aren't you saying it's fair that people who have survived abuse ought to have to do more emotional labor than those who haven't? And if you think having to do more emotional labor just to exist in the world is a suitable punishment for surviving abuse, doesn't that amount to saying that abuse only happens to people who deserve it? Every abuse survivor was an abused child once, and you can't consistently say that no child deserves abuse while rejecting adults for once having been those children. You can't claim you think all children deserve to be safe if your belief in our safety ends at the point when we become your co-workers, classmates, or friends.
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