Stop Telling People What To Do
Good morning! I apparently woke up super cranky this morning, and also the more measured piece I was intending to have out today needs another day or two to finish, so I’ll aim to have it out next week and instead you get an off the cuff diatribe about something that I can usefully direct my ire towards.
If you read this piece and wonder if I am talking about you… maybe? If we interact, chances are you’ve probably done this to me at some point, and chances are I’ve probably done it to you too. But I’m more annoyed with the aggregate effect than I am with any individual, and my current irritation is an amalgamation of about ten different recent instances, so I’m probably not particularly annoyed at you over it.
What about? Well, about backseating: Telling other people who are in the middle of doing something that they are doing it wrong and they should be doing something else instead, when they have not requested or consented to this advice.
The term comes from “backseat driving”, but I think of it in a general sense: Every time you tell someone how they should be living their life instead of what they’re currently doing, you are backseating them.
Everyone does this, in far more contexts than they realise, and it is much worse behaviour than most people appreciate it to be, and I would like you to stop it.
“Ah ha”, you say, “Are you backseating my backseating? I am very clever.”
No, I am not. I’m telling you that you can backseat if you choose, but when you do you’re being a bit of an asshole, and if you do it to me I am increasingly likely to bite your head off, and you will deserve it. Make your own choices accordingly.
It is perfectly fine to oppose someone’s actions, and sometimes doing so looks quite a lot like backseating. If someone steps on your foot, it’s OK to say “Ow! Get off my foot!” - this isn’t really telling them what they should do so much as objecting to the fact that they are currently standing on your foot. Although the literal form of the words is an instruction, really what you’re saying is “Ow, you are on my foot and I would like you not to be.”
There are also circumstances under which backseating is the least bad option. If you’re driving along and I’m in the passenger seat and someone walks out in front of us and you don’t notice, I’m probably going to shout “Stop!”. Is this backseating? Yeah, it definitely is. But it’s also a sufficiently urgent problem that it’s justified.
“Only do this when you think it’s justified” is a somewhat slippery ethical principle, in that people are very good at justifying things, but this is easily resolved: When you backseat someone and they get annoyed at you, whether you deserve it is up to them, and the fact that you felt justified doesn’t matter if they don’t agree. Again, make your choices accordingly.
Here is a simplified model of human behaviour. It’s far from right, but it’s often worth checking whether makes sense under this model before looking for anything very complicated to explain it:
People experience emotions in order to enable the behaviour associated with that emotion. I don’t snap at you because I’m irritated, I get irritated in order to snap at you.
The default approach here is that if the strategy doesn’t achieve its intended goals, you should do more of it, so emotions tend to intensify to the level that they are effective at.
People respond to similar (according to whatever notion of “similar” feels salient) in broadly similar ways.
To illustrate, here’s an example. Suppose I ask you to do something and you say no. This is fine. Suppose I ask again, you say no again. Suppose I keep asking over and over again. You will get increasingly irritated every single time, and probably eventually shout at me unless you are way too over-socialised (in which case, I’d recommend that as something to look at, because if I ever do that to you then I definitely deserve to be shouted at).
Your irritation here serves a highly strategic function: It is to get me to stop being such a giant pain in the ass.
Here is another example: Suppose you have a job that involves focused work, and I interrupt you. This is moderately irritating, but one interruption in the course of the day is not a big deal. If I do it every day it might start to be a little irritating, but if a bunch of different people do it every day and your interruptions are at about once a day, that’s probably mostly fine. It is a manageable level of interruption, and probably not worth getting irritable about.
If, on the other hand, you are getting interrupted every five minutes, you can no longer do your job, and you are going to start to get irritable in order to get people to stop interrupting you. Your level of irritation with each individual interruption will rise until it is sufficient to bring the interruptions under a manageable level once people learn that interrupting you will cause you to be irritated at them.
Here’s another example: I get quite irritated when people call me Dave. It’s not my name. My name is David, and they know my name is David because it says so right there, or because I’ve been introduced to them that way. If I wanted them to call me Dave I would introduce myself as Dave.
Is this a big deal? As a one off, no. But I deal with it a lot, and it gets more irritating every time. I could analyse that feeling and try to come to terms with it, but I’m actually completely fine with this feeling because it is serving its strategic function: Punishing people for doing something they should not be doing.
Now, this differs from the scenarios above in one crucial way: This is not generally a repeat interaction. Either it’s from someone who I’m never going to see again, or it’s from someone who I’m going to say “Actually I prefer David” to and they are going to stop calling me Dave (if they do not stop calling me Dave, they probably get moved to the first group). But it’s still incredibly irritating, and by acting irritable at them I would do my small part in defence of the next person they might do this too.
(I don’t usually act that irritable towards people when they do this, because I’m tired and it generally doesn’t seem worth it, but I would endorse doing so as righteous, and also the fact that I don’t makes it slightly more irritating each time it happens)
Being in Public
The specific phrase “No Backseating” I have from jorbs, who is a streamer who plays a lot of the game Slay the Spire (he plays other games too, but I only really watch him play Slay the Spire). He has a large channel of people watching him play the game, and often they tell him what he should do in the game. He doesn’t like this. When they do this, first of all he tells them “No Backseating”, and if they do it again he bans them from the channel.
At first this seemed unnecessarily cranky to me, the more I realised that jorbs was entirely in the right.
At some point in this coached run, the following discussion occurs:
Luke: Someone says it's hilarious you giving me play advice given your stance on backseat gaming. What's that you don't like it in?
jorbs: What's my stance on backseat gaming? Well, once the channel got up to like 2000 people watching me play Slay the Spire, I had to just say “okay we can't we can't have you suggesting lines anymore, because it doesn't work anymore.
I used to be more chill about it, but it just got to a point where it was impossible to keep up with.
This I think nicely illustrates the problem: It’s easy to be chill about backseating if you’re not getting much of it, but as the amount of back seating goes up, the level of irritation goes up in proportion, and eventually you need to set a boundary with people.
(This example is also nicely illustrative of the difference between backseating and consensually offering advice. jorbs is telling Luke what to do. This is great, that’s what he is supposed to be doing, because that is what Luke has asked jorbs to do. This is not unsolicited advice as to what to do, it’s a coached run in which jorbs is here as an advisor.)
This is also something very familiar from my own experiences on Twitter. About 5,000 people follow me on Twitter. It’s weird, but mostly quite positive. e.g. I can ask interesting questions and get interesting answers. I like it.
But also sometimes it will cause me to tell people to fuck right off for behaviour they think is innocuous. This behaviour probably was innocuous the first five times I experienced something like it, and mildly irritating the first 50 times, but at this point this behaviour is a block worthy offence because I have no interest in spending any energy on random internet strangers who make my experience of Twitter worse.
Bad Twitter behaviour isn’t usually back seating (sometimes it is, and I hate that especially), but it fits a very similar pattern of people not thinking about the aggregate effect of their actions being one among many similar actions, and when you’re any sort of public figure this behaviour becomes incredibly irritating.
All of this is of course even before we get into mobbing behaviour. I’ve never been on the receiving end of a Twitter mob, thankfully, but it’s very much this sort of thing dialled up by several orders of magnitude: A million people, each either unaware that the impact of their behaviour is effectively amplified a million times, or somehow suffering the mistaken belief that this is a good thing.
Everyone is in public
One of the reasons this behaviour pisses me off is of course that it’s personal. I hate being on the receiving end of it. It’s very annoying.
But the other reason I hate this is that it is directly in opposition to everything I am trying to do here.
This is not a problem that suddenly happens when you reach a certain level of popularity. I don’t have it because I have 5,000 Twitter followers, jorbs doesn’t have it because he has 100,000 Twitch followers. We just have it more because of those numbers. You still have it at 500 followers, just 10 times less, and someone at 50,000 followers still has it, just 10 times more.
When I write things like You should write more, or A guide to starting a daily writing practice, I am inviting you to be more of a public figure: I want people to explain the world to each other, because we’re currently doing a spectacularly bad job of it, and one of the most effective ways to do this is to write about it in public.
And right now because people do not know how to behave towards public figures, there is a massive incentive against doing that, because this sort of behaviour is effectively punished in direct proportion to how effective you are at sharing that knowledge. It is literally punishment for success, and I would like you to cut it out.
A Brief Political Digression
I care about this problem for everyone, and personally I am most irritated by its effect on me and the people I care about, but I think it’s worth me explicitly highlighting the politics of this: This problem disproportionately affects minority and marginalised groups.
If you have a lifestyle different from the majority, people are much more likely to tell you what you should be doing.
If people have power over you, you are more at risk of consequences from ignoring them, and they are more willing to tell you what to do.
It’s also, specifically, more of a problem if you suffer from one of various mental health problems or forms of neurodivergence. If you have rejection sensitive dysphoria (e.g. because autism or ADHD), or are easily triggered, having a constant barrage of people telling you how to live your life is very likely to be a huge shame trigger that will ruin your entire day.
I do not think this political argument should be necessary to get you to change your behaviour, and I don’t think you should selectively go “Well OK I will only backseat privileged people then”, partly because I still think it’s bad then and partly because now you’re asking people to disclose information they might not want to share with you, but I do think it is worth bearing in mind that by perpetuating a norm of backseating these are the people you are hurting the most.
You’re also bad at backseating
One of the reasons all of this is so irritating is not just that backseating results in being deluged with advice, it’s that it results in being deluged with bad advice.
jorbs doesn’t get annoyed because he’s got an audience of experts who are far better at the game than he is telling him what to do. He gets annoyed because he’s got an audience of people who are significantly less good at the game than he is telling him what to do. (The experts one would probably be irritating too I imagine for different reasons, but that’s not what he gets).
Similarly when people give me stupid advice on Twitter, I don’t get annoyed because I should have thought of that, I get annoyed because I did think of that, because I have actually thought about the problem for five minutes.
When someone comes to you for help it can be good to make sure they have thought of the basics, but when you are interacting with someone who is clearly more expert than you are and they have not asked for your opinion, you should just assume that they know what they’re doing.
Also, everybody is more of an expert on their own life than you are.
Everybody has a complex set of constraints and problems, and if you go in with an “obvious” solution that only makes sense to you because you don’t know what those are, you are effectively punishing people for not conforming to your expectations, and I would like you to cut it out.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve now started offering paid content. My first paid issue, Choosing what to do, went out on Sunday, in which I talked about decision making and how I’m trying to to figure out what to do with my life (spoiler: I still don’t know).
I’m also trying an experiment now. As you may know, I also offer coaching. I’m not currently very actively looking for new clients, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to have some more active conversations about newsletter content. As a result I am auctioning off a one hour coaching session around the theme of each newsletter. You can bid on a coaching session for this newsletter here.
It may also be worth noting that I definitely do this and I would like me to stop it too. I’m pretty sure I do it less than most people do, but that doesn’t mean I am free from sin.
You are tempted to make a joke in which you refer to me as Dave. Don’t. I hate people making joking responses of doing the thing someone just asked them not to do even more than I hate backseating.
There do seem to be qualitative differences, but they’re the result of the quantitative ones rather than the result of some sort of fundamental change. e.g. there’s a major qualitative difference between having to deal with something once a week vs multiple times a day, even if that’s just a quantitative change.