Telegraph your moves
Today I’d like to talk about a social norm I’d like to see but that doesn’t seem widespread: It’s often1 worth putting in a little effort to make your actions predictable to others, especially by keeping people who are affected by your actions in the loop about what it is you’re intending to do.
Don’t hit people unless you mean to
In sports, especially boxing, telegraphing your punches is making it really obvious what you’re about to do before you do it. This is bad, in the sense that if you’re trying to punch someone and they can see you’re about to punch them, they can move out of the way.
However, most of the time you’re not trying to punch someone, and moving unpredictably is the opposite of helpful because you don’t want to hit them. Consider driving around in a car - if you move unpredictably, you probably will hit someone, just like in boxing. The difference is that you’d really rather not.
The difference is that boxing is a zero sum game2, while driving is positive-sum. That is to say, in boxing one person wins only when the other loses, while in driving everyone who gets safely to their destination “wins”, though some people can win more than others (e.g. if I cut in front of you and make you late, this is to my advantage and your disadvantage, but we still both come out considerably ahead compared to not driving or having a collision).
Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict is an excellent discussion of the strategy of positive sum games, and one of the things he talks about how this is one of the big differences between zero and positive sum games: In a zero sum game you want to be unpredictable, so that your opponent cannot take your actions into account, while in a positive sum game you want to be predictable (although not necessarily perfectly) so that your partner can take your behaviour into account and come to a mutually beneficial arrangement3.
I don’t know to what degree the general lack of norms around being predictable are from people learning their communication norms in (and possibly still being in) more zero sum environments, and to what degree it’s just that people have thought about it less than a literal Nobel prize winning economist trying to help prevent nuclear war, but I hope to the degree that it’s the latter I can persuade you to move a little in my direction.
I’m running late
The thing that prompted this newsletter is that a number of people read my Unscheduled Hiatus post, and the subsequent Relaxing the schedule post, as apologies. They weren’t. I was just telling you what I was going to do.
Let me let you in on a secret: I’m a middle class English person. We say sorry instead of um, and apologise like it’s going out of style. If one of us manages an entire long email without the word “sorry” in it then we’re really not sorry.
I don’t think the changes of schedule are anything to be sorry for, and I’m not particularly worried about people being upset about it (and, honestly, don’t much care if they are), but it’s important to me to tell people before making changes like that.
The specific thing that makes it important is not that I think that I owe anyone these newsletters, but that the previous schedule of putting them out was predictable, and it was reasonable for people to take it into account, and I wanted to gracefully transition out of that level of predictability.
I know personally I notice when authors whose work I care about haven’t written for a while, or break a schedule. Generally I notice not because I’m upset to not get the work, but because I hope they’re OK and worry about them slightly. Certainly I’ve got a few check ins on days when I’ve been late or missed the newsletter (admittedly mostly from family).4
This kind of thing is where I feel most strongly about these norms of predictability, to the point where I will genuinely get quite cranky with people who don’t follow them. e.g. if people are running late or cancel and tell me, I’ve got almost infinite patience for that. If people are running late or no show and don’t tell me, I will be quite annoyed by this is.
Importantly, this depends on how much predictability it’s reasonable for me to expect out of people. If I say the party (remember parties?) starts at 7PM, people will probably be turning up anywhere up to midnight. If I say our booking at the restaurant is for 7PM I’ll probably start to get a little cranky at anyone turning up after 7:15 or so if I haven’t heard from them. If we schedule a Zoom call for 7PM, you’ve probably got about a five minute grace period.
Being able to rely on people
Back in Trust I drew on Nguyen’s notion of “Trust as unquestioning attitude”. You trust something in a capacity if, at an emotional level, you don’t question whether it can fulfil that capacity. You climb with a rope, trusting the rope not to break. You walk, trusting the ground not to fall away under your feet. There are circumstances under which you might not extend these trusts - they are not absolute - but in situations you trust this you are able to engage with the world more fluently, because you can treat the trusted things as just background truths about the world.
Key to this notion of trust is one of reliability: If something has a capacity unreliably, you have to take into account that it is unreliable in your actions. If you’re climbing with a frayed rope, you may be able to still use it but you can’t trust it not to break. If you’re walking across a rickety bridge, you can’t trust it not to break under you.
The thing is though, reliability is hard. Ask anyone who develops software - outages are a thing, and getting to the point of effectively zero outages costs many many orders of magnitude more than you would expect. We normally talk in terms of “number of nines of reliability” (e.g. 99% reliability is two nines, 99.999% reliability is five nines). Generally each nine you add costs more than the last, and benefits you less.
To tie this in to a prompting example: As an individual writing a newsletter, putting out two issues a week is hard. It’s a lot of work, and if I want to do it reliably I need to do more than two issues a week rather than just two, because I need to build up a buffer. For a variety of reasons, I’ve not been very good at doing that. As a result, getting a newsletter out is sometimes subject to mental and physical health (which are quite variable for me) issues and general schedule disruption.
But fortunately, reliability can be made easier by trying to reliably do an easier thing: Instead of reliably getting a newsletter out, I can do something much easier: Reliably get a newsletter issue out, or tell you that I’m not going to.
In the grand scheme of things, does this matter? No, probably not, not too many people are counting on the reliability of the newsletter. But it’s important to me to be the sort of person who is reliable in this way, especially as I’m not always that good at being reliable in a more concrete sense. I’m flaky in a lot of ways, and it’s important to me that I signal those ways well.
Creating safe environments
One reason I think predictability norms are important is that it’s hard for unpredictable environments to feel safe. I started by talking about cars, and I think this is usefully illustrative: An unpredictable driver feels very unsafe to be around, and I’m often worried about pedestrians when I’m on a bike because I cannot predict their behaviour well and don’t trust them to notice mine (cars are slightly more likely to notice me but also much easier for me to predict).
A lot of my preferred communication norms are centred around creating safe environments. One place this comes from is that, a long time ago, I trained5 as a massage therapist.
When doing massage, it’s particularly important to do some work to help people feel safe: You’ve got someone lying nearly naked in front of you, who doesn’t know you that well, and can’t see what you’re doing (typically they’re face down and/or have their eyes closed). This is a fairly vulnerable position to be in with a stranger, and as a result surprises feel like a threat.
As well as it being bad to scare people, it’s rather counterproductive if someone goes into fight or flight mode and tenses all their muscles while you’re trying to massage them.
The norms I learned as a masseur come down to basically two things:
Try to maintain physical contact with the person at all times. e.g. when switching from working on one shoulder to the other, move your hand along their back rather than taking your hands off one shoulder and moving straight to the other.
Before doing something unexpected (e.g. moving their arm), say you’re going to do it.
That is, make sure they know where you are, and what you’re about to do, at all times. This makes you as predictable as possible, ensuring they are able to relax rather than having to maintain their guard.
Not all masseurs I’ve been to follow these norms, especially the one about always maintaining contact, but they tend to do similar things to communicate and help them be predictable.
Another place where people have communication norms designed to create predictability is professional kitchens, and there’s one in particular that I like and sometimes adopt myself when sharing a kitchen with other people. It’s very simple: When you walk behind someone, you say “behind you”.
“Behind you” makes sure people know where you are in relation to them when it matters. This stops them stepping back suddenly and bumping into you while you or they are carrying things that are hot, sharp, delicate, etc. As professional kitchens are cramped spaces where a lot of people are very actively moving around carrying such things, this significantly reduces the risk of operating in such an environment, because it makes the set of safe moves more predictable.
Both of these can be thought of as ways to help people offload cognitive load: In environments where people have to know where you are in order to feel safe, either they will have to keep track of it themselves, or you have to radiate the relevant information when they need it so that they don’t have to.
Can we talk?
In Anxiety vs Worry I suggested the following distinction:
Here is a distinction I've found useful recently: You are anxious about something if the emotion attaches to the uncertainty in the situation, you are worried about something if the emotion attaches to the possible outcomes.
Predictability tends to act on both these things: It can reduce worry, by ruling out bad outcomes (e.g. if you’re late I might be worrying about whether you’re in an accident unless you’ve sent me a message), and obviously it reduces anxiety because anxiety is about uncertainty and it reduces uncertainty.
At age 56, I still struggle with the whole, “Am I in trouble?” emotion whenever my supervisor wants to speak with me out of the blue. It’s that momentary pit in my belly, racing heartbeat that generally subsides rapidly—but I know that it stems from an earlier supervisor who used the stick way more than a carrot. I am an outstanding employee, and was then—but was a constant churning mess because I always felt threatened about “being in trouble.” I was a wreck by the time I finally quit that job.
The linked Slate article suggests the following mitigations:
There are ways for managers to mitigate this fear, at least to some extent. Managers should be aware that some employees will read an ominous subtext into requests to meet and make a point of specifying the topic when they can—like, “Could we meet this afternoon to discuss X?” or “Can you swing by when you have a chance to talk through the numbers on Y?” And in general, managers should set up a regular meeting structure including weekly or biweekly one-on-ones so that talking regularly is normalized and expected. (Regular meetings are great for lots of other reasons, too, like staying engaged with people’s work.)
These are exactly this form of increasing predictability: You signal in advance what the thing is about, heading off the need for the person to worry about it.
It’s worth being careful about how you signal this sort of thing of course. Sometimes you can’t really signal what it’s about in advance of talking about it, and it’s better to say nothing rather than give the wrong impression.
An example of this is a story in my family’s lore of that time my brother, J, came back from university with his girlfriend. Before coming home he told my parents “I’ve got something to tell you. Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.”
My parents, naturally, freaked out a bit at this, thinking they were about to find out they were going to be grandparents. When dad picked my brother and his girlfriend, S, up from the station, S asked if he noticed anything different. Dad glanced nervously at S’s stomach to see whether his fears had been confirmed, but there was nothing obvious. Eventually he picked up from body language that no he was supposed to be looking at J.
Anyway, J denies that this was all a cunning strategy to make the earring he wanted to tell them about seem like way less of a big deal.
I relate this anecdote for two reasons. The first is that I enjoy giving J a hard time, but the second is that it’s worth thinking about how one communicates these sorts of things a bit more carefully than that. A little bit of information can be worse than none if it’s misleading. In particular a concrete specific is a lot more useful than “It's nothing bad”, because you may not agree on what counts as bad.
Is this really your responsibility?
Many of the situations in which I’ve described (e.g. manager, masseur) are ones where you have power over someone. In these circumstances, it is harder for that someone to manage their feelings about the interaction because it’s genuinely higher stakes. Where you can, I do think you have a responsibility to create a safe environment for the people you have that power over.
In day to day interactions, it’s often not so much obligatory as supererogatory (that is, it is good to do it but it is not bad not to do it). Often you have every right to expect other people to manage their own feelings.
But I think it’s important to know how your behaviour affects others, and this seems to be something people don’t take into account enough. People don’t like to be blindsided, and where you can easily avoid doing that it’s a kindness to, and I think this is a worthwhile norm to adopt that will generally reduce people’s cognitive and emotional loads.
Why don’t people do this?
One of the ways in which people showed they were interpreting my talking about changes to the schedule as an apology is by saying things like “That’s OK”. This was kind and well intentioned and I hold no grudges for it, but also it entirely missed the point. I know it’s OK, and I wasn’t giving them any authority to decide whether it was, because it was my decision and not theirs.
I said at the beginning that one reason this might not be a widely accepted norm is that people learn their communication norms in zero sum environments. This is… not entirely true, in that in theory childhood is a positive sum environment, but there are some pretty major power disparities in the environment in which we learn communication, and the optimal strategy for children to get what they want is often to not give adults the opportunity to tell them they can’t have it. “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” is an excellent strategy when people have a lot of power over your actions.
Even outside that environment, people still tend to try to control your actions. The reason I had to write Stop telling people what to do is because people love telling you what to do. Stating your intentions is often read as being practically an invitation for others to argue with them. This is at best tiring, at worst it can be socially quite harmful.
As a result, it being safe to adopt this norm can be quite contingent on being around people who adopt the “no backseating” norm, or at least on feeling able to push back when people backseat.
But even without that, it can be worth looking for more places where it’s reasonable to implement it. Many instances will just be straightforwardly appreciated. e.g. telling people when you’re running late is generally safe (or at least, no less safe than running late and not telling people), and signalling intent a bit better than “Can we talk?”.
But by no means always. There are plenty of cases where you don’t want to be predictable, I’m not going to try to spell those out, I’m just arguing that by default predictability is good.
Well, more or less. Presumably people have fun boxing, so a boxing experience can be positive even if you lose, but crucially the way to have fun boxing is to treat it as a zero sum game for as long as you’re playing.
This is not necessarily as friendly as it sounds. e.g. nuclear mutually assured destruction is one of the things Schelling is reasoning about here. Nuclear standoffs are positive sum in the sense that everyone benefits from not destroying the world in an apocalyptic nuclear war. One of the ways you achieve the mutually agreeable outcome is by being very predictable in your willingness to press the big red button in a retaliatory strike despite not gaining any benefit from it at that point.
I also get check ins when the newsletter is especially cranky, which is fair enough really.
I didn’t qualify - I was doing a part time course during university, and the final exams and coursework conflicted with my exams for my actual degree which I wasn’t doing as well as I liked in, and I needed to prioritise. It’s probably for the best as I wasn’t all that good, and I’m now horribly rusty.