This post isn’t at all technical, unlike the other ones. Here be dragons! Feel free to go and read something more sane if posts about non-technical interpersonal relations aren’t your cup of tea.

It’s generally acknowledged that talking to other people is a hard problem. Generally, though, in order to make it less of one, we have this amazing thing called ‘courtesy’ that gets wheeled out to deal with it, and make everything alright again. The point of being polite and courteous toward people, really, is to acknowledge that not everyone sees things the way you do, and so you need to account for that by giving everyone a bit of leeway. In a way, it shows respect for the other person’s way of thinking – being polite allows you to consider that your opinion may not be better than theirs. And, by and large, it works (except for the examples in that Wait But Why post there, but oh well).

I don’t want to talk about the situations where it works, though, because those are largely uninteresting! Where things get interesting (read: harmful) is when people, for one reason or another, decide that this respect for others is just not something they want to bother with.

Criticism

Of course, you don’t always agree with what other people are saying or doing; in fact, you might believe that, according to the way you see things, they’re being downright horrible! When this happens, there are usually a number of options available to you:

  1. Bring the issue up with the person (i.e. directly give them some constructive criticism)
  2. Tell your friends about the situation, and see what they think
  3. Start bad-mouthing the person when they’re not around

Option (1) might seem like the ‘best’ thing to do, but often it’s not; delivering criticism to people only works if they’re actually willing to receive it. Otherwise, all they hear is someone who thinks they know how to run their life better than them, which they perceive is disrespectful and somewhat rude – exactly the opposite of what you might have intended. Even if they don’t mind criticism, they may disagree with it and refuse to act on it, without getting angry at the fact that you delivered it, which is also fair enough.

Nonviolent Communication

When delivering criticism in this way, it’s also important to emphasise how your opinion is highly subjective; this is kind of what Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is trying to get at. Instead of saying things like:

You were very hurtful when you did X.

(which can come across as absolutism - you were very hurtful, according to some globally defined definition of ‘hurtful’), NVC advocates for statements along the lines of:

When you did X, I felt very hurt by that.

Here, this can’t possibly be disagreed with, as you’re only stating your subjective experience of what happened, instead of making a seemingly objective judgement - you’re not saying the person is bad, or that they necessarily “did anything wrong”; rather, you’re giving them feedback on what effect their actions have had, which they can use to be a better person in future. (Or not, if they don’t think your experience is worth caring about.)

Phoning a friend

Because option (1) is such a minefield sometimes – you have to try and phrase things the right way, avoid getting angry or upset yourself, and even then the person might hate you a bit for the criticism – most people opt for option (2) in everyday life, which is to discuss the problem with some friends.

This is distinct from option (3), in which you actively start spouting abuse about how terrible the person is; in (2), you’re trying to neutrally share your view with only a few friends of yours, with the expectation that they may well turn around and tell you that you’re actually the person at fault here. That is to say, the idea of (2) is not to presume that you’re in the right automatically, and for the people you tell to be blind yes-men who go along with it (!). Rather, the point is to get some crowd-sourced feedback on the problem at hand, in order to give you some perspective. It may even then lead to (1), or maybe one of your friends letting this person know, or whatever – the point is, option (2) is usually a pretty good solution, which is why it’s probably quite popular.

Giving up, or worse

I don’t need to say something like “option (3) [i.e. bad-mouthing other people] is bad”, because you probably knew that already. It’s also not as if every person in the world is a paragon of virtue who would never do anything so shocking, either; people share their negative judgements on other people quite widely all the time, and that’s just part of life. Obviously, it has interesting implications for your relationship with the person you’re bad-mouthing, but that’s your own problem – and is also something you’re unlikely to care about that much, or else you wouldn’t spread your opinion.

No, what I’m more interested in discussing is where this option turns more toxic than it usually is, which is usually helped by the context present in certain institutions nowadays.

Mental health, in 2019

In universities, schools, and other such educational institutions, a rather large focus has recently been placed on the idea of dealing with students’ mental health, for one reason or another. Reports like this 2018 NUS blog post about how Oxbridge may be ‘in decline’, due to how taxing going there can be for your mental health, abound; in many places, safeguarding children is the new buzzword. I’m not wishing to in any way dismiss or trivialize this focus; it’s arguably a good thing, and, at any rate, that’d be for another day and another blog post.

Rather, I want to discuss a rather interesting side-effect of this focus, and how it might interact with the things we’ve just been discussing in the rest of the post.

A not-entirely-fictitious example

Suppose someone has a problem with you. You might not necessarily have much of an idea as to why, or you might do; it doesn’t really matter. Clearly, they think option (1) (telling you about it directly) is right out; you have no way of doing whether or not they did (2), but you decide you don’t care that much. “They have a problem with me, but I don’t think that’s really anything I need to worry about; rather, I think they’re as responsible for this situation as I am.” In a normal situation, this would be alright; everyone’s entitled to their own standpoint, after all, and people generally tend to respect one another.

However, this person really doesn’t like you. As part of that, they’re building their own internal list of things you’ve done that support this standpoint; everything you say, or do, that can be in some way interpreted as validating their view gets added, and their opinion of you gets worse and worse. Which would also be fine, as long as you didn’t actually need to rely on this person for anything important; they can sit over there with their extreme judgements, and it doesn’t really bother you at all: what are they going to do about it?

Well, but, remember the context I was talking about. In a lot of institutions, the management are constantly on the lookout for possible ‘mental health issues’, which isn’t a bad thing at all. However, this can give your fun new friend some extra leverage; all they need to do is find something that would seem to suggest you’re not 100% alright, or that you might be in need of some help. (Either that, or they cherry-pick examples of you supposedly being nasty, and claim that their mental health is being affected. For bonus points, one could even do both!)

Now, they can go and deliver a long spiel about how you’re clearly not right in the head, or something to that effect, and how it’s caused great problems for them. They don’t really have to worry that much about it being traced back to them, of course; usually in these kinds of systems people reporting problems are granted a degree of anonymity, in order to prevent people being put off from reporting anything at all.

And, if you haven’t been very carefully controlling everything you do or say to ensure none of it could possibly be used against you, you might now find yourself a bit stuck; how, after all, do you counter the allegations laid against you? You often don’t even know who raised them, and you’re lucky if you’re even told anything about what they actually are; rather, you now have to contend with the completely fabricated idea that there’s something wrong with you, which tends to be awfully sticky and hard to get rid of once people get wind of it.

Even though that’s not at all true, and never was.