A little more than a year ago, Brienne invented the idea of Tell Culture, a variation of Ask Culture and Guess Culture.
The two basic rules of Ask Culture: 1) Ask when you want something. 2) Interpret things as requests and feel free to say “no”.
The two basic rules of Guess Culture: 1) Ask for things if, and *only* if, you’re confident the person will say “yes”. 2) Interpret requests as expectations of “yes”, and, when possible, avoid saying “no”…
The two basic rules of Tell Culture: 1) Tell the other person what’s going on in your own mind whenever you suspect you’d both benefit from them knowing. (Do NOT assume others will accurately model your mind without your help, or that it will even occur to them to ask you questions to eliminate their ignorance.) 2) Interpret things people tell you as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance.
Let me place my biases upfront: the concept of Tell Culture makes me go AAAAAAAAAAAAA and want to hide in a corner and never talk to anyone ever again. (This is not meant as criticism of anyone I know who practices Tell Culture in general or of Brienne in specific; Brienne and all other Tell Culture practitioners I’ve interacted with are lovely people.)
The difference between Ask, Guess, and Tell Culture is essentially how much is left in subtext. In Guess Culture, the request is left in subtext; in Ask Culture, the request is text, but the reasons for the request are often left in subtext; in Tell Culture, there is no subtext.
The problem is that you can’t eliminate subtext from human interactions.
I bite my boyfriend Mike Blume’s nose; his wife Alicorn says I should not eat her husband; I say I will get her a new one. The actual interaction is somewhat pointless. Instead, what matters is the subtext: “we like each other; we are comfortable enough together to countersignal our affection; we are all clever enough to find a witty new thing to say in response to the previous statement.”
It seems like about half of human interaction is this sort of signaling and social grooming; the idea of removing it would probably make everyone quite unhappy.
And a lot of requests also take this form. There’s a reason that flirting is full of subtext and ambiguity: it’s because a lot of people find subtext and ambiguity fun. I agree that “don’t ever ask someone for sex explicitly!” norms are bad for people who are bad at reading subtext, because it means that getting a basic human desire met is dependent on your ability to play a stupid social game that not everyone likes. But think of it like a literal game: surely it would be bad if someone said “you have to win at Arkham Horror or you don’t eat!”, but it would also be bad if someone said “no one can ever play Arkham Horror ever again.”
“Okay, Ozy,” you might say, “but Brienne clearly did not suggest using Tell Culture all the time and replacing our countersignal-y flirting with endless repetitions of ‘I like you.’ She suggested using Tell Culture when you have needs or requests; you can Tell Culture your important requests, and leave subtext for things you don’t mind someone misunderstanding.”
The problem is that you can’t actually stop people from putting subtext in their interactions.
To pick a personal example: I have suicidal fits. While I am very open about being suicidal, I am very private about when I am currently acutely suicidal. (People who read my tumblr: posts about wanting to kill myself are usually an expression of low-grade/chronic suicidality, rather than the acute kind. If I’m coherent enough to post a Tumblr post, I’m not acutely suicidal.)
This is for a couple of reasons. I am worried people will think “Ozy is suicidal! This overrides all my preferences and boundaries!”, even though that is not a healthy or sustainable way to react to someone as often suicidal as I am. Many people will freak out and start crying and then I have to comfort them about the fact that I want to die. Many people will behave according to their models of how to help a suicidal person (calling the cops, telling me people will be sad if I die, being extremely earnest about how I am Beautiful and Good), which cause me harm. And I have enough experiences with the first three that the idea of telling someone when I’m acutely suicidal when I don’t trust them a hell of a lot is liable to cause me dead panic. Being panicked is not very helpful when you already want to die.
On the other hand, I actually do have needs while I am acutely suicidal: I commonly ask for food, for tea, for distraction, or for a safe person to take me someplace private where I can freak out.
So I feel like with Tell Culture I have four options. First, obviously, I can say “I need to watch a movie right now because I’m suicidal” and just deal with the fact that this consistently hurts me and my conversational partners. Second, when I think there is a fairly high risk I’ll be suicidal, I can refuse to interact with anyone whom I don’t trust. Third, I can violate the rules of Tell Culture and conspicuously not mention my reasons for needing to watch a movie right now. Fourth, I can say “I need to watch a movie, but I am not going to tell you the reasons because I don’t trust you.”
The first strategy involves me sacrificing my emotional needs for deontological Tell Culture points. The second strategy is somewhat impractical, because I’m borderline so my moods change very very fast, and the list of people I trust is like ten people and doesn’t include two of my roommates, so it would essentially mean confining myself to my room, which is also sacrificing my emotional needs for deontological Tell Culture points. And the second two involve me signaling that I don’t like someone.
Yes, of course under Brienne’s rules of Tell Culture people should interpret “I don’t trust you” as neutral information about my relationship with them and not as an insult or a sign that I don’t like them. It’s just that I think we would both not benefit from you having this particular information! Of course this shouldn’t impact our relationship in any way.
I am certain that is how everyone reading this blog post would respond to someone telling them that they don’t trust them.
In general, in our culture, people don’t say negative things about other people. That means that when you do say “your hair looks like a rat’s nest”, people don’t just get the information “I should go to a different barber”, they also get the information “this person doesn’t like me and wants me to be sad”. And I am not sure that this is shiftable by saying “in this subculture, everyone interprets ‘your hair looks like a rat’s nest’ like it is totally irrelevant to everything except choice of barber.” You can’t make people’s emotions go away by telling them that they shouldn’t have them.
It’s possible I could phrase my request in a tactful, respectful way, probably similar to how I’m writing this blog post. Suicidal people are, of course, known for their immense powers of forethought and self-control.
It gets worse. Tell Culture is the death of plausible deniability. Imagine someone on the stand who says “no” when asked if she’s ever murdered, assaulted, or stolen from someone, and “I take the Fifth” when asked if she sold drugs. It’s pretty obvious she sold drugs, because she only refuses to give information if she is trying to conceal something important. On the other hand, if she took the Fifth on all crimes, it wouldn’t be any evidence one way or the other.
In Ask Culture, people are constantly going about not giving information about their emotional needs. If everyone says “can we watch a movie?” without adding “because this would be an excuse for me to snuggle you”, “because I really want to see Winter Soldier”, or “because I need to relax”, it’s not conspicuous if I just say “can we watch a movie?” However, if everyone else gives information about their desire for snuggles, relaxation, and Steve’s gay love affair with Bucky, it is really obvious that I’m refusing to give the information because I want to keep it secret– which means that other people work out that I’m suicidal, which means all the disastrous effects I talked about before, plus they’re upset because I didn’t tell them.
I agree that probably a lot more interactions would go better if people talked about the needs they wanted to get met rather than just the requests they were making. However, I think making doing so a rule of etiquette risks hurting people.