Dominoes, social skills, and plausible deniability
June 27, 2012 by jason roy
“This is kind of awkward, but, um, I’ve been noticing you in class—and, like, I’d really love to get to know you better, and I was just wondering”—his voice cracked—”if maybe this weekend you wanted to go see Hamlet at the Repertory Theater with me?”
“What you’re saying is tantamount to saying that you want to fuck me. So why shouldn’t I react with revulsion precisely as though you’d said the latter?”
Eric’s cheeks reddened and his hands trembled; it was rather cute. “I just wanted to have a good time, just as friends!”
“You’re asking me to accept that a first domino will be knocked over yet a hundredth will stand. Do chess masters continue playing when they see a mate—get it?—twenty moves ahead?”
[from Scott Aaronson's short story On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality (bold emphasis mine)]
We evolved such a complex way to communicate that we overshot and something has gone awry. In the name of politeness one rule is to not be blunt. For example, people say “Can you pass the salt?” Of course s/he can pass the salt. You are literally asking if they are capable. That is not what you intend to ask. So why not ask, “pass the salt?” You do not need to know if they can. What you want is to have them pass the salt. But to give a directive can be considered rude, demanding, or threatening. So we develop sentences that do not mean what they say. When communication was first used, it was likely a way to convey what we wanted. The veiled directives, metaphors, and other general complex ways of conveying meaning followed later. It might be the case that when we became good at veiling one type of meaning, we could turn our attention to getting even better at this doublespeak.
Let’s say you do not like Sally. If you are socially sophisticated you will not say that you do not like Sally. Instead, you will say other things that imply it, or say things with certain facial expressions or intonation that, to the sophisticated observer, will make it clear that you do not like Sally. Yet, you retain plausible deniability. Someone might confront you by saying, “You said you didn’t like Sally.” Since you never said the words, “I don’t like Sally,” you maintain plausible deniability.
Speaking in a non direct manner is supposed to be polite, but in reality it serves as a tool to carry out severe manipulations that no one is very good at naming.
Chain of dominoes
People with the worst social skills just knock down the last domino directly (“I don’t like Sally” or “I want to have sex with you”). People with pretty bad social skills knock down the 2nd to last, which causes the last to fall. They might say rude and thinly veiled negative statments about Sally that are easily recognizable to others as, “I don’t like Sally.” People with the best social skills knock down a domino way back in the chain. They can actually say nice things about Sally or seem genuinely concerned about Sally (while knocking down the domino). The effect is the same, but, if they are ever called out on it, they can argue that they were actually being nice.
Since it is difficult to call someone out directly when their comments are so indirect and so skillfully veiled, it is helpful to have something concrete, such as the chain of domino analogy. It provides you with a useful tool the when encountering a master of politely stinging or ‘helpful” comments that afford them the luxury of plausible deniability.
co-written with charlene estornell