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There are a number of situations where convention prevents communication, pressures people into doing things they do not want to, and makes it too dangerous to even attempt problem solving (at least that involves the other people).

For example take politeness. The stakes are offending people if you are not polite, and being outcast from doing activities with them. Asking them their ideas about politeness itself and attempting to discuss bears exactly the same risk: being offending people and being outcast. If you don't like a particular thing expected of you, too bad. You can't expect sympathy. If you reveal your interest in acting contrary to politeness you'll be seen as dangerous to decorum and watched and held to an extra high standard. So you're pressured into acting politely to be safe, and reason never gets to play any role in the decision of how everyone should act.

This can happen even if everyone there hates politeness, because no one dares to say so. Few people dare to send off signals that they don't actually like expected decorum. If you do break a social convention then, even if everyone there agrees with you, the likely result is to be condemned. The reason is they still think everyone else prefers politeness, so they all have to ostracize you to avoid taking a risk themselves.

You might try to defend yourself. You might say, "I don't want to do that." At this point you can expect replies like, "So what? Everyone else has to." and, "What makes you so special?" Neither of those replies attempts to address what is the best way to act. They simply are thinking more like the status quo is good enough for everyone else and getting offended you'd imply it isn't good. Do you think you're better, or something horrid like that?

At a birthday party you are expected to bring presents. This is dumb. How should I know what he wants better than he does? And the presents are supposed to be surprises: you can't just ask what he wants you to get him. And you aren't allowed to bring money. Money is the best thing to give because it gives him the power to get what he wants. But convention hates it. You were supposed to think about what he would want and get a "personal" gift. If everyone gives each other money on their birthdays, the total result is everyone ends up with the same amount of money. If you have a group of 8 friends you give money 7 days a year, but one day a year you get money from 7 people. The whole thing is pointless. When it's not money, the total result is you pay money and end up with the things people got you -- mostly stuff you wouldn't have got yourself. So you end up spending your money and receive not what you really wanted. And the same happens to everyone else. What a waste! People should just (optionally) ask for some money from guests to cover the cost of the party, and that should be that.

By the way, gift certificates are good because they allow people some amount of choice of what to get. But they are also considered poor gifts for being too much like money. The whole way of deciding what gifts are best is how little choice they give to the receiver.

Getting lots of new things on one day isn't a very good idea in the first place. It makes for an unstable, inconsistent life. What we should be aiming to do is have a good life every day, with maintainable long term policies. One policy should be to buy new things when there is one that's important to us and we have enough money. To get 8 things on one day -- well they didn't all come out yesterday. Some you wanted a month ago, or longer. But you waited. That's bad to delay this great new thing that could help make your life better. And getting them all at once means you can't start using them all at once. It messes up your schedule. If we pretend they are all good gifts (maybe you told your friends what to buy you) then they are all things you'd be like, "yay! i'm gonna use this right away! i'm so excited!" but now 7 of them have to wait so your scheduling is messed up.

Besides gifts you might be expected to bring, say, food, to a social event. Everyone brings one dish. It's "fair". But it doesn't make any sense. Now all 8 people have to make trips to the grocery store, when it could have been one person buying everything at once. And some of the 8 people don't like cooking, or don't like dealing with what food to bring. And convention scoffs at that. It's really not nice. Everyone else did, you should too. If you say you don't want to, people think you are self-centered. If you offer money people will wonder why you are going to such great lengths as to offer actual money just to avoid doing "your part". (The only reason you would actually offer money is you are *not* self-centered: you're happy to contribute. You just don't want to do the particular task asked of you.) And that's weird because offering money isn't going to great lengths. You are asked to go to some amount of effort, and you consider giving money *less* effort.

If you question or criticize any of this stuff people think you are trying to get out of doing it, so others have to do the work for you. They view it as bad work that should be divided so everyone suffers equally. They don't imagine there is a positive solution where everyone is happy. They just accept there is some amount of pain required and any attempt to find a solution for yourself that doesn't hurt is just trying to cheat everyone else.

A similar sort of thing is illustrated by the game Truth or Dare. People establish arbitrary rules then force everyone in the group to follow them. You have to agree to it or you are excluded. You are pressured to agree. During the game if someone doesn't want to answer something, no one is sympathetic. You don't want to be hurt? Too bad. That's how the game works. Everyone else has to do it too. (It's totally irrelevant that other people have to. If they are being hurt that is no reason you should be too. And if they are, they also should try not to be.) Truth or Dare also destroys privacy, by the way. Nasty game. And you are expected to try to destroy as much privacy as possible and hurt people as much as possible by finding the questions they most don't want to answer, and daring them things they most don't want to do (but just mild and reasonable enough they can't refuse).

Dating has a lot of ways of suppressing communication. Like when you ask a girl out you are supposed to decide where to go. You do this with confidence and self-assuredness. You do not do this through discussion with her of where would be nice. If you say you don't know where you want to take her, you seem like not much of a man, shy and embarrassed, don't know what you want, that kind of thing.

At the end of the date you can't ask if the other person wants to kiss, or have sex. That's taboo. That "ruins the mood", surprises people, and lowers the chance of doing either. You have to figure it out without explicit communication. And also after a certain number of dates you have to have sex -- there is a lot of pressure to. If you don't, the relationship is "not going anywhere" so what's the point? Which reminds me there is always this pressure in romantic relationships to have progress, which sounds good, but what it means is to move towards getting married, and you have to get married by the end of about 2 years or a lot of advice says you never will and you quite possibly break up, quite possibly over the issue of marriage. "If you won't commit to be with me forever and ever, right now, because we're so perfect for each other, then I never want to see you again, it's completely over."

If you want to kiss and she doesn't, that isn't a matter for problem solving. Discussion will be interpreted as pressure. Asking why she doesn't want to and saying reasons you do is trying to force your want in to her pants. You aren't supposed to discuss, criticize, and agree. You just go on a few more dates and see if she changes her mind, and if not stop wasting money on her meals and dump her. (Buying meals for your date is a dumb custom. And yes I know I often write from a male perspective. Writing a gender neutral version is more effort, and for what benefit? Female readers should learn to be able to think about it from both perspectives. It's a good skill.)

During sex people are often too scared/embarrassed to say what they want (other person might very well tell people later, especially after you break up). So they do whatever's normal to protect themselves. Instead of trying to do what they actually want to. Which prevents learning and is part of why people stay so obsessed with sex throughout their lives -- they *still* haven't had much time, even when old, to actually do it freely without feeling pressured and to try whatever they want to. Also the girl (usually, much more pressure on her to be chaste, not slutty, shy, resistant, etc) will abort if you want anything unusual, so if you don't suppress any unusual ideas you are risking having sex at all (possibly even the whole relationship). You might be thinking: ewww, what sort of gross, "unusual" stuff does he mean? But look, the usual thing is narrow and limited, it'd be weird if people didn't have some other ideas about what might be nice (even if most of those are bad they still would like to try it and find out). Any time there is freedom of thought there will be unusual ideas.

At funerals you have to be sad. You can't bring a book of jokes and spend a lot of the time laughing, even if they are really funny. People will get mad. And God forbid you argue this point. Giving reasons it's OK to be happy not somber is "disrespecting the dead". Arguing with that is disrespecting the dead more. Criticizing that is also disrespecting the dead. There's just no way out of it. Respecting the dead means following the convention whether you want to or not, and whether it's fun and enjoyable or not (it isn't). Also funerals waste a lot of money. So do coffins or urns. Why seal away a dead body? It's dead. Who cares? The whole thing reeks of superstition. Oh and if you just stay home that's disrespectful too. If he was your friend you are expected to go. People will hold it against you for years if you'd rather go to your frisbee game or World of Warcraft raid.

Weddings are perhaps worse. You know that part where everyone is asked if they know any reasons these people should not be wed? That's a lie. A dirty lie. It's a trap. They just want to pretend they are doing the right thing. But if you actually say any reasons (and it's easy to think of lots) then everyone will gasp in shock and turn to you angrily. You will have disrespected the whole wedding. You won't be invited to the next one (when they remarry other people after their divorce -- what? it's common.) Everyone will be really offended. Certainly they won't actually discuss your reasons. The only things you can say there are like, "he cheated on her" or "he's a Russian spy". You can't say, "marriage is a bad idea because...". And you can't say that any other time either. People don't want to hear it. Especially not the girl you're dating. She's the person in the world you have the most reason to want to discuss that with and come to agree, and you both have good reason to want to find the truth, yet she really won't want to hear it, she'll be angry you got this far and might not even want to marry her, and the sort of generic response people might give is "I want it, it feels right for me, it makes me happy" or something kind of like that, so if you question it people will say stuff like "fine, don't get married" but if your girlfriend is saying that she'll be pissed that you don't feel the same as her about marriage like she expected. and this whole thing misses the point: what feels right to you does not determine what is true or best.

Political correctness consists in part of a bunch of things you can't say. Like it's hard to say that scientific research shows black people have lower IQs than white people. never mind whether it's true, saying so will get you shouted down as a racist.

In general, like with a group of friends, raising any kind of issue you'd like to improve or do something better is seen as causing a fuss. People are scared of problems so they want you to just go along with whatever is happening. they think that is easiest and having to think about what's best is hard and it's a lot of trouble. and whoever brings it up is blamed, even if they just point out a fact of reality. couldn't you just let it go?

Imagine there is a cake being split between 8 friends. They will probably cut it into 8 pieces. If you say, "I'd like a larger piece" that is just not done. They will say they would too, implying you should keep your desires to yourself like they have. They will think you are trying to take their cake, and deny them what they want, because that's the only possible way you'll get more. they won't see a problem that can be solved in a good way, they'll just see greed and be offended. and the result is you don't say you'd like more. and that means even if 2 or 3 people there would be happy to have a smaller piece because they don't really like it, you won't be able to have that cake from them, even though it'd be better, because you aren't allowed to ask. it's true people are allowed to give up their cake and offer it to everyone else, but they might be more happy to do that, or even be reminded to think about it, if they knew you really wanted more.

Often people offer you things, especially the host. They don't necessarily want to get it for you or give it to you. They might just feel compelled to offer and hope you'll decline. This is very unfortunate because you can't tell if it's OK to accept or not. If you really don't want to cause people to do things they don't want to, you have to always decline. So you never get to have these things even if you'd kinda of like it and the host would actually love to get it that time, because you don't know. Trying to communicate to find out the truth does not work. They will insist over and over it's no trouble at all and completely hide whether it is or not. It's expected. And you, by the way, are generally supposed to decline once or twice to "prove" you are considerate, before you accept. But be careful declining twice, the host might not offer a third time, and it's very awkward to then ask for it. How engaging in a fixed, well-known, ritual can prove anything about you is a mystery. But it's a common phenomenon. Opening doors for girls proves you are a nice guy. There's lots of stuff like that where you do an expected behavior, like buy her flowers, and this supposedly says something about your personality. And that something isn't: you're conventional. Somehow choices at thoughtless as getting her flowers (it takes no thought because it's so well known) are considered really really thoughtful. Actually I can sort of see how it makes sense. You see, a virtuous man is one with a voice in his head constantly ordering him to do what is expected of him. So, good men have to get flowers or they feel bad. So when she gets flowers she knows he is obedient to convention and is reassured.

Guys looking at babes on the street is another place where communication is suppressed. You all say they are hot. If you don't people call you gay. They are just joking. For now. But you better give in. If you persist, they'll get more serious and more mean. This is part of how people come to have the standard sexual preferences. They act as if they did due to pressure, and eventually they get used to acting that way and thinking that way and can't imagine anything else. This can happen even if they don't really like it at first, and don't see how it makes sense.

Elliot Temple on August 3, 2007


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