In defense of talking behind people's backs

I think talking about people behind their backs is great. I will talk behind your back, mention your opinions and comment on them, subtweet you or screenshot your tweets, etc — all of that without much hesitation.

This is not a popular opinion to hold. I've also got a ton out of it. So I want to justify it with a bit more nuance than "fuck you I'm gonna do whatever I like".

I live in bubbles. Different micro-communities, with different norms, different things accepted as truths, different rules of holding an argument, etc. For example:

  • In some bubbles, people use hundreds of heuristics in arguments. In other bubbles, people operate under "if you can't prove it ain't so, then shut up".
  • In some bubbles, people appeal to authorities. In other bubbles, people appeal to.. different authorities.
  • In certain bubbles, people expect each other have certain sets of values. (Sample values: more truth is good! More niceness is good! Getting things done is good! Personal growth is good! Having fun is good! Etc.)

Arguing with people outside of my bubble can be anywhere from a mild nuisance to a blood-freezing experience. I never saw how much I was relying on some foundations, until I tried to argue with people who had different foundations.

If I want to discuss something you said or did, I often don't want you to be involved in the discussion at all. Not always, but often. Why?

I might want to get a fresh take on what you said. I already have your opinion. Now I want an opinion of somebody from a different bubble, with different experiences, with a different paradigm. They might not be comfortable saying things they know would be a faux pas in your bubble.

Oh, and if all of this happens on Twitter, your followers (whose mindsets or likes are closer to yours) will jump in. You will drag your bubble into my bubble. I don't want that.

Another reason is — I might not want to upset you. I am large, I contain two wolves. I have friends who don't like each other, and who would be appalled with each other's honestly expressed opinions, and it's fine.

You might not like to see your opinions or behavior discussed in an alien to you framework. Again, it's fine!

It's just that "well never discuss people behind their backs and they won't get upset" is not an option. I'm not going to stop using a framework that is useful to me and helps me generate new ideas, just because you as a subject of analysis don't agree with this framework.

Yes, it does mean that you don't always get a fair chance to defend yourself. The image of you that I have created in some people's minds, might be disliked, unfairly, wrongly, and you can't do anything to change that. I will try to avoid this to some extent. But if I give you a chance to defend yourself every time, to be a part of every conversation where you are mentioned, I will lose a valuable tool I use for thinking. Sometimes we can find a compromise here. Sometimes we can't.

I want to expand on "valuable tool I use for thinking" a bit, too. It's not just that I need others' input that you can't provide. Sometimes I just need their presence.

I think out loud. I say something, then think about whether it was true or not. This is how I find out what I think.

Without doing this, the only thoughts I can produce are cached thoughts. Ones that I have figured out before, but have not reevaluated. Putting them out there is necessary to reevaluate them, for me at least. And somebody has to be listening, not always, but often — otherwise I just keep thinking the same things without ever changing my mind.

If you've ever been in therapy, you probably know this. I have two quotes to illustrate — descriptions by two different therapists. Peterson:

A client of mine might say, “I hate my wife.” It’s out there, once said. It’s hanging in the air. It has emerged from the underworld, materialized from chaos, and manifested itself. It is perceptible and concrete and no longer easily ignored. It’s become real. The speaker has even startled himself. He sees the same thing reflected in my eyes. He notes that, and continues on the road to sanity. “Hold it,” he says. “Back up. That’s too harsh. Sometimes I hate my wife. I hate her when she won’t tell me what she wants. My mom did that all the time, too. [...] That really affected me. Maybe I overreact now when it happens even a bit. Hey! I’m acting just like Dad did when Mom upset him! That isn’t me. That doesn’t have anything to do with my wife! I better let her know.” [...] Now [the client] is a bit more differentiated, a bit less an uncarved block, a bit less hidden in the fog.

And Gendlin:

When Eugene Gendlin was first developing Focusing, he noticed that the patients who tended to make progress were making lots of uncertain noises during their sessions. They would hem and haw and hesitate and correct themselves and slowly iterate toward a statement they could actually endorse:

“I had a fight with my mother last week. Or—well—it wasn’t exactly a fight, I guess? I mean—ehhhhhhh—well, we were definitely shouting at the end, and I’m pretty sure she’s mad at me. [...] It’s like—hmmmmm—more like there are things she wants—she expects—she thinks I should do, just because—because of, I dunno, like tradition and filial piety, or something?”

Whereas patients who tended not to find value in therapy were those who already had a firm narrative with little room for uncertainty or perspective shift:

“Okay, so, I had another fight with my mother last week; she continues to make a lot of demands that are unreasonable and insists on pretending like she can decode my actions into some kind of hidden motive, [...]. It’s frustrating, because that relationship is important to me, but she’s making it so that the only way I can maintain it is through actions I feel like I shouldn’t have to take.”

According to Gendlin, this effect was the dominant factor in patient outlook—more important than the type of therapy, or the magnitude of the problem, or the skill and experience of the therapist.

This is how I change my mind:

  • I say "this is horseshit". Now it's public, it's hanging in the air.
  • But I don't want to be seen as unfair. If I am in a safe environment, surrounded by people I know aren't going to fight me, I will keep going: "hmmm, maybe this isn't quite horseshit in all cases though, sometimes it's good".
  • I am in no danger of losing an argument one way or the other, so I can keep thinking out loud, and eventually arrive at "actually this might be a good thing, I guess I don't know one way or the other".
  • Then I will shut up — and in a week or a month I might have a better opinion, because I will have more evidence on my hands, because I will be curious (in background) about whether it's actually a good thing or not.

On the other hand, if I say "this is horseshit" and I know you disagree and you're watching, there's no fucking way I will be fair. I will try to win. I will try to make the wittiest argument for why something you like is horseshit. I will try to demolish you in public. Your unseen presence will hurt your cause rather than help it.

Finally: all of the same reasons, but applied to socializing rather than arguing. I am going to talk about this briefly and then the essay is over.

Socializing is "becoming a good playmate", where "playmate" is a very very broad thing. Not all of us have learned to be good playmates when we should have — in the childhood. So we have to learn now.

To socialize, it's not enough to have your behavior judged by other people. You also need to get good at judging others' behavior. Communities need to enforce norms. If you can't enforce norms, you are less efficient at helping your community.

Discussing people is literally an exercise in enforcing norms. Calling people out and letting them know is a harder level. Calling people out and not letting them know is an easier level. You want to start with an easier level. The point isn't to call people out, but to train the skill of calling people out.

If your goal is to socialize yourself, practicing in a safer environment is useful. If somebody denies you that opportunity, punch them in the face. Or in the back.

P.S. — Are there good reasons not to talk behind people's backs? Sure. I am not going to talk about them because I only have a vague idea of what they are. Perhaps eventually I will notice that even despite all the reasons above, talking behind people's backs hurts more than it helps. Perhaps in some communities it is in itself a violation of norms, and you will be in trouble if you're even found out talking behind someone's back. Etc.

P.P.S. — This essay grew out of a bunch of DM's I have sent to somebody. Maybe they will help:

I mean, I don’t mind being dragged into whatever — I can always nope out

Just wanted to publicly approve the idea of discussing people behind their backs, because it’s an idea that doesn’t get public approval that often, and yet it’s been super useful to me

Specifically, I’ve gotten a lot out of being able to use other people’s behavior/ideas/etc to discover my own preferences — sort of like doing therapy with others’ writings being therapy prompts, or figuring out what I think is a good/bad idea, by writing about those ideas and thinking several hours later “hm actually I was wrong”

And this all would have been impossible if the original authors had any say in the matter