What people will (and will not) say to others..
Here are 5 statements:
“You have a nice place.”
“You’re a bit lazy, and I’m sure you’d have gotten more out of the latest lecture if you’d read the material more carefully beforehand.”
“you have a fantastic episodic memory.”
“I love that you actually read these kinds of things…”
“The place would have looked less messy if you’d dusted a bit before we arrived.”
Yesterday I was told 3 of those things. One is a direct quote, the other two are English translations of what was said in Danish. I don’t think it takes a lot of work for you to realize which of the above statements I ‘made up’.
There’s a lot of stuff you can’t say. And a lot of stuff you’re expected to say. And there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t go into either of those categories.
I assume that saying nice things to others will most often make others think you’re more likely to be a nice person, because saying nice things is certainly something most people would assume that nice people are more likely to do (doing nice things is a stronger signal than saying nice things, but saying nice things provides many psychological benefits as well).
Providing constructive criticism will often be a much more risky thing to do than to say something nice, even if that criticism includes potentially much more useful information. This is, among other things, because the more potentially useful the criticism provided is, the more likely the other party is to respond emotionally, rather than rationally, to the criticism in question. So people are unlikely to run the risk of providing useful constructive criticism to another individual before they know the other party well (…and presumably have said a lot of nice things to them). Granted, someone who knows the other individual well is also more likely to be able to provide constructive criticism so this dynamic is not without benefits (lower signal to noise ratio), but the total amount of constructive criticism supplied would surely be much higher if it was costless to provide it to strangers. One big problem is that it’s hard to credibly commit to not taking constructive criticism personally and responding emotionally.
At this point it seems to me that most people who interact with me regularly are being nice to me and mostly say nice things to me. I find it interesting that I rarely explicitly acknowledge that this fact may not necessarily have anything to do with me and my attributes, and that people may say nice things simply because of how they believe such statements reflect on themselves (‘I’m the kind of person who says that he has a nice place. That’s what nice people say – so I must be a nice person.’). Also, communication strategies may be implicit and not subject to close scrutiny by the people employing them – indeed it may be optimal not to subject your communication strategies to close scrutiny, as an implicit approach to these matters makes it harder to evaluate e.g. the level of sincerity displayed (and thus makes you more likely to successfully claim at the very least plausible deniability when you’re not being perfectly honest). Different perceptions of an individual’s status, attributes, etc., may make some sincere nice statements from one individual to the other seem insincere to the receiver (making a (negative) emotional response more likely).
Maybe a good way of thinking about this stuff is in terms of a binary social (verbal) feedback varible, which may be either ‘nice’ or ‘critical’, and then making an analogy to consumption vs investment. Nice things being said have consumption value; we like when others say nice things about us, and we derive pleasure from that. Criticism has investment characteristics; it’s initially costly (it hurts to be told you’re lazy), but it may have large positive effects in the long run if potential improvement strategies are addressed. Most of income is consumption – we’re mostly told nice things. If consumption is very low (not enough social validation from peers), it may be better for an individual to lower income than to invest the marginal unit of income; even potentially very useful criticism may not be very welcome when you feel socially rejected by others. Actually you’ll only be willing to undertake an investment (accept critical remarks) once your consumption is higher than some specific baseline level (people are required to say a lot of nice things to others before they’re allowed to say less nice things to them without repercussions).
I don’t know. I like when people say nice things to me, so I’m certainly not telling anybody to stop doing that. But social stuff is confusing when you start to think about it.
On a related note – yesterday three people said something nice to me. Yesterday was a good day.
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