Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why Three-Part Messages Fail

This web site frequently refers readers to the work of a writer known as Suzette Haden Elgin (in book publishing) or Ozarque (in cyberspace), almost with reverence, as if her writing were inspired Scripture. Well, yes, actually I do believe Ozarque was mortal and fallible.


Possibly the biggest error in what she had to say to readers my age, and younger, is something that was apparently true—at one time—for her own generation.

When I first heard about “three-part messages,” or “three-part ‘I’ statements,” even as a teenager, I knew I was hearing something profoundly wrong. I asked many older people how it was possible for anyone to imagine that, in any situation that might be described as “confrontation,” words like “I feel angry” would not instantly provoke an argument, and usually an ugly argument at that. Didn’t everyone know that if you say to a child something like “When you fail to water the tomato plants, I feel sad, because the tomatoes can’t grow without water” (even assuming a climate where that makes sense), any child over about age three is going to say, either to you or as soon as you turn your back, “Well, you’re mad and I’m glad!” Didn’t everyone know that if you say to an adult something like “When you throw your trash in my back yard, I feel angry, because my back yard is not the city dump,” any self-respecting baby-boomer is going to say something like, “Oh yes, I can see that you do feel angry, but I don’t really think it has anything to do with anything like trash in your back yard. I think you really need to take this up with a doctor…”

Yet a large and vocal minority of mostly upper-middle-class members of the Greatest Generation affirm that saying things like “When your car ran over my dog, I felt sad, because it injured the dog so badly,” has enabled them to get their messages across “without argument.”

I confess, friends, I am puzzled. When someone says something like “When you step on my toe, I feel hurt, because you weigh at least 100 pounds and that’s a lot of weight on my toe,” I feel bewildered that they feel the need to go to such elaborate and unnatural lengths. If I did in fact step on your toe, under normal conditions all you’d need to say would be “Ow.” That primal sound, alone, would convince me that what I’d stepped on was your toe, which I’d step off if possible, saying “Sorry.” In any alternative situations that come to mind I’m sure that any alternative words I might think of, like “Sorry I can’t move now, because in addition to my 100-plus pounds you’re also feeling about twenty cubic feet of rubble weighing down on our feet,” would also seem unnecessary. Silly, even.

Then there’s a category of “three-part messages” that might be represented by “When you screamed out loud, ‘What’s your daughter doing these days?’ so that people all over the mall turned to look at us, and you continued to shout so that people all over the mall could hear you, ‘Well my daughter just made Phi Beta Kappa at M.I.T.!!!’, I felt sad, because I had already told you my daughter is dead.” Here we can give the person the benefit of the doubt and imagine that s/he really wanted, primarily, to be overheard bragging about her/his brilliant offspring, even if s/he had to hurt someone’s feelings to do that. 

Actually, in many cases people who say things like this are more like the “sadistic trolls” of cyberspace. They may know you personally, resent you, and want to bring unpleasant memories to the surface of your mind; although it may be against some people’s religion to admit it, people like that do exist. Or they may not know you well—they may not remember that your daughter is dead, even if they’ve been told that six times, because some of these people really do not care about anyone but themselves enough to pay attention or remember other people’s “news” items. They may just want everybody all over the mall to turn and look at them as they screech about their daughter, but, deep down, there probably is a reason why they singled out an acquaintance who has a daughter who is dead, rather than, say, waiting for an attractive member of the opposite sex to walk past, alone, and then screeching, “Let me buy you a drink, or even a pizza,’cos I’m so happy I feel like treating total strangers today, because my daughter just made Phi Beta Kappa at M.I.T.” 

It’s called one-upmanship. Their joy is complete only when they take some of the joy away from someone else. That’s the game they play; that’s what many of them understand social life and conversation to be—one big game with the objective of scoring off other people. And if you tell someone like this that s/he made you feel sad, you are encouraging him or her.


Actually, this category encompasses the people to whom we might want to say things like “When you said ‘Nobody would ever vote for a **** Jew like Joe Lieberman,’ I felt angry, because I…” (choose as many as apply) “intend to vote for a competent moderate politician like Joe Lieberman,” “voted for Lieberman, repeatedly, when I lived in his State,” “am Jewish myself,” “am a whole-Bible Christian, and my Bible tells me not to oppress anybody,” “had a grandfather who died fighting against that kind of hate,” “don’t see how a Jewish President could be worse than the Muslim or half-Muslim President we’ve had for eight years, and/or the Christian/s we had before him,” “don’t agree with Lieberman’s politics, but his religion has nothing to do with it,” “think Lieberman is far too moderate, myself, but we’ve had a lot of good lefties who were Jewish,” etc. etc. etc. (What about "am picking on Lieberman because I've not said anything good about a Democrat presidential candidate in this election"?)

Some people still hold various quaint old prejudices, but these days those are not the people who engage in public “baiting” of ethnic groups. Real bigots have already noticed that overt displays of bigotry tend to make an enormous range of people angry, for an enormous range of reasons, and create more trouble for the bigots than the bigots feel the displays are worth. Anyone still overtly spouting prejudice almost certainly wants to make you or me angry. Consider the old story about what one of the young Kennedys allegedly admitted: on seeing the Republican stickers in a taxicab, he immediately put his dirty shoes up on the seat, lighted a cigarette just to burn the upholstery, muttered nasty drunken remarks about the kind of people who drive cabs these days and their mothers, didn’t tip, short-changed the driver, and ran into a dark alley shouting “Vote for Goldwater!” So what I’d be likely to say, if I’d heard that kind of anti-Lieberman remark in real life, would be, “How much are the Democrats paying you? You don’t mean to say you’re campaigning for a candidate like that, making a real hate magnet of yourself…for free?”

But in the majority of Necessary Confrontations, when someone my age or younger is likely to stop throwing trash in your back yard if you deliver that message without distraction, it’s generally helpful to ignore the whole topic of emotions—even if the person tries to distract you by crying or swearing, it’s good to ignore that. Stick to an updated kind of three-part message: “When you throw your trash in my back yard, I have to deal with your trash, so now, as a result…”

It’s still a good idea to plan these messages carefully. What are you doing to your trashy neighbor as a result of his obnoxious habits? What rights do local laws give you to sue your neighbor for property damage, and how much does your lawyer’s name intimidate your neighbor’s lawyer? If you don’t have applicable local laws and plan just to return your neighbor’s garbage with compound interest, how far are you and your neighbor prepared to escalate the garbage war? What other consequences are likely to motivate this neighbor to stop throwing his trash in your back yard?

It is not a good idea to mention your emotional feelings when you want to focus attention on the need for someone else to change his or her behavior. Anyone who grew up in the Age of Therapy knows at least half a dozen different ways to turn any mention of any emotion into an argument that can be used against you. If you mentioned your emotions, that person is guaranteed to “win” the argument. Why should s/he even bother talking about less fascinating topics, like the veterinary expenses of a dog s/he backed a car into, or trash in someone else’s yard, or the disgusting thing s/he said about someone you happen to like, when s/he can change the subject to what is the matter with you, and why whatever you were talking about should be considered strictly as a “symptom” and not taken seriously.

I would like very much to know how Suzette Haden Elgin, who was one of the world’s experts on her generation’s techniques of what she called “cutesipation,” ever managed to hand an opponent a weapon like “I feel sad/angry/hurt, because…” and report, with a straight face, that that was a way to persuade anybody to water the tomato plants or stop throwing his trash in your yard. I would like to know that in an experiential way. I don’t believe I ever will; I’m sure anyone she was able to persuade, adult-to-adult, to do anything after saying “I feel” must be dead by now, and any child she ever persuaded to water any plants with an “I feel” speech must be an adult who’s resolved never to do anything else merely because someone in his or her generation has an emotional feeling about it. 

I’m sure that people whose sense of courtesy prevented them from quibbling with “I feel” must have been very nice people. Though I suspect they were also people who micro-oppressed others, or accepted micro-oppression by others, using that verbal technique that makes the sense of intolerable oppression so pervasive in Native Tongue—simply basing everything on the presupposition that all women (or all Black people or all people whose native language isn’t English) are feeble-minded. One habit of communication (or manipulation) does not necessarily depend on the other, but historically they do seem to have been found in the same time and place…

For my generation, the Rule of Three may still be hard-wired into our brains, but the structure of an effective three-part message is different. It’s “When you [do X], then [Y happens], and as a result, now [Z is happening or will happen].” All objective facts that are verifiable in the real world. No emotions.

Live long and prosper, Gentle Readers.