Friday, February 12, 2010

I need a sanity check

Last night I was engaged in an email exchange with a person whose views I generally respect. The following exchange ensued, starting me my responding to a point that he had made:

Me: You're confusing two different things ...

Him: No, I'm not confused at all. See, this is why I say that once you start disagreeing it's a waste of time to try to communicate with you. Or at least too upsetting for me to want to engage in. You rapidly veer into putdowns and insults. "You're confused" is an insult. "I have the following different way of looking at it" is a constructive disagreement. See the difference?

Me: I didn't say you were [confused]. "Confusing two different things" and "being confused" are not the same thing.

Him: Stopped reading after this. End of discussion. Thanks for what information you did provide while it lasted. Unfortunate to be reminded of my problems with you. Oh well.

This really bothered me. (I lost sleep over it in fact.) So I need a sanity check. Is it really an insult to say to someone, "You're confusing two different things..."? Or is this person being overly sensitive?


Robert said...

In general, I'd say that that phrase by itself needs to be backed up with strong facts to prove your argument.

If you just say that phrase alone, or the rest of the 'tone' of your message is condescending in some way, then to certain people that might be offensive.

It's also possible the person your emailing with is having a bad day/week/month and was just quick to snap.

It's hard to say who was more 'in the right' without more context.

Ron said...

Here's the entire context:

"You're confusing two different things, the value of the company, and the value of the product that the company produces. These are often related, but not always. Because [Company X] bought [Company Y], then by your own definition [Y] (the company) has value for [X]. This is true regardless of how many people use [Y] (the service)."

Robert said...

Doesn't sound bad at all to me. Based on the information I have available, it appears he may have over-reacted.

I would not worry yourself about this.

Some people just have wildly different views on things, and no matter how wrong other people may think they are, they just can't be convinced that their views are incorrect.

Nothing I've seen here comes off as insulting, so I would not worry about your behavior being a cause of this.

Ron said...


Pascal Costanza said...

The person may not be a native speaker. For example, in German, the literal translation of "confused" is the passive form of a verb that in its active form means to intentionally try to create confusion in another person, although you actually know better.

Ron said...

Hi Pascal! Welcome to Rondam Ramblings :-)

This person is a native speaker. But somewhat ironically, I may not be. English is my third language, and I didn't start learning it until I was 5. It certainly feels like my native tongue now, but every now and then I still hit a linguistic (or sometimes a cultural) speed bump that makes me question myself. I seem to have an uncanny knack for rubbing some people the wrong way without meaning to.

Justin said...

You could have said it in a less-confrontational way. Example: "Please keep in mind that we're talking about two different things, the value of the company, and the value of the product that the company produces. These are often related, but not always. Because [Company X] bought [Company Y], then by your own definition [Y] (the company) has value for [X]. This is true regardless of how many people use [Y] (the service)."

Ruchira Datta said...

I would say that the person was over-reacting. However, you might have been able to anticipate the over-reaction depending on the context, e.g., does this person already have some reason to think you are in a position to condescend to them? I've been saying and hearing things like "you're confusing two things" for many years, but usually both parties are at the same college/graduate school/workplace/lab, so the underlying assumption is we're both smart and we know smart people can still confuse things. Maybe this person already is insecure about this for some reason, so you might have to bend over backwards to avoid any appearance of condescension. But I have to say, in your place I probably would have written or spoken the same way.

Ron said...

> You could have said it in a less-confrontational way.

Certainly I could have. But what I'm wondering is whether I *should* have. Parsing these kinds of fine nuances doesn't come naturally to me. There's a reason I chose to become a software engineer rather than, say, a politician or a diplomat or a salesman. If I were to go down that road I'd have to put conscious effort into nearly every sentence I wrote and ask: Am I being too confrontational here? Do I need to be more diplomatic? Am I going overboard and becoming condescending? And if my intuitions aren't reliable, on what basis do I make these kinds of judgement calls?

I've wrestled with these issues a lot over the years. Aspergers I suppose. The lambda calculus and quantum mechanics are a cake walk for me compared to the subtleties of interpersonal interactions.

Ron said...

Hi Ruchira!

> does this person already have some reason to think you are in a position to condescend to them?

I don't think so. But this is one of these things that I have a very bad track record on assessing. What does it even mean to "be in a position to condescend"? I have no power over this person. He probably outranks me in the general social pecking order. Is that what you meant?

But this is what bothers me about this particular episode: I *did* know that this person could be very touchy. Like I said, we have had previous interactions and without exception have ended up at loggerheads. (That's what his comment, "Unfortunate to be reminded of my problems with you." was referring to.) So I was actually trying very hard *not* to be insulting or confrontational or condescending. I was really trying to be on my best behavior, and it *still* spun wildly out of control. That took me back to some dark days.

For the record, I was using the word "confuse" in the sense of the third definition given by Merriam Webster:

3 a : to make indistinct : blur b : to mix indiscriminately : jumble c : to fail to differentiate from an often similar or related other

I simply could not imagine how that could be construed to be insulting in any way. But maybe "confuse" is one of those words that carries baggage beyond its dictionary definition, like "ignorant" or "retarded" or "niggard" (with a D)?

I'm so confused! :-(

Ruben said...

I don't usually find that kind of language offensive or demeaning, unless I detect other signs that reinforce the idea that the speaker has a condescending attitude towards me.

It's true that there are less confrontational ways to convey your meaning, but I don't think you should worry too much about that. The other person's reaction seem to me rather over the top. He's not only overreacting, he's doing it in a destructive way. While there's a conversation going on, any perceived misstep can be clarified, qualified or taken back altogether. But once one part of the conversation shuts himself off, it's all over.

But then, it looks this isn't the first time this has happened between you - so you both are in a better position than us to assess the other persons's attitude.

Who am I to give you advice anyway - English is not my first language either, and I have a way of rubbing people the wrong way too :)

Don Geddis said...

If your post had been a letter to Ms. Manners, the answer would be: "the phrase you're confusing two different things is not an insult."

That said, you personally have a history of discussion conflict with this individual, and with other individuals, and you self-admit to being bad at social cues.

So when you talk later about whether you need to bend over backwards in your writing, I might advise: "maybe".

I think there's actually a middle ground here. You can't double-think every sentence you write. But once a sentence unintentionally causes offense, you can reflect on your history, and accept the blame (whether deserved or not), as an alternative to getting better at social cues (with a lot more effort and practice).

In the particular exchange in your post, my reaction would be: you did nothing "wrong" with the original "you're confusing two different things" comment. But once he complained, your followup of "[phrase 1] and [phrase 2] are not the same thing" was unnecessarily antagonist and arrogant.

Not to say you were wrong; you were actually right. But this may be the missing social cue. Once he said, "I'm insulted", you could have kept the conversation productive by responding instead: "I meant no offense by my phrasing. Let me restate it. I meant that, the value of a company, and the value of the company's product, are two different things, and it's important to consider them distinctly."

That totally sidesteps the issue of who was "right" during the original exchange, and it acknowledges his hurt feelings (whether deserved or not).

Yes, it was not your fault that he overreacted to your original language. But your response to him getting upset was, "not only are you wrong about the original topic, you are also wrong to get upset."

You are correct on the facts, but at the same time his cutting off the discussion should not be a shock. Most "normal" (non-Asperger's, non-geek) people respond much more to status seeking and signaling and emotion, than they do to pure truth-seeking. Who is "right" or "wrong" is often secondary to the nature of the interpersonal interaction.

Stephen Collings said...

"You're confusing two different things" is in no way an insult. "Conflating" might be a better word to use, if only because people have less of a clear idea what it means. But yes, other guy totally overreacted.

Cris said...


Typically when people react as your correspondent did, there's a longer-term context in which they interpret your utterance. This is quite apparent in the way he elaborated, after you tried to continue the communication.
Thus it is hard for an outsider like myself to offer a meaningful judgment.

However, a few reminders apply:

(1) email is treacherous at times, as there's no inflection, etc.; but you knew that already

(2) you are in the US (as am I) and thus you are correct to communicate within US conventions, that are well-known to be very straightforward and devoid of ceremony. What sounds rude to others (even other native speakers of English) often falls within correct professional (let alone) personal conversations. Geoff Nunberg has written about this (e.g., on French correspondence conventions) better than I could in this little box.

(3) Notwithstanding (2) there's a subset of communications (typically between sexual partners, e.g., spouses) which in the US are deemed deserving of special consideration -- in which one is enjoined to avoid anything that might be deemed remotely judgmental. The caricature couples therapist of many a sitcom puts it as " don't say you don't understand me, say I feel that sometimes you don't understand me". Only you know if this clause applies to the exchange, but it doesn't sound to me like it does.

(4) We all have bad days. We are all nonnative speakers in some context (hang out with any teenagers lately).
You can still say, "I am sorry that I put things in terms that upset you, what can I do to 'resync' our conversation?" ... if the person/relationship is worth it to you.

FWIW I have on-and-off read your ramblings and find you an honest and rational person ... in your writings into the ether, at least.

Be well.

Dan said...

I don't think that what you said was necessarily insulting, but I think I can understand why it was perceived that way. I have been in positions similar to both of you in your conversation.

When I was studying math we would use the word "lie" very liberally (many logic problems are setup involving a "liar" as a device). If someone says something to me that I think they could reasonably know is wrong my first reaction is usually to say, "that's a lie" but this almost invariable offends people because lying has such negative connotations. Instead I try to say, "that's a contradiction" and it seems to help.

I agree with Don Geddis' comments above that your reaction to his reaction could have been better. It seems that what could have been a speed bump turned into a full-stop because of you both perceived yourselves to be the victim of a misunderstanding by the other.

I'd like to validate the point of view of your conversation partner briefly. It's easy to see how calling someone a liar might offend them. We can say the same of racial epithets. But not long ago in America it was common to use such terms without a second thought. My point is that in hindsight the offenses seem more obvious but beforehand many people wouldn't have thought them so. I'm reminded of a part of Cryptonomicon where a character describes the difference in the phrase "morphine addict" in English and German. In German, he says, the term translates more closely to "a person who seeks morphine". The distinction being that the subject is still a person, and has other human qualities, whereas a morphine addict is limited to just that. Before that I never considered that such a phrase could have such an impact. Now I am more mindful whenever I use the verb "to be". (He is a father vs. he has children, seem to have different but subtle connotations. More examples include words like terrorist, jihadi, extremist, fascist, etc. How different would the news be if these people were described as fathers or husbands or daughters who engaged in acts of terrorism?)

Perfectly normal (and accurate) phrases have profound impact on our perceptions and interactions and they won't necessarily become social faux pas overtime, so we won't collectively gain some hindsight about how offensive they were. And perhaps we never should, just as we shouldn't outlaw the terms outright. We can still be open to the possibility that these phrases convey much more than we realize and that in time it will seem obvious on a personal level. I realize that your post is actually a testament to this openness.

How that all relates is that I also try to notice when I tell someone how they feel, what they think, what they are doing, or trying to do, especially in an argumentative discussion or debate. Even if it seems clear to me that someone confused two ideas, rather than tell them what they've done, I might buffer it with something like, "I'm worried you're confusing these ideas" or ask a question, "Is it possible you're confusing these ideas?" Your post has reminded me that it's a good rule of thumb. Thanks.

P.S. Hope that wasn't too long-winded and made some sense.

Ross said...

Some individuals have such a thin skin that any hint of disagreement brings on the water-works. Once I identify people who are that sensitive and insecure, I do one of two things, I either avoid contact entirely, or if that's not possible (*cough*step-mother*cough*), I become very quiet and agreeable until I can get away again.

Sounds like you found one. He seems to believe that disagreeing is being insulting, which is ultimately his problem and not yours.

Dennis Gorelik said...

I'd say -- don't worry much about that.
You probably have plenty of people to discuss your topics.
What you don't have -- is time to be perfectly polite with everyone.
Some level of politeness is certainly needed, but in this case you were definitely above required threshold.