The Ambiguity Abyss

We set the scene, with creepy, faceless icons.
We set the scene, with creepy, faceless icons.

[Content Note: lots of talk about gender relations and some talk about assault.]

There’s this Thing that happens where someone (usually a man) is accused of assaulting someone or being generally creepy or boundary-crossing. For a while, I’ve had a story about what I believe is often (but not always) causing this to be such an extremely volatile conversation. A few weeks back, I started testing this explanation on people, and it seemed to make sense to them. All it needed was a name and a public debut. Last week, it got both of those. So! The ambiguity abyss problem:

1. Alice, who is new to the scene is talking to Bob at a meetup. Alice isn’t terribly invested in Bob, and ready to leave the conversation. She feels like she’s signaling this; giving the body cues of turning away and trying to engage others in conversation, talking in monosyllables, and not engaging except to answer the questions Bob asks.

2. The evenings starts to wrap up as people trickle out and away. Bob offers to walk Alice to her room, as it’s late.

3. Alice doesn’t have any strong preference that he doesn’t, and is on the spot when Bob says “I’ll walk you, it’s dark!” It seems extremely rude to give a flat “No”, and she doesn’t want to seem irrational or silly in front of the new people she’s just met for refusing a walk home.

4. Bob talks for much of the walk. Alice talks in monosyllables, but isn’t sure Bob notices that she’s trying to give all the signals of being disinterested.

5. They get to Alice’s apartment, and Bob walks in behind Alice, rather than saying goodbye.

Okay, pause for a second. Right now we have Dude Who Misses Cues and did something fairly uncomfortable. But if you’ve ever wandered into a conversation only to realize that everyone was waiting for you to leave, or overstayed your welcome, this is familiar. Unfortunately, Guy Who Is Well Meaning And Missed All Those Hints and Guy Who is Pretending to Miss Hints In Order To Talk His Way Into Isolating You are currently indistinguishable. 


6. Now, Alice is in the uncomfortable position of having someone who pattern-matches to dangerous (seemed to be not reacting to signals that she didnt’ want to be near him, won’t go away, has walked into her room, etc etc etc.)

7. Alice is quite scared and gets more abrupt. She all but pushes Bob out the door.

Alice and Eve8. Alice is unsure whether or not she got lucky by averting something bad, or Bob just didn’t realize he was making her really uncomfortable. Since the difference between dangerous and socially-awkward is quite vast and also quite important for the next time she sees Bob, Alice talks to her friend Eve about it. (Also, humans are just bad at living with ambiguous identities. Being able to categorize Bob as either harmless but boorish, or dangerous will meant devoting less mental energy to turning the encounter over and over in Alice’s head.)

The conversation with Eve could go a few ways.

Option 1: Eve could endorse the “yeah, he’s well meaning but just really doesn’t notice when people aren’t enjoying talking to him” thing, and Alice is happy to hear this. In the future, she just finds it mildly annoying when Bob does similar things.  She works harder to be more direct, or just carefully sidesteps one-on-one interactions with Bob. Not ideal, but a fixable problem.

Lots of faceless peopleOption 2: OR, Eve could say “Wow, I keep hearing this story, and do you know last year when Samantha told Bob he was making her uncomfortable he got really mad and yelled at her until she called the police!”

And so when two new women join the group, Alice or Eve warn them to not let the third step happen: not letting Bob get into conversation with you, lest ye end up having Samantha or Alice’s experience. This continues on for a while.

Keep in mind, Bob has thus far been sort of a jerk who could plausibly be categorized as socially unaware in combination with jerkhood. However, he’s done it so many times and reacted so very badly when someone called him out on it, that people are concerned about his potential to escalate. Now, everyone wants to avoid that scenario and warns each other.

Later in our fictional scenario, Bob is accused of assaulting someone.  It’s a case of he and she said,

She said he followed her to her room at night. She tried to push him out, he became angry and shoved her against the wall. A passerby is heard outside. He backed off and left.

He said that he walked her home, and was annoyed when she rudely told him to leave, but didn’t touch her.

And then here’s what happens:

A group of (mostly women) who include Alice, Eve, Samantha, and people who know them,  come out of the woodwork and all side with the woman who accused Bob. He must have done it! He’s known for this sort of thing! In their hands/ears/brain, they’ve got a bunch of priors: Bob doesn’t take indirect hints that he’s not wanted, and reacts explosively to direct hints. It fits in with the pattern they’ve seen, experienced, or heard about. They’re mightily frustrated that they have been updating as they get more information…and it feels like nobody will listen to them or consider that any of this is plausible.

A group of (mostly men) who don’t know Alice, Eve, or Samantha are quite upset in the opposite direction. All they’ve seen is this guy, Bob, who missed some cues (who doesn’t?) and is a little socially awkward (who isn’t?) be accused of something for which there is no more information than he-said/she-said. Then, they’ve watched a group of people leap right past the whole charitability thing and go about dogpiling on Bob. And what happened to innocent-until-proven-guilty?

And so these two groups stare across at each other, each thinking the other is Wrong and Bad, and also hazardous to having a safe community. Group One badly wants to know that if they’re hurt or assaulted or treated badly, they can be believed (because it feels like Group Two isn’t listening). And Group Two badly wants to know that they can make social faux pas without being summarily thrown out of the group.

23 thoughts on “The Ambiguity Abyss

    1. mmm, I disagree that it’s so simple.

      For instance, imagine you were Outside Observer, when you saw #1 in the example. It would be really uncomfortable to go up and tell Bob that he seemed to be boring Alice. In fact, Alice might really resent you doing so, because she’d worry that Bob would be given the impression that she complained to you, Observer. Not to mention, you’d be signing yourself up for constantly monitoring all interactions.

      I think it’s possible some good could come of being extremely good at reading the body language of everyone in their respective conversations at a meetup, but that is a great deal of work! It doesn’t come naturally, and then requires the skill of deciding exactly when to step in. I don’t want to say “should have just” for things that are hard, because then people won’t actually do them. These are very hard problems!

      1. Sorry if this comment shows up twice, I’m not sure it worked the first time.

        My immediate reaction was that Alice, Eve, et al should have told the menfolk about Bob’s behavior back when they were first discussing it, so that everybody could share their information and Aumann’s Agreement Theorem their way into mutual priors

      2. I can see that as being appealing, but say I’m Eve. I might have some sympathy for Bob…or for Samantha, in not wanting *everyone* in the group to know what happened to me. Or say I’m someone who heard about what happened to Samantha…it would feel an awful lot like gossip to keep passing that around to people who aren’t at potential direct risk from Bob.

      3. Off topic: is there a way to continue threading conversations on here? I wish to respond to your most recent comment starting with “I can see” and have it be in the proper order and all that. Here’s hoping this does that.

        >it would feel an awful lot like gossip to keep passing that around to people who aren’t at potential direct risk from Bob.

        Yeah, it would feel like that, because it would be. Gossip is not inherently a bad thing, and the fact that it has acquired a reputation as being such is causing problems (case in point). This is particularly a problem in rationalist communities, as rationalists seem more likely than most to not grok how important gossip is. Gossip serves many very valuable social functions. Among others, it’s a great way of disseminating information while allowing people to save face. For instance, in this situation, Alice and Eve discuss Bob. They agree that it looks like there’s a problem.

        They then gossip about this with Samantha and some others, update more so now they’re confident there’s a problem, and start including Carlos and Derek in their gossiping about Bob. Carlos and Edwin are close friends with Bob, so Samantha, Carlos, and Derek gossip with Edwin, with Alice being directly involved or not depending on how much anonymity she wants, and then Carlos and Edwin sit down with Bob and talk about the reputation he’s acquiring.

        This final conversation can be had with everyone involved not knowing who the rumors originated with, and so Alice’s anonymity is preserved, so she doesn’t need to fear reprisal. It can be presented in whatever manner is most likely to convince him, which, being his close friends, they likely know. They can even sympathize and be all “yeah bitches be trippin, but wishin don’t make trippin not so, so if you want to improve your reputation, recognize this as part of the landscape and act accordingly”.

      4. Short answer: there might be, I’ll go poke around to improve threading.

        Longer answer: I mostly agree, and think that yeah, gossip on the whole has the wrong reputation. It’s volatile but can be extremely useful. I think the scenario you outline is potentially awesome, and what I see as succeeding, but sometimes simply doesn’t act quickly enough. Alice might have left already, or the group (or larger movement it’s from) might have enough instances of this being needed that it gets a reputation for being unfriendly to women.

      5. Generally, I see clear, direct communication as the cure for ambiguity. After Alice talked to Eve, if Option 1 is taken, the problem is largely solved, and Alice can just avoid Bob because he has trouble reading her cues and she doesn’t want to communicate directly. If Option 2 is taken, then sticking to the shadows seems like the worst possible option. At that point, something should be done. Talk to the group leaders about Bob’s behavior. They can then approach Bob, let him know that they’ve received complaints, and see if he has any sort of explanation. Perhaps impose some sanctions on Bob (i.e. no going home with anyone from official meetup events without explicit verbal consent in front of witnesses). At the very least, let Bob know that his behavior is being interpreted as predatory and see if it changes.

        If Bob is well-meaning but clueless, he will respond well to criticism and attempt to change his behavior. It’s possible that the report of him getting angry in response to criticism were overblown, or that the criticism was said in an especially inflammatory and unkind way. If I were a group leader, I would approach Bob myself and see how he reacts. If he reacts badly or refuses to accept any responsibility for his behavior, it might be time to consider banning him from events. If his version of the facts is very different from Alice’s (e.g. “Alice asked me to walk her home;” “Alice invited me in”), then it becomes a credibility determination. One of them is lying or misremembering, so (sadly) it’s up to group leaders who they believe. However, if there are several report of Bob doing the same thing to other women, and no evidence (e.g. texts/emails) other than he said/she said, it seems reasonable to conclude that Bob’s version of events is likely inaccurate. I wouldn’t kick him out for the incident with Alice, but if he got so angry that the police were involved, it might make sense to issue a ban, or at least issue a public warning to Bob, so that all group members are aware of what people are saying about him.

        Backchanneling and gossip seems like one of the worst solutions. If Bob is dangerous, everyone should know. If Bob is not dangerous, then people shouldn’t be gossiping about him. If we don’t know if Bob is dangerous, then we examine the evidence (giving Bob an opportunity to defend himself, of course) and apply our judgment to determine a reasonable probability of Bob assaulting someone in our group.

        Backchanneling and gossip are only the best option if they are the ONLY option. If, e.g. Bob IS the leader of the group, or holds some sort of position of power, or is otherwise untouchable for some reason, then things have to be done on the DL. But that sort of thing should only be done when there are no other options.

      6. @wfenza

        “If Bob is well-meaning but clueless, he will respond well to criticism and attempt to change his behavior”

        Many if not all clueless people are resentful about being constantly misunderstood and unappreciated and might react very badly to criticism.

        Also, in order to preserve Alice’s anonymity, details of the incident would probably be withheld, meaning that Bob is being accused without him knowing by whom or what for…. I have no clue how you reached the conclusion that an innocent person would “respond well to criticism and attempt to change his behavior”.

        Lastly, from Bob’s perspective, he doesn’t know if the person making the allegations has good intentions at all. He should we weary of adjusting his behavior as a response to hearsay, or risk becoming vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.

        So, I completely disagree with this statement.

    2. It might be more sensible if Bob asks for more information about who is upset and goes away and thinks about it. Because if Bob’s reaction to hearing he’s upset several people whom he considers friends is simply ti be angry that anyone criticised him, he’s not going to have friends much longer, unless he’s “lucky” enough to have found a group of friends which automatically gives benefit of the doubt to the clueless over the people who have been hurt.

      Hurt still hurts when it’s inadvertent, and if you’ve hurt someone inadvertently and you don’t take steps to understand and fix it, why would anyone want to be friends with you?

  1. I think it really helps to have this problem of miscommunication articulated so clearly!

    My thought is similar to cethis–if we don’t tolerate missing stairs in our communities and let them know that their behavior is out of line before they (allegedly) assault someone, that might help head this thing off. The how is, as always, the hard part of things like this.

  2. I notice I am confused.

    Is there not a fairly bright line at “Enter someone’s home uninvited?” It feels like there should be if there isn’t.

    Also seems moderately odd to be worried about ‘gossip’ at a stage when every woman in the circle knows, though I suppose there is a clear rationale (tell only those at risk).

    1. There’s generally a bright line, yeah. But imagine this: you’re having (what you think is) a great conversation, and when you arrive at said place, you wander in to lean on the doorway and keep chatting. My friends and I do this to each other. After the conversation wraps up more, we excuse ourselves. The bright line seems to be more like “entering uninvited when not already obvious that one is in a good and excited conversation”

  3. I think I’m in the same boat as Tommy. I don’t really understand this post because a large chunk of it seems to be predicated on the idea that step 5 might not be Bob being a huge asshole on purpose, when I can think of no other possible explanation.

    1. Do you think it’s plausible that you could come up with a situation in which ‘Alice’ is unable to determine if Bob is dangerous or socially unaware? This is one illustrative example, but my experience is that there are a number of variations on this sort of ambiguity.

  4. It is only ambiguous if we suppose that Samantha or Eve are lying. Why would they? About something so big and easy to check (the police got involved, after rall)? This scenario stinks.

    1. It seems plausible that a police report wouldn’t be filed (police show up, don’t have enough evidence, or police are called and that’s enough to make Bob leave, so Samantha ends up cancelling or telling the officers it’s resolved.

      Alternately, take the scenario without “the police were called” as a line in the story. Do you still think there would be ambiguity and feeling like there were sides?

  5. It weakens your argument to be so flippant about it. Normally, non-dangerous people don’t need the fucking police to leave someone alone. It’s like “the pooooor dude just slipped a teeeny bit of penis in, it was barely there, officer, isn’t gossip awful?”

    1. I think I’m confused by the second half of your comment. (And possibly all of it) what do you mean the mock quote to convey? There seems to be an analogy I’m missing

  6. sorry for the too-acidic last comment, I don’t want to insinuate that you were a bad person, I only dislike the example up there!
    Trying to explain again: if someone needs the Police to accept that he should stop talking to someone because he makes her unconfortable, then who would a girl need to have at her back to feel safe enough to tell him that she won’t want to fuck her either, the National Guard? The Army? The Avengers? I never met anybody who called the police in an argument with someone not dangerous, and while calling them just to smear someone’s reputation might theoretically be a strange and mean hobby of Samantha’s, it is much less probable than Bob actually being dangerous.

  7. correction: * she won’t want to fuck him either

    well-meaning socially unsubtle people differ from creeps who actually don’t care about other people at all in the way they react to criticism. Having shit social skills is not a sin. Having shit social skills and not accepting corrections, and insisting that their partners should feel exactly like one imagines they should, instead of feeling their actual feelings, IS dangerous and shitty. People are entitled to not know from sighs what is going on in other’s head, but not listening to them when they speak explicitly, and making a violent scene where one’s conversation partner needs armed back-up… is far, far, far out of line.

    And I write this who someone who is sometimes, and especially used to be, socially awkward. I never became someone like Bob accidentally, because awkward people are NOT by default almost-rapists and almost-harrassers. Because if someone said that they didn’t like me, I didn’t stand here and kept arguing about what they SHOULD feel with increading doses of violence.

    1. I agree with your point, conditional that all the gossip that was going on about Bob was factually accurate. Which it rarely is. Humans are incredibly poor at remembering things correctly. Details get forgotten, or filled back with imagination, or are exaggerated for dramatic effect, or distorted to make the speaker look better – all of this even without conscious effort. It’s actually remembering everything correctly and representing it fairly that requires the effort – which is why people rarely do it, especially in their free time when gossiping.
      And all that ignores the possibility of a misinterpretation in the situation itself: Maybe Bob is eight feet tall and has a loud voice, so Samantha was feeling threatened even if he didn’t mean to. And, the boor he is, he only realized he went to far when Samantha called the police.
      Gossip may be slightly better than no information in some situations, but can also be worse than no information in others, especially if you take it at face value.

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