One-upmanship and the economics of social interaction

18 Sep

Sometimes we come across people whom we attentively listen to and appreciate whatever they say while at other times we feel like dismissing everything somebody else says. Why is it so? This has been one of my biggest questions over the past few years. How come some people can put their thoughts across in a way such that others mostly agree with what they are saying while other people present themselves in a way such that others try to refute anything they say? This blog post offers some answers and also serves as a continuation to my previous post on helping.

A possible answer to this question is that we simply like listening to people who say what we agree with and dislike listening to people who say what we do not agree with. This, however, does not necessarily have to be true for two main reasons. Firstly, we can enjoy listening to a person who offers a different perspective, and do so attentively, for that is how our knowledge expands and we arrive to better solutions. Secondly, by claiming that we agree or disagree with what a person is saying we make an assumption that we actually understand what the person is saying in the first place. The problem here is that we often do not even attempt to fully understand what the other person is trying to tell us.

Regardless on our intentions, we all find ourselves at times dismissing what somebody is saying before we fully grasp what they are trying to tell us. This implies that the actual content of a message is often secondary to the form in which it is presented in determining whether others accept it or not. In other words, how the other person makes us feel during the communication process is more important than what the person actually says. This is where the concepts of one-upmanship and the economics of social interaction became relevant and these will be explored next.

Edgar Schein in his recent book Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help notes that while there are few cultural universals, anthropologists agree that all societies are stratified and that all social behaviour is reciprocal. This has several important consequences.

In terms of stratification it implies that people inherently do not have equal positions relative to each other. This is certainly true on the societal level where people can be stratified e.g. by acquired positions of power, merit, economic status or in some societies by caste. But it is also true in day to day human interaction where people behave in various ways and adopt various roles. In doing so they claim certain amount of value and at the same time are ready to give some value back to the person they are interacting with depending on the roles they are in. It is the balance (or its absence) between these two social ‘transactions’ that determines how we perceive a relationship. If a relationship is not balanced, feeling of tension and unease arises which hinders the communication process.

The perils of being one-up

There can be a lack of balance for two main reasons. Firstly, it is the difference in relative standing of the two people in a society or secondly, and often more importantly, the difference between how much value one receives and offers relative to what he expects to receive and is expected to offer. By value we mean here the amount of respect we show or receive from the other person or as the Chinese call it, the face we give or receive. One-upmanship then refers to occasions when we claim more value that we should (we put ourselves one-up and the other person one-down) or to situations which implicitly put us one-up and other person one-down whether it was our intention or not. One such situation always occurs for example at the beginning of any helping relationship when the helper is put one-up (by being asked to help) and the person requesting help one-down (by needing help) relative to each other. This puts a strain on the relationship and makes the person who is one-down focus all his attention on regaining his status relative to the other person at the expense of trying to understand the message being communicated.

To answer our initial question therefore, whether we attentively listen to what the other person is saying or not is dependent on how equitable our relationship with that person is. If the person puts himself one-up and makes us feel one-down, we focus most of our attention on putting ourselves one-up or the person one-down to restore the balance. This can translate into us dismissing whatever the person says regardless of how sound his arguments are. On the other hand, if we feel respected and we perceive the relationship to be equitable, we are willing to appreciate even ideas that go contrary to ours and are not afraid of a potential loss of face if we change our initial position.

In terms of reciprocity, anything we do or do not do, consciously or subconsciously, is interpreted by and has an effect on the person we are interacting with and prompts him to react somehow. It is therefore important to think about how our actions contribute to building an equitable relationship and plan them accordingly. One way of doing so is showing respect and building mutual trust. There are multiple ways of doing so and one of them, pure inquiry, as Schein calls it, will be explored in the next blog post.

To summarize so far, it is how the other person makes us feel that determines if we are going to listen to him or not. If we feel valued and being treated with respect we are more likely to fully appreciate what the other person is saying. A crucial factor determining if we feel this way or not is whether we perceive the person to be trying to put himself one-up and makes us feel one-down. People often adopt certain communication style subconsciously not realising that however good their intentions might be, if they are making the other person feel one-down, their effort is not nearly as impactful as it could have been had they adopted a different style. Next time you are communicating with others, try therefore to think how you are making the other people feel and focus on building an equitable relationship.

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