Social Diplomacy, Part 6: Curiosity, Dignity, and Respect

  • Treating people with curiosity, dignity, and respect

On the Internet, some folks behave as though acting tough, forceful, snarky, and condescending is an effective tactic for changing someone’s perspective. Like shame and alienation, these are tools with potent, toxic, and limited effects. Applied skillfully, they have some efficacy. Often they simply communicate disrespect and dismissiveness, which fosters bad will.

Here’s a big idea that I am not the first person to suggest: we respond well when others treat us with dignity and respect. This extends to being regarded as a person who is capable of making informed choices, who has a valid perspective arrived at thoughtfully, and who is capable of being held accountable. Each of these are double-sided: We have a valid perspective, in that we all perceive a piece of truth; that does not mean our understanding of the truth is absolutely correct. We are equal parts right as well as misguided, poorly informed, or outright wrong.

If you and I have radically different understandings of a subject, it is likely that each of our perspectives make sense from our unique positions and experiences of the world, but that does not mean one perspective is truth. It is as much capable of being wrong as being right. Being held accountable means no one is above criticism or scrutiny; you can question my words and behavior when they seem incongruous with my stated beliefs.

What challenges communication is when you attack my character for that incongruity, or condescend to me as though I’m too stupid to understand my incongruity. We all have blind spots. A loving community brings attention to those blind spots with concern, caring, and dignity. They make an effort to understand my unique position and experience of the world, where my choices and my behavior make sense. That doesn’t mean they agree with it or coddle it.

When my choices and behaviors are causing harm or running counter to what I say I want, a diplomatic step would be to approach me with an attitude of good faith. Speak to me as though I am doing my best to live according to my values. Point out the difference between my words and actions with curiosity. “You say you love women, but you are leaving misogynistic comments on that woman’s blog. How does that line up for you?” by Patrick Tomasso.

This approach takes people at their word and invites them to step into their best selves. What aids this is taking the “one-down” position, the willingness to express confusion and curiosity which is, again, a position of good faith. It suggests that I believe you are actually doing your best to live in line with your values and one of us is making a mistake. Even if I believe you’re the one making the mistake.

This empowers us to point out moments of incongruity, conflict, and confusion without heavily shaming or attacking the character of the other person. It comes from a willingness to be wrong. Perhaps if we understood their position better, we’d realize that it was our confusion. If their answers, however, fail to make sense; dismiss the incongruity; misdirect; respond defensively; or outright become aggressive and hostile toward us; then they are behaving in bad faith and we may respond appropriately.

I think of this as “inviting you to step into your best self” because at this stage it doesn’t matter what either of us think about your motivations. You might be behaving in a shady way, or I might think you are, but I am giving you an opportunity to either rectify that or prove to me how my perception is wrong. If you decide to act in your best self, that is a winning scenario for both us.

Some folks might have a problem with this, pointing out that people behaving well in the short-term due to pressure is not the same as getting them to align with a greater principle. We can’t “trust” them to be well behaved from now on. That’s not untrue. My older sister has taught me much about politics, though our values and political leanings differ these days. She came home from college and got me to read Machiavelli’s The Prince as well as his less well-known writings that are pro-democracy. She once told me that politics was about getting people to do “the right thing for the wrong reasons.”

I approach the world with what I think of as a cynical optimism, that we all have aspirational values of which we fall short. We need community to support us in staying consistent. This is why transparency and oversight matter. When what we believe and what we see don’t line up, we find ways to rectify, justify, or dismiss the difference. When held accountable, when seen, when scrutinized, we can no longer afford to repair the cognitive dissonance. We must alter our behavior to align with our beliefs, or our beliefs to align with our behavior. Either way, we become more congruent.

Taking the one-down position of curiosity is dangerous, as sometimes I can be so gentle or mild that the challenge is lost. The other person either thinks they can ignore me, or doesn’t see the confrontation. Even in a diplomatic position, I want to examine the situation with both eyes, both ears, both of whatever I have available: the part of me that sees the best in others, and the part of me that sees the worst. Diplomacy requires strength as much as curiosity, which is the subject of the next post.