This is slavery, not to speak one's thought. ~ Euripides
An adage attributed to Edmund Burke says that it only takes a few good men to do nothing for evil to triumph. Millions of Germans acquiesced to the Nazis’ slaughter of the Jews. Doing nothing they became guilty (Goldhagen, 1996). A contemporary version of the ‘thou-shalt-not-acquiesce’ ethic holds that you must vigorously confront sexist, racist, or other –ist remarks or actions lest you be complicit in the triumph of bigotry (Hoo, 2004). It is easy to endorse this consequentialist morality when thinking about other people failing to stand up for what’s right. But what about you? Remember the time when you conveniently avoided the unpleasantness of open conflict and said nothing when you knew you should have?
Let’s step back from genocidal racism and consider everyday events where a person you care about behaves deplorably. The bad behavior need not be a moral breach; it may just be a minor case of thoughtless- or selfishness. You know the behavior isn’t right but you don’t find the words to voice your disapproval. Contemporary psychology and conventional culture offer certain remedies. One remedy is to be assertive, which is to express your feelings about the person’s behavior, to explain how it unsettles and troubles you, and to describe how you’d prefer the person to act differently (Bower & Bower, 2009). Done well, an assertive message registers without being threatening, and thus without escalating a delicate situation into open conflict. Another remedy is to be politely bourgeois and to let it go (Bushman, 2002). Know which battles to pick, and minor irritations with friends or family don’t rise to a level that demands a response.
As you contemplate these remedies you find that they are adequate only under certain conditions. The assertive response requires a clear and defensible case that your (or others’) rights have been violated and that there are no other considerations that might discourage your speaking up. The cultured response requires assurance – or at least strong belief – that the troubling behavior will not escalate if left unchecked. These conditions may rarely hold. Even if you respond in the best assertive (i.e., polite and nonaggressive) way, there may be social norms demanding silence. Even if you think the troubling behavior will not escalate, it still might. As you withhold intervention, you may find it increasingly difficult to hide your displeasure. As you get more resentful, self-directed anger may also increase. Perhaps you feel the pangs of guilt for not having stepped up early when the situation still seemed manageable. When such unresolved issues fester, two things can happen: One possibility is that you eventually blow up, turning what once was a minor irritation into damage and pain, even risking the break-down of a valued relationship. Another possibility is that you vent to a third party to get temporary relief (this post is an example of this tactic), perhaps secretly hoping that the target of your grievance will eventually receive the message – if not from you directly. All this smells quite dysfunctional.
But enough with the abstractions! From the myriad of potential examples, let us consider the world of ‘host and guest.’ The host opens her home to the alien life form, the guest. The host has a host (as it were) of expectations grounded in social norms and preferences. The shoes stay by the door; towels must be hung up just so; toilet seats must be down and seats wiped, dishes bused, and lights dimmed at the appointed hour. The host, in other words, has planted a minefield. When the unfortunate guest eventually sets one charge off, the host faces the choice between stoic forbearance and assertive reaction. But the guest also has expectations regarding proper host behavior. He expects to receive towels, and not having to make the bed himself or do a grocery run to stock the depleted fridge. If these expectations are frustrated, the choice is again between stoic acceptance and self-regarding assertion.
Those of you dear readers who say that ‘there is no problem, one can always graciously ignore such trouble,’ please take whatever instances you remember as exemplars and make them a bit worse. Then ask again what you would do. If you don’t feel a conflict, make these experiences still worse and revisit your presumed decision. You will find that there is a point at which the choice between acquiescence and assertiveness comes into focus such that it can’t be wished away. Conversely, those of you who say ‘I have had that experience and it was terrible,’ see if you can imagine a different tactic or approach. Did the recalled episode not go well because your effort at assertiveness was insufficient or because you lacked the wisdom of stoicism? If you were not at your assertive best at the time, what makes you think you will do better next time? If you were hotheaded, what makes you think you can be cool the next time?
Psychological science has done little to shed light on this conflict between rectification and resignation. As I explained in the opening paragraph, most theory and research assumes either that the situation clearly demands an intervention (oppose Nazis!), or that tactful silence is the educated response (the toilet paper is hung up all wrong!). The former stance is worked out in the literature on the bystander effect where the guiding question is what it takes for more individuals to intervene (Fischer et al., 2011; but see Krueger, Ullrich, & Chen, 2016). The latter stance finds expression in the sprawling literature on self-regulation. Here, the sages agree that resistance to temptation is the mature and the moral response (Baumeister & Alghamdi, 2015; but see Krueger, 2015). It is a pity that psychological science shortcuts the challenge we often face when we need to first figure out whether we find ourselves in a bystander-type situation or in a social-normative situation. Psychological science is also mute on the question of how to articulate an assertive response without causing collateral damage. Even a well-presented assertive response may be perceived as intrusive.
The dilemma I have sketched highlights the mixed blessings of social intelligence. On the one hand, it takes a certain kind of social intelligence to notice slights, put-downs, and willful negligence. A dull mind takes no offense. It takes another kind of social intelligence to diagnose the affordances of the situation and to select an effective response – and do it fast, before the moment passes.
On a lighter note: When there is no dilemma, i.e., when it is clear that you really should convey constructive feedback, it might still be hard to do. The good news is that giving constructive feedback is a skill that can be learned and perfected. Here is a link to an essay by Margie Warrell that may get you started.
Baumeister, R. F., & Alghamdi, N. G. (2015). Role of self-control failure in immoral and unethical actions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 66–69.
Bower, S. A., & Bower, G. H. (2009). Asserting yourself (2nd ed). Cambridge, M: Perseus.
Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed of extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 724-731.
Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrinic, C., Kastenmüler, A., Frey, D., Heene, M., Wicher, M., & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 517-537.
Goldhagen, D. (1996). Hitler’s willing executioners. New York: Knopf.
Hoo, S. (2004). We change the world by doing nothing. Teacher Education Quarterly, 31, 199-211.
Krueger, J. I. (2015). Creeping moralism. Psychology Today Online. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday. com/blog/one-among-many/201601/creeping-moralism
Krueger, J. I., Ullrich, J., & Chen, L. J. (2016). Expectations and decisions in the volunteer’s dilemma: effects of social distance and social projection. Frontiers in Psychology: Cognition, 7, article 1909. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01909