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Explain Yourself!

Four ways we honestly account for our behaviors – and misbehaviors

In his incisive 2006 book Why? Charles Tilly explains how we explain ourselves. According to Tilly, reasons fall into four overlapping categories: conventions, stories, codes, and technical accounts.

1. Conventions are well-accepted, abbreviated reasons for transgression or social clumsiness: “I didn’t sleep much last night,” “Traffic was heavy,” “These things happen,” and the ubiquitous, “It’s all for the best.” Conventions offer cryptic, causal explanations. After stumbling and spilling coffee, a person might say, “I’m just not used to these new shoes.” We accept conventions for small matters or when we simply don’t want more involved reasoning, but we generally find conventions unsatisfying.

2. Stories are explanatory narratives, integrating a causal explanation for one’s behavior, often for unusual or distinctive events.

Stories maintain chronology, provide straightforward cause and effect, and focus on a few central characters and actions. People expand reasons into stories when conventions are inappropriate or inadequate. As explanations, stories reduce events, including only a small number of actors, actions, and causes, but they convey personal truths, resonating to the syntactic categories of subject, verb, and object.

3. Codes are specialized sets of categories: procedures, rules of interpretation, and diagnostic categories. The laws of a particular state are codes. The diagnostic categories of the DSM-V are codes. Reasons make reference to codes by citing their conformity to these codes, invoking the logic of appropriateness.

In medicine, codes catalog symptoms, provide standardized vocabularies, establish relations between diagnosis and treatment, and set standards for good practice. An explanation based in medical code, for example, would tell how symptoms fit a diagnosis and how the chosen treatment plan for the diagnosis conforms to accepted practice. The un-storied nature of codes is the basis of fairness in the law. Codes involving medicine, police work, and the law have found their way into popular culture from popular entertainment that invokes and dramatizes these codes.

4. Technical Accounts provide causal explanations that are rooted in a body of knowledge, such as medicine, engineering, or psychology, describing causal explanations within a systematic, specialized discipline. Technical accounts identify complex cause and effect relationships with respect to a body of knowledge. Teachers often shift between technical accounts and stories.

With technical accounts, psychologists often face the problem of explaining processes that non-specialists already explain through conventions and stories. Many people believe they possess an adequate intuitive understanding of love, guilt, anger, grief, trauma, and memory. And to complicate matters, psychology may go beyond offering an alternative account and actually contradict the prevailing conventions and stories, thereby encountering even more conflict and disbelief.

Each type of reason is appropriate (or inappropriate) depending on the social context. If you want to be quick, use a convention. If you want to persuade, tell a story. If you want to diagnose, use a code. If you want to educate, use a technical account.

Why do some explanations fail to convince?

In some cases, conventional explanations fail when they violate other commonly held conventions. Or there may be competing conventions. For example, if a person wrongs you, lingering resentment may arise because your convention might be “I can never forget,” while the other person’s might be “Let bygones be bygones.”

In other cases, explanations fail because a convention is offered when a story is expected – and more explanation is needed.

Technical accounts are usually inappropriate in casual conversations, except in small doses. We don’t want a lecture when we desire conversation.

Of the four categories of reasons, only stories provide motivations and only stories address morality. So if another person wants to know about motivation and morality, only a story will do. A technical account of an indiscretion, however detailed, will not satisfy. Conventions do much of our everyday explaining, but when life gets complicated, stories do most of our relational work.

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