Thoughts about thinking about grammar

I did something problematic that I’ve done before, but this time I caught myself doing it.

I noticed what I thought was a grammar error in something Elliot wrote. I started writing a post about it. I checked two dictionaries and they agreed with me.

Then I remembered that I had done this kind of thing before. (Maybe it was on the Basecamp forum? I can’t find it easily and don’t want to spend too much time looking for it.)

I realized I could still be wrong and should investigate more. I checked three more dictionaries. All three of those other dictionaries listed the thing I had thought was wrong as a possible usage.

The lesson to me is not to rush to telling someone they’re wrong and I’m right. I should first investigate thoroughly to see what is right, without being emotionally attached to my first instinct being right.

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There is a second issue here. When I see what I think is a grammar error by Elliot, I have the urge to point it out. When I see what I think is a grammar error by someone else (here or elsewhere), I don’t have the urge to point it out. This indicates that there’s something social going on here, like a desire to find something where I’m right and Elliot’s wrong, in addition to my interest in grammar.

Actually, there’s another question here. Is my interest in grammar only because I think I know more about it than most people do, or is there also some genuine interest in it? I can’t tell.

Have you enjoyed thinking about grammar stuff and solving grammar issues and making stuff clear in your own mind? Have you wrestled with a grammar issue for a while and then had an “ah-ha” moment of genuine understanding and satisfaction in that understanding? If yes, think those would be indicators that you have some genuine interest in grammar.

That’s because you really want Elliot’s attention.

I both want Elliot’s attention and don’t want it.

I want Elliot’s attention because I look to him as the best judge of whether I’m doing it right, whatever it is. It’s hard for me to get away from the idea that I’m here in this group to do what Elliot wants, the way he wants it. I know this idea is bad, but I have trouble giving it up.

I also fear Elliot’s attention, because I often feel bad in response to it. I think that’s why I’ve been reluctant to post in Unbounded—I have the (perhaps wrong, I now realize) idea that Elliot is more likely to reply to me there than in Friendly or Other.

I’m not sure how this applies to wanting to post about Elliot’s grammar mistakes. That may be a separate issue.

Yes to both of those questions. But gaining understanding is so intertwined in my mind with getting approval from others that I have trouble separating them.

My intuitive emotional reaction to this comment by anonymous27 was that is was meant as an attack, to be mean. It’s the kind of thing that in other contexts would be meant as mean. My instinct was to defend myself and fight back.

After a few days, I was able to identify my reaction and realize that I didn’t have to react that way. Then I could see that the comment may have been meant to be helpful to me. I decided it most likely was meant to be helpful, and that it’s best to assume that to be the case unless I get more information to the contrary.

Assuming benevolent intent can be a very reasonable approach. Another way you could think about such things is from kind of the “opposite” angle: even assuming something is meant as an attack, is there something you could learn from it?

Like, as a mental exercise, assume that the thing is meant as an attack. Okay, so what? Does it contain truth? Does it have any value?

Like, you don’t actually have to go straight from the idea that something “was meant as an attack” to the reaction of wanting to “defend [your]self and fight back.” That leap or connection between the interpretation of something as an attack and a desire to fight back is something that you are adding. You have ideas about like, the appropriate way to respond to social attacks, that are separate and distinct from your ideas about what constitutes a social attack. In your post above, you talk about changing or reconsidering your interpretation of what actually is a social attack. And that’s a fine thing to think about. But here I’m suggesting you rethink about what an appropriate response to something is, even assuming it’s a social attack. (Note that I agree with you that in this particular case the quote at issue wasn’t meant as an attack).

I remember years ago someone moderately teased me for a manner of laughing I had at that time. They weren’t super mean about it or anything - it was like that “friendly” kinda teasing that people do to friends or whatever. Anyways, I realized after they did that that I actually wanted to change the laugh. I could have been really sore about getting teased but instead I wound up making a useful change (useful from the perspective of my goals and values anyways).

Anyways my point is that sometimes even when people are teasing or being actually mean, they give you information that could be useful. You rob yourself of potential value from that information if you get defensive over anything you think is an attack instead of thinking about it…

Following up on/summing up previous post:

People often interpret things as attacks in the first place because they want to disregard them. Like their attack detector is biased by a motivation of wanting to disregard certain criticisms. Trying to assume good faith and benevolence (which will affect the sensitivity of the attack detector) can help. But you can also say “ok, you know what? I’m not going to make whether i see something as an attack relevant to whether or not I’ll think about it.” And I think that can help the quality of your attack detector too, because it removes a reason to be biased about what you see as an attack (cuz if you’re going to consider all criticism or points raised regardless of whether or not you see something as an attack, then that takes away a reason to be biased about what you think is an attack).

Good point. Social attacks often contain some truth.

This part is less obvious to me. But it seems like it could be right.

A social attack is more effective as an attack if it contains some truth that the attackee doesn’t want to openly acknowledge (than if it contains some truth that the attackee is comfortable acknowledging).

Some relevant stuff from The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism by Matthew Van Natta:

Picture someone cutting in front of you in a line. How would you feel? Maybe first you’d feel angry. After all, this person should know better. Before you run with this feeling, take into account your two missions —you need to stand in this line, and you also need to maintain harmony. Will you let this person take away your happiness? Of course not. He cannot take your happiness; only you can, when you indulge in a mistaken value judgment. So, you choose to remain content. But you can still address the person’s mistake (as long as you feel safe doing so). He shouldn’t have cut in front of you. The important thing is that, if you choose to confront the person, you do so with virtue, at your best, and not under the influence of what the Stoics call passions.

So this assumes that there was a social breach of some kind (the cutting in line) and then emphasizes that you have control over your reaction this breach.

I would add that while you might have some immediate reaction (like thinking or muttering “jerk!”) which is pretty automatic [1] and hard to directly control in the moment, you absolutely do have control over whether you let such an incident “ruin your day” like a lot of people do. You can choose to let an incident like that give you an excuse to stew in anger all day, or not, and so you have a responsibility regarding that choice, since it’s something very much within your direct control.

  1. You can still change even this kind of “automatic” reaction but it may take some effort and time. ↩︎

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from The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism by Matthew Van Natta:

[The physical definition] exercise attempts to strip away your personal—and perhaps irrational—feelings concerning your desires. When you think about something you want, it helps to have a clear idea of it. Those expensive sneakers you want? They’re only shoes: leather meant to protect your feet. If you buy them they will wear out, get stained, and eventually become trash. Are shoes really worth stressing over? Epictetus asked his students to imagine they had a favorite cup. What is it on the most basic level? It’s ceramic. It holds drinks. It’s breakable. He told them to leave behind thoughts of “it’s painted so beautifully” and “it was a birthday present,” so they could see it as just a cup. A cup that, if broken, isn’t worth losing your good flow of life.

When anything presents itself to you, particularly if it seems in some way overwhelming, stop and define it at its most basic. Do not add value judgments. Clear away its mystique so that you can move forward with a clear head.

I think you can apply this to negative stuff too. E.g. assume someone attacks you on the internet, or IRL. So there are some characters on a screen, or some sound waves passing through the air, communicating an idea about what someone thinks of you. So what? Is that worth being upset over?

I don’t think this sort of framing would be 100% effective in avoiding getting upset. People care what other people think about them. But it’s a perspective that might help break the spell of an automatic negative reaction at least some of the time.

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