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I think a couple of things are going on here.

One is that I think a lot of people don’t have different mental categories for different “kinds” of facts. To those people, “everyone likes presents!” Is the same kind of fact as “gravity makes you fall!”. There maybe nuances but once you learn the basic thing you don’t change your mind about it.

The other thing is that I think we have a lot of habits and behaviors that don’t actually refer to our beliefs unless we consciously force them to. For example, I have a fear of heights which has been gradually going away through exposure, but at no point did knowing for a fact that a certain structure was safe to be on eliminate the fear: it simply was not a big part of whatever mental calculation which that was preventing me from stepping out onto a clear glass floor. In conversations, I think people build up a sort of habit of interacting in a certain way that has worked ok for them over a long period and it takes a serious effort of will or serious (Rude) interruption to break the flow because the habit is not frequently checking with reality to see if it’s working anymore.

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If you think about what a 'preference' is from a computing perspective, it's a comparison operator. If you start thinking about it, you can consider all value systems this way: they're comparison operators that tell you, given two possible alternatives, which choice is better. Your beliefs about other people's preferences can be implemented the same way.

Now, consider the fact that comparison operators are extremely important to get correct. You've highlighted a number of errors in your post, thigns people tend to get wrong. So what if we consider the hypothesis that a person having the ability to "play around with" comparison operators might cause them serious harm?

In the same way that an ai which can easily change its utilty function would probably just wirehead itself, might we consider that humans with malleable preferences would have gotten weeded out of the gene pool early on?

Maybe this is a built-in-protection mechanism: we do have some ability to change what preferences we hold - or what preferences we think others hold - but because it can be super dangerous to get these wrong, maybe we're just insanely slow to update them, because whatever built-in evolutionary hook you have is almost certainly better than a randomly selected comparison operator.

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My instinct is that Scott is right about the link to taking ideas seriously/openness to changing priors.

The other part of the story that I think isn't really touched on in the examples is that acting in accordance with the unusual preferences can be uncomfortable for the person doing it. The B&B couple aren't just thinking about the enjoyment of the person they're talking to; they're playing a role which they are familiar with and which they associate with smooth and positive interactions. The person who doesn't give a holiday gift doesn't just think about the interaction with the giftee, but also the social awkwardness at the gathering, having to explain to other people that they didn't get a gift, and so on.

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In fairness, there may be a difference in the near-universality of some of these. We all know that some people prefer to live in big cities and others do not. Many of us just have never heard of someone being averse to polite, friendly welcoming. Similarly for receiving a present from a loved one. I’m not in any way diminishing the validity of your friend’s feelings; just that they seem a lot more unusual. To extend this a lot farther than either of those examples, if someone assured you that they would very much appreciate if you would smash his hand with a hammer, that preference would probably be sufficiently unusual, as a purely descriptive matter, that you would probably decline without regard to the truthfulness of his preference. Again—I’m not equating that with your examples. I’m just trying to illustrate a broader point.

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Some people refuse to admit/allow deviations from the norm, and I think others may confuse their own preferences with facts or properties of external objects. I had a boyfriend in my youth who would always pick out the nut variety of a thing (ice cream bar, candy bar, etc.) for me even though I had told him many times that I didn't like nuts. He would then claim that the, e.g., walnut chocolate bar was "objectively the best one."

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Epistemic Status: Exploratory

I see an alternative mental model for this scenario. In short: people don't acknowledge _weird_ preferences, for very restrictive definitions of weird

Your original example is a perfect one. There is a default social expectation that your friend's preference violates. When normies, who don't know your friend and don't know _why_ you hold the preferences you do, when they encounter preferences that violate the default social expectation, they're maybe making a little error correction. They're subconsciously assuming you have expressed the incorrect preference and they're 'helping' you out by ignoring your stated preference.

There's tons and tons of social precedent for this dynamic. Look at just about everything in dating, for example. For most people when they're dating, if you make no assumptions whatsoever about social context, and take everything they say at literal face value, you will most likely be hopelessly confused and stay single. There is an element of presumed mind-reading involved, and a consequent implied social burden of making your own mind legible for others.

This is infuriating for rationalists (myself included) but it makes sense when you keep in mind that we are all already five-sigma deviants from average here, on dimensions most people don't even know exist. When you or your friend or I say "hey I'm really introverted, I need my space, I appreciate your concern but please don't bother me when I'm here", we actually mean it. But when most people say that, they don't mean that. They mean who knows what. Maybe they mean "I am scared and alone in a foreign city and too nervous to engage with you", in which case the response of being especially friendly and welcoming is the _correct_ one, even though they specifically told them not to.

A lot of scenarios like this that I see rationalists get perplexed over, I think you can easily explain a lot of them with something like "most people take as a default assumption that everyone is normal". And _typical people_ would appreciate that friendliness.

So from the B&B proprietor's perspective, they disregarded your stated preferences, and then you two were annoyed and they were like "huh what'd I do?". But the _last ten people_ they had, they did the same thing, but they got positive responses. So, 10 positive responses and 1 negative response, they're gonna continue doing it

As an aside: I don't know if you literally mean a B&B or if you just mean AirB&B, but it is my understanding that at _actual_ Bed-And-Breakfast places, some level of engagement by the hosts is expected. That's why it's a bed _and breakfast_ instead of just a bed; you have someone there cooking for you. Your situation could be not a part of a wider pattern of disregarding preferences, but rather just an idiosyncratic situation based on a mismatch in expected social connotation

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going to a b&b and asking them not to talk to you is like going to a barber and asking them not to cut your hair.

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I think it's more of a defense mechanism to convince oneself that one's worldview is the 'correct' one - my preference that I'm not allowed to express except anonymously on the internet (or to extremely close friends) is that white privilege is not a thing anymore and that affirm action is stupid and ultimately hurts more people than it helps (yeah, opinion prob =/= preference here but it's the first thing that comes to mind).

However, god forbid that I as a white male ever say that, because the 'right' path has already been defined by the screeching majority - just like other, softer, non-political preferences like 'everyone enjoys small talk' and 'people LOVE presents' have also been completely internalized. It takes a level of self-awareness that unfortunately most people aren't capable of to escape that mindset.

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Isn't the simplest explanation for the b&b scenario that they like small talk more than they believe your friend doesn't like small talk, and so feel justified in expecting small talk from them anyway?

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There's also the problem of cultural norms, which for those of us more on the analytic scale are really hard to suss out and so going back to a base axiom ("Everyone likes to talk about themselves!") seems more safe.

Imagine if you took your girlfriend at her word when you started to pick up the check on your first date and she said "Oh, I can pick that up". Even if she said it again, I would be inclined to see this as a cultural norm or a standard that I should still pick up the check.

Naturally, there are women for whom my insisting to pick up the check would be a clear sign of what Scott points out in this post. Thankfully for me, my British now-wife is of the opposite caliber and had (social) expectations that I would continue to graciously insist on paying.

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I think an even more interesting thing with these people is if you try to tell them to stop directly they will continue talking!

My grandmother when she starts a story she’s told me 4 times will refuse to acknowledge my interruptions and interjections informing her that she had just already told me recently.

By far though the most annoying feature of these nice older people is that the questions often lead to a long drawn out monologue about themselves.

It is almost a strategy so they can talk at you and make it hard for you to stop them.

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(I'll never get over the fact that the period goes before the closing quotation marks)

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My first idea is something like this:

People don't actually have explicit models of other people. They have patterns of behavior that are distributed across many different situations. When I say I have a mental model of an introvert, what I really mean is that I have behavioral patches that tagged 'introvert', and when it's time to deal with one I swap in the behavioral patches instead of my default behaviors.

This means that if you tell a person that your friend is an introvert, and they don't already have the relevant patches for all sorts of different situations, they find it very hard to change, because there isn't such a thing as a centralized "models of people" database where they can update a handful of traits. They have this entire distributed-across-life-situations pattern set that is hard to change.

My personal observation is that people who are generally smart are good at adapting and people who don't seem that smart are worse, and my inference is that doing this distributed system update is pretty cognitively expensive.

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Lots of people lie about their preferences, either because they don't know them, they don't think it's okay or polite to hold the preferences they do, or to manipulate others. Most people implicitly know this, and that makes someone claiming they have unusual preferences weaker evidence that they actually do than you'd think if you assumed everybody was honest about their preferences.

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"Maybe I'm biased / placebo-ed / just seeing things"

Nope. Based on the article, you're just the same person you are complaining about, what we plebs refer to as an "ass".

Like the rest of us.

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Just a thought. Even though your friend didn't like the talking, both of you left thinking they were actually nice. Maybe that's the (hansonianly hidden?) motivation.

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I’m in the weird position that (despite my own lack of social skills) I feel, rightly or wrongly, extremely confident of what’s going on here, and it wasn’t a possibility even mentioned in the post. The B&B hosts thought that you and your friend were engaging in “Jewish grandmother behavior.” I.e., “I’m completely fine, I’ll just sit here in the dark, I don’t need anything” — meaning I *do* need something, I want you to help / engage with me, but I want you to freely offer it, without my needing to explicitly request it. The hosts thought that you and your friend just “didn’t want to cause trouble” by “expecting” or “demanding” small talk, so that by making small talk anyway, they were being all the nicer to you. As your story illustrates, this is one of *the* stereotypical behaviors of neurotypicals that confuse nerds, the literal-minded, and those on the spectrum. (Or am I missing details of the story that would invalidate this explanation?)

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Do you not know about Guess cultures vs Ask cultures? TLDR: Anyone who has internalized Guess culture will automatically ignore any statement like "I don't want a present" or "I don't want extensive hospitality", because in a Guess culture, making those statements is (merely) proper courtesy and the proper response is to ignore them.

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I suspect that your grandmother did think that your girlfriend was lying *to herself*. It's an important distinction. The happy boyfriend in the miserable relationship demonstrates our capacity for self deception quite well. Perhaps old people underestimate youngsters ability to know what they want; and simultaneously overestimate their ability to know what youngsters want. (Drawing on their experiences as a former youngster)

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I call this sort of thing the Golden Rule Fallacy: applying "do to others as you'd like them to do to you" too literally or narrowly. "I like chocolate cake, so I'll buy everyone else chocolate cake" rather than being able to abstract away a level and go "I like it when people buy me my favourite cake, so I'll buy them *their* favourite cake."

People forcing small talk onto introverts is a good example.

Going back the other way, if a new person joins a group I'm in, I have to make an effort to remember "they might feel more welcomed if I talk to them" rather than thinking "I'm sure they won't want me to bother them."

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I think part of the issue here might be that Scott is an "ask culture" person who is puzzled by "guess culture" people:



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I'm not one for casual genetic explanations but how talkative/unthinkingly social you are seems like one that could easily be influenced by the genome. They may very well have intended to say less but their nature is just to overly socialize without realizing it.

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As you get older, your neuroplasticity decreases, and you become less likely to update priors. Certainly you wouldn't do it just from a stranger saying something.

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> part of me will always refuse to believe that people enjoy living in New York City, and whenever I talk to friends in New York I have to resist the urge to ask them if they're okay

So my specific reasons for sorta liking it here aside - I will point out that you live in America's second-densest urban area, so evidently you do enjoy some of the consequences of density (probably more "having enough people to be able to surround myself with like-minded people" than "lots of traffic") in a way that would be equally incomprehensible to a lot of more rural people.

(Granted that NYC has some extra disadvantages mostly unrelated to density, like terrible trash management. But if you model "why do I like Berkeley"+"what if those disadvantages just bothered me less", it seems resolvable)

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Unfortunately I find that people are very often wrong about this kind of thing.

For several years it was something like common wisdom that Jar Jar Binks was the reason why The Phantom Menace was bad. People may genuinely not remember the degree to which the character (and actor) were held responsible for the film's crappiness, followed closely in blame by Jake Lloyd's performance. It wasn't until many years later that the zeitgeist shifted, in no small part because of the Red Letter Media reviews, to more of a view that The Phantom Menace and the prequels in general were bad because the script/story was extremely bad and Jar Jar was more of a symptom of a larger and more insuperable badness.

So I think here we have an instance of literally millions of people being wrong about their preferences. And if you pay attention to art criticism, this is more the norm than the exception. People usually do know when they don't like a piece of art (music, fiction, film, etc.), but they are usually wrong about why they don't like it. In other words, if you fixed the specific thing they said they didn't like, they would probably still not like it. What we do is form immediate visceral/nonverbal/emotional reactions, and then confabulate an explanation for that reaction. If you've trained yourself by actually trying to create art, or do art criticism for a living or something, then your odds of being right about why you don't like a thing are probably better ... but even then, it's not a sure thing. A movie critic's ability to point out a poor shot framing doesn't actually mean the shot framing was the *reason* she didn't like the movie.

If people self-knowledge about their artistic preferences is this poor, then why should we expect their self-knowledge about other domains to be that much better? More data? Maybe. But what if you've just confabulated your preferences as a way of justifying what are actually contingent emotional responses? You got yelled at really loud for writing in a library book when you were three years old, and now you hate libraries, and you say it's because of the smell. But the reason you hate the smell ... is because of the first thing. And if the smell was fixed, you would still hate libraries.

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Why doesn't a simple model apply? Assume most people a) operate largely by social norms/defaults, b) don't have much occasion to modify their behavior, c) don't have a burning desire to satisfy other people's oddball preferences. This would predict that people will acknowledge preferences more when:

1. They don't have to violate usual social norms to do so

2. They are used to accommodating behavior of this kind

3. The behavior is unusual

Let's apply to the original example. Not exchanging a pleasant word with a guest/neighbor is in many parts of the US seen as *extremely rude.* Further, finding such chit-chat deeply unpleasant is *unusual.* And it sounds like your hosts are not used to accommodating unusual behavioral norms. So we should not be surprised that a brief/causal conversation did not shift their conduct, or (from their perspective) cause them to rudely ignore a guest. Also, old people are often chatty!

Prediction: the hosts would have done far better acknowledging a more usual preference that did not require norm-violation. E.g., "Please don't make noise before 8am, we keep late hours on vacation."

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I don't see a contradiction. If the goal of kindness is to feel kind then just letting things be maybe good for others but not very rewarding. Put another way, many acts of kindness are a little selfish.

- the hosts also wanted to feel hospitable

- the gift giver also wanted to feel great at gift giving

- the therapist also wanted to feel competent

Maybe all the protagonist in the article are rational.

It takes a certain dose humility, selflessness and/or respect to not seek credit for other's joys.

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There is a French saying that roughly translates to, “to know all is to forgive all.”

You can’t understand NYC (Manhattan) but if someone walked you through their day - work is 8 min away, best friend is 3 min away, doctor is 11 min, favorite restaurant 9 min, favorite bar 4 min, supermarket 6 min, I’m sure you could understand.

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I'll add my personal example.

Some time ago, my mother and I lived together for a few months. I had just started a diet. It took me forever to get her to learn that she wasn't helping by cooking for me, let alone yummy fatty food - she knows I usually like food so... that's that. And every time I had to tell her, or had to choose whether to eat or not what she had made, it felt like I was about to harm her much more than eating it would harm me.

One time, she noticed I was a little bit down, asked why, and I told her that in part it was because that day I had screwed up badly with my diet. Her response: go get ice-cream to cheer me up.

In the end she was much better, but it was a slower update than reasonable, and I had to compromise on the way. It seems to me like it was some sort of slow bayesian update together with the fact that she clearly got something herself out of cooking for me.

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I might be able to give you a small example of where you're doing this thing.

B&Bs are widely known as the place you stay if you want talkative hosts. If you don't want that, you stay in a hotel. I certainly avoid B&Bs most of the time for this reason.

Maybe I'm wrong about it being a widely known preference. Or maybe you didn't know this. Maybe it's your first time in a B&B. But I like to think there's at least a decent possibility that you were informed that B&Bs are hardcore into the talkative preference. It would explain the voice in your head that said they weren't going to respect your request for your friend's peace and quiet.

But you booked one. While these people are pretty obviously more on the "ignore preferences" side of things, would it be fair to call this specific case an instance of mutually ignored preferences? That is did you ignore that B&Bs were a talking space, booking one for an introverted person, much as they ignored that some people are introverted?

I do not mean to accuse. I'm genuinely curious if this narrative carries water, and if not, why not.

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I'm not sure that the preference-ignorers are acting irrationally here. People are *really* bad at predicting what will make them happy, to the point where "things that usually make people happy" might actually be a better predictor than "things people say they want."

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I'm another vote for the ask v guess dichotomy. A lot of my childhood experiences are of WANTING things and not making action for them / saying I DIDN'T want them, because that would be BAD and SELFISH and MORE WORDS FOR BAD.

I am no longer like this. But I expect there are more people who are like this than there are people who actually don't want a present, even if it's left on the doorstop with a signed note guaranteeing lack of expectation of reciprocity, etc.

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A friend of mine has a totally different and (to me) mysterious mode of communication in which what they say often does not really mean anything. This might explain the phenomena you describe for at least some people because if what they say often does not mean anything, then what other people say might not mean anything to them.

Some examples to illustrate what I mean.

1) in the early days of covid, they described it as 'worse than world war 2' and several months later as 'just the flu'. What's stranger is that they recently met somebody who lived through world war 2 as a child and heard stories about rationing. We had this little exchange:

Them: 'I realise I do not actually know much about wwii after talking to them.'

Me: 'Now do you see why I think you were wrong to compare covid to wwii'

Them: 'No, I still think covid is worse'

Me: 'So you admit that you do not know much about wwii, but you still think covid is worse'

Them: 'Yes'

2) They often exaggerate in what I consider an extreme fashion, to the point where I can't tell what they're communicating. Imagine somebody using the same hyperbolic expression to describe many possible scenarios (e.g. 'all my friends say they like X' could correspond to '2 friends said X out of 30 friends i spoke to' or 'all the hundred or so friends I met in a party yesterday said they like X'). Sometimes I challenge them. One time, they got frustrated with me and complained: "You always exaggerate what I say". In their mind, they are not the ones exaggerating (despite literally exaggerating) but it is me who is exaggerating by interpreting their words badly.

3) Sometimes they say things that get to me, or frustrate me, or affect me in some way. To try to explain themselves, they often use the phrase 'it is *just* talking' or 'I am *just* talking'. I do not fully understand what it means, but I think it is something like 'you should not put weight on what I say because it is just a bunch of words out of my mouth'.

My overall takeaway from this is that there are people who often say things in which the literal words they choose have little weight on what they are communicating, and it is more context and emotion that do the communication.

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Some people think "everyone is like me" and can't grasp others having different preferences.

I think the main benefit of MBTI and similar personality category exercises is just to break down the resistance and drive home that some people are different. (I'm thinking of a boss who wanted to reward me by dragging me to a minor league baseball game. It took some effort by this nerd to convince him that someone else would enjoy it more.)

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There is a big debate in the autism community about labeling. Do you want to label someone as autistic. In the case of Scott’s friend, if he said she was autistic and was very uncomfortable with chit chat, I’m certain they would have respected that. But short of a “label” people are going to default to the preferences of the median customer/student, etc.

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I have a nasty suspicion that the more "normal" someone is, where I mostly mean "fits the local hegemonic paradigm", the less able they will be to conceive of people who aren't just like them. All things being equal, of course.

Or wearing my aggressive autistic hat, the less autistic they are. AFAICT, most non-autistics have a "theory of mind" that amounts to "if I introspect how I would feel in whatever situation, that will tell me what the other person feels".

Many people have a built in exception for other kinds of people, i.e. Them, who have somewhat inexplicable preferences - foreigners "talk funny"; women are inscrutable (aka "from Venus"); the local oppressed minority all conform to their local bad stereotype. ...

A few people overcome this built in limitation. AFAICT, anyone can do it, with effort, but it's easier for the non-hegemonic, and probably also for autistics qua autistics. But the few people who have really good social skills - not ordinary extrovert ability to interact well with folks similar to them - have clearly learned it.

I don't know whether it spills over to believing statements of preference - but I do know that a good salesperson can home in on why the customer is interested, what problem they are trying to solve, etc. That seems to me to be much the same thing, but often with less explicit information.

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It seems like you've overlooked a critical assumption you made: that the other person in the exchange, be it a B&B proprietor or a gift-giving grandma, doesn't have feelings and desires of their own. People open B&B's to talk to guests. That's pretty much the whole reason for the B&B's existence. If someone didn't want to have a conversation, they'd book an AirBnB or a hotel.

But let's dig into the B&B argument, because I think you've also failed to consider a number of relevant factors to the interaction.

Any B&B proprietor can reasonably assume that every guest that arrives has made a conscious decision to stay somewhere that will include conversation. Hotels and AirBnB's without contact are ubiquitous. Nobody forces BnB customers to stay there. That's a pretty strong prior!

So, with that prior in mind, these proprietors hear from one guest that that person's travel companion doesn't enjoy socialization, and asks the B&B proprietors to not socialize with one of their companions. Now, let's be honest here: that's a weird thing to say. It just is. Normal people do not make these types of requests. You can argue all day about whether that's good or bad, but I doubt you'd argue that it isn't true. This is not a class of request that is common and familiar. So that weakens the amount that the proprietors should be moving away from their prior.

On the request for no socialization: you're assuming agency for another person and their choices. From the context, you didn't express that this person was your significant other. So, by what right were the proprietors to assume that you had the authority to dictate the experiences of somebody else? Like, if I'm in line at a Starbucks, I have no right to tell the barista how to speak to the person in line behind me. That would be ridiculous. While this situation is different, the core principle is the same. It's simply weird to try and govern the interaction that a stranger has with somebody else, and especially so when you are not in a relationship with either of the parties involved. So the weirdness of you trying to govern an interaction between two third-parties when you have not indicated any right to do so continues to weaken the reasons for these proprietors to move away from their priors.

Continuing on: the friend arrives. The proprietors, having a strong prior for socializing with guests due to running a voluntary BnB and weak reasons to update because of an odd request from a travel companion of one of their guests, greet this friend. This friend does not express any objection to socialization, and their interaction only ends when you come out and end the interaction. If the friend didn't express any resistance to socialization, then the proprietors have no reason to assume that their prior about socialization was incorrect. Instead, it's more likely that you, Scott, were just being kind of odd. After all, you said that this friend didn't want to socialize, but they socialized anyways, and the friend raised no objection (presumably). So now they've got evidence that points them back towards their prior.

Throughout the rest of the stay, it sounds like you and your friend gave them no reason to update away from their prior of guests having chosen to stay there because of a desire for interaction. It sounds like you just quietly tolerated it all, growing more and more upset that these proprietors weren't reading your thoughts about you and your friend's desire to be left alone. Nothing was preventing you from asking them to leave you alone. But you didn't. And with each interaction, the proprietors would have their prior confirmed further. After all, if what you said was true, one or both of you would have actually, you know, requested to be left alone. But you didn't!

This is not society failing to be rational. Proper application of priors and a general sense of social decorum should have made it clear to you what happened. Either this is just a case of you failing to be sufficiently rational, or you have an oddly weak grasp on certain aspects of interaction in society.

On gift-giving: people express love and affection for another by giving gifts; it's one of the core love languages. For many people, the giving is as important as the receiving. Somebody refusing to accept gifts from a person who expresses love through gifts is shutting down that other person's ability to express love via their preference. Interactions like gift-giving are two-way streets.

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I think half the puzzle is what some are calling "Guess vs. Ask" culture. Someone also needs to say that this (and direct vs. indirect styles of communication) is often a male/female difference: "I don't really need a present from you" is a classic and stereotypical trap of wives and girlfriends everywhere. It goes right along with "I'm not mad, everything's fine" and "Yes, it's cool if you ditch me to go hang with your friends, do what you like."

But I also think that changing habits is hard. How many people here have wished at some time they could turn on a "smooth-talking extravert" switch at will? People naturally fall into the habits of how they're used to communicating with others.

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I'd say the presents thing isn't that she hates present as a concept, it's that the mental work required to figure out what present she'd want is usually not worth the present. I know it's like that for me. If I want something, I either just get it, or it's way too expensive to ask for it as a present. Figuring out something that is not both of these classes is work, and I rather not get any present than would be forced to do it (and realize I also committed other person to do work for thing that a minute ago I didn't even know I wanted). Thanking somebody for a useless present is also work (I am an introvert) but much less, so I'd be ok with it, so I'd be also better if I didn't have to do it. Of course if somebody manages to give an awesome present - which happens much more often than I'd have any right to hope for - I'd be very pleased. And mainly because I'd never think to ask for that thing as a present or buying it for myself.

Though could be that she also hates presents as a concept, or an a reciprocal obligation... But there are ways of hating presents without actually hating presents.

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Speaking of denying deviance is even possible, there is a part of the game Gone Home where your sister notes how upset she is that your parents didn’t even get mad when she was outed as lesbian. Instead they insist she is confused or going through a phase that she will snap out of. The game is set in 1995, but I imagine the belief that people don’t know their own preferences continues in other areas where exposure is less common.

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I think there are two layers to this. The first is that people are starting from a prior like "the average person likes presents." The second is that the prior is common knowledge: everybody knows that the average person likes presents—and, by extension, everyone knows that giving presents is a thoughtful thing to do.

If you give someone a present that they don't actually want, nobody can really fault you for it, because it's obvious you were only trying to be thoughtful. Conversely, if you don't give someone a present and it turns out they did want one after all, you've embarrassed yourself, and you don't have the excuse of a social norm to fall back on. Since there's almost no risk to giving a present, and some risk to not giving one, the socially-safe thing to do is to always give the present, even when the recipient says they don't want one.

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Culture: a set of defined, normative customs and social forms. Your premise that "preferences" ought to be respected above "culture" is totally unworkable for a functioning people group. (As is evident of present day American society.)

When preferences are given a greater emphasis than culture, then there is only harmony when preferences accidently align. What if your friend's "preferences" were to show up, drop their pants and start sharting everywhere? That's rude. And - for better or worse - rudeness is defined by cultural standard, not "respecting preferences."

Would you go to a foreign country and expect that all yield their cultural norms to your preferences? It's basically what this screed against the elderly amounts to. The elderly grew up an intact culture that included "gift giving" and "inquisitiveness" actions of courtesy and friendliness, rather than the present, culturally-fractured mess, where everyone can neurotically assign a multiple possibility of meanings and intentions to any word or action.

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My current theory is that most people don't really have a theory of mind. They seriously don't understand that other people have preferences different from their own or preferences different from what they are supposed to have.

It takes unusual perceptiveness or enlightenment or something to really understand the range of preferences. Or maybe sociopathy.

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Me at a restaurant: "I would like the salmon, with nothing on it and nothing on my plate but the salmon." Most of the time I will be served a plate with a food item on it in addition to salmon.

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I think I fall into the category of people who take ideas seriously and who also update on what people say. The unfortunate consequence is I often end up being gullible!

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There are generational differences in hospitality as well. Happy and conversational vs out of sight and mind is one them.

It could also be mental talk “ I’ll only talk a little to her, oh but she needs to know this before I finish, woah her bag looks just like my grand daughters, I wonder what ethnicity she is? Did you know I once went their on a cruise the locals were so nice.” , Soon they have completely forgotten about what you told them.

Also, if they are significantly older than you, their perception of time is vastly quicker and so what you find long and drawn out they believe is a quick greeting.

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My theory: a lot of people, sub-consciously, hate their own life choices, but at a conscious level, if they can be assured everyone else is making the same choices, they can live with it. So they ignore data that is inconsistent with their own preferences.

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There are a couple things in what you write that I find particularly interesting. For one thing, it assumes that people only have one thing motivating them or informing them at any given moment.

So, your girlfriend who said she doesn't like presents was probably being completely honest. But, what you (and she) probably weren't accounting for was the fact that, even somebody who doesn't like presents, may experience inexplicable disappointment at not getting one on Christmas or a birthday. And she too might have that innate societal expectation. She may truly not like getting presents as she imagines herself receiving them. But the disappointment nonetheless happens. And so, when she gets a present, she is delighted in spite of herself.

Now take the lovely innkeepers. They probably have a couple of things informing them. One of those may be loneliness. And for people who are deeply lonely, it's incredibly hard to suppress the urge to socialize. So, they almost unconsciously don't hear what you're asking for. It's such anathema to them that anybody would turn away human interaction and friendliness, purely because in their experience and their loneliness, it is an irresistible opportunity. So they've taken their own experience and motivation, and used it as a buffer against your request. In fact, they probably didn't even register the request, because they can't even imagine that world in which everybody doesn't need the social interaction that's so nourishes them.

My point is that we always have conflicting motivations and experiences. I may very much love my partner who abuses me. I see the abuse as being the price of doing business so to speak. I haven't been in that situation personally, but I have stayed in relationships years longer than was healthy -- all the while justifying it to myself in ways that make no sense to me 10 years later (and I don't mean having children or something concrete like that as a justification).

It's the internal tension between our undistinguished desires and our conscious needs that makes it so difficult to act rationally in these circumstances. The tension that exists between what we hear or what we ourselves believe and what we are pulled to do by conflicting motivations, intentions, or experiences overpowers any attempt to talk and listen without undistinguished background experiences informing all that we hear and say.

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Years ago (decades, pre-internet) a couple who worked in our office said that they didn't watch TV. None of us could believe it. But now I hardly watch any TV either and I accept their preference.

My guess is that if someone has a preference that is way off the standard social environment we cannot project ourselves into their 'world' to understand them, and we prefer to avoid the uncertainty. We do this by ignoring the incongruity. It's a social radar ping that doesn't get reflected.

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I'm not as sure as you that the B&B people care about your friend's feelings -- it depends on what this means. My feeling about "nice," chatty people is that they are being chatty not out of generosity -- or not *primarily* out of generosity -- but primarily because they enjoy being chatty. Naturally they project their own preferences onto others, so they also have a reinforcing secondary motive, that they believe others will enjoy their chattiness. When a guest enters, they anticipate a double dopamine hit of doing something they like anyway while also pleasing the guest, and it's hard to give up on this.

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The number one reason, by far, that I've been tempted to make similar claims than Scott's gf about present-giving is to give myself an out in having to buy presents myself, because I don't usually know what to pick. I wonder if Scott's gf was proactive when it was her turn to buy something or what.

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Tea is serious business! The Father Ted sketch is parodying something that is (or at least was, up until recent years), the very important signifier of hospitality. If someone visits your house, you offer them tea (including if you have tradesmen working on a job there). If you are going to have a cup of tea yourself and there's anyone else in the house, you offer to make them a cup as well. To have someone come into the house and not offer them hospitality? The height of meanness and maybe you even have "notions"!

And if you're visiting and are offered tea, you *never* accept the first time (that's why Mrs. Doyle continues to ask after Ted says "no" the first time). There's the little dance of courtesy you do - offer, be refused, offer again, usually say something "Ah sure, you'll have a quick cup out of your hand?" and then if they do want it, they say something "Well, if you're sure it's no trouble" or "As long as you're making it, I might as well". A third refusal really does mean "no, honestly, I don't want/don't have time to have it".

So that's why Mrs. Doyle is so insistent about making the tea - it's really a big deal!

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"nah, must just be one of those games women play."

To be fair...

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I think the request for others to abandon social norms of friendliness and politeness to accommodate niche preferences is, frankly, just rude. It is the duty of the one who is outside the norm to respect and appreciate the rules of the place they are in (it would be like tourists demanding foreigners in a strange land shake their hand instead of giving them the finger as a greeting, even if that went against all the customs of the foreign land)

Interestingly, this reveals a difference between the motel case and the girlfriend present case. In the former, the interaction was guided by public social norms and rituals and hence the request for alteration is rude. Whereas the girlfriend case is 1-1 personal interaction and this regulated by more flexible agreements.

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Old people are like this. My dad (85) occasionally asks if I want a hot dog when I visit. I've been vegetarian for 20 years. The problem is that his brain now mostly remembers me as a kid who liked hot dogs. The memories of me as an vegetarian adult, in his head, are suppressed. This habitual behavior extends to other factors too and generally makes dealing with elderly aging parents a huge pain in the ass.

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Great post, but missing two important points: (1) people are bad at knowing their own long term preferences (I.e. who to marry) and; (2) people are bad at communicating short term preferences. There are any number of reasons for #2, which all boil down to essentially: people express preferences to be seen a certain way, and often forgo speaking up for what would actually make them happy.

I think this explains a lot of kind old people ignoring your stated desires.

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Douglas Hofstadter tells a story in one of his books about a friend of his who died. The friend had really liked rock music; DH hates it. At his memorial service, they played some of the friend's favorite songs, and DH comments that he kept thinking "This is terrible music, so it can't be appropriate to play that now!", despite knowing with his rational brain that it was a completely appropriate way to honor the friend and his taste.

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I'm seeing the same dynamic pop up in a lot of the comments: elders are unwilling to withhold a nurturing/caring behavior from those who deny they need it.

I can see a lot of reasons this behavior would be culturally, if not biologically, hammered into us. People who openly express too much need are regarded as socially parasitic. Those individuals tend to be punished with a cold shoulder once their needs are deemed exaggerated.

Yet most of us need things from other people, socially or otherwise. Not wanting to appear burdensome, we've learned to signal "I'm not a parasite" by denying needs / asserting our own self reliance. And the providers (the parents, the grandparents, etc) have learned to offer anyway.

I wonder if this behavior is especially ingrained in generations who lived through times of scarcity. In my father's family, food is pushed on the young even if they don't want it, and the existence of vegetarianism is patently denied. But if you serve yourself too much lamb, you are considered greedy. This tradition comes from multiple generations who experienced hunger.

Those same generations generally emphasized self reliance while aggressively nurturing their children. This can feel like a contradiction to the young, who learn to play along by denying need while accepting resources.

Of course the old BnB people aren't offering food to people who aren't hungry. But perhaps they consider social contact a universal need, and their lives have taught them that the needful have a habit of denying need. In which case, the most rational thing is to provide anyway.

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I often get the feeling that many of the issues here are the result of confusing fast thinking with slow thinking. ("Thinking Fast and Slow" Daniel Kahneman's.) You rationalists want everyone to be thinking slow. But it just doesn't happen that often, and when the darling B&B owners meet a new customer they naturally use fast thinking... be nice. Is there some Less Wrong or SSC posts that talk of this?

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People are wrong about their preferences all the time, I can think of times where I wasn't feeling like going out but my friends pressured me and I ended up having a great time. Or I didn't want to try a certain food but ended up liking it

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I think there's a subtle point here as well, which I haven't seen discussed in the comments...

There's a big difference between you stating your own unusual preference, and reporting, second-hand, your friend's unusual preferences.

If you had said to the proprietors "I am very socially anxious, I would appreciate it if you don't interact with me", I think this might have had a chance of success. It's an unusual thing to ask, but hearing it direct from the person in question would carry some weight. But some guy just telling them that his travelling companion has some unusual preferences? This carries very little weight.

If you haven't established that you have any reason to be speaking for them (like they are your spouse, or child, or patient), their prior assumptions about how to treat people aren't going to be swayed.

Put yourself in a similar position. If someone tells you "my preference, when you greet me next time, is to stick your tongue out at me", you might well do it. But if someone tells you "my friend's preference, when you greet them next time, is to stick your tongue out at them", that's a whole different story. You could be lying, or mistaken, and either of these seems more likely than the possibility of your friend having such a strange request. And who are you to ask that of them, anyway?

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I think you need to add in to your thoughts on this subject the fact that updating mental models is effortful. Neurons need to burn a fair amount of glucose to do it. So an additional and I think very clarifying question here is: just how much effort do people consider it worth to contemplate certain updates?

For example, in your B&B case, I think it is entirely possible that the host couple might have considered it just totally not worth the mental effort to even bother firing up the frontal cortex to ponder whether this update was worth making. There are some good reasons for that:

* You were very transiently in their life. They're not going to see you again anyway. So why bother updating the standard "here's how we put our guests at ease" protocol?

* They're older. When you're younger, you worry a lot more about fitting in. When you get to be 65+ you tend to stop worrying about that stuff. You pretty much already know who you're going to get along with and who you won't by about 2 seconds into any interaction, and your motivation for *adjusting* your ability to get along with anyone that fits into the wrong category is low. Why bother? Life is short, you already know who you like and don't like, and you've been successfully sorting people for decades. So older people may very naturally be more likely to decide that pondering whether to adjust their mental model for new types of people is not worth the effort.

* There's actually a balance between both sides in this interaction, in terms of who updates his mental model. For example, it's possible the older couple thought: "Hey, you two are guests in *our* home, it's on *you* to adjust your mental models to fit in well with how things run in Our Home." Meanwhile you may have been thinking "Hey, we're the renters of your property/employers of you as contract cooks/housemaids, it's on *you* as the employees to adjust your mental model to suit your employers' tastes."

Id est, there's inherently a conflict between who has to adust, any time two parties that have conflicting models of social behaviour meet, and the two parties may not come to the same conclusion about how that mental effort is to be split, if it's split at all. (A B&B seems like a natural place for this problem, too, inasmuch as a lot of them are in actual personal homes, not commercial properties, so the precise line between "private guest" and "tenant" may be blurred, or not seen nearly the same way by the same people -- I'm a little curious how either you or the older couple would seen the same situation if (1) you had been nonpaying personal guests, or (2) it had been a fully commercial establishment, e.g. Best Western motel, and they were just the night manager and asst manager.)

* Finally, the value individuals put on low-friction social encounters, and their sensitivity to any abrasion, differs considerably. Some people are exquisitely sensitive, become almost social chameleons to avoid the tiniest hint of friction, and the cost of updating mental models seems cheap to them for the respite they get from being rubbed the wrong way. Other people are, for lack of a better phrase, made of much coarser fiber and really don't give a shit, or aren't even aware, of mild to moderate levels of abrasion, and so they evaluate the cost-benefit ratio of updating mental models quite differently.

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I think this is a rational response to data points of people saying they are uninterested in something but are just being polite and actually are interested. How many people will politely say "Oh please, I don't want anything for my birthday" but in the end are delighted if they get one, versus people who are honest-to-goodness worse off for getting a present? More seriously, how many couples are there that have genuinely worrying fights at times, with words as bad as "I don't love you" and "I hate you," but still manage to stay together and seem (or at least claim to be) better for it than separating? And this goes doubly for "I was sure they were my friend and then they stabbed me in the back" or "She rejected my advances four times but I persisted and that's how I met your mother." Certainly such things are portrayed endlessly in movies and other media, enough to seep deeply into people's decisionmaking processes even if their relation to reality is skewed. And the older people are, the more they will have encountered these (real or fictional) cases.

People will constantly encounter situations like this, and I think these might be the cases messing up true "preference reading", rather than the (perhaps less frequent) signals of "people who say they want presents and actually do." I'm inclined to think that the strength of this effect would be muted the more serious the preference is; even if the hosts had a practice of giving a flower to every visitor I doubt they'd offer one to your friend if you said she's deathly allergic to flowers. However, that admittedly doesn't accord well with the abusive partner example. 

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My steelman view of very nice people who don't acknowledge protests is that they have simply converged on a mentally efficient strategy (space: no person-specific lookup table needed, processing: minimize anxious time spent looking for hidden preference clues) with a small downside (oh no, they didn't want tea, but now they have tea). In the same vein, it's a low-cost energy-saving move in cultures with elaborate politeness rules.

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Efficiently directing someone to their room is rude and violates social norms, which is high-risk. If your business depends on fickle consumer reviews where even a single poor review can tank your five-star rating, you're strongly incentivized to avoid social risk.

If you had provided harmlessly weird instructions, they might have cooperated. ("Greet her as Queen Cassandra.")

Providing instructions that expressly contravene social norms is too risky, and will be ignored. ("Greet her as Ugly Troll.")

If you follow social norms, you can always maintain your place in the hierarchy (or AirBnb ranking) by publicly invoking the norm. Most people would agree with the following statement: "My Granddaughter told me not to buy her a present. Buying presents is normal and good. I bought her a present and she's mad. She's unreasonable." Likewise no one is going to write an AirBnb review of "Proprietor was too friendly."

This generalizes to an individual's self-image, unconsciously:

1. Buying gifts makes me feel like I'm being caring and thoughtful.

2. Forgetting birthdays makes me feel thoughtless and bad.

3. Not buying a gift feels like forgetting a birthday which will make me feel bad.

4. Add in confusing gift-related norms, to further incentivize ignoring people's stated preferences.

5. Buy a gift.

Confusing gift-related norms include:

1. Decline gifts you want, in order to avoid the appearance of greed. See e.g. "We'll buy lunch." -> Recipient must decline twice before accepting.

2. Tests to make sure the partner really cares: "No need to buy me a gift, honey" -> Mad no gift was purchased.

3. Demonstrating thoughtfulness is the real point of the gift: "If I tell you what gift I want it doesn't count."

Given the above "ignore stated norm-breaking gift-related preferences" is a good default rule, and one I endorse.

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If you're looking for examples of where you are not respecting other people's preferences, you might start with the fact that the first line of text under that LessWrong post reads: "I, the author, no longer endorse this post." The second comment thread at the bottom links to a post named "Posts I repent of", in which the author states: "I would prefer it if no one linked to or promoted "Taking Ideas Seriously"."


The example you give to crystallize why you're so certain that people ignore others' preferences is similarly blinkered. Your girlfriend expressed a preference to you.  Your response was to internally question her motivations for having it ("some complicated attempt at emotional manipulation"), to "challenge" her with questions about whether acting in direct opposition to this preference would be ok, and to share the whole situation with someone outside the relationship (ostensibly to ask for advice about whether or not to respect your girlfriend's preference).  You focus on your grandmother as the person in this scenario who couldn't acknowledge people's preferences, but your own behavior treated your girlfriend's stated preference as both potentially untrue and potentially rooted in animus against you.

You say that you "think it's hard for conscious people thinking rationally to get this one wrong... but our emotional reasoning machinery gets stuff dumber than this wrong all the time." Do you think emotional reasoning machinery played a part in these two decisions you made? Maybe it *felt good* to you to read that article, and you shared it because you were focused on the good feelings it gave you and not the preferences of its author. Maybe someone before that girlfriend treated you badly, and you pushed back against her preference because you didn't want to comply and risk her getting mad and hurting you again (you mention women playing games twice, later in the post).

You are not alone! Humans generally act in ways that prioritize our own emotions and preferences over the emotions and preferences of others. But this is not a mystery, and you are not an outlier.

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You had to "rescue" her? Therein lies the tale. For both of you I think.

But as to the respecting of preferences - it appears to me to be a "clash" of preferences. Why couldn't your girlfriend acknowledge the preference of the couple to be outgoing and friendly and, as they saw it, courteous. It made her uncomfortable. I would bet that the couple would have felt uncomfortable ignoring her or failing to greet her in a way they considered appropriate.

For someone as smart and informed and perceptive as you it surprises me that you frame this as "they" were deficient. From my perspective it was a typical interaction of two different personality types. For what it is worth, I identify more with your girlfriend but I manage to play act my way through those situations.

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If somebody told me to not welcome their friend who I was about to meet, I'd assume they were kidding, because that's a very strange request. Even more so if I'm the owner of a B&B. Like, if you don't like friendly small talk, don't stay at a B&B, Motel 6 is probably much cheaper anyway.

It's also a pretty rude preference to expect a random member of society to go along with. I wouldn't say it's so rude as to be objectionable just for asking, but at the same time, "please don't do what you usually do to help yourself feel at ease with the stranger who's about to be part of your general living quarters for the next few days" is definitely in the territory of "mensch-points for acquiescing to, no deductions for disregarding".

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Epistemic status: Cherry-picked parameters from sample size of 1+eps

I’m gonna add another sample, and say that this kind behavior is international (Russia), and does seem to have a strong correlation with age and other factors. My paternal grandparents are strong example of this, while maternal grandparents are much less “affected”

A few factors that seem like they could be linked with “affected” vs “unaffected” (and also heavily correlated between themselves):

- Openness to new ideas

- Comfort with new technology (need help to read sms from simple phone vs comfortable with smartphones)

- Education level, both formal and informal

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I bet you can get a really low rate at the B&B if you're a disembodied head.

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In Indian culture, you're supposed to pressure visitors to eat. There's the inevitable "No, we cannot impose" and a predictable set of rounds of cajoling, "Oh, just eat a little", that goes on back and forth, until the guest says yes. This protocol is broken at great risk to the friendship.

You absolutely have to pressure people to eat more, as well. If they say no, they're in trouble. If you don't pressure them, you're in trouble. You might say things like, "You are so skinny!" to an overweight person.

Every culture has a version of this. Food is always involved. You say one thing but expect everyone to understand they're supposed to disagree with you.

I saw the Chinese version in the movie Joy Luck Club. The Chinese girl takes her white boyfriend to meet her parents. The mom serves food while criticizing her own cooking. The guest is supposed to disagree, but he says something like ok, ok, maybe you need to add more salt....and they hate him for saying that. :)

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> (the local four-year-old recently announced she had no sense of taste, something we're pretty sure is some kind of weird game she's playing with herself and not true at all)

Umm, have you had her tested for COVID ? We no longer live in the Before Times, when life was green and good, you know...

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The answer is people are wrong or do not tell the truth about their own preferences. If you have children, life is a constant battle with a small person who is incorrect about their own preferences (though not always, which makes this hard). If you deal in an industry that depends on socially mediated success, lying about your own preferences is necessary to succeed. Dating is a consatnt battle of discerning hidden preferences.

If you violate someone's expressed preference in favor of a more universal ideal (or situation appropriate ideal) of preferences, you will find you get constant feedback that this is correct choice in the situation. (though again not always).

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Huh? Am I missing something here? Their preference was to talk a lot, and so they did.

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After reading the first paragraph, I immediately thought of [What Developmental Milestones are You Missing?](https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/11/03/what-developmental-milestones-are-you-missing/). Particularly number 2:

> Ability to model other people as having really different mind-designs from theirs

While I wouldn't say a person who doesn't like gifts or is bothered by friendly strangers as "really different". But there does seem to be an inability "to relate to people who are not just like me" that seems to be missing.

But I have also noticed this is from the same generation. This is also written into Kitty Foreman's character (That 70's Show) who I think would be from that same generation as well.

Some thoughts, beyond the ones in the article:

* They have more life experience to draw on for making a good excuse to not update their beliefs (She only says she doesn't like presents because she is used to getting bad ones. Get her something good, and she'll like it).

* They are used to people just giving up on this battle, and are mistaking that for the previous point.

* They've spent a long time with a self selected bubble so their priors are unusual. (People who get B&Bs disproportionately want the interaction. The B&B hosts end up with strongly reinforced beliefs about what people are like.)

* (Wild speculation) Maybe as people age, their ability to update beliefs gets worse.

* This is mostly just relevant to gift giving: but there may be several social attitudes and signals informing the person's opinion that "everyone likes presents" that may be hard to update all at once.

* There may be a different social attitude towards the preference: being introverted may not be seen as a valid preference. Instead it is something the introvert is expected to cope with.

All of these are at least fairly speculative.

On a final note regarding the second last paragraph: I've noticed the opposite! The emotional response is that she likes me or he is a true friend. It is my rational brain that can rationalize their behavior as "just being polite" or "playing a game". Weird.

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I once saw the question, "What thing do you know that nobody else does?" and my answer was, "People are different."

I won't say that -literally- nobody else knows this, but a very large number of people seem not to. And it's not just innocent social preferences, where they assume that everybody likes the same things. It also affects hot topics like politics and religion. People on one side of a divide will assume that people on the other side are perverted, or lying, or have some kind of ulterior motive, and they will puzzle themselves endlessly trying to figure out what that ulterior motive might be, when the people in question have stated their reasons plainly.

However, the most intense example of this phenomenon is back on the innocent social side. It's music. If you say you dislike some music that other people love - and it happens to me a lot; I can't abide about 90% of what passes for popular music - they will accuse you of -lying-. About your own musical tastes! Why would you do such a thing?

Speaking of tastes, it also happens with food. And here it's often genetic, or at least epigenetic, and thus scientifically documentable, yet people who love cilantro still won't believe that other people find it repulsive. (Me, I find it nearly tasteless, yet I'm willing to accept that other people are not like me.)

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I think people just don't take statements of preference that seriously because most people who are not rationalists genuinely don't examine their preferences very often so people are constantly right when they insist that someone's preferences are wrong. At the same time you respect preferences so immediately because you, and the people you usually surround yourself with, do take the kind of authoritative "I like X" or "I can't stand Y" statements seriously and carefully avoid making them without being very sure. These people are optimizing more for the kind of person who declares that they are in love with the most recent city they've visited and HATES a third of all food types all of which they'll order in their next meal.

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Don't know about the specifics in your case, but "I don't want a present" is the oldest trap in the relationship book. So your grandmother did have a very good point.

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It's extraordinary how little skill people have at what might be called "enforcing your preferences." Scott told the B&B folks about his friend's preferences but did not secure any explicit agreement or even check for understanding.

What they may have taken from him was this: A) Not much at all -- they just didn't pay attention; B) "This man doesn't understand his friend, or how much people like us" C) His friend should learn to be more friendly, so we'll help her; D) We don't want folks like that at our B&B, so we'll work her over in the usual manner in the hope that she doesn't return.

If you want to enforce your preference, you need to make sure that you have been understood, that the other person agrees, and that the other person sees more advantage in respecting your preferences than in serving his own. I don't see any of those elements present in what he describes.

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I think it's worth noting that receiving/wanting a present from a partner and receiving wanting a present from a friend are really quite different things, and it wouldn't surprise me if she really did have a different preference for each of those situations.

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One of the changes in society that has occurred in the last ten years is that many people are desperately lonely. They may be nice people – but when they have the opportunity to visit, they will talk and talk and talk. Another change that has occurred is many people have become very bad at conversation. Once you have discussed the weather they are out of things to talk about.

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I admit to making a similar mistake, more than once. The problem was the lack of social skills and inability to pick up on social cues. What makes this extra difficult is that people *do* say stuff they don't mean all the time. So if you grew up around people who often play coy, you learn to expect that another person will reject whatever nice thing you're trying to do in a humble or self deprecating way ("oh, no, thanks, I wouldn't want to bother you"), but if you do the nice thing anyway ("oh, but I insist"), they will appreciate it and be happy about it.

So, for example, I would insist on helping my friend to carry her heavy backpack, and fail to realize that she said "no" in a "I don't want you to do this and am feeling increasingly annoyed" sense, not in a "oh, no, don't bother, oh, but okay, thank you."

I don't think that I'm particularly irrational person or that I don't care about people's preferences, or was doing whatever a modern woke person would accuse me of doing. It's just that taking other people's preferences at face value is a social skill you have to learn, and unless you've been taught it or are able to figure it out eventually on your own, it's not that weird that you'd miss it. I guess a smarter person would've picked up on this kind of thing faster... Or maybe some people are just naturally better at socializing than others.

Which is why I think it would be much better if our society didn't have a huge stigma around teaching social skills and dating advice to young guys. If you're shy, awkward, kinda weird, and feeling overwhelmed by social interactions, you'll end up making mistakes like this all the time, because your model of how human relationships are supposed to work is based on romcoms, platitudes, and whatever your parents taught you when growing up, who didn't really know any better themselves.

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Cultures and sub-cultures come with a set of very deep unspoken assumptions and understanding that those may be really different is HARD. I live in a different country then the one I grown up in, so I actually have quite a few examples of where I literally can't comprehend people having other preferences, even though I rationally understand they do. To take an apolitical example, I'm having trouble imagining people might want to live in a group setting if they can afford a place of their own. Not for the lack of examples of the contrary, Scott being one of them! Also, whenever I see or hear any office worker approving of going back to full in-person work after the covid, I can't get rid off the little voice in the back of my head saying they are an evil lying bastard who just wants to look good in front of the boss.

Would I disrespect any of those preferences given a chance? Not sure, but I'm in the bay area where they are squarely withing the norm. If someone would've been expressing something equally alien in the context where my assumptions were the norm and their a wild deviation, I can easily see myself ignoring this as a lie or confusion or whatever.

As for the most probable explanation though, I'm on board with everyone who said that deep down they probably just didn't care what she wants.

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Some of these seeming disconnects about "preferences" are just complicated social dynamics playing out. For example, an act that appears like altruistically trying to please someone else (giving a present), is actually more about social positioning ("I am generous and considerate"), and the recipient has good social reasons to get annoyed ("now I look inconsiderate for not getting them a present" and "now I owe them").

A more fundamental version of the "problem" would be: "Why it is hard to accept that other people experience a different reality?" Formulated that way, the answer is almost obvious. Each of us wants to believe that we are living in one objective reality and that we accurately perceive it.

But if you meet someone who prefers the taste of lemon peel to chocolate ice cream, you have to ask yourself "do those things taste the same to each of us?" "Or does that other person enjoy bad tastes?" "Why would they do that?" "Are they a weirdo?" "Am I the weirdo?" "Are there multiple realities, in which we are both right?" Of all these choices, it's easiest to assume you are right about reality and "they are just a weirdo" or "just pretending to like bad stuff."

That's how I feel about sushi. I can't believe people really prefer the taste of raw fish to something that is actually worth eating. So my theory is that all the people who go to sushi bars are just pretending they like it because they think it makes them cool or interesting. (As objective evidence for this theory, notice that sushi eaters go out of their way to load up each bite with a bunch of rice to obscure the raw fish taste). Anyway, that's my reality, and I'm sticking to it.

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I don't think all these cases are really best explained by a single theory. For instance, there are specific reasons why people might be reluctant to update on explicitly given information in many of the cases you cite.

1) Recognizing that a girl who says they aren't into them really isn't.

Here I think you have evolution on the other side favoring male optimism about women sleeping with them since, for unattached women in the evo environment, the costs to continuing to pursue them were probably pretty low compared to benefits and given a limited selection people probably did change their minds not infrequently.

2) Accepting that someone didn't want a present.

Here I think you need to not only take into account the fact that it's considered appropriate to pretend not to want presents in our society but also the fact that some people really feel they *shouldn't* want presents and should indicate they don't like them.

Also I think many people have genuine experiences of finding out that people who insisted they didn't want presents actually found that unpleasant. People just aren't as good at predicting their future emotional reaction as they believe.

3) B&B experience.

In this case the owners are almost certainly extroverts who don't understand (intuitively) that other people genuinely dislike those interactions. Not only did they probably just forget your warning if they remembered it they probably assumed it meant nothing more than your friend might get tired and make excuses early.

The problem in these cases is that convincing someone that there really are people who hate that friendly extrovert stuff would require them accepting they've been making lots of people secretly feel bad when they thought they were being friendly. That's just too big an adjustment to make based on brief remarks from a stranger.

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> When other people's behavior baffles me, I try to think of an example where I make the same mistake; this usually shows up pretty fast, and I get appropriately humbled.

This one is weird, because it's staring you right in the face here. In your first two examples there's a counterparty with legitimate preferences that you have completely failed to acknowledge, yourself!

Your friend has a preference for no small talk. Your host has a preference for small talk. That's a reasonable preference conflict that needs to be resolved somehow, but you seem to be just assuming that it should be resolved on the side of your friend's preferences rather than your host's preferences. Why so?

Similarly your girlfriend has a preference for "no presents" while your grandmother has a preference for "presents". Why should we assume that this perfectly reasonable preference conflict should be resolved on your girlfriend's side rather than your grandmother's?

What's more, you seem to be making the same mistake that you're assuming the counterparty is making, of assuming that the other person's preferences are simply invalid. Nobody could _really_ have a strong preference for making small talk, could they? Nobody could _really_ have a strong preference for giving presents, could they? In fact I think some people do have a strong preference for making a bit of small talk with strangers that they're letting into their house; it's scary having a stranger under your roof and it's nice to be reassured that they're vaguely normal through a few minutes of conversation. Similarly, gift-giving rituals have an important role to play in strengthening familial bonds.

In both these cases, it's not a story of "one person has a legit preference which the other person pigheadedly refuses to acknowledge", it's a story of "two people have legit preferences which the other person pigheadedly refuses to acknowledge". I find it amusing to consider the possibility that your grandmother and your hosts have their own substacks on which they're writing exactly the same post from the opposite perspective.

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I think for most people in most parts of the world, the idea that they would host people in their homes and not interact with them is completely beyond the pale of social norms. Scott seems to be underestimating the “weird points” being spent in a request as extreme as ‘don’t talk to my friend who is staying in your house' and because of this level of weirdness, the hosts are politely pretending it wasn’t said, or else the request didn’t compute because it was so beyond acceptable precedent.

I imagine they felt a bit like flight attendants would if a passenger suddenly said, “Sorry, I don’t like flying, Please don’t put this plane in the air.” What would a sweet elderly flight attendant do in this situation? Almost surely smile and say “Sure, dear whatever you say,” and then proceed to let the plane take off. Such a preference can’t be taken seriously because one person demanding the plane not take off means no one else gets to fly, which is to say that extreme introverts tend to seriously underestimate the damage they can do to social gatherings of any kind. Just one or two people who are in an anti-social headspace can completely suck the air out of a room, just like how one or two people talking in a movie theatre can completely ruin it for everyone else.

The hosts had a strong preference for this not to happen on their social turf and expressed this by ignoring the request. I currently live in Japan, and I imagine the response here would be much worse even than that: hosts would hear the request loud and clear, and hate me for it because expressing such a strong and anti-social preference would be viewed as both generally arrogant and directly insulting to the hosts. I see there as being real historical baggage here in both America and Japan: walking around not being bothered or chatted at by the people doing the cooking and cleaning has long been a privileged reserved for the high-upper-class.

Basically, those two hosts didn’t want their home to become a place where people don’t talk to one another, and they held that preference very, very strongly, probably much more strongly than Scott’s friend held hers. And although not a request for some material luxury, what Scott’s friend was asking was on the level of requesting golden bed linens and a bowl of only-blue M&M’s in terms of weirdness, and in the eyes of most people aged 50+ , arrogance.

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Help, help! People are trying to be nice to me, and they are really bad at it!

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i don't know how much this generalizes, but my model of the b&b couple & elderly people that don't want to accept weird preferences is that, while they do somewhat care about how the other person feels, their actions are mainly determined by a social script that they feel really bad if they don't follow. if the b&b couple hadn't been really friendly, even if you said that was preferable, they would have felt bad about it all day. most peoples' conscious minds and emotional minds aren't connected very well, so i can totally see it being very difficult for the conscious mind, who knows that they should violate their well-worn social script *this one time*, not being able to override the powerful, uncomfortable feeling of social violation generated by the emotional mind. i find myself doing things like this in the moment sometimes, too; even if i planned on not doing something, the social pressure *from myself* is too much to handle and i end up doing what i always do (i can't think of a specific example though).

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I try to keep in mind a sentence from one of Iris Murdoch’s novels when someone has a preference outside the norms as I understand them:

“We’re all so very different.”

Such a simple but important fact that I didn’t always know.

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If you've ever had a woman ask you out on a date, straightforwardly, instead of making various spastic jerking movements and inane statements meant to get *you* to ask *her* out, that alone makes you a massive experiential outlier in the West, to say nothing of the planet.

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I'm a bit surprised Scott is so puzzled over this. It's been well covered in x-rationalist circles.

Other minds fallacy. We use our own minds to model others. We have to. We assume that everyone is basically like us. Often, they're really, really not (see the "people literally see different colors" or "some people cant visualize" posts.

There's more to it as well. Older people tend to be more habitual. It's possible they heard what you said but completely forgot it (especially as these people see tons of guests all the time and might not have connected what you said to this guest).

I had a friend who used to be an egregious example of this. Part of it stemmed from his insane overconfidence (he believed he was the smartest man in the world- basically he discovered tautological reasoning, said he figured out the goal of life was to be happy, and thinking anything else might interfere with his happiness.)

At one time he believed people didn't like things he didn't like, they were just trying to be cool contrarians. Examples- reading books, being homosexual.

I have to admit even I struggle with this. There are definitely times I have a hard time believing people have preferences they claim to have. (I still can't grok people who prefer winter over summer. I understand for people with allergies and overweight people, but otherwise it's tough.)

Of course, people also do signal, and are often bad at knowing what actually makes them happy. I relate to you on the NYC thing. I feel it's possible people's preference there is often feeling like "they've made it" if they're living in the city. Of course that's not all of it. There are people who have lived in the city there whole lives who can't stand to leave.

There's also cases like your patient. There are often situations where "prefence" is multi-variable. People rarely get to choose their ideal preference, their are many factors involved like social pressure.

There's a lot of research that social media makes people less happy, but a cumulative effect may not be obvious to the person when their motvations are short term, when the social structures around them motivate them in a certain way, when short term interests conflict with larger happiness (Moloch), when it doesn't occur to people there is a different way to do things. There is also inertia- making changes to routines is hard, and allowing oneself to exercise different preferences might take quite a bit of work. There are many people who want to get in shape and get healthier- that's a preference. But exercising that preference comes at the cost of other short term preferences and can require a reserve of "will[power."

I had a friend who lived in the city and I did wonder if it didnt actually make her happy but was one of those "I have to" things. Of course she claimed that i couldn't possibly enjoy drives through places in jersey I havent seen and that I like beat roadside motels (she assumed I was signalling.)

There's also different depths of preference. The smartest man friend loves to play video games. I enjoy that as well, but more so in certain situations- a lot of experience is sort of "spiritual junk food"- it may be somewhat enjoyable but it doesnt create memories or have much depth of emotion to it. Video games that are designed to reward your dopamine drives are often like this I feel.

In the case of the patient in the abusive relationship, people's preferences always have downsides, but we tend to create a schilling fence where the harm of the preference says we shouldnt respect that preference as a society. We call these preferences self destructive (i'm not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing it out.)

Of course there are disagreements about what should count as a self-destructive preference. There are those we feel are an issue as a society, like serious addiction and abusive relationships, and those we may feel are a personal issue (not living up to one's potential). Of course people have huge variations of preference for this sort of thing and the degree they generally respect people's autonomy.

We tend to grant more autonomy the better the person understands. But not everyone does. (Take for example, the disagreements over whether someone can consent to sex while intoxicated, including those who have a sometimes explicit preference to do so themselves.)

This brings me back to what Scott was saying- in more conformist societies (which can include smaller social groups) person preference is less important.

So social interaction in certain contexts could be an expectation to fulfill what are seen as social norms, not a matter of preference.

I have noticed that in urban black neighborhoods, when passing someone on the street, it is considered polite to acknowledge them- this certainly is not the case universally across America.

The notion of what's "polite" could be a major factor. The hotel staff may have felt having a conversation was the polite thing to do regardless of what you said, and expected the other person to reciprocate.

This may even have been true had they known the other person was an introvert, as many people, especially older ones, probably feel there are social customs that must dictate behavior.

Going back to Scott's post about tribal knowledge, this has an evolutionary advantage (in the broadest sense). Customs that have worked mean safety and security, and not following those customs means potential risk.

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On the girlfriend present thing- what your grandmother was saying usually makes sense.

Keep in mind, a lot of social interaction isnt honest exchange of information but performance.

The whole "don't get me anything" but you're supposed to is established schtick.

Since that is the norm, Person A has to follow it, of course they don't care, they're not greedy, they love you anyway, etc. But since this is the norm, she really is expecting a present, and expects that you get unspoken social rules to get how this works.

Your grandmother probably assumed your girlfriend was a normal girlfriend and not YOUR girlfirend.

This kind of thing has evolved to a level of silliness in Japan for example where people are supposed to insist on giving gifts and the receiver has to insist on not receiving- to the point where even if you do and you didn't argue enough, you're seen as cheap/greedy.

Performance=social signalling. Again, this isn't "rational" it's customs that have evolved over time.

This sort of thing can be very toxic though.

This is literally what the "no means no" campaign was about in the 80s. Because while no always "officially" meant no, the "good girl" was supposed to offer token resistance and the man was supposed to keep trying till he just overwhelmed her resistance. yeah. And people weren't even supposed to be having pre-marital sex anyways.

This is part of the reason why I think you see so many older people so skeptical of rape claims. but it was a legit toxic situation for everyone involved.

Nobody is "supposed" to be doing this anyway- but it was up to a horny inexperienced guy to judge how real the "no" was.

I had a coworker from Nigeria and in his culture this sketchy shit still goes on.

If you are sincerely interested in a girl, you are supposed to "stalk her." Which literally means following her around, going to her house, etc, declaring your intentions for her. She's supposed to refuse you untill you prove yourself "honest". Failure to play either role sincerely enough means the two are judged negatively (the opposite of the way westerners think). If she gives in too easily, she's not "pure" enough. If he isn't... super stalkery, he's not sincere and just wants sex.


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Ritually lying about preferences is an essential part of many cultures. In China, for example, it takes a bit to convincing to refuse gifts or hospitality. This is especially true if you're family. The Persians have a moral formal system called taarof: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taarof

"In the rules of hospitality, taarof requires a host to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obliged to refuse it. This ritual may repeat itself several times (usually three times) before the host and guest finally determine whether the host's offer and the guest's refusal are genuine, or simply a show of politeness. If one is invited to any house for food, then one will be expected to eat seconds and thirds. However, taarof demands that one can't go ahead and help themselves to more food after finishing their first helping. Good manners dictate that one must first pretend to be full, and tell the host how excellent the food was, and that it would be impossible to eat any more. The host is then expected to say one should not do taarof ("taa'rof nakon" - similar to "don't be polite!"), for which the appropriate response would be to say "no" two or three times, then pretend to cave in to the host's insistence and pile on the food. Done any other way, one can come across as either starving, or simply a bit uncouth.[7]"

Ritualized lying about preferences isn't such a prominent part of American culture, but it's still there. How many times have you actually wanted to know how someone is doing when asking "how are you?" Asking "how are you?" without wanting to know is considered deeply weird in most of the world, even Western cultures like Germany. When you last went to a party, did you show up exactly at the specified time, or 30 minutes late, as required by custom? When was the last time someone said "let's get lunch some day" and subsequently invited you to lunch for real?

For whatever reason, it's often against custom to say directly what we want. It sounds rude, demanding, or unappreciative. If a friend asks whether I want a gift and I say yes, I've just created a burden that wouldn't exist had I said no, so I would say no to demonstrate that I value the friend's time and don't want to impose upon him (which is true). But that doesn't mean I actually don't want a gift, or that I wouldn't be happy had he given me a gift without asking.

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For most people, our preference to be liked by others, in particular our significant others, usually trumpfs any other preferences we may have. (That is also why you can get large swings in public opinions whenever people sense "what is the prevailing correct opinion on this question" has shifted.)

If a girlfriend tells you she does not like gifts that is likely to be because she knows you are a rather prominent "rationalist", and rationalists might be likely to appreciate someone who does not like presents, since there is something irrational about gift-giving as such. "Why give anybody anything else than money? If you give money, the receiver can buy what he/she actually wants most...if you give something else, there is bound to be an utility loss." Which is a famous argument against giving anything other than money at Christmas. Quoting from memory, an economist colleague calculated the societal utility loss of Christmas presents to something like 0.7 perent of GDP each year.

...back to the topic: the empirical fact that you overheard your girlfriend say she loved a present she received from someone else, strengthens the above suspicion that she said what she said to you because what she really cares about is what she thinks you think about giving presents.

I short: Your grandmother was right.

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>When other people's behavior baffles me, I try to think of an example where I make the same mistake; this usually shows up pretty fast, and I get appropriately humbled. But I'm having trouble. There are things that are close - part of me will always refuse to believe that people enjoy living in New York City, and whenever I talk to friends in New York I have to resist the urge to ask them if they're okay, or whether I can help them move. But it stays at the level of intellectual curiosity; I would never refuse to drive an NYC friend to the airport because I don't believe them when they say they want to go back home.

You probably do the same thing, just in reverse, by overvaluing peoples' stated preferences and undervaluing their unstated/unspoken/implicit desires.

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I think the failure to take preferences into account makes more sense if you look at it through a signaling framework. Giving presents and throwing a welcome party (from the perspective of the giver/host) is less about optimizing the recipient's welfare, and more about signaling. So when you give chocolates on Valentine's day you famously don't ask yourself how hungry the recipient is, but rather how many chocolates you need to give them in order to signal how much you care. Likewise when the hosts welcome you and your friend to their B&B, their primary concern is to signal how impressive they are as hosts - your welfare as guests is of secondary concern.

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You are assuming throughout this that people are _supposed_ to respond to your stated preferences. That's probably pretty ingrained from the culture you're used to but is really not how most people operate, I think. I'd bet that most Americans aren't used to people who have stated preferences _at all_, and would both (a) find it uncomfortable and off-putting and (b) do a bad job of respecting it.

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I've been unlucky enough to see this play out for most of my life regarding food. Somehow basically everyone I ever talked to remained absolutely certain I must secretly like the foods I told them I found intolerable, and no amount of me trying it in front of them and saying "I find this intolerable and wont eat it this time, or any time in future" made them stop giving it to me. I still find it happens all the time with spice in particular, where I ask if something is spicy because I have no tolerance for it and they say no, and when I try it and it's intolerably spicy they say "well its not THAT spicy". It's a stranger case though I feel, since surely they have their own foods that they don't like but other people do, so it should be easy enough to model someone else.

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Many (maybe most) people are deontologists about interpersonal interaction. There's a certain range of culturally-approved-of ways to be nice, and these people feel they ought to be nice, even if compromising that would make people happier. They care about doing what they're supposed to do, and satisfying people's stated preference is a weak node in that network, so tweaking its value doesn't change their behavior much.

It makes sense that those who take ideas seriously tend to be better at respecting preferences, because they care less about social norms and propriety.

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>>my girlfriend had told me unprompted that she found getting holiday presents weird and awkward and would prefer I not give her anything. I'd challenged her on this - what if I try really hard to pick something you like? - what if I leave it on your doorstep and you're under no obligation to demonstrate any emotion to me? - satisfied myself that this wasn't some complicated attempt at emotional manipulation, and agreed not to get her a holiday present.

>>I mock, but one of my girlfriend's friends gave her a present and she loved it.

What might be going on (I guess only because it's like that with me) is that your girlfriend hated receiving gifts-out-of-obligation and likes gifts given for any other reason. Telling people you hate gifts is about the only way to remove that obligation and ensure you get gifts only when people really do want to give you gifts. That's really confusing, though - I am telling people I hate gifts on Christmas and birthday and like them any other day, that works a bit better.

On the main subject - my first thought was that maybe old people just come from different cultures where words mean different things? Where saying "my friend hates talking" meant "we don't want to bother you, but would love to chat actually". My older relatives' stories have a lot of that - mothers saying they hate sweets because children loved them and there were only so many to go around, that sort of thing.

But then I remembered I have been told numerous times explicitly that my preferences are wrong and I am dumb and evil and inhuman for having them. Not even weird preferences - normal tastes like not liking honey or swamps. That might be the same language barrier where "I don't like honey" translates into "All your effort to get me this jar of honey is worthless, I hate you and hope you die in pain!!1!!11" because it was unthinkable to refuse food some time ago? So I must be unthinkably evil to do so now?

I wish I knew a better explanation.

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I was discussing something similar and my interpretation is that most people are bad at *expressing* preferences, so for most people a policy of "assume people like the same things other people like and ignore any instructions otherwise until they've violently rejected something at least three times" works BETTER than trying to ask what people like or listen to what they request.

An example you might fight more familiar is if you're living with someone, and they say, "they're fine with X" or "they like you to do X" but whenever you do X they get upset or angry and whenever you talk about X they get upset and angry -- I think if X isn't a big deal, it's natural for many people to just avoid it most of the time, even if that wasn't what their cohabitee says they want. Because X is something where the other person doesn't completely know what they want.

I speculate that a LOT of people don't clearly know or be able to explain what they want because people are complicated and because no-one can understand themselves COMPLETELY, and for people living in that system learning how to deal with people by trial and error works better than listening. And people with atypical preferences or people who are good at expressing preferences get caught in the cracks of those societies, but the society rumbles on.

I sometimes think of it as, multiple people represent a complicated interacting system, that might be modelled like "every person mostly understands themselves and communicates through a narrow bandwidth channel" or "no-one understands anything, everyone just does what seems to work, and behaviours evolve in the shared system"

Principle of charity (at some level of granularity) says that if people ignore what people ask for, that strategy probably WORKS for them compared to anything else they've tried (but maybe not compared to "spending decades learning to understand people better")

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Part of the problem is that people often misrepresent their preferences. Two examples off the top of my head: the girlfriend who insisted she didn't want a Valentine's Day present only to be hurt when I didn't get her one; the woman who told me she wasn't interested in dating me, but who became exasperated when I didn't ask her again, later telling me that I should have "tried harder".

Because people's revealed preferences often contradict their expressed preferences, the calculation is much harder than: "go along with whatever they say".

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I haven't been reading your blog very long, maybe 3 months or so and this is my first comment. I'd rather it be about the material but you seem like someone who might take this notation fine. Something that has been distracting me is that the periods are on the outside of quotations! I might be misinformed or otherwise mistaken but I'm used to them going on the inside and believe that is the correct punctuation in those cases. I believe it's a little more up for debate on question marks and exclamation marks (although I prefer them inside) but I think it is standard for periods. I know this is relatively small and I do want to note that the posts are otherwise very well written and edited.

I recognize other forms of writing that are not American English use different rules, but I presume you're following the rules of American English given your double quote usage. Additionally, a quote ending in an exclamation would be the terminal point instead of also adding a period. Sorry this is grammatical but you clearly have well-edited posts which means it won't change without someone noting it. Thanks for all the great content to think and read about.

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I think that this one is ultimately pretty simple.

Most people are nearly fundamentally incapable of behaving differently than they would by default.

I think this statement has a lot of explanatory power for so many of the seemingly baffling things that 'normies' do. It's a big question why this is the case, but I've come to take it as a pretty fundamental truth.

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As someone coming from the Guess culture (60's communist Czechoslovakia) and trying to be Ask myself (my kids already are, no problem - I still sometimes struggle), I tend to understand both the actions of Guessers and the frustration of Askers.

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I think your frame — "Why Is It Hard To Acknowledge Preferences?" — blinds you to the frame of the B&B owners. From their point of view, you are asking them "When my friend arrives would you please be rude to her?" It's hardly surprising that they would demur.

I can identify with both of your examples.

I am an introvert. My wife's family is large and Mediterranean (think: My Big Fat Greek Wedding.) Whenever I visit them, the attention is overwhelming. Fortunately, they have one of those Mediterranean flat roofs that I can sneak off to when it gets too much for me. As soon as my mother-in-law discovers my absence, she'll send someone to come and sit with me because I shouldn't be on my own. She would be delinquent in her hosting obligations to do otherwise. She would be rude.

After 30 years, she finally understands (sort of). When my in-laws visit us across thousands of miles and, often after several years, they will walk in the house, say Hello Hello, then immediately go to another room because "K does not like to be bothered."

Mother-in-law is trying her best to learn from experience but B&B owners don't have sustained opportunities for learning like this. The rule is "Don't be rude to guests". Even if a guest asks them to be rude.

On the gift-giving thing, I explain to every guest who is visiting us that they should not bring a gift because it will upset my wife. At the end of every visit (I mean EVERY visit), the guest will say 'I know you said not to bring a gift but this is "just a small gift"/"a very nice gift"/"is something that I know you will appreciate". EVERY time it ends in tears and shouting and our guests leaving with bad feelings all around.

I don't like gifts either and have learned how to say "Thank you. It's just what I always wanted." but my wife does not have that skill. Her phobia of gifts is too deep.

Our closest friends have learned to make a joke of it now ("Hello! I didn't bring you anything!") but others still bring gifts.

B&B owners don't have this opportunity for learning because they only interact with you once.

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I'm not good at taking ideas seriously but I'm good at updating to others' preferences (well, at least I think so). I feel like different mechanisms are responsible for it. Taking ideas seriously is a cognitive exercise and acknowledging preferences is... respect? I'm afraid I'll harm a person by insisting or ignoring.

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I wonder if this is related to what Holden Karnofsky talked about in his post about sequence vs cluster thinking


Quoting Holden:

- "Sequence thinking involves making a decision based on a single model of the world: breaking down the decision into a set of key questions, taking one’s best guess on each question, and accepting the conclusion that is implied by the set of best guesses (an excellent example of this sort of thinking is Robin Hanson’s discussion of cryonics). It has the form: “A, and B, and C … and N; therefore X.” Sequence thinking has the advantage of making one’s assumptions and beliefs highly transparent, and as such it is often associated with finding ways to make counterintuitive comparisons.

- Cluster thinking – generally the more common kind of thinking – involves approaching a decision from multiple perspectives (which might also be called “mental models”), observing which decision would be implied by each perspective, and weighing the perspectives in order to arrive at a final decision. Cluster thinking has the form: “Perspective 1 implies X; perspective 2 implies not-X; perspective 3 implies X; … therefore, weighing these different perspectives and taking into account how much uncertainty I have about each, X.” Each perspective might represent a relatively crude or limited pattern-match (e.g., “This plan seems similar to other plans that have had bad results”), or a highly complex model; the different perspectives are combined by weighing their conclusions against each other, rather than by constructing a single unified model that tries to account for all available information.

A key difference with “sequence thinking” is the handling of certainty/robustness (by which I mean the opposite of Knightian uncertainty) associated with each perspective. Perspectives associated with high uncertainty are in some sense “sandboxed” in cluster thinking: they are stopped from carrying strong weight in the final decision, even when such perspectives involve extreme claims (e.g., a low-certainty argument that “animal welfare is 100,000x as promising a cause as global poverty” receives no more weight than if it were an argument that “animal welfare is 10x as promising a cause as global poverty”).

Finally, cluster thinking is often (though not necessarily) associated with what I call “regression to normality”: the stranger and more unusual the action-relevant implications of a perspective, the higher the bar for taking it seriously (“extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”)."

People who are "good at taking ideas seriously" _quickly_ would be predominantly sequence thinkers, most people would be cluster thinkers. Holden is a self-described cluster thinker who wrote the post pretty much to explain his style of reasoning (when prioritizing EA causes) to sequence thinkers.

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This is a weird question coming from the guy who wrote the "Different Worlds" essay (https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/02/different-worlds/).

Isn't it just as simple as the B&B owners coming from a "different world" where guests of their B&B want to be chatted at?

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Lots of commenters are mentioning that mildly lying about your preferences, but then having your requests violated to everyone’s eventual delight is a pretty common social dance.

For an extreme example, check out taarof:


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Some people just have a hard time altering their default behavior. Case in point: My father-in-law is quite hard of hearing (and won't wear hearing aids). When I'm with him in social settings, I discretely ask friends & relatives to speak louder when they engage with him. I've found that most people can't seem to do this. At best, they'll start by increasing their volume -- but then they'll quickly go back to normal volume. Even health-care professionals do this during doctor's appointments. It's very frustrating.

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This reminds me of an incident where a distant relative was trying to insist on my brother eating. My brother at the time didn't like his eating habits to be the subject of other people's wishes and generally doesn't like taking food from other people. So he refused, she persisted two or three times before giving up. I felt this was a little obnoxious, even if it came from a place of caring, but my wife (who was born in India, I was born in the US) felt like this was part of being a good host.

I think there is an inherent tension between making sure people are taken care of (or feel taken care of) and making sure people have their preferences respected (or feel that their preferences are respected). I think most people around the world would consider both of those things to be important and good things, but I think there is a big variation, largely but not entirely driven by culture, of where people would say, it's okay not to respect this person's preferences in this aspect, they need to be taken care of vs we can't take care of this person, we need to respect their wishes. There is also variation depending on situation, for instance in the traditional Indian culture of my parents, pushing food on people is an especially expected behavior.

When you think about treating someone "nicely" or being "considerate" of someone, it encompasses both taking care of them and respecting their preferences, but because of culture people will approach this differently, erring one way or another.

That's my thinking on the topic.

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There's a normative issue here: I think the world/society is less of a nice place if friendly old B&B owners aren't chatty with you, even if it's your directly expressed preference. You *should* learn to appreciate this interaction, your preference is wrong. The thing about respecting a preference for not talking to each other or not giving each other gifts is that if the preference becomes more acceptable than we eventually are by default not talking to each other and not giving each other gifts. This may sound fine to you, but I assure you it's not fine for those of us who want to talk to each other and give each other gifts.

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I think there may be a perceived prevailing wisdom, true or not, carried through the generations that recognizes that:

1) Explicitly stating one's preferences that run counter to predominant culture can come at a greater cost to that individual than that individual just rolling with the punches.


2) Catering to folks' preferences that run counter to norms too often isn't particularly good for the group or the individual.

Summarized: From an individual perspective, it can be good for one's mental state and fortitude to accept that folks may rub you the wrong way sometimes, and that's ok, and may come at less cost than making a stink about it. Pick your battles.

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Something important is being missed here. I've lived in CA, the midwest, the south, and the southwest for extended periods of time, and this is just a cultural miscommunication.

I'd wager your hosts were culturally midwestern or southern. There's a strong cultural norm of pretend-declining gifts and favors with the expectation that the giver will ignore the polite declining and provide a gift/favor anyways. People who were raised in that tradition just ignore the words of people who claim they don't want pleasant things, like favors or presents or conversation.

The culturally-appropriate way of preventing conversation on your friend's behalf would have been for you to hang out and talk with the hosts during her arrival, and quickly point out how tired she was and subtly show them that the hospitable thing to do is to excuse her from conversation and let her go rest.

Essentially you should have showed them that their normal hospitable norm, making pleasant conversation, was inappropriate because of how tired your friend was and needed to be replaced by a more hospitable solution.

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Experience has taught that some people lie about their preferences and the penalty for believing the lie and acting on it is usually much worse than violating someone's sincerely stated true preference.

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How much are people *actually* listening instead of waiting to talk during "small talk?" Small talk is not about exchanging information; it's about building emotional rapport. Lots of semi-rehearsed lines and jokes in the waiting in those conversations too.

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The couple chatted with your friend because the couple enjoyed it, and having the opportunity to chat with strangers is part of why they run a B&B. Chatting with them is part of the cost of staying there. Similarly, many people enjoy giving presents, and accepting presents from them is the cost of being their friend. Your grandmother was trying to console you over the fact that your girlfriend was being mean/rude to you.

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"A Northerner was apprehended by police in London today after walking around and saying 'Hello' to strangers."


So, cultural differences.

Also, B&B hosts sometimes give you the Q&A treatment to figure out if you might be a problem. People who answer their innocuous questions casually and consistently are less likely to be up to no good.

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For whatever it's worth, my father used to be like this. (He's still alive but has gotten a little better with age, actually. Or maybe it's distance. Or he just doesn't feel as responsible for me as an adult.)

I found that going overboard on the context for the altered preference sometimes helped in persuading him to acknowledge the unusual preference. "Here is why I do this. Here are the consequences of me not doing this. Here is what you've done. Here is what I'd like you to do. Here's how acting differently will help me. etc." Bonus points if it's possible to bring up some formally acknowledged difference from a respected authority like "I have been diagnosed with ADHD so my experience is different than yours." Of course, that only works to the extent that someone recognizes psychological expertise, which is not universally a given. For those who are skeptical of psychological expertise, an artificial impediment to, say, someone's visual ability (like glasses that distort an image) coupled with asking them to read and telling them they're not trying when they can't has been anecdotally helpful in getting others to understand dyslexia without relying on an appeal to psychological authority.

An attempt at quick communications without context, in contrast, would just get dismissed.

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Why do you assume that the host couple should believe you when you are asking them to do something extraordinary for a person they have not met yet? If I was running any kind of public accommodation I would train the staff to respond to requests that guests make for themselves, or perhaps for a child or another person who is present and clearly associated with the person making the request, but to be very wary of requests by one guest that are to be applied to another guest without checking with that person first. What if you had assured the old couple that your friend enjoyed being greeted by having a glass of ice water thrown in her face? You seriously expect them to take your word for it? You put them in an impossible situation, and now you are judging them because they acted with reasonable caution. And why was your friend unable to make this request herself? And if both of you had, and been ignored, you had the option of upping your warning. A bright pink piece of paper with the words "Please don't talk to me - socially anxious" pinned to her shirt should do the trick.

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Phase 1: Everyone communicates their preferences honestly. Sometimes people are 'nice' and have preferences that are good for others in various ways—either because they caa, so they prefer to do favors for others or to decline favors others would do them. People like associating with these nice people, which makes it advantageous to be one.

Phase 2: Non-nice people notice that it's advantageous to be perceived as nice, and that they too can be perceived as nice if they express some false preferences. So lots of them start doing this—not too much, since they don't actually want to be performing/foregoing favors all the time, but a bit.

Phase 3: Most people are falsifying their preferences a bit. One consequence is that when somebody exaggerates their desire to perform a favor, the other person will usually exaggerate their desire to decline it. Another consequence is that expressing a-bit-nicer-than-honest-average preferences is average behavior and means you're only perceived as average niceness. So if you want to be perceived as nicer-than-average, you need to falsify your preferences a bit more, which you can now safely do without having to actually perform too many favors.

Phase N:


(The ability to easily express honest unusual preferences that happen to make things easier on others is just collateral damage of this process)

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I know several people have commented things to this effect, but I still want to emphasize them because I think they’re important and I see them as blind spots in this post.

First: in some cultures people may have reason to believe you’re deliberately downplaying your own preferences in order to avoid looking greedy or like you’re taking advantage of them.

My family comes partially from Portugal, and in Portuguese culture, when you go to someone’s house, even unannounced, they WILL offer you food and drink. And you are EXPECTED to refuse, whether you want it or not. If you accept right away, you look like a greedy bastard. So you refuse, they insist, you refuse again, they insist again, and finally you “give in” and say, “Okay, since you’re SO insistent, I guess I can have a bite.”

If you actually don’t want food, expect them to continue insisting for a good while, until they finally realize that you’re not just partaking in the social ritual and that you actually, truly, don’t want anything.

In my experience, this kind of culture is more common among older people around the world than it is among younger folks, maybe having something to do with how older people tended to live in more tight-knit communities, where gaining a reputation for being greedy would matter a lot more.

For that matter, gaining a reputation for being generous, whether that generosity is wanted or unwanted, also mattered a lot, which maybe explains why old people are so resistant to change this behaviour.

Second: even outside of cultures like these, there are people out there that deliberately understate their preferences. You might have seen some of them in your practice: people with self-esteem issues, people who have a history of dealing with manipulative or abusive people, people who feel like they’re a burden to others, and so on.

These people may very well say things like “No, it’s fine, I don’t need anything,” but that comes with an unstated appendix of something like “…because I don’t really deserve the effort, it’s not worth these people’s time to do something nice for someone like me,” or “…because every time someone did this for me it was half-hearted, insincere, or an attempt to manipulate me,” or something along those lines.

These kinds of people could actually be thrilled if someone actually went through the trouble to sincerely do something nice for them, but they’ve been so frequently primed to expect disappointment in their lives that they say, both to themselves and to others, “No, I don’t want or need that.”

I suspect that the guy in the abusive relationship may be in this situation: he may not expect that he can do better in another relationship, and he sees this as better than eternal loneliness. Or, maybe, he intellectually understands that he can do better, but emotionally he doesn’t really FEEL what that actually means (in a Mental Mountains type way).

The key point between these two examples is that, especially in older cultures, deciding whether or not to honour someone’s preferences often isn’t as straightforward as listening to them and accepting the surface-level understanding. You have to understand them, their culture, and whether or not they may be lying to you or to themselves. And then you make a judgement as best you can with the information you have, and sometimes that judgement is wrong.

And sometimes, even when you know that judgement is wrong, you might still do it anyway, because you’ve decided (consciously or subconsciously) that this is the reputation you want to build. After all, you did just describe the B&B owners as “very, very nice” instead of “annoying assholes who wouldn’t leave us alone.”

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I think another factor here is that we don't communicate our preferences honestly and emphatically enough.

I have a similar issue with elderly relatives (I'm extroverted, but don't like to hear the same story for the 10th time, or sometimes the story is just not interesting). But I never tell them "I'm sorry but this story doesn't interest me. I wish we could connect on a deeper level, or talk about something else. I feel like I'm not even here when you tell me these things."

Instead, we opt for very subtle cues (e.g. not reacting or encouraging less) that either are not picked up by the elderly (due to changing norms, blunter senses) or are not a strong enough signal to overcome the desire to continue the current behavior.

I agree there are other factors here, but have we tried to really give the speakers credit for wanting what is also good for us, and made sure they understand?

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Personal review: I notice that I have some sort of implicit preference ranking system that I use to decide which preferences to disregard.

For example, a barbeque party in the distant pre-crisis era: I am manning the grill, taking steak order.

Someone is vegan, so I produce a kinda eggplant harrisa steak like object. No problem.

One comes in well, and I produce a well steak. No problem.

The next comes in well, and I make an argument that the dude was, infact, Wrong; and that he actually wants a medium steak. I convince him to try the medium steak. He prefers it, and now is a medium steak guy.

Why him? Why not the other well steak guy? Getting told you are wrong about your preferences isn't good and I know this, so why did I think it was worth it with well steak guy #2?

I notice this with other things as well; that for some people who don't want presents, I don't buy them presents. For others, I still buy them presents.

There is some sort of complicated evolved heuristic here, because feel like I have a better than 50% rate of hits on this sort of thing, and I bet most other present-buyers do as well.

But, maybe only if I'm in a group of people who share an identity with me? Like, only within that identity?

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I am forty-seven years old now. Which means I am old enough to start to have preferences harden, and young enough to realize that my preferences are hardening.

As people get older their preferences get more locked-in. If you want to view it in Bayesian terms, then we've gotten a lot more data about what other people prefer and updated our views appropriately. Or you can see it in terms of habituation: Older people have more time to get into habits regarding their actions and beliefs.

You'll see this behavior more often as you get older. Which is why it's polite to gently acknowledge other peoples' ignorance of your preferences, even when you say something about it. You'll be there too, someday, and you'll probably appreciate someone who treats you respectfully and doesn't make a mountain out of a molehill.

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How much are people *actually* listening instead of waiting to talk in those situations? Small talk is not about exchanging information; it's about building emotional rapport. Lots of semi-rehearsed lines and jokes in the waiting in those conversations too.

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'Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.'

George Bernard Shaw

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The concept is sort of interesting. One of your example is in a category all its own. Everyone knows that no gifts actually means bring gifts. Even if you want to, there actually isn't any way in mainstream American culture to convincingly express the sincere preference of not wanting a gift.

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