Posted by on 15 July 2015 at 10:00 am  Ethics, Etiquette, Psychology, Relationships
Jul 152015

This article — Exes Explain Ghosting, the Ultimate Silent Treatment — is fascinating discussion of “ghosting,” which “refers to ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.” Check out the follow-up too.

I’ve never had this happen in a romantic relationship, but my once-best-friend ghosted me a few years ago. We’d grown apart when she moved across the country, such that we were only talking every few months, but we were still on friendly terms. Then we reconnected in an intense in-person conversation when she happened to be in town, at a time when I was really, really struggling. We promised to talk again in a week… and she just disappeared. I called and emailed repeatedly but I never heard from her again.

The whole thing was very painful for me, and I wasn’t the only friend that she dropped in such a fashion. All of us knew her for years, and none of us expected that she’d ever do that to us. At least we saw clearly (after a while) that the problem resided squarely with her, not us. Still, I can feel the hurt in everyone that I’ve spoken to about it.

Truly, ghosting has got to be the most hurtful and destructive way to end a relationship with a friend or lover, hands down. Speaking personally, I’d much rather come home to find a lover in bed with someone else. That, at least, is comprehensible.

What I find so interesting is that the ghosters seem to think that what they’re doing is easy and clean and neat for everyone… and wow, are they ever full of shit. The only case discussed that I would regard as justified is the woman who ghosted the husband that she discovered was cheating on her left and right. Cases in which a person flees a relationship that is dangerous or abusive… well, that’s not “ghosting.” In those cases, the person ghosted knows damn well why the other person disappeared, even if he/she pretends otherwise.

Notably, some of those stories in the follow-up article are not “ghosting” — and I suspect that’s because the writer didn’t want to make the ghosters seem like the worse freaking people on the planet.

Basically, if you don’t have the psychological capacity to end a relationship in an honest or respectful way… if you can’t even say to the person, “Sorry, but I just can’t do this any more: it’s over,” then you have no business being in any kind of close friendship or romantic relationship.

Parenting by Belay

 Posted by on 18 July 2014 at 10:00 am  Children, Ethics, Etiquette, Parenting
Jul 182014

This is a good explanation of the principles of “positive discipline” parenting from The Libertarian Homeschooler:

On Belay

Do you punish your sons?

How do they learn?
I let them experience the consequences of their actions.

Isn’t that the same thing?
No. In one instance, I’m meting it out. In the other, I’m not.

What does that look like?
I say, “This will end badly.” When they were little I would say, “That will hurt you.” They either stop and wait for help or it ends badly or it hurts them.

Does that work?
You bet it does.

What if they’re headed for catastrophic injury?
I step in, just as I would for anyone else. I am on belay but the climb is theirs.

When they were little didn’t you spend a lot of time running after them since they weren’t trained?
We baby proofed so they could explore in relative safety. They still banged into things and got hurt.

Did they pay attention to what you told them?
They figured it out pretty quickly. When I said, “That will hurt you,” pain was coming. But pain wasn’t associated with me. Consequences would still happen even if I wasn’t there. That’s key. I do not cause consequences. Even if I’m not here, there are consequences. A lot of children clearly don’t understand that and they behave differently when their parents aren’t looking.

Were both boys the same?
YS needs to learn from experience. Sometimes more than once. BA will hang back and avoid pain and injury.

Did you ever administer and emotionally or physically painful consequence instead of letting nature take its course?

How did that go?

What do you mean it went poorly?
It put emotional distance between me and my child. I broke trust with him. Administering calm, collected punishments made him disdainful. He saw it as a control issue.

So you would not do it again?
If I could undo it, I would. It was an expensive lesson for me in terms of my son’s respect. He has little patience for someone who will encroach upon him or will try to control him and it is his nature to remember long.

What caused the most strife in your home when your children were little?
Parental failure. Lack of self discipline on my part.

What do you attribute that to?
Perfectionism. Impatience. Pride. Fear. Exhaustion. Boundary issues.

Do your children have those flaws?
There are family characteristics. My parents had them. They modeled them for me. I’m changing things and our sons will change things more. They share good qualities as well. We’ll keep those.

What’s an example of a parental fail?
Getting angry because they weren’t doing an adult thing. At three.

You did that?
I still do, sometimes.

Can’t you get that under control?
I do what I can. I own the mistakes I make. That’s the best I can do.

Do you think your children ever did anything wrong?
They were being children. They were learning. Being a child isn’t wrong. It is wrong to expect a child to behave like an adult and then label it bad behavior.

Do they pay attention to what you say now?
The less counsel you give, the more they want it. They pay more attention all the time.

Does it bother you when they ignore your advice and make mistakes?
We’re separate people. They make their own decisions. That’s healthy. I’m glad they can disagree with me. I want them to be able to say no. This is good.

Do you ever freak out?

How does that work?
Badly. I lose their respect. That’s a consequence of my actions.

Do you freak out often?
Less all the time.

Because they’re growing up?
Because I’m growing up. Children do that to a person.

What if they’re disrespectful?
They lose my good will. That’s a consequence of their actions.

Who is in control in your house?
I’m in control of myself. They’re in control of themselves.

What would you say is your bottom line on relationship with your children?
I am me. You are you. We are individuals. I will love you. I will defend you. I will provide for you. If you like, I will advise you. I will acknowledge your decisions are yours and I will not take credit or blame for them.

Is it really that simple?

Is it easy to do?

Is it hard to get here?
I’m barely here, myself. But it’s worth it.

Positive discipline rejects punishments and rewards. Instead, children are taught by natural consequences, setting limits, and more — while restraining them as necessary to keep themselves and others safe. I know a number of kids parented by this method, and they’re not perfect (no child is) but they’re all remarkably reasonable, polite, and easy to live with.

If you want to know more, I interviewed Jenn Casey and Kelly Elmore on this very topic on the 27 June 2012 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Apr 032014

I was pretty well-amused by this funny column: 10 Things to Never Say to Women Who Don’t Want Kids. Here’s the one that I’ve heard most often:

7. “You’ll change your mind.”

Maybe I will change my mind about having kids, but I’ll never change my mind about you being tacky as hell. If you find yourself about to say this to a childless woman, please punch yourself in the face and then go home and watch Gigli five times as punishment.

It’s wildly rude to second-guess people’s life-choices in this way… and just imagine the uproar if childless people said that — or worse: “you’ll regret that someday” — to people with kids.

Here’s my basic perspective on the decision to have kids or not:

Because Paul and I chose not to have kids, I’ve been able to do tons of awesome things that wouldn’t be possible with kids, including graduate school, my career, and riding horses seriously. However… if we’d had kids, I’d be doing tons of different but still awesome things that are only possible with kids, like homeschooling or teaching my kids to ride horses.

“Should we have kids or not?” is major fork in the road of life. You might have a strong preference one way or the other, but please, recognize that not everyone feels the same way — and that life offers all kinds of fabulous joys, whichever path a person takes!

Manners for Kids: The Problem of Double Standards

 Posted by on 7 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Ethics, Etiquette, Parenting, Teaching
Jan 072014

Recently, I ran across this list of 25 Manners Every Kid Should Know By Age 9. It’s not a great list in many ways, but some of the proposed rules are fine. Kids should learn to make polite requests, including saying “please” and “thank-you.” Obviously, that’s part of being a decent adult too.

However, I have a strong aversion to the rules designed just for kids, such as #3:

Do not interrupt grown-ups who are speaking with each other unless there is an emergency. They will notice you and respond when they are finished talking.

Really? Adults interrupt each other all the time. Can’t kids be taught those mores — or how to do that politely? Surely, this rule seems to imply that any conversation among adults, no matter how trivial, is more important than any concern of the child, except life-and-death. That’s not good!

Also, #6:

The world is not interested in what you dislike. Keep negative opinions to yourself, or between you and your friends, and out of earshot of adults.

Dislikes are important! Knowing what you dislike is part of knowing what you like. A kid who can introspect and explain his dislikes is going to be better equipped to pursue his values, both as a kid and as an adult. He will be able to assert himself, including against bullies and exploiters. Yes, dislikes can be expressed in rude or otherwise inappropriate ways. However, merely expressing dislikes is far from rude in and of itself. That’s why adults express dislikes routinely. (Alas, part of the problem here is that parents often don’t take the likes and dislikes of their children seriously.)

Oh, and #13:

Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.

To that, I will only say: Speak for yourself, jerkwad!

Obviously, I’m not opposed to all rules designed for kids. Kids aren’t just small adults, so any rules should consider their ignorance, lack of self-control, clumsiness, weakness, and other relevant facts. So definitely don’t let the two-year-old run around the house with the kitchen knives.

However, when teaching social graces, kids need practice at polite methods of accomplishing their aims. Simply demanding that kids never interrupt, keep silent about what they dislike, and never curse doesn’t do that. Such bans leave kids without guidance and without practice — and likely with some resentment of their parents for being hypocritical and oppressive. Parents, you can do better than that!

May 272013

It’s commonly said that tone is lost in email in such a way that often exacerbates conflicts. Certainly, that’s true. Recently, I realized part of the reason why that’s true.

Email is just words, and tone is largely communicated by vocal patterns and body language. Hence, tone is not communicated well via email. That’s a problem, since the same words, delivered maliciously or benevolently, have very different effects. However, that’s not the core problem in and of itself.

The core problem is that tone is a hugely important element of communication, such that readers will infer tone from whatever information they have available to them. With email, that means that tone is largely inferred from background knowledge about and judgments of the writer.

When a relationship is well-established as friendly (or malignant), the absence of tone in the communication isn’t much of a problem: the tone intended will likely be the tone inferred. However, when people are in conflict, the fact that tone isn’t communicated but rather inferred is a recipe for disaster.

In such cases, the reader will easily read a tone into the text that the writer didn’t intend without being aware of doing so. So a perfectly ordinary statement might be interpreted as snide or mean if the reader feels vulnerable and defensive due to an unresolved conflict with the writer. As a result, the conflict will often escalate suddenly, even though the writer intended the opposite.

That possibility is why it’s so important to pick up the phone to have some kind of real conversation when in the midst of a conflict with another person. (Better yet, meet with the person in person or via video call.) That’s often really hard for people. It’s really hard for me. I’m not concerned about the greater precision of writing, as some people are. Rather, I prefer the emotional distance of email for the simple reason that conflict is difficult and unpleasant.

Alas, that greater precision and distance often comes at a steep price — namely, prolonging or worsening the conflict. That’s worth remembering, I think, when considering whether to write that email or not.


The Tea Party Patriots left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that they called again this evening. I’ve never signed up for anything from them, and I have no idea how they got my mobile number. Yet for many months now, I’ve gotten periodic robo-calls from them.

Every time this happens, I make repeated requests — through all available means of communication — to be removed from their call list. They’ve never responded, and they have obviously not removed my mobile number from their call list.

I don’t have any way to block them on my iPhone (as I would on my landline), and them calling my cellphone is particularly bothersome. Any suggestions for what to do to make it stop?

Even if that’s not possible, I’m happy to spread the word that the Tea Party Patriots seems to be run by a bunch of jerkwads without the slightest clue about basic manners.

Here’s my latest email to them… not that I expect it to do any good:

You left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that you called again this evening. Every time this happens, I’ve contacted you through multiple channels with clear requests to be removed from your call list. You have never responded, and you have obviously not removed my mobile number from your call list.


So, for the upteeth time, I ask that you remove my cell number — [redacted] — from your call list! I am sick and tired of these intrusive and unwelcome calls from you: it’s harassment.

Until you respond, and confirm that you’ve removed my phone number, I will continue to publicly shame you for being such rude jerkwads. I’ve already posted something to Facebook, and I’m writing a blog post now.

Oh, and you owe me — and probably a whole lot of other people — a BIG FAT APOLOGY.

I’d be nicer about it… except that I’ve already written about ten such emails, all of which have been ignored. *sigh*

Never Too Rich or Too Thin?

 Posted by on 13 April 2013 at 10:00 am  Ethics, Etiquette, Health
Apr 132013

A few days ago, I stumbled on this blog post — Think Twice Before You Praise Someone For Losing Weight. It piqued my interest because I often ponder questions about weight, health, and body image. Also, it seemed relevant to the question I’ll answer on moral judgments of obese people on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio.

The blog post begins:

It’s really the most natural reaction: when we see a friend, colleague, family member, or acquaintance who has visibly lost weight, we love to say to them, “You’ve lost weight! You look great!”

These statements are usually made with the best of intentions. We are genuinely happy for them, we want to show them that their hard work and sacrifices are being noticed and deserve to be acknowledged. But I want to say something that may seem controversial: we should all think twice before acknowledging or praising someone’s visible weight loss.


First, we don’t always know how or why that person lost the weight for which we are commending them.

For example, my friend Anna has Lupus, and at one point, she rapidly lost 30 pounds in a couple months. She was constantly getting positive affirmations about how great she looked and to keep up the good work. For a number of reasons, Anna chose to keep her diagnosis confidential (to most people). So, she was caught between two worlds: one in which she had to reveal why she was losing weight, and another where she just had to grin and bear it.

Anna said, “Every time I heard those words, it was like a punch in the stomach. It not only made me feel disgusted about my body, but it also put me in a position where I wanted to share my diagnosis with people, just to shut them up.”

My cousin’s professor faced a similar dilemma when she returned to the university from summer break, having lost a visible amount of weight. She was greeted with the same seemingly positive affirmations. What no one realized was, her mother had died weeks before. Her weight loss was a result of stress.

The smiles and the effusive praise offered to these two women were in direct opposition to the pain that caused the weight loss to begin with.

And even when someone isn’t dealing with an uncontrollable circumstance, like a death in the family, or a terminal disease, we don’t know how someone arrives at his/her weight loss.

It’s a good article, and I definitely recommend reading the rest of it: Think Twice Before You Praise Someone For Losing Weight. (It goes on to discuss some other cases, as well as make some important qualifications.)

Obesity is undoubtedly very common in our culture, and as people have packed on the pounds, the view that low body weight means good health seems to have taken hold in a very strong way. Yes, that’s been a change in the culture, as these 1950s weight gain ads for women show.

Yet the fact is that being underweight is often a sign of health problems — or it’s a risk factor for death if a person becomes ill, because their body lacks reserves (muscle or fat) for survival. I’m not making that up, as various studies (such as this one) show that being underweight is associated with increased mortality.

My point here is not to extol obesity or anything, since that comes with its own practical difficulties and health concerns. Rather, my point is that we (me included) need to reject the now-standard assumption in our culture that a thinner person is a better person — healthier, sexier, happier, whatever. Often, weight loss is for the best… but not always!

Addendum from April 19th

As for the question about moral judgments of obese people that I answered on Sunday’s Radio Show… the question was:

Is it right or wrong to condemn people for being obese? Obviously, obese and morbidly obese people have made mistakes in their lives. Are they morally culpable for those mistakes? How should other people judge their characters? If I see an obese person on the street, should I infer that he is lazy and unmotivated? Should I refuse to hire an obese person because I suspect he won’t work as hard as a non-obese person? Is obesity a moral failing – or are there other considerations?

My Answer, In Brief: Given that weight is not a good metric for health and that obesity has many causes, for a person to assume that obese people must be morally or psychologically weak is empirically false and morally unjust. If you notice that in yourself, fight it!

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:

Via Vital Objectives, our own Christian Wernstedt shared the link to the podcast on Facebook, with the following remarks, which I agree with wholeheartedly:

This audio clip has has a good discussion on what one should keep in mind when judging weight problems in both oneself and in other people.

As a coach/practitioner I would add that helping people getting rid of excess fat is one of the most difficult issues to deal with because it takes time and effort to achieve in a *sustainable* and *healthful* way, but is very simple to do in a shortsighted and harmful way.

You want to lose fat and pose for before and after pictures? Tape worms, starvation or HCG would do the trick!

But…the body stores fat for reasons which often add up to the life serving option versus the alternatives.

Therefore, simplistically and narrowly targeting the fat storage process (my fancy way of saying “fad diet” or “60 day detox”), and you might, for instance, each time you do this, functionally age your hormonal profile and ultimately end up buying the loss of 10 pounds today for being awarded the body comp of an ostrich later.

Alas, I’ve lived that. The main reason why my thyroid gave up the ghost, I think, was that I was fasting too often for too long in an effort to lose a few more pounds. The result was months of mental and physical disability, followed by years of health problems, plus 30 pounds of weight gain. Lesson learned.

Digital Manners

 Posted by on 27 March 2013 at 10:00 am  Communication, Etiquette, Technology
Mar 272013

This article — Disruptions: Digital Era Redefining Etiquette — raises some fascinating questions about the evolution of manners with the rise of the internet, social media, and other new technology. It begins:

Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google?

Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?

Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life’s little courtesies. But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.

For me, the burden of online communications doesn’t come from the mere inflow per se: I’m good at reviewing, then deleting or archiving my incoming mail. (Hence, I do send those little thank-yous, as I like to acknowledge receipt and express appreciation.)

The major burden lies in what I need to do in response to some email — not just replying (which often requires a bit of research), but also making decisions, updating projects, and the like. The problem is compounded when I receive the information by some means other than email — such as a Facebook message, tweet, or text message. Those venues are perfect for quick replies, and I prefer them to email for that. But I never use them as storage, as I do my email inbox. So if I can’t reply right away, then they’ll just be forgotten. (That’s not always a bad thing!)

I expect that managing my online communications will always be something of a struggle. Yet over the last few years, I’ve done better in two ways.

  • I improved my implementation of Getting Things Done, thanks to some tips that Andrew Miner offered in this interview. I don’t have projects masquerading as tasks any longer. I don’t use artificial deadlines. Instead, I’ve gotten in the habit of making progress on critical areas of focus by just reviewing my projects and tasks, then buckling down to get some stuff done. (Amazingly, that works!)
  • I’ve developed the habit of writing very short emails. I almost never discuss anything other than logistics via email: if I want to have a serious conversation, that must be done in person or via the phone. Or, if a person has a philosophic question, that should be submitted to the queue. I engage in substantive discussion in Facebook comments pretty regularly though. That’s because others chime in with interesting remarks, the medium encourages short comments and dialogue, and I can simply drop out when I get busy.

At this point, I wonder what I can and should do to function better. So… what have you done over the past few years that has helped you better manage your digital communications?

Mar 262013

I wrote this damn fine essay on why protecting your privacy doesn’t require dishonesty back in 2002 for an email list. I recently dug it up to include in the Philosophy in Action Newsletter, and I was so impressed with it that I thought I should blog it! So… here you are!

Privacy Lies

[Person X] wondered how to overcome the presumption of guilt that naturally emerges with “none of your business” responses to privacy-invading questions. For example, imagine that Lucy’s friend and co-worker asks her whether she is sleeping with the new boss. If Lucy has been willing to answer questions about her lovers in the past, then refusing to answer the question this time is in itself revealing. Replying “none of your business,” in such cases, will not protect privacy. In other words, there is no right against self-incrimination in everyday life, for refusal to answer is generally (and often reasonably) considered positive evidence of guilt.

In isolation, these sorts of examples certainly do give the impression that dishonesty is often necessary to protect privacy. But there is no need to choose between honesty and privacy if we take a long-term, full-context approach to these apparent dilemmas. First and foremost, the majority of these examples are compelling only because the individual has done little or nothing in the past to protect privacy — in which case, privacy is not likely the real value at stake.

Looking back at Lucy’s dilemma, she was perfectly willing to reveal information about her love life to this friend and co-worker in the past, so her problem is not in revealing private information in answering honestly. Rather, her problem is that an honest answer might reveal her wrongdoing of an inappropriate relationship with the boss. So for Lucy, like in so many of these alleged dilemmas, the goal a lie would not be the preservation of privacy but rather the concealment of wrongdoing. Lies to conceal wrongdoing have rather pernicious effects upon moral character, as I discussed in my paper False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.

Of course, people do face legitimate dilemmas about how to effectively protect privacy without lying. For example: Parents of multiples are often queried by total strangers as to how their children were conceived. Neighbors might ask how much you paid for your house or how much you make. Relatives might press an infertile couple about when they are doing to have children. Co-workers might ask what the boss said to you in your yearly evaluation meeting. A competitor in business might inquire as to the status of a client’s account. And so on. Such situations do not require dishonesty in order to protect privacy. Rather, they require a bit of forethought and some simple skills of etiquette.

First, we need to invest a bit of thought into what information we wish to keep private from whom. And then we need to consistently refuse to answer questions we consider to be invasive, whatever our answer would be. So if Lucy genuinely wanted to keep her love life private, she ought to have refused to answer any questions about the identity of her lovers, rather than trying only to weasel out the unpleasant question about the boss. In other words, we need to create and enforce our own zones of privacy. We need to take responsibility for our privacy preferences before we get stuck on the horns of a privacy-honesty dilemma.

Second, we need to cultivate the etiquette skills of deflecting inappropriate and invasive questions. After all, there are many more ways of refusing to answer a question than simply saying “None of your business.” We might just casually say “Oh, I don’t answer questions about that” or perhaps exclaim in shock “Oh dear! That’s private!” or jokingly reply “Now why would I tell you that?!?” In egregious cases of strangers asking personal questions, glaring and walking away is a good option.

In her excellent book The Right Thing to Say, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) discusses a wide variety of methods of deflecting inappropriate questions. These are skills of etiquette that no person should be without. Interestingly enough, we can quickly develop these skills of deflection into easy habits by fully committing to honesty, but we lose that opportunity if we allow ourselves to slide into lies when the going gets rough.

So we can protect our privacy without sacrificing our honesty. Additionally, by being honest, we avoid all the usual risks of lying: the slippery slope of lies, the distractions of creating and maintaining lies, and the risk of damaging trust in our relationships and reputation within the community. Those risks are substantial.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the way in which openly refusing to answer privacy-invading questions serves an important positive function in our relationships. In our relationships, we communicate in a background way all the time through what we choose to reveal to and conceal from the other person. For example, a woman might be willing to tell co-workers that her dog died, but be unwilling to discuss the painful details or the emotional upheaval. By revealing some information and concealing other information, she is implicitly communicating that her relationships with her co-workers are moderately intimate.

So when someone asks a privacy-invading question, honestly refusing to answer implicitly communicates “Hey wait, the relationship isn’t that close!” Lying, of course, provides no such information. So speaking abstractly, honesty about private matters is an important means of indirect communication about the intimacy of a relationship. Speaking practically, if we don’t want people to ask privacy-invading questions, then we need to let them know what constitutes an invasion of privacy for us. Again, we do this by honestly refusing to answer invasive questions, not by lying. So we can dramatically reduce the frequency of these apparent privacy versus honesty dilemmas by honestly communicating and upholding our preferences for privacy.

In short, adopting a policy of lying to protect privacy can too easily turn into vicious circle, where a person doesn’t have a clear understanding of his preferences for privacy, doesn’t have the skills to effectively and benevolently deflect questions, and doesn’t communicate his preferences to privacy to others. That’s not a good situation for anyone to be in.

Speaking more personally, I wouldn’t jump down a person’s throat for lying to protect legitimate privacy. But I would recommend that the person reflect in a deep way upon the situation to see if honest alternatives were available. If so, then the next step is to train the brain to serve up those honesty alternatives before the dishonest ones, particularly when time is tight. I have yet to find a genuine, irresolvable privacy versus honesty dilemma.

Miss Manners Interview: Manners and Etiquette

 Posted by on 9 January 2013 at 10:00 am  Etiquette
Jan 092013

I really enjoyed this interview with Miss Manners on the importance of good manners:

Q: What is etiquette? And why is it so important?

A: It’s important because we can’t stand the way that other people treat us. Although we want the right to be able to behave in any way we want. Somehow a compromise is in order, if you want to live in communities. If you live on a mountaintop by yourself, it’s not necessary. I make a distinction between manners and etiquette — manners as the principles, which are eternal and universal, etiquette as the particular rules which are arbitrary and different in different times, different situations, different cultures.

Go read the whole thing.

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