Apologies as Signalling
nervous hedging or signifier of taste?
I spent like, one and a half years of my life wanting to apologise for the way my face looked.
Quite obviously, this was far from ideal for the purposes of social interaction, confidence or like, baseline happiness (lol lmao). From among the few people who I’ve mentioned this to, the reactions ranged from “that’s fucked up” to “that’s really fucked up”. Which is fair, I guess. But I also think it was completely reasonable, if you look at it a certain way.
You’ve all seen the Ira Glass quote, but here it is again just in case.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.“
Personally, this is rather easy to accept, especially once it’s spelt out like that. If I’m going to suck for a while before I can do as well as I want to, that’s reasonable and I’ve just got to suck it up and keep at it. It’s a lesson you only need to learn a couple times before it gets easy to live with. Rather unfortunately, we’ve also got to live with other people.
And while you can see the distance between your taste and output, and can see just how it changes over time, everyone else has almost no clue. They don’t know or care that your taste has been honed over years of esoteric djent and Stravinsky. They hear you play the wrong notes and see the clumsy hands. How do you let them know that you’re not like, tone deaf? How do you make sure that they know that you know that they know this isn’t acceptable and that you’re trying to do better?
The best way to do this would to…just be really good. If you do everything perfectly, that’s pretty undeniable proof that you care about being good, y’know? But that takes a while, so the second best way is to use a signal instead. You could just stop and go “hey, I know I’m not performing too well right now, but I’m not one of those tasteless barbarians who can’t tell the difference between mistakes and beauty and I will do better next time”. That would work, except for the fact that its far from subtle, not to mention being a bit of a mouthful.
So we apologise instead. It makes for a very convenient shorthand for this kind of thing: it lets them know that you know something is wrong and that you didn’t intend for it to happen. This kind of replacement of explicit information for something that implies the same thing, this is what signals are for.
A signal isn’t proof, but that’s what makes it way cheaper to use. You can argue about some signals being wasteful, but compared to the alternative, they’re a bargain. Signalling is useful. Signalling is communication. And apologies are signals that you know and agree about what is good.
Communities, as much as they might claim to be welcoming, all have their own selection pressures. When you walk into a conversation, and begin with a polite apology, that’s you saying “before I say anything, I need you to know that I defer to the rules you guys have here. I might not be able to see them too clearly but at least now you know that I know that they’re there.” The mores of the community are acknowledged as something worth respecting over your personal idiosyncrasies.
When you apologise for being dressed poorly, you’re acknowledging what the expected standard is. And making sure they know that your failure to live up to it is just a temporary lapse, not an intentional disobedience or a failure of taste. Ditto for your friend’s uncool behaviour (“Sorry, I’m not really with this guy”) or the local drunkard (“Don’t worry, he’s not really representative of our community, we’re better than that”).
All these apologies, just to make sure they don’t forget you’re a person of culture.
As for my face, the primary thing I wanted to signal was something like, “hey, I’m sorry you’ve got to look at this thing while you talk to me, and I wish you didn’t have to because it’s far from the best one“. Yeah, you know what? That was kinda fucked up. But nonetheless, it was what I wanted to say at the time. It wasn’t some sort of traumatic response, I just had a point to state!
You could make the point that this intended apology would be a mistake, because there is no real standard to be deferred to here. But that would be a lie. You could also say that taste-related apologies are linked to insecurity. That wouldn’t be too far from the truth, but it doesn’t make them any less useful.
This piece is only supposed to look at at the between apologies and taste, but the apology in general is one of those endlessly fascinating meta-signals that means far too many things in different contexts. It could just be a simple attempt to defuse a heated situation. It could be a polite way to re-balance the scales of power by giving someone weaker the right to forgive you. There’s always a lot that can be read into them.
And apologising too much? That reads as over-signalling.
It’s like wearing three Rolex’s, and a fourth one on your foot., nobody really likes how it looks. It’s uncultured, and it’s downright suspicious behaviour. Since how hard you signal is a measure of how hard you’re trying to say something, there’s a threshold past which people start asking just why it is that you want to say something so strongly. Don’t you trust your signal? Don’t you trust their ability to read it? Are you lying?
And this is where signalling starts to get pretty dysfunctional.
Because sending a signal is not the same thing as ensuring is has substance. The usefulness of signals comes in no small part from their separation from the part of reality they’re supposed to represent. This separation makes them cheap, the separation is also what makes them complicated; and so much depends on the ability of other people, and yourself, to parse these signals.
How long does it take for “I’m sorry I was mean” to become “but I’m not really a mean person because I know how to apologise”? How long before abusing a signal becomes a strategy of its own? And if you’re dealing with relatively inexperienced signal-readers, it’s a really effective one!
This is exactly the dynamic that plays out when “but he went to Stanford” gets pulled out as a reason why a person couldn’t possibly have acted incredibly stupidly. What was at best a signal of intelligence becomes something closer to proof. Confusing the signifier for the signified, this is the map-territory issue all over again.
And it’s one thing to try to fool someone else, and quite another thing to let yourself be taken in by your own excessive signalling. Because in the former case, people will eventually cotton onto your strategy, and learn to discount the apologies if they prove to be hollow over time. But fooling yourself? That’s messy.
There is a point where an apology goes from frequent but possibly necessary declarations of “I’m know I’m not good enough yet” to a constant drone of “I’m not good enough”. A point at which the signal corrupts the sender.
They’re so busy apologising to themselves that they never actually get around to making anything. If you care too much about what is only supposed to be a signal (‘this isn’t great, I’ll do better”), it gets to the point where keeping up appearances becomes secondary to actually getting better.
“I’m just going to stop doing things that suck”. Surprise, almost everything you do sucks. Now what?
“Everybody lookin' at you crazy (crazy!)
What you gonna do? (what you gonna do?)
Lift up your head and keep moving (keep moving)
Or let the paranoia haunt you (haunt you)?”
- i, Kendrick Lamar
What started out as an innocent display of taste has transformed into the kind of desperate safety measure that is more prison than playpen. The display is now more important than the thing, and the apology is closer to being a way of life.
“… You've got taste, you've got taste.
What a waste that that's all that you have”
- Singer Songwriter, Okkervil River
There are many reasons why someone would want to signal “I am small and weak, please don’t hurt me that would be evil of you”. And one of them is a pathological fear of conflict. Everyone knows how self-deprecation is so often just a strategy for pre-empting criticism. Well, apologies can reach there too. Apologise too much, and it feels like you can get away with failure for longer than you should be comfortable with.
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There are a rule of thumbs in signaling that can be re-applied to excessive apologizing: Listen to what is not being said, as it is stronger than their actions or their words. If they apologize but never change, they are either lazy or deceptive. If they apologize but acts of sincere change are routinely futile, they are dull or clueless. Promises without action (denying reasonable advice and effort) vs action without results (blindly following platitudes). Countersignaling vs Antimemetics.