Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…

I’d like to quote tact filters by Jeff Bigler:

All people have a “tact filter”, which applies tact in one direction to everything that passes through it. Most “normal people” have the tact filter positioned to apply tact in the outgoing direction. Thus whatever normal people say gets the appropriate amount of tact applied to it before they say it. This is because when they were growing up, their parents continually drilled into their heads statements like, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

“Nerds,” on the other hand, have their tact filter positioned to apply tact in the incoming direction. Thus, whatever anyone says to them gets the appropriate amount of tact added when they hear it. This is because when nerds were growing up, they continually got picked on, and their parents continually drilled into their heads statements like, “They’re just saying those mean things because they’re jealous. They don’t really mean it.”

When normal people talk to each other, both people usually apply the appropriate amount of tact to everything they say, and no one’s feelings get hurt. When nerds talk to each other, both people usually apply the appropriate amount of tact to everything they hear, and no one’s feelings get hurt. However, when normal people talk to nerds, the nerds often get frustrated because the normal people seem to be dodging the real issues and not saying what they really mean. Worse yet, when nerds talk to normal people, the normal people’s feelings often get hurt because the nerds don’t apply tact, assuming the normal person will take their blunt statements and apply whatever tact is necessary.

So, nerds need to understand that normal people have to apply tact to everything they say; they become really uncomfortable if they can’t do this. Normal people need to understand that despite the fact that nerds are usually tactless, things they say are almost never meant personally and shouldn’t be taken that way. Both types of people need to be extra patient when dealing with someone whose tact filter is backwards relative to their own.

Later edit for clarification: I don’t like the Nerd|Normal dichotomy because those words have various histories and baggage associated with them, so I renamed them (Stater, listener, Launch filter, Landing filter).  “Normal” is pretty unhelpful when trying to convey a clear decision about what’s good or bad.

Okay; so Tact filters.  But what should we really do?  What’s better?  Jeff’s Nerd or Normal?  And more importantly – In future ambiguous cases – what should we do?

Moving parts to this system

There are a few moving parts to tact, I am going to lay them out:

  • Stater – the person stating something
  • Statement – the thing being said
  • Listener – the person hearing it, or the person who it is intended to be directed to.
  • Tact filter – the filter that turns the Statement into a clean one.
  • Launch responsibility – the Stater’s responsibility to launch the statement in certain ways. (Jeff’s normal)
  • Landing responsibility – The listener’s responsibility to receive the statement in certain ways. (Jeff’s nerd)

In a chart it looks like this:
tact filters2

Who is responsible?

In Landing responsible culture, you are responsible for the incoming tact.

tact filters5

But this isn’t great because it labels anyone you are talking to as “potential jerks”.

In Launch responsible culture:
tact filters6
The responsibility to be tactful prepares the statement for a sensitive person.  Which isn’t great either.  Tact takes time, takes energy and effort, what if no one ever needed to be tactful?  Everything would also be fast.

The wild

So this is real life now.  You don’t really know if the other person is tactful or sensitive or a jerk or just normal…  The best possible plan for unknowns:

It’s not rocket science.  Said again:

  1. actively be less offensive when you say things that might be taken offensively
  2. actively be less offended when you hear things that sound offensive

Q: But it’s not my responsibility because I live in (Launch | Listener) responsibility land.

A: yes it is!  No you don’t!  You live on earth.  In the real world, where you sometimes encounter people living in the other land.  Which is a fact.  You can choose to piss them off when you meet them but you should know that’s a choice and up to you.  And now that you know this; the responsibility is on you to make the better choice.

Compounding factors

Even this model leaves out all the further compounding factors.

  1. What if the Stater thinks a statement is tactful but that same statement is taken as non-tactful by the listener?
  2. What if the stater is used to their statements being taken as tactful on every day except today?
  3. What if the particular pair of stater-listener has an existing negative relationship?

I don’t know.  Err on the side of caution.


  • What other communication habits have a filter?  Does it pay to err on the side of caution?
  • Aside from the fallacy of the middle, can this become a rule?

Another solution:

Meta: this post was inspired by Sam’s post on a similar topic.

Meta: this took 2 hours to think about, write and draw out what I meant.

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

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