Yesterday I talked about countersignaling in the context of some controversial and complicated ideas. Maybe I should have started with some examples where I’m more certain countersignaling is at work, just to drive the concept home.
How about slagging?
I don’t know if the word exists in American English. I mostly heard it in Ireland. But the concept seems to be everywhere. It’s kind of like a high-powered version of teasing, when friends are verbally cruel to each other as a form of bonding.
Every day when I go into the residents’ lounge at work, I have lovely conversations with another doctor I’ll call Becca because it’s the name I used for him last time he showed up on my blog. They tend to sound something like this:
Becca: What are you doing here? I figured they’d have locked you away in the psych ward for good by now.
Scott: Nope. And what are you doing here? You haven’t killed off all your patients yet?
Becca: Only person in this hospital I might kill is standing right in front of me.
Scott: Be careful, I’m armed and dangerous *picks up a central line placement practice set menacingly*
The entire thing is done in good cheer and with good results. And this sort of thing is probably familiar enough to most people that no one mistook the dialogue for a genuine threat or even genuine enmity.
I only recently realized this is classic countersignaling.
Remember that countersignaling is doing something that is the opposite of a certain status to show that you are so clearly that status that you don’t even need to signal it. The classic advantage is how the aristocratic rich don’t buy gaudy expensive things, in order to show that they are so obviously rich they don’t need to convince people of their wealth the way the nouveau riche do. As the last post put it, you can mistake someone at level n for level n-1, but never for level n-2 – so pretending to be level n-2 and getting away with it is a sure sign that you are in fact level n and not level n-1.
If a person I didn’t know or trust said he hated me, or thought I should be locked up, or wanted to kill me, I would take it seriously and freak out. When Becca says he hates me and wants to kill me, it’s a way of saying “I am so obviously your friend that I can even signal hostility really strongly and you won’t believe me.”
Compare this to a similar incident I had recently with another doctor whose pseudonym will be…let’s say Pat:
Scott: Thanks for covering for me yesterday. The pharmacy called and said they were a little confused by your discharge instructions, so could you call them back and sort that out?
Pat: Oh, all right, but you owe me big time for taking care of all this for you.
Scott: Hey, if you hadn’t screwed up the discharge yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Pat: What? How dare you! *storms out of the room*
I felt really bad after this and sought out Pat to apologize. When I did, Pat was surprised I had taken the whole “storming out” thing seriously, since it was supposed to be theatrical and overdramatic, and felt guilty about worrying me.
Pat’s first comment, about “you owe me big time”, had been done in a spirit of obvious teasing. My comment, about screwing up the the discharge, had I thought been done in a spirit of obvious teasing, but I guess I could have been wrong. Pat’s last comment, “How dare you?!” had been done with a very straight face and convincing storm-out, and even though I guess it was intended as obvious teasing, I didn’t take it that way.
So it looks like we were trying to use the “teasing as signal of mutual friendship” tactic and overplayed our hand, leading to a genuinely awkward situation. Apparently our friendship was not as strong as we thought. And the fact that it breaks down into social catastrophe if your friendship isn’t that strong is exactly what makes the signal credible to begin with.
There’s one more aspect to this business I haven’t mentioned, which is summed up by, of all sources, the Night Vale twitter account:
Whisper a dangerous secret to someone you care about. Now they have the power to destroy you, but they won’t. This is what love is.
I think saying things like “I’m going to kill you” or otherwise being a jerk is a signal of friendship precisely because it gives the other person ammunition with which to destroy you if they so desire. If I really wanted to get Becca fired, I could go to the Chief of Medicine and say “Becca threatened physical violence against me”. Pat could say “Scott was verbally abusive when I wouldn’t do one of his discharges for him.” And then there would be an investigation, and we would say “But I was just teasing!” – which is, of course, what all bullies say when confronted. To give someone this kind of potential ammunition against you shows a lot of trust that they’re your real friend and will never use it.