Friendship Is Countersignaling

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.

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46 Responses to Friendship Is Countersignaling

  1. phil says:

    In my experience slagging is just as much about signaling intelligence.

  2. somnicule says:

    My current theory on why friendships usually develop fairly slowly is that people generally don’t want to give too much ammunition to someone without some symmetry. Over time, the information and power people have over each other can be used as a kind of collateral to ensure cooperation between them, which means you can do favours for each other, work together, and both end up better off. But if you dump a whole lot of dangerous information on someone too fast, they’ve got power over you and then you can’t trust that you’ll benefit from that friendship.

    So when someone you don’t know starts talking about personal issues, it’s uncomfortable partially because you’ve got power over them without knowing if they’re someone you want as an ally.

    • Vulture says:

      And that explains why people who go through intense emotional experiences together develop friendships much much faster than under normal circumstances – because they simultaneously acquire embarassment-ammunition against each other.

      • Gavin says:

        I suspect it’s more about “ability to hurt feelings” than it is about embarrassment.

        I’m not that worried about my friends telling embarrassing stories about me. I am worried about them being able to make me feel bad about myself. The closer you get to someone, the more power they have to make you feel awful with just a few words.

        Typical Mind Fallacy potential duly noted.

  3. Tom Hunt says:

    I’m sure this was intentional when you titled the post, but…

    “My Little Game Theorist: Friendship is Countersignaling”

    (Also, your forum software doesn’t handle four-period ellipses well.)

    • Eli says:

      There ought to be a rule: never give the rationalist community the opportunity for a pony pun, because they will take it.

  4. Oligopsony says:

    Popular stereotype has it that this is much more common in male friendships than female ones. Possible boring (for present purposes) explanations for this may be that this perception isn’t particularly accurate, or that women just have a higher Niceness Quotient due to society/evolution/magic.* But is there a plausible explanation that says something about the nature of countersignaling itself?

    Also, it seems like this sort of countersignaling only rarely occurs among those who aren’t social equals, but the reasons for that seem more obvious.

    *Actually, the Niceness Quotient explanation would interestingly predict that women would use this kind of signaling more rarely, but that it would be thereby more effective. So this could be used as an argument for part of why women have fewer but stronger network ties, maybe.

    • a person says:

      “Popular stereotype has it that this is much more common in male friendships than female ones. ”

      I feel like when this stereotype appears it often comes with the suggestion that male friendships are closer than female friendships. Something like: girls will tell you how much they love you to their face, then talk shit about you behind their back. Guys will tell you how much they hate you to your face, but behind their back they will tell everyone how much of a great guy you are.

      This can be easily explained by the logic of the OP: women can’t effectively counter signal because their friendship level isn’t high enough for it to work.

      But truth be told, I don’t actually think men have closer friendships than women, so idk.

    • mareofnight says:

      I haven’t noticed much gender difference in how often people try to do slagging with me, but I also haven’t been paying attention before now. I think my male friends tend to slag in ways that are less potentially hurtful if misunderstood, though. (I am female.) And a lot of the slagging-like interaction I’ve had with female friends involves pretending to be something we’re not – girlfriends (the romantic sort) having a fight, or one of us playing a strawman of an internet stereotype and picking a fight with the other.

      I like your point that it usually occurs only between equals.

    • Anon says:

      In my experience, the “slagging/teasing” dynamic happens MOST often in mixed gender groups as a part of play behavior / flirting.

  5. Mark says:

    Not really sure what makes this countersignaling rather than signaling. Is it just that it’s the opposite of how an alien might expect human friends to typically talk to each other? Because good-natured ribbing is so common, and often requires such a low threshold of friendship, that it doesn’t seem to be the opposite of how human friends actually tend to talk to each other. Indeed, in many (particularly male) relationships, it’s the norm, and obvious gestures of friendship or emotional intimacy are the real risky moves.

    Also, usually people make friendly verbal jabs in a tone of voice which makes it obvious what’s going on, and that no hostility is intended. This is different from other forms of countersignaling I can think of off the top of my head, where the point is for your outward behavior to be indistinguishable from those unable to signal (which in this case would correspond to people who actually bear you ill will).

  6. Jordan D. says:

    Counter-signaling is an interesting theory. This feels like it harkens to the core of a lot of communication theories- reciprocity and what-have-you.

    Oh, reciprocity! So, if Dr. Becca tells you that he’s going to drive his scalpel through your brain, do you feel a desire to respond in kind? I’ve noticed that when I’m talking with my closest friends, one of us will toss off something like that and I’ll feel a strong desire to follow it up. It’s always something normally-socially-unacceptable and which would surely be an enormous insult from an acquaintance, so that sounds like I’m taking a risk to signal something important.

    Come to think of it, maybe I tell how close I am to friends by how out-there our private jokes get? That might sort of model social penetration theory, or one of the uncertainty management things. When meeting people in my profession, for example, I start out being polite and surface-level communicative to people I want to be with, and then we start exchanging harmless jokes. Then we open up a bit more and our jokes get a little less and less generally-appropriate and soon they’re doing lines of coke off a tiger rug while I make crude jokes about people we don’t like we have a very professional dinner and do nothing which could offend any ethics boards! And so friendship occurs.

    That feels right, but maybe it’s typical-mind all over again?

  7. jooyous says:

    An interesting thing happened on the Daily Show episode with Elizabeth Warren. First they did a segment about the double standard that women politicians get held to. Then when Warren came on, Stewart said “Well, since you’re a woman senator …” and took out a tissue box, I guess in an attempt to signal something like “We’re so progressive and understanding of the issue on this show, that this is obviously hilarious and ironic and no one will think we’re serious.” But I think Warren was annoyed, because she flicked it back at him? And he was like “Oh, there’s that female anger we heard about.” Which is again supposed to be ironic, but it’s still not clear. Like if he actually pissed her off, that was the worst thing ever to say. And I’m not sure what he could have done to make it clearer.

    • Anon says:

      Colbert is in this to please the audience, not Warren. It would be against his interests to attempt to appease her – he’s got to keep it funny and retaining high social status. It is his interests to pretend that this is harmless banter and that her annoyance was play-annoyance.

      And if her annoyance is real annoyance, then the audience decides that the fault lies with her for failing to have a sense of humor. Being aggressive during play-behavior lowers social standing.

      But whatever happens, there is no way Colbert loses status. Which is the point.

  8. DavidS says:

    I was nodding along until the final paragraph

    “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.”

    I think the idea of these sort of investigations etc. are fairly recent, and that until incredibly recently, the usual reaction to someone making a complaint of that kind would be precisely for them to be told they were taking it too seriously. In fact that probably still is the reaction a lot of the time.

    So I think the counter-signalling here is not about that, just about saying ‘we’re so close we can do this’, both to them and to other people. I would say a fair proportion of ‘slagging’ as you call it is done in front of third parties quite loudly, and it’s a classic ‘look at us and how well we know each other’ signalling behaviour.

    As well as actual errors, one of the things that makes it risky is that people use the context of slagging to (gently) raise genuine irritations. This is because formality between friends can seem incredibly awkward and get people defensive. If I was annoyed that a friend staying over drinking a litre of milk and leaving me with none for tea, I’d feel a lot happier doing an over-the-top “Why, why must you steal my milk? Is squatting in my house not enough for you!’ than “I just wanted to mention that I’d prefer if you didn’t use the last of the milk in the mornings”

  9. Doug S. says:

    Nobody can blackmail me with any secrets because I’ll tell anyone anything, no matter how embarrassing.

    Is this good strategy or just shooting myself in the proverbial foot?

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      It’s probably good for defending against future blackmail, but bad for creating close friendships, since you can’t engage in the process of gradually exchanging more and more embarassing facts about yourself with someone else.

      Of course, that exchange isn’t the only way of creating close friendships.

      • mareofnight says:

        I used to have a similar policy on most things, and I don’t think it stopped me from sharing private things as a way of getting closer. Maybe because I can say things on private sort of subjects that have costs besides potential to harm me if revealed? I can share my thoughts on why I think and act the way I do, which can take a lot of explaining and wouldn’t be interesting to a stranger. Or I can talk about subjects that would just feel too awkward to talk about with someone who isn’t a close friend.

        (I say used to because now I’m sort-of secretive about a few things, because there recently started being things about me that actually could significantly harm my reputation in ways other than embarrassment.)

        I’d probably have a handicap if making friends also involved asking people questions that you don’t expect to be answered, to establish that you’re not at that level of friendship yet. But people don’t seem to do this.

    • Anonymous says:

      If you don’t have any secrets worth keeping, you don’t do enough things worth keeping secret.

      • mareofnight says:

        Can you tell us anything about the value of doing things that must be kept secret, without revealing anything damaging? I’m new at secrets, and curious.

        What you can’t say comes to mind. But for things that I’ve actually done that stay secret, a lot of the factors that make them damaging if revealed aren’t things that added much value. (There was some value in being forced to learn to keep secrets, though.)

        • Oligopsony says:

          The relevant reference is Umeshisms – that if you’re incurring none of a certain kind of cost, that likely means that you’re overavoiding the alternative costs.

          Obviously there are things you can plug into the formula that will yield bad advice – “if you haven’t been convicted of any capital offenses…” – whether having secrets is one of those depends on the particulars of your goals and situation, obviously.

  10. Thasvaddef says:

    The part at the end only works if you are colleagues. If a non-colleague made a similar threat it would not really give you ammunition to “destroy” them.

  11. Konrad Lorenz said that play (I think he was specifically talking about animals) is inhibited aggression.

    Cats, Dogs, and Jerks: a discussion of people use teasing as part of friendship, people who don’t, and people who use teasing as hostility. I think it’s implied that it isn’t a simple gender divide.

    I have friends, but slagging isn’t part of it. Sharing secrets and refraining from blackmail isn’t a huge part of it, either, I think. There may be a such a thing as people just liking each other.

    • AJD says:

      (As a nerdy child, I learned the word “teasing” as basically a synonym of “verbal abuse”: “teasing” was the label given to what bullies did to me, so that was how I interpreted its meaning.)

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I also thought of the cats/dogs thing immediately when I read this post.

      Part of what’s being signaled through slagging may also be cultural/neurological compatibility, i.e. “I am definitely a member of your in-group, and not at all an Other, because I can understand the meaning of these signals, which I would probably mistake for hostility if I were not sufficiently in tune with how this group signals things”. Foreigners and autistic people fail at this.

  12. AndekN says:

    ” 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.”

    Related Dinosaur Comics strip.

  13. Niall says:

    (Speaking as a Scot who knows exactly what you mean by slagging, or maybe better to call it banter as slagging has more negative associations:) There’s an extra dimension to this as well, which is more of a status thing. I noticed it quite a lot when I was a student working in a supermarket with other guys, but not so much in my current more female-dominated workplace. Quite difficult to try to put into words actually but I’ll try:

    At one extreme, you have two guys making fun of each other, which is more like relationship building as in your examples. (Conveniently ignoring anything that passes for bullying as outside of scope.) At the other end of the scale, you have many guys and it takes on more of a status competition, as any jokes look more like showing off for the group at the expense of someone else. There’s a bit of overlap in the middle, but the more people the faster it descends into showing off.

    I’m having trouble deciding what my point is here, so might return to pick this up again.

  14. Mike Czech says:

    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.

    I would not divulge secrets that I did not already know, or would not soon have deduced. Otherwise, I would view the situation you describe as a matter of discretion.

  15. Deiseach says:

    From C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves”:

    ‘We can say anything to one another.’ The truth behind this is that Affection at its best wishes neither to wound nor to humiliate nor to domineer. You may address the wife of your bosom as ‘Pig!’ when she has inadvertently drunk your cocktail as well as her own. You may roar down the story which your father is telling once too often. You may tease and hoax and banter. You can say ‘Shut up. I want to read.’ You can do anything in the right tone and at the right moment – the tone and moment which are not intended to, and will not, hurt. The better the Affection the more unerringly it knows which these are (every love has its art of love). But the domestic Rudesby means something quite different when he claims liberty to say ‘anything’. Having a very imperfect sort of Affection himself, or perhaps at that moment none, he arrogates to himself the beautiful liberties which only the fullest Affection has a right to or knows how to manage. He then uses them spitefully in obedience to his resentments; or ruthlessly in obedience to his egoism; or at best stupidly, lacking the art. And all the time he may have a clear conscience. He knows that Affection takes liberties. He is taking liberties. Therefore (he concludes) he is being affectionate. Resent anything and he will say that the defect of love is on your side. He is hurt. He has been misunderstood.

  16. Harvey says:

    I like this one a lot, possibly because I can actually related to both exchanges here, and I’ll bet most people can. I think this is one of your better recent rants.

  17. Ialdabaoth says:

    One of the most important lessons I learned in grade school was to never trust this kind of countersignalling. I spent a long time thinking that people were just performing friendly jibing, when in fact they were *pretending* that their actions were friendly jibes while actually viciously mocking me – and then having a good laugh at my obliviousness.

    At the same time, whenever I attempt to perform such countersignalling, it is almost invariably interpreted as legitimately hostile, rather than as a friendly jibe.

    I think I’m just terrible at being and having friends, at least partially due to being hideously low-status.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I totally had this experience in elementary and middle school! It was pretty horrible.

      My solution was to go to a high school full of nerds. Cleared that issue right up.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        heh. I went to a high school full of religious fundies, which sort of doubled down on the whole thing (and taught me everything I need to know about social darwinism).

  18. Sebastian says:

    I’ve also just noticed a form of countersignaling — in the FIRST Robotics Competition, good teams put up a selection of the banners they’ve won at competitions in the past in their pit area, in order to show that they are strong. However, the very best teams never put up any banners, because everybody knows them, and would never mistake them for teams that don’t have any banners.

  19. Anon says:

    Book recommendation: Impro by Keith Johstone. Money quote: “friends are people who have agreed to play status games together.”

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  22. duffman.c.d says:

    I would love to know how much of a cultural aspect there is to how acceptable this behaviour is. There is a stereotype (within Australia at least) that Australians use this counter-signalling a lot. “You’re an Aussie if you call your mates c*%t and strangers/enemies mate.” But I haven’t actually travelled to another English-speaking country so I don’t really know if this is the case. Anyone noticed a difference between countries? Between sub-cultures?