Ambiguity and the Power of Framing

This piece is framed as being about potentially ambiguous situations between men and women of a sort that can foster sexual harassment and provide opportunities for terrible misunderstandings or outright bad behavior. It is part of a series of pieces I have been doing on that topic. But the concept of waiting to see and actively using framing to get desired outcomes is generally useful in all kinds of social settings. Being slow to accuse people and quick to suggest a more positive direction or intent can have subtle, but powerful, pro-social effects.

One of the pieces that came up on Hacker News recently was called I Had Sex with an Investor and I Am Sorry. In it, the author talks about having "a high threshold for abuse" and indicates that it would not have occurred to her to call what Dave McClure did to Cheryl Yeoh "sexual assault" because of this "high threshold for abuse."

I am pretty thick skinned and I have a really high threshold for ambiguity. I could see people looking at me and thinking I just put up with a lot of crap that they wouldn't and suggesting that I have a "high threshold for abuse." Their interpretation would be wrong.

When a man makes a drunken grab for a woman, like Dave McClure did to Cheryl Yeoh, it can accurately be called sexual assault. But, it could also reasonably be framed as "You don't really mean that. That's just the liquor talking." (As was successfully done by a professional woman of my acquaintance, to very good effect.)

That isn't in any way intended to dismiss Cheryl Yeoh's judgment call about her own experience. Context matters and there is plenty of evidence that this was a pattern of behavior for Dave McClure. As I noted previously, it sounds to me like he was intentionally trying to get Cheryl drunk and likely had an agenda to try to take advantage of her from the start that evening.

But the topic of this post is ambiguity and the power of framing. It was inspired by the piece by Perri Chase and her comments on having a "high abuse threshold" and that this fact means it simply would have not occurred to her to call that assault.

I was abused as a child, so I can sympathize with where she is coming from. But I don't have a high threshold for abuse. What I do have is a high threshold for ambiguity. To other people, this may look on the surface like the same thing, but it isn't remotely the same.

I would like to suggest that framing this as ambiguity is a healthier way to start thinking about these problems. Some things simply are not clear cut. Recognizing that fact is a good way to start getting a handle on this problem space.

Whether it is abusive or not is often not immediately apparent, even if you are very clear headed, know what abuse is and so on. It can still take a while to conclude that "Based on the context here, this specific action is a bad thing and here's why."

Perhaps more importantly, people who do abusive things are often themselves unclear of where they are going with this. People are not monoliths. They can be a mixture of high ideals where they believe in gender equality and what not, plus "horny bastard" beneath the surface. If they have a drink or a bad day or they are just needier than usual, things can come out that they don't really have a conscious, planned agenda to pursue to a particular end.

So, it is generally vastly more effective to give some push back without being ugly at an earlier stage -- to decide where you want this to go and try to massage things in that direction, rather than to assume that "men are just that way." They aren't all "just that way." Even men who are "just that way" are more "that way" at some times than at others. It isn't remotely set in stone how this will go (unless he is literally a serial rapist who has been actively planning your assault for some time).

I think when someone frames it as "I would not have thought to call that sexual assault because I have a high tolerance for abuse." they are implying that victims are inviting abuse by being dumb. The reality is that even very savvy people cannot always tell immediately that "This is going someplace bad." Additionally, if you get wrapped around the axle at the slightest hint that this might go someplace bad, that tends to actively create problems.

From what I have seen, most people seem to want or need to draw conclusions at an earlier stage than I would. I am much more comfortable saying "Well, based on the data given, I don't actually know just yet."

This has generally served me well, but it is something a lot of other people don't understand about me. At times, I get told I am naïve and people say things like "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...". Sometimes, though, I get told that in situations where the strongest evidence is that it isn't actually a duck, regardless of what it looks and sounds like. The metaphor I tend to use for such incidents is "But the DNA evidence indicates it isn't a duck at all."

In a previous post, I talked about how I "bet the odds" differently than most people in social settings. The TLDR is that I tend to wait until I have more conclusive evidence before drawing a conclusion. Other people tend to be quicker on the draw than I am about drawing a conclusion, and this often leads to an incorrect conclusion.

People who are quick on the draw very often are just acting on their personal biases. Women can be quick to accuse men of terrible things (-- and vice versa. I certainly get my share of that from men who are quick to misconstrue my meaning. But the spate of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley has been predominantly male predators and female victims, so let's not get too bent out of shape about of the gendered nature of my comments here.)

So, when it comes to potentially threatening or harassing behavior from men, I tend to be slow to conclude that it is bad behavior. If it isn't perfectly clear to me, I try to err on the side of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

An awful lot of people think I am a fool and that the only way to keep women safe is to go ballistic at the slightest hint of misbehavior. I strongly disagree.

When intent and direction of the behavior is ambiguous, I am going to continue to wait to see if a pattern emerges. I am fairly quick to give some push back and fuss at people about "Maybe you don't mean it this way, but..." However, I am slow to conclude that it is intentionally malicious behavior with a particular specific goal.

Let me stop an emphasize this detail: The point at which I give pushback and look to protect myself is a point at which I realize it could be a problem. Far too many women excuse such behavior as "He didn't mean that." and do not take action to protect themselves until after it clearly has gone bad places. This needs to stop. Women need to learn to push back sooner.

This approach of being slow to judge (but quick to look out for myself) has served me well, sometimes even in cases where I was very upset by the incident and inclined to level accusations. In one case, I ran it past someone who said "Well, they do some of the same things to me, though granted, without the gender stuff since I am male." I calmed down and quit having a cow. Later, this person that I was so sure was sexually harassing me very surprisingly behaved towards me as an ally and even apologized for the earlier misunderstanding, completely unprompted.

Even though I have a high tolerance for ambiguity generally, there are certain kinds of situational ambiguity I do my best to avoid. I have written about that some recently.

Part of it is that I generally don't want to drink alcohol under circumstances where it might suggest I am available and/or where it might compromise my sense of safety. Another part of it is that I generally try to avoid being physically alone with a man that I only want a platonic relationship with.

On HN, discussion of that piece seemed to focus on the idea that I was suggesting that I simply don't want rumors. But, to my mind, a more pressing issue is actual safety. I am unlikely to be sexually assaulted by a man if he can't get me alone. People who are intent on wrongdoing generally don't want witnesses.

Positive reputation matters, but to my mind, certain kinds of ambiguity actually opens the door to danger. Those types of ambiguity also can put a relationship on a slippery slope towards drama.

Since most first-time sex occurs only after a time-consuming process of courtship, allowing certain kinds of ambiguity tends to imply that "we are mutually moving this relationship towards being a sexual relationship." If I want a professional relationship with a man, I don't want to be engaging in behavior that could be misconstrued in that manner.

Although critiques of this sort about how things can go wrong and why they are wrong can be valuable, a much more powerful way to get the message out is by providing good examples of the proper way to do things. Happily, I have one of those to share. It is a good piece about not allowing that ambiguity to take place in a professional setting: Handling attraction in a professional setting (Original article title is "I was an investor, she was a founder...")

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