Context and Persuasion

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Marco Arment raises an excellent point, although I think he mis-frames it. He titles his post "Right vs. Pragmatic", but I would have gone with something like "Whining vs. Persuasion" or "Issuing Orders vs. Not Even Having to Say Anything", although the latter is cumbersome. Arment tackles the common workplace practice of posting passive-aggressive notes to admonish people to change their behavior regarding some minor issue or other. In this case, there is an issue of bathroom etiquette:

Many people don't like touching bathroom doorknobs after washing their hands. (Understandable.) But some of them dislike it so much that they'll take their paper towel over to the door, turn the knob with it, and throw it on the floor while exiting.
The resulting litter on the floor provoked an angry note about using the wastebasket, which Arment points out is rendered difficult to do by the layout of the bathroom and why people are bringing paper towels over to the door in the first place. Arment correctly suggests tackling the litter problem by taking into account both of these relevant pieces of context:
The pragmatic way to solve the problem would have been to adapt to what these people were going to do anyway: just put another trash can by the door. They never tried that. They just kept posting more signs, because they were convinced that they were right.
Again, I'd rephrase this. After all, the folks wanting a clean bathroom were right to want one, but they were wrong about how to obtain it: They should have stopped for a moment to question their implicit assumption that they were dealing with louts. If they had, it might have dawned on them that there might have been a reason for the objectionable behavior which, if addressed in some small way, might have led to a painless solution to the problem.

In attempting to get others to change their behavior, it is highly impractical to fail to consider what good reasons they might have for their behavior -- both in terms of attempting to get them to change and in terms of psychological serenity unless, of course, one wants to be annoyed or even angry all the time.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

I suppose I would just stick the paper in my pocket and discard it when I got back to the lab.

Gus Van Horn said...

The paper towel, the note, or both?

Steve D said...

Hmmm....Good question.

In general, I would have to say that while I agree with your larger point and your proposed solution, I personally would still never just throw paper on the ground like that.

Gus Van Horn said...

Same here, but your comment led in too nicely to a joke for me to resist.