Jeremy Côté

Speak For Yourself

If I’m having an argument, I tend to use phrases that include the word “you” or “they”. What I’m doing is projecting what I think a person is feeling into my own words. In essence, I’m taking what I think is important in their disagreement and only addressing that.

The problem is that I’m not letting the person describe their own experience. Instead, I’m asserting what I think they are saying, and basing my response off of that. It’s a terrible technique, because honestly, how likely am I going to give them a charitable view?

The person who is best-suited to explaining their beliefs is themselves. That’s true for any situation I can think of. By ignoring this, I’m arguing with my interpretation of them, not the actual person.

I first came across this idea from Buster Benson in his book Why Are We Yelling?.The idea was introduced in the context of an argument. He explains that it’s very easy to start arguing with what we think another person is saying instead of what they are actually saying. This resonated with me, since I know that in the past, I’ve written many pieces on this site that have me mind-reading another person. But if I’m honest, I don’t really know what they are thinking, because I didn’t bother to ask them. Instead, I constructed what I thought would be their position, and went from there.

I am now mindful of this behaviour while writing. Am I making an argument against a position I know is held because I someone told me, or am I assuming that this is what they would say? If it’s the latter, maybe I should do the work to figure out what the person thinks. Perhaps I’m correct, but the point is to go out and check, just like we do in science. Practically, it’s a matter of noticing how often I use the word “you” versus “I”. I am an authority on the latter, but not the former.

I can only be certain of what I think, so I should speak for myself. That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine what others think, but I shouldn’t assert it on the same level as what I think. If I want to, then I have to do the work of finding people who express that idea1. Just stating it as fact indicates a lack of effort on my part.

My goal is to engage with the ideas of people, not the figments I conjure up in my own head. However, if I want to take the right steps towards being better at analyzing the world, I need to do the difficult work of pausing before assuming I know another person’s inner thoughts and asking them to explain. It’s there that a more productive conversation will grow.

I’ll speak for myself, and let others speak for themselves.

  1. There’s definitely the danger of selection bias creeping in here, but that’s a whole other story.