Action vs intention

April 17, 2005

I consider myself enthusiastically — even militantly — American. But there is one thing about mainstream American culture, especially among younger people, that never ceases to puzzle and distress me. I dunno if there’s even a good word for it in this culture, but I’ve heard it called “face” or “optics” or “social capital” or a “prestige economy”… and it’s something so fundamental to the way I was raised, and something so lacking in the typical young techie male I interact with, that I frequently experience painful social ruptures from the friction between standards.

In Asian cultures, there’s a type of exchange that is so common that you would never need to explain it. It goes something like this: “I like you and want to help you, so I’m going to give you something you ask for — a job recommendation, a setup for a date, emotional support, an introduction to my social circle, etc. You in turn are pledging not to do anything that would make me look like a moron, and preferably you’ll act in such a way that all parties benefit from the interaction.” The way I was raised, this type of brokering is a way of life. To even lay out the rules like this is unutterably gauche — if you ever had to explain it, you wouldn’t get involved with that person because your assessment of their ability to handle social complexity would be too low.

I can’t say I truly understand the countervailing theory of American mainstream culture, but let me take a whack and you can correct me. I think perhaps people in America are supposed to do favors for other people in a 100% giving way without regard to the consequences to themselves, as anything else is considered 100% transactional. Also, the intentions of the person asking for the favor are supposed to matter more than the actual consequences of their actions. This seems retarded to me since I’ve never heard an American person admit to a bad intention… but I definitely know that good intentions and being “a good person” are very important to mainstream Americans.

So what should I do in situations where I feel that the basic understanding between friends — “I do you this favor and you make me not look bad” — is violated? I get the feeling that by American standards I’m supposed to still be friends with the person but somehow detach from doing any more favors for them; but to be honest, I tend to recoil from the person with a kind of visceral horror. I dunno what it means to be friends with someone who in my view is lacking in the capacity for meaningful social action. This view contrasts, I suspect, with a more common American view that I’m favoring the appearance of propriety and an adherence to forms over the reality of a good heart.

Let me give you an example, which I hasten to say has no resemblance to any actual situation I’ve been in lately. Let’s say your friend Bob asks you to set up a date with your other friend Alice — but then he’s late, yaks on the cellie all night, tells embarrassing stories about you, and doesn’t call her the next day although he says he will. When you try to explain to Bob that he messed up, he gets all defensive and thinks you’re mad at him because he didn’t like Alice enough to ask for another date — when in fact you’re mad because you incurred Alice’s displeasure from trying to do the guy a favor. That is, roughly speaking, the type of interaction I’m talking about.

Interestingly, most of my close friends are people who, generally through intimate contact with another culture, have a similar sense of the forms as I do. Also, as I have more business interactions with people far higher up the ladder than me, I find that they conform much more closely to the way I was raised than to the prevailing American youth norm. Especially in Silicon Valley, which is basically a large small town, gracefully handling issues of reputation and obligation is an essential part of doing business. As the rappers say, you better come correct or go home to mama. 🙂

13 Responses to “Action vs intention”


  1. That sounds pretty esoteric. Did you go to the University of Chicago or something?

    Seriously, though, this is the kind of experience I see from my students quite often. When they’re in need of extra time for an assignment, an excuse from class, or whatever, they are asking for a favor. Then those same students are then nasty to me the next day when they no longer need anything.

    I make a point of calling their attention to this: “I just helped you out. I’m not keeping score, and I don’t expect you to help me out too, but I deserve some respect gratitude for what I’ve done.”

    Alternately, girls who treat me badly get the cold shoulder, though always with an explanation (to make it a teachable moment): “You just talked through the whole class, and now you want to borrow ‘Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul’? Why would I lend you a book?”

    I think it’s a really important character lesson, and one that’s difficult for parents to teach (because they are emotionally and biologically motivated to give a lot more to their children).

  2. Aaron Says:

    Hey,

    Now every single one of their friends is thinking back over ever favor you’ve done for them, wondering if it was they who screwed up! Not cool!

    Anyway, yeah, I hate this too. Preach it.

  3. Lloyd Dalton Says:

    I think there are two types of americans who act this way, and it may be difficult to tell them apart:

    (1) Selfish folks who don’t feel bad about cheating on social contracts. I think they mistakenly believe that social capital obeys the same rules as financial capital, zero-sum wise. There are probably more of these than any of us realize. It may be because few parts of american culture teach kids otherwise.

    (2) Folks with an overdeveloped sense of ethics, who aren’t sure where to draw the line between acceptible favors and favoritism. We americans hate favoritism (at least, we tell ourselves we do). So we sometimes go to the opposite extreme to avoid it (you put it very well – “doing favors for other people in a 100% giving way without regard to the consequences to themselves”).

    We still care about face, just not as much. We can lose face and regain it (in most cases). Look at celebrities and politicians.

    Being an american, I appreciate the overdeveloped sense of ethics and the tolerance for face loss. For instance Let’s say I owe person XYZ a favor, so I reccomend him to my buddy the hiring manager, who interviews XYZ and hires him. But for some reason, XYZ does a lousy job. If we’re americans, my buddy can fire XYZ with no (great) loss of face to himself or me. Because hey, XYZ did a bad job. In other cultures, it’s a little more tricky.

  4. Ryo Chijiiwa Says:

    (Disclaimer: I’m Japanese+American, and at the UofC 😉

    I think this actually has something to do with America’s (and Americans’) supposed adherence to equality and objectivity. For example, when recommending people (for jobs, dating, whatever), I think we’re expected to judge people equally and objectively, based purely on merit, without regards to personal relationships and subjective opinions. Some people may even feel inclined not to return favors simply to show that their objectivity and judgement hasn’t been clouded by your kindness.

    I don’t know about other Asian cultures, but at least in Japan, neither equality or objectivity really even exist at a cultural level. Japanese culture is in fact very hierarchical, and warm, fuzzy, interpersonal relationships are typically valued higher than cold objectivity. Of course, I don’t think this is particularly unique to Asian cultures; I’ve seen many European cultures observe similar forms of “social lubrication.”

    This difference probably stems from how such cultures originated (or for that matter, didn’t originate). Because America was founded based on such ideas as “equality”, “freedom”, “secularism”, “democracy”, such values have become the basis of our culture. Most other societies, on the other hand, were never “founded,” that is, while forms of government may have been established, I would argue that the cultures themselves evolved over long periods of time (as opposed to America where people, and along with it the origins of the culture, were physically brought in over the last few hundred years).

    Anyway, I could go on and on about this… but I’ll restrain myself. Just thought I’d thrown in my two cents…

  5. Carter Says:

    For the most part it just seems to me that Americans are reaching “maturity” at ever later ages. In the 19th century, a child in his early teens could be counted onto contribute to the household’s income. Nowadays you have kids living with their folks well into their late twenties and not feeling bad about it at all.

    In fact, the more I think about this, the concept of “shame” in America is pretty much dead, isn’t it? In fact, the more spectacularly you screw up, the quicker you can make a buck with a reality TV show (Martha Stewert) or book (Jose Canseco).

  6. terri Says:

    It didn’t used to be as bad as it is now. I’m showing my age, but… twenty years ago when I got my first job, it was on the recommendation of a family member, and you better believe I was expected to “uphold the family honor” (such as it was). If someone did you a favor you had an obligation to not only NOT screw up and make the person look bad, but to try to return the favor when needed. American culture has changed dramatically from “ask not what your country can do for you” to “what have you done for me lately?” and it’s really awful. Now that I have a child of my own I’m working hard to teach her morals and ethics, but it’s been so long since they’ve been prevelant socially that’s its very difficult. It’s hard to explain to a preschooler that just because the other kids leave toys all over the toystore doesn’t mean you don’t have to put away the ones you played with.

    Oh,and for placement, I’m a basic white american, 38, born and raised in the pacific northwest.

  7. Jeff Says:

    It’s not quite clear to me that ‘culture’ has much to do with this. Some things are universal…

    If it were me, “Bob” would be demoted to the “friends I see every now and then” category and I wouldn’t grant any particular favors to him nor would I have huge expectations of him. But if he’s fun to hang out with every now and then – sure – keep him on the friends list.

    You already articulated that you probably don’t benefit too much from social connections that don’t understand that delicate fabric of social interactions that we live under. Stick to it!

    Jeff
    This And That Podcast (w/ Jeff and Pat)

  8. tom Says:

    You introduced them – after that it’s their responsibility to be decent folk. You can hardly be responsible for another’s behavior. After all, were they to fall madly in love and live happily ever after you would probably not get a monthly check and thank-you note for introducing them – so why should you feel punished when they don’t get along?

    In the end your post reveals that we’re talking about _you_, not your friends. Everything you say is about how _you_ feel. So we see that you aren’t a social risk-taker and that you worry (excessively IMO) about what others think of you. My advice: don’t do anything that puts your self-image at risk. Meanwhile, do something to boost that self-image: it’s looking pretty fragile.

  9. Juls Says:

    Good grief. It never even occurred to me that others might think a favor doesn’t have consequences. Maybe that’s the Asian in me, the ingrained sense of ‘face’ that needs no definition. Any friend of mine (white or not) has no excuse if they pee in my pool!!!

  10. MT Says:

    Interesting. The Asian way sounds utterly corrupt to my American mind, and what you say sort of jibes with my experiences in southeast Asia. In U.S. law relating to contracts there’s a pertinent concept called the “officious meddler” (?). It says if you paint my house while I’m away without my asking you, I don’t owe you anything for it, even if I sell the house the next day for a higher price than I would have gotten for it without the new paint. I feel instinctively that obligations need to be bargained for. I guess in Asia and other civilized places one feels an obligation to one’s parents. I don’t feel that for mine, at least not intellectually. Emotionally of course I feel something and would probably rush into a burning building sooner for my mom than for a stranger, but I feel it’s fundamentally irrational.

  11. Sarah Lipman Says:

    I’m with you! However, unlike some of the other comment-posters here, I think that there is a distinction between any favor, and making a personal referral. It’s not really about obligation to one who does a favor, or whether Bob and Alice fall in love. It’s about cheapening your word. A person’s word — read: the amount of trust he/she engenders — is valuable, and not easily achieved.

    If Bob turns out to be a complete goon, Alice won’t trust your judgement any more, and it will take years (if ever) to recover your standing with her. When you make a personal recommendation, that is what you risk for the person you recommend. So you expect the person you’re helping out to be sensitive to the risk in them that you took, and to make some effort to not let you down.

    Now that I’ve said that, I realize that although I’m American, I spent two years as a child in Japan, and there are quite a few elements of Japanese culture that have crept into our family over the years of my upbringing, so maybe I’m not representative of a “Western European” ethic.

    Sarah
    http://www.Power2B.net

  12. Bob Says:

    No question, the person for whom you do a favor by providing a referral should be concerned with whether they make you look bad or good.

    1. If they want to be a nice or good person, even in some ‘abstract impersonal’ way.

    2. If they want to be ‘successful’, they should try not to punish the people who help them out. 🙂

    I’m a white American, but I don’t know that I’m typical of anyone. 🙂

    I think if I did something like what your favor recipient did, you would be doing me a favor to gently break the news to me that I should improve my ways. :-/

  13. Tammy Says:

    Friendship is but another name for an alliance with the follies and the misfortunes of others. Our own share of miseries is sufficient: why enter then as volunteers into those of another?

    Thomas Jefferson


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