Psychological Safewords

We all have our ways of tapping out or saying "TMI".

Posted May 21, 2019

In Plato’s dialog called Meno, Socrates demonstrates that even an education-deprived slave can figure out Pythagoras’s theorem if you just ask him the right questions.

Slaves might be easier students than the rest of us. You can keep them there answering your questions as long as you like. Free people won’t stand for that.

But Socrates’ point still holds. Humans are all reasonable, practical and logical. So why don’t we act like it? Because, unlike the slave, we can tap out.

In all aggressive play – any spectator or bedroom sport, people have safewords, ways to say, “uncle, enough, time out, no more, release me.” It’s how adults handle what parents warn about: “Take it easy, kids or someone’s going to get hurt.”

In everyday life, we have lots of psychological safewords, ways of tapping out when we’re uncomfortable. They come in two main flavors:

  1. Truce. I’m done. There’s no winner no loser.
  2. I’m done but I win.

You need that second kind because the first kind doesn’t work so well. If you tap out, it sounds like you’ve surrendered which means your opponent won. To defend against that, people will tend to tap out with a sucker-punch, rank-pulling move implying that they’re tapping out because their opponent’s behavior is beneath them.

For example:
“That’s inappropriate.”
“You’re being unprofessional.”
“TMI” (i.e. you’re being inappropriate.)
“Talk to the hand.”
“Get over it.”
“Get over yourself.”
“It’s not all about you.”
“Don’t be defensive.”  

Conversely, you need the first kind because the second kind doesn’t work so well. “I'm done but I win,” sucker-punching and rank-pulling feels unfair. Therefore many of our safewords will be sucker-punches below the radar, subtle deniable ways of rank-pulling, rank pulling that appears to be simply calling a neutral truce. For example saying “let’s take space,” in a patronizing tone meant to imply that you're tapping out because you’re mature, above the petty squabble you just engaged in. “Whatever” is another example of an ambiguous safe word. It can mean that you surrender, that you prevail or that it’s time to call a neutral truce.

With safewords, self-confessed honesty is often the best policy. To admit without loss of face that you prefer not to think about something lets you and others off the hook. It’s the best antidote to a popular and unkind pseudo-objectivity, pretending your subjective standard is the objective standard, as though you are the measure of all things, for example, assuming that if it bores you, it’s unimportant, or that what you don’t understand must be incoherent nonsense.

Still, self-confession is more difficult and often a bad strategy when dealing with know-it-alls who are hell-bent on winning. These are people who will take any tapping out as evidence that they win, you lose, though that’s part of their larger plan. If you continue to engage with them, they’ll also find ways to claim that they win/you lose.

We have socially encouraged safewords too, for example, “It’s God’s will.” In religious cultures it's a proud faith-based way to tap out, to end exploration. Faith, in general, is a way to tap out and not just for the religious or spiritual. When you’re exploring what’s true and someone changes the subject to what they hope is true, they’re tapping out.

"Might you have acted unfairly?"
"I certainly hope not!"

Notice the change of subject from reality to hopes. Changing the subject is one of the easiest and most common ways to tap out. Saying “um, let’s change the subject” is another rank-pulling way to tap out. It’s like TMI. It means “you’re being inappropriate.”

We can tap out in our introspections too. For example:

“They said I was unkind to them. Hmmm…let me explore my mind on that. There. I explored and no, I would never want to be unkind to them!”

We have safewords for talking to ourselves also. We can go on cautious introspective spelunking expeditions in our mind caves too, mining for self-affirming gold, tapping out as soon as we find even the tiniest nugget and rushing out of our mind-caves before we encounter anything dark and scary.

For example, nice to find out that if asked point-blank whether you would like to actively pursue being unkind to them, your answer would be no, but that doesn’t address the possibility that you wanted to do something else enough that you were OK with being unkind to them as a side-effect.

Safewords are natural and necessary. We humans are an unusual species. We have language and all that follows from it including a lot of technology that other organisms don’t have. We’re exposed to way more possibilities than other organisms are exposed to. Just think how many more factors you could consider than your dog can.  

Humans are pinholes in a flood. There’s way too much world for us. And with language, we have the means to escape whatever feels like too much world to us. We can’t possibly handle it all. We all prioritize which means saying no to whatever we decide is low priority.

Trouble is, our priorities are largely visceral. If you had a sore ankle you’d take the weight off it. You try to keep yourself as comfortable as possible. You do the same psychologically. Though your long-term priority is being realistic, your short term priority is staying comfortable in your own skin. As the psychologist Stephen Kull puts it, “the instinct to survive is strong; the instinct to alleviate fear is stronger.”

Though you may think you’re more realistic and open-minded than most people, that’s what most people think. The majority think they’re more realistic and open-minded than average, which is statistically impossible. Realistically, we’re not that realistic. When faced with something sore and load bearing, you will shift your weight off it with some safeword, some way of tapping out and saying “don’t go there.”

In other words, we all have our coping strategies, many of which are “noping strategies,” ways of saying “nope” to what threatens us.

It’s worth listening carefully for the safe word dynamics in your personal life and to try to do so evenhandedly, listening as carefully to your use of safe words as you listen to others.

We humans all engage in what could be called paradoxically “universal exceptionalism.” We are all much better at spotting the irrational safe word tap-outs in our opponents' perspectives than in our own.

In other words, we think that people should sit still and listen to us like the slave in Meno, but we prefer ourselves emancipated, free to tap out whenever we’re made uncomfortable.