I read a review last night for a book called “Why?” In it, the author, Charles Tilly, analyzes the reasons we give for different things, and breaks them into four categories: a convention, a story, a code, or a technical account.
You can read the review linked above, or the book (which I am going to do at some point) for more complete descriptions of the four types. The main thing I took away from the review, however, is that which type of explanation we give is more dependent on our relationship with the person to whom we’re giving it – we use stories, for example, with people we are close to or want to be closer to, we use technical accounts to impress with our knowledge, and we use codes or conventions with people we are strangers to or want to distance ourselves from.
It was with all this in the back of my mind this morning as I approached my normal bus shelter, and saw this guy standing inside there, smoking. I’ve seen him before and I’ve seen him smoking before, and I’m not normally hard-core about not smoking but sometimes it irritates me, and Tri-Met has recently helpfully put up “No Smoking” signs on many of their bus stops which gives me a reason to speak up – that reason being a code, or more specifically, a code of behavior, a rule to follow or procedure.
I walked up, he looked at me briefly, I looked directly at his cigarrette and then back at him, pointedly, I thought. It was very passive-aggressive of me.
Before I’d thought through what I was going to say, I burst out with “You know, there’s no smoking at the bus stops!”
He looked at me, looked at his smoking butt, and took a step outside the shelter. “There. I’m not in the shelter anymore.”
I walked up into the shelter, and pointed at the “No Smoking” sign. “All I know is, it says ‘No smoking’. I don’t know about in the shelter or not in the shelter.”
He took a few more steps away. “Sorry,” he said, sounding not sorry at all.
I stood there, inside the shelter, upset by the encounter, and then the concepts of the four different reasons flooded back into my thoughts. Was that kind of an asshole way to tell that guy not to smoke? Probably from his perspective, it was. But I didn’t like him and didn’t particularly want to like him or be his friend; I just wanted to not have to breathe his smoke.
But I pondered the different types of reasons and tried to come up with one of each other type. For a convention, which is like a lower-level simplified code, I could have pointed out that bus stops are for everyone, or asked him how he felt about non-smokers. OK, I’m not completely 100% sure of the difference between a convention and a code so I’m fuzzy on what I could have said here.
For a story… I could have told him about my mom who died of lung cancer (whoa, heavy one) or just mentioned how I’ve seen Tri-Met drivers enforcing the no-smoking zone.
For a technical account, I might have offerred information on the damage smoking does or how second-hand smoke can be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than smoking itself.
As I write them, none of the above explanations, including the actual one I used, sound good to me now. At the time I just grabbed for the one that came to mind right away. In the future I may give more thought to the type of explanation I give, though, and I think that’s a valuable skill to have.