Most disagreements aren’t just about the cards on the table. They’re just as much about who’s at the table. What time the game is being played. The last fifty games before this one. And about all the other people the current participants ever played with as well.
So it’s no wonder the game ends up making little sense to folks who think everything they need to know to make the winning argument is reading the cards facing up.
One good way to tell how much a conflict is about those cards, or about something else, is to gauge the temperature of the tone. If it’s unreasonably, disproportionately hot, then it’s probably not just about the current specifics. There are very few specific situations and details that’ll make people hit the red zone on the account of those alone.
People get worked up by compounding circumstances and repeating dynamics. Like, why does he always have to say it like this! Or, can’t she see how this is just yet another example of this other thing we’ve talking about so many times?
It’s not at all uncommon for the context to dwarf the particulars. But it’s exceedingly common for people to be oblivious to the fact. And before you know it, the argument ends up boiling over, while a proxy war of disagreement is waged.
This is one of the reasons why it’s so rare for online arguments between strangers to go anywhere productive. Unless the topic of discussion can be reduced to purely logic points — and really, what topic can? — you’re going to have to engaged with all the extracurriculars. But how can you, if you don’t know what they are, because you don’t know the other person’s circumstances or experiences?
At least if you’re invested in the other person, like if you work, live, or play together, you can spend the time to learn their circumstances and examine their experiences. Once you learn the context, the where-are-they-coming-from, you can start to make progress together on that hot topic. And by the time you’ve bothered to dive that deep, the whole thing has probably cooled off enough for gentle hands to touch.
Conflicts are rarely just about the cards on the table was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.