Gladwell Offers an Anatomy of Explanations

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker review on Charles Tilly’s new book “Why”, I had one of those eureka moments in tracing back and understanding the deterioration of an old relationship. I hope you’ll glean some insight as well.

Though I haven’t read it, Gladwell summarizes the book’s breakdown of the types of reason-giving we give into four categories: conventions (social formulae), stories (common sense narratives), codes (legal formulae) and technical accounts (specialized stories). Depending upon the type of reason we give, we run into trouble because of the unspoken message that is sent by our choice.

Imagine, he says, the following possible responses to one person’s knocking some books off the desk of another:

  1. Sorry, buddy. I’m just plain awkward.
  2. I’m sorry. I didn’t see your book.
  3. Nuts! I did it again.
  4. Why did you put that book there?
  5. I told you to stack up your books neatly.

The lesson is not that the kind of person who uses reason No. 1 or No. 2 is polite and the kind of person who uses reason No. 4 or No. 5 is a jerk. The point is that any of us might use any of those five reasons depending on our relation to the person whose books we knocked over. Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. The husband who uses a story to explain his unhappiness to his wife—”Ever since I got my new job, I feel like I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time for us”—is attempting to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage, he’ll say, “It’s not you—it’s me.” He switches to a convention. As his wife realizes, it’s not the content of what he has said that matters. It’s his shift from the kind of reason-giving that signals commitment to the kind that signals disengagement. Marriages thrive on stories. They die on conventions.

As I usually do with Gladwell’s writing, I highly recommend you check out this article, “HERE’S WHY“.

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