Interpretive Labor

In Utopia of Rules David Graeber introduces the concept of interpretive labor.  This will be stunningly useful in discussing how to handle sensitive discussions and yet there’s nothing on the internet about it, so please forgive this digression to explain it.

No two people are alike, everyone interprets a given action a little differently.  Often you need to put work in to understand what people mean.  This can be literal- like straining to understand an accent- or more figurative- like remembering your chronically late friend is from a culture where punctuality is not a virtue, so it’s not a sign they don’t value you.  The work it takes to do that is interpretive labor.  Interpretive labor also includes the reverse: changing what you would naturally do so that the person you are talking to will find it easier to understand.  Tell culture is in large part an attempt to reduce the amount of interpretive labor required.  Here are a few examples of interpretive labor in action:

  • Immigrants are expected to adopt the cultural norms of their new country.
  • Parents spend endless hours guessing whether their infant is crying because it’s hungry, needs a fresh diaper, or just felt like screaming.
  • Newbies to a field need to absorb jargon to keep up, or experts need to slow themselves down and explain it.
  • There’s a whole chain of schools that teach poor, mostly minority students business social norms, by which they mean white-middle-class norms.  There is no school teaching white middle class kids how to use the habitual be properly.
  • Crucial Conversations/Non-Violent Communication/John Gottman’s couples therapy books/How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk are all training for interpretive labor.
  • Graeber himself is talking about interpretative labor in the context of bureaucratic forms, which can simultaneously dump a lot of interpretative labor on the individual (bank forms don’t negotiate) but alleviate the need to be nice to clerks.
  • Comments in code.

With a few very specific exceptions (accents, certain disabilities, ), interpretive labor flows up the gradient of status or privilege.  This can get pretty ugly

  • People who insist their code is self documenting.
  • Girls are told “snapping your bra means he likes you” and then expected to no longer be mad about it.
  • Bullied kids are told to forgive and forget because their bully “is trying to say they’re sorry”, even after repeated cycles of faux-apologies and bullying.
  • This is more tenuous, but I think there’s a good argument that a lot of the emotional abuse on the estranged parent boards comes from parents expecting unfair amounts of interpretive labor from their children, adult or minor.
  • Fundamentalist husband expects his wife to know his emotions and correct for them while he actively hides the emotion from himself.
  • A paraphrased quote from Mothers of Invention: A woman’s house slave has run away, greatly increasing the amount of work she has to do herself.   She writes in her diary “Oh, if only she could think of things from my point of view, she never would let me suffer so.”
  • Poor people are more empathetic than rich people.

I think a large part of the anger around the concept of trigger warnings is related to interpretive labor.  It shifts the burden from traumatized listeners to protect themselves or calm themselves down, to speakers to think ahead if something they are about to say could be upsetting.  That’s work.  Speaking without thinking is much easier.  Like, stupidly easy.  Ditto for Christians who feel they’re being oppressed when they’re asked to consider that not everyone has the same beliefs.  That is way more work than assuming they do.

How does this relate to altruism?  Charity generally flows down the status/privilege gradient, especially from rich to poor.  If the givers don’t consciously change the rules, they will end up demanding large amounts of interpretive labor from their beneficiaries, and do less good in the process.  Arguably this is what’s happening when Heifer International gives people livestock and they immediately sell it- the rich people decided what to give without sufficient input from the poor people they were giving it to, and the poor people had to do extra work to translate it into something they want.  Or this post on Captain Awkward, from a woman trying to teach her tutoring volunteers to not be racist.

EDIT 9/7/18: I think I in appropriately conflated two different situations in this post: situations where interpretive labor closes the whole gap (e.g. understanding an accent), and things where even after correct interpretation there is still a problem. The problem in that bullying example isn’t just that the victim doesn’t understand how the bully wants to apologize, it’s that the bully is going to keep bullying.

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