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Thinking about "You should have known better" - Input Junkie
December 28th, 2016
11:44 am


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Thinking about "You should have known better"
Literally speaking, "You should have known better" makes no sense. How can people have known things before they knew them? How can there be a moral requirement which is impossible? It was a revelation to me that moral strictures should be achievable-- I thought they were just floating out in the ether being correct.

I got a lot of "you should have known better" when I was a kid, and I have no patience for it now. However, logical consistancy requires that I not blame people for not knowing better than to say it.

If I feel compelled to give advice about something someone did, I say "for future reference" to make it clear that I don't think they could or should make the past different.

On the other hand, people do say "You should have known better" quite a lot. Most people (that is to say, non-geekish people) use language very approximately, and they seem to manage. My theory is that "You should have known better" is shaming someone for making a mistake-- it's an effort to make sure they don't make that particular mistake again. There may be some hope that they'll be more alert in general, or it may just be dumping fear and anger without thinking about long-term effects.

It's worth noting that I was living in a pretty safe environment and temperamentally cautious. I'm interested in discussion of good methods for teaching urgent rules.

I believe that shaming people, especially shaming them for breaking vague rules, tends to damage their initiative. Who knows what else will bring down another punishment? Better to not take risks.

One thing that took me a surprisingly long time to learn was that when my calligraphy was going badly, I should stop and think about whether there's a problem caused by ink, paper, penpoint, or temperature/humidity. Before I had that realization, I would just keep trying the same thing, hoping that somehow matters would get better. It was sort of a moral issue-- perhaps if I was a good enough person I could get things right.

From the outside and after I figured this out, it seems as though I had very little sense. However, it was the amount of sense I had.

I was a somewhat spacey and very angry child (I think a good bit of the anger wasn't shown), and being shamed about incompetence did a lot to get me to give up on connecting to the world outside my head. If you startle someone who's being inept, it doesn't make them more competent. The rules are probably different for emergencies and I'm interested in what anyone has to say about being effective about getting people's attention.

This only feels like half an essay, but I think I might as well post it and see what further thoughts show up.

Meanwhile, a case of being told the rules repeatedly and what it can take to believe a rule might be worth following.

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/1087967.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:December 28th, 2016 05:40 pm (UTC)
If you have trouble understanding the phrase, consider about when you do know better. You think about doing something, perhaps something that's precipitate, perhaps that you're inspired to do by sudden impulse. And then you pause, realize that it would be a bad idea, and don't do it. Has that ever happened to you? Maybe not, but it's a common human experience.

"You should have known better" means that both 1) that pause, that second thought, would have led to the wiser course of action, and 2) that you were, at least in the judgment of the person making the comment, capable of having it. You just didn't, or you did but ignored it, perhaps under the press of impulsiveness.

It isn't about knowing things that you couldn't have known. It's about doing things that you did, or should have, known.
[User Picture]
Date:December 28th, 2016 07:31 pm (UTC)
I agree. Perhaps "You should have thought better" would be more precise. People don't have an obligation to know (except where they have specific duties involving knowledge), but they have an obligation to think.
[User Picture]
Date:December 28th, 2016 08:29 pm (UTC)
I believe that it carries the implication that the reasonably prudent person would have sought out the information and so known it -- all the way from stopping and thinking, "Is this really a good idea?" to actually going and looking up information, depending on what is reasonable.

That, in fact, the ignorance is vincible.
[User Picture]
Date:December 28th, 2016 05:57 pm (UTC)
I liked that essay by the Ferrett too.

I think "You should have known better" (or similarly worded exclamations) are expressions of frustration on the part of the speaker rather than part of any attempt--at that particular moment, anyway--to help the person they're addressing do better. The speaker can see patterns that the person in question is oblivious of, and this is frustrating to the speaker. So maybe what people who say that need is ways in which to calm down and deal with their frustration better.

Your calligraphy story reminded me of something I learned in adolescence, which was that if I was getting very frustrated with a task, sometimes it was better to stop for a while and then go back to it. I resisted this advice loudly and angrily when it was offered to me--I wanted to get the thing DONE damn it, and I was going to power my way through even if it meant wrecking everything. Which it frequently did, if I kept going in that mood. I don't know what finally got me to realize that stopping was a tactical retreat, not defeat...
[User Picture]
Date:December 30th, 2016 11:18 am (UTC)
Oh gods, yes, that 'why won't the damn thing go through- splat' moment. I had to learn that, too (I think it's a fairly common experience).

Stopping when you're frustrated, not trying to force anything, they're good skills. Going that step further and asking yourself whether you are doing the right thing (and need to do it better), or whether you need to review what you are doing is a meta-skill that can take longer to learn, particularly in an environment that praises perseverance, trying again, and trying harder.

My personal feeling, based on painful experience, is that if I'm batting my head against a wall I should stop and start looking for a door/style/tunnel or simply go around the damn thing. Or come back when I've acquired a wrecking ball.

This, of course, has the failure modes of 'always looking for a magical solution, never sticking with anything, always blaming one's tools, always waiting for the perfect moment' but _since those are not *my* failure modes_, I'm ignoring that.
[User Picture]
Date:December 30th, 2016 01:51 pm (UTC)
since those are not *my* failure modes

It's so important to realize this. On the internet, all wisdom gets broadcast to everyone, but what's lifesaving for some people can be deadly for others.
[User Picture]
Date:December 28th, 2016 10:39 pm (UTC)
I agree with these comments, and commented to somewhat similar effect on DW. Yes, it's generally not helpful to say, but it refers to the situations described here; and "I should have known better" is not necessarily useless self-blame.
[User Picture]
Date:December 29th, 2016 03:55 am (UTC)
What I always felt "You should have known better!" meant was, you were told, or otherwise given some information, but you behaved as if you didn't have that information - in other words, equivalent to "You were warned about that! Why did you ignore what you were told?" Sometimes, of course, the warning isn't explicit, but rather some sort of cultural assumption. E.g., someone drinks too much, and wakes up the next morning feeling wretchedly hung-over; "everybody knows" that drinking too much can cause a hangover, so the person "should have known better" than to drink so much. In a case like that, it's hard to tell whether the person actually didn't "know better", or just ignored what they knew because they wanted to get falling-down drunk.

The moral implication is that any time a person makes a mistake, it's because they are wilfully ignoring some generally accepted principle. This allows people to feel superior to the morally deficient individual who refuses to pay attention to common wisdom :-(

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