Communication: Trust and Crocker’s Rules

So there’s a thing called Crocker’s Rules which is rather popular in my network. At any time, one can declare to be operating by these rules, a declaration that constitutes a commitment to being fully open to feedback that isn’t couched in social niceties etc. The idea is it’s supposed to be a much more efficient/optimal way to communicate things. To me, Crocker’s Rules seem like a high ROI hack for getting certain things that I like about deep trust.

What is and isn’t Crocker’s Rules?

From the canonical article:

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimize their messages for information, not for being nice to you. Crocker’s Rules means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind – if you’re offended, it’s your fault. Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favor.

First we need to ask ourselves what we mean by being “offended”. One of my all-time favorite articles is titled Why I’m Not Offended By Rape Jokes, and its opening paragraph reads:

I am not offended by rape jokes. Offended is how my grandmother feels if I accidentally swear during a conversation with her; the word describes a reaction to something you think is impolite or inappropriate. It is a profoundly inadequate descriptor for the sudden pinching in my chest and the swelling of fear and sadness that I feel when someone makes a rape joke in my presence.

So sure, I think declaring Crocker’s Rules includes relinquishing the right to claim someone said something impolite or inappropriate. It also means giving someone the benefit of the doubt around them being inconsiderate. However, there are lots of potentially cruel things they could say, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect those not to hurt.

People sometimes talk about Radical Honesty, a policy which is easy to confuse for Crocker’s Rules (though they’re kind of the opposite) and which can sometimes just come off as Not-that-radical Being-a-dick. There is a lot to be said for direct and open communication, but somebody who just says “you’re a moron” isn’t usually being helpful. Tact can be valuable: saying everything that’s on your mind might not actually help you or the other person achieve your goals. The brain secretes thoughts! Some of them happen to be totally useless or even harmful! [EDIT 2021: I would no longer say this so categorically. Read Dream Mashups for a better sense of how I’d talk about this now.] And, just like you don’t want to identify with unduly-negative self-judgements, not all thoughts about someone else are worth granting speech.

On a related note, I know someone whose contact page used to say something to the effect of “I operate by Crocker’s Rules, but I’m also an ape, so I’m likely to be more receptive to criticism if it is friendly.”

The most efficient communication paradigm

I want to touch on the question of efficiency. Are Crocker’s Rules optimally efficient as a communication paradigm? On an information level, theoretically yes, as it tautologically eschews adding extra information. On a meta-information level it is very efficient as well, as the act of declaring Crocker’s Rules is a very succinct way to communicate to someone else that you want to be efficient in this way.

However, there’s more to communication than information, especially when it comes to interpersonal dynamics. I talked about this in my post on feedback a few months ago. Sometimes the feedback you most need isn’t efficient. Sometimes it’s vague and hard to express clearly in just a few words, and would become garbled in the process. Sometimes the feedback is a feeling. It’s saying “when I experience you doing X, it makes me feel Y.” And this requires vulnerability on the part of the person giving the feedback, which can’t be caused by any amount of you self-declaring Crocker’s Rules. For that, you need trust.

In the short-term, trust-based communication can be incredibly slow. I thought of using an adverb like “excruciatingly” there, but I actually find it very pleasurable. It’s just frustrating if you’re in a rush. In the long-term, however, building trust allows for even more efficient/optimal interactions than Crocker’s Rules, because you have a higher-bandwidth channel.

Acute Crocker’s Rules

I believe that the primary useful function of Crocker’s Rules is in acute usage, such as soliciting honest general feedback or soliciting any kind of feedback really. Mentioning Crocker’s Rules in such a context is very effective shorthand for indicating that you want all of the grittiest, most brutal feedback the person is willing to offer, not just surface stuff or “grinfucking“. The article doesn’t have a quotable definition for that term, but it’s essentially giving someone bland positive feedback when your honest feedback would be strongly negative. You’re grinning at them but in the long-run the lack of honest feedback is fucking them over.

To me, Crocker’s Rules seem like a high ROI hack for getting certain things that I like about deep trust. I think its ultimate form would in fact be a kind of trust: a trust that the other person fundamentally has your best interest in mind. However, we often can’t reasonably have that trust yet in many contexts in which we’d like honest feedback. Hence approximations like Crocker’s Rules.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

Become more intentional
Check out Intend, a web-app that I built to help people spend their time in meaningful & intentional ways and be more playfully purposeful. Intend logo
Connect with me on Twitter!