Is Communication "Manipulation"?


My friend Suspended Reason recently wrote a post where he put forward the claim that "[all] communication is manipulation". The claim was not well-received. Readers disagreed. The formulation doesn't sit well with me either, but in a vague way. "I'm not manipulating others with my communication, and others aren't manipulating me" feels like a firm belief of mine.

Without trying to discern the truth or falsity of the claim that "communication is manipulation," what I want to figure out is "what's the problem?" Why doesn't it sit well with me? Where does my belief, that we're not manipulating each other, come from, and what does it mean? I'll let the fantasy lead the way.

When I hear "communication is manipulation", I picture a situation where I'm hanging out with my friends, engaged in casual conversation, but all exchanges are oriented around manipulation. Each utterance has a goal behind it, intended to alter the other's behavior in a way that suits one's needs, each speaker using words to affect the other's actions, as if molding clay. If I were to picture this situation such that the "manipulation" seems wrong, I would have a word for the problem: "sociopathy".

What is sociopathy? It's another vague image, of someone who "breaks the rules", who puts on an appearance without really "being" the appearance. One rarely hears accusations of sociopathy in dealings of business or war, because these domains don't seem to have the same "rules" as hanging out with my friends. The rules of business are made explicit by a third party: the law, enforced by the state. A businessman may "cheat" the law, but he's not a sociopath for doing so, just a cheater, and the expectation is that the law will eventually punish him for his cheating. Similarly, appearances in business are also enforced by the rules. If you make big promises but fail to execute the contract, it's not sociopathy, just breach of contract.

We can let the term itself lead us: the socio-path is he who breaks the rules "of society", which excludes the domains of business and high politics, but includes casual hangouts. These rules aren't written down, they're implicit, and there's no objective third party one can call in when social rules are broken, so long as the sociopath avoids committing a criminal offense.

But breaking the rules alone isn't enough to qualify one as a "sociopath". Nerds and autists often break social rules, but few would label them sociopaths. What is special about the sociopath is that he knows the rules and chooses to break them, in order to get what he wants. Only a certain sort of person, with a certain psychological makeup, is able to know the rules without feeling bound by them. Most people only "know" the rules in an immanent sense: the rules aren't "known and consciously followed", but precede choice, e.g. "I can't talk to that girl [because it's against the rules]". We might say that the shy guy trying to talk to the girl feels like "a choice has been made", but that he didn't make it: the "rules" made his choice for him.

Lacanian Psychoanalysis would call the former structure "perverse" and the latter "neurotic". The neurotic is bound by the rules ("I could never do that" "but you could, if you chose to" "no, I literally can't, it's wrong, I would die"), while the pervert knows the rules, and disavows them ("the rules don't apply to me, what are you gonna do about it?")1. Thus the colloquial critical reading of "communication is manipulation" is that it's perverse, that the person who thinks like that is breaking some implicit rule of socializing, and the reader disavows the statement on those grounds.


One thing left unclear: what "rule" of society does "manipulation" break? Let's think of a few instances that we might call "manipulation" and see whether we can figure out what the rules are:

  • You're at dinner with a friend and you don't want to pay, so you lie that you just spent your last few dollars and you have no money. Your friend pays. You've "manipulated" them into paying. What rule was broken here? You lied, misrepresenting facts about your life in order to get what you wanted.

  • You're at a nice restaurant but you can't afford it. You show up and start crying and putting on a show about how you're almost broke and need food, even though in truth you could've afforded a more modest meal elsewhere. They take pity on you and comp your meal. You didn't lie, so what rule did you break? You misrepresented your affect: you put on a performance of sadness in order to get what you wanted. Another example would be performing an unfelt sadness or anger at your partner so they do what you want.

  • You want a ride to a store, so you call a friend and say you're lonely (which is true), let's hang out. Your friend drives over and you suggest visiting a certain store. Your friend agrees and takes you to the store. Again, you didn't lie, yet this story might not sit well with many. What rule was broken? You misrepresented your desire: you said you wanted to hang out because you were lonely, but really you wanted to hang out in order to get a ride.

What's common in all these situations? Something was misrepresented: facts that the other could not know about, affect, desire. What's common to all these misrepresented things is that they're subjective: the other can only know about them through interpreting your communication. Regardless of intent, there seems to be a social imperative not to misrepresent your subjectivity, lest you be accused of acting "inauthentically". Thus, we can call the imperative to act honestly in representing your subjectivity the "authenticity rule".

The other commonality is that all these situations involved misrepresentation with the intent of using the other as a means for a particular end. This is colloquially expressed via the Kantian ethical imperative of "treat other people like ends in themselves and not like means", on account of their shared humanity. Thus, we can call the imperative to not treat others as means the "shared humanity rule".

These imperatives both tie into a particular conception of Man, as originally formulated by Descartes: I think therefore I am. What is essential about thought is that it is private: we are each "in our heads", buffered from each other, with certain thoughts and feelings which we can only to render visible through communication2. The basic ethical question that follows is, assuming that everyone must live together "in a society" and that everyone has common knowledge about the rules of interaction, what rules are best?

Given that everyone is equally "private", it makes sense to have a norm that others stand on equal footing. Our lack of knowledge about the other doesn't mean they are "less human" (more object-like) than us, hence the shared humanity rule. And similarly, the best way to ensure trust between private individuals is to establish a norm that each person accurately represents their own private subjectivity through speech, hence the authenticity rule. Together, these rules ensure the orderly and harmonious state of affairs necessary to sustain a secular society composed of private individuals pursuing their own ends, as described in the 18th and 19th century literature.3

The sociopath may break either of both of these rules: they know that others will treat their representations of their own subjectivity as honest, i.e. authentic, and they know that others will assume that the sociopath isn't "using them", so they take advantage of this common knowledge to further their own ends. Of course, most people are sensitive to violations of these rules, and gossip spreads quickly, so the sociopath may eventually find themselves friendless. But they can always move on to greener pastures, starting over again and again, or else they can choose to play by the rules and maintain their friendships, even as they feel like the rules don't really mean anything or apply to them.


We've determined two rules of casual social interaction, the authenticity rule and the shared humanity rule. Actions deemed "manipulation" tend to violate one or both of these rules, hence the backlash against "communication is manipulation". And yet, these rules are necessary but not sufficient: they constrain individuals in the negative sense, but say nothing positively about how individuals actually do interact in practice. In framing communication positively, perhaps we can salvage the phrase.

We can start by acknowledging that when I'm in a casual social setting, hanging out with my friends, all of my speech is motivated. I speak because I have something to say, and I have something to say because I have something I want. But I don't necessarily know how my speech will cash out later in the others' action; I might not have a specific behavior I want from the others, but rather some state I want to evoke, in myself or in the other. Maybe I want my friend to feel good, or I want to hurt him. In both these instances, the thing I want relies on the other's subjectivity, which could be reflected back to me in many different ways through his speech and behavior. I may not have a particular material outcome in mind. Some games have many ways to win.

To make sense of this, and to attempt to frame communication positively, we can look to Alfred Schutz's work on social phenomenology. Schutz defines the casual being-together of two individuals as existing on a spectrum between the "they-relationship" and the "we-relationship". The former consists of treating the other "as an ideal type", slotting them into one's own pre-figured "meaning context" as an representative, while the latter involves a mutual experience of awareness that the other is aware of you, the synchronization of two streams of time perception, a "growing older together"4.

This "We-relationship" is meant as a limiting concept, the absolute case along a spectrum of social experiences. What we find as one approaches the We-relationship is that the relationship itself seems to exist as a shared or "intersubjective" object, experienced and known by all parties involved. We might use a more modern term to refer to this object, representing the feeling of the relationship, and call it a "vibe". My communicative acts thus are not meant to affect the other, but to affect the shared space that exists between or within both of us. In other words, communication isn't an attempt to manipulate others, it's an attempt to manipulate the vibe, so that we can get what we want.

This can get complicated. As an example, maybe I'm playing a competitive video game with my friends, and I want to win, but I also want them to feel good. So if I beat them, I might also complement their play, show good sportsmanship, to try and maintain good vibes. On the other hand, if we're good friends and I can trust they wont kick me out, I might want to increase the intensity of the situation, to amplify it, so I might insult their play instead. This too manipulates the vibe, making it more competitive. What I wouldn't do is cheat, because that would violate the authenticity rule--I would be manipulating the others' play by misrepresenting a desire to win--unless we were already in a situation where nobody is taking the rules seriously, which is a different kind of vibe.

While I wasn't able to speak to the original claim that "communication is manipulation", I think that my claim "communication is manipulation of vibe" is able to maintain a sense of communication as intentional, and as a "difference that makes a difference", i.e. a message within a cybernetic feedback system, without falling into traps of psychological interpretation. In a certain sense, I feel like I've said something that many already know, or at least already live out in practice. But hopefully the act of making it explicit can help us better express and clarify our intentions, improving the vibes in the long run.

  1. There is a third structure in Lacanian theory, "psychosis", which is the foreclosure on social rules, or put in Lacanian jargon, on the Other. This manifests as their complete absence. Not an "I know the rules and choose not to follow", but "there are no rules, for me". 

  2. We might ask, what would the situation look like if we were not private, but porous? If each person seemed immediately manifest to the other, with no sense of "inner self"? In this situation, we'd see "enchanted" activities: if I wanted to hurt a friend, I could jab an effigy of them. The rules would orient themselves around concrete behaviors, like idolatry, rather than around acts of communication. For an account of this shift in the conception of the self, see Charles Taylor's work on secularization. 

  3. I am not intending to imply that these are the only possible rules, just that these are two common social rules that we live out. Nor am I implying that my explanations are the only possible ones. Different spaces may have different norms, and they may be justified differently. There may also be other rules that work just as well, or better, for different societal values. 

  4. Phenomenology of the Social World, p. 103. 

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