Martin E. P. Seligman surprised a lot of people when he predicted the standings in the next year’s baseball season from a content analysis of comments made by the management and the players about the season just finished. Like me, Seligman studies attributions, and he thought that the way a team explained whatever success they had had in the current season would be a useful indicator about how well they would be likely to do in the next season.
When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so outlandish. And Seligman’s predictions were better than those of a lot of sportscasters who know more about baseball than he does.
Ever since grad school, my ears have pricked up when I hear someone say why something happened.
- Was it chance? OK, did this “by chance” event happen to all of the relevant people or just some of them?
- Was it a failure of cooperation with someone else? That’s interesting. Why was the cooperation not forthcoming?
- Was it a lack of clarity? Hmmm. In whose interest was it that the matter was clearly understood by both (all) parties?
- Was it a failure of motivation? A failure of persistence? Was it sabotaged by someone out of ill intent? Did it fail because of someone’s incompetence?
And best of all:
- is it, by any chance, a PLOT by THEM? Those are the most fun of all.
They don’t have any respect for us
Really? And how would that be displayed? I once had a friend who was dating an Austrian professor. On a visit to the professor’s homes near Vienna, my friend was perpetually irked that her boyfriend’s mother kept addressing her in “baby German.”  This was understood as a protest against her son’s marrying a non-German speaking woman. The “lack of respect” is flagrant and intentional and is intended to carry some more substantive message—which in this case, it did.
I was part of a discussion recently in which it was alleged that “they” had no respect for “us.” This is, as you might guess, a very satisfying point to make because the “us” are all here and all part of the conversation and “they” are elsewhere and might never find out what we think. Or care.
Now nothing in this essay is going to raise the question of whether” they” do or don’t respect us. I am concerned entirely with the effects of one kind of assignment of responsibility or another and the first thing I notice about this one is that it is external. It would be entirely possible for this group to say that they are not worthy of respect and that is why they aren’t getting any. It isn’t very likely, of course, but that would be an internal attribution (it’s “us”) rather than an external one (it’s them).
The second thing that came to mind when I heard this about “respect” is that the responsibility is placed at the level of a consistent trait. “They do not…” would be at the level of character if “they” were a person instead of an organization. The attribution, if it were folded out more fully, would say, “It is quite characteristic of them to have—and to display—this lack of respect for us.” No one would say such a clunky sentence out loud but seeing it all makes the meaning entirely clear.
Again, if we were talking about an uncharacteristic behavior, we could say something like, “I’m really puzzled. Ordinarily they show great respect for us but in this last instance, they did not. What do you suppose was different about this last time that could account for that?”  This is not that. We are saying here that they characteristically do not show us respect and that was evident in this last instance as well.
The third question that came to my mind right away is: “How elastic is this category?” The notion of categories that change size and shape is not at all unfamiliar, but they are not often called “elastic,” and I think that is the perfect word for it. Let’s start with inelastic—rigid—categories and work our way up. If I take a minimum wage job and get paid the minimum wage, there is no puzzle about the cause (I’m a cheap hire) or the category. I get $11.25 an hour.
If I ask whether I am getting paid what I am worth, I ask a different kind of question. There are very specific measurements of how much I produce and if the question of “what I am worth” means whether I am to be paid in line with my merits as an employee, everything is still clear. I could even compare my wages with those of others who have my kind of job.
But what if I am paid differently than other people who produce at the level I do, but who differ from me in race or age or religion or relationship to the boss? We are dealing now with “respect” in a much more elastic way. How many different kinds of things could fit into that pay disparity? Could a category like that expand and expand until almost anything would fit into it? Yes it could and it does.
Where I live
So here are a few residents in a senior center who are unhappy. There is a current occasion for the expression of their unhappiness, but the current occasion is not the reason for their unhappiness, just a chance to express it. What kind of formulation of their unhappiness will loosen the borders of the category so that nearly everything “fits” into it? Conversely, what kind of formulation will keep each reason for unhappiness separate and therefore easier to act on?
I have argued already that the “don’t get no respect” explanation has some predictable effects. It is socially affirmative, because is separates those present from those absent and places the problem over there (with them, not over here with us). It is set at the level of characteristic action—the level that we would call “character” in a person. Because these actions occur from time to time, this formulation rounds them up and treats them as a disposition—this is something that might happen at any time. And, in dealing with “respect” where there is no context for earning respect, it provides a formulation that is remarkably elastic. It can be stretched so wide that any kind of grievance—any kind at all—will be seen to fit it. Parking is expensive or hard to find? See, that shows their lack of respect. A building project used professional contractors rather than relying on the expertise of residents? See, that too shows lack of respect? A failure in communication with the head of the organization? What reason could there be for that, apart from lack of respect?
When the concept is put at the right place and when the boundaries are so elastic that they can expand to accommodate nearly any kind of grievance, then you have an issue that won’t go away. At that size, it can’t be adequately addressed either, of course, so, like Bill Cosby’s barbecued sparrow in his skit, “Fernet Branca,” it “just lays there and makes gas.”
Needless to say, it is not an obviously good idea to formulate a problem that is so large that it attracts anyone with a grievance and that, on the other hand, is so large that it can’t be dealt with even when everyone wants to. The step that is most often missing in making problems like this one is the sense that it is you who are “making” the problem.
Other Kinds of Problems Beckon
If there is a condition that needs to be formulated as a problem, you have a lot of options about how to go about doing that. Alternative formulations are no more true or false than wearing the brown suit or the blue suit to a meeting is true or false. Formulating a situation as a problem needs to be useful.  “True” is much to broad a standard for it.
Internal: There is no reason, for instance, that the problem described above could not have been formulated as an internal problem.  “They” don’t respect us (although they should) is an external problem. There is no reason, absent some context, that the difficulty represented in this picture should be formulated as the bridge being too low or the water being too high. Which way to define it depends entirely on what tools you have at your disposal.
Characteristic: There is no reason, either, that some recent faux pas could not have been represented as a stand alone event, rather than linked to all the others so that it is only an “instance” of the same trait and not a separate events.
Elastic: There is also no reason why the grievance could not have been defined in a less elastic (more stable) way, so that it does not expand to accommodate any and all grievances from any and all contributors. You can expand the concept by giving the same name—in this instance “lack of respect”—to every event you object to or have ever objected to.
So there is nothing at all inevitable about the “we don’t get no respect” coding of these events. The question is really whether such a coding is useful. I suspect it is not.
 This is nothing like “simple German,” that you would use on someone just learning German. This is something more like “Oooh. Does Greta wike the wittle red ball?” This was especially irksome because my friend’s name was not Greta and the potential mother-in-law knew it.
 NFL broadcasters note the extraordinary reliability of a receiver along with a recent lapse, with the phrase, “the normally sure-handed…..” “Normally” means that he wasn’t this time.
 Of course, a formulation is not going to be useful if it ignores or misnames crucially important parts of the situation. Even so, for every perspective on the situation, just what facts are crucially important changes. That is why perspectives are so important.
 It could be internal to the group, or internal to some persons within the group.