I hadn’t put much thought towards the concept of blame until reading the fantastic ‘Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense’ by Suzette H Elgin.
It’s a simple read, primarily focused on defending yourself against verbal attacks. Arguments between teachers and students, car mechanics and doctors are used to show how status and different communication styles can affect outcomes.
One of the things I found really interesting was the authors use of ‘Satir modes’, a set of behavioral archetypes developed by the therapist Virginia Satir.
The types include familiar characters like the ‘placater’ and the ‘computer’ but one that stood out to me most was the ‘blamer’, a style everyone will recognize. It’s the most obvious ways to argue, and one of the dumbest too.
The author explains, “the Blamer feels that nobody cares about him or her, that there is no respect for affection for him and that people are indifferent to his needs and feelings. The Blamer reacts to this with a verbal behavior pattern intended to demonstrate that he or she is in charge, is the boss, is the one with the power”.
A few tells that you’re dealing with a blamer.
“Nobody around here ever pays any attention to me.”
“Why don’t you ever think about what I might want?”
“You never consider my feelings.”
You can quite easily role play these modes against each other. A blamer will steam roll over the placater, making them feel worthless. A blamer against a computer, who takes a neutral or more sophisticated poistion will struggle to win. Blamer vs blamer is also an obvious disaster.
“When two Blamers talk to each other (two people who believe they have been wronged, they are more important etc) the conversation is a rapid road to a screaming match, nasty in every way.”“
Although the examples have dated a bit, and it’s clearly framed around housewives in the 70′s who are treated like shit by their husbands, the book had many practical lessons. The biggest one is that Blaming is ego fueled nonsense, and best to avoid at all costs.
In most cases, if you have to go head to head against a “blamer”, your best bet is usually to remove your ego as much as possible and to counter with Boring facts and high ground stuff. Make it about them, don’t take the bait.
Here’s an example from an episode of Veep of blaming going wrong.
For background, Senator Doyle tells Selina (Vice President) to dump universal childcare and play it safe by putting the AARP onstage during her speech. When she refuses, he threatens to pull his support.
Doyle: I just got off the phone with the congressional leadership and they’re stuck in traffic, so we may not make it to the steps.
Selina: Are you threatening me? No.
Doyle: Traffic is really bad, so the car might be stuck there forever.
Selina: So I’m supposed to let a bunch of dead-eyed white guys shit all over absolutely everything that I stand for. I’m not going to let the party dictate to me!
Doyle: Huh? Okay.
Doyle’s opener is loaded with presuppositions. On the surface, it might sound like a helpful bit of information that he’s sharing. But that’s bullshit. He’s really saying. I’m in control of this situation. The people that you need listen to me, and will do what I say. The stress is on the word ‘may’, which means, this doesn’t need to happen, if you follow my requests.
The VP does not take the bait, ignores the phony traffic thing, and responds correctly to Doyle’s subtext. But she does so in a highly aggressive ‘blaming’ attack. Classic blamer feeling slighted.
Here is where it gets interesting. You can see everything in Doyle’s opener is neutral and reasonable (on paper). So he sticks in neutral mode. ‘Forever’, is him having a bit of fun with the situatuon, and is another jab at the VP.
The VP totally flips out, rages against Doyle, blaming and screaming. Again, she’s correctly identified the situation, she’s knows there’s nothing she can do, she knows she’s digging a hole and sounding crazy while Doyle stands by bemused, yet she does it anyway.
Doyle easily wins the encounter, and walks away shaking his head.
The VP’s staff look on with pitying expressions at the powerless VP who just got knocked about by a crusty old Senator.
“Don’t speak ill of others. It’s human nature to knock the other party down when they aren’t watching as a natural survival instinct. I always admire the people I meet in life who never feel they have to speak ill of others to make themselves look good.” - John Maeda (1999)
“If someone is slipping up, kindly correct them and point out what they missed. But if you can’t, blame yourself—or no one.” - Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 10.4)
The first rule of his infamous guide to win friends and influence people is…
“Don’t Criticize, Condemn or Complain.”
Note the alliteration here to help memorability. Dude was a pro.
Robin is a FBI agent turned author. He’s a goofball, and his books are cringey, but his core message about ‘ego suspension’ to gain trust and lower shields, is a useful example of what happens when you bite your tongue in highly charged situations.
Here’s a story of a deescalating a road rage confrontation.
“My initial inclination was to demonstrate to the truck driver that he was overreacting and he was wrong. Making a vulgar gesture, flashing a badge, yelling…All of these actions are nothing more than egos battling for supremacy.”
“The truck driver pointed his finger at me as he exclaimed, “It’s idiots like you who cause accidents!” I continued to keep my ego suspended as I received the verbal abuse. My response was simple and contrite. “I know, I said I’m sorry.” The truck driver looked positively exhausted. He was clearly anticipating a confrontation and what he got was someone who was agreeing with him.“
Suspending your ego, and generally being less reactive, is one way to avoid taking the bait and rolling in the mud.
Aristotle dealt quite the challenge to humanity when he issued his moral philosophy about the ‘perfect man,’ saying he does not “concern himself that others should be blamed.”
From his list of 25 principles of adult behavior.
2. “Assign responsibility. Never blame.”
I could keep going. But the lesson here isn’t that blaming should be avoided, that’s obvious. It’s more learning to observe yourself, and training yourself to respond in smarter ways.
It’s hard. Our brains are wired to react emotionally. You can blame the amygdala for that. To restrain yourself and quickly reorient, especially in charged situatiuons, will take a bit of work.
For me, learning to blame less has been hard, but rewarding. Like the practice of mediation, every time you bring yourself back to the breath is one rep. And it takes a lot of reps.
So, every time you feel like you should stomp on someone, and put them in their place, prove someone wrong or simple point an accusatory finger — Don’t. Keep your mouth shut.
That’s one rep.