This is an idea I’ve been toying around with for about a year now. The more I explain it to other people and the more I reflect on it in everyday life, the more I’m convinced it is the best model for communication between two people or parties that I am aware of. Perhaps it has already been studied in economics or psychology somewhere, but I have not seen it anywhere and it is something that is empirically testable, which makes it even cooler.
A Market of Goods
In economics, a market is any place, real or imagined, that brings producers and consumers together to exchange goods or services. We have markets for things like meat, which is a good, and markets for things like accounting, which is a service.
In any given market, you can typically find a variety of goods or services that compete with one another or complement one another. Goods that complement each other in a market are labeled complementary goods. You can imagine goods like peanut butter and jelly that are typically bought together. When the demand for one of them, say peanut butter, goes up, the demand for the other, jelly, also goes up. The same is true for things like shoes and shoelaces. As people buy more shoes, they also buy more shoelaces.
Goods that compete with one another are called substitute goods. These are goods wherein the demand goes up because the price of a competitive good goes up. You can think of very similar goods like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Sure, you probably have your preference, but if the price of your favorite, say Coca Cola, goes up too much, you will substitute it with Pepsi. Hence they are called substitute goods. Other examples might be things like bacon and sausage or cake and pie. Of course, services can work as either complementary or substitute goods as well, they don’t have to be material items like I’ve been using for these examples.
The Communication Market
What the short introduction above allows us to do is imagine human communication as a market with producers and consumers. One person is producing communication and one person is consuming it, the speaker and listener respectively. Obviously, humans communicating aren’t producing material goods, but rather language.
Once you understand that communication between two people is a market, it is easier to see the types of “goods” possible in the market. We can choose to speak or not. If we choose to speak, we can speak honestly or lie. That leaves us with three alternative “goods” to choose from and they happen to work just like the substitute goods described above.
Everyone will have their preference for communication, just like everyone has their preference for Coca Cola or Pepsi. Some people might prefer to speak honestly as their favorite form of communication. Some might prefer to lie, say a pathological liar, who lies for no reason. And some might prefer not to speak at all unless necessary, perhaps someone who is both extremely shy and introverted.
The exciting part of this communication framework or model is the recognition that substituting one of these communication goods for another happens for the same reason that someone switches to Pepsi whose first choice is Coca Cola, the price on their preference becomes too high.
Taxing and Subsidizing Communication
Everything above gets us to this point. If we want someone to speak honestly who isn’t or tends not to, we need to subsidize that mode of communication or tax the other two forms of communication. This simply means encouraging speaking honestly and making it costly to the individual to lie or not speak.
If we pay attention to communication, we see this all the time. Our society generally sets up communication so that lying is extremely costly to most people in serious matters. Examples like plagiarizing in school, committing perjury in court, or defrauding customers or the IRS all have serious consequences. These situations also tend to make not speaking very expensive as well, which leaves most people in the situation of speaking honestly because it is dramatically cheaper than the other two alternatives.
However, even more interesting than the situations in which we tax communication in order to ensure a higher rate of honest speaking are the situations in which we give lip service to wanting honesty, but turn around and tax it when it is produced. This is the exact opposite tactic we would expect if people were genuine about their desire (demand) to consume honesty as their preferred good in the communication market. We see this most often between close friends and family and promoted in most cultural norms of social connection.
Examples of this second situation are friends that tell us we can share anything with them, but get extremely angry when we disclose some character trait, feeling, or action they disapprove of, perhaps something like not liking one of their other friends or smoking cigarettes. Naturally, these types of feelings and action may not be great in themselves or some of our best qualities, that’s why we might tend to lie about them, but we also can’t be expected to speak honestly about them if we are taxed by the listener with judgement, rejection, or contempt.
Deciding What Matters
It’s been my experience since viewing communication in this format that most people don’t actually want honesty between close friends and family. If they truly did, they would do everything they could to subsidize that form of communication by showing gratitude and acceptance whenever someone is honest with them. Instead, they lavish heavy taxes in actuality and then become even more self-righteous when they find out someone is lying to them. We can’t have it both ways.
If we truly, deeply want honest communication, we have to be prepared to hear whatever honest communication gets produced. We have to be willing to listen openly. We can’t punish, take revenge, or act vindictively. We have to attempt to build stronger relationships and work together through constant dialogue.
It’s fine not to like what someone says, that in itself does not count as a tax. Plenty of rational adults can disagree on what is best. Two adults can even agree that the feeling or action being shared in speech is not the best part of what makes the speaker a person. But that absolutely is no reason to treat them as "less than" or make them feel small. Instead, it is an opportunity to look at the person can grow and develop in their process of becoming a more fully actualized, fulfilled, and congruent human.
So this is what it comes down to, speaking honestly, lying, or not speaking at all is not just a product of the speaker’s character. It’s also a result of the interaction with the listener. A listener needs to decide what matters most to them in any relationship they have with another person and do their best to convey that as authentically as possible. The more demand you show for honesty as a listener, the more honest communication the speaker will produce.