Saving Face and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

I mentioned recently in my other blog that I had a teacher who said some (to my mind) nasty things to me, and after two years, I wrote to him and told him how much his words had hurt me, and he wrote back and said, “I’m sorry, but that’s not what I meant!” In my continued offense at what to me felt like a response that had completely missed the point of the first message, my inner linguist and my inner game theorist decided to play cards. I’ve been wanting to blog about linguistics and game theory for a while now, so, regardless of this teacher’s infractions against my feelings, I guess I have to thank him for granting me this opportunity.

Let’s handle some of the more complicated stuff first. When I tell people about game theory, they often ask something like “what kind of games, board games? video games?” Well, no. Game theory has nothing to do with games, at least, not in the traditional sense. At it’s simplest, I’d say game theory is the study of choices, and that’s all a game is, a choice.

The simplest of games are interactions between two people, and they are usually drawn out in a grid, like so (sorry, I have no idea how to display such a table on here without using a drawing app):


The game matrix (as it is called) represents Colin’s decisions with columns and Rose’s decisions with rows. The boxes represent the four possible outcomes based on their decisions, and assigns each player a point value based on this outcome. To make things less arbitrary, let’s attach a simple scenario to this game. Colin and Rose are driving opposite directions on a street. Each has the choice to drive on the left side or the right side. If both pick the same side, they crash. If they pick opposite sides, they get where they’re going. Note: game theory is not about beating your opponent. It’s about achieving the highest possible score for yourself.

That being said, there is another game, known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Here’s an example:


In this scenario, Colin and Rose have committed a crime and are taken in for questioning. Neither has admitted to it, but the evidence is against them (likely because they did it). If neither of them admits to doing it, they will both end up in prison for five years. But the police take them to separate rooms and make them each the same offer: if you tell on the other person, and they don’t say anything, you go free and they’re in prison for ten years. But there’s a catch. If both people tell, both of them end up in prison for ten years. As you can see the best option is for both people to keep quiet. But because both of them have the option of bettering their position, this outcome is unstable. Of course, if both players try to better their outcome, both end up all the worse for it, but this is the stable outcome because it is the result of both players trying to achieve the best outcome for themselves. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s stable because if this game is played several times, the players will almost inevitably move into this outcome, and never move out of it. So, the prisoner’s dilemma is really just the name for the situation in game theory when the most stable outcome is the worst situation for everyone. Hold that thought.

Modern politeness theory is dominated by the work of Brown and Levinson, who introduced the idea of “face.” Actually, they didn’t so much introduce it as make it a technical term, as I’m pretty sure the concept of “saving face” has been around longer. (Then again, maybe it’s just broader and they are the reason it started getting used.) I won’t go into all the theory. The basics are that if we say something that makes us look bad, we try to say something else to make us look less bad. This is likely why the “I’m sorry, but…” apology seems so common. To make a bald-on apology, a plain “I’m sorry” would be for us to admit we are wrong. Thus we add the “but” as a means of providing an excuse or explanation regarding the original infraction to show we are not entirely at fault. In the case of my teacher’s words, this could be interpreted as “it’s not entirely my fault because I had no intention of hurting your feelings,” or it could be interpreted as “it’s not really my fault because you just didn’t understand what I meant (aka, it’s actually your fault).” This ambiguity in apologies may actually be behind what I am about to say next.

I have a feeling that using the “I’m sorry, but…” style of apology in some situations (probably not all of them, though I couldn’t tell you how to differentiate) is akin to the prisoner’s dilemma. Take the example of my teacher, who says “I’m sorry, but that’s not what I meant.” He has initially saved face by using the “I’m sorry, but…” strategy. But to me, his interlocutor, his words sound like he is ignoring what I am saying (and potentially saying, “it’s your own fault because I didn’t say that.”) Thus, instead of patching up the argument, as an apology is meant to do, it makes it bigger. It also opens the door for me to say lots of insensitive things that make him look like a jerk. For instance, I could tell him that the original things he said were nasty and no teacher has a right to tell a student such nasty things. I could also tell him that since I told him his comments negatively affected me for two years, what he meant really doesn’t matter anymore. And because he’s a writing teacher, I could tell him that he better go back to school and study language again because he clearly has no idea how to say what he means. These comments, while saving me face, are likely to further instigate my teacher and what began as a calm and rational request for understanding quickly dissolves into a greater altercation than the original and destroys what little remains of our relationship. Neither of us really wants that. But if both of us keep trying to save face, that’s what we will end up with.

Furthermore, if someone else hears about this whole situation (like, you, my faithful readers, or perhaps another teacher whom I trust to bring my grievances to), he loses face not only between the two of us, but in front of anyone else who hears about it. By using his “I’m sorry, but…” strategy, and allowing me to say all these things, I can turn the argument around so that a witness of it will see him as an egotistical jerk who doesn’t care about his students and has no right being a teacher (though I will admit POV and narrator reliability also influence the interpretation of the witness). In fact, if there was a witness, I would be inclined to mention that because of him, I stopped studying the subject he teaches. (I would love to hear what one of his co-workers would have to say about that.) Whereas, if he says simply, “I’m sorry, I should have spoken to you more politely” or “I’m sorry. That is not what I meant, but clearly my words offended you and I should have been more careful with them,” he has appeased me and mended our relationship, and if not, I’ll have a lot of difficulty making him look like the villain. With a bald on apology, he loses face initially, but opens the door for me to say little more than, “I accept your apology and I forgive you. Know that I still have respect for you as a teacher,” which, in turn, helps him save face. If I spit and sneer and continue to say how mean he was and how badly he hurt me, then I do nothing but cause myself to lose face by antagonizing the poor man who has done the only thing he can do given the passage of time, that is, offer a complete acknowledgment of my feelings and accompanying apology.


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