The Rule Behind the Rule

One of the best concepts I’ve heard for understanding people is the rule behind the rule. It was summed up pretty well on a Reddit thread.

A great example of this was a story I heard from Brad Bird when he was working on Incredibles 1. Bob and elastagirl where fighting and the brain trust (I believe) came back with notes that it seems like Bob is bullying Elastagirl and the scene needed to be taken out or reworked. He tried to rework the scene, but he kept saying “No, this is what would happen, this is how they would react”. He then eventually realized that while their symptom was correct, this uncomfortable feeling of spousal abuse or bullying, their solution was wrong. Bob didn’t have to be “nicer” or not express his anger, it’s just that Elastagirl was like 1/4th his size and it seemed like a mismatch. He then added that elastagirl puffs up and stretches out “This is not About YOU!!” to a size bigger than Bob and the whole feeling of the scene was fixed without really changing anything but her animation.

In society, we have to be able to have civil discussions with people who we sincerely believe are advocating for policies that will kill millions and prevent much of the population from reaching their potential, because these are the stakes. I’ve made my peace with that, (as well as the possibility that I’m wrong, and standing in the way of policies that will save millions) and may incorrectly assume others thought things through to the same extent.

I personally avoid rhetorical flourishes, reliance on anecdotal evidence, and emotionalism because these would increase the chances of being misunderstood. For the same reason, I try to avoid making arguments personal. I might criticize a tendency or a political position, but I don’t go after the person, because the important thing is the argument. And on that note, I will stick to the specific point being argued. I’m a stickler for goal posts because when people with different sources of information are having a discussion, it’s better if they’ve got the same understanding of information. I can appreciate that we’re human and that we can fail to articulate legitimate points well, but on the other hand it’s not someone else’s job to figure out what we’re trying to communicate.

The idea of the rule behind the rule makes sense when trying to figure out other people. Shorthand is based on people having a shared understanding. I try to avoid it because I’m aware peoples’ frames of reference may be different. There are still going to be times when I make incorrect assumptions about people’s understandings. In that context, it’s important to figure out what they’re trying to communicate, and what they believe to be important.


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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