My friend Miri (quoted with permission) wrote this on Facebook a while back:
Midwesterners are intolerably passive aggressive. My family is sitting among some grass in the dunes because it's the only shady place and a park ranger drives by and says, "That grass you're sitting in--we try to protect that." I say the only thing that makes sense to say in response, which is, "Thanks for letting me know! We'll be careful with it." And I go back to my reading.
Then I look up and she's still there. I look at her for a few moments and she says, "You need to get out of there." I'm like, ok. Why can't you just say that the first time? Not everyone grew up in your damn convoluted culture. Say what you fucking mean.
In the comments, someone replied:
One of the best parts of NYC is that no one dances around what they mean to say here. On the contrary, once I heard a guy on the subway say, to confused-looking strangers, "Do you need some fucking help or what?”
This particular incident seems like obnoxious behavior on the part of the park ranger, but it got me curious about why this sort of norm seems to win out over more explicit communication in many places.
I think it's relevant that following local guess-culture and other implicit communication norms requires some active cognitive effort to infer people's preferences/boundaries. Our ability to detect shirkers and malicious actors is imperfect, and telling someone in every observed case exactly how their behavior seems wrong is just telling them how to slip in between the gaps in your ability to detect problems. For this reason, in high-trust situations, we want people to display some sort of active effort to infer what our preferences are, in order to accommodate them. People who don't do this thus appear not just slightly more costly to interact with, but rude and offensive - so it's easier to coordinate to exclude them.
Expending effort to infer others' preferences, needs, and boundaries, and how your actions affect these, is a classic "costly signal" since it's something a friendly person would want to do anyway, and something an unfriendly person would not want to do without norms that force it.
This would explain why explicit, overt communication is more prevalent in melting pot style situations where people from a lot of different subcultures are mixing in one-off interactions. New York City is a great example of this, as the commenter pointed out.
An important cost here is that making a scene harder for outsiders to exploit maliciously also makes it harder for harmless strangers to interface with, and imposes some cognitive overhead on all participants. Probably for people sufficiently acculturated (and not neurodivergent in certain ways) the training creates a passive process where they don't even see how they could do otherwise, which is fairly low-effort as long as they don't have to code-switch or do anything unusual.
This would also explain why explicit communication norms seem to coincide with liberal values like individual tolerance - people can harmlessly do unusual things only in environments where those don't send a lot of other unrelated and undesired signals.
Some evidence against this explanatory model is the extent to which places like New York seem to behave surprisingly like high-trust environments despite the lack of superficial social conformity. People seem happy to give directions, return lost wallets, etc. I don't know if there are smaller-town interactions that I don't know I'm missing because I'm used to more New York-like norms.
Explicit communication about preferences can be very valuable for bridging cultural gaps, or simply misaligned expectations, and often what we need is simply to tell each other what's wrong. But if someone crosses boundary after boundary with no apparent attempts to generalize, it doesn't matter whether they're malicious, or simply very much unlike you. If the other person isn't able to do some of the work towards being decent towards you by your standards, you can't explicitly tell them how. Not mustn't - can't. There's no litmus test for "try to infer my preferences, rather than directly optimizing on the metrics I can observe directly," unless you set up bullshit tests: