Why Explicit Boundaries Don't Always Work
How implicit and explicit boundaries work together to cover the protection-space
This is a prototype schema to explain why some people are told they are violating boundaries, when they sincerely think they are not violating boundaries. I have found this to be a common enough occurrence, that causes enough distress, that it is a topic that needs elaboration.
This article also doubles as a prototype schema explaining why current leftist norms of boundary-protecting do not fully protect everything that is worth protecting.
Here I will define two kinds of boundaries, Assertive Boundaries and Implicit Boundaries, and explain why confusion about which system you are navigating can lead to all sorts of problems for both you and the people you interact with.
In short, Assertive Boundaries are boundaries that are made explicit by negotiating parties. Implicit Boundaries are boundaries that are not stated outright, but still exist. I will explain why both systems exist, who each system is good for, what problems may arise from mixing them up, and how not to repeat the mistakes that have led you to this article. Let’s untangle some concepts.
“Don’t eat my cookie.”
“You can squeeze me everywhere except on my belly.”
“Initiate protocol I-68.”
Assertive Boundaries are clear, specific, and are said with a reasonable expectation that they will be followed. Not following an assertive boundary is considered an acute violation by people following the Assertive Boundary system.
Assertive Boundaries can be found (not exclusively) among Nordic peoples, Germans, Northeastern Americans, Jews, and Leftist groups. They can also be found among exclusive or skills-based groups, where certain kinds of very specific communications need to be made to a group of people for maximal clarity.
There are certain good things about Assertive Boundaries. They are clear and can get very hyper-specific such that you can do advanced maneuvers with other people. Dangerous skills such as fire dancing, firefighting, military operations, and kink rely on assertive boundaries in order to function.
The Assertive boundary system is useful for adults who more or less know what they are doing. It protects people who know what they are doing from people who do not know what they are doing.
In this system, you can assume that a “yes” is an educated, informed, consensual, “yes,” that takes account of and takes responsibility for possible consequences.
Imagine technical or shorthand language that medics can use with nurses, teachers with other teachers, and generals with soldiers to quickly let each other know very detailed things that are going on.
(This kind of language is not used with children.)
Beyond an efficiency dimension, the social technology for assertive boundaries prioritizes the autonomy of the individual. Assertive boundaries are often found among leftist groups because they put effort into creating language for an individual to articulate various boundaries, indignities, and distresses put on them by other people.
Certain kinds of safety of the self are prioritized, including safety for the self to express itself, to be free from imposition that may constrain its expression, and to be free from coercion.
Community policing in Assertive Boundary groups has special characteristics.
Violations are often easy enough to detect and easy enough to prove “via receipts.” When a boundary violation occurs, common questions may include:
“Well what did you tell them?”
“Did [violator] know you didn’t want that?”
“That guy is a piece of shit. You said explicitly not to do that.”
When there aren’t receipts, however, proving a violation can be very difficult (thus the need for the existence of the implicit boundary schema, explained later in this article).
Another failure mode is when an individual’s preferences may also accidentally become rules for the entire community by accident.
If Alice says, “I don’t want X done to me” and then Sally does X to Alice, by the rules of the community, Sally is a bad person and will be sanctioned or dismissed by the community.
It gets more complicated if, for example, Alice says, “I don’t want generic X” and then Sally does X somewhere in the community. Depending on the precise norms and the precise X, the existing social technology still may still sanction Sally for doing X somewhere. This depends on the situation, but the social technology for this more extended sanction of community members who promote ideals or behaviors that another community member does not like does exist. This can lead to an abuse of power by more charismatic or more hierarchically powerful members, who misrepresent receipts or make rules specifically to target a person. The other members may not have at their disposal any intellectual tools, social tools, or social power to fight back if a person sufficiently powerful does this. With no counter-receipts or backing of a person high in the hierarchy, there is not much left to do. Even if there were receipts, the rules could easily change such that these are the “wrong receipts,” or something could just unexpectedly happen to them.
Thus, this system of justice can become authoritative without any additional checks.
Other abuses occur when members do not consider “what is asked of a person” when a boundary is stated. It is possible to assert a boundary, with a lot of social power behind enforcing it and social convention that it is good and correct to follow it, without anybody checking what needs to happen or be rearranged for that boundary to be enforced.
Sometimes, a boundary is so important that many things should be rearranged for that boundary to be met (for example, doing everything needed to quarantine a person with smallpox). But often, the boundary is not so important, but things get rearranged to meet it anyway because there is a culture of asserted boundaries being respected, as long as the boundary is asserted in the socially-approved ways.
This point is tricky so let me provide an example.
When a person makes a boundary statement, “I can’t have any pollen in this house,” they are stating a line they need to be respected. What this boundary statement, both by its limitations as a grammatical utterance, and as a concept in space-time (what sorts of objects the statement is dealing with in space time), does not include, is what is asked of a person in order to comply with this demand.
The compliance with this boundary looks very different to a generic person in a city, versus for example a honey farmer.
This may be a weird example, but let’s roll with it.
The boundary statement also doesn’t include anything about what affordances exist in order to comply with the boundary.
For a poor honey farmer, something like cleaning all his clothes to get them free from pollen may be an impossibility. For a rich city dweller, getting his clothes cleaned is easy, and he was never covered in pollen to begin with.
A “no pollen” policy that is perfectly reasonable to protect people in one private person’s home who are really affected by pollen, may start to seem unreasonable at an outdoor farmer’s convention.
Abuses may also take place when many members use the social technology to enforce their own desires (positive asks) versus boundaries (negative asks).
For example, somebody in a group saying, “It makes me uncomfortable that you’re the only one who hasn’t bought a t-shirt yet,” may look close enough to a boundary statement, whereas this is actually the expression of a desire for you to put positive effort into buying a t-shirt. This duplicity becomes a major problem when the asks are non-trivial demands on resources and energy, the justification for which is fear of offending a higher-up.
This also gets more confusing when the asks are marked as supposedly reasonable safety measures, or safety measures on behalf of another person. For example, “Shirley will feel really unsafe if anybody wears polyester to our group party,” makes anyone who wears polyester, or argues for their right to wear polyester, an implicit jerk! He would be the guy not taking Shirley’s safety seriously. It is easy not to look too closely at the implicit bargaining happening at the structure of the implicit statement, and how much ground is already being taken before the negotiation even starts. When these statements get layered, and when there are real fears combined with possible fears or preferences, it can get really confusing what power dynamics actually play out or get enforced.
There is another side to protecting the dignity of the self, apart from making sure to adhere to explicit assertive boundaries set by a different self, and thus respecting the other’s ability to self-govern and make choices in how he self-governs.
And that is, understanding a person’s constraints, understanding the demands placed on a person, understanding a person’s internal development, and understanding the resources a person may have to meet those demands.
This is where the category of Implicit Boundaries becomes important.
Implicit Boundaries are often unspoken and are not assumed to be respected except by trusted individuals. Not following an Implicit Boundary is often considered a reason for a person not to be included in implicit community, even if they may still be included in explicit community.
Implicit boundaries exist to protect people before rules become explicit and protect people who are weaker from people who are stronger. This may include protecting children from other children or adults, protecting very feminine women from very masculine men or masculine social structures, protecting the tired, the sick, the disabled, the foreign, and animals.
Implicit boundaries are useful for people who are not sure what they are doing, do not know what context they are in, or cannot vocalize what they are feeling or what is happening to them. It protects people who do not know what they are doing from people who say they know what they are doing, or think they know what they are doing.
Implicit Boundaries can be found (not exclusively) among American Southerners and middle easterners. They can also be found among small groups of close friends and family members.
In this system, you CANNOT assume that a “yes” is an educated, informed, consensual, “yes,” that takes account of and takes responsibility for possible consequences. You can assume that aftercare may be needed after the activity agreed-to, and that certain hand-holding may be necessary. The person may be saying “yes” because of certain pressures to say “yes,” or because they trust a responsible party to take responsibility for the situation.
Why not take all the implicit boundaries and make them explicit? Implicit boundaries capture what explicit boundaries functionally cannot. Explicit boundaries follow a system, and implicit boundaries create a way for people to navigate even there is no system, or when some community members cannot follow a protocol.
It is important to note that different cultures have different kinds of “nonsaying.” British culture leaves certain emotional textures unsaid, Armenian culture others, Southern culture others. Often you do not know how much emotion you leave inside, until you get a cue to be allowed to say it.
The use case for this can be tricky, so I will give an example.
Imagine a scenario where a woman buys condoms from behind the counter at a store, while many men are in line behind her. They gawk at her, look her up and down. She feels uncomfortable having her sexuality on display and is in a position where she doesn’t feel comfortable telling something to the shopkeeper or the men, as they are all men, there are many of them, and they are stronger than her.
In a situation like this where she cannot express her boundaries explicitly (unless there is known coded protection she can allude to), her safeguards would be known implicit norms and boundaries. A situation where if she speaks up to somebody (if not the immediate men, maybe somebody when she comes back home) she knows that her concern would be understood, is very different from a situation where she suspects that her concern would not be understood. A culture with the implicit norm that it is understood that women have reason to be afraid of men who are stronger than them gives a woman technology that a culture where a woman needs to prove that her fear of men is valid would not. In the latter culture she may have almost no receipts as she cannot prove the men did anything wrong *as per the code* and would not have receipts for her own internal discomfort that is credible.
Another example is between adults and children. Children often are curious and would not know when something is not for them, or when something is over their head. It is up for adults to understand a child’s limitations without the child saying their limitations that they do not know and cannot articulate. A culture that understands that children have limitations and try to account for this gives technology that cultures that do not, would not.
There are failure modes to implicit norms. Most notably, sometimes children and adults end up riding on implicit norms for a very long time, without ever giving the child tools to articulate their preferences or their feelings in a way that is outside of the implicit structure. The child could end up in a “tunnel” of thought and emotion that is based around the power structure he has with his parent. This can lead to various abuses that the child would take as normal and not have vocabulary to say feels wrong.
WHAT TO DO?
A question that can help manage boundary violations is, “What is asked of this person?” In an explicit-boundary culture, this question would force you to look at what the person needs to do to comply with an ask, what hidden weights he is carrying, or what information he would need to have in order to articulate a boundary.
In an implicit boundary situation, this question may have you look at if cultural guardians are marking certain pressures as normal, and if “going along on certain rides” is being implicitly mandated by the power structures.
Generally, when an explicit boundary is pointed out in an implicit boundary system, it comes off as way too aggressive and way too harsh.
Generally, when implicit boundaries are talked about in an explicit boundary system, it comes off as entirely incomprehensible (pointing to invisible or fragile things).
SPEAK MY LANGUAGE
In order to comply with a boundary, what is asked of the person?
Sometimes, what is asked of the person is to hold back their own tendencies towards force and violence. “My boundary is do not touch my breasts when I walk around this nude resort in Cancun.” What is asked of the people around Sally? What is asked is that they reign in their impulses to touch her!
Another boundary may look something like this. “My boundary is do not call me out for certain kinds of bad behavior in this group chat, or that will upset me.” What is asked of the people around Sally, then? What is asked of the people around Sally is to ignore certain kinds of bad behavior, or else not vocalize them. What Sally is asking for is implicit sanctioning of her behavior.
Do we see the difference, between the first and the second, of the kinds of demands put upon other people?
Let’s have another example. What about the boundary, “You have to communicate to me in my language, so that I understand you!”
On the surface, this seems like a really easy, straightforward boundary. But when you ask the question, “what is asked of the other person,” you see that what is asked is actually really hard. You are asking them to learn your language. And not just learn your language, but to learn it so fully that they are meeting you where you are in it. They cannot get by with learning a few phrases, or even taking a few semesters in your language. If that were the case, then the demand would be learn my language enough, so that I have some bearings on what you are trying to say, and meet you where you are. That would be a different ask entirely.
I see a lot of SJW stuff in the category of this level of ask. “Speak my language.”
On the surface, it is very difficult to push back against an ask like this. However, when you take inventory of what is actually asked of a person, it becomes clear that what is asked is not a trivial ask at all. What is asked is for the person to put away every mode of understanding the world they have developed over decades of their life so far, and use exclusively your frames. And if they do not do this, the consequences range from, simply not being talked to as a dialogue partner at the best, and at the worst, accused of a boundary infraction for either using the language wrong, or refusing to use the language.