Avoiding the "Yes, But" Vortex

For attention-span challenged readers: today's post is a relatively long 900 words, and it goes beyond food into psychology, conversation scripts and victimhood. Just a friendly warning.
There are plenty of people out there who have a real knack for whining and complaining--about food prices, about how much time it takes to cook, about big food and so on.

Of course, long time readers know exactly how Casual Kitchen feels about whining and complaining: It isn't allowed. Instead, I ask my readers to seek out solutions and take action.

However, there's a special, nearly irresistible "complaint script" that I'm seeing crop up lately in other food blogs and in interactions among commenters here and elsewhere. I want CK readers to be able to recognize this complaint script--and more importantly, not get sucked into it.

This script was first identified by the psychiatrist Eric Berne in his popular and controversial book Games People Play. Here's a standard example, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Why Don't You/Yes But:

White: I wish I could lose some weight.
Black: Why don't you join a gym?
W: Yes, but I can't afford the payments for a gym.
B: Why don't you speed walk around your block after you get home from work?
W: Yes, but I don't dare walk alone in my neighborhood after dark.
B: Why don't you take the stairs at work instead of the elevator?
W: Yes, but after my knee surgery, it hurts too much to walk that many flights of stairs.
B: Why don't you change your diet?
W: Yes, but my stomach is sensitive and I can tolerate only certain foods.

And so on. This conversation script goes on and on until Black gives up in frustration and White triumphs, having proven that his problem cannot be solved.

Why am I talking about this? What role could this bizarre conversation script have in a cooking blog?

Because this script, in all of its negative, soul-sucking glory, shows up surprisingly often in some of the conversations we have right here at Casual Kitchen. Let's look at another imaginary example, one that I suspect might sound rather familiar to long-time Casual Kitchen readers:

White: [in a whining and defeatist voice] Healthy food is too expensive.
Black: You could try eating more lentils, or potatoes. They're extremely healthy foods and practically free.
W: Yes, but nobody wants to eat lentils.
Nobody wants to live like that.
B: Well, what about potatoes? They are really healthy!
W: Yes, but potatoes are boring.
B: Well, there are lots of different recipes containing potatoes. Look--here's a recipe for scalloped potatoes!
W: Forget it, there's no way I'm going to turn on the oven in my apartment in the summer.
B: Well, wait--this recipe is for scalloped potatoes on a stovetop... it only takes like 20 minutes!
W: [Pauses, thinks] Yes, but do you really think I'm going to slice all those potatoes? I'll go crazy!

Sigh... and so on.

In this case, White subverts a truth (that healthy and inexpensive foods might actually exist) by offering up "yes, but" statements on irrelevant aspects of the argument (potatoes are boring). This allows White to reject Black's entire suite of ideas, regardless of how useful, logical or compelling they are. This is ankle-biting in its worst form.

You could perhaps argue that the conversation above is an unrealistic caricature of a real conversation, but the truth is, it's not. You'd be shocked (then again, maybe you wouldn't) at how often people will go around and around and around, on progressively thinner and thinner rhetorical ice, in order to repeatedly shoot down even the most creative ideas and thoughts.

My point in sharing the conversation snippet above is simply to show how White's closed mindset, negative tone and endless yes-butting sucks the life out of both participants.... and solves nothing.

Some psychology-speak for a brief moment: Obviously, the yes, but conversation above isn't really about the cost of healthy food. That's a trap, a misdirection play. Black thinks the conversation is about healthy food, but it isn't. The conversation is really about the validation of White's feelings and ego.

Sadly, the worst irony of the standard yes-but conversation is how White remains blithely unaware that he's fiercely defending his ego at the cost of rejecting a whole range of potentially useful ideas and solutions, most of which would likely make him happier, healthier and more personally effective. You'd think at some point White would recognize that he's firing off an unending supply of excuses and rationalizations and step out of this ridiculous feedback loop. Unfortunately, his ego is too invested in being a victim of an insoluble problem.

Does this sound at all familiar? How many people would rather sit around and claim, for example, that the food industry is too powerful for the average consumer to do anything about it? That hyperpalatable foods are too irresistible? That healthy food is too hard to find at a reasonable price? That food companies are evil, or worse, are specifically plotting to make us all fat? How many us can see ourselves in the two sample conversation scripts above, wanting to lose weight or wanting to eat healthier, yet we fail to take action--and worst of all, fight off every idea or suggestion that comes our way?

Why am I writing about this? For one reason: even though the readers of Casual Kitchen are full of exceptional suggestions for even the most distraught and downtrodden readers, the bottom line is, no matter how creative, helpful and insightful your ideas are, you are simply doomed if you get caught up in this script.

Defeatism comes in many forms. Don't let yourself get sucked into this vortex.

Readers, please share your thoughts!

Update 8/11/10: There's a lot more to say about the so-called yes-but script, and I've since written two follow-up posts to this article. They address a special type of the yes-but script, one I believe that prevents more people from embracing healthy and affordable food solutions than any other single cause:

1) The Worst Yes-But of All
Yes-Butting and You: Answers and Final Thoughts

Related Posts:
Why Spices Are a Complete Rip-Off and What You Can Do About It
Scarred For Life By a Food Industry Job
The Pros and Cons of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Laws
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food

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Joanne said...

So many of my friends have said very similar "yes, but" comments to me when they complained about how expensive it is to eat out and I tried to convince them that they should cook on their own. I hate making excuses...people should take charge of their own health, bodies and lives. And in reality, sure you can have the hyperpalatable foods sometimes but lentils and potatoes can actually be quite delicious. I just really feel that it's silly to complain about something when you're not willing to take any action to try to ameliorate it.

Diane said...

I've actually had (internet) people tell me I was lying when I said I could eat healthily and very well for very little money. Ummm...OK - so you can't do it, but because you can't I must not be able to? OK...

Frankly the "yes, but" argument doesn't bother me that much unless I am feeling ornery. Most of the time I offer my viewpoint - and then if you decide it's not for you, that's your problem. It affects me not at all.

kittiesx3 said...

Oh I hear this so often when people admire me for working out: "I'd love to work out like you do but . . ."

To which I ask "Do you brush your teeth every day? Do you take a shower every day? Because it's the same sort of thing."

Marcia said...

I had a "yes but" conversation with someone yesterday who was waxing poetic about how great Walmart is for groceries and how he's going to start driving 35 miles south in order to shop there (we've got 15 grocery stores, Costco, Whole Foods, Farms, 6x a week Farmer's markets, etc. in town). Because..."I'm on a budget and Walmart is affordable, and all you people who say Walmart is evil - do you think the food is any better at the grocery store?"

My comment, of course, went along the lines of "well, you see, it's their METHODS of getting their suppliers to drive down their own costs that is the problem. The suppliers have to trim their own profits to the bone, which means people get laid off, lose their health benefits, etc. So, you get cheap food (even though you are on a budget, you are an engineer making a good salary), but the people who WORK there and provide the food eventually can't afford to eat, or afford health care. It's a never ending cycle."

"Yes, but...I have a right to cheap food!" :)

I get a lot of other "yes, buts" on how hard it is to cook, etc. I mean, yesterday I got up at 5:45 am, had breakfast, snuggled with my boy, worked from 7:15 to 4:40, picked up my boy, went to track practice at 5:30 with my son (my husband picked him up there, went home and cooked dinner that I had made the night before, and I wrote him a list of what to prepare), came home at 7, ate a quick dinner, did dishes, packed lunches, read my son a story, did my physical therapy.

What I'm getting at is, if you make it a priority to cook and clean up after the cooking, you can find time to do it.

Diane said...

Frankly, if someone wants to drive 70 miles RT (over an hour at least), and spend at least $10 in gas on going to Walmart - I say let 'em. It's foolish in terms of time and money, but it's his life. Chances are he's not tracking net costs, or even his budget closely enough to see this isn't much of a savings and may even be costing him money.

Me, I only drive over an hour to go to my local South Indian grocery, and that only if I have an engagement within 10 miles of the place, and then only a few times a year.

Owlhaven said...

Yep, being willing to at least TRY new things will HUGELY improve anyone's chances of success at saving money. For sure.

Thanks for this.

Mary, mom to many

Daniel said...

Joanne, agreed. However, many many people are caught in fear-based, near-constant search for validation, and it causes them to fight for their excuses surprisingly fiercely. It's one of the areas of psychology that interests me quite a bit lately.

Diane: When somebody can't conceive of a mental state or solution that doesn't exist outside their own head, that's garden-variety narcissism. And there's no shortage of that in teh internets these days. But you're onto something: don't indulge the script. Offer your advice, and when there's repeated yes-butting just get out of the way.

Kittiesx3: Curious, what is the typical response you get from your response? Have you found it to be effective?

Marcia and Diane#2: The topic of Wal-Mart is obviously beyond the scope of this post, but I've been party to plenty of yes-but type conversations centering around the retailer. And Marcia, next week we'll go further into aspects of the yes-but script that you're touching on in your comment. Stay tuned.

Mary at Owlhaven: Couldn't agree more. That's what I talk about here when I encourage people to adopt a solution-based mindset when sorting out food and cooking challenges. If you're going to assume no solution works, uh, you won't be disappointed.

Thank you for the comments so far!


Erica said...

One of the most important things I was ever taught was that instead of saying, "I can't, because x," you can always ask, "How do you suggest I do that, in light of x?" A lot of people have legitimate obstacles to overcome in order to eat certain ways, exercise, or otherwise do things that they think they want to or should - and focussing on the "overcoming" part rather than the "obstacle" part gets you out of the death spiral pretty fast. :)


If a person is a 'yes, but' individual by nature, I've learned not to waste too much time trying to steer them in a direction that takes them out of their comfort zone (even if you see they're seeking a direction that you know will end up hurting them).

There are people who are 'yes, but' on some topics/subjects/issues, but they're not grounded in the constant day-in/day-out 'yes, but' way of thinking.

When it comes to food, it's so easy to put up an example of how to cook with good food; what it costs - compare it to lesser healthy (and more costly) food, but it's the people who simply DO NOT WANT TO CHANGE their habits, they are going to give you that 'yes, but' excuse.

Actually when it comes to suggesting anything to a person who isn't sincerely interested in learning something new/learning a new way/learning and growing in wisdom so they can become more self-sufficient, is a waste of your precious time. Some people just want to complain; some just want to appear to be 'victimized' by problems and life, so learn to tell the difference when offering your time and advice.

The nice thing about I-net advice, is you can put it up once and those of us who appreciate it, WILL COME AND APPRECIATE AND PRACTICE IT. In that, comes your reward, and you don't have to do it over and over (unless you want to).

JS said...

Sometimes "yes, but" means "I'm politely declining your advice because it was unsolicited or I frankly don't see it as a problem to solve." Or, sometimes it's contrary to goals.

I see the problem with the example conversations as too much persistence. If you get a "yes, but" from someone, stop talking. Let them prompt you for help. If they won't, they were politely declining assistance. Not quite the same as making excuses. Some people are quite happy being "pleasantly plump," myself not included.

I get the "how to lose weight thing" from folks who persist when I'm trying to pack on muscle and add bulk (contrary to my genetic disposition)! Fitness isn't the same to everybody. "Yes, but I'm trying to add mass" is a much different "yes, but."

kittiesx3 said...

Daniel, when I bring up normal routines most of us do as a matter of daily living the nay-sayer usually agrees that yes, those activities are habit and get done regardless. Some people will acknowledge that the lack of commitment to exercise (or any other habit) comes down to a personal choice.

If someone tells me he or she just doesn't do it and has no interest in doing it, whatever it may be, I think that person is making a valid choice. That's really the goal of the conversation to me--to help folks realize we all make choices like that. My choices will be different--I choose to do or not do things the rest of you might find strange and that's OK by me :-)

Daniel said...

Erica: great, great idea. What you're doing is approaching the subject with an interest in obtaining a solution. And, coincidentally, that's a great way to initiate an interesting conversation. Thanks for sharing.

Happy in Nevada: I hear you, in particular with your thoughts on advice on the internet. The best advice usually finds a home on the screens of the people seeking it out. It's one of the reasons I'm so grateful for the collective conversations we have here at Casual Kitchen.

Kittiesx3: Thanks for the interesting response, and yes, that gets to the heart of the matter. To choose not to do something and claim that the choice was foisted on you is still a choice--as much as many people would prefer not to admit this.


Cynthia said...

I have gotten the "yes, but" argument over salad. Yes, salad. The only "hard" part was cooking the salmon in the microwave.
I'm constantly amazed, angered and confused by people's attitude toward cooking. I have a girlfriend who is constantly on the diet of the month. Just last night she told me how great is was to "know" exactly what she was eating. The problem is, she doesn't do any of the cooking. That's her husband's job and he really doesn't like to. I think most people have been brainwashed into thinking that cooking is hard (see all the cooking shows) and is totally beyond them.
I've learned just to roll with the punches because trying to change closed minds just raises my blood pressure. I'd rather concentrate on the people who want to learn how to cook and eat better than the ones who won't.
Thanks for always posting a thoughtful blog. And the shrimp dish was great!!

Brittany said...

This was a well-written, but depressing post, because so many people around me are "Yes,but" people and it drives me crazy. Just do it or get over it!

Daniel said...

Cynthia and Brittany, thanks to both of you for your comments.

My purpose in writing this post was twofold. I wanted to help readers recognize the conversation pattern and warn them away from it. But I also hoped that there might be a reader or two out there who would recognize themselves taking White's role in the yes-but vortex, and this post might offer them the context to react differently in future situations.

What I don't want is readers to become depressed by this post! Instead, focus on the solutions that several readers have already offered for redirecting this script. And if you have friends, family members or colleagues who can't help themselves out of the yes-but vortex, you can always point them to this post. Of course, maybe they'll get it, maybe they won't.

Finally, stay tuned: next week I plan to run two posts that will explore this concept still further.