What Is “Personal”?


  1. People often say “It’s not personal, it’s just business”, or “This is personal.”
  2. We have laws to discourage discrimination based on gender, race, age, religion, etc., but they only apply at work, school, clubs, etc. and not to “personal” relations such as friends or lovers.
  3. Law let’s us sue firms or schools that lie to us, to discourage such lies, but not only can’t we sue our friends or lovers for their lies, law prohibits blackmail, which would otherwise discourage such lies.

What are other key differences in how we treat “impersonal” from “personal” arenas?  What is the essential difference that explains these differing treatments?

My tentative theory: our ancestors had different social norms for “personal” within-tribe versus “impersonal” between-tribe behavior.  When you interacted with someone from another tribe, you had to be more careful to be neutral and inoffensive, since your whole tribe might suffer if you offended someone.

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  • angstrom

    I think the essential difference that explains these differing treatments is a simple matter of practicality. How could any law regarding choices of friends or lovers be implemented?

    • Jess Riedel

      Do you really think that these laws don’t exist simply because they would be difficult to enforce? On the contrary, I think most people would be repulsed by the idea of the government legislating their friends and lovers.

      • Bosses are probably repulsed by legislation dictating who they can hire and fire – but they are in a minority and are outvoted.

  • Psychohistorian

    Personal and not-personal seem to cleave along financial lines. Where money is of primary concern, it’s not personal. Where money is not a significant objective, it is personal.

    As to why we don’t have laws regarding discrimination in friendship, it’s a combination of a preference for limited government (enforcing non-discrimination against lovers could lead to government-coerced rape, for example) and the complete impracticality and staggering expense needed to enforce such laws.

    • magfrump

      Marriage is primarily a financial arrangement; people don’t see it that way but that divergence is kind of the point.

      Lawyers can come into conflict with one another and have personal conflicts in the context of high-stakes business transactions.

      Plus I would guess that there’s a lot of transparency between monetary value and social value, whether or not people admit it.

      • Psychohistorian

        “Marriage is primarily a financial arrangement.”

        Marriage was primarily a financial arrangement in past centuries. It is not currently seen as being primarily a financial arrangement. Yes, finances definitely play an important role. Yes, marriage does grant a large number of financial privileges and obligations. But when you ask people who they want to marry, you will generally not hear, “Whatever person I would make the most money by marrying.” When you ask people the reason they get married, they do not say, “To make more money.” Your statement is simply wrong.

        I don’t really see how attorney conflicts of interest are relevant. Your example is too brief and vague for me to rebut.

      • Carinthium

        Marriage isn’t just a financial arrangement- it’s also an agreement to have and raise children.

  • wesley

    Maybe the different treatments developed in response to growing interaction between strangers, in business and elsewhere. You don’t need laws to create or encourage trust among friends, at least the sort of trust that would encourage contracts and other socially beneficial transactions, but you might need those laws to create or encourage trust among strangers.

    • Mike

      I like this if only because I think people underestimate the value of trust to economic development.

  • When something is “just business”, you expect the actors to be motivated by selfish maximizing external value (e.g. money). When something is “personal”, then schadenfreude becomes a significant factor, and you can expect decisions that lower the actor’s own material success, for the benefit of lowering the opponent’s success even more. (Presumably, the boost in happiness from having “won” on a relative basis increases utility sufficiently to compensate for the loss of material value.)

    Most decision-theoretic games are thought of as positive-sum or zero-sum, but “personal” interactions can be negative-sum. (A space, perhaps, not fully explored by decision theory?)

    • magfrump

      I like this explanation; the game sums presumably correspond to different mental states, and the announcement of how personal something is might help prime the other participant into making decisions that are advantageous (for example, by sacrificing more of their value to hurt you in a personal setting, or making a deal with you after you’ve hurt them in a business setting) or at least predictable.

      • adam

        Yeah it seems like “it’s personal” means the person will go through a potentially costly defense of their personal status, rather than just seeking a profitable defense.

  • jonathan

    You must know the research that discusses how confusing the two settings changes the social interactions, notably introducing money into a social relation.

    I’m not a big fan of evolutionary explanations but it doesn’t make a lot of scientific sense to take this to a tribe level – unless you imagine this is a pure social construct of humans. You could easily take this to an evolutionary level and find lots of examples, such as grooming behaviors in various colonies of animals.

    I think the cultural taboo – of respect for personal choices in personal relations – responds to these basic issues because there is much value in maintaining a private circle, value that can’t be retained if one treats all the world at-arms-length. I mentioned grooming, but it applies to safety in bedding down at night, in sharing watch while foraging, in cooperative hunting, etc. If you can’t put your head down to focus on the search for food because you treat your compatriots as potential threats, then you can’t eat and that is evolutionarily not a good thing.

  • Looking at the scale of modern human xenophobia, between-tribe behavior may well have been more like that seen in chimps – and that is not known for its politeness.

  • Eric Johnson

    Robin, I recently finished Chagnon’s Yanomamo ethnology – my first ethnology. You might enjoy it. For one thing, he was with a Yanomamo party who traveled to another village to open the path to an alliance. The two villages had been bitter enemies with mutual raiding for ~20 years, but changing patterns of politics and war made it advantageous for them to come together. The diplomatic process was very complex and cagey, and the sojourning diplomatic party faced a significant risk of being massacred.

    Anyway, despite his cordial feelings for his Yanomamo friends and his appreciation of the situation’s gravity, Chagnon almost cracked up when they started gingerly conversing about aspects of their past conflict in totally fallacious ways, exaggerating and lying their way to a new consensus truth about how neither village could really be blamed for their conflict, especially considering how perfidy by other (hostile) villages contributed to the whole thing.

    Hey anyone, what ethnology should I read next?

  • Eric Johnson

    I think “it’s just business” seeks to assuage maladaptive status anxieties. In a private deal, you might be pointing out that the transaction has no effect on the other person’s status in a semi-anonymous society because no one will know about it; you are just trying to drive a hard bargain and if the person was smart they would lay aside misplaced status concerns and just be homo economicus. Their genome may think they are in a highly “nonymous” society where they are going to lose face and look somewhat subordinate if they compromise with you.

    That is, if people actually say this in business. I have no experience there. I primarily think of this phrase as something people say in gangster movies when they’re about to waste somebody.

    Of course, our society is not totally anonymous, and driving a weak bargain may in fact hurt one’s status sometimes – it’s just not as common or salient as one’s archaic instincts probably think.

  • Mike

    I would say one difference is that institutions have significantly more power in society than individuals, and people want that power to be used in accordance with social values.

    However I think the personal/impersonal gut instinct plays a major role. Consider for instance a racist multi-billionaire. If he gives his many billions to his son, who is white like him, no one cares. If he gives a million to each of his many friends and acquaintances, who are all white because he is racist, then some people will be disgusted. If every time he goes out he gives a thousand dollars to everyone he meets, so long as they are not black, I think there would be even greater outrage.

    What’s happening is his interactions are becoming increasingly impersonal. Also, there is a sense in which he is expanding his power, as his actions seemingly directly influence a larger number of people.

    • Psychohistorian

      Don’t think the personal/impersonal mechanism really applies in that example. It’s a question of how explicitly he employs his racism. Anyone might give their fortune to their children. It’s also quite reasonable to give it out to ones friend’s and family. But to give it out to every random white person you meet is unusual, and explicitly employs a racist mechanism. Applying an explicit race filter, or an arbitrary but race-based filter, seems to be the problem more than any personal/impersonal distinction.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    My tentative theory: our ancestors had different social norms for “personal” within-tribe versus “impersonal” between-tribe behavior. When you interacted with someone from another tribe, you had to be more careful to be neutral and inoffensive, since your whole tribe might suffer if you offended someone.

    If that were the explanation, you’d expect more of a continuous thread throughout human history. Instead, many traditional societies did (and do) enforce laws or norms on what we think of as “personal” behaviour.

    I feel the distinction is a much more modern development, linked with the rise of personal autonomy ideas. If we’re looking for an evolutionary trait that got co-opted into this cultural development, I think the most likely candidate is leadership. Leaders have a distinct seperation between their business role (I do this for all of you) and their personal role (I do this for myself). The led will pressure leaders to act in their best interest; leaders demand the right to look for themselves somewhat. A leader’s life torn between these tendencies will naturally develop “business” and “personal” spheres of action.

  • Doug Rogers

    “If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.”

    ~F.A. Hayek

    The Fatal Conceit