Time to Speak, Time to Leave

One of my all time favorite books, written by an economist in 1970 (Albert Hirschman), is Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The focus is on how we deal with dissatisfaction with anything–a relationship, a community, a seller, a political party.  Economists, he argues, focus on exit as the strategy–just leave, find a better relationship, restaurant, neighborhood, political party, community.  There are two problems with just leaving.  One is that there are costs to you–costs of relocating, of finding new communities or relationships or restaurants.  The other is the baffled person, firm, or community you left behind, who or which doesn’t know what went wrong and can try to improve.

Enter voice, the preferred response of political scientists.  Complain. Explain.  Try to repair the relationship or reconnect with the community. Engage in dialogue.  Even compromise if necessary.Give the person or community or firm a chance to improve and keep your relationship.

How do we decide? Do we use the threat of exit to make our voice heard?  What if we have no place to go? A friend of mine, a Lutheran, found that exit was pretty easy when things went wrong at her Lutheran church in a large metropolitan area. There were good substitutes.  She was loyal to Lutheranism but not necessarily to one particular incarnation, so she just changed her membership to another congregation.  I, on the other hand, am a member of a small faith tradition, and it’s 40 miles in either direction to another congregation. So my costs of exit are higher, and I am more likely to use voice and leave only as a last resort.

Hirschman calls this attachment to a particular relationship, community, restaurant, or bank loyalty, and it is loyalty (including the costs of leaving) that makes us choose between exit and voice as our default strategy. Monopoly firms have high costs for exit by customers because there is no alternative available.  Gangs impose very high costs on those who attempt to exit.  Some religious communities have used a variety of strategies to discourage exit, such as burning at the stake for heresy in earlier times to the practice of shunning among the Amish.

Our default choice will vary from one situation to another, depending on loyalty of some kind. Default just means the one we try first. Voice is fair in that it gives the other party a chance to respond, change, or decline to engage, anfter which exit may become more attractive. Voce can be expressed in many ways.  Complaining is only one.  Some people are quick to complain, others hesitate to speak up. .  Voice can mean getting involved and trying to make change from within.  Voice may mean engaging a third party, a mutual friend, a marriage counselor, the Better Business Bureau, or reviews on Yelp! Voice in the political area may mean becoming informed, writing letters to the editor, engaging others, voting.

Hirschman was mainly focused on exit, voice and loyalty as an economic question of why firms fail before they have a chance to regroup and improve.  But it’s an important question in our personal lives as well.  Sometimes we look for a middle, more passive strategy that is less risky than either exit or voice, especially in personal relationships with individuals and voluntary communities.  We can to pull back, tone it down, shift some of our attention to other people and other communities without making a complete break. In a sense, a partial withdrawal is a blend of exit and voice.  But it’s not often a very effective strategy, because you are waiting for your coolness to be noticed rather than being more pro-active in trying to strengthen or restore the relationship.

I invite you to share your experiences with using exit, or voice, or pulling back as ways of dealing with frustration in relationships and in communities.




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