How To Have A Good Conversation

“1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.

2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour.  Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.

3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.

4. Be worthy of a good conversation…

…I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.”

—Tyler Cowan, “How to have a good conversation.” Marginal Revolution. September 23, 2018.

One theory, if you cut down on conversations you don’t want, you’ll have more you do want. Another theory, you’ll just have fewer conversations, but the overall quality of your conversations will go up.

So, win/win?

Misunderstanding as Mismatch

“…you can choose the people whose opinions you care about (and on what subjects), and you can choose the timescale you care about them on. Most people figure out the former [1] but the latter doesn’t seem to get much attention…

…You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness.”

-Sam Altman, “The Strength of Being Misunderstood.” SamAltman.com. December 1, 2020.

It’s a tautology. If you understand something that the person you are conversing with doesn’t, you’re going to be misunderstood. Conversely, if someone you are talking with understands something you don’t, you won’t understand them either.

On one level, it’s a question of truth. The assumption that Sam Altman makes above suggests that, over time, truth will out. But, does it? I’d argue that we rarely have opportunities to check our understanding. Either we ignore facts that conflict with our worldview, or we tend to slowly change our views with new information and forget that we used to believe the opposite before we got it. Do we care enough about our own opinions to validate them? And for most of us, the answer is that we don’t want to rigorously validate our opinions. We simply would rather just believe we are right. This, at least, is the general tendency.

So, do we care about what our past or future selves might think? Are we willing to lay out our model, stake out probabilities and evaluate how we did?

Or, more generally, is this something that we can do in community, where people join together to come to a consensus, and reevaluate our beliefs as a group in light of evidence as it presents itself. In the group setting, the general tendency becomes exponential. Groups don’t want to evaluate how effective they are because bad groups will shed members and become extinct. Individual members will then be cut adrift, looking for another group, a task that is harder as we grow older, because group dynamics and cohesion solidify in ways that exclude new members and new thoughts, both of which are disruptive.

The question isn’t whether to care what people think, the question is whether it is worth trying to create consensus or come to a shared understanding or whether it is even possible. The reality is that most conversation isn’t driven by truth, it’s driven by groups trying to assimilate members into an existing belief system.

If we cannot even understand ourselves and deal in good faith with past and future versions, how then can we deal in good faith with the mass of humanity? Conversations are based in this tug-of-war, and the value, for individuals, is exposure to new ideas and different ways of doing things. This is also true of groups, but the strategy requires forming cliques and sub-groups to change the larger belief system. All the while, it is nothing but misunderstanding and the potential for conflict.

It’s easy to not care what people think when you don’t think you can do anything to change it. Further, if those people can make your life miserable, keep your thoughts to yourself. Being Jesus and trying to save everyone, whether from their ideas or their circumstances, is very often an exercise in futility and disappointment. Undertake it when you are willing to accept that outcome and have the energy to spare.

The Rule of Awkward Silence

“[T]he rule of awkward silence is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer. This is no short pause; rather, it involves taking several seconds (10, 20, or longer) to think things through before responding.

If you’re on the receiving end–and not used to this type of communication style–it can seem very awkward.”

—Justin Bariso, “Intelligent Minds Like Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos Embrace the Rule of Awkward Silence. You Should Too.” Inc. September 9, 2020.

What’s Wrong With Twitter: #TooFarLeft

“The hashtag ‘TooFarLeft’ trended on Twitter on Saturday morning, in part because of comments made Friday by former President Obama…Obama spoke at a fundraising meeting Friday evening and warned donors of the danger of the 2020 Democratic primary field moving too far to the left.”

-Marty Johnson, “‘Too Far Left’ hashtag trends on Twitter.” TheHill.com. November 16, 2019.

I don’t use Twitter. But, I read this piece and thought it might be a useful corrective. The Overton Window for political discourse in the United States runs from the moderate conservatism of your run-of-the-mill educated liberal elite to the extremist ideologies of the radical right. If this is your starting point, then it’s not terribly difficult to be “too far left” of the bounds of this framework.

But, scanning through the #toofarleft hashtag, I almost immediately had misgivings. We need to redefine the boundaries of our political conversation, if for no other reason to diversify the universe of views, foster creative solutions to problems and make the conversation more interesting. It is clear to me that this is not what is happening on Twitter.

We need more people speaking with perspectives from the Left because that is what is missing. But, identity isn’t a perspective. Identity informs a perspective.

We cannot share our lived experience. It is impossible to convey what it’s like to be a combat veteran, mother, addict or any of the other infinite aspects of our selves that inform our understanding of the world. Yet, the arguments frequently offered these days take the form of: “As an X…” You’ve immediately reduced your experience to that one thing and you’ve alienated your audience by referencing an experience they don’t share.

Or, if they do share it, chances are they already share your perspective. You’re preaching to the choir and alienated everyone else. And this is true everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you a devote Catholic against abortion talking about souls, a scientist advocating for artificial intelligence, or protesting in the Extinction Rebellion, you have to start not with yourself but with the perspective of The Other; we all do.

This is one of the central problems with social media. It erases the audience, or rather, you become your own audience, with the rest of the world listening in on your interior dialogue. Why would we want to do that to ourselves or to the world?

Bringing a Knife to a Fruit Fight

Apple: A good knife wants to cut you.
Orange: Huh?
Apple. A good knife wants to cut you.
Orange. Why would a good wife...
Apple. A good *knife* wants to cut you.
Orange. Cutlery doesn't cut you.
Apple. A sharp knife will slice the off-hand.
Orange. Spoons are safer than knives. Use a spoon.
Apple. Two-edged blades, split both ways.
Orange. Yet, an ax still chops, either way.
Apple. A ax does not cleave the cutlass or slash the sabre.
Orange. To perforate, try words, looks, needles and hooks.
Apple. A sandal beats steel with no handle.
Orange. Loose cannons, don't step on knives.
Apple. Stir with a knife, stir up strife.
Orange. Dipping for honey, licking the shiv.
Apple. Taste of onion, blame the blade.
Orange. Are you trying to say something?
Apple. I am saying something.
Orange. Are you? Or, are you being dull?

OpenBSD’s Guide to Netiquette

The OpenBSD’s mailing list page netiquette section is excellent. It is a distillation of how to communicate online, i.e.:

  • Plain text, 72 characters per line [or simplest formatting available]
  • Do your homework before writing
  • Include a useful subject line [or headline]
  • Trim your signature
  • Stay on topic
  • Include important information
  • Respect differences in opinion and philosophy

Using only plain text is extreme outside of email. But, the idea that formatting should not get in the way of content is good. Know what you are talking about. Help others to understand. Give them all the relevant information. Trim out anything that does not move the discussion forward or is confusing. Treat everyone with respect.

It’s good advice for any kind of communication and for life. It’s relevant to writing an email, a newsletter, a blog post, an article or anything else you may do.

The Danger of Small Talk

“The Finnish don’t believe in talking bullshit.”

—Laura Studarus. “How the Finnish Survive Without Small Talk.” BBC.com. October 17, 2018.

Small talk is a social lubricant. It creates openings, fills in gaps in conversation, and eases partings. In environments with complex social networks that extend past our Dunbar numbers, social anxiety is a natural byproduct of the environment. Small talk eases this anxiety.

Gossip also has these features. It can be useful in communicating social standing in a group. It’s how reputations are made. But, it is can also be damaging if it becomes the focus of interaction, where what others think and will say about us within a group polices group behavior, leading to inauthentic lives.

Small talk has a similar problem. Sure, it can signal social connection and paper over awkward moments. But, it can also become a crutch that we rely on so much that we do it instead of making any kind of meaningful connection with others, which can easily heighten our feelings of social anxiety and disconnection.