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How to always have interesting conversations

45 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 14 June 2010 12:35AM

One of the things that makes Michael Vassar an interesting person to be around is that he has an opinion about everything. If you locked him up in an empty room with grey walls, it would probably take the man about thirty seconds before he'd start analyzing the historical influence of the Enlightenment on the tradition of locking people up in empty rooms with grey walls.

Likewise, in the recent LW meetup, I noticed that I was naturally drawn to the people who most easily ended up talking about interesting things. I spent a while just listening to HughRistik's theories on the differences between men and women, for instance. There were a few occasions when I engaged in some small talk with new people, but not all of them took very long, as I failed to lead the conversation into territory where one of us would have plenty of opinions.

I have two major deficiencies in trying to mimic this behavior. One, I'm by nature more of a listener than speaker. I usually prefer to let other people talk so that I can just soak up the information being offered. Second, my native way of thought is closer to text than speech. At best, I can generate thoughts as fast as I can type. But in speech, I often have difficulty formulating my thoughts into coherent sentences fast enough and frequently hesitate.

Both of these problems are solvable by having a sufficiently well built-up storage of cached thoughts that I don't need to generate everything in real time. On the occasions when a conversations happens to drift into a topic I'm sufficiently familiar with, I'm often able to overcome the limitations and contribute meaningfully to the discussion. This implies two things. First, that I need to generate cached thoughts in more subjects than I currently have. Seconds, that I need an ability to more reliably steer conversation into subjects that I actually do have cached thoughts about.

Below is a preliminary "conversational map" I generated as an exercise. The top three subjects - the weather, the other person's background (job and education), people's hobbies - are classical small talk subjects. Below them are a bunch of subjects that I feel like I can spend at least a while talking about, and possible paths leading from one subject to another. My goal in generating the map is to create a huge web of interesting subjects, so that I can use the small talk openings to bootstrap the conversation into basically anything I happen to be interested in.

This map is still pretty small, but it can be expanded to an arbitrary degree. (This is also one of the times when I wish my netbook had a bigger screen.) I thought that I didn't have very many things that I could easily talk with people about, but once I started explicitly brainstorming for them, I realized that there were a lot of those.

My intention is to spend a while generating conversational charts like this and then spend some time fleshing out the actual transitions between subjects. The benefit from this process should be two-fold. Practice in creating transitions between subjects will make it easier to generate such transitions in real time conversations. And if I can't actually come up with anything in real time, I can fall back to the cache of transitions and subjects that I've built up.

Naturally, the process needs to be guided by what the other person shows an interest in. If they show no interest in some subject I mention, it's time to move the topic to another cluster. Many of the subjects in this chart are also pretty inflammable: there are environments where pretty much everything in the politics cluster should probably be kept off-limits, for instance. Exercise your common sense when building and using your own conversational charts.

(Thanks to Justin Shovelain for mentioning that Michael Vassar seems to have a big huge conversational web that all his discussions take place in. That notion was one of the original sources for this idea.)

Comments (331)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 June 2010 01:32:37AM 20 points [-]

I have a lot of trouble finding the motivation to talk with people in real time. I keep wishing that they would write down their ideas as a blog post or such, so I can read it and think about it at my leisure, with Internet access handy to check out any factual claims, etc., and figure out whether what they're saying makes any sense.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 June 2010 02:53:01AM 9 points [-]

As far as I can tell, most people, while engaging in real-time conversations, do not feel this discomfort of having insufficient time and resources to verify the other participant's claims (or for that matter, to make sure that one's own speech is not erroneous). Is it because they are too credulous, and haven't developed an instinctive skepticism of every new idea that they hear? Or do they just not take the other person's words seriously (i.e., "in one ear, out the other")?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 15 June 2010 11:42:11AM 19 points [-]

If you aren't afraid of making mistakes you can learn and grow MUCH faster than if you are.

If you aren't afraid of noticing when you have made mistakes you can learn and grow MUCH MUCH faster than if you are.

The main thing though is that once you have learned an average amount the more you learn the less typical your thought patterns will be. If you bother to learn a lot your thought patterns will be VERY atypical. Once this happens, it becomes wildly unlikely that anyone talking with you for more than a minute without feedback will still be saying anything useful. Only conversation provides rapid enough feedback to make most of what the other person says relevant. (think how irrelevant most of the info in a typical pop-science book is because you can't indicate to the author every ten seconds that you understand and that they can move on to the next point)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 15 June 2010 12:52:55PM 5 points [-]

If you aren't afraid of making mistakes you can learn and grow MUCH faster than if you are.

If you aren't afraid of noticing when you have made mistakes you can learn and grow MUCH MUCH faster than if you are.

I'm afraid of making mistakes, but I'm not afraid of "noticing" my mistakes. Actually I'm mainly afraid of making mistakes and not noticing them. I think this psychological drive is in part responsible for whatever productivity I have in philosophy (or for that matter, in crypto/programming). Unless I can get some assurance that's not the case, I wouldn't want to trade it for increased speed of learning and growth.

Even aside from that, what is the point of learning faster, if you end up learning a lot of facts and ideas that aren't true?

Only conversation provides rapid enough feedback to make most of what the other person says relevant. (think how irrelevant most of the info in a typical pop-science book is because you can't indicate to the author every ten seconds that you understand and that they can move on to the next point)

I've gotten quite good at skimming books and blogs. This seems like a relatively easy skill to pick up.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 15 June 2010 05:16:23PM *  9 points [-]

"Even aside from that, what is the point of learning faster, if you end up learning a lot of facts and ideas that aren't true?". Your Bayes Score goes up on net ;-)

I agree that fearing making and not noticing mistakes is much better than not minding mistakes you don't notice, but you should be able to notice mistakes later when other people disagree with you or when you can't get your model of the world to reach a certain level of coherence. This is much faster than actively checking every belief. If a belief is wrong and you have good automatic processes that propagate it and that draw attention to incoherence from belief nodes being pushed back and forth from the propogation of the implications of some of your beliefs pushing in conflicting directions, you don't even need people to criticize you, and especially to criticize you well, though both still help. I also think that simply wanting true beliefs without fearing untrue ones can produce the desired effect. A lot of people try to accomplish a lot of things with negative emotions that could be accomplished better with positive emotions. Positive emotions really do produce a greater risk of wireheading and only wanting to believe your beliefs are correct, in the absence of proper controls, but they don't cost nearly as much mental energy per unit of effort. Increased emotional self-awareness reduces the wireheading risk, as you are more likely to notice the emotional impact of suppressed awareness of errors. Classic meditation techniques, yoga, varied life experience and physical exercise boost emotional self-awareness and have positive synergies. I can discuss this more, but once again, unfortunately mostly only in person, but I can take long pauses in the conversation if reminded.

Comment author: khafra 15 June 2010 05:39:01PM *  5 points [-]

Perhaps the difference here is one of risk sensitivity--similarly to the way a gambler going strictly for long term gains over the largest number of iterations will use the Kelly Criterion, Michael Vassar optimizes for becoming the least wrong when scores are tallied up at the end of the game. Wei Dai would prefer to minimize the volatility of his wrongness instead, taking smaller but steadier gains in correctness.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 15 June 2010 06:20:05PM *  1 point [-]

you should be able to notice mistakes later when other people disagree with you or when you can't get your model of the world to reach a certain level of coherence. This is much faster than actively checking every belief.

I doubt that's the case if you take into account the difficulty of changing one's mind after noticing other people disagreeing, and the difficulty of seeing inconsistencies in one's own beliefs after they've settled in for a while. Obviously we can strive to be better at both, but even the best would-be rationalists among us are still quite bad at these skills, when measured on an absolute scale.

Similarly, I suggest that in most cases, it's better to be underconfident than to be overconfident, because of the risk that if you believe something too much, you might get stuck with that belief and fail to update if contrary evidence comes along.

In general, I'm much more concerned about not getting stuck with a false belief than maximizing my Bayes score in the short run. It just seems like learning new knowledge is not that hard, but I see a lot of otherwise intelligent people apparently stuck with false beliefs.

ETA: To return to my original point, why not write your conversation ideas down as blog posts? Then I don't have to check them myself: I can just skim the comments to see if others found any errors. It seems like you can also reach a much bigger audience with the same effort that way.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 16 June 2010 09:48:02AM 5 points [-]

I don't think, at a first approximation, that written communication much less careful than Eliezer's sequences can successfully communicate the content of surprising ideas to very many people at all.

I see lots of intelligent people who are not apparently stuck with false beliefs. Normatively, I don't even see myself as having 'beliefs' but rather integrated probabilistic models. One doesn't occasionally have to change those because you were wrong. Rather, the laws of inference requires that you change them in response to every piece of information you encounter whether the new info is surprising or unsurprising. This crude normative model doesn't reflect an option for a human mind, given how a human mind works, but neither, I suspect, does the sort of implicit model it is being contrasted with, at least if that model is cashed out in detail at its current level of development.

Comment author: drethelin 28 August 2012 07:58:42AM *  2 points [-]

just chiming in two years after the fact to remark that this is EXACTLY why I hate reading most pop science books.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 14 June 2010 03:37:11AM *  15 points [-]

You seem to have an oddly narrow view of human communication. Have you considered the following facts?

  • In many sorts of cooperative efforts, live conversation (possibly aided by manual writing and drawing) enables rapid exchange of ideas that will converge onto the correct conclusion more quickly than written communication. Think e.g. solving a math problem together with someone.

  • In many cases, human conversations have the goal of resolving some sort of conflict, in the broad Schellingian sense of the term. Face-to-face communication, with all the clues it provides to people's inner thoughts and intentions, can greatly facilitate the process of finding and agreeing upon a solution acceptable to all parties.

  • A good bullshit detector heuristic is usually more than enough to identify claims that can't be taken at face value, and even when red flags are raised, often it's enough to ask your interlocutor to provide support for them and see if the answer is satisfactory. You'll rarely be in a situation where your interlocutors are so hostile and deceptive that they would be lying to your face about the evidence they claim to have seen. (Even in internet discussions, it's not often that I have to consult references to verify other people's claims. Most of my googling consists of searching for references to support my own claims that I expect others could find suspicious or unclear, so I could link to the supporting material preemptively.)

  • Various signaling elements of live communication are highly entertaining, especially when coupled with eating, drinking, and other fun activities that go pleasantly with a conversation. This aspect is impossible to reproduce in writing. Of course, this can be distracting when topics are discussed that require a great level of concentration and logical rigor, though even then the fun elements can make it easier to pull off the hard mental effort. But when it comes to less mentally demanding topics, it's clearly a great plus.

  • Finally, when the conversation isn't about solving some predetermined problem, the environment around you can provide interesting topics for discussion, which is clearly impossible if you're just sitting and staring at the monitor.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 June 2010 04:30:15AM *  1 point [-]

Yes, I agree there are some situations where live conversation is helpful, such as the first two bullet points in your list. I was mainly talking about conversations like the ones described in Kaj's post, where the participants are just "making conversation" and do not have any specific goals in mind.

A good bullshit detector heuristic is usually more than enough to identify claims that can't be taken at face value

I typically find myself wanting to verify every single fact or idea that I hadn't heard of before, and say either "hold on, I need to think about that for a few minutes" or "let me check that on Google/Wikipedia". In actual conversation I'd suppress this because I suspect the other person will quickly find it extremely annoying. I just think to myself "I'll try to remember what he's saying and check it out later", but of course I don't have such a good memory.

You'll rarely be in a situation where your interlocutors are so hostile and deceptive that they would be lying to your face about the evidence they claim to have seen.

It's not that I think people are deceptive but I don't trust their memory and/or judgment. Asking for evidence isn't that helpful because (1) they may have misremembered or misheard from someone else and (2) there may be a lot more evidence in the other direction that they're not aware of and never thought of looking up.

Various signaling elements of live communication are highly entertaining

I think we covered that in an earlier discussion. :)

the environment around you can provide interesting topics for discussion

But why do people find random elements in the environment interesting?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 14 June 2010 09:23:14AM *  6 points [-]

I was mainly talking about conversations like the ones described in Kaj's post, where the participants are just "making conversation" and do not have any specific goals in mind.

Always have a goal. "Just making conversation" doesn't count. That's a high-level description of the activity that leaves out the goal, not a description of something that actually has no goal. Your goal might be "learn from this person", "let this person learn from me", "get to know this person", "get an introduction to this person's friends", "get into bed with this person", or many other things, or even at the meta-level, "find out if this is an interesting person to know". Unless your efforts are about something, the whole activity will seem pointless, because it is.

I typically find myself wanting to verify every single fact or idea that I hadn't heard of before, and say either "hold on, I need to think about that for a few minutes" or "let me check that on Google/Wikipedia".

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who had the same urge?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 14 June 2010 06:46:57AM *  6 points [-]

Wei_Dai:

I typically find myself wanting to verify every single fact or idea that I hadn't heard of before, and say either "hold on, I need to think about that for a few minutes" or "let me check that on Google/Wikipedia".

But this seems to me, at the very least, irrationally inefficient. You have a finite amount of time, and it can surely be put to use much more efficiently than verifying every single new fact and idea. (Also, why stop there? Even after you've checked the first few references that come up on Google, there is always some non-zero chance that more time invested in research could unearth relevant contrary evidence. So clearly there's a time-saving trade-off involved.)

It's not that I think people are deceptive but I don't trust their memory and/or judgment. Asking for evidence isn't that helpful because (1) they may have misremembered or misheard from someone else and (2) there may be a lot more evidence in the other direction that they're not aware of and never thought of looking up.

Sometimes, yes. But often it's not the case. There are good heuristics to determine if someone really knows what he's talking about. If they give a positive result, what you've been told in a live conversation is only marginally less reliable than what a reasonable time spent googling will tell you. This is an immensely useful and efficient way of saving time.

Also, many claims are very hard to verify by googling. For example, if someone gives you general claims about the state of the art in some area, based on generalizations from his own broad knowledge and experience, you must judge the reliability of these claims heuristically, unless you're willing to take a lot of time and effort to educate yourself about the field in question so you can make similar conclusions yourself. Google cannot (yet?) be asked to give such judgments from the indexed evidence.

I think we covered that [signaling elements of live communication] in an earlier discussion. :)

Yes, but you've asked about the motivations of typical people. For everyone except a very small number of outliers, this is a highly relevant factor.

But why do people find random elements in the environment interesting?

Are you asking for an answer in everyday human terms, or an evolutionary explanation?

In this particular context, it should be noted that human conversations whose purpose is fun, rather than achieving a predetermined goal, typically have a natural and seemingly disorganized flow, jumping from one topic to another in a loose sequence. Comments on various observations from the environment can guide this flow in interesting fun-enhancing ways, which is not possible when people are just exchanging written messages at a distance.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 June 2010 02:38:08PM 3 points [-]

But this seems to me, at the very least, irrationally inefficient. You have a finite amount of time, and it can surely be put to use much more efficiently than verifying every single new fact and idea.

You're right, that would be highly inefficient. Now that you mention this, I realize part of what is attractive about reading blogs is that popular posts will tend to have lots of comments, and many of those will point out possible errors in the post, so I can get a higher certainty of correctness with much less work on my part.

Are you asking for an answer in everyday human terms, or an evolutionary explanation?

I guess what I'm really interested in is whether I'm missing out on something really great by not participating in more live conversations (that aren't about solving specific problems).

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 June 2010 03:01:18PM *  4 points [-]

I typically find myself wanting to verify every single fact or idea that I hadn't heard of before, and say either "hold on, I need to think about that for a few minutes" or "let me check that on Google/Wikipedia".

But this seems to me, at the very least, irrationally inefficient. You have a finite amount of time, and it can surely be put to use much more efficiently than verifying every single new fact and idea.

My solution is to try to not have any opinion on most subjects, other than background ignorance, despite having heard various specific claims. (And I sometimes argue with people that they, too, should have no opinion, given the evidence they are aware of!)

Comment author: MichaelVassar 15 June 2010 11:44:26AM 4 points [-]

I seriously wouldn't mind the verification effort if done by a fast googler, and quietly thinking for a few minutes regularly is Awesome for conversation.

Comment author: gwern 14 June 2010 05:45:37PM 9 points [-]

most people, while engaging in real-time conversations, do not feel this discomfort of having insufficient time and resources to verify the other participant's claims (or for that matter, to make sure that one's own speech is not erroneous).

Conversation is not about information.</Hanson>

Comment author: Lightwave 16 June 2010 11:05:36AM *  3 points [-]

Conversation is not only/mostly about information. FTFY

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 15 June 2010 04:33:38AM 2 points [-]

this relates back to the what was mentioned higher up about people having differing goals for their conversation. the default goal is to strengthen, weaken, or confirm status positions. non-status information is often considered incidental. also note that hardly anyone is conscious of this.

Comment author: JRMayne 14 June 2010 03:40:42AM 8 points [-]

Wow. I get involved in interesting conversations with some frequency; I don't think it's because I avoid verification or am too credulous. I think your explanations are a false dichotomy.

First, a lot of conversations involve expertise that I don't have, and I find interesting. Jobs that are not mine are often interesting; I usually try to ask about what things about someone else's job are fun or interesting.

I'm always happy to talk about my job; being a prosecutor means you've got a storehouse of stories.

In conversations where I am relatively equally situated with my counterpart as far as knowledge, it's pretty easy to disagree while having a great conversation. I met a guy in September of '08 after internet discussions on a topic unrelated to politics, and we ended up discussing Biden-Palin for two hours. It was a really fantastic conversation, and we voted opposite ways in the election.

We did this because we conceded points that were true, and we weren't on The Only Right Team of Properness; we were talking about ideas and facts that we mostly both knew. We also didn't have our head in the sand. And when one of us gave a factual statement outside the others' knowledge, the other tended to accept it (I told the story of the missing pallets of hundred dollar bills, which he hadn't heard.)

Now, I've certainly corrected false statements of fact in conversation (ranging in tone from, "Are you sure about that?" to "That's verifiably false.") I try not to make false statements of fact, but I have been wrong, and I make it a point to admit wrongness when I'm wrong. (In some circles, given my general propensity for being right and my assertion of a general propensity for being right, this leads to much rejoicing, on the order of Sir Robin's minstrels getting eaten.)

But there's something really fun about electric conversations that I think you're missing here. Fun and funny conversations.... I couldn't live well without them. And I'm not too credulous. And I take other people - well, many other people - seriously.

--JRM

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 June 2010 05:20:40AM 0 points [-]

And when one of us gave a factual statement outside the others' knowledge, the other tended to accept it

But you're sure to accept a lot of false statements that way. Why are you not worried about it?

But there's something really fun about electric conversations that I think you're missing here.

Thinking about why conversations might be fun, I can see two reasons:

  1. The "game" aspect (i.e., signaling/status/alliance). I tried to explain earlier why this aspect doesn't hold much interest for me.
  2. Obtaining novel information. Once I realized how unreliable most people's beliefs are, the anxiety of accepting false information interferes too much with this "fun". Also, I can get a much bigger "information high" from reading something like this.

Is there some other element of fun conversation that I might be missing?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 14 June 2010 07:05:54AM *  3 points [-]

Once I realized how unreliable most people's beliefs are, the anxiety of accepting false information interferes too much with this "fun".

Are you sure that you're not being biased here? If people really are so unreliable, even when they are serious and upfront, how do they ever get anything done in practice?

Or could it be that you're failing to employ the standard heuristics for judging the reliability of people's claims? (Note that this also involves judging whether what's been said was even meant to be said authoritatively. People often say things without implying that they believe them firmly and on good evidence.)

Comment author: [deleted] 14 June 2010 05:32:10AM 3 points [-]

I think there's a lot more to insight than true or false.

Hearing a perspective or a personal experience does broaden your knowledge. In the same way that reading fiction can be enlightening -- you are still learning, but using the part of your mental equipment designed for subconscious and tacit social exchange. In my experience, most of the occasions when I changed my mind for the better resulted from hearing someone else's point of view and feeling empathy for it.

Comment author: bogdanb 14 June 2010 10:26:26AM *  1 point [-]

Indeed. I find that often (though by no means always) it’s interesting to find out why and how someone comes to believe something that, to me, is obviously wrong. The transition between “people are mad and stupid” to “there’s method to this madness” is interesting and useful, even if it doesn’t lead to “fixing the mind” of your immediate interlocutor. At the very least, it gives you a subject to think about later, to try and find out ways of fixing the beliefs of others, in future conversations.

(I often have insights on the correct, or at least a good, way of answering a fallacy quite a while after having a conversation. I can cache them for later, and sometimes get to use them in later conversations. Gathering such pre-cached insights can make you seem deep, which at least makes people more attentive to what you say.)

Comment author: Jonii 14 June 2010 09:04:06AM 2 points [-]

Is there some other element of fun conversation that I might be missing?

What's the fun element in board game called "go"? I find that particular game really fun to play, and really interesting, but it seems rather pointless to try to argue if it's "objectively" interesting or fun, or even what specific aspects make it fun and interesting to me. It just is.

You can replace "go" with any fun and entertaining thing that you do. How would you defend that your fun thing against someone who came along and wanted to know, just like you do now, why and how is that fun thing really fun?

Is it because they are too credulous, and haven't developed an instinctive skepticism of every new idea that they hear? Or do they just not take the other person's words seriously (i.e., "in one ear, out the other")?

http://lesswrong.com/lw/1yz/levels_of_communication/

Also, willingness to humor the claim other makes for the sake of conversation isn't on that list, as it's neither "not taking other seriously" nor "being too credulous".

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 June 2010 07:11:52PM 2 points [-]

What's the fun element in board game called "go"? I find that particular game really fun to play, and really interesting, but it seems rather pointless to try to argue if it's "objectively" interesting or fun, or even what specific aspects make it fun and interesting to me. It just is.

  1. If other people find some activity fun but I don't, it might be that I'm doing it wrong, and with the correct understanding I can make it fun for myself.
  2. On the other hand it might be that others only find it fun because they're being insufficiently reflective. Maybe if they understood better what they're really doing, they wouldn't find it fun anymore, and would spend the time furthering some other goal instead (hopefully one that better matches my own purposes, like working to answer scientific/philosophical questions that I'm interested in, or reducing existential risk :)
  3. I'd like to understand my values, and human values in general, both for the purpose of FAI theory, and to satisfy my philosophical interests. "Fun" is obviously a part of that.
Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 June 2010 07:44:35PM *  5 points [-]

Maybe if they understood better what they're really doing, they wouldn't find it fun anymore, and would spend the time furthering some other goal instead (hopefully one that better matches my own purposes, like working to answer scientific/philosophical questions that I'm interested in, or reducing existential risk)

I have this weird problem, based on the way my utility function seems to be set up -- I want people to do what they really enjoy, even at the cost of them not working on my favorite projects.

So, on the one hand, I would like people to be sufficiently reflective to figure out what they really enjoy doing. On the other hand, if reflection just destroys people's existing, flawed sources of fun without providing an alternative source of fun, then I wouldn't want to encourage it.

Imagine a 50-something small business owner with a community college education -- maybe he runs a fast food restaurant, or a bike repair shop -- who really likes his local sports team. He goes to or watches most of their home games with a few other friends/fans and gets really excited about it and, on balance, has a lot of fun. If I could somehow motivate him to reflect on what professional spectator sports are like, he might not enjoy it as much, or at all.

But what good would that do him? Wouldn't he be equally likely to plow his new-found surplus energy into, say, watching TV, as to suddenly discover existentialist risks? Even if he did work on existential risks, is there any reason to think that he'd enjoy it? I feel like differences in what people choose to do for fun might reflect differing theories about what is fun, and not just a failure to reflect on one's activities. Even if the masses' theories about what is fun are philosophically indefensible, they may nevertheless be real descriptions about what the masses find to be fun, and so I have trouble justifying an attempt to take away that fun without letting go of my commitment to egalitarianism.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 June 2010 08:04:36PM 1 point [-]

I think it would depend on how his pleasure in spectator sports is eliminated. Does he simply find out that spectator sports are pointless, or does he find out that his leisure time can have more to it than spectator sports?

Comment author: Mass_Driver 16 June 2010 12:54:53AM 1 point [-]

I assume it would be the former, no? Aren't most people aware that they have a choice of hobbies, even if they don't realize why/that the one they've chosen is particularly banal?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 16 June 2010 09:23:54AM 2 points [-]

I don't think most people are good at breaking habits to find what they'd be enthusiastic about.

Comment author: AShepard 14 June 2010 03:32:45AM 19 points [-]

Let me try a Hansonian explanation: conversation is not about exchanging information. It is about defining and reinforcing social bonds and status hierarchies. You don't chit-chat about the weather because you really want to consider how recent local atmospheric patterns relate to long-run trends, you do it to show that you care about the other person. If you actually cared about the weather, you would excuse yourself and consult the nearest meteorologist.

Written communication probably escapes this mechanism - the mental machinery for social interaction is less involved, and the mental machinery for analytical judgment has more room to operate. This probably happens because there was no written word in the evolutionary context, so we didn't evolve to apply our social interaction machinery to it. A second reason is that written communication is relatively easily divorced from the writer - you can encounter a written argument over vast spatial or temporal separation - so the cues that kick the social brain into gear are absent or subdued. The result, as you point out, it is easier to critically engage with a written argument than a spoken one.

Comment author: jmmcd 14 June 2010 09:20:05PM 10 points [-]

You don't chit-chat about the weather because you really want to consider how recent local atmospheric patterns relate to long-run trends, you do it to show that you care about the other person.

No, you chat about the weather because it allows both parties to become comfortable and pick up the pace of the conversation to something more interesting. Full-on conversations don't start in a vacuum. In a worst case scenario, you talk about the weather because it's better than both of you staring at the ground until someone else comes along.

Comment author: AShepard 16 June 2010 04:58:39AM 1 point [-]

You are certainly correct, and I think what you say reinforces the point. Building comfort is a social function rather than an information exchange function, which is why you don't particularly care whether or not your conversation leads to more accurate predictions for tomorrow's weather.

Comment author: nickernst 16 June 2010 05:47:27AM 3 points [-]

These are difficult concepts for those of us who work regularly with meteorological data!

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 June 2010 12:05:32PM 5 points [-]

Most people do not practice ninja-level rationality in any part of their life. Why would conversation be any different?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 14 June 2010 09:22:13AM 4 points [-]

I have the same problem, but funnily enough, I see it as a problem with myself and not a problem with real-time conversation. The ability to consider complicated ideas and follow chains of reasoning without having to verify any of the individual dependencies is a skill I would like to pick up.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 14 June 2010 03:47:28PM 2 points [-]

"Most people do something that I do not do. Is it because there's something wrong with them?"

This is perhaps unfairly uncharitable, but it does seem to be the point you're getting at. Obvious popular alternatives include that you're not credulous enough, or that people are capable of evaluating other people's claims sans wikipedia.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 20 June 2010 06:54:37AM 18 points [-]

This is related to a crazy idea I once had of preparing a "canned conversation" or a conversation tree that you could use to start a conversation with a random person on the subway and walk away leaving them a singularitarian.

Comment author: jhuffman 21 June 2010 06:04:38PM 6 points [-]

I would support this product and/or service.

Comment author: drethelin 28 August 2012 08:33:21AM 2 points [-]

any progress?

Comment author: AShepard 14 June 2010 02:02:43AM *  17 points [-]

This seems like something that natural conversationalists already do intuitively. They have a broad range of topic about which they can talk comfortably (either because they are knowledgeable about the specific subjects or because they have enough tools to carry on a conversation even in areas with which they are unfamiliar), and they can steer the conversation around these topics until they find one that their counterpart can also talk comfortably about. Bad conversationalists either aren't comfortable talking about many subjects, are bad at transitioning from one subject to another, or can't sense or don't care when their counterpart doesn't care about a given topic.

The flip side of this is that there are 3 ways of improving one's conversational ability: learning more about more subjects, practicing transitions between various topics, and learning the cues for when one's counterpart is bored or uninterested by the current topic. Kaj focuses on the second of these, but I think the other two strategies ought not be forgotten. It's no use learning to steer the conversation when there are no areas of overlapping interest to steer to, or when you can't recognize whether you are in one or not.

Comment author: Taure 14 July 2010 09:48:03PM 1 point [-]

I think you brush upon a quite important point here: good conversation is less about being good at conversation and more about not being bad at it. People will talk quite happily with someone who is utterly boring, so long as it's not for too long and they've got nothing better to do.

People are only really put off a conversation when a person does something odd.

Prime among these are non-sequiturs, unusually extreme opinions (especially about topics people normally don't have extreme opinions about), and discussing topics which are generally understood as not being suitable for general conversation (such as topics which are invasive/personal, obscure, or too academic for the context - it's fine to talk intellectually in the appropriate place, but not to strangers at a bar/club).

Comment author: NQbass7 14 June 2010 01:34:49AM 9 points [-]

I've heard of a similar strategy once discussed as part of pickup, I believe - I can only pull up a vague memory right now, but the thought was something along the lines of this. If a woman says she "just moved away from her family in San Francisco to have more freedom," each word of that can be a hook into an interesting conversation. What was moving like? What's her family like? Why did she want to move away from them? What's it like in San Francisco and how is it different here? What kind of freedom was she looking for? etc.

I've been working on using that type of conversation as well to avoid awkward pauses and keep interesting conversations going.

Comment author: Peter_Lambert-Cole 15 June 2010 02:08:40AM *  7 points [-]

Writing out a list of topics and connections is good but it's only one part of a conversation. You should also consider various reasons for having a conversation. For instance: passing the time, relieving anxiety, developing a relationship, maintaining a relationship, exchanging information, keeping updated on important information, debating a substantive point, getting someone to relax before asking them for something, being polite, making someone feel welcome, resolving a conflict. And when people have different goals for a conversation, it can be uncomfortable. If someone starts talking when they are nervous and you want to discuss the finer points of evolution, both people will get annoyed. When you are nervous, you want to talk about inane things because they are simple and an easy distraction; talking about science might be too complicated and compound your anxiety. Similarly, if you are really in the mood to talk complex subjects, you don't want to talk about irrelevant, silly things and can get annoyed because the other person has nothing to offer. (Of course, some people might find talking about science comforting, even if you find it boring. There is no fixed relationship between the inane/serious topic scale and the frivolous/deep conversation scale.)

So, you should develop your ability to know why you and the other person each want to have a conversation. Moreover, you should improve your ability to engage in various types of conversation. Often times, if you start a conversation on their terms, they will get comfortable with you and later on have the conversation you want.

You also have to think of conversation as a bargain between two people. You have a set of topics and conversation types you like/are strong at/want to do and the other person has hers. As with any negotiation, you have to work towards a mutually acceptable compromise. Of course, expanding your list of topics is helpful, because it increases the odds you will find common ground for someone, but your concept map does not necessarily help you quickly find something in common to talk about with another person.

Comment author: Rain 14 June 2010 02:25:25AM *  7 points [-]

My most useful conversation strategy is the question. Being naturally curious helps, but it really is a universal tool, good for any topic.

Comment author: HughRistik 14 June 2010 09:44:01PM *  14 points [-]

Questions are great, but they have certain limitations:

  1. If you are beginning a conversation with some who you don't know well, they may not give you very extensive or useful answers to your questions.

  2. You can only ask so many questions in a row before you are interviewing them. Worse, it looks low status.

For people who over-rely on questions, they often ask a question, get a short or one-word answer, and then ask another questions, getting the same type of answer. After about 3 or 4 of these, the conversation is dead in the water.

The solution is to limit the amount of questions you ask until the other person becomes invested in the conversation enough to give you real answers. The PUA Juggler advises asking less questions and making more statements. Making statements engages the other person, and unlike questions, don't require the other person to reciprocate, avoiding the interviewing, chasing, or badgering dynamics that questions can cause. Making statements gives the other person information about the kind of person you are, which helps them decide if they want to open up to you. Of course, statements still need to be related someone to the current conversational context, or the other person will be wondering, "why are you telling me this?"

Here is an example of how you can get stuck in a rut with questions. This is a Standard College Conversation:

Student1: Hey, how's it going?

Student2: Good... you?

Student1: Pretty good... how was your weekend?

Student2: It was good.

Student1: Cool... where are you living nowadays?

Student2: Dorm Blah Blah Blah.

Student1: Nice, how is it there?

Student2: It's good...

A surprising amount of conversations go like this. Student2 is necessarily trying to be unhelpful; he just isn't yet invested in the conversation. After each of Student1's questions fail to hook Student2 into the conversation, he asks another questions which gets a similar response.

A better approach is for Student1 to start making some statements. Making statements gives him a lot more opportunities to hook Student2. Here are some examples:

Student1: Hey, how's it going?

Student2: Good... you?

Student1: Great! You'll never guess what happened to me today...

Now Student2 is engaged. Instead of firing back with another question, Student1 starts talking about what he was up to (if you ask a question and get a noncommittal answer, you can often answer your own question). In case, "you'll never guess what happened to me today" is a bit too much of a gimmick, here is another way:

Student1: Hey, how's it going?

Student2: Good... you?

Student1: Great! I've been having a crazy day... [describes what happened]

In the original conversation, Student1 only had 4 possible hooks into a conversation: one for each question he asked. In this example, telling an anecdote about what happened during his will give him a lot more hooks that will inspire a response from Student2 to either ask questions back, or talk more about his own day.

Any of the questions that Student1 asks in the conversation could be turned into an opportunity to answer it himself, giving him the opportunity to tell a story about what is going on in his life:

Student1: Hey, how's it going?

Student2: Good... you?

Student1: Pretty good... how was your weekend?

Student2: Awesome, I went to this party / book club, and [describes what happened]...

Student1: Hey, how's it going?

Student2: Good... you?

Student1: Pretty good... how was your weekend?

Student2: It was good.

Student1: Cool... where are you living nowadays?

Student2: Gamma Gamma Gamma.

Student1: Cool, I'm in Kappa Kappa Kappa. It's a funny place... [starts talking about something that recently happened at his dorm]

Once someone gets invested in a conversation and engaged, then you can start asking questions and getting in-depth answers. Sometimes a question alone will engage them, but if it doesn't, you can fall back on making statements (and answer your questions yourself) until the other person is sufficiently engaged.

Comment author: RobinZ 16 June 2010 02:45:57AM 3 points [-]

Huh. That does a lot to explain what was so very awkward about that one conversation I had with that one acquaintance-of-an-acquaintance earlier this year: it was all him asking questions and me giving noncommittal responses while thinking, "who is this guy?"

...I wonder if I could have spun an answer to redirect a question to him. Would that have been a good strategy?

Comment author: AnlamK 16 June 2010 07:18:06AM 2 points [-]

I don't know. I am hesitant.

I can think of instances in which someone has started talking about an anecdote and the other person wasn't really responsive at all. (And, yeah, more than anything it was I who were telling the anecdote.) I guess it requires social savvy to pick which anecdote to tell.

I don't think engaging someone meaningfully (i.e. "hooking") in a conversation is as easy as making more statements as opposed to asking questions.

Conversation is more of an art than an exact science - 'tis true...

Anybody wants to call me so they can hear my totally irrelevant anecdote?

Comment author: HughRistik 16 June 2010 11:18:39PM *  3 points [-]

AnlamK

I can think of instances in which someone has started talking about an anecdote and the other person wasn't really responsive at all. (And, yeah, more than anything it was I who were telling the anecdote.) I guess it requires social savvy to pick which anecdote to tell.

Exactly.

I don't think engaging someone meaningfully (i.e. "hooking") in a conversation is as easy as making more statements as opposed to asking questions.

I agree. But you can make more statements in a short period of time than you can ask questions, so you have a higher chance of hitting something that engages the other person before they tire of the conversation.

Does that seem plausible/implausible?

Comment author: Raoul589 09 July 2013 04:05:19PM 1 point [-]

Dammit, I wanted to hear the anecdote.

Comment author: army1987 09 July 2013 09:48:47PM 0 points [-]

For people who over-rely on questions, they often ask a question, get a short or one-word answer, and then ask another questions, getting the same type of answer.

If someone only gives me one-word answers, that means that they do not want to talk to me (but are too polite to tell me to get lost), and if I choose to disregard that, I don't get to complain when I get labelled and treated as a creep.

Comment author: pjeby 09 July 2013 10:17:12PM 2 points [-]

If someone only gives me one-word answers, that means that they do not want to talk to me

It can also mean that they aren't very good at making conversation, or even that they're not sure if you're just being polite, and aren't interested in a longer answer. I often refrain from answering people's questions in detail if I think they're just asking to be polite.

So, substituting interesting statements for stock questions signals that you are actually interested in conversing, as well as giving the other person more possible points to take off from.

(Of course, if you make such statements and get one-word replies a few times, then of course this should be taken as a lack of interest in conversation at that time. But if you're just asking stock questions, then people who don't have "stock interesting answers" for those questions will have a harder time conversing with you... and may assume you're just being polite, rather than actually interested in their opinions or experiences.)

Comment author: army1987 09 July 2013 10:31:08PM -1 points [-]

It can also mean that they aren't very good at making conversation

In which case, why would I want to make conversation with them? :-)

or even that they're not sure if you're just being polite, and aren't interested in a longer answer. I often refrain from answering people's questions in detail if I think they're just asking to be polite.

Good point, though there's a middle ground between answering with as few syllables as grammatically possible (what I usually do when I wish someone wasn't talking to me in the first place, but I don't want to be excessively impolite) and a long answer mentioning personal feelings and asking a question back.

Comment author: sketerpot 14 June 2010 04:45:48AM 9 points [-]

Most of the people that I want to have conversations with have some topics that they can talk about enthusiastically at the drop of a hat, if only they could find someone interested. Today I was talking with someone who really likes chemistry, and I learned why it is that some molecules (like lipids) are hydrophobic and others (like ammonia) are hydrophilic. I didn't expect to learn this, but I wanted to keep the conversation going, so I just asked, thinking that maybe it would become interesting. And it worked! That conversation kicked ass!

This works for all sorts of subjects. Does someone love gardening? Say something about soil drainage, and it'll open the floodgates, starting what could be a fascinating conversation. The other person's obscure interests make for great conversation topics because they usually don't get to talk about it with anybody else.

The trick is finding those obscure interests. A lot of people seem embarrassed to be interested in weird stuff, and don't advertise it. It's socially okay to be interested in gossip and whether or not Lady Gaga has a penis (hint: no), but usually less okay to be interested in database denormalization and homoerotic Stargate SG-1 fanfiction. I'm hoping that the Internet will magically change this somehow, but until then, does anybody have hints for finding another person's weird interests?

Comment author: [deleted] 14 June 2010 05:01:07AM 8 points [-]

This is my thing -- I always want to hear about any person's area of passion or expertise. It's usually much more interesting than small talk.

But I find it's often quite easy to get people started. I like to ask people about their work. (Scientists and engineers often seem particularly willing to talk, but there's certainly a range.) If someone mentions a hobby, I'll ask for details. I've learned a lot about ballroom dancing, guns, and violin from letting people ramble. It all comes down to being open to hearing long stories. I think people can somehow detect a willing listener, and as a result people seem to love to come to me with their stories.

Comment author: Mar_17 15 June 2010 06:56:30AM 6 points [-]

As Dale Carnegie says: Ask questions and get the other person talking. People love to talk and so the great conversationalist is really the great polite inquisitioner and listener.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2010 04:25:39AM 4 points [-]

That's my preferred approach, when I manage to run into someone who's willing to talk. But I want to also be able to break the ice with people who, like me, are primarily listeners by nature. :)

Comment author: Dan_Moore 18 June 2010 05:43:33PM 5 points [-]

I'll put in a plug for Toastmasters, which is a global organization which can help introverted people become less so. There is likely a nearby meeting or two you can find at www.toastmasters.org. It's low-cost, and you can usually visit for free to see if it's something you would like.

Briefly, it affords you the opportunity to give 5-minute speeches in front of a group in a supportive atmosphere. There are also shorter or longer speaking opportunities during the meeting, which often runs 1 hour.

Comment author: cousin_it 14 June 2010 11:34:43AM *  5 points [-]

Nice, but I have my own theory on what makes a person interesting to be around :-)

Reddit has a section called AMA, short for "ask me anything". The karma scores and comment counts for each topic may be used as rough indicators of how much that topic interests regular people. My impression is that you get the biggest response by posting something like "I am a highly paid prostitute, AMA" or "I killed two men, AMA". Transhumanism and RPG books probably wouldn't score much.

Comment author: khafra 14 June 2010 12:48:28PM 5 points [-]

The graph, the practiced transitions, and the sensitivity to your interlocutor's level of interest in the current node, relative to other nodes and the weighted distance to each better node--all that is a general tool for interesting conversations. Having a specific set of life experiences is a more specialized way to have interesting conversations.

Comment author: ABranco 14 June 2010 03:18:39AM *  5 points [-]

You won me in the first paragraph and your description of Vassar's psyche.

I could promptly visualize his curious face investigating the walls, wrinkles between his eyes while he tries to draw mental connections between 11 different sources before coming up with an "Aha!", followed by an elegant (normally accurate) explanation he'll be pleased to share.

Developing over Rain: if you have time, you are curious and can make the other person at ease, questions will take you miles into the conversation. You'll learn, and the other person will be pleased to share.

However, I also agree with JoshuaZ: inane subjects are a problem. One should not fake curiosity, and all subjects are not equally interesting. If the person only talks about something you don't give a damn, faking interest wastes time and poisons your soul.

Talking to this person then becomes a gamble: "what is my expectation of maybe reaching something interesting here, if I keep asking questions enough for the next X minutes?". Of course, given enough time, you'll reach something interesting. But time is finite, and nobody seems to have enough time anymore, anyway.

So, with this person you could:

a. learn in the meta level (observe the dynamics of the conversation, or try to figure out his/her behavior); or

b. be the talker (if the person likes what you have to say, or you think you can help with something); or

c. just present her to someone who happens to also like celebrity gossips, make both happy, and excuse yourself to go find the waiter with the valuable cheese appetizers.

Comment author: Rain 14 June 2010 01:33:23PM *  9 points [-]

However, I also agree with JoshuaZ: inane subjects are a problem. One should not fake curiosity, and all subjects are not equally interesting. If the person only talks about something you don't give a damn, faking interest wastes time and poisons your soul.

[...]

a. learn in the meta level (observe the dynamics of the conversation, or try to figure out his/her behavior);

I recast the problem with solution 'a'.

Instead of faking interest in a boring topic, what I am doing is being genuinely interested in the person talking about that topic. From that view, every question I ask in such a conversation is not to learn about the topic itself, but the person who's talking about it. What's their mental process for examining the situation? Why do they find it interesting? How much does it affect their thoughts on other subjects? Do they have life rules that can be gleaned from 'common wisdom' in their area of interest? It's all part of my goal for such events: enjoy the person's company, and try to get them to enjoy mine, by understanding who they really are.

Over a long period of time, this has helped to normalize my social interactions. That is, I can appear normal when I want to.

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 05:40:08PM 12 points [-]

This is actually great advice. Not to scare anyone away (since I know the point is to have interesting conversation....), but the techniques discussed are essentially identical to what they teach during sorority recruitment practice. (I assume it's the same for fraternities, not that anyone cares). During recruitment, each girl will talk to hundreds of potential recruits in a short amount of time and has to be a very skilled conversationalist in order to assess the personality and interests of the other person. You're taught to steer very basic small talk ("What's your major?" "Where are you from?") into directions to find something unique and interesting about the person, and you only have a couple minutes to do it. They practice this for many, many hours a day leading up to recruitment. After a few weeks of this, you really can talk to anybody about anything.

The point of the post is to make conversations interesting, so you need to be able to steer the talk from mundane to something better, without making the other person feel like they're being pulled to one of your pet topics. Best way to do this is practice. Improv comedy is actually a related (and equally practicable) skill, interestingly enough...

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 17 June 2010 01:03:24AM 3 points [-]

Is there a handy description of the technique?

Comment deleted 15 June 2010 05:46:13PM [-]
Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 05:52:11PM 2 points [-]

Dunno where your confusion lies, but my point was only that if you spend enough time practicing talking to people, it gets easier, regardless if you're a sorority girl or SIAI research fellow. Everyone can do it.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 05:55:39PM 0 points [-]

Everyone can assemble a sorority and large number of recruits that they are expected to speak with in quick succession?

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 06:06:42PM 4 points [-]

Everyone can find somebody to practice small talk with. The benefit of conversation practice isn't contingent upon doing so in quick succession, but accumulation of conversation experience over time. You can increase your skills very rapidly even without access to the condensed conversational environment of fraternity/sorority recruitment. I don't even recommend participating in that if you can avoid it, since it's a very stressful experience. But it does make you really good at talking to people.

Go to a bar, people are usually there to talk. Interestingness varies considerably, of course. If you work, make small talk with your coworkers. If you're in school, say hello to the person sitting next to you. Make a habit of doing this wherever you go. That's the best way to practice.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 15 June 2010 06:30:19PM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure this is perfect advice. For one thing, speaking as a person who enjoys conversation, it can often be deeply uncomfortable when a random stranger tries to start a conversation. I made accidental eye-contact with someone on the subway today and then had to have a conversation about the weather which interrupted mildly productive thoughts.

I agree that in the contexts of school and work this sort of thing might be acceptable. One has to think about the fact that the very worst that happens is that the person indicates they don't want to talk.

One thing I do use as a conversation starter is if someone is holding a book that I've read (in which case I'll comment) or a book I have not read (in which case I'll inquire about it).

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 06:14:41PM 6 points [-]

Go to a bar, people are usually there to talk.

Not to me, they aren't.

If you work, make small talk with your coworkers.

I already do that, but don't become better automatically by doing so. (Plus, they're engineers who, like me, are generally not neurotypical.)

Seriously, have you ever actually been bad at conversation and tried out your own advice? You're speaking exactly like someone who's never had a problem with this and so doesn't know what barrier such a person has to cross.

Until you can specify an actual procedure you can reasonably expect to work, you're just telling me to eat cake when I'm low on bread. If I could follow your advice, I wouldn't need it.

Comment author: Morendil 15 June 2010 06:34:11PM 17 points [-]

You're speaking exactly like someone who's never had a problem with this

You're speaking exactly like someone who intends to keep their problem. It looks like people are trying to give you some advice, and perhaps they're not doing great at that right off the bat, but maybe you could help them help you?

Your "conversation" here goes something like this - statement, statement, statement, statement, rhetorical question, statement, most of it with an undercurrent of agression. Here is a concrete suggestion: ask a question. "So you're saying opening a conversation comes easily to you, can you give me some examples of lines you've used?"

Or maybe "Here's what typically happens to me when I try to start a conversation, can you help me figure out what I'm doing wrong or what I should do differently?"

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 06:42:34PM 9 points [-]

Sorry, you're right -- I'm speaking out of frustration regarding a) people's inability to explain (remember my upcoming article), and b) the past instances of let-them-eat-cake sociality advice. Vive-ut-Vivas isn't the first extrovert to do so here, and she won't be the last. I will try to be more productive with future replies.

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 06:51:34PM 11 points [-]

I understand your frustration. I should have made it clear that I wasn't attempting to help people who are trying to get to the barrier of making small talk in the first place; I was directing my advice to those who are interested in making the transition from small talk to interesting conversation. You're right that I haven't been particularly helpful in addressing that first point. I think that with some reflection I might be able to give decent advice on that topic, but that will require more introspection.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 07:12:55PM 6 points [-]

I haven't been particularly helpful in addressing that first point. I think that with some reflection I might be able to give decent advice on that topic, but that will require more introspection.

I appreciate your saying this very much.

Comment author: simplyeric 16 June 2010 01:52:18PM *  4 points [-]

This might sound weird, but: internet chat rooms (is that what "Second Life" is for nowadays?). I know chat rooms have a reputation, but I've read that they've been shown to have potential for actually increasing social skills (I'm searching for the relevant article, but I know I read it in a journal over a year ago).

But, you have to be proactive about it. And of course discerning.
a. You have to find the right venue a.1. chat rooms have a reputation for a reason a.2. you need to go to a venue where everyone is not there to talk about what you typically talk about.
b. You have to be conscious about what you are doing:
b.1. not talking to people who are into what you are into (somewhat redundant to a.2.) b.2 you have to be self-aware of the process...what is working, what isn't b.3. you have to try to step out of your "comfort zone" in order to learn new approaches, new social skills, as it were

The thing is, people are there to talk...so, seek out those people, and talk.

I'm not saying it's "easy"...it's just one idea.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 June 2010 02:20:14PM 2 points [-]

Simpler even than an internet chat room are Omegle (text chat with a random stranger) and Chat Roulette (video chat with a random stranger).

Comment author: simplicio 16 June 2010 03:00:44PM *  5 points [-]

You're now chatting with a random stranger. Say hi!

You: what ho

Your conversational partner has disconnected.

Just one social blunder after another.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 June 2010 03:19:04PM 0 points [-]

Just one social blunder after another.

You're there to talk, they're there to talk, you say hi, and they disconnect. Where is the "blunder" and who is making it?

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 06:34:26PM *  3 points [-]

Not to me, they aren't.

Of course not, with that attitude! ;) I certainly don't know enough about you to advise you on how you may be sending people the wrong signals in conversation. Do you have any friends that are good conversationalists? Take them with you. That's actually how I learned! "Shadowing" a popular friend is a great way to pick up conversation skill. I'm sure you know someone who's good at this, since popular people, by definition, know lots of people!

Seriously, have you ever actually been bad at conversation and tried out your own advice? You're speaking exactly like someone who's never had a problem with this and so doesn't know what barrier such a person has to cross.

Not sure I've ever been "bad" at conversation, but I - like everybody else! - have had to work on improving it by practice.

Anyway, I fear we've drifted a bit from my original point, which was directed towards people who want to talk to other people in a situation where both parties are already willing to talk. Advising on how to talk to people who aren't interested in conversation off the bat will require more thought on my part.

ETA: Hit "comment" too early.

Comment author: jimrandomh 15 June 2010 08:18:53PM 1 point [-]

The choice of setting matters a great deal, and a bar is comparatively difficult. As an introvert who had a similar issue starting conversations myself (though I think to a lesser degree), I've found a setting which is much easier: dances, specifically Contra dance but probably any style which has a norm of changing partner after each dance. In that setting, you're repeatedly forced to initiate conversations with women, on a hard deadline, or else you'll have to sit out; but those conversations are short, follow extremely predictable paths, and have no bad outcomes (rejections normally come from a standard list of status-neutral answers). There will typically also be breaks and an afterparty for longer conversations, but if your goal is just to get over difficulty in approaching people and initiating conversations, those are optional.

Comment author: ChristianKl 16 June 2010 11:32:08AM 1 point [-]

'Do you want to dance?' Isn't much of a conversation. You can even ask keep the whole process entirely nonverbal by making eye contact and asking for the hand of the girl by offering your own hand.

Loud music also makes it harder to have a good conversation.

Comment author: jimrandomh 16 June 2010 11:49:28AM 2 points [-]

This varies by dance style and local custom, but in contra, there are a few minutes of silence for setup and pairing between songs during which there is no music to talk over, and smalltalk is expected.

Comment author: Taure 14 July 2010 09:29:10PM *  1 point [-]

I think that one of your main problems may be that you're thinking of conversation as something it isn't. There is no procedure for success. Genuine conversation is procedure-less (or at least practically so. I guess with sufficient processing power and knowledge of all the hundreds of variables you could replicate it, but I think such a feat would be beyond the abilities of the conscious mind).

I used to be extremely introverted. I found talking to people I didn't know very awkward. Even moderate acquaintances were tricky. Then I went to university and made some new friends. Went out. And then just decided to talk to people. Alcohol helped. A lot. Now I am what many would call extroverted, though I still feel, in many ways, like an introvert pretending to be an extrovert.

I don't think there is really such a thing as introverted and extroverted people at all. People are encouraged to think of these things as part of their "essential character" (TM) - or even their biology. And in some medical cases, this is obviously true (such as in autism).

But for most people, it's not a lack of ability, it's a lack of will. People think about worst case scenarios. They think about (as you mention somewhere else in these comments) weirding out a load of people. And maybe you would. But the key, I think, is then to disregard your fear and just talk anyway.

The idea of an extroverted social animal who feels no fear is a false ideal, I think. Everyone will have jokes that fail, everyone has conversations that, the moment they start, you know that this person is really not for you at all. What the "extrovert" does that is different is simply to keep talking anyway.

I obviously don't know about your life, so cannot say anything truly accurate about it. However, from what I see in your posts, I would say than your problem is not ineloquence, but fear of failure.

To be pithy: "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again."

And like I say above, try not to think of it as a procedure or algorithm. Perhaps try what I did: don't try to be an extrovert, but rather think of it as pretending to be one.

Comment author: HughRistik 14 July 2010 10:46:32PM 9 points [-]

I think that one of your main problems may be that you're thinking of conversation as something it isn't. There is no procedure for success.

You can't create a procedure that maps out every branch in a conversation tree, no. But I think you are underestimating the ritualization and standardization of social activity. There really are patterns in how people do things. There are considerable norms, rules, and constraints. People who are intuitively social (whether they became that way earlier or later in life) may have trouble articulating these patterns.

Within these constraints, there are infinite ways to behave, and you can be as spontaneous as you want. Intuitively social people experience social interaction to be natural and spontaneous because their intuitions keep them within those constraints.

Conversation is "procedureless" in the same sense that musical improvisation is "procedureless." You can't map out the rules for improvisation in advance. But there are some chords that work well (or badly) after others that you can know in advance. You can know whether you are in a major or minor key, and if you have the concept of major/minor mode and key, then it will funnel your spontaneity in a direction that will create a harmonious result.

In contrast, a socially unskilled person is like someone improvising with concepts such as "mode" and "key." Their results are practically guaranteed to violate the constraints of what we consider to be good music. This of what happens when an untrained person plinks away at a piano.

While both conversation and musical improvisation are procedureless, there are procedures for learning those things. Musicians practice scales and etudes. Applying the same kind of process to learning social interaction is looked on as strange, because of the false expectation that people should be able to learn it naturally (even if the reason they haven't is because they were locked out of social interaction for years due to bullying and exclusion that was no fault of their own).

I don't think there is really such a thing as introverted and extroverted people at all. People are encouraged to think of these things as part of their "essential character" (TM) - or even their biology. And in some medical cases, this is obviously true (such as in autism).

Actually, introversation is a component of temperament that does seem to have a biological basis.

But for most people, it's not a lack of ability, it's a lack of will.

I agree that for most people with low social skills probably aren't biologically determined to be quite so bad at socializing. Even though people have different levels of potential due to biology, most people probably don't come anywhere near meeting their potential. But the problem isn't really their will; it's their social development and the associations that they have developed with social interaction.

Someone's present-day social skills are due to an interaction of biological and environmental factors. Temperament on its own generally doesn't determine social skills; instead, their temperament influences social experiences, which determine what level of social skills are learned. In the case of people with low social skills and different temperaments (e.g. introversion), these people generally got that way because their temperament made them "get off on the wrong foot" with their peers socially, often resulting in bullying, exclusion, or abuse. In another peer environment, even an introverted individual could develop social skills just fine.

The idea of an extroverted social animal who feels no fear is a false ideal, I think.

Actually, there are pretty large individual differences in susceptibility to anxiety. People with lower "anxiety threshold" (i.e. it takes less to make them anxious) really do have things harder. I managed to conquer anxiety at the level of social phobia, but to do I had to recognize certain challenges (and advantages) that my temperament gave me, and learned to cope with them.

To be pithy: "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again."

This works for some people once they have certain prerequisites for learning from their attempts at socializing. The trick is to get them to those prerequisites.

Comment author: Taure 14 July 2010 10:57:55PM -1 points [-]

Certainly there are patterns in social interaction.

However, I think that if you go into social interaction aware of these patterns and meaning to act on them, then this very awareness will in fact ruin your social interaction, because one of the rules of genuine social interaction is that it's free flowing and natural-feeling. If you treat it like a formula, you'll break it.

Comment author: mattnewport 14 July 2010 11:00:01PM 2 points [-]

What evidence do you have for your theory?

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 July 2010 10:28:52PM *  2 points [-]

I must confess, I don't find your advice helpful either.

  • Whether or not there is a "procedure" for conversation, there a good ways to do it, and bad ways to do it. People can certainly handle it naturally, but that doesn't tell anything to the non-naturals about how to do it. If you actually find it to be procedureless, this means you're already a natural and only have Level 1 understanding, and so are unable to articulate where other's shortcomings are so that they can bridge the gap to reach your skill.

See HughRistik's great article and in particular this comment about how much of your own knowledge you can be unaware of if you've never been without it.

  • "Try, try again" is insufficient to improve. You can try forever without improvement if you can't recognize what you were doing right, and what you weren't. This information doesn't spontaneously unfold from your DNA as a result of being in social situations. And (see below), I have indeed tried again and again and again (edit: sentence wasn't completed in original comment).

  • I've already done exactly what you suggest, going out, and drinking, and benefitting form the lower inhibitions to talking that come with alcohol. I've done this quite a bit, but I've never seen any of the skill carry over to when I'm not intoxicated. Furthermore, I've pretended to be an extrovert, but it really makes no difference from the inside or on the outside: it doesn't automagically allow me to make conversation where I otherwise wouldn't.

  • Whatever problems I might have, fear of failure is not among them. It is, at most, fear of that failure cascading into very damaging personal consequences. And given my personal experience, these fears are extremely well-grounded. Nevertheless, I quite often go out to socialize and join groups, actively participate in them, and -- suprise surprise -- I do fail to form relationships or improve social skills, and I fail quite often, to the point where it's no longer a big deal.

I hate to be such a nannering nabob of negativity, but most of what I hear really is ignorant of the problems people like me might actually face, because the advice giver can't conceive of being in that state. I appreciate you trying to help, but, despite your claim to have been an introvert, you advice really sounds like you have not actually been in a position that's informative about this issue, as that would allow you to say more specifically what one has to do to cross the barrier.

I can teach people calculus and trigonometry. I can say a lot more than just, "try, don't be afraid of failure, and show some willpower". Why can't you?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 20 June 2010 06:52:22AM 4 points [-]

First, that I need to generate cached thoughts in more subjects than I currently have.

I do this by running conversations with other people in my head. (Of course, this wasn't my conscious intent, but it probably does make me a better conversationalist.) In general, I'm far more conscious of signaling considerations during my head-conversations, and they frequently feature me being far more bold, frank, and controversial than I would be in normal everyday speech. Also, I typically imagine myself conversing with people I perceive as being less intelligent than me that I'd like to impress.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 14 June 2010 08:20:42PM 7 points [-]

My advice, if you want to become a good conversationalist, is just to crank up the amount of time you spend having conversations. If you are really serious, you could consciously review conversations after the fact, to try to find patterns and see where you could have improved.

What's the link between visiting fellows and the weather?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 15 June 2010 09:39:54PM 9 points [-]

My advice, if you want to become a good conversationalist, is just to crank up the amount of time you spend having conversations.

I can think of three people I know for whom that does not work. Not because they do not think they have opportunities for conversations, not even because they have opportunities but do not take advantage of them, but because they do, and put a great deal of effort into it, and yet I can see that it is not working for them. They are getting little in return for their efforts, because they are all doing it wrong, each in their own way. Whatever they need to be doing instead, having more conversations isn't it.

Advice is good if it works for the person it is addressed to. It is bad if it does not. General advice like "talk to people more" cannot be expected to generally work any more than an appendectomy will work for every case of abdominal pain. An appendectomy will work only for someone whose problem is a diseased appendix.

Comment author: thepokeduck 15 June 2010 02:20:23PM 6 points [-]

That is good advice.

A friend of mine video taped his conversations with people. (By which I mean, there was a video recording of some event, and he left it on following, to capture his social interactions.) In this way, he was able to see not just things he said, but also gauge people's reactions to his body language. He said it was difficult to watch at first, but had a huge benefit to his social skills.

Comment author: Lonnen 16 June 2010 02:23:28AM 4 points [-]

Video taping may not be the preferred way to go about it, but there is something to be said for reflection. While you are unlikely to get better without practice, merely sinking time into conversation won't necessarily help, and may harm you. Without analyzing your attempts, even if it's only a brief list of what went well and what didn't, you may be practicing and learning bad habits. 100 ungraded math problems doesn't make you better at math, and 100 uncoached squats may injure you.

Take a few moments after conversations to assess at least what went well and what didn't. If you have access to an honest friend, you can do even better. Converse with a third party (your friend can participate or merely be near enough to observe) and run a sort of post-conversation analysis later. Treat it like any other skill you're serious about learning. I've seen this help more than one struggling introvert.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 14 June 2010 10:03:36PM 2 points [-]

What's the link between visiting fellows and the weather?

The Visiting Fellows program is in California, which has a different weather than my native Finland. (There should possibly have been some intermediate node like "California" between "Weather" and "Visiting Fellows".)

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 04:49:14PM *  4 points [-]

My advice, if you want to become a good conversationalist, is just to crank up the amount of time you spend having conversations.

Good idea. Also, if you're suffering from malnutrition due to poverty, just crank up the amount of cake you eat. If you are really serious, hire a dietician to figure out what you're missing in your nutritional needs.

The people that aren't good at conversation are the ones that don't have easy opportunities to increase the number of conversations.

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 05:19:34PM *  3 points [-]

The people that aren't good at conversation are the ones that don't have easy opportunities to increase the number of conversations.

I don't think that's true. Who doesn't have easy opportunities to increase their number of conversations, other than a total shut-in? People are everywhere, and therefore, so are potential conversations. You might not have the most interesting conversation with the guy standing behind you in line at the bank, but the only way to get better at conversation is practice, like the OP said.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 05:58:40PM 2 points [-]

Starting a conversation with a completely random stranger generally takes skill to begin with. Potentially creeping out 20 people in a row is not an acceptable risk -- unless you'd like to bear it for me?

Also, others who have posted on the topic [1] said that if I'm at a low skill level at this, I shouldn't practice on people in captive situations, like being in line at the bank. Which of you should I believe?

[1] can't find the link right now, and I can't even mention one of the people's names

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 06:22:48PM 5 points [-]

Well, full disclosure: I'm a really extroverted person, so I apologize if I may be trivializing the art of small talk. That's definitely not my intention, since I want to make it clear that it's a skill that is to be learned. Also, the conversational nuances are a bit different if you're chatting up someone of the opposite sex versus just making small talk with a random stranger. I'm only talking about the latter, I don't claim to have any helpful advice regarding the former. ;) I'm assuming that's what the "captive situation" thing refers to.

Generally, people like to talk. Sometimes they don't. You might be a brilliant conversationalist and run into someone who's pissed off and doesn't want to talk, so you shouldn't take that personally. You can pick up cues about people as to how amenable they are to conversation; if they're avoiding all eye contact with everyone in the area, that's a bad sign. If you make eye contact and smile, that's a good sign. If you're not practiced at small talk, you start with the smiley people. Practice talking to people who are good at conversation; observe the way they steer conversations and what their mannerisms are.

Comment author: cousin_it 15 June 2010 06:36:07PM *  12 points [-]

If you're extroverted by nature, you probably have no experience in making yourself extroverted, and so are unqualified to give advice. You can teach by example, though.

I notice this pattern a lot. Naturally talented singers can't teach you how to sing because they don't know it. If you don't perceive the obstacles that your students claim to face, you have no business teaching, no matter how good you are at the activity itself. A lot of harmful advice to introverts (like the dreaded "just be yourself") comes from people such as you. I say that as a former introvert who successfully changed :-)

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 06:40:30PM 3 points [-]

Yeah, I didn't realize I was entering into a discussion on how to acquire extroversion! I admit, I'm unqualified there. But I definitely do have experience, and advice to give, on how to steer conversation toward interesting topics for both individuals interested in having a conversation, which is what I thought we were talking about in the first place. :)

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 06:54:40PM *  -1 points [-]

What cousin_it said, times a thousand. Harsh, but true.

Ability to do something does not imply ability to teach it. It just means you've reached Level 1. Until you can imagine what it was like to be without your skill, and the mental steps you went through going out of that state, you will be forever giving advice that assumes away the problem.

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 07:02:19PM *  4 points [-]

It helps if student and teacher are both clear on what the subject being taught actually is in the first place, and which level everybody is starting at. The fact remains that just because you're not good at making small talk doesn't mean that the opportunity isn't there, everywhere. Either way, in order to get better, you will have to practice, regardless of how difficult it is to get to the point of even being able to practice. Kaj Sotala's post wasn't about how to talk to random strangers, but how to get to interesting conversations with someone you're already talking to. It's a bit unfair to accuse people who are here to help with that issue of not being helpful on a related, but different one.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 June 2010 07:09:26PM 0 points [-]

Kaj Sotala's post wasn't about how to talk to random strangers, but how to get to interesting conversations to some you're already talking to. It's a bit unfair to accuse people who are here to help with that issue of not being helpful on a related, but different one.

Perhaps, but your advice required the ability to successfully start conversations, since you were suggesting to talk to random people:

Who doesn't have easy opportunities to increase their number of conversations, other than a total shut-in? People are everywhere, and therefore, so are potential conversations. You might not have the most interesting conversation with the guy standing behind you in line at the bank,

It's true that practice is necessary, but not just any practice will suffice. And following the practice recommendations you gave would not be helpful unless the problem were mostly solved to begin with.

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 15 June 2010 07:19:54PM *  4 points [-]

Perhaps, but your advice required the ability to successfully start conversations, since you were suggesting to talk to random people

Well, the entire topic of the original post was contingent upon already being in a situation of engaging in small talk with someone. The LW meet-up, for example. If you are already able to start conversation with someone, but wanting to skill up in steering the conversation into interesting avenues, Kaj Sotala's post should be very helpful. Being able to make small talk does not at all imply skill in having interesting conversation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 June 2010 04:53:41PM 6 points [-]

I think I've come up with a reasonable algorithm for determining if a stranger is open to conversation. (Mostly tested on females in New Jersey.) I developed it out of desperation, because, for a while now, if I didn't talk to strangers, I wouldn't be talking to anyone in person except my immediate family.

The algorithm:

  • Smile and make eye contact.

  • If eye contact is not returned within a reasonable period of time, find someone else. If eye contact is returned, wave.

  • If the stranger waves back or shows some other noticeable positive reaction, go ahead and introduce yourself.

The key seems to be the eye contact; as far as I can tell, if someone is willing to make eye contact with you, they're usually willing to talk with you, and making eye contact seems to be inoffensive in most situations. You'll probably get some false negatives, but false positives tend to be worse than false negatives and the false positive rate seems to be almost zero; you usually don't creep people out by deciding to leave them alone.

Also, fan conventions (anime, gaming, etc.) are great places to find people willing to socialize with strangers. And take a camera; people often wear elaborate costumes at these events, and complimenting someone's cosplay outfit has been a good conversation opener for me. (This is me at Otakon 2009.) I've also had some luck talking to fellow customers at bookstores; you know a few really good books you can recommend, right?

Comment author: Blueberry 16 June 2010 01:14:37AM 6 points [-]

Not everyone will agree with me on this, and I know this is controversial. But I have the firm belief that no one becomes good at conversation, dating, or any social skill without the equivalent of "creeping out 20[0] people in a row": it's just that most people make most of their big social mistakes when they're very young (just like most people's middle or high school experiments with romance or sex end up being total disasters). If you're not willing to creep out 200 or so people in a row, you'll never learn.

The "avoid captive situations" comment is not particularly helpful for someone trying to learn social skills. In fact, I'd say it's harmful, because the concern about making people feel uncomfortable is a big part of social anxiety, and social anxiety is what prevents people from developing social skills.

Comment author: SilasBarta 16 June 2010 03:38:57AM 2 points [-]

Okay, who were your first 200? Please list 50 of the incidents when the venue supervisor asked you to leave or modify your behavior.

Comment author: Blueberry 16 June 2010 07:45:25AM 2 points [-]

Why are you asking that? I'm missing your point.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 June 2010 08:35:48AM *  6 points [-]

Not wishing to speak for Silas, but it looks to me like this. You believe that:

I have the firm belief that no one becomes good at conversation, dating, or any social skill without the equivalent of "creeping out 20[0] people in a row"

If you believe that you are not good at conversation, then you are speculating without practical experience. If you believe you are good at conversation, then by your account you must have gone through your 200 people. Silas is challenging you to share your experience of doing so -- I presume as a check on whether you really believe it, or merely believe that you believe it.

Creeping out 200 people in a row is like suggesting you can't learn to ride a bicycle without breaking a few bones. It's way excessive. Even creeping out 20 people in a row (Silas' figure, which you chose to amend upwards, which argues against this being idle hyperbole) is an absurdity. By the time you're creeping someone out, you're already way off course.

Comment author: Blueberry 16 June 2010 05:29:22PM 3 points [-]

You're correct that if you go up to a random person 200 times and start talking, you will probably not creep out all 200. I was exaggerating, which is why I said "the equivalent of" creeping 200 people out: my point was that everyone needs to make lots of awkward mistakes to learn social skills, and that you need to be willing to do so. Silas stated that this wasn't an acceptable risk, and I amended his figure upward to indicate that you have to be willing to deal with even worse outcomes than he was fearing, even if they're unlikely to occur, and that learning conversational skills can be difficult and involve a lot of rejection.

I'm not going to list all my mistakes, but I have certainly made more than 200 awkward comments to people, experienced more than 200 rejections, made people feel uncomfortable more than 200 times, and so forth (though not in a row, admittedly). It doesn't make you "way off course"; it's the only way to learn.

Comment author: SilasBarta 16 June 2010 07:22:56PM *  0 points [-]

It looks like we're referring to different things by the term "[equivalent of] creeping people out". I agree you will have to make mistakes and get rejections. But I was referring to a specific context for the "creeping out".

Specifically, the problem at hand was that of how to get good at starting conversations with random strangers. The strategy being recommended was one that dismissed the downside of creeping out random strangers (which is often associated with the venue supervisor -- boss, proprietor, conductor, bouncer, whatever -- telling you to stop or leave).

My comment was that, no, doing things that disruptive and creepy, that often, in that short of a period, is not an acceptable risk, and not what you should suggest anyone should do if that's the risk.

(And RichardKennaway confirmed that enduring that kind of social ostracism is way excessive for the skill being learned, so I'm not alone in this assessment.)

You, in turn, were taking "creeping out" to refer to relatively minor goofs in a context where the consequences are much less severe, where you've already done significant deft social navigation around that group, and where those who see the error have good reason to be much more understanding of the goof. While I agree that rejections, mistakes, etc. are to be expected and are part of life, you were equating very different kinds of rejections, and -- like most sociality advisors here -- assuming away the problem of having passed a certain social barrier.

In any case, those are far different kinds of failures than "becoming the creepy guy at the bookstore" or having people get the bouncer to talk to you because of conversational goofs (which has happened to me, so this isn't idle speculation). You have an inaccurate picture of what you were expecting me to go through, so your advice, though relevant for other social skills, was not applicable here, and comes across as -- like Richard noted -- shrugging off the possibility of breaking bones to learn how to ride a bike, as if it's no big deal.

Am I starting to make sense here?


And who modded this down? I'm sorry the comment I made which Richard elaborated on was too brief to make my point, but why shouldn't I have made that comment? Should I not have confirmed that Richard was correctly representing my objection?

I don't care about the loss of karma here, but I want to know why someone deems it "a type of comment I want less of". I get that if I were merely agreeing, it was a waste of space, but since I was the one making the original comment, my agreement and confirmation is informative to the discussion.

Comment author: SilasBarta 16 June 2010 01:05:01PM 1 point [-]

Thank you, well said.

Comment author: AlexMennen 15 June 2010 12:09:20AM 3 points [-]

I find that meta-conversation can make a good default for small talk in the absence of inspiration to talk about anything else in particular, but that has the disadvantage of seeming a bit strange when talking to people you do not know very well, which is the situation in which the problem is most likely to arise in the first place.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 15 June 2010 04:31:02AM 3 points [-]

I use this as a fun test. people who don't find meta analysis fun aren't the kind of people I get along with anyway, so I'm just saving time.

Comment author: LucasSloan 18 June 2010 04:23:27AM 2 points [-]

Meta-conversation works as a default if and only if both (all) parties to the conversation want to be talking. It doesn't help if you're trying to have a conversation with someone who you just walked up to or whatever.

Comment author: Kevin 15 June 2010 12:13:34AM 2 points [-]

Meta-conversations are my favorite kind of small talk, but >50% of people have never had a meta-conversation, at least not ones like like we have here.

Comment author: ChristianKl 16 June 2010 07:22:01AM 2 points [-]

What's your experience with the process? Does it actually helps you to have better conversation or is the argument mainly that it should help?

Comment author: Vive-ut-Vivas 16 June 2010 06:40:43PM *  1 point [-]

I mentioned a few comments below that I have experience with this method. It works. What I've worked on is specifically rehearsing the transitions between topics, and you can even practice this with a friend who pretends to be a stranger. Role playing is actually fantastic for acquiring conversation skill, and both of you benefit.

**I don't want to re-start the argument from last night, so I want to say that this method is only helpful if you're trying to get from small talk to meaningful conversation, not trying to break the ice in the first place.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2010 07:33:57AM 0 points [-]

It seems like it should help, but I haven't had a chance to test it out yet.

Comment author: nickernst 16 June 2010 06:34:53AM 2 points [-]

Kaj, this seems like a valuable approach (and it's a pity I didn't get to chat with you - RPG design has been on the forefront of my thoughts lately, and I inevitably think of the Kalevala (and fabbing and ip law by extension) when I go to a LW meetup, as Michael Vassar is the only other person I've met who has any familiarity with it!)

I've done this before with high success at general social events. However, I find myself doing it wrong sometimes, and LW meetups are one of the best examples of why: assuming other people have limited interests. Because the strongest common thread between most people in the SIAI house is a set of subjects in which I feel deficient, I find myself thinking about those topics, and with little confidence. This puts me in the mindset of listening, to learn and avoid embarrassment, but at the cost of fun and good conversation. If anyone else has this problem, it's a bland recipe for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given that, I'd say it's valuable not just to consider your reasons for wanting to converse (as Peter Lambert-Cole mentioned), but why other people might want to converse. You won't have as much fun as you could if you don't intend to, and you won't intend to if you strongly restrict your precaching due to false expectations of why other people want to converse (or about what subjects).

I also find that mild exercise and consumption of chocolate and mint before socializing tend to correspond with the finest conversations, but this is purely anecdotal.

Comment author: Matt_Duing 14 June 2010 01:31:16AM 2 points [-]

I have the same problem also and it sounds like this will help. Thank you.

Comment author: cupholder 14 June 2010 01:01:23AM 2 points [-]

Good post. One little editorial comment:

(If that isn't showing properly, use this direct link to the picture.)

The picture's showing OK here, but it's a little wide so the very right hand edge of it is cut off by the sidebar.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 14 June 2010 01:13:27AM 1 point [-]

Made the picture a bit smaller.

Comment author: rortian 16 June 2010 03:48:09AM 0 points [-]

A png version would look a lot better. Did you use pajek to make it?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2010 04:11:11AM 0 points [-]

StarUML. Which was probably a pretty bad tool for it, but it was what I had installed.

Comment author: rortian 16 June 2010 04:51:16AM 2 points [-]

So the nice thing about pajek, and some other network displaying software, is that you can use algorithms that will attempt display things that are closely related to each other closer together. If I were going to produce your graphic I would:

  1. Get the graph in memory some how, for one this size I would just set up some hash maps in irb
  2. Write a text file where each line consists of two nodes that are connected seperated by a tab.
  3. Use the software here: http://vlado.fmf.uni-lj.si/pub/networks/pajek/howto/text2pajek.htm to get a pajek file
  4. Open it in pajek and preform a physics based layout algorithim
  5. Export to png

It's pretty cool what you can get out form this (I made this: http://a3.twimg.com/profile_images/56256047/bhtv3d.png Network of bhtv coversations) and there's a lot to be gained by checked out what ends up near the center etc.

Let me know if you have any questions. I'd be glad to help.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2010 06:41:09AM 0 points [-]

Oh, that sounds great. Thank you - I've actually been looking for something like that for a while now.

Comment author: cupholder 14 June 2010 01:22:57AM 0 points [-]

Looks good.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 June 2010 10:03:56PM 7 points [-]

Hey, not to sound intimidating or anything, but it's a sad fact that while Michael Vassar and I have gigantic webs of precomputed original ideas, we can also generate original ideas in real time.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 15 June 2010 11:33:34AM *  14 points [-]

Sort-of. I can generate original ideas in real time IF by real time you mean 'thinking about my ideas when I'm speaking and half thinking half listening when the other person is speaking". That's not the best conversational dynamic though. It's better when I actually allow/create pauses between listening to the other person and thinking (the opposite dynamic from my more common mode of interrupting the other person). If my thoughts are a few seconds ahead of my words much of the time when I'm talking I'm more likely to be able to spare enough attention to notice the other person's feelings. Likewise, if I'm fully listening to them I'm more likely to catch nuances and deepen my understanding faster. Also, my thoughts are partially transparent. If I'm not fully listening the person is likely to get that impression, not feel understood, make less effort to understand me, and waste conversational time by repetition in order to ensure that they are understood.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 15 June 2010 08:04:05PM 8 points [-]

A gigantic web of precomputed ideas also has a bigger border area where you can generate new ideas with relatively lightweight combination and modification of the existing ones.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 June 2010 07:14:04PM 3 points [-]

That's definitely going on.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 14 June 2010 01:35:22AM *  4 points [-]

I don't have this problem at all. I have much more the opposite problem, interacting with people who have zero interest in any interesting discussions but want to talk about inane subjects. No, I don't want to hear about what celebrity is cheating with whom. No, conversations should not also be repetition of some TV show you found funny. Etc. Etc. My general solution (which isn't a good one) is to just try to avoid the people who aren't willing to have interesting conversation topics.

Edit: I should add that there are some complicating factors. I try to distinguish between subjects which I find interesting and subjects which are intrinsically interesting. For example, I find art history to be not interesting at all, and borderline boring, but it seems like an intrinsically interesting subject. Math is something I find interesting and consider to be intrinsically interesting. Celebrities are not interesting nor are they intrinsically interesting. D&D is probably not intrinsically interesting but I find it interesting. The rough idea is that there are some subjects which are acceptable intellectual topics so that even if I don't enjoy them I won't be annoyed at people for trying to discuss them. But there are other subjects which any attempt to discuss around people unless you absolutely know those people are interested in those subjects is inconsiderate. I'm not sure that these notions are well-defined.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 June 2010 01:56:45AM *  10 points [-]

I challenge you to define them, and will donate $10 to a charity of your choice if your definition gets a karma score of at least 3 points.

No cheating by naming your charity before you reach the target, or by sock-puppeting.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 14 June 2010 02:26:12AM *  3 points [-]

You should also specify a time-limit since the entry is posted since there's no length of time beyond which comments can't be voted up. Edit: You should also probably specify that I can't ask anyone to vote up the definition (and you should similarly specify that I can't promise any specific activity on my part if it does get upvoted beyond a certain point).. And you should specify that I can't put them in a post that has other information other than the definitions (and thus cause upvotes that aren't connected).

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 June 2010 03:24:51AM 3 points [-]

Let's just say I trust you to outhink yourself...

I'll give you two weeks and change to gain the karma -- deadline is Noon GMT, June 28th, 2010.

Comment author: khafra 14 June 2010 02:33:17PM 5 points [-]

This needs to be tested for predictive power, but I believe the main reason you lost so quickly is that you bet money against another form of utility with no direct convertability. Having equally fungible forfeits on both sides of the bet makes it more symmetrical.

To venture into fuzzier grounds: The other reason I believe the asymmetry of the bet made you lose so quickly is that the average LWer can predict with high confidence that JoshuaZ will choose one of their top 5 charities.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 June 2010 03:19:14PM *  3 points [-]

I believe the main reason you lost so quickly is that you bet money against another form of utility

A decent analysis, but it's premised on a bad assumption. I didn't bet; I issued a challenge. Notice that, unlike in a bet, if JoshuaZ failed, he would not necessarily have forfeited karma to me or anyone else. I certainly agree with you that it would be foolish to bet money against karma. I see my actions more as offering a prize for the successful completion of a task than as betting that JoshuaZ would be unable to complete the task.

the average LWer can predict with high confidence that JoshuaZ will choose one of their top 5 charities.

Sure, but they're still unlikely to vote up a bullshit post. Maybe that gives JoshuaZ a moderate handicap, but my primary purpose was to inspire JoshuaZ to produce a useful analysis that interested me, and not to inspire the LW crowd to precisely assess the worth of that analysis. I suppose in the future I might set a slightly higher threshold -- maybe 7 or 8 karma points.

Comment author: bentarm 14 June 2010 11:13:46PM 1 point [-]

the average LWer can predict with high confidence that JoshuaZ will choose one of their top 5 charities.

Sure, but they're still unlikely to vote up a bullshit post.

Having read JoshuaZ's previous contributions to the conversation, and having read the challenge, I was pretty much intending to vote up his response as long as it wasn't completely inane (it had already crossed the threshold when I read it, so I didn't bother).

I wonder if any of the (presumably three) people who did upvote it before it crossed the threshold had similar thought processes...?

Comment author: cupholder 14 June 2010 11:23:08PM 0 points [-]

I wonder if any of the (presumably three) people who did upvote it before it crossed the threshold had similar thought processes...?

I'm one of the people who upvoted it, and I think I had a similar thought process. I wasn't movitated by a belief that JoshuaZ would choose a charity I liked, though. I just read his post and thought his attempted definition was a good try, and (more importantly) that it was an interesting clarification that would provoke good discussion.

Comment author: khafra 14 June 2010 04:17:01PM *  0 points [-]

My analysis assumes that any challenge like that is a bet of money against some social value; if there were no utility on one side the challenge would not be taken up; if there were no utility on the other side the challenge would not be offered.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 June 2010 04:27:33PM 0 points [-]

I'm sorry; I don't understand.

There is, as you say, utility on both sides of the transaction. What does that have to with whether a bet has been placed?

Comment author: khafra 14 June 2010 05:11:07PM 0 points [-]

Is it a challenge, or a bet? I'm just saying that examining it as a bet offers some insight into the unexpectedly lopsided results.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 14 June 2010 03:38:57AM *  8 points [-]

I challenge you to define them, and will donate $10 to a charity of your choice if your definition gets a karma score of at least 3 points.

Ok, then. Here's my attempt.

Intrinsically interesting topics are topics which satisfy the following criteria:

1) The topic cannot be discussed by an adult human of average intelligence without putting in some cognitive effort and attention. (If you can be busy thinking about another topic while discussing it, then it probably isn't intrinsically interesting). If the topic cannot be discussed by a human of average intelligence then this condition is considered to be met.

2) The topic must have objective aspects which are a primary aspect of the topic.

3) The topic must have some overarching theories to connect the topic or have the possibility of overarching theories explain the topic. Thus for example, celebrity divorces would not fall into this category because they are separate unconnected data points. But differing divorces rates in different income brackets would be ok because one could potentially have interesting sociological explanations for the data.

4) The topic must have bridges to many other topics that aren't simply a variation of the topic itself. For example, AI bridges to programming, psychology, nature of human morality, evolution, neurobiology, and epistemology. In contrast, D&D rules don't connect to other topics in any strong way. There are some minimally interesting probability questions that you can ask if you are writing a quiz for an undergraduate probability course but that's about it. Most of the other topics that it is connected to are still variations of the same topic such as say what a society would look like in a universe that functioned under standard 3.5 D&D rules.

Comment author: Darmani 14 June 2010 07:42:41AM 8 points [-]

In contrast, D&D rules don't connect to other topics in any strong way.

I doubt that. Before I had finished the paragraph, things that came to mind included board games, what underlying skills transfer between different board games and RPGs (from empirical evidence, they exists and are large), what the appeal of roleplaying a fictional character it is, which different desires roleplaying versus powergaming satisfy, what makes a character attractive to roleplay, what makes a roleplay performance fun, what makes a D&D setting enticing, how to create an enticing D&D setting, whether the most fun is had when the DM does a good job of almost killing the characters (as someone told me), and more. These, of course, give hooks to combinatorial game theory, personality, improv acting, fiction writing, and fun theory. With the possible exception of personality (though it's a small leap to MUDs and the Bartle 4, so probably not an exception), all of these play quite important roles in D&D.

I suppose I'm muddying it a bit since some of those things are connected to D&D but not directly to D&D rules, though your original post simply mentioned D&D.

Knowledge is connected enough that I'd be quite impressed if anyone could find (or, heck, invent) a topic which fails criterion 4.

Comment author: RobinZ 14 June 2010 05:35:24PM 7 points [-]

Even D&D rules connect to the general problem of creating games which are understandable and playable and the problem of creating reasonable facsimiles of reality - these contrast in an interesting way with the scientific problem of creating computationally-tractable models which predict reality, for example.

Comment author: Alicorn 18 June 2010 02:23:20AM 2 points [-]

D&D rules don't connect to other topics in any strong way.

Do you exclude D&D content from "D&D rules"? I'd agree that, say, attack of opportunity intricacies don't connect well to anything; but something like how D&D handles werecreatures could connect to all kinds of other stuff in fantasy lit.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 June 2010 02:32:30AM 1 point [-]

When I said rules I was thinking something very narrow like the actual content of the 3.5 SRD which is more or less flavorless. Your point seems to be related to Darmani's criticism about the fourth criterion. This suggests that my criteria for intrinsically interesting as laid out above are serious flawed at least in so far as they fail to capture my intuition for what is intrinsically interesting in that D&D rules shouldn't be considered intrinsically interesting for reasons similar to why the infield fly rule in baseball isn't intrinsically interesting. This conversation makes me suspect that the distinction I am trying to make has no actual validity.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 18 June 2010 02:34:48AM *  1 point [-]

The key, I think, is to distinguish between topics that remind you of other topics, and topics that, upon being comprehended, actually help you understand other topics.

D&D rules remind you of D&D content, which helps you understand fantasy literature. D&D rules, by themselves, though, don't help you understand much of anything else.

Likewise, baseball helps me understand antitrust law enforcement, because baseball has a Congressional exemption to antitrust laws. The exemption has virtually nothing to do with the infield fly rule, though. The infield fly rule reminds me of baseball, but by itself it sheds no light on antitrust law enforcement.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 June 2010 03:45:13AM 5 points [-]

D&D rules, by themselves, though, don't help you understand much of anything else.

  • The influence of Charisma on social discourse, and things like intimidation and bluffing.
  • The role of strength vs dexterity, the difference between 'intelligence' and 'wisdom'.
  • Most natural traits, including brain makeup personality and body type are determined by genetics but some small changes can be made over time.
  • When it comes to performance of skills natural talent plays some part but the overwhelming majority of influence comes from which skills you learn.
  • Sometimes things boil down to shere dumb luck. All you can do is make the best decisions you can under uncertainty, don't take it personally when something improbably bad happens but also minimize the expected consequences if you roll a zero.
  • Most things boil down to the judgement of the guy in charge. (It's not what you know, it is who you know, and whether you are sleeping with the GM.)
  • It is really hard to do stuff when it is dark.
  • The best way to improve your social skills is to go around killing lots of people and apply what you learn from that to diplomacy, bluff and intimidate...
Comment author: Mass_Driver 18 June 2010 04:33:32AM 1 point [-]

All right, time to beat a strategic retreat. I'm going to stop defending my thesis that JoshuaZ's definition is rigorous.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 June 2010 02:41:53AM *  0 points [-]

Even if the evolution of the infield fly rule has been used as an example of how common law naturally forms? No, I'm not making that up. Not anti-trust law, but still pretty close to legal matters.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 14 June 2010 08:14:49PM 2 points [-]

It seems like your rules 2) and 3) would disqualify literature as an interesting topic.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 June 2010 08:21:18PM 2 points [-]

Right, but we're looking for flaws with his criteria.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 June 2010 03:20:36PM 2 points [-]

Thanks! Feel free to name your charity whenever you like.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 14 June 2010 09:45:09PM *  6 points [-]

Ok. Thought about this. The standard charity here seems to be the SIAI. I'm not convinced of Eliezer's estimates for expected return for donations to SIAI (primarily because I put the probability of a Singularity in the foreseeable future to be low). Moreover, if everyone always has donations to SIAI be the result of all LW bets and contests, the level of incentive to bet will go down and so one should try to have a variety of charities that people will not mind but might not be the highest priority charity for many people here. But, I'd also like to ensure that I don't cause negative utility to you by making you donate to an organization with which you don't approve. So, my solution is I'm going to list four organizations and you can choose which of the four the donation goes to:

The four are the James Randi Educational Foundation, the National Center for Science Education, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, or the SENS Foundation.

And I'll match your earlier offer as follows: If you make a post here explaining why you choose the one you did and that post gets at least three karma upvotes by 12 AM GMT on July 1st, I'll also donate $10 to that organization. (And presumably the same rules against obvious silliness apply as before).

Comment author: Mass_Driver 18 June 2010 02:18:23AM 6 points [-]

I choose the SENS Foundation, and have donated the $10 via Paypal. The transaction ID is #8YL863192L9547414, although I'm not sure how or whether that helps you verify payment. Maybe somebody can teach me how to provide public proof of private payment.

The SENS Foundation, as I understand it, is in the business of curing aging.

The reason why I chose the SENS Foundation is that I believe that, of the four options, it will do the most to convince people that rational thinking and empirical observation are worthwhile. This, in turn, is my best guess at what will reduce existential risk. Because I can't know, today, with any confidence what the most important existential risks will be over the next 50 years or so, I want my donations to nudge the world closer to a state where there are enough rational empiricists to successfully address whatever turn out to be the big existential crises.

Why do I think the SENS Foundation will promote science-y views? Basically, I think the most effective technique for getting irrational people to change their worldview is to prevent them with overwhelmingly compelling evidence that the world is hugely different from the way they imagined it to be. Ideally, the evidence would be emotionally uplifting and clearly attributable to the work of scientists. A manned flight to the Moon fits that bill. So would a cure for aging.

Although spiritualists and fundamentalists of all stripes have tremendous resources in terms of stubbornness, denial, and rationalization, it is harder to rationalize away a central fact of life than it is to rationalize away a peer-reviewed study from Nature that you read an excerpt of in the USA Today. You see the moon every night; people went there. It's hard to escape. More to the point, you don't want to escape. It's somehow really cool to believe that people can fly to the moon. So you maybe let go of your suspicion that the Earth is the center of the Universe and let your friend tell you about Newton and Galileo for a moment.

Same thing with aging. Your parents' friends are right there, 80 years old and still acting like they're 30. You can't help but be aware of the anti-aging cure. You can't help but be impressed, and think it's cool. You might still believe that mortality is a good thing, or that there's an afterlife, but you at least welcome medical science into your pantheon of interesting and legitimate things to believe in.

James Randi is a pretty bad-ass mythbuster, and I'm glad NCSE is fighting the good fight to keep "creation science" out of America's public schools. However many people they manage to convince of the importance of critical thinking, though, I think a cure for aging will convince even more. There's nothing quite like being WRONG about something you've always assumed was indisputably correct to make critical thinking look worthwhile. In this case, the bad assumption is "I will die."

As for Alcor, it's also a worthwhile cause, but it's an uphill battle to convince people that freezing themselves and waiting for the future is a way to cheat death. Curing aging is more straightforward, more user-friendly, and more useful in the event of a partial success -- if cryonics partially fails, you're probably still dead, but if an anti-aging cure fails, you're probably going to get another few decades of healthy life.

Thanks for the opportunity to choose, and to explain!

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 June 2010 01:57:09PM *  2 points [-]

Ok. Matched donation.. Receipt ID is 4511-9941-6738-9681

Incidentally, I'm not convinced that major scientific accomplishments actually will serve to increase rationality. To examine the example you gave of the Moon landings, there is in fact a sizable fraction of the US which considers that to be a hoax. Depending on the exact question asked 5% to about 20% of the population doesn't believe we that people have gone to the Moon in the US, and the percentage is larger for people outside the US.See this Gallup poll and this British poll showing that 25% of people in Britain doubt that we went to the moon. Unfortunately, that article just summarizes the poll and I can't seem to find free access to the poll itself. But it also contains the noteworthy remark that "Further revelations concerning the British public’s perception of the historic event include 11 per cent who believe the Moon-landing occurred during the 1980s and 1 per cent who believe the first man on the Moon was Buzz Lightyear." I suspect the 1 per cent can get thrown out, but the 11% looks genuine.

Americans at least cared more about rationality, critical thinking and science when it looked like they were losing the space race after Sputnik. A lot of improvements to our high school curricula occurred after that.

It isn't obvious to me that SENS will do the best job improving rationality.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 18 June 2010 02:23:52PM 2 points [-]

Americans at least cared more about rationality, critical thinking and science when it looked like they were losing the space race after Sputnik.

I mean, if you want, we could switch our donations to fund a program that makes sure the Russians discover a cure for aging...

Depending on the exact question asked 5% to about 20% of the population doesn't believe we that people have gone to the Moon in the US

OK, but that's the wrong statistic. What percent of the U.S. population insists that the Earth is flat and/or the center of the Universe? How does that compare to the percent of the U.S. population that insists that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?

Incidentally, I'm not convinced that major scientific accomplishments actually will serve to increase rationality.

Perhaps not directly, in the sense I originally claimed. Nevertheless, major scientific accomplishments should help solve the problem of expecting short inferential distances. If you have just flown to the moon or cured aging, even people who expect short inferential distances will not assume you are crazy when you boldly assert things that don't immediately seem intuitive. They will give you a moment to explain, which is what I really want to happen when, e.g., scientists are proposing solutions to the existential crisis du jour.

Comment author: rortian 16 June 2010 03:22:12AM 1 point [-]

I think you are thinking about this the wrong way. Coming into a social situation with a prepared set of ideas to cover is something a preacher does. Doesn't mean it doesn't have its place for certain situations, but it is not the way to approach having a conversation.

Good conversations are a complicated interaction between people. If you want to have a good one with someone, you need to hold their interest as well as your own. To extend a ridiculous metaphor a little further, cache misses in this context with cost you a bit more than a few hundred cycles, it could blow a chance at a quality interaction with another person.

I find the best technique for conversation is to try to find something that they are interested in. You never know where it might lead, and that is interesting.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2010 04:31:22AM 1 point [-]

I think you're misinterpreting my post somehow. I'm not saying you should have a ready list of ideas to convince other people of. I'm saying you should be prepared to have something to say about a lot of things, and be able to shift topics until you find a subject the other person also has an interest in.

Of course, if the other person is capable and willing to do that, that's fine as well, but not everyone is. You'll miss out on a lot of interesting discussions if you're not capable of doing your own part.

Comment author: rortian 16 June 2010 04:41:04AM 0 points [-]

Don't know if I did, but I think this caching notion is a bad way to look at it. However, to inject a positive note, thinking about the connections between your interests is a fruitful activity that has value far beyond pre planning conversations.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 June 2010 06:43:52AM 2 points [-]

Don't know if I did, but I think this caching notion is a bad way to look at it.

Could you elaborate a bit more on why you think so?

Comment author: Taure 14 July 2010 09:04:04PM 0 points [-]

To insert myself into your conversation:

One feels that the idea of caching component parts of conversations for use and re-use somewhat misses the point of a conversation in the first place. A conversation is a two-way interaction between real people. It's not a mechanical process, nor a debate, nor is it simply transfer of information. Human interaction isn't just about sharing ideas, it's about making a connection on a personal level.

If human conversation was as it is presented here, autistic people would not have so much trouble understanding normal human interaction. They could simply "follow the script", as it were.

Having a conversation with someone following this method would, I suspect, feel rather unnatural and stilted - almost like a charade.

Comment author: rortian 16 June 2010 02:15:15PM *  0 points [-]

Sure. You are having to cache each thought with certain assumptions in mind (e.g. group of people that like the singularity, people that tolerate talking about the possibility of computers, people that take fantasy seriously, a person that doesn't seem interested in any of the things that the aforementioned might). If we try to think about these assumptions as variables, attempting to cache for a future conversations quickly leads to combinatoric explosion leaving you with an impossible number of things to think about before. This forces you to consider a small number of cases that may well do more harm then good.

I also don't like cache here because of how static in implies the ideas are. Conversation, and quality thinking, are dynamic and deserve to be let evolve on their own.

Comment author: simplicio 16 June 2010 02:38:33PM 1 point [-]

...a good looking woman that doesn't seem interested in any of the things that the aforementioned might...

Not to be humourless, but I wonder if this could be rephrased to something a little more neutral.

Comment author: rortian 16 June 2010 02:53:36PM 1 point [-]

Done. I didn't mean to imply that none of the others mentioned were attractive, but I understand the concern. Thanks for the heads up.

Comment author: PeerInfinity 16 June 2010 04:23:21PM *  0 points [-]

Great, now I have several more things to add to my to-do list. Though I guess the proper place for this is what "Getting Things Done" calls the "someday maybe" list...

todo:

  • Create one of these conversation maps for myself.

  • Check if there is any way to integrate this with the tag and script system I was already planning to create for my own personal journal/blog/wiki. Even just some clickable links to relevant wikipages would be useful.

  • Consider adding to the graph a list of unresolved questions in each topic, or interesting insights that seem worth telling others about, and getting feedback on.

  • Consider creating a script to compare two people's graphs and recommend topics of conversation. This would work better if the graph's resolution went down to specific subtopics.

  • Consider setting up a system to automatically wikify logs of conversations, updating any relevant tags or graph nodes, whether some topics or resolved, or some new unresolved issues were introduced. Check if there is an iphone or android app to automatically do voice recognition and save the text of the conversation to a transcript. Or maybe just an app for a laptop.

  • Read the rest of this LW post's comments thread.

  • Check if anyone else has already created a system like the one I'm describing.

Comment author: Mar_17 15 June 2010 06:56:25AM -2 points [-]

As Dale Carnegie says: Ask questions and get the other person talking. People love to talk and so the great conversationalist is really the great polite inquisitioner and listener.

Comment author: KrisC 15 June 2010 12:30:02AM 0 points [-]

Perhaps the mapping method could benefit from some refinement.

You, Kaj, acknowledge that some of these posts may be controversial. This is a good start, but from my experience there is a portion of the population that finds even discussion of personal information unpleasant. The beginning of a fresh relationship is about creating a safe conversational space. Assessing the listener's reaction to your communication. If you truly mean to map future conversations, then a guided walk with specific branch points based on listener attitudes may be helpful.

However, I worry that you may be taking some of the "interesting" out of the conversation. Perhaps brainstorming on the different the type of people you are likely to meet will allow you to generate topics you wish to learn more about. I would suspect that you are better able to converse with those whom you have much in common with. The graph depicts conversations that the majority of the population have little interest in.

In fact, I would be more interested in exploring these topics in a hypertext document. I just tried to click on entries (they are underlined as if linked) and was disappointed. Especially enticing is the personal background--climate change--job connection and your unusual set of connections to world building.

Another thought: isn't SIAI engaged in world building?