Talking About the Weather to Gain Trust

When I think back on the things that I believed as a self-assured young twenty-something, one of the more glaringly dumb ideas that comes to mind was my distaste for “small talk.” I even wrote an essay on this site pretty clearly (and aggressively) elaborating my reasons. Surely, there was some merit to it — even today I can find constant discussion of the weather, sporting events, or other recent news, kind of dull — but it was blind to a whole other facet of reality.

When I most enjoy a conversation, it’s when we’ve moved beyond the superficial and safe topics. It’s when we’re talking deeply about some topic that people don’t talk about much for fear that it exposes too much of themselves. Some of my most cherished conversations were ones about dealing with overwhelm, fear, or other traditionally protected topics.

Where my 21-year-old self was woefully stupid is that I thought it was either possible or desirable to just drop into a conversation with a stranger and expect to talk about something as deep as their spirituality or their highest aspirations for their time on Earth.

Most people are, understandably, protected and a bit apprehensive to dive in deeply very quickly. Time has taught them that they can’t and shouldn’t just trust every stranger with their deepest hopes and fears. This is a rational and understandable protection strategy. And even as I frequently pined for a world free of small-talk, I engaged in this very protection strategy. I just didn’t understand this logic of protection.

To disclose their deepest secrets to someone, anyone with a self-preservation instinct will want some assurance of safety. And for most people, trust that they understand a person, their drives, and motives is that assurance. And without some history of interacting with someone and having good outcomes result, people are unlikely to touch any topic that has a reasonable probability of leading to a bad outcome.

You disagree with someone about the weather and you laugh. You disagree with someone about politics, or the existence of God, or the fundamental purpose of life, and you may well want to strap in your seatbelt for an explosion. That — not stupidity, nor malice, nor vanity — is why many conversations are constrained to safe and dull topics.

Now I get that. And I’m getting better at, “Hello, stranger. Nice day isn’t it?”


Why You Must Let People Check Out From Conversations

Sometimes in a conversation, especially a sensitive or heated one, you can tell you’ve hit a brick wall. When you recognize that, it is essential that you allow your conversational partner to check out of the conversation. If you don’t, it’s virtually guaranteed that something far worse than a lack of closure will be the outcome.

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“They’re invariably nice and interesting if you actually give a shit and try”

Please excuse the profanity of the title, but it’s one of those things that’s stated so simply and undeniably by someone else that I’d be a jerk if I changed it solely for the sake of propriety. Jesse Thorn penned the tweet quoted in this title over three years ago, and it still sticks in my head.

He said it about interviewing, which is his profession, but it stuck in my head Continue reading


Meandering Thoughts about How to Encounter the World

One of the things about knowing the ultimate question is that you may ask it everywhere. And in asking it everywhere you run the risk of becoming an insolent grade-schooler new in the knowledge that they can ask the question “Why?” of anything. This gives rise to the risk that you use it to endlessly interrogate the world but never engage with it.

The phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” is just common enough that it entered my head when I thought of this situation. But I couldn’t comprehend it without some looking. In my looking, I came to understand the idea to mean that you should hold you’re opinions weakly because it allows you to find their flaws and drop them, but you should make them strong so that they’re interesting and worthy of discussion (and thus flaw-finding).

There’s a part of me that recoils from this idea. It seems like a magazine-cover personality: one week X is evil, next week Y’s the best thing ever, finally Z is found severely lacking but makes us aware that X is most excellent. It strikes me as more than a little schizophrenic.

People value some sense of consistency. Cries of hypocrisy come from a feeling that people who change opinions regularly can’t be trusted. And indeed someone telling me I’m still their friend while no other things they say seem internally consistent is, at best, worthy of doubt.

Those things said, it does seem true to my experience that tightly guarding your opinions — which is pretty much my default operational method — can drive people completely bananas. So if it’s true that strong opinions are necessary to interact with people productively, I can definitely support the idea of holding them weakly.

Nothing is worse than a strong opinion strongly held. Strong opinions strongly held are the reasons so many people are sanely turned off by discussions of politics and religion. When neither side is interested in a frank discussion of facts and opinions, the discourse almost necessarily degrades into an adversarial yelling match.

I’ve had an idea for an essay sitting around for a while: “Dancing with Disagreement”. The idea was exploring the “how” of the classic phrase “disagreeing without being disagreeable”. We know people can have opposing views about politics or religion but still like each other, spend time together, and get along well. But it’s very rarely seen in the culture.

It does seem to me that the secret to disagreeing well is, in some sense, “strong opinions weakly held”. If you view it as fundamentally and unmistakably true, for example, that man-made global warming is real and the most pressing issue facing the planet, you’re unlikely to be able to take seriously the idea that you should sit down and talk about your children with a man who believes that whole opinion is “so much liberal horsesh*t”. But hold that weakly, don’t let it derail a conversation, strive for a finding common interests, and you may just start to understand each other. And that may just be the best way to face the world.


Let’s Talk About Extraterrestrials

I’ve tried this technique a few times and while the results aren’t superb, they’re good enough to share. So to explain: I like to talk about a rather narrow range of topics, and none of them are comfortable conversation topics for most company.

It’s lamentable but true that most people don’t eagerly desire to talk about our purpose in life, why we fail at things, what we truly value, why we exist at all, or what it means that we do. These are the things that really get my engine revving though, and so I struggle to enjoy most conversations.

Broaching these topics when you’ve just met someone, or never talked so intimately, is hard. It takes more perseverance than I have. But talking about extraterrestrials allows for a conversations that easily approximates one about those desirable topics but feels reasonable to broach and comfortable for people to join in on.

One of the big advantages of it is that almost no person alive today has strong and fixed opinions about aliens. About their existence, their nature or their history, almost everyone will reasonably claim ignorance. No major religion says anything about these topics, and neither does science. It’s an area where there are few bits of knowledge and few stones of belief and so we engage with it fully and don’t get sensitive if someone disagrees. Said a different way, conversation killers like “only Ron Paul can save us,” “all people are stupid and secretly racist,” or “now let me tell you how it really works” cannot be executed in such a conversation.

But we can, by proxy, discuss what it means that we humans exist at all. And why alien civilizations might be different from ours. And people’s beliefs about what aliens may do with their civilization reasonably approximate what they desire or fear for ours.

There is more than a little diversion in the technique of using talk about extraterrestrial life as a gateway to talk about our messy terrestrial stuff, but I don’t think it reaches the troubling heights of subterfuge, and so I’m publicly recommending that you try, at least once or twice, to have a conversations about aliens.


The Internet’s Role in my Conversation Aversion

I have an uncommon aversion to talking to most people I meet. It is powered by the twin engines of my disinterest in the public contents of their brain, and my inability to get the things that might interest me out of them in a way that doesn’t make either of us uncomfortable. It leads me to come up with long tirades about boringness, predictabity, and shallowness which are neither flattering to their subjects nor myself.

It was in the midst of a conversation about this basic issue that I think I may finally have arrived at a somewhat interesting and novel point: the internet has made me more averse to average conversations than I otherwise would be. I doubt that it’s true that the internet is the reason that I have this basic aversion, but I do think it’s true that nature of the internet exacerbates this tendency I have in a way that’s led to extra consternation in myself and the people who are subjected to the effects of this aversion.

It’s relevant but not crucial that I note in advance that I came of age at the same time as the internet. I’m not completely certain, but I vaguely recall that I first used the internet at age 8. It was dialup, I had little conception of how to use it, but I knew that with the help of my parents it could take me to, and that’s all I wanted to see anyway. As I got older, we got faster modems and I saw broader and more interesting things on the internet. In 17 years a lot has changed on this little old network, and I’ve seen a lot of it, intently watching from the front row.

The internet represents, to my mind, nearly the whole of useful knowledge. That’s hardly to say that everything interesting that’s ever existed is on the internet, but there is at least some testimony to those things that are interesting and not on the internet which can be found on the internet. Surely in a pre-internet age I might have been making this same basic point–X is more compelling to me than most people–about TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or books; but because of my age I’ll be talking primarily about the internet.

Because of the permissive access the internet allows, I believe some things that would be unfathomable to people in the past. I believe that information is something in nearly infinite supply from nearly infinite sources more reliable than any single person I’ve ever known. Knowledgeable opinions are so dime-a-dozen to me that the idea that I’d want a person’s uninformed opinion about anything strikes me as laughable. Things that make me laugh? I reliably secure that on the internet, and it’s way funnier than even the funniest comedian (it, after all, contains all comedians). These beliefs culminate in this basic issue: what do you get from talking to other people that I can’t get better on the internet?

As information gathering pursuits, conversations are deeply broken. They’re useful as bias-gathering journeys, but few people have biases interesting enough to keep me attentive. People cite a sense of camaraderie that can be engendered by conversation, but I’ve never been aroused to one by idle chit-chat about the weather, sports, news headlines, or the latest events of a person’s lfe. Surely there are other benefits people think conversations provide, but it’s not useful for me to offer one sentence rebuttals to all of them.

My basic point, though, isn’t to rehash the reasons that most conversations feel hollow. It’s to convey the idea that as information becomes more universally available (something that’s been happening since the printing press, but has accelerated in the age of the internet), the value of the knowledge held by any single person declines. And the value of the information held by an average person becomes ever less remarkable. This very reality–that few people possess any knowledge or wisdom that can’t be more reliably found elsewhere–is doubtless one of the reasons that I possess such a virulent strain of conversation aversion.