2021-07-01 How to make conversation

How does one make conversation? It’s something you have to learn, for sure. It’s tricky both offline and online. Here’s an example I’m running into sometimes: I post about a thing, something with multiple facets, multiple points of view, layers of understanding – and most interesting things out in the real world seem to be like that. Think of it as survivor bias: all the boring things, all the things with easy answers, all the things with obvious solutions – they are already answered, these problems are already solved. The interesting things that remain are either very new, or they require nuance.

Therefore, the first rule of replies is this: this is a thing in the real world, there’s probably some nuance to it. There are probably more layers to it than fit into the words and sentences the author wrote. If you’re assuming that the thing is dumb, and the answer is simple, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

Also, if your first thought when reading the previous paragraph was, “but some people really are stupid and their posts are wrong,” then imagine me nodding happily. Yes indeed, things are more complex than they seem, when things are claimed, the opposite is often true as well, but it depends on context, and exceptions exist, and on and on. If you cannot make conversation while juggling all these complexities in your mind, I suspect I won’t be interested in talking to you. It would bore me to tears.

When talking to other people, we have to assume that they have a point. They might be able to say the right things, or they can’t find the right words, or the distance in class, in language, in culture, in time and space has made understanding difficult. It happens.

The second rule of replies is to read benevolently before replying. There must be empathy. The other person was trying to say something but it makes no sense. What were they trying to say? We must try and find out, and then continue the conversation. To pick on the obvious mistakes makes for boring conversation, and I hate boring conversations. It’s like pointing out typos in an interesting argument. You may be right – but you also disqualified yourself from the conversation. Nobody wants to talk about typos except teachers in primary school trying to teach you about typos.

Anyway. All of this to say that we need to imagine positive outcomes for the things we say. It’s a bit like chess. There’s a thing somebody said. There’s the thought we’re holding in our mind. We’re ready to give that reply. Now, quick: imagine how the other person is going to react. Is this going to turn into an interesting conversation? If not, I’m already bored. Talk to somebody else. At the very least, ask a question. If you’re going to produce insults, or implied insults, or trying to score points on technicalities, I’m not interested. Learn about interacting with people, first.

I’ve been thinking about how people talk to each other for a while. I’ve written this down because something just happened to me on Mastodon. I’m sure thousands of these interactions happen every single moment, so I know I’m not alone. I posted a thing. It was an interesting comment by Sacha Chua on IRC, and so I posted the following:

Sacha Chua just shared a link to “M-x Research is a community of Researchers and Research Software Engineers … We meet virtually every 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month to discuss and share Emacs experiences, tips, tricks and tools useful for researchers and research software engineers.”

I got back something like the following from a stranger:

MSWord Emacs users hosted on GAFAM (github) and meeting over Zoom/Slack? Did any of the MSWord Emacs users actually read the GNU Manifesto? Try codeberg, notabug, bbb, jitsi, ...” switching software, etc

And I’m wondering: should I block this person? What are they trying to achieve, here? What did they imagine my next action would be? That I’d thank them because I did not know all this? That I’d see my errors and delete my post? That this would reinvigorate my struggle against proprietary software, strengthen my back, maybe lead me to write them an email, letting them know that they are doing it all wrong, helpfully pointing out what is already plastered everywhere to see for anybody who cares to know?

Sometimes I get replies to posts – I just don’t know what to do with them. It just doesn’t seem to be an opening to an interesting conversation, and I hate boring conversation. So here’s the interesting part: why answer with such a comment? I just don’t understand.

I asked them. If I get an interesting answer, I’ll add a comment.

If you can’t see it, let me point it out to you:

I’m assuming that people just don’t know how to talk to each other. I can’t imagine being friends with people like these. There’s a German word for this kind of person: Rechthaber – somebody who’s right, but nothing else. That is to say, yes, technically they are right, but socially, conversationally, they’re doing it wrong. There’s also another good word: Besserwisser – somebody who knows better. They know better, but they’re still doing it wrong. Perhaps this is not a teaching moment. Perhaps the facts they know better are not pertinent to the interesting discussion that we could be having.

I guess if I’m drinking coffee at the office, reading a magazine, and coworkers are there, and we’re sharing cookies, and I’d get such a reply, I could just say “You are such a Besserwisser!” and we could all laugh, because everybody understands, they were trying to pull my leg, distract me with a triviality. But at the same time, maybe I’m thinking to myself: what a shitposter. If all they can do is make fun of the opening statement, then clearly they don’t want to have the interesting conversation I want to have. Time to fold up that magazine, put away the coffee cup, and go. This is not the company I want to keep.


The answers I got:

We should join a session and then suggest this ...

And this:

Because this is a public thread and some people - such as the Emacs people - don’t seem to have thought about these problems. People reading the message might not have been aware of switching.software.

I think my problem is that it seems so condescending. The wording. The jab at Word. The pointer to the Manifesto. The Slack alternatives. As if M-x Research people didn’t know all these. And as you say, you think they don’t know, did not make the right choices – even though these are people trying to learn about Emacs, you think joining their meetings and telling them about the non-Emacs things they are doing wrong. I don’t understand how you can think this is a good idea.

– Alex 2021-07-02 06:46 UTC

I think that very often people don’t post replies because they want to have a conversation with you, but simply because they want to advertise their opinions. This may even make sense, as it can then attract people with similar opinions and/or scare off people who disagree. You could view this as a community building effort. Of course, if you wanted to have a conversation about the link you posted instead, this is against your agenda.

– deshipu 2021-07-02 08:50 UTC

An interesting point of view, yes. Something to consider – I need to figure out how I want to handle such sidetracking comments.

– Alex 2021-07-02 09:36 UTC

Some people troll. Some people do not know how to argue, a bit like I don’t know how to operate a sailboat. At least I know that I don’t know how to operate a sail boat, but I bet some people don’t knon that they don’t know how to argue.

– White_Rabbit 2021-07-02 12:00 UTC

I blocked them… I guess we’re just too different.

On the website, I see no hint of any awareness of the ethical inconsistency. On the contrary, … the usage of Zoom, Slack and Google calendar … is stated as if it were perfectly acceptable without any hint that these are temporary compromises. Zoom/Slack promoters should expect criticism.

When I read a reply such as that, all I can think of is that this is what I didn’t like about my interactions with Richard M. Stallman. I accepted the pedantry, thinking to myself, yeah, somebody has to fight this fight, but not I. Perhaps one needs that kind of dedication to a cause in order to stay in the fight. But at the same time, that makes ordinary conversation impossible, for me. At least with Stallman I knew what I was getting. If I didn’t want to hear his opinions on software freedom, licensing, and the ethics of this or that, there simply was no point in interacting.

That’s the feeling I am sometimes getting with people such as these. If they treat me like a politician trying to make a point, and I want to have a conversation between human beings, then I guess there just is no point.

I’ll have to remember that next time I try to make a point, though! 😆

– Alex 2021-07-02 19:18 UTC

There is an odd trend I’ve noticed - though I can’t say for sure if this is new or the way things have always been, and I’ve only noticed it recently - that people seem to think that just because they’re correct (or at least think they’re correct) everyone else owes them their complete and undivided attention and obedience. Or worse, that they can be actively aggressive and insulting to someone, because they must be a terrible person because they’re wrong.

They think that because they’re right, they deserve easy success in convincing other people they’re right, so anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with them is either dumb (which is why they start getting condescending) or a bad actor (which is why they get sarcastic and insulting). And if it’s something they assume is easy to understand, they also assume that anyone who hasn’t already come to the same side as them must have seen their arguments before and decided against them, and so they start being aggressive right away.

I think your two rules of conversation sum it up very nicely. They assume there is no nuance (so people have to be dumb to not agree) and have no space for empathy (so if they aren’t dumb but still don’t agree, they have to be malicious, not just their own person with their own conclusions and opinions).

(Which is a very long way of saying I agree with you 100%. Also I love the word Rechthaber - I’m definitely going to be using it in the future.)

Malcolm 2021-07-03 05:57 UTC

I like how you think, Alex. The point you bring up, assuming that someone has a point (at least for them) before they say something, is a novel idea, and from there, conversing in a matter that is engages both the one posing the question and the one answering. It reminds me of Socrates’ dialogues, where an entire philosophical discussion can be built upon such questions and answers.

We must also consider those who use communication not as a tool to convey an idea or an opinion, but just as means of self expression. When I say self-expression, I don’t mean the same way most people (probably) think of it today. I mean truly self expression, when one just desires to express themselves without interest in the expression of others. This can be of malice intent, a comment that uses the original content as a vehicle (like in the case you have here) or without, just someone advertising an opinion which they don’t want to break down and dissect further.

The kind of conversation you’re speaking of is a true conversation. One person has a point, something important, and they pose it as an opinion. When posting such an opinion on a public platform one would assume they also invite a discussion - but we must remember that’s not always the case. We must always keep in mind that there are trolls out there. A “troll,” by the way, is not an absolute: one person can troll a comment you made, and be perfectly happy to discuss something else at a different time. You can argue that these trolls can also be asked questions and perhaps invited to a discussion. I do not have the patience for this.

I remember learning my first steps in Linux, asking questions and getting the familiar RTFM answers, and now I do that myself, to an extent. Linux is just an example here. I do not have the patience toward folks who don’t have the background material to discuss what I’m discussing. This sounds arrogant, I know, and it is. But if I already made my research and at a point where I want answer on the level of research I’ve made, I need to filter others out so I don’t get overwhelmed by the same entry-level answers that don’t help further the discussion. Of course, I’m more gracious toward those who I’ve spoken before who I know done their research on their on topics.

What I’m trying to get to I’m afraid is that there’s a “class” system in conversation. Everyone can talk (well, not everyone, but most), but there are few who can converse. Those who can usually tend to be more patient, curious, and open their mind even to values and opinions they didn’t before. Perhaps thinking of this as the levels the speakers are at can help too. Conversation is something that should be treated like other skills. It should be practiced.

Which reminds me: thank you for the delightful morning practice you gave me here. I enjoy your diary and reading your thoughts.

JTR 2021-07-03 11:56 UTC

I have been wondering of late about my capability to make ‘normal’ conversation as well as my ability to understand, or rather how easy it is to misunderstand somebody else based on the prevailing frame of mind and also perhaps be blinded by a desire to be ‘right’ and stand for something.

I think your question to his comment and the subsequent comment by Sandra were instrumental in making that thread a better ‘conversation’. It’s weird - I don’t think I am arrogant but there are times when I want to take the easier route and behave in an unkind manner towards some perceived idiocy with the firm belief that ‘I am absolutely right about this’ and I owe it to my knowledge and all these years of effort to make this point in the most direct, ‘smart’ and condescending way possible. I think it is not an internal change, but a reflection of the kind of behaviour I have often seen around me even outside the corporate world and a growing fear that ‘nice guys finish last (if at all they do)’…. Perhaps it is just an illusion that appearances of such faux ‘strength’ is rewarded more as such things will not stand real tests over time? Well, Even if they are rewarded more …. I think I am not willing to pay the cost of being ‘less human’ for lack of a better word. Incidentally this article also popped up on my RSS feed today: Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love. I guess sometimes you receive answers if you are actually searching the alchemist style

Thanks for your post! I enjoy your style of writing and reflection.

shrysr 2021-07-03 22:31 UTC

I enjoyed reading this post and the comments, if only because you all so eloquently expressed my own thoughts 😉 I’m reminded of the wisdom of Baruch Spinoza:

“I have labored carefully not to mock, not to lament, not to execrate human actions, but to understand them.”

(Some style advice, should you want it: I thought this article would be quite different based on the title; in my native UK, “making conversation” (using ’make’ specifically) refers more to small talk or socialising, than it does to more motivated discussion or debate.)

– Tom 2021-09-05 19:32 UTC

Thank you all for the kind words. I should read Spinoza one day.

I agree with the point JTR made up above: in a gathering of people only tied together by a topic and not a level of expertise, it’s hard to have a conversation with everybody. You need to find the people close to you, and that’s not always easy; and you need to filter them in some way, if you don’t have the time, or the spoons, to engage on a level that is not your own. If you do, of course, a teaching or learning moment when all participants are on the same page, in the same groove, can be positively electrifying. At work, for example, I like it when people don’t know a thing that I know, and I can tell them about it. They get the help they need, and I get the validation I like, it’s great and I love it.

Perhaps the social problem I mentioned in the last paragraph of the blog post, me standing in the cafeteria at the office and trying to open a conversation about something that I find interesting is at odds with other people coming to the cafeteria trying to chill out and goof off. Of course I’ll get replies that sound more like shit-posting and technical nitpicking. These other people just aren’t in the cafeteria to talk about the same things, and they aren’t even in the cafeteria to talk about things the same way as I wish to. Similar to the previous example with different levels of expertise, we have a situation with different levels of “seriousness” or “small talk”. I guess I should learn to avoid these mismatches by avoiding some conversation starters.

Perhaps my inner drive to “challenge” them with serious conversation in a “making conversation” context is part of the problem. It’s a setup, a trap, and I’m luring them into it, then feeling smug about it.

I’ll have to think about this some more.

– Alex 2021-09-05 20:29 UTC

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