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:
MSWordEmacs users hosted on GAFAM (github) and meeting over Zoom/Slack? Did any of the MSWordEmacs 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.