On Non-Zero Sum Interaction

(Epistemic Status: Endorsed af, what I actually aspire to do)

(Meta-note:  I apologize for the short post this week, I hope to have a fairly substantial one on a related concept next week)

What do business people, pick up artists, and con artists have in common? A deep desire to win at traditional success markers – money, sex, power – through social manipulation. Most social skills can be arguably a form of manipulation, but there are benign directions and malicious directions one can go with this…and one of the quickest ways to go malicious with conversational skills is trying to score points in a competitive game.

For those that have talked to me, I often talk about “winning” a social interaction, whether it be a party, a class, or a one on one conversation. What I mean by this is I’ve created value with my interaction style, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this framing is actively toxic to the stated goal. When I had interacted with the pickup artist, he mentioned that he usually is counting how many “points” he’s scoring when he’s running his game. Another example that I was discussing today was a multimillionaire who recently got in trouble for attempting to use a government position to seal a major deal – when he was asked why he was even bothering since he was likely to not live much longer and already had quite a bit of wealth, he responded saying that money was his way of keeping score in life. I don’t yet have any con artist stories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the reason con artists eventually get caught is because they’re trying to raise their “score” higher than they need to. The point is, “winning” as a frame leads to zero sum interaction, trying to hoard conversational flow and use it to self aggrandize.

I would rather consider my interaction style in an alternative fashion – non-zero sum interaction, where the explicit goal is to do whatever it takes to make sure everyone involved has a good time. Rather than winning, I want to have fun in a way that is unconcerned with how “interesting” I seemed or how well I “steered” the conversation. If “winning” is creating a story for my own narrative, having fun is creating stories for everyone’s narrative. I think it’s easy, once you notice how terrible monkey brain 1.0 is at dealing with social engineering, to fall into a pattern of denying the agency and preferences of others – to find fun only in competing, in keeping score. I think the more ethical, sustainable, and overall skillful approach is bringing the people you interact with you into agentic roles, having fun and using sociological knowledge to raise the conversational waterline.

Overall, I want to be a non-zero sum conversationalist. That’s really all there is to it. I’ve flirted with the dark side and I find it wanting. I hope others who have gone through realizations like my own feel the same way – if not, I hope this is persuasive.

Discussion questions: What conversational style is preferable for you, zero-sum or non-zero sum? What are good ways to approach non-zero sum interaction? Can you tell a story of when a skilled conversationalist has made you feel valuable rather than drab?

On the Tangent Stack

(Epistemic Status: Perfectly normal advice, practical, I literally use it, not even dangerous.)

Talking with me in person, one on one, is a bit of an experience, to put it mildly. When both myself and my conversation partner are comfortable, a strange thing happens; we go way over our intended time frame. There’s a sensation that the conversation will never end and this is ok. In fact, this is good and the correct state of affairs. Unfortunately, this leads to situations where I am trying to catch my train but just can’t…stop…the conversation; we’re just having too much fun. Today I will be telling you the secret to keeping a conversation going like that – the tangent stack.

So, as mentioned in my post on script breakers, I strive to generate a response that gives me things to hook into. Those things are often tangents, little asides in my conversation partner’s story. Rather than immediately cut in with the tangent though, I will store it in memory. When the story winds down or things get a little quiet, I usually have a question that I can just smoothly ask to bring the conversation back into flow.

To illustrate, let’s say I’m talking to someone and ask them their most bizarre experience – let’s say this hypothetical person relates a time when she got onto the wrong train and fell asleep. She ended up in a completely different state, let’s say North Carolina when they meant to go to Maine (my hypothetical friend is not very clever). She tells me about how they got off the train, completely lost and despairing, went to a Waffle House to collect themselves. She tells me about how there was a man in a trenchcoat who sees her looking distraught and frantically typing on their phone. The man walks over and offers her train tickets to exactly where they were supposed to go, at a discount. It’s sketch but my hypothetical friend is desperate so she goes for it. The train comes as planned, the tickets are real, and my friend is only a day late to her weeklong convention in Bangor.

It’s a great story, I’m getting super excited…and I have five tangents. I can ask her how the hell she learned to sleep on trains that deeply. I can ask her what part of North Carolina and how she found the Waffle House so fast. I can ask her about how trenchcoat man made her feel (or really, anything about trenchcoat man). I can ask her how exactly she thought buying train tickets from trenchcoat man was at all a good idea. I can ask her about her convention in Bangor. Odds are, I will ask her about all these things in the course of the conversation. The answers to these questions will generate more questions and the conversation will more or less maintain itself. This is the power of the tangent stack – it is your conversational midgame.

Overall, the tangent stack is a simple concept based on holding objects in working memory. It is likely particularly accessible for people with good math and programming skills (but I don’t know for sure, I’m not skilled at either of these things). The drawback to the conversation stack is you need to be mindful of time. You also need to be open to having the flow reversed on you – most conversations are not just going to consist of you asking questions; people like hearing stories as much, if not more, than telling them. Your tangent stack will help a lot less when the topic becomes you. Lastly, you need to have a conversational endgame – if you can’t wrap up your stack with a good winddown period, things will feel kind of abrupt when you need to part ways. Still, if you find your problem is keeping conversations going, this is worth a shot – it’s generally good practice to hold questions.

Discussion: How much of a tangent stack do you think you can maintain? What does it feel like to have a tangent stack applied to you (to be asked the questions on the stack?) Do you ever have problems with having too much conversational flow?

On Being The Most Interesting Person in the World; or Narrativizing Your Life

(Epistemic Status: Works with a cost, practical advice, dangerous technology. This method can alter the way you relate to your memories.)

Let me tell you a story. It’s about the time I hypnotized a pickup artist.

There once was a time when I was accosted by a pickup artist on the train. He tried a few times to start a conversation and eventually I bit. We proceeded to talk awhile and without really realizing what happened, I gave him my phone number. It took me a couple stops but I eventually realized that that was, in fact, literally pickup and I analyzed the hell out of it. Shortly after, I got a text from my new, ah, friend. So now I had to decide what I wanted to do; being a novelty seeker, I decided to roll with it. So we go on a first date (after some wrestling over time and place). Now, see, I am a novelty seeker and I enjoy trying things that others might not, but I’m not stupid. I took some…precautions against game being used on me. The first was, of course, knowing he’d show up 5 minutes late; I showed up 15 minutes late in response. The second was opening the situation with the filter of the Demon Queen. I made myself big, powerful, and generally controlled the conversational flow. Anything he said was responded to slowly, carefully. I only gave him what I fully consciously wanted to give. The third was, of course, a conscious decision that this was absolutely not ending in sex. All three of these preparations were useful but it turned out only the first was necessary.

When I showed up 15 minutes late, it was clear he was disoriented. He did a weak power play by having his drink already but I just mostly ignored that fact. Conversation was fairly anemic at first as he tried to find a thing I gave a damn about. It was like a cat playing with a mouse. Eventually I relented and actually allowed a conversation flow to form. The piece de resistance was later though, when I finally outright called him out on his behavior in our initial meeting. It went a little like this:

“So, I know what you did Thursday.”

And dude is looking a bit embarrassed, like he’s been caught, but tries “Well, before I tell you what I did, why don’t you tell me what you think I did?”

Since I’m a sucker for a good monologue, I do exactly that. In exacting, precise detail. At first the dude has this kinda horrified expression but as I keep talking, it’s almost this perverse pride as I change from a target into something that almost looks like a “colleague”. So the rest of the date is spent talking about this stuff. This is all set up for the real story, the second date.

So, second date. The initial plan is to see how pickup works (I mean, it would be novel – thankfully, this didn’t work out). It turns out that the night we chose is a poor night to try to find a nightlife. So we wander a bit and have actually decent conversation. I almost feel a bit bad at this point…but then we decide to stop somewhere for a drink, at his suggestion. It’s this bar, it’s got a good vibe and we get seated and get some menus. The guy lets me know that he tried doing the pickup thing with the waitress in the past. I’m like, well, ok, that seems kinda sketchy but whatever. Then we get…a different waitress to take our order. She checks his ID and only takes my debit card; she’s looking real close at that ID. A couple moments later, this big guy comes over, says “Excuse me sir, I’d like to speak with you” and this poor guy just, like, flees. I get my stuff back, cancel my order, and go after. This guy basically is dazed. You just don’t recover from being kicked out of a bar. We find another place to get a drink and he’s still not very communicative. I’m more or less laughing at him because, like, what else can you do and also I’m kind of Demon Queenish here.

So, at this point, I’m going to mention an interesting thing about hypnosis. Hypnosis can be used when someone is confused, it’s one of several ways to induce a state of trance. As you might have noticed, my date is just a bit confused and off his footing.

So, you know, I do what’s perfectly natural in a situation like this. I start a hypnotic induction. I am mildly surprised when it takes, but I keep my flow and I take him into trance; in a rare fit of kindness, I don’t make him do anything weird, and then take him out. He’s pretty much back in his stride after that and the date ends. At that point, I’m pretty satiated with the novelty seeking, so I basically tell him it was fun but, you know, we’re done. And that’s the story of how I got picked up, proceeded to outgame the pickup artist, and then hypnotized him when he made a critical social mistake.

I told this story to create an example of a concept I want to express. That concept is narrativizing your life. There are several key steps to turning any experience into a story. These are having a clear hook, context, a rhythm, a climax, and a conclusion.

The clear hook in my story is simply the first two sentences: “Let me tell you a story. It’s about the time I hypnotized a pickup artist.” I’m establishing an expectation, this is going to be a story, not wool gathering, not a memory, a story of an experience I had. The second sentence sets the tone and gives the listener the option to accept or refuse the hook (in spoken conversation, it’s usually with a bit more of a questioning tone, to let people know they have a choice.) I have a few stories with clear hooks like this, it’s usually just in the form of “the time I did X”. This concept does double duty, it doesn’t only cue the listener into knowing they are about to be told a narrative, but it also cues up your own memory of the storified experience.

Context is the next thing. A story that lacks context is not engaging. The reason I spend so many words on the first date is to establish the relationship I had created with this guy, as well as foreshadow future actions taken by me. It would be much faster to say “So I went on a date with a pickup artist. He got kicked out of a bar, so I ended up hypnotizing him.” It wouldn’t be a good story though. It’s very closed, it only invites a few questions. I also provide context for how hypnosis works later, further foreshadowing the very next scene. If you’re creating a story out of an experience, it is important to consider what context you have to include in the story to make it legible. Another related thing for context is leaving pauses. It’s not really conveyable in text but things that might not be understood (such as why I showed up 15 minutes late to counter his 5 minutes late) deserve a pause, to invite a question if one is there, or a minimal encourager if your conversation partner is following. Knowing what needs context is often the breakdown in trying to tell a story you haven’t told before about your life.

Rhythm is also very important, and very difficult to convey through text. It’s all about how you pace your words, how responsive you are to the back and forth of a conversation. I would be extremely droll if I just rapidly read aloud everything I wrote about; when I pause to invite questions, or throw in the occasional filler word to make it more relatable, it becomes much more of a back and forth, a game of catch where the story can change direction based on the feedback of the person you are speaking with. Even in text, though, you can see some of the rhythm. My paragraph breaks are points I want to draw attention to, my language is informal, each piece is a chronological shift, to a degree. Adding a rhythm to your experience can increase the engagement level because it keeps people hooked in the story.

Now, when telling a story, you need a climax. This should be alluded to in your hook, foreshadowed by the rising action before it, and then when you hit it, you have to go. You have to make it clear it’s the climax and that you are not to be interrupted. From “So, second date”, this is where I’m going to drop my tone a bit, be a bit more conspiratorial. This is the good stuff. I’ve placed most of the information for the punchline already and now I just have to pick up each piece and show you why it was important. This is the payoff. This is where I place the heaviest frames, because this is the part I want people to remember. The reason I explain that I’ve gotten this guy to see me as a “colleague” is so that it makes sense for him to tell me he used pickup on the waitress. The reason I mention my Demon Queen filter is to make it clear that I am being very zero-sum with this guy and the action of hypnotizing him makes sense despite me normally being a much nicer person. The reason I mention my dominant approach towards him is to set the state for you to expect him to be less smooth than I am, which makes the bar event almost, but not quite, predictable. The entire set up is all to foreshadow this climax. I think a lot of experiential stories fail because they weren’t really going anywhere, they were just This Thing That Happened, which isn’t bad, but it’s not as engaging.

Finally, the conclusion (and the aftermath). You have to close the loop. Letting a story hang is pretty uncomfortable. It can be used to great effect to hold someone’s attention for a bit but it won’t last indefinitely and eventually they’ll rationalize against your story; they didn’t want to hear the ending anyway, of course. So you explain how it ends, or explain that it’s still ongoing. You resolve the tension from the climax. When I finish with the hypnotism, I explain that the game is basically over and why. I give the satisfying conclusion that I no longer talk to this guy and to increase the impact, I refer right back to my hook, closing the space I’ve opened by telling this story.

Now, you might be asking why I think this sort of thing is dangerous. It’s just basic storytelling, right? I mean, you’ve been taught this in high school English, how to write a good essay or analyze a work of literature. However, if you’ve been reading my blog, I think it’s pretty clear why this can be dangerous. You are rewriting your experiences by making them stories. You don’t really remember what actually happened, you remember the most compelling spin on what happened; the story that makes you look best. Worse still, storytelling is socially rewarded. It’s mildly addicting and it’s easy to start doing it to more and more of your experiences, iterating faster so you’re prepared for the next social interaction. Eventually, you start narrativizing your experiences while you are having them. At this point, you aren’t living a real life or learning lessons, you’re imposing frames on your experiences and closing yourself out of things outside your self image. From here, you become rapidly less interesting because you aren’t experiencing anymore. Everything becomes the expected story that you’ve told a million times, just with different context; it’s bland. So you have to strike a balance between experience and narrative if you want to maintain the social feedback loop. If you can manage this, though? You become a much more interesting person at parties, to say the least.

Overall, narrativizing your life is a useful social tool once in a while. You don’t need a story for everything, but having a few key notes that really express what kind of person you are, or can be, can be a useful tool for socializing and relating experience in an enjoyable way. The important thing to remember is that it is a tool, though, and one of many. Once you start narrativizing every experience, you’ve gone too far and are tracking truth/reality less and less; you stop learning and being interesting and start being samey and fixed because it’s about how you look. Striking a balance is key, but very rewarding.

Discussion questions: Can you think of an experience that you have narrativized thoroughly, i.e. a go-to life story for any party? Does your story follow an arc? Is it heavy on detail or very light? Does it invite questions and eventually dialogue? Can you make your story better?



On Breaking the Script

(Epistemic status:  Meant to be practical and cover the actual criteria of a thing, rather than allude to it.  Not used to writing in this style so I’d appreciate feedback.)

As you might remember, I introduced a concept called script breakers for frame control as well as to cut to middle conversational space quickly.  What those posts didn’t do was tell you what you’re looking for in a good script breaker. It’s difficult to make formulaic but there are at least several fuzzy criteria to bear in mind when breaking the script.  These criteria are fairly simple:  Goal, Unusualness, Accessibility, Specificity, Audience, and Playfulness.  There’s more to it than filling off a checklist but the goal is to increase intuitive data rather than create a step by step process.

Goal:  What are you actually after by asking a weird question and controlling the frame?  This is the most important thing to bear in mind when you’re trying to do something conversationally; what do you actually want?  In my case, I often want access to conversational flow as well as get quickly past small talk.  Other people might consider attempting to feed the other person something to say while they don’t have words per the initial script breaker post (seriously don’t do this it’s kind of mean).  So, using my technique, the goal is always generating information.  The “what’s the most bizarre thing that’s happened to you this week?” question that I often ask is a figure-ground problem.  It lets the conversational partner tell a story, a figure, while the implied details are fertile ground for elaboration on someone’s life.  The “what is your 5 word life story?” script breaker is a move to fill my “tangent stack” (I’ll elaborate this in another post because it really deserves it, but essentially it’s keeping track of what open avenues of inquiry are available as one conversation comes to an end.  I store 5 tangents and generally can keep a conversation going forever.)  As I store 5 tangents, 5 words is exactly enough to fill that up.  The way a person organizes their 5 words also tells you a little bit about how they think; whether it’s a phrase, 5 disparate words, 2-4 concepts, chronological, whether they answer personally or give you something that could apply to anyone, a focus on group, individual, or place…overall, there’s a lot of information compressed into those words (to not even get into the body language accompanying them).  By knowing my Goal, I can turn this information into a very enjoyable conversation because I know what I’m looking for.

Unusualness:  How do you make your question a little weird? The thing is a script breaker.  Overall, people you meet have a limited possibility space.  This is least limited when meeting someone new; however, you can’t honestly prepared for every weird ass questions.  Straightforwardly, a script breaker should be unusual enough to not map to an existing question with a cached answer.  It’s difficult to really pin this down further; the best heuristic is, if you had your question asked of you at a party, would you be able to answer it instantly or would you have to think about it?

Accessibility:  Could also be called usualness.  How do you make sure that the person can answer the question in an informative way?  You might think this is directly contradictory to the previous point since you want to be unusual, but a good script breaker isn’t asking someone their favorite manifestation of social reality epiphenomena (well, maybe in some circles).  The goal is something most people understand and can access intuitively but really need to think about it.  Also, going to esoteric is trying too hard; you want to seem playful and fun, not look like a smartass.

Specificity: Is your question specific enough to be answerable?  When you ask someone a very general question like “Tell me a story” or “Who are you?”  or “What do you do?” people will either spit out something they’ve rehearsed or outright freeze up and mumble something about how they don’t know.  Conversation over, and you look like an asshole.  So, specificity allows you to narrow the thought space; I find constraints help:

What is your 5 word life story?

What’s the most bizarre thing that’s happened to you in the past week?

Another one I’m considering is “If you could have any three items on Amazon for free, what would they be?”

“What is a cool thing you aren’t doing today?”

The constraints are all in bold and they prevent the question from getting out of hand, looking for the Very Best Answer.  So specificity is important to bear in mind unless you want someone to freeze up and think you’re kinda a jerk.

Audience:  Where exactly are you trying to apply this sort of frame control?  Knowing who you are talking to changes which questions you want to ask.  If you’re talking a to a 9-5 bean counter, maybe the question about bizarre things over the past week won’t tell you much.  If the person you’re talking to is a little less fond of obvious gimmicks, the 5 word life story question and things like it might be too blatant.  I’m sure you can think of other mismatches of audience and script breaker.  When you create your own, consider what you yourself would find most fun as if you were in the role of a person in social group X, assuming the target is also in that group.

Playfulness:  Above all, do not forget to have fun and seem fun.  Being out of context and without a script is a really vulnerable position! There are people that will outright refuse the question for that reason.  More will refuse it if you seem like you’re trying to be strategic about it.  The point is to be fun, stupid, and spontaneous.  This advice generalizes outside of script breakers.

Overall, script breakers are not hard to design but good script breakers rely on not only these ingredients.  You need to pay attention to your delivery and context.  This is a social strategy and one that signals a certain outlook to coversation.  Copying everything verbatim will lead to sadness (which is why I don’t usually write social advice in this style).  The best advice I have is to consider these as guidelines while trying to find your voice but ditch them as soon as you feel like they might be a liability.

Discussion:  Meta- Should I write more how-tos in this style?

Object – Design a script breaker with these guidelines and point out how each of them fits in.