(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.