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?

3 thoughts on “On the Tangent Stack

  1. “How much of a tangent stack do you think you can maintain?”
    I have definitely used that technique on occasion.
    But I usually am not terribly conscious when I talk, write, read. Or ever.
    So the whole stack is mostly hidden, it’s all System 1 heuristics and instant responses.
    Including whatever is doing the memory access for bringing up associated anecdotes or asking questions.

    epistemic status: eh… a bit opaque to me. Am probably compartmentalized enough to observe, without disturbing the process, but I haven’t really looked into it.
    Not sure, if this is would use working memory. I think my automatic talking process must have far greater capacity than the usual 7+-2 in working memory.
    Various tangents might just become part of factions within the fame-in-the-brain competition.
    So like… implicitly remembered by lower substructures?
    Like (the part of the brain?) responsible for a conversational heuristic forms an association with something that was in the audio-buffer? Or maybe it updates the associations about that person.
    I’m not sure if it works like that neurologically, though.

    “What does it feel like to have a tangent stack applied to you (to be asked the questions on the stack?)”
    Felt like my counterpart was paying attention and was very interested. Also felt like being… interviewed/pumped for information. Not in a bad way, just a bit unusual to be paid so much target-motivated attention.
    “Do you ever have problems with having too much conversational flow?”
    In online chat, definitely. But also when I’m writing. And yeah, occasionally in real life.
    But then again, my unconscious behaviour always has too much flow.
    I literally live in ADHD hyperfocus.


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