On The Port Scan

(Epistemic Status: An attempt to explain a thing I’ve experienced but not actually really practiced offensively – dangerous technology (this has social costs for failure))

As discussed in On Conversational Flow and Resonance, resonance is a way to increase conversational flow. However, resonance can sometimes be a difficult thing to find if you just poke randomly. Using Script Breakers (can sometimes create resonance by causing people to reveal the things that interest them by not having the protection of a cached thought. Sometimes if you follow a Tangent Stack the right way, you will find your way to a deep, unexpected resonance. Overall, though? These approaches are close to random in terms of finding resonance. If you’re intending to talk for a few hours, it’s fine to meander a bit…but if you have only a short time to make sure someone feels like they are on the same wavelength as you, you have to do something more intentional and directed – that thing is what I call the port scan.

So, open ports in the traditional sense are places outside devices can access a computer. In the same sense, a person’s resonance can be accessed by scanning for the type of conversation they’re most open to. The direct way to do this is literally try a few styles, clearly trying to find someone’s levers. Things like flattery, trying a few ways of talking in succession, or even asking questions designed to increase closeness quickly. In some ways, this is why circling can be a little “creepy” out of context. Generally, if you are really overt about doing a port scan, it will not go well. It doesn’t feel natural, it feels transactional at best, scammy at worst – it seems like con artistry, in the literal sense of trying to create confidence when there’s no rational reason for it to be there.

However, a well done port scan is not obvious. There are several ways to approach this without playing your hand. The clearest to me is paying attention to who someone knows that you also know. Your mutuals give clear clues to the kinds of conversations a person finds enjoyable. With a bit of pre-research when meeting a new person, you can trivially steer a conversation to the kind of thing that resonates with the person you’re speaking with and have a very pleasant time building closeness in a short period through that sense of being on the same page. This would be the more premeditated port scan – you do it before the interaction even begins. But what about a situation where you don’t know who knows who – a stranger on the street, or perhaps someone important in the elevator? This is a bit harder – the skillset is more or less cold reading. You have to try things with evidence from the place, time, and person’s aesthetic choices to find a resonance, under even more time pressure than usual. The trick to making a port scan work here is to not allow the frame to ever linger on a wrong detail. If something doesn’t resonate, don’t allow focus to go to that. Keep going, try something else. People don’t tend to remember what they’re talking about – if you don’t give any signs that something awkward happened, the other person will not want to accept the burden of the awkwardness. This is why it’s a scan – you keep trying things until you find what’s open. There’s a tempo to this, though – when something works, drill down a bit on it, but don’t get caught on it because you might run out of tangents to keep the interaction going – find a few more things using the trust created by the initial resonance. Don’t immediately try another port when you have hit a closed port – de-escalate the interaction to small talk and try again. This is really not a recommended approach for someone you will be seeing repeatedly regardless of whether the interaction goes well or not – this is for a meeting where you do not have an expectation of being able to meet this person again. It’s still a very aggressive strategy – a failed or noticed port scan is very socially costly and will usually result in people not feeling comfortable around you. This is definitely socially dangerous technology and should be used carefully.

Overall, port scans are…not comfortable. They’re useful, and when they work, they feel amazing and give you a measure of control over the conversational flow – but when they backfire, there is a lot to clean up. It’s a bit aggressive towards the person you’re speaking with as well, so you want to make sure you are optimizing for goals that both of you would endorse. There are other ways to do port scans other than those outlined above, but I don’t have a full understanding of how they work. My advice for practicing this skill would be openly doing it on a friendly audience – don’t try to be subtle, tell them what you’re trying to do. You won’t get real feedback, but this can at least help you with tempo with the right person.   The port scan is dangerous technology but is also a likely key to more powerful social interaction in situations with status differentials.

Discussion questions: Have you ever been port scanned? Did you notice it after the fact, or during? How did it make you feel? Have you ever done anything like a port scan to increase the resonance of an interaction? Do you think that this is an ethical tool to use when talking to people?

4 thoughts on “On The Port Scan

  1. I read it. I have some thoughts on this, but not very well synthesized, so maybe we can discuss sometime.

    I think people do this unconciously. It is a tactic for when you want to connect with someone for instrumental reasons (for instance, I should make a good connection with person X so I can further my career, or so they can get me into circle circle / event Y ). People tend to plan out what they will talk about. My uncle, for instance, is an automotive engineer, so the way to get him to light up and come out of his shell is to start a conversation about cars. Sports is a big one, but I don’t follow sports and I really don’t find it interesting, nor do I usually talk to people who are really into sports, so it’s not something I use.

    The idea of a scan takes this principle further. It is a risky technique — a socially conscious person might pick it up. This technique requires careful reading to properly use and is not for everyone. You have to be able to determine if the other person is getting annoyed by you shifting the topic or starting to suspect you are probing them. You also have to be able to tell when you’ve hit a good topic.

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    1. The other reason (which you focus on) is to find resonance. I am learning more that resonance is highly desirable, it helped you obtain that feeling of social connection which is very important.

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  2. Yeah, this is overall a kind of advanced technique compared to stuff like the tangent stack and script breakers. I honestly don’t really _get_ this technique in practice – I just know it exists and try to tell when it’s happening. Overall, I think your addition here is really good – you do have to pay really close attention without obviously doing so if you’re going to take this route.

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