On Task Objects and People Objects

(Epistemic status: Complaining about western civilization.)

Think about your typical day.

You wake up, you get ready for work.  If you’re in one of the tech hub cities, maybe you call an Uber.  You talk to the driver, or not – it doesn’t really matter, you both are just trying to get to a place.  You go to a Starbucks or other coffee shop, have the socially mandated small talk while you order your overpriced coffee.  You start work, interacting with people mostly on a meeting basis – you have to account for all those hours, after all, and talking to anyone on company time is thievery.  You finish your day, and maybe you’ve scheduled dinner with someone for networking reasons.  You’ll be sure to talk for exactly the allotted two hours or whatever and part ways – after all, people have busy lives.  Honestly, after one hour you’re pretty sure there’s not a lot more to say, but you allocated two hours to this and you’ll darn well use them.  You head home, spend the socially mandated togetherness time with your roommates/family.  You maybe relax a bit doing something else, and then finally go to bed.  The day went well – everything was just as scheduled.

Of course, this doesn’t really describe anyone’s life exactly – it is meant to highlight a certain outlook that I’ve seen in myself and others in the name of being a productive member of society.  There’s a sense in which every minute of our time needs to be legible, accountable, and productive in some way to be valid.  Scheduling and sectioning off our days such that we accomplish tasks is a vital productivity skill.  In terms of conceptual interactions, much of our world is task objects – things that are meant to be done; they are outcome oriented, constrained by time, meant to be forgotten once they’re complete.

On the other hand, the way we relate to people is supposed to be different.  With people, relationships are intended to be continuous, unbounded, and generally exploratory.  Getting closer to someone, in some senses, is removing constraints rather than adding them.  Conceptually, this is what make a person object.  Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly unusual to treat our relationships in this fashion – frequently, we end up relegated the people around us to being task objects. We constrain our time with them, we bind them in specifications and legibility, and we consider the goal of interaction to be accomplishment.

In modern society, the response to increasing complexity has largely been increasing legibility and specifications and spending more and more of our time on task objects, because there is supposedly more work to be done than there are hours in the day.  Constraining our interpersonal time to task objects is an attempt to reduce the complexity of our lives (the complexity which is artificially increased by modern societal norms).  This is part of why it’s difficult to find real friends anymore.

I don’t have a good recommendation for countering this trend – it’s difficult to break out of the task mindset.  Every attempt to allow people to be person objects tends to start feeling like I’m “wasting time.”  I suspect that past a certain point, the curve starts to be in favor of person objects, but there’s a dip when you’re making the transition over.

Overall, modern society has damaged our ability to relate to each other by turning time and attention into products rather than experiences.  We are trained to think in terms of tasks, not people, and this is an unnatural state.  Undoing that training is a difficult task, but recognition of the division is one of the first steps to resolving it.

Discussion questions:  Do you notice yourself treating people as tasks?  What does this dichotomy suggest in terms of actions for you?  How would you approach reconciling the need to produce and the need to socialize?




On Internal Monologue Modification

(Epistemic Status:  Endorsed, lightly tested, light kink cw)

My thoughts are most frequently words.  When I think about thinking, I see a stream of descriptions, explanations, sentence fragments, etc.  I ask my internal monologue how I feel about things.  Words are an extremely natural filter for me to see the world through.  It turns out, I can change that filter to some extent.

One night, I found myself looking at my partner – we were just chatting casually about something or other, but there was a sense in which she was positioning herself lower than me.  A lot of her body language was reading as wanting to move on to something that involved less talking.  Well, I wasn’t really in the mood – a lot of my internal monologue was thinking about the topic and about her as someone to look up to in terms of knowledge about the world.  Once I noticed this, I decided to try something – I switched my internal monologue to something more intimate.  I started cycling different words to describe her than I was before, as well as different words to describe myself.  Very shortly after, something strange happened – I started changing my position in my chair.  I seemed bigger, like I was taking up more physical and social space.  She got quieter, she found herself less able to look away from my eyes.  I felt myself getting more aligned with what she desired and my next actions started flowing much more smoothly.  Suffice it to say we had a very good night afterwards.

Now, this tool has uses outside the somewhat suggestive one above – essentially, any situation where you feel you’re not interacting with it in a way that serves your needs (or the needs of others), any situation that might feel uncomfortable, any situation that seems difficult can be changed depending on how you think about it.

The first step is deciding how you want the situation to be.  This is a fuzzy and difficult – the example was me wanting to respond in an aligned way to my partner and feel good about it.  However, sometimes it’s harder to tell – something going poorly makes it difficult get out of your internal perspective enough to see how a stance could change.  Essentially, it’s noticing that a situation would benefit from change and the thoughts that flow from there.

The second step is noticing your internal monologue – this might be nontrivial depending on how you think.  That’s ok.  For me, I ask myself what I’m thinking about a situation.  As I sit here writing, I’m hearing the words I’m typing in my head, but also rewriting and rephrasing, thinking about how the presentation looks (“Is this too personal?  Am I explaining the thing well?  Can this be adapted to people who don’t think like me?  Am I just reinventing NLP?”), thinking about how I feel about my blog (“I’ve kept this running for a year, huh.  I think my latest posts aren’t as good as some of my earlier posts.  I’m really happy people read the things I write.  I feel good right now”), etc.  That was slower than I would normally do it, so there’s some filtering going on, but that’s what you’re tapping into.

The third step is considering salient things to the situation.  Most frequently, this is a person you are with – it can also be an environment or an object.  Notice what you think about that object – an example of another time I used this technique was when I was extremely hungry and was completely impatient with everything, while in a restaurant.  I noticed both my hunger and the prospect of future food – I had a sense of anticipation for the food, but it had this entitlement attached to it.  The internal mantra was something like “I’m so hungry right now, why is this food taking so long, why is it so loud in here, why is this person talking about such stupid shit doesn’t she realize food should have happened a long time ago, ugh I can’t focus, I kind of hate everything.”  I’m sure this isn’t hard to emulate.

The fourth step is realizing the most natural way to shift the situation into something more desirable – in the case with the restaurant, the anticipation of food was important to keep; however, it could be treated positively.  Rather than “I’m so hungry it’s taking so long”, I could think “I ordered some really tasty food, I’m very curious about what it’s going to taste like.  I think they’re probably taking a lot of care in preparing it.”  Letting that line of thought perpetuate suddenly completely changed the mood at the table.  I was more interested in what my friend was saying, I felt a lot of compassion for the restaurant staff, I was just generally happy to be there.  In the first example with my partner, the shift to thinking about her in a way she wanted to be thought about echoed throughout my body language – my entire demeanor changed, naturally leading to a better situation for both of us.

Overall, changing the internal monologue in some senses is holding an intention to make things better on some metric – from emotions come thoughts, from thoughts come mannerism, from mannerism come behavior and script.  It’s something that is not only helpful to internally try to notice and apply, but to give to other people – sometimes being externally asked what your internal monologue is doing can be the trigger you need to shift into a mode that feels better.  I will caution that the point isn’t always to feel better though – sometimes, you want to change your internal monologue to create negative affect around something.  The point isn’t to be a Stepford wife happybot through system 2 coercion, the point is to make more options in action space available.  When the internal monologue becomes modifiable, so too does your level of abstraction from a situation.

Discussion questions:  Do you have an internal monologue?  Have you ever used the internal monologue to redefine a situation or your role in a situation?  What mental motions do the steps above suggest?  What other ways do you interact with your internal monologue?

On Alternative Conversational Paths

(Epistemic Status: Kind of untested – I had this insight a few hours ago. Intuitively feels correct in the sense that “if you increase your emotional labor you get better outcomes”)

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where someone is talking to you and you don’t really actually care about what they’re saying? You might be smiling, nodding, saying “uh-huh,” but you clearly aren’t engaged. The conversation goes awhile, but something horrifying happens. Your conversation partner notices you aren’t engaged and says the fatal words, “Oh, am I boring you?”

All of a sudden, you’re on the defensive, “Oh no, of course not, this is fascinating, I’m just tired/sick/etc.” Any excuse to not be found guilty of Not Caring! The excuse is thin, no one actually accepts it, but they probably make a valiant effort to continue the conversation a little bit before it just dies painfully and awkwardly. The conversation is negative sum, everyone’s a little unhappy, and you have to wonder: Is there another way?

Obviously the answer to that question is yes – from both sides. If you are the one being bored, and the person asks you directly whether that’s the case, you have a few alternate moves. You could just admit it rather than cowering from social disapproval and suggest an alternate topic. I feel like this is underutilized, I’ve been in the position of asking and often get the sort of “No, of course not!” response and then get further evidence that I am in fact boring my conversation partner. Still, admitting it is a bit awkward and script breaking – what are you going to say if someone says “yeah, I’m bored. Can we talk about something else?” You might be able to, but it’s still a bit of a strain on conversational flow.

I think the smoother option is giving your conversation partner a bit of a smile, and asking a question directly related to what they were just talking about – from this jumping off point, you want to guide the conversation to a tangent that is easier for you to engage with. It’s basically agreeing to take a short term cost to get a mutual conversational benefit. The other person might realize you’re doing this – that’s fine, if they genuinely want a good conversation, they’ll probably go with it – if they really insist on the topic they were discussing and were asking the question about whether you’re bored mostly to force you to provide cover for them continuing…well, then you have to decide whether the importance they clearly place on the topic outweighs the coercion they just attempted on you.

On the other side of this – when you’re the one who’s talking passionately about a topic, and suddenly realize that the other person doesn’t seem…all that interested. It’s natural to want to ask if they’re bored – it even feels polite and respectful, you’re being sensitive to their needs. However, as mentioned above, it’s a bit coercive – the socially acceptable response to that script is to deny being bored and let things die awkwardly. It’s not hard to do better than this.

If you notice your conversation partner is bored, you should steer the conversation towards something else. You can ask your partner something that’s sort of related to the thing you were talking about, but allows them to take control of the conversation – let’s say you’re talking about a video game and your partner hasn’t played it before and has no interest in it; the smoothest move is “you know, this reminds me, you were playing [another game], have you made any progress?” Something like that gives your conversation partner a chance to talk about something that interests them without having to go through the song and dance of denying their boredom. You can also gently steer the conversation to something you know has created conversational flow in the past – this mostly allows you to keep control of the conversation while accepting the responsibility for keeping it interesting. I’m not sure if this is as good as actually shifting conversational control to the other person, but as always it’s context sensitive.

Overall, I think this is a common conversational failure mode. People like hearing themselves talk but occasionally notice they aren’t really increasing conversational flow – it’s natural to respond by facing that head on. Unfortunately, facing that head on happens so frequently that there’s an existing script that gets both people out of the conversation fairly awkwardly. This is fairly adaptive, it’s a natural reaction to a conversational mismatch – but sometimes you don’t want the conversation to actually end, you actually intend to course correct. This existing script gets in the way, so having alternative paths is useful, even if they’re a little more indirect. The broader point I want to make here is basically a guess culture vs. ask culture thing – most people I interact with are running some level of guess culture, including myself. I think ask culture is better, when everyone involved can be trusted to be following ask culture – I don’t think most people can be, so this is one illustration of how using guess culture moves can lead to better outcomes when there is uncertainty as to the culture of your conversation partner. I hope to give this a try a few times and see how well it’s received – I encourage you all to try the same.

Discussion questions: Do charismatic people you know seem to course correct in this fashion? Do you think the course correction happens before you even notice you’re bored? Have you ever taken the alternative conversational path outlined above? Do you have the experience of the script outlined above where directly asking if someone is bored leads to suboptimal results? Do you have other alternate paths for handling this sort of situation?



On How To Give a Compliment

Meta note:  A version of this post went out on 3/18/2018 that was significantly less clean and edited – I was offered thorough feedback and editing by Elo – I decided to accept the feedback and suggestions as an experiment.  I like the results.  If you were attached to the old version of the post, feel free to email me (address is in my about page) to get the draft document.  Thank you Elo!

(Epistemic status: Trivially true – there’s academic literature on feedback about this – might kind of be creating a tragedy of the commons situation, not sure I care.)

A couple days ago I was fairly depressed. I felt the kind of bad that wants to keep feeling bad.   I was stuck in the frame of my depression. However, I’ve learnt from experience that reaching out and complimenting people, as well as receiving good compliments can do a lot to fix my moods.

When I get into the depressed frame of mind, usually I’m looking for validation. I asked for some help…and I got the usual cheer crowd of “oh yeah you’re great and amazing.” I find this sort of complimenting/validation to be pretty unfulfilling and fake.  I decided I’d change things – complimenting is an art and I would teach my friends how to do it by “aggressively” complimenting them.

Compliments are an art, but not a particularly hard one to have heuristics about. A good compliment is specific, true, and comes from someone the receiver of the compliment respects as a trusted appraiser. These are generally the rules for feedback – positive or negative.  With that in mind, let’s go into what each of these mean.

Specific means the compliment is more than just saying someone is great generically. It’s saying concretely what you find complimentable – let’s say they’re a great writer.  You might say “Wow, you’re a really good writer,” but this isn’t very specific. A more specific compliment would be “The way you use words gives me vivid imagery of the scenes you’re describing” Specificity can be a difficult metric; it depends on how well you know them. It also depends on the relationship you have to them (such as if they are a coworker, or a friend you play video games with).  Being specific on dimensions of a person’s life that you don’t really know can do more harm than good, you might come off as ingenuine. If you say to a coworker, “I think you’re a really caring and gentle father who truly understands his children’s interests,” it might come off as insincere and possibly creepy because you complimented them as if you know other spheres of their life.

Compliments need to be true and plausible. If you say something that isn’t true, you’re going to get shot down and lose social capital.  Take the above example of the coworker and father – perhaps he’s actually a harsh disciplinarian to his kids even if he’s gentle at work, and your compliment just makes him feel uncomfortable.  If your compliment is not plausible given the frame that your target is in (when I’m depressed, it’s very hard to get me to accept fuzzy statements about my social skills, for example) it’s also likely to get shot down. This is why giving generic compliments is way safer.  You are unlikely to be socially punished if what you’re saying isn’t falsifiable. Generic compliments are far lower impact. A compliment that registers as untrue is going to backfire. You may even have the compliment recipient engaging in negative self talk. In my recent depressive episode, some of the compliments I received highlighted me as someone reliable. This doesn’t really fit my self image, especially when depressed – which caused me to respond that I felt generally like if someone gets an impression of reliability from me, they are being deceived.  Fortunately, we managed to negotiate the compliment to something I would accept and it actually felt pretty good. Other ways a compliment that feels untrue can backfire involve the recipient being less inclined to trust your judgment.

Compliments need to be given by someone the recipient considers a valid appraiser. If you hardly know a person, they aren’t going to expect you to have deep insight into how they think, what they care about or what they’ve invested energy into.  Let’s say you have someone who’s in a band – you’ve just met them, never heard their music, but try to tell them they play well, mirroring things they said themselves about their sound.  It’s clearly not going to a valid appraisal of their musical talent.

As a side note to valid appraisals, ingroup and outgroup dynamics can have a major impact on this dimension.  If you are regarded as outgroup by someone and you nail true/plausible, and specific, your compliment is going to be very high impact.  If you don’t hit those points, you’ll be ignored as someone who “doesn’t get it.” However, you won’t incur a social cost. On the flip side, if the recipient considers you in their ingroup, being a valid appraiser is mostly based on your reputation – i.e. do you shoot straight or do you harmonize with everyone? In the former case, you can give compliments that come off as blatant flattery, because you have a reputation for bluntness. If you’re aiming for harmony, you have to make sure you’re more specific in your compliment.  There are other cases, this is meant to be the general heuristic. Complimenting as an art is a combination of self knowledge and theory of mind. Once you get the hang of it, you can generate warm feelings and social capital rapidly.

Posting this might be a minor tragedy of the commons.  Most people know how to give halfway decent compliments… acting as if you aren’t capable of complimenting well is significantly cheaper in terms of signaling closeness. It does take effort, time, energy, and concentration to craft a well aimed compliment – and you might not want to do this every time you make a compliment. If generic compliments are devalued by knowledge of better techniques, it becomes harder to signal “I care about you” via lazily complimenting someone.

Making it clear that I am aware of how to compliment people makes my life harder.  Whenever I make a low-effort compliment people are going to say “oh, you know how to do way better than that, by giving a weaker compliment to what you would usually give, you are signaling that you don’t care much.” On the flip side, genuine, well aimed compliments feel amazing.  I like increasing the amount of amazing feeling in the world. As such, I want the common knowledge situation to prevail.

Overall, compliments are relatively easy to have heuristics for and take practice to really find the art intrinsic to them. The basic rules are to make sure that what you are saying is true, specific, and that you are being being assessed as someone valid to give the class of feedback you’re giving. There’s a meta point about whether you want to get in the habit of good compliment giving.  Being known for thoughtful compliments reduces the number of moves you can make if you want to do low cost signaling of compassion and care for someone. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to give off low cost signals, sometimes you don’t have the energy to properly do emotionally labor for someone – but the inherent illegibility to not giving decent compliments makes it easier to choose when to save that energy.  Still, compliments do feel amazing when done well, so it might be worth the tradeoff. As mentioned in the opening story, it can improve your own mood to reach out. Crafting a better compliment generates unexpected yields later in life – you won’t always be sure where it will lead, but it’s an interesting place to leap.

Discussion questions: How was your compliment game before reading this post? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever given? Do you think that the risk of losing lower effort emotional labor options is legitimate? If so, is it worth the tradeoff to develop a habit of good compliments?

On Iterative Socialization

(Epistemic Status: The usefulness of this really depends on if you think I’m good at socializing or if I’m terrible at it. This is kind of the secret to me verbalizing and S2ing various social things – I think it’s helpful to be able to invent your own vocabulary for this stuff.)

A year ago, roughly, I had my first hypomanic episode. It was scary, intense, wonderful, and was the first time I actively decided to change my life. I had been in the Boston rationalist scene for a bit, started getting invited to parties, was slowly accumulating social capital. I was a reasonably fun and likeable nerd to be around – but I wasn’t really in control of my interactions. Some nights would go well if someone approached me and lead me around the conversational circuit. Some nights would go poorly if I weren’t attached to someone to talk to. I didn’t really know how to initiate, to keep a conversation going, to be eloquent whatsoever. I had no idea what was going on in social reality or even that it existed. In March of 2017, I started taking steps to change that.

The first thing that happened is I basically decided that I was done sitting around at parties waiting for people I already liked to show up and just getting in a cluster with them. I was gonna talk to new people and find out who was interesting and make new friends. This worked surprisingly well – as I’m sure everyone knows, people like talking about themselves if you aren’t weird about it. The second thing that happened is I became significantly more open to new experience – going to new events, doing new things, meeting people on the internet for coffee. I was fairly wild, powered by hypomania – and it pretty much always worked well. The third thing that happened is what this post is about.

So, it’s one thing to suddenly become social and talk to a lot of people – it helps to train your S1 to do interesting things, you’ll skill up by default. A lot of the whole delayed social development thing is mostly lack of opportunities in childhood due to things “clicking” out of order – at least for most of the people I hang out with. It catches up eventually. The thing that I do that might be unusual and allows me to generate weird jargon for things (and also generally causes people to think I’m “interesting” and all that entails) is posthoc analysis of almost every conversation I have.

I spent a lot of time on public transit – it turns out this works well for the way I think about things. The time between “finishing a social interaction” and “going home afterward” is usually ~30 minutes, and I don’t have to do anything active during this time. I’m just sitting and thinking. My memory is usually good enough so if I do a quick recording of my impressions of what was important in a conversation, I can capture the gist of most of it, as well as a few specific examples of things that seemed unusual or notable. I simulate what I could have done that might have gone better, I consider options that might have gone worse, and I label things that had an effect and speculate on why that effect happened. This last bit is basically half of my blog posts.

What happens after that is I integrate what I’ve derived and try it out next social opportunities. And I make sure I have a lot of social opportunities. At my peak, I was pretty much going out to something or other 6 out of 7 nights a week. I didn’t really try a lot of things at work because the cost of failure was much higher – it’s different to experiment socially and mortally offend a coworker. It’s much easier experimenting socially and accidentally offending a friend who generally will understand if you’re honest about essentially trying to power level social through experience. It’s also easier to meet someone new, mess up the interaction, and just lose the potential tie – you’ll probably never see them again or if you do, you probably won’t be remembered that discretely.

Of course, the other part of iterative socializing is “how do I actually generate 6 opportunities to socialize in a given week.” This is admittedly a bit more illegible and generally relies on being in a big city – I think it would take a different skillset to successfully bootstrap social skills in a more rural environment. In the city though? It mostly relies on going to public events and being determined to talk with at least one person. If you hit it off, invite them out one on one. If you’re really doing well, they’ll want you to meet their other friends. The thing about social interaction and social graphs is it’s a very fast moving success spiral. Your schedule can go from 0 to full in less than 3 months.

Overall, iterative socialization is a combination of skills to get good at socializing in a way that is most in line with the way you interact with people “naturally”. The skills involved are actually starting conversations, finding events to go to that interest you, and being willing to do post hoc analysis of your interactions. If you’re good with words, labeling interactions that seemed “weird” in some way, as well as labelling patterns can be helpful to give you a handle on target interactions to replicate to raise your ability to be consistent in conversation. There is a bit of a caution here, though – conversation is not a road, it is much more flowing. Having a few patterns to work with can make it easier to jump off into good conversational flow – having too many patterns or scripts mostly just leads to either having the same conversations over and over, or to being very very good at talking with one type of person and very bad at other types of people. This is in fact an error I have made thus far – I made techniques as if they were universal, and a couple of them are, but I didn’t actually tag the type of people I was talking to in a legible fashion – so I still have a lot of work to do.


Discussion Questions: Do you ever analyze your conversations after the fact in a useful fashion (feedback looping over how embarrassing you were doesn’t count unless you get actionable changes to the way you behave)? Does this method help explain some of the underlying mechanisms of my social style? Does this method seem like it would be useful for improving your social skills? What are the flaws of this method in your experience?

On The Frame Drift

(Epistemic Status: Endorsed – another thing I Noticed but do not yet have practice on. Also sorta Dangerous Technology socially, but the cost of failure is mostly the same as disagreeing with someone outright so probably not that dangerous)

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone and they just…say something or believe something that is wrong in some fundamental way? Perhaps it is a course of action that will likely destroy them – sometimes it’s just a belief that is clearly incorrect – other times it’s a preference that offends you. Regardless of the way they are Wrong, your first instinct might be to just tell them outright you think they’re wrong. This predictably hardens them on the Wrong belief and the things you are saying are suddenly weighted a lot less heavily by the person you’re talking to. Worse still, they probably are taking you less seriously on other matters, whether contentious or not. Overall, you’ve mostly cost yourself influence over something that probably doesn’t matter all that much. So most of the time, the right move is agreeing to disagree and maintaining harmony.

However…there are other moves available. If you’re fast enough or familiar enough with the belief in question, you can attempt a move I call frame drift. It’s fairly simple and to a degree obvious – rather than opposing the Wrong belief from the outset, you can opt to start within the frame the other person is providing. Actively listen to what they’re saying, agree with them. Highlight the really solid points of what they’re saying. If you can do this smoothly without the barest hesitation, it increases resonance. Don’t even let it into your voice what you’re about to do – people can hear a but a sentence away. As you continue discussing their idea, the initial resonance gives you room to ask questions. You can use this method to get them to defeat their own belief. If you ask the right questions and have them comfortable enough to give honest answers, you’re likely to get a drift in frame. The most important thing at this point is to not point out what you’ve done – in fact, if you really want to try to be clever, continue defending their initial position as they come up with their objections. You can completely reverse the effect you would have walked into if you had disagreed outright. Another way to approach frame drift is to just keep talking. Start with agreement, phase into drawbacks (but again, avoid things that sound like you’re saying “X is great, but Y” – aim more for “X is great and Y is a really good point. I think there are possible pitfalls around Z, so this might not be the best idea, but we might be able to work through that”), and leave the question open in a way that isn’t “So you should change your mind” but “So how do you think we should approach that so we can do the Wrong thing better?”

These approaches are of course easier said than done – even allowing yourself to S2 frame it as drifting someone’s frame is likely to screw up your paralinguistics and word choice. Being able to slip into the mindset of genuinely wanting the Wrong Thing to succeed and persist can be a hacky way to approach causing frame drift, though may lead to you hardening the belief or even shifting your own beliefs if you argue too well for the thing. Another option is framing it to yourself as wanting the best for the other person – the pitfall here is that you might come off as preachy/naggy and just open yourself to them hardening against you as a person. Really, though, the best way to execute this is likely to practice, knowing what you’re doing, and iterate forward on your ability to cause frame drift.

Overall, frame drift is a persuasive technique and a fairly obvious one, but generally errors made in executing it are in the feeling behind it. Conscious execution of persuasive techniques frequently just scan improperly and cause people to be more suspicious.   Still, this technique should be learnable with practice and a good enough understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Discussion questions: Do you think you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a frame drift? What did it feel like? Do you think this is an acceptable way to argue with people to bring them to your views? Why or why not?

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?

On The Gift of Narrative

(Epistemic status: Semi endorsed – haven’t tried it myself but it seems like a resonant idea)

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve decided to create a gift-giving guide from a narrative perspective. This heuristic should resolve all issues of “What do I get this person?” It’s convenient in that if you can’t actually complete the exercise I’m about to propose, you’re probably not close enough to that person to really waste any effort on getting them a thoughtful gift – get a gift card or cash or something, the relationship is clearly transactional. However, for someone close to you, a family member, a friend a lover, it can sometimes be challenging to find the right gift that actually means something. To remedy that, I propose a ritual that channels the feeling of the relationship into whatever gift you are giving.

The basic idea is fairly simple – consider how this person makes you feel. Sit down, get comfy, breathe slowly and calmly and get yourself into a meditative space. Spend 5 minutes thinking about this person, what they mean to you, what you’ve shared together, and focus on the affect this is bringing you. Feel the nuance and shades of it – perhaps you love your best friend, but it is a little annoying how they’re always late to things. All of that feeling needs to be recognized and felt. This will get you in the right mindset for the next part.

After you have the affect of your giftee, the memories and feelings that make your relationship unique, consider yourself in a certain role. Pretend you are a witch, or magician, or some sort of occultist. Consider what sort of talisman you would use to evoke the feeling of this person for you – what object would resonate _most_. If the occult is an uncomfortable frame for you, then consider yourself an author, writing a book about this person you care about. What is the object that is always with them, that they don’t already have? What is their signature? Consider what matches the emotion and character you get from them and focus on that object. Maybe it’s something very specific but out of your reach, or they already have it. Go more abstract – catch the idea of the focus object. Perhaps you have something abstract but not cohesive – make it more specific and personal. Focus in on what is reasonable to give someone that conveys this packed emotion you’ve just generated in yourself.

The last part is, write the story of how they’ll receive the gift. What questions will it raise? What conversation will you have? The point isn’t the material object you’ll give them, but what experience it will generate. What can you talk to them about by giving them something that represents your inner experience of this person? Maybe it’s nothing – maybe they receive it with a thanks and move on. That’s ok. Maybe it will involve a long conversation about something dear to you that you want to relate to them. That’s ok too. The idea is to be prepared for the experience and then go in and experience it. Give them the gift – the resonance you’ve written is meant to touch the heart in ways that wish lists and cash just don’t approach.

Overall, narrative gift giving is an exercise in care signaling. It’s not something to take out for every single gift you have to give – but for people who like well thought out gifts, who actually care about what a gift giver is trying to say to them, this can resonate in ways that they may never have experienced before.

Discussion Questions – This might be posted a bit late to be legitimately applied by anyone, but if you managed to try this, how did it go? If you didn’t try it, do you think it’s an approach that might help with people who are difficult to give to? How do you normally give gifts? How would you modify the approach to accommodate you own circumstances and relationships in life?

On Narrative Decoherence

(Epistemic Status: Problem without a clear solution, semi-endorsed, transitional step in character development maybe)

It’s a wonderful feeling, seeing the narrative underpinnings of the universe. Understanding the roles people adopt in relation to you, seeing what roles they expect you to have, and how you can accept, reject, or change those roles. With new people, you know how to activate archetypes in their brain and really manage impressions. Reality itself bends a little as you more strongly wield your narrative.

And then it seems to go away.

Something breaks, maybe your story has an unexpected twist, maybe you run into someone with a stronger narrative, maybe your archetype has tradeoffs you don’t like. Suddenly, the flow leaves you and there’s a sense of relief and loss. On the one hand, you no longer have to think about being a role, a labelled entity, a Thing. You can just be again, rather than always running a mask. But…reality is dull again, a thing you react to instead of acting on. You lose a certain spark and you’re running decision making through a war of subagents rather than an archetype. Things feel lacking because they don’t resonate as much. This lack, this sense of loss, is what I term narrative decoherence. It’s the feeling that you aren’t living in a story anymore – you’re an NPC again. You’re not as easily labelled and you don’t make as strong an impression, and you have more passive flexibility. You also don’t have as much slack for transgression, though. The barriers that were torn down by playing an archetype are back with a vengeance. Being narratively decoherent is less energy-intensive, but it makes reaching goals much more difficult.

I don’t think narrative decoherence is necessarily bad – I think it’s a transition period between narratives if an archetype is getting too costly. You eventually rebuild and regain your spark with different aesthetics. The narrative decoherence period can feel pretty bad though if if happens in the middle of a project relying on narrativemancy. Even with that, I admit going from the benefits of archetypes to less coherent thought patterns feels like a step backwards.

I don’t know how to solve narrative decoherence but I suspect if it can be avoided it requires conscious value, preference, and boundary setting as well as exploration. Taking archetype power without knowing what you value most can cause decoherence as you run face first into consequences you weren’t fully willing to accept. Setting limits on how you are labelled is much more accessible in the decoherent state. This is why I suspect narrative decoherence is a transition state. When you first figure out narrative, it’s addicting and difficult to remember what was important to you before – the archetype takes over so thoroughly that it is driving you. Periods of narrative decoherence are lash back if you violate values too much while playing.

Overall, narrative coherence and narrative decoherence feel like parts of a natural cycle for a beginner narrativemancer. I suspect as one learns the ropes, it happens less and new challenges appear instead – that said, it’s also entirely plausible this cycle never stops and what you learn as you improve is how to save narrative decoherence for the end of a chapter.


Discussion – How do you feel when narratively coherent? How about when narratively decoherent? If you’ve already grown further in narrativemancy, what happens to this pattern?

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?