Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Conversations

Introduction

Here I give some thoughts on various topics related to conversations.

The page began with the specific issue of open vs. closed questions, but soon expanded. A particularly important issue, in hindsight, is what questions and whatnots serve as a pretext for something else (e.g. to start a conversation) and what should be taken at face value, and what the effects and implications of taking the one for the other might be. This issue is mentioned repeatedly below, but, as a consequence of the history of this page, has not been given a separate discussion.

To this the caution that I appear to be more literal minded than most and that the risk of complications might be smaller for and with others or, more generally, for two counterparts that have a sufficiently similar communication style.

I make repeated references to the stereotypical this-or-that and might implicitly draw on stereotypes on other occasions. Here the usual disclaimers around stereotypes, correctness, individual variation, etc. apply; however, are mostly of little practical relevance, as the illustrations of principle still hold. The point shortly below, e.g., is not that teens and parents behave in a certain manner—it is to illustrate what can happen when different behaviors (and expectations) clash.

Conversations have different purposes and to give a treatment that considers all possible purposes in any given situation would make the page much longer. Instead, I mostly avoid the issue of purpose and rely on the reader to make mental adjustments as needed, say, in that advice on which stranger to prefer for a conversation does not apply when a talk with some very specific stranger is wanted (e.g. because of romantic interest or in order to network with a VIP).

The use of the word “conversation” is deliberate, as the situations are usually casual in nature, often involving small-talk, attempts at bonding, or attempts at just establishing a first contact. However, similar ideas can often apply to more serious interactions that deserve names like “discussion” or “debate”.


Side-note:

And under no circumstances do I support the current trend of abusing “conversation” as a catch-all term in lieu of “discussion”, “debate”, “argument”, “controversy”, and similar. (Consider absurd claims like that a reader on the Internet should “Join the conversation!” around some piece of writing, that there would be a “national conversation” about some controversial political topic, whatnot.)


Open vs. closed questions

A common recommendation is to prefer “open” questions to “closed” questions.


Side-note:

Broadly, speaking the latter seek or allow a “yes”, “no”, or otherwise very short answer; while the former seek or require a longer answer. As will be clear from the below, I am very sceptical to the idea, and might see the benefit as limited to (a) signalling interest (which can be better done in other ways), (b) moving onto a specific topic, which has little to do with the issue of open vs. close questions.


A problem that has been glossed over in all discussions that I have, myself, seen, is that the intents and expectations of the asker might not match the responses of the counterpart, which, as seen below, leaves hardly any natural question truly open. (For simplicity, I will use “open” and “closed” mostly with an eye at intent below.) I suspect that many authors have a hyper-naive belief that the counterpart truly and positively wants to engage, while, in reality, the case of the reluctant counterpart is both common and much more interesting. If in doubt, if someone truly and positively wants to engage, even a small “in” is usually enough. Some reservations are needed for e.g. the very shy, but, for the purpose of stimulating a conversation, they might be better grouped with the reluctant counterparts in the first place.


Side-note:

As to “natural”, a sufficiently contorted question or, better, request might truly require a longer answer or an explicit refusal to answer, but would hardly serve in a normal conversation. Consider, as a variation of the below, something like “Give me a complete description of all interactions that you had with your teacher today!”. For that matter, non-questions might be superior in general, as with e.g. a “Tell me about your day!” over the below “How was school?”, even while not solving the underlying problems.

For simplicity, I will consider requests like “Tell me about your day!” questions. Someone who objects to this can simply replace any given request with an actual question to the same effect. (In the open case, these questions will usually be less effective; in the closed, they might be better by reducing the risk of rudeness, as with “What time is it?” vs. “Give me the time of day!”.)


For instance, consider a stereotypical parent–teen exchange after school:

P: How was school?

T: Fine. [With shoulder shrug.]

P: What did you do today?

T: Stuff. [With shoulder shrug.]

The first question is at least semi-open and is likely intended as an invitation to share—and, maybe, something that once brought on an enthusiastic monologue, during years when the (now) teen was more interested in sharing. The second is fully open and is a clear second attempt. Both result in an answer worthy of a closed question, because the teen at hand is simply not interested in communication. The second might have an outright negative effect, as an intention of prying might (fairly or unfairly) come across to the teen, which will reduce the chance that future attempts will be successful.

In reverse, if someone has a strong interest in interaction or communication, minimal or no prompting can lead to an excess. A stereotypical female teen might grab a snack, go to her room, call her BFF, and spend the next two hours spontaneously talking about exactly how school was and what she did during the day. Likewise, if the above teen truly wanted to communicate with the parent, a simple “P: Hi, kiddo!” could be enough to launch a stream of words. (Possibly, preceded by a “Don’t call me ‘kiddo’!”.)

Some differentiation might be needed between the “conversation starters” in the above examples (also see below) and questions used to keep an already started conversation going, to extract information (e.g. during an interview), or to serve some other purpose. However, in most cases, the same idea will hold, that “open vs. closed” matters far less than actual interest and that the better approach is to keep that interest up. A slow and faltering conversation, e.g., might simply lack a topic that is sufficiently mutually interesting.

Another issue with open questions is that they might be too open. I have often reacted to an open question with some variation of “Could you be more specific?”. Yes, a very open question does give more to talk about, but this then forces a choice on what to mention and not to mention, and with no further information about the intent of the asker, how are we to make that choice? (The hitch is that the asker will sometimes not actually be asking for information and will sometimes deliberately leave the choice entirely to the counterpart.)

The attractiveness of the topic–counterpart combination

The more important issue is simply that different combinations of topics and counterparts have different levels of attraction—and that an open question does not alter the level of attraction compared to a closed question. Above, switching the counterpart brought on a greater wish to communicate. In another continuation, the parent might have been successful through finding a more attractive or acceptable topic. (Also see excursion.)

Some are willing to talk about anything with anyone; some about the right topic with anyone; some about anything with the right person; and some might not want to discuss anything with anyone. For many or most, however, it is truly the combination of topic and counterpart that matters.

Other factors to consider include the current mood/activity/whatnot of the intended conversation partner and the overall circumstances. (This the more so for strangers, as discussed further below.) Above, a conversation teen–parent might have prolonged the time until a conversation teen-BFF could take place, which gives negative incentives for the teen to talk with the parent. A classic example in relationship literature is the contrast between a housewife bursting to talk with an adult once her husband comes home from work, and a husband who is tired from said work and just wants to relax with the paper and a cup of coffee for half-an-hour. Naturally, he would be much more open to a conversation after that half-an-hour than before it. Personally, I have always been (even) less open to approaches when I was reading a good book—and open questions might now be worse than closed ones, as they take longer to handle than the closed ones, which increases the delay before I can continue with the book. (Alternatively, a shorter answer can be used, but only at a greater risk of coming across as rude.)


Side-note:

An interesting issue with books is that they might seem like a great opportunity to start a conversation, where the enthusiastic reader hears a “What are you reading?” and spontaneously discusses the book for half an hour. This might work with some readers, but not everyone is alike, not everyone wants to share, not every book read is suitable for discussion (or discussion with the counterpart at hand), and timing is important. To the last, many who are open to discussing the book in principle would very much prefer to read on in the now and take the discussion once the book is finished, both to avoid delays in the reading and to be able to speak with a fuller knowledge and understanding. By analogy, if someone watches a movie, few approachers would actually consider pressing the pause button and beginning a conversation about the movie. (But note that a “What are you watching?” is more likely to be a face-value question than “What are you reading?”, e.g. to decide whether joining the watching would be worthwhile or, if asked by a parent, to judge whether the movie is “age appropriate”.)


Do not attempt to force a conversation

The original teen–parent example can easily be extended to point to the dangers of pushing too hard. Above, we have two questions, which, if unwelcome, will rarely be worse than a nuisance. Tag on another few questions and the situation might be different. Attempt to force a conversation, e.g. by some type of guilt angle, and things could turn quite bad.

Even an accepted conversation starter need not be beneficial, if interest was lacking. What if the counterpart spent some time talking out of politeness or a sense of duty? If he did not enjoy it, if he saw it as a chore, if it delayed a more interesting activity, whatnot, little good has been achieved—and an outright negative development is at least possible. A too talkative, yet uninteresting, colleague might eventually be avoided, for example. Ditto a colleague who, even while interesting, keeps someone else away from work for too long, implying that too little work gets done or that the “victim” must compensate through working longer hours.

Particular caution should be taken before seeking someone out for a conversation. The original example might have played in a natural manner as the teen came through the door or went to the kitchen—but what if the teen was already in her room, possibly about to dial that BFF, when an annoying parent steps through the door with a “How was school?”. Such seeking out might be better saved for cases with a more purpose-filled motivation, e.g. that “Your teacher called and we need to discuss X.” or “Mrs. Y is looking for a baby sitter for tonight. Are you interested?”.

Issues when starting conversations with strangers

There are at least two major points that are usually neglected:

Firstly, depending on what the stranger is doing, he might be more or less open to a conversation. Notably, someone who is currently occupied with something that normally (a) requires a more-or-less sole focus, (b) is pleasant/entertaining/whatnot, is unlikely to be open. (Consider reading, again: out of two strangers on a train, the one who stares out the window and looks at his watch every two minutes is a better target than the one who is engrossed in a book.) Ditto, when (b) is replaced with something potentially important, urgent, whatnot, e.g. for someone on that train trying to finish some work task before arriving at the office.

Secondly, there is a time and place. Notably, different venues have different purposes and not every purpose is compatible with conversations. A train is normally compatible, because there is rarely anything with the train or train ride that requires a deep involvement of the passengers. A museum is a different story altogether, because a museum does require a deep involvement (at least, if the visitor wants to benefit). The line of a grocery store is perfectly fine, as the fellow customers are rarely doing anything productive, but other parts of the store visit require caution, as the conversation is likely to interfere with them and to cause delays—and the period of direct interaction with the cashier should usually be reserved strictly for the cashier. (Very purposeful interactions, e.g. to point out that the fellow customer dropped something on the ground, are acceptable—but are hardly conversations.)

An issue of a different character is the risk that a pretext backfires through being taken at face value. A literal or metaphorical “Excuse me, what time is it?” causes me to give the time and, barring unusual circumstances, then to consider the interaction ended. If the counterpart actually wanted the time of day (or whatever the question aimed at), this might be fine, but if the subtext was “I am bored while waiting for the train and would like to kill some time with you” disappointment results. Now, if “I am bored [etc.]” was actually spoken, the chance of success would be far greater.


Side-note:

Yes, asking for the time of day usually results in a question that has a “closed” character, but the actual problem is something different, viz. that a pretext is taken at face value. Certainly, a stranger who walked up to me and asked me to “Tell me about your day!” would, if anything; fare worse. (Maybe to the point of “Take a hike, crazy person!”.) Someone could conceivably follow the request for time of day with an attempt to discuss the counterpart’s wrist-watch, but the success of that would, again, depend on how interested the counterpart was in that discussion—not on open vs. closed questions. A “Hey, is that a [brand at hand]?” is likely to work as well as or better than “Tell me about your watch!”. (An even better approach might be to offer some own words, e.g., if truthful, “Oh, a [brand at hand]! My father had one of those, [etc.]”, as a starting point for a conversation, with neither an open nor a closed question.)


Issues when making a romantic approach to a stranger

While the above applies over a wide range of motivations, the specific motivation of romance is of importance and can lead to judgment calls. For instance, it appears that some women’s magazines give the outright recommendation to go to museums for the purpose of finding a man—a man found there is seen as more likely to be intelligent, “cultured”, or whatnot, so the museum would be a much better choice than a bar. But a man in a museum should be there to learn something, to look at art, or whatever applies to the museum at hand. Abusing the museum for pick-up attempts is, at best, ethically dubious. (But some leeway can be given if the woman, too, is there for a more legitimate purpose and coincidentally finds someone with potential. Even then, it is better to gauge any mutual interest first, e.g., by noting who looks at whom when, and only to approach if such an interest seems to be present.)

The issue with pretexts is also deepened, because men are more likely than women to take pretexts at face value and are often oblivious to specifically romantic intents: Even a pretext that is adequate as a (platonic) conversation starter need not be so for a romantic approach. To ask for the time of day is best done when the time of day is actually wanted; it might or might not work as a pretext for a conversation; it falls well short, should the target be romance. In the last case, even if the approach does result in a conversation, chances are that the man will have an entirely different mindset than if he had some prior awareness of a romantic intent, which reduces the woman’s chances. Moreover, there are cases when a man might be open to the conversation if he has romantic hopes, but not if he expects platonic small-talk (which is usually boring and pointless). In reverse, if he is entirely uninterested in the woman, his awareness of a romantic intent can help shorten the interaction, with less time wasted for both parties.

Notably, the problem with the “plausible deniability” that (in particular) women seem to strive for is that the more plausible the deniability, the greater the risk of being taken at face value. As long as other women might actually want the time of day, it pays to be more explicit, e.g. by suggesting a cup of coffee or leading with a “handsome”. (The infamous “line” might serve a valid purpose here, as an indirect declaration of intent.)

Throwing a wider net, some types of pretexts can be outright unethical, e.g. the approach of a neighbor/colleague/classmate/whatnot for time consuming and unpaid help when that help is not actually needed and the true intended purpose is to spend time with him in the hope of developing a romantic connection.

Everyone’s favorite topic?

A common, and very simplistic, piece of advice is to steer a conversation onto the counterpart, because “Everyone wants to talk about himself!” (or similar). Such humans are, of course, common, but a great many exceptions exist—and the exceptions are usually the more worthwhile humans to begin with.


Side-note:

This is also an illustration of an ever recurring problem with advice in a certain type of literature, from a certain type of expert, whatnot: that recommendations are based on a majority or (even) large plurality without concern for how often the advice given will fail due to the great number of exceptions. (While fields like communications, PR, management, etc., are common sources, the problem is far more widespread. It is not necessarily the field, it self, but the type of person attracted to the field.) Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” contains many examples.

When reading such advice, I often have to note that I would, if anything, be put off by its use against me. A particular negative was a book on NLP in which the authors again and again and again tried to use NLP trickery on the readers. The tricks were usually see-through to begin with, but, had they not been, the book would either have taught the readers sufficiently much about NLP that they would have seen through the tricks (in which case a negative reaction was to be expected) or it would not (in which case the book failed to even remotely live up the reasonable learning expectations of the readers). This is sufficiently long ago that I do not remember title and authors—but I do remember that I reached a point of too great annoyance well before hitting the half-way point of the book, at which point the book hit the wall and then my waste basket.

A key issue is, indeed, whether the intended victim is sufficiently intelligent, educated, or previously aware of the tricks that he sees through them.


I, e.g., am much more interested in talking (and writing) about factual topics and, especially, what connections, causalities, implications, and similar might follow from a certain set of facts and observations. When a conversation comes too close to myself, I might even try to divert it elsewhere, because I do not wish to share some things or because some questions have no good answers. Consider, in an attempt to follow-up on one of the above conversation starters, “What is your favorite book?”: I have read so many books, by so many authors, in so many genres (fiction) and fields (non-fiction), seen so many changes in impressions from a first to a second reading, and seen so many changes in my taste between one age and another, that I simply could not answer that question. (And I would not necessarily take someone seriously who, beyond some age, does answer a question of that nature.) Depending on the circumstances, it would also be possible that the answer could be embarrassing/harmful or would require elaboration in order to not be embarrassing/harmful—or result in a lie.


Side-note:

For instance, my first thought when once being asked for my favorite book was either the “Narnia” books (collectively) or “The Magician’s Nephew” (specifically). (After which competing book after competing book occurred to me, and I saw the question as impossible to answer even to some approximation.) Now, imagine if I had just blurted out “Narnia!”.

Some might approve of the answer, others might disapprove, others yet might consider me an idiot—and the clear majority would see these as “children’s books”.

At a minimum, I would have needed some type of disclaimer or explanation to elaborate that the “Narnia” books are not just excellent children’s literature and a fond memory from my own childhood (which might be enough for some), but that they have levels and layers that do make (at least portions of them) a worthwhile read even to an intelligent and educated adult, and especially one who has read some of Lewis’s more adult works and can see them in a bigger picture of his thoughts and worldview. Every read has, so far, made me see something new and understand something that I did not see respectively understand during the previous reading—they are much deeper than even much of the ostensibly adult literature that I have encountered, let alone, say, the “Harry Potter” books.

Similarly, consider the question “What are you reading?”: The clear majority of my readings are of non-fiction, including on topics like politics and science, and I often deliberately pick fiction readings of a much “lighter” type, up to and including a “James Bond” book or the odd “young adult” book—and this especially in environments, like trains, where it is hard for me to concentrate. Let us say that I was reading “Goldfinger” and a beautiful young woman asked “What are you reading?”. What answer would serve me (or a more approachable version of me) better—the truth or “Madame Bovary”? (At the time of writing, the latter is the last “serious” work of fiction that I read, but in the comfort of my own home where no-one would have asked that question.)



Side-note:

I very often write about myself, but it is always to achieve some purpose of a very different nature from a mere “wants to talk about myself”, often to illustrate something based on my own experiences or to use myself as an example—as in this text. (I suppose that I could do it the Carnegie way and use cherry-picked, poorly understood, and/or distorted examples from the lives of others.) Even this paragraph has a clear purpose, if a self-serving one, namely to preempt accusations of hypocrisy or whatnot.

There is also an important difference in terms of willingness, in that I, here, share what I want to share, while a stranger on a train might ask for what he wants me to share, or otherwise bring the discussions into areas that I might want to keep private. That I share X here does not mean that I would share Y on a train, which weakens the advice under discussion. (Purpose: Strengthen my criticism of that advice.)

A minority of cases, I admit, can come close to a “wants to talk about myself”, including texts aiming at releasing tension during never-ending construction work, and texts that partially facilitate self-exploration or serve as memory aides. These, however, would have low relevance when we move to a strict “talk” situation and, even in writing, are not necessarily intended to be read by others. (Purpose: Mixture of giving the reader a more nuanced understanding, self-exploration, and another preemption of hypocrisy accusations.)


What then might happen if someone tries to start, prolong, or deepen a conversation with some such simplistic trick and has the “wrong” counterpart? A follower of Carnegie might come at me with something like “It must be fascinating to be a Swede living in Germany! I wish that I had the opportunity to live in a foreign country! Tell me all about it!”—after which I would likely be looking for ways to terminate the conversation entirely. (In contrast, something like “I read your text on X, and I disagree concerning Y, because of Z.” might interest me, provided that Z was thought-worthy.) When it comes to a point of some salience, we might also have to factor in a saturation factor: some other Swede living in Germany might be interested in talking about that once or some few times—but, after some number of repetitions, the weather might be more interesting. The problem here is that if something is an obvious in-road, then it will be obvious to others and others might use that same in-road. Likewise, someone famous or important might be met with a very similar set of questions in most conversations, interviews, and whatnots—and often questions that were superficial, pointless, or unimaginative even the first time around. (Successful athletes might see questions like “How did it feel to win?” or “Are you disappointed about losing?” ad nauseam.)


Side-note:

The famous and important might provide a clue as to why the trick sometimes works, by imagining a reverse scenario: someone who wants to feel important and never has the opportunity might relish the attention, while someone who wants to share something has a similar relish for a rare opportunity to share.


Excursion on attractiveness of topic and counterpart / individual variation and spheres

What makes a certain combination of topic and counterpart attractive or unattractive is an interesting question, but one which goes far beyond the current scope.

An important observation, however, is that different individuals can have radically different takes, as can the same individual at different times and/or in different roles. A teen–parent clash is particularly likely.

Another, that many divide their world into spheres that (they feel) should be kept separate to the degree possible. Commonly occurring (but by no means mandatory) examples include (for teens) school vs. home, teens vs. adults/teachers, and the children of the family vs. the parents; and (for adults) work vs. private life and the “guys” resp. “girls” vs. home.

Looking specifically at myself and school, then and now, I used to have a strong school vs. home separation. Any attempt by my mother to discuss school breached the virtual wall between the two and (usually) met with my disapproval. Today, I can see how this might have been to our mutual disadvantage and I would, imagining myself as a parent, certainly appreciate more openness from the children than I, myself, displayed. Ditto when my younger sister’s “home room” teacher once wanted to talk to me (!) about her scholastic issues and what might be behind them—here, to me, school intruded on matters of home. Today, I might have considerable ethical concerns about a teacher talking to me while circumventing my mother and, likely, going behind the back of my sister, but would have recognized his good intentions and the potential benefits to us all from resolving problems at home.


Side-note:

TV often makes good use of such divisions. For instance, many of the “fight evil” series have a division into a home/private sphere, a school/work sphere (with a potential subdivision into a sphere with students/colleagues and another with teachers/supervisors), and the sphere of fighting evil—often with complications ensuing from the attempts to keep the last strictly separated from the others. (Note e.g. “Chuck” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; however, others, e.g. “Supernatural” and “Ash vs. Evil Dead”, operate in more-or-less a single sphere.)