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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

Last night, I saw Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely at the Harris Theater. Afterward, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership offered free food and drink, intended to spark a post-film discussion among the strangers in attendance. (This is supposed to be a good thing.)

Unfortunately, strangers, bound solely by the shared experience of having just seen the same movie, have nothing else in common yet (that they know of). Result? Out comes the posturing, the pomposity and the need to impress one another with armchair film school dissections of "symbols" and "meaning." (I nearly choked on my stuffed grape leaf -- catered by the inimitable Affogato -- when someone posed the [rhetorical?] question: "Was the pastoral violated?")

In the end, I doubt any friendships were forged from this discussion, but I suspect more than a few people went home worrying, "Did everybody else think I was smart enough?"

Anatomy of a Conversation

When we're thrown together in a pseudo-social situation, the quaint tradition of "breaking the ice" often gives way to the more aggressive method of preening like alpha males / females, meant to establish a social hierarchy we can all understand (and find -- or reject -- our place in).

In every social situation, there seems to be at least one of the following:

* The conversation driver
* The friends of the conversation driver
* The people who WANT to be friends with the conversation driver
* The people who DISAGREE with the conversation driver
* The dropouts who eat the free food and make snide comments in the background

(Hint: this last group is almost always the most interesting group, due possibly to the fact that they're coincidentally the most impossible to actually meet.)

This conversation rarely has the opportunity to become inclusive because it automatically becomes a pitched battle between two (or more) speakers vying to establish that their opinion is the "right" one (at least for the duration of this situation).

If that's the case, why bother speaking at all, if the only reason to get involved is to try and out-shout the opposition? Wouldn't a lot more be accomplished -- and more bonds between conversationalists be created -- if we all agreed that the perfunctory building of these walls was a waste of time?

Your Comfortability Makes Me Uncomfortable

Not everyone is so eager to let their wall down. Some people enjoy that distance because it keeps them from getting too attached, or seeming like they're too interested, or too available. They need to impress others before they can take their wall down, and convince themselves that they have "the upper hand" in the conversation.

If you see this type of behavior encroaching on your social interactions, whether online or in person, why not try one of the following:

* Agree to Disagree. Table the contentious issue for the moment, and then actively find a point on which each side can agree. Knowing that each side's disagreement stems from a common starting point can reduce the sense of "The Other" that often fuels the need to establish conversational dominance, and instead replaces it with a simple curiosity about how each side arrived where it is now.

* Agree... For Now. Maybe you still disagree with the other person(s), but you're astute enough to realize that endlessly arguing about details isn't going to move the conversation forward to a deeper, more engaging state. So agree with the other side, for now. Admit that you may not have all the facts, or that the other person might (gasp) actually be "right." A concession isn't a defeat; it's simply a way to pause the invective, which can disarm a conversational "opponent" and provide an opportunity to move the conversation ahead to new topics.

(PS: If you temporarily agree with someone else, you owe it to yourself to follow up afterward and see if their argument actually does hold water. You may be surprised to find it does.)

* Volunteer to Be the Underdog. Often, contentious conversations are all about establishing a social pecking order. The other side doesn't even care if they're right or wrong, so much as they desire to be seen as the dominant voice in the conversation. In that case, let them be it. NOT needing to appear "perfect" can immediately nullify the race to build artifice, and win you some subconscious respect in the process. Suddenly, the race to build higher walls is replaced by the race to dig deeper moats, inviting more and more people to get closer, and closing the gap of The Other that makes getting to meet new people -- and caring about them -- so damn hard in the first place.

This doesn't mean you need to divulge a laundry list of All The Horrible Shit That's Ever Happened to You. No one loves a self-flagellator, but everyone appreciates a person who can honorably assess his/her own shortcomings, even as they're content in their strengths. That's called "being a real person," and it's a much better way to create a meaningful conversation than endless ideological pissing contests.

(And, for the record: no, the pastoral was not disturbed, because there was no pastoral in the first place. But Samantha Morton does one hell of a good American accent, and those stuffed grape leaves were fabulous. I would have mentioned that during the post-film discussion, but I was too busy eating the free food and making snide comments in the background.)

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  • JoJoPio should read this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:25 AM  

  • Excellent points. I would add that most social situations when you are meeting people for the first time can be summed up in one question which I abhor: "What do YOU do?"

    Once that is thrown out there (in addition to responding with remarks like "nothing", "masturbate a lot", "perform in the circus") I quickly exit stage left to find a corner to eat and make snide remarks.


    By Blogger Unknown, at 11:26 AM  

  • @Mr. Hinz:

    Great point about "What do you do?" This question so many times is yet another attempt of people to continue down the road Justin was talking about- social posturing.


    Great post. I think a little humility in social situations can be incredibly rewarding. Once you cut through all the BS by disarming the Alphas, a true exchange can begin. I highly doubt that when someone walks back to their car after such an evening as you described, they think about how well they worked the room or how many minds they changed. The benefit of public discourse is that it's an opportunity to be intellectually fed; new ideas, new points of view.

    Thanks for your keen observation on these points. Good reccomendations on how we all can create better conversation.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:06 PM  

  • Great post, great observations. Lots to learn.

    By Blogger Zemantic dreams, at 5:03 PM  

  • Awesome analysis. Thank you for a great read.

    It is true that often situational conversations between strangers can become sort of "I'm cleverer than you and here's why" matches. And it can be particularly hard on shy people (or grating on those of us with a short fuse.)

    It's honestly refreshing that you suggested humility as a disarming tactic. I hope a lot of people take your advice.

    Now, how do you actually connect with the interesting snarky folk in the back?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:04 PM  

  • Thanks for your feedback, folks. And you're right, Jeff; I remember my dad taking personal offense to the "what do you do for a living" question when I was a kid. It took me a few years to realize what a marginalizing question that can be, when wielded dishonestly.

    Abby: How do you connect with the snarky folks in the back of the room? I can't speak for all of us, but for me, being honest and cutting through the BS usually helps. Generic posturing doesn't usually keep my attention, but I respond well to legitimate questions and an obvious desire on the part of a conversant to actually *learn* about the people and POV in the room.

    You want someone's attention? Let your actions prove that you take people seriously.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 8:09 PM  

  • Your admission that you were a member of the 'snide commenter group' in the background of this particular conversation confirms your claim that this group is always the most interesting!

    I also think there are clear parallels between the "pseudo-social" situation you describe and stereotypical interactions in the workplace. As an example of this, your response to the comments contained a gem that managers would do well to reflect on when communicating with their staff: "Generic posturing doesn't usually keep my attention, but I respond well to legitimate questions and an obvious desire on the part of a conversant to actually 'learn' about the people and POV in the room."

    For me, it's also the background, shadow-side conversations in organizations that are the most intersting - and the most powerful in terms of deciding what actually happens! Connecting with these is a key leadership task.

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