Notconfusing rules for conversation: 2 rules and a jumpstart.

Meeting people can be a slog. “Hello, what’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, “What do you do?”,  “How do you yawn?”. Yawn? Sorry I was nodding off just writing about how repetitive and tiresome modern meeting and greeting can be. Owing to the way that social networks store information about us, we’re used to thinking about people in a list of attributes “forms” structure. Trans-inclusive feminism has already laid out how select-a-value gender is problematic for self-determination, and it has even subtler consequences in meeting people. We’ve come to assume the next person you meet is some combinatoric permutation of drop-down menus. How are we supposed to meet that person that is our life long friend, but at the moment is just looks like one more INTJ or Virgo?

In fact the disillusionment from these gruelling social interactions is exactly the motivation for having friends, as a commiserating shelter. How do we let humans do the human thing and wow us with their outstanding creative expression of self from the moment we first meet? I submit notconfusing’s two rules for conversation.

  1. Ask questions that reflect choices people have or could make.
  2. Ask questions that have never been asked before.

Asking questions that reflect choices or decisions is a way to understand a person’s values and principles, which is more informative than part of their current happenstance. Even though this point is supposed to cause a deeper understanding, the questions need not be heavy. “When you’re sleeping on your favourite side, are you facing towards your alarm clock?” might tell you a bit about how much someone wants to combat their own habits without asking “how cognisant are you of your habits and how do you want to combat them?” The analysis of their choices can be done together out loud or both parties can be trusted to do so internally. In either case the point is to revel in the complexity of your partner, while gifting them a bit of Rogerian psychology.

Notice that just Rule 1 by itself could still allow for a “What are your hobbies?” variant, so Rule 2 is brought in to stem the tedium. At first it might seem impossible to ask an entirely unique question to every person, but – as I will prove – there really are an infinite number of these types of questions. Here are a few strategies.

The first strategy is analogous to a infinite game I learned called “Uses for…” where you try to come up with as many uses as you can for a specific item. The example I recall reading about is a bed sheet. So let’s play: It can be used as a tablecloth, as an escape rope for climbing out windows, as a substitute for an all-white painting, as a shooting target for short-sighted people, as a stencil for papier-mâché bed etc. etc. Try and come up with 5 more.

Now apply  creative riffing to the things you notice about your partner. For instance these are the topics I brought up from the last ice-breaking conversations I’ve had: reminiscing over video rental returns (standing near a letterbox), a comparison of how different tapes will tear when you don’t have scissors (electrical taped wallet), how often I think about life from a bird’s-eye view (standing at different levels), and the history of the vulcanization of rubber (rode with a flat tyre). Going off-script and generating questions based on the partner and surroundings guarantees freshness. The way your associate engages gives you some understanding of their gestalt person-ness.
Even if you are feeling like you filled out pointless forms all day at work so that you are sapped of your free-associativity, there is always the abstraction “meta” trick. Assume that you have racked your brain, and “where are you from?” is the absolute best question you can come up with because you are only meeting people out of some hateful obligation. You can apply question-abstraction to ask them “what does a person’s answer to <absolute best question I can muster> mean about a person’s personality?” Yes, use your own staleness as weapon. Since the result of the question-abstraction is also a question, it can be infinitely applied to itself to yield infinitely many unique questions. QED. (If you think this a sad proof, then I encourage you to really try it. I imagine you’ll become loopy enough by the hypnotic repetition of speaking that your co-discusser will either join in with you in your recursion – great fun – or they will have walked away, which is just a well.)

A last technique, if you want to borrow a bit, is to use my growing list of ice-breakers.  I’ve created them as group introductions when I was facilitating Sudo Room hackerspace meetings. As they are targeted to a tech-y crowd you may need to customize a bit –  exactly the point that I’m trying to champion.

With the application of these 2 rules you begin to transgress social mores for great good. You ought to explode small talk to eschew complacency. Then you can make more and better friends. Although ironically making this kind of conversation may have effect of pinning you as a werido. Yet disobey the laziness of phone alienation as Saul Williams does in Talk to Strangers  “… that square box don’t represent the sphere that we live in. The earth is not a flat screen, I aint trying to fit in.”

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