Overview

I've observed my interlocutors—and sometimes myself—applying excessive nuance to irrelevant points during some discussions. This misplaced nuance results in the derailing of conversations towards rabbit holes and dead ends.

High-Level Description

When I bring a new supporting but tangential idea into a discussion (e.g. mention a widely accepted scientific theory), my interlocutor applies excessive nuance to this new idea at the expense of the salient points in the discussion. This misplaced and excessive nuance takes the form of nitpicking or questioning the underlying framework underpinning that newly introduced idea.

This is rarely fruitful because almost always, none of the participants is at the cutting-edge of the relevant fields to add any new insights. I'm all for rational inquiry and open discourse, but nitpicking oftentimes comes across as pretentious and unconstructive.

The effect of this conversation style is the unchecked growth of the stack of topics. We often forget to go back down the stack to revisit the original points that instigated the discussion unless someone cares sufficiently to intentionally apply enough pressure to steer the conversation back down the stack. Such discussions usually quickly end up in rabbit holes, and no one gets anything out of them.

Example

Suppose that you are having a conversation about "what it feels like when your worldview is shattered." Your interlocutor is a fellow rationalist and mentions that they read a book promoting climate denial and describes to you what it felt like to almost have their worldview shattered by a professional motivated-skeptic and evidence-cherrypicker. They explain how difficult it is for us mere mortals to notice this black magic being applied to our minds and how easy it is to be deceived by a professional charlatan.

To add to this discussion, you contribute the idea that this feeling is similar going the other way. For example, a profoundly religious person reading a science book on biological evolution will feel similar to how you—a rigorous rationalist—felt reading a book promoting climate denial, anti-vax, or some other pseudoscientific theory.

Both of you agree that evolution is a widely accepted theory with plenty of evidence going for it. Still, your interlocutor decides that they want to show you how much they know about the philosophy of science, so they say, "Playing devil's advocate, evolution is still just a theory." In the back of your mind, you would like to stay on topic, but rationalist verve takes over you, and you engage with all your heart in a fraught debate.

Now, suddenly, you find yourself debating the truth of biological evolution. You're both embroiled in the weeds of the philosophy of science, and other participants in the conversation are becoming visibly uninterested. You are no longer talking about "what it feels like when your worldview is shattered."

Conversational Etiquette

Conversation and Social Status

I read "The Elephant in the Brain" recently, and at some point, it talks about human conversation. Hanson and Simler explore why we humans are so eager to talk even when keeping information to ourselves gives us a competitive advantage.

We’re so eager to speak, in fact, that we have to curb our impulses via the norms of conversational etiquette. If speaking were an act of giving, we would consider it polite for people to “selflessly” monopolize conversations. But in fact, it’s just the opposite. To speak too much or “hog the mic” is considered rude, while the opposite behavior—inviting someone else to take the floor, or asking a dinner guest about one of her hobbies—is considered the epitome of good manners.

Improving conversational etiquette has a very high return on investment because we converse with others all the time. Giving others space to talk, listening when others speak, clearly articulating ourselves and avoiding nitpicking when inappropriate in context are all valuable skills. These skills develop naturally for some people but are subtle and difficult to cultivate for others. I have found that inviting friends to offer me constructive feedback on my conversational style has helped me improve these skills.

I find that there are three overarching types of conversationalists:

  • High-status conversationalists:
    • They invite others to speak.
    • They check if others would like to switch topics, go back to a previous topic or end the conversation, so they don't miss their train.
    • When they speak, they are precise and pertinent. They are OK with letting go and don't need to explain every point exhaustively.
    • They often get invited by others to take centre-stage, and people are all ears when they speak.
  • Low-status conversationalists:
    • They make every point as if they are answering a test, going into excessive detail that is usually not relevant in context.
    • They are excessively contrarian, even about minor or tangential points, thus being inimical to the progress of a conversation.
    • They don't give other people space to talk and don't make an effort to include newcomers.
    • They complain and forcefully change conversation topics at the expense of others when a particular subject doesn't suit their fancy.
  • Non-conversationalists:
    • They don't like to converse.

Stack Overflow

A conversational stack overflow occurs when the stack gets so large and messy that everyone involved in a conversation forgets how we got here. I argue that in many situations, traversing back down the stack is an essential social skill because there is at least someone in the conversation who cares about some primary point that was made earlier in the discussion.

When Stack Overflow and Nuance are OK

There are specific conversations where allowing the conversation to meander and allowing the conversational stack to grow and blend are OK. For example, you are having beers next to a campfire, or when you explicitly ask other participants in the conversation if they would like to revisit an earlier point, switch topics or end the conversation, and they say they are happy to let the conversation flow.

Another context in which exploring many topics is desirable is when getting to know someone new. In this context, traversing a breadth of topics quickly and having flexibility in which topics to discuss will maximise the chances of finding a common interest.

Rigour is desirable in many contexts, such as writing an academic paper, reviewing academic work or explicitly engaging in a debate about a particular topic. Rigour is different from nitpicking. Nitpicking takes the form of applying excessive nuance in order to miss the point intentionally, or to show off how much you know about some irrelevant topic.

Concluding Remarks

The constant shifting of conversation topics due to the application of excessive nuance to tangential points can be counterproductive in many contexts. There is a suitable place and time for nuance, and some discussions don't call for nuance about particular matters. Hogging the mic to make a point exhaustively is a poor social skill. Improving conversational social skills is a meta-skill that enhances all aspects of our lives, and it is worth intentionally cultivating.

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I'd like to note the irony that I found this interesting and want to comment on it, but don't want to drill down on anything you don't agree is an important point :)


Really though, I experienced this as a kid when I had a larger conversational memory "stack" than my friends. There tend to be more topics "in play" for me than for my conversational partners, which made it seem like I was reluctant to let the conversation move forwards.

As time went on, I had to learn how to let things go more, which helped me out a lot when I started having larger conversations, as your point will almost certainly drift by before you get a chance to share it.

Yes! Letting go is key to conversational skill.

What you describe is letting go of certain topics that you would like to be discussed further, and I think that's extremely valuable.

The other kind of letting go is letting go of the urge to nitpick and apply excessive nuance to every little point no matter how relevant to a context.

I generally agree but also find that people also accuse people of nitpicking or excessive nuance when trying to defend ideas that feel true but are logically weak.

I find the critical distinction between rigor and nitpicking to be whether the detail being argued about is critical to the foundation of any of an argument's premises.

Excellent point. I agree that it's hard to develop a general rule about nitpicking versus pertinent rigour. It is an "I know it when I see it" sort of thing.

Usually, the way this plays out for me is that if my interlocutor is nitpicking, I would feel misunderstood. Meanwhile, if my interlocutor applies genuine rigour to my premises, I would feel enlightened.

During particular discussions, I observed my interlocutors—and sometimes myself—applying excessive nuance to points that don't help us move further towards a mutual understanding or new insights.

Minor feedback: try to simplify that sentence, or break it up into smaller pieces. It seems, ironically, that that sentence may have too much nuance.

Good article otherwise, and I enjoyed reading.

Thank you, done :D 

I'm not sure how to use this advice/observation.  I think the purposes for discussion, style and knowledge of participants, and social expectations of that particular setting vary pretty widely, and other than "make the implicit explicit" in terms of getting what you want from the interaction, there's too much existing nuance to generalize advice like this.

There are specific conversations where allowing the conversation to meander and allowing the conversational stack to grow and blend are OK.

I think this exemplifies my point.  Except I think it's the majority of conversations, and in my experience, the default.  The exceptions are conversations explicitly trying to establish agreement on some topic or some other agreed purpose.

Interesting perspective, I’m curious if you’re specifically referring to rationalist (and, more generally, truth-seeking) conversations and debates when you describe the high/low status descriptions for conversationalists. I ask as I have an alternative viewpoint to consider outside of rationalist circles.

I actually see what you’re describing, broadly summarised as I see it as changing topics and going off on tangents, as a highly valued social skill when the goal is to quickly find topics of mutual interest rather than to go deep on a subject to debate and find truth. I have seen this described as “conversation scaffolding” (can’t recall source) and “the sprinkler technique” (think this was Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people”). Given the prevalence of this tactical approach (for my circles in the US and UK), I wonder if an alternative read on what you’re seeing is that you are seeking truth but your conversation partner is seeking connection. Personally, I’m rarely operating in rationalist circles so I see more of this conversation style than truth seeking, and that’s why this different view was so salient to me. Curious to hear your thoughts.

Hey, thanks for sharing your perspective. This is not particular to rationalist communities. I've experienced this with non-rationalist social circles.

I've added the following paragraph to the post to address your point:

Another context in which exploring many topics is desirable is when getting to know someone new. In this context, traversing a breadth of topics quickly and having flexibility in which topics to discuss will maximise the chances of finding a common interest.

However, the kind of topic change I describe is different, and it often results in conversations growing in depth towards rabbit holes rather than in breadth and flexibility.

Ah very interesting, and great build on it with the paragraph you’ve added.

Could you please add what you mean by "high status / low status"? Even a link will do. I ask cause not everyone means the same thing when they use the phrase.

It might also be worth diagnosing why someone is a conversationalist of the second type, and what they can do to change that. For instance I remember I used to be like that on some topics, but the reason for it was emotional distress that couldn't be solved by a simple "this LW post says its low status hence don't do it".

Very fair points. I don't believe there exists a "universal" definition of status-ness that I can link you to. I view status and prestige as being shaped by social norms that have evolved over millennia, and norms differ across cultures. However, 'hogging the mic' is widely seen as 'rude' in many human societies. I argue that nitpicking and intentionally missing the point of your interlocutor is also 'rude'.

I didn't go much into diagnosis and problem-solving in this post because that's outside my scope. Being a person is really complicated, so I don't want to make sweeping statements about why some people exhibit good conversational skills while others don't.

Having sincere friends who seldomly hold back on pointing out your mistakes helps. In your case, you mention the root cause was emotional distress. In that circumstance, maybe meditation or other mind relaxing activities could help. Again, this is outside my scope.

It could be an interesting exercise to speculate about what value the dominant social norms around conversational etiquette serve. Why is 'hogging the mic' considered 'rude'? On the one hand, when someone hogs the mic, they reveal information that might help us in future decision-making (assuming they are not strategically lying). On the other hand, when someone hogs the mic, they are depriving us of the opportunity to show others what we know and thus depriving us of the opportunity to make new allies. When someone invites others to speak, I guess it signals that they are confident in what they know and don't feel a pressing need to take centre-stage at every opportunity.

Yeah that's definitely part of it. If you view conversations as trades where people both get and give "value", the main things that seem useful are:

1. You should get what you expect to get, or atleast get something good (no deceptive trade)

2. you should get commensurate to what you give (fair trade)

On 1, people sometimes come with different expectations of what they must give and get from a conversation, which may also be motivated by frame differences. It probably wouldn't be rude if you asked permission and then spoke a lot about a topic. Or else deduced from non-verbal cues that others are interested in what you have to say and then continued.

On 2, this would also extend to your larger relationship. Like if you already have a friendship where both sides benefit - it's much more likely for them to be okay with you going on a rant once in a while - as opposed to with strangers. But again if the entire friendship is one-sided, they may want to leave.

As for whether providing strategically useful info counts as giving or taking "value" from the trade - sometimes it can count as giving but what can be perceived as rude is when you assume it is without others feeling the same way.

Confidence (besides doing other things) narrows possibility space in this expectation-setting and reading game, enabling the game to conclude. Like if you're confident others are interested in what you have to say or that others have something useful to say, or that what you're saying is true, etc etc. Confidence can easily be perceived as arrogance if you narrow the possibility space on something incorrect - like if you're confident you have something useful to say but others don't end up finding it useful.