Articulation of these ideas in their present form owes a debt to interactions with Tsvi Benson-Tilsen, and Erin Tatum.

Almost everyone will be familiar with the concept of signal vs noise. Literally, it's a signal processing concept which differentiates useful information which we're trying to communicate from useless distractor information which can corrupt our signal. Those who grew up in a pre-digital age will be familiar with "static" on the telephone line or TV. Digital information can be transmitted almost error-free through a noisy channel via redundant encodings which allow error-correction, at a rate determined by Shannon's noisy-channel coding theorem. This is a likely reason for the level of redundancy in natural language, as well: it aids communication in a (literally) noisy environment.

Metaphorically, we use the concept of signal vs noise to talk about everything from inboxes and newsfeeds to writing styles. To this end, people talk about the signal-to-noise-ratio: the proportion of useful/desirable information to total information in a given information source. This is useful in part because it helps manage attention: the total amount of useful information on (say) Twitter might be very large, but because of a very low signal-to-noise ratio, it may not be an efficient way to get information. In contrast to the technical signal-processing model, where the sender and receiver share a concept of which information is useful, this metaphorical generalization admits that the sender's "signal" might be the receiver's "noise".

I'm here to talk about a further metaphorical extension of the signal/noise concept. I don't know whether this concept is especially useful, but it's very strongly a part of my personal experience -- this is one of the most salient aspects of a conversation for me, and one of the biggest factors in determining how enjoyable or productive a conversation is. I call it "fuzz" or "static" or "noise on the channel".

EDIT: Jimmy rightly points out that the concept I'm pointing at is more like "the opposite of bandwidth" (ie, I'm describing the way a low-bandwidth channel warps conversations). Noise makes for low effective bandwidth due to the above-mentioned noisy-channel coding theorem. So it makes sense that the two have very similar effects on conversations.

How much static is in this conversation?

I'm pointing to a set of conditions which all have a similar way of making conversations more difficult and less fruitful.

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about.

  1. Literally, a noisy room. A bar on a busy night; everyone is shouting in an effort to be heard over the loud music and the other people shouting. (Literal unironic object-level question: why do so many people think this is a good social setting? Maybe the noise serves an important social function I'm not seeing?) 2 One or both people are hard of hearing. This is practically the same as a noisy room.
  2. One or both of the participants are repeatedly distracted. Threads of inquiry keep getting interrupted, and sometimes forgotten.
  3. You are talking to someone who has to leave in a minute. You both know you don't have time to get into any complicated topics.
  4. One or both participants lack fluency in their common language. Otherwise simple things may take minutes to get across, much like a game of charades or person-do-thing. Complex subjects cannot be discussed, unless the conversation is very low-noise in other relevant aspects (IE, the participants are committed and have a lot of time).
  5. One or both people lack interest in the discussion. Like the example where someone needs to leave soon, it's likely that you don't have a lot of time, because a disinterested person may break off the conversation early. Like the example where there are constant distractions, it's likely that you don't have full attention, and points may get cut off or dropped.
  6. There is a high inferential distance. The conversation participants have very different ways of thinking about the subject at hand, which have been developed over long time periods and have a lot of details. Even when the language appears to be shared, there may be hidden differences which are actually critical (see the double illusion of transparency). Like the case of lacking fluency, this means both speakers need to spend a lot of time carefully conveying concepts and checking whether they're understood.
  7. There are a lot of conversational land-mines. Secrets which need to be kept, or touchy subjects which can't be brought up. You need to tread very carefully to avoid blowing up.

In all of these situations, I experience a very similar stressful feeling. I'm trying to squeeze my ideas through a tiny straw. Often the ideas stay bottled up, because it's impossible to communicate complex thoughts. One of the main things I want to get across in this post is my model of why communication is so terrible in these situations.

Why Noise Sucks So Much

All of the object-level difficulties I listed in the previous conversation are different. However, I think the main source of difficulty in such conversations is often the Nth-order effects the "noise" has on the conversation, which are very similar. Many different obstacles to good conversation cause each other and compound on each other to make for a sucky conversation.

In a noisy room,

  • I have to shout to be heard.
  • Shouting takes effort, which makes me a little more reluctant to speak.
  • I'm not sure if I will be heard, which makes the expected value of speaking lower.
  • I'm not sure whether I was heard, which means I'm not sure I can build on my previous statements.
  • It's difficult to hear the other person, which means I have to fill in the gaps, making assumptions about what they probably said.
  • The same is true for them, meaning I have to worry about whether I was really understood.
  • The need to make additional statements to check whether I've understood what they said multiplies with the extra effort of shouting.
  • Even if we largely are being understood, the constant worry that we aren't still makes it more difficult to build on previous points in the discussion.
  • All of the above combines to lower the expected value of the conversation.
  • Because both of us know these things lower the expected value of conversation, we both have less faith in each other's commitment to the conversation.
  • Even if we are both fairly committed to the conversation, our lack of faith in the other person's commitment means we have to treat them like a possibly distracted/disinterested person. This lowers the expectations for the conversation even further, recursively compounding the effect.
  • This worry that the other person isn't going to be very committed to a good conversation means we can't even expect lengthy error-checking procedures to enable us to get complex points across, because we don't know whether the other person will be motivated enough to participate in correcting errors or verifying that points were understood.
  • All of the above means that we are restricted to things which (1) can be communicated fairly quickly, and (2) are commonplace enough that the other party is likely to guess our meaning correctly despite all the communication difficulties. Basically, small talk. This restriction in feasible subject matter further drops the expected value of the conversation, further compounding other effects.
  • Since both people probably realize that the feasible subject matter of conversation is restricted, this knowledge plays into the guesswork we do when trying to figure out what the other person meant / check whether we heard them correctly. This fact itself further reinforces the restriction of subject matter, since it means we'll be even more likely to be misunderstood if we say something complicated.

I could go on. The point is that the bad effects compound each other. A noisy conversation involves a heavy game-theoretic component. Each participant's expectations of the value of the conversation is heavily dependent on (their estimate of) each other's expectations. There's a stag hunt for a good conversation, but the cost of hunting stag is being driven up, without driving up the reward. This means people are even more likely to hunt rabbit than usual, even if hunting stag would still be the overall better option. (And the perception that people are more likely to hunt rabbit makes it even more likely, which feeds back in... well you get the idea.)

You might think you're not doing all the metacognition which I describe above; or, that "normal people" don't do that much metacognition. And maybe not. But I don't think you actually have to do the metacognition in order to feel the consequences. A simpler reinforcement-learning like algorithm will still teach you, via conditioning, that you can't expect deep conversations in certain contexts. As people learn that, they'll try less, and teach each other even more that it's not going to work. So without even thinking about all the recursive implications of the noisy environment, you might have a general sense of doom about difficult conversations in noisy environments. If you're like me, that sense of doom will also pervade a wide variety of similar situations which aren't literally noisy, but share critical features in common with noise.

The Wonderful Magic of Noise-Free Conversations

I still expect some readers to not really know what I'm talking about. Those readers may not even know that they don't know what I'm talking about. Noise is pervasive. A truly low-noise conversation is a rare and precious thing. It's like falling in love. It's like an old friend who understands you. It's Deep Work. It's the joy of being seen and being understood. You don't know what you're missing until you've experienced it.

Of course, this is all a matter of degree. There's the simple everyday variation in "noise" which comes from distracted vs undistracted time, close friends vs acquaintances, et cetera. Then there's the rare, really deep conversations which happen when two people are really very interested in understanding each other, repeatedly make time for each other, and work together to eliminate distractions and other barriers. And then there are the as-yet-undreamt-of heights of noise-free conversations which can only be attained by black-belt rationalists who have first internalized and then later transcended all kinds of cognitive skills related to good conversation, after ingesting all the right nootropics and heading to an extended wilderness retreat.

Let's reverse some of the previous points I made, to clarify what a really low-noise conversation looks like:

  • Low literal noise. Everyone's literal words are understood easily. Everyone knows this without hesitation, so it fades into the background and doesn't take any attention.
  • No distractions. Everyone has a clear mind to focus entirely on the discussion. Again, everyone knows this and doesn't have to think about it.
  • High level of interest. It's common knowledge that everyone in the conversation wants to continue engaging in the conversation, and is interested in understanding what others have to say. There is a high expectation of follow-through on lines of thinking, even if those lines of thinking are very tricky and subtle and will take a lot of time to follow through.
  • Relatedly, large time commitment. The conversation has all the time it needs. If the conversation eventually has to end on this particular day, there is a high degree of trust that you'll get together again soon to continue it, and do so repeatedly for as long as the subject requires it. There is no end in sight.
  • Points are never dropped unless everyone thinks they're finished. In the ideal, there is perfect memory of the conversation, everyone readily knows what the open points are, and those points get returned to in an expedient manner. (Of course in reality, different points have to compete for time.) Conclusions of the conversation are fully internalized by all participants, and applied in any relevant contexts which come up later (in this conversation or beyond). One example of a helpful tool is a shared space for notes like a whiteboard, on which important points get written.
  • There is a large shared context of understanding. Complicated concepts, feelings, and intuitions which would normally be obscure are easily conveyed and understood, due to special shared language which the participants have developed for their needs in this conversation.
  • You can say anything that's on your mind. There are no conversational landmines, no secrets, no taboos. Nor is anything considered off-topic; since there is a strong shared interest in the subject matter and a high degree of trust in that mutual interest, there is no need to police the conversation to avoid distractions. Nor would there be any need even if not for that, due to the large amount of time available, and the infallible memory everyone has for the active points of discussion. All of this means that when you start on a seemingly irrelevant branch of discussion, no one tries to reel you in; nor will they blame you if it ultimately turns out to be irrelevant. Nonetheless, everyone does largely stay on-topic.

Despite my praise for low-noise conversations, it bears mentioning that this isn't the optimal kind of conversation to have for all purposes. Relaxed, distracted conversations can be great for getting to know someone -- e.g., a highly distracted conversation over a board game. Some subjects demand fast, time-limited conversations. Not all subjects of conversation merit a high level of interest; boredom is sometimes the correct response. And so on.

It's also sometimes possible to get really good conversations by dramatically lowering some kinds of "noise" despite other types being very high. For example, a conversation with high inferential distance is likely to have a lot of really valuable information, if you can give it the time and attention to bridge the gap. Another example: email conversations are likely to be slower and lower-commitment, but this can be compensated for by the fact that all points are remembered (everything is in a text record) and participants can take a lot of time to compose their thoughts. (Keep in mind that the probability you'll write a thoughtful reply influences the amount of effort the other party will put into their email.)

Dealing with Noise

Sometimes you just have to make due with a noisy conversation. In that case, it pays to have some coping strategies.

Lower your epistemic standards. Sad to say, you may be faced with the choice between communicating something poorly and not communicating it at all. In some cases, communicating it poorly will be preferable. I wouldn't recommend practicing this as a skill so much as trying to notice that you already do it -- better, at least, to explicitly flag for yourself that you're less than totally accurate. Some examples:

  • Guess at what the other person means, rather than seeking clarification. You don't have time/energy/etc to get clarification. Fly by the seat of your pants in this conversation. Just make a guess and go with it.
  • Settle for communicating something in the right cluster. Maybe there isn't bandwidth in the conversation to tell them what you were really up to yesterday, even though they asked. Maybe "working" is a lie for subtle reasons. You weren't really working. But it gives them approximately the right idea.

Pick the most important point, and drop the rest. The conversation doesn't have the attention for everything right now; you just have to make a choice.

Accept being unheard or misunderstood. Maybe you were feeling kind of off about something that happened yesterday and you wanted a sympathetic ear to talk it out with. Oh well. This conversation isn't the one where that's going to happen. Let's talk about the weather or something instead.

Am I the Noisy One?

On the other hand, you could be doing any of the above things unnecessarily, creating a "noisy" conversation despite the lack of a noisy environment. Like I said, a good conversation is a stag hunt. Are you hunting rabbit unnecessarily? Are you ignoring your conversation partner's attempts to hunt stag? Are you not giving them the opportunity to try?

I suspect this can be easy to miss if you don't have a lot of experience with the deeper sort of conversation which (unknown to you) your conversation partner is trying to have. Imagine an angsty teenager who assumes any genuine conversation about feelings is a setup for making fun of them. Or imagine someone just starting as a graduate student, who doesn't have any experience with pre-rigorous research concepts turning into rigorous concepts later, so blocks themself off from engaging with ideas that don't sound rigorous (because they're trying to be a serious researcher).

If you notice yourself engaging in some of the "dealing with noise" strategies from the previous section: are you hunting rabbit when others were trying to hunt stag?

Credibly Committing to Continuing Conversation

If approaching this as a problem to be solved, rather than just a phenomenon to be aware of, one approach is to visibly set time aside, set aside distractions, and give a conversation your full attention. Remove distractions: set aside phone, laptop, etc. Find a private room or a semi-isolated outdoor location. Perhaps take the conversation on a long walk without a cell phone, which provides a visible commitment to keep talking for some amount of time. If you want to make sure there are follow-up conversations, maybe mention that early on, to establish common knowledge that this is only the first part of a continuing conversation.

Again, this isn't a guide to how every conversation should ideally go. Not every conversation deserves your maximal attention. And the Schelling choice is rabbit, not stag.

Maybe it's possible to 80/20 this. Perhaps it's possible to be someone who has deep conversations even if they're brief and have no certainty of being continued later. Maybe you can get a lot of the benefit by merely giving off the feeling that you might, if only you had more time, listen and participate deeply in the conversation. Maybe you can find a way to get away with reversing some or all of the advice I gave in "Dealing with Noise" -- raise your epistemic expectations, remember all the points, don't accept being unheard or misunderstood. Just give off an aura of reasonableness except instead of making people avoid dramatic expressions of emotion, it makes them feel that you're willing to hunt stag in the conversation.

If so, let me know what the trick is.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:36 PM

I think it's worth making a distinction between "noise" and "low bandwidth channel". Your first examples of "a literal noisy room" or "people getting distracted by shiny objects passing by" fit the idea of "noise" well. Your last two examples of "inferential distance" and "land mines" don't, IMO.

"Noise" is when the useful information is getting crowded out by random information in the channel, but land mines aren't random. If you tell someone their idea is stupid and then you can't continue telling them why because they're flipping out at you, that's not a random occurrence. Even if such things aren't trivially predictable in more subtle cases, it's still a predictable possibility and you can generally feel out when such things are safe to say or when you must tread a bit more carefully.

The "trying to squeeze my ideas through a straw" metaphor seems much more fitting than "struggling to pick the signal out of the noise floor" metaphor, and I would focus instead on deliberately broadening the straw until you can just chuck whatever's on your mind down that hallway without having to focus any of your attention on the limitations of the channel.

There's a lot to say on this topic, but I think one of the more important bits is that you can often get the same sense of "low noise conversation" if you pivot from focusing on ideas which are too big for the straw to focusing on the straw itself, and how its limitations might be relaxed. This means giving up on trying to communicate the object level thing for a moment, but it wasn't going to fit anyway so you just focus on what is impeding communication and work to efficiently communicate about *that*. This is essentially "forging relationships" so that you have the ability to communicate usefully in the future. Sometimes this can be time consuming, but sometimes knowing how to carry oneself with the right aura of respectability and emotional safety does wonders for the "inferential distance" and "conversational landmines" issues right off the bat.

When the problem is inferential distance, the question comes down to what extent it makes sense to trust someone to have something worth listening to over several inferences. If our reasonings differ several layers deep then offering superficial arguments and counterarguments is a waste of time because we both know that we can both do that without even being right. When we can recognize that our conversation partner might actually be right about even some background assumptions that we disagree on, then all of a sudden the idea of listening to them describe their world view and looking for ways that it could be true becomes a lot more compelling. Similarly, when you can credibly convey that you've thought things through and are likely to have something worth listening to, they will find themselves much more interested in listening to you intently with an expectation of learning something.

When the problem is "land mines", the question becomes whether the topic is one where there's too much sensitivity to allow for nonviolent communication and whether supercritical escalation to "violent" threats (in the NonViolent Communication sense) will necessarily displace invitations to cooperate. Some of the important questions here are "Am I okay enough to stay open and not lash out when they are violent at me?" and the same thing reflected towards the person you're talking to. When you can realize "No, if they snap at me I'm not going to have an easy time absorbing that" you can know to pivot to something else (perhaps building the strength necessary for dealing with such things), but when you can notice that you can brush it off and respond only to the "invitation to cooperate" bit, then you have a great way of demonstrating for them that these things are actually safe to talk about because you're not trying to hurt them, and it's even safe to lash out unnecessarily before they recognize that it's safe. Similarly, if you can sincerely and without hint of condescension ask the person whether they're okay or whether they'd like you to back off a bit, often that space can be enough for them to decide "Actually, yeah. I can play this way. Now that I think about it, its clear that you're not out to get me".

There's a lot more to be said about how to do these things exactly and how to balance between pushing on the straw to grow and relaxing so that it can rebuild, but the first point is that it can be done intentionally and systematically, and that doing so can save you from the frustration of inefficient communication and replace it with efficient communication on the topic of how to communicate efficiently over a wider channel that is more useful for everything you might want to communicate.

I think it’s worth making a distinction between “noise” and “low bandwidth channel”. Your first examples of “a literal noisy room” or “people getting distracted by shiny objects passing by” fit the idea of “noise” well. Your last two examples of “inferential distance” and “land mines” don’t, IMO.

“Noise” is when the useful information is getting crowded out by random information in the channel, but land mines aren’t random. If you tell someone their idea is stupid and then you can’t continue telling them why because they’re flipping out at you, that’s not a random occurrence. Even if such things aren’t trivially predictable in more subtle cases, it’s still a predictable possibility and you can generally feel out when such things are safe to say or when you must tread a bit more carefully.

I edited my post to insert this distinction. You're totally right that I'm really focusing on bandwidth and calling it low-noise. But I disagree about the degree of the distinction you're making. In the case of the already-standard usage of "signal/noise ratio", there's no worry over whether the "noise" is really random. Twitter injects advertisements regularly, not randomly, but they still dilute the quality of the feed in the same way. Similarly, conversational land mines are functionally similar to distractions. First, because they tend to derail lines of thought. But second, and more frequently, in the way they influence conversation when they're merely a threat looming on the border of the conversation rather than a certainty. We avoid deep topics both because they're more likely to trigger defensiveness and because they aren't so valuable (and indeed may even be harmful) if they're interrupted. Indeed, I'm clustering them together because the two are somewhat exchangeable: a touchy subject can become quite approachable if you have a lot of quality time to feel it out and deal with misunderstandings/defensiveness (or any of the other helpful variables I mentioned).

To the extent that the underlying structure doesn't matter and can't be used, I agree that technically non-random "noise" behaves similarly and that this can be a reasonable use of the term. My objection to the term "noise" as a description of conversational landmines isn't just that they're "technically not completely random", but that the information content is actually important and relevant. In other words, it's not noise, it's signal.

The "landmines" are part of how their values are actually encoded. It's part of the belief structure you're looking to interact with in the first place. They're just little pockets of care which haven't yet been integrated in a smooth and stable way with everything else. Or to continue the metaphor, it's not "scary dangerous explosives to try to avoid", it's "inherently interesting stores of unstable potential energy which can be mined for energetic fuel". If someone is touchy around the subject you want to talk about, that is the interesting thing itself. What is in here that they haven't even finished explaining to themselves, and why is it so important to them that they can't even contain themselves if you try to blow past it?

It doesn't even require slow and cautious approach if you shift your focus appropriately. I've had good results starting a conversation with a complete stranger who was clearly insecure about her looks by telling her that she should make sure her makeup doesn't come off because she's probably ugly if she's that concerned about it. Not only did she not explode at me, she decided to throw the fuse away and give me a high bandwidth and low noise channel to share my perspective on her little dilemma, and then took my advice and did the thing her insecurity had been stopping her from doing.

The point is that you only run into problems with landmines as noise if you mistake landmines for noise. If your response to the potential of landmines is "Gah! Why does that unimportant noise have to get in the way of what I want to do!? I wonder if I can get away with ignoring them and marching straight ahead", then yeah, you'll probably get blowed up if you don't hold back. On the other hand, if your response is closer to "Ooh! Interesting landmine you got here! What happens if I poke it? Does it go off, or does the ensuing self reflection cause it to just dissolve away?", then you get to have engaging and worthwhile high bandwidth low noise conversations immediately, and you will more quickly get what you came for.

Literal unironic object-level question: why do so many people think this is a good social setting? Maybe the noise serves an important social function I'm not seeing?

A little while back, I was reading this article which talks, among other things, about how COVID restrictions will change the atmosphere in restaurants. I thought that the writer would say something like "having fewer customers at a time will make it harder for restaurants to profit, but will contribute to a less crowded and pleasantly quiet atmosphere for those customers that can get seats". Instead I got this, which sounds like the author actively enjoys the noise:

Empty space is bad enough for downtown restaurants, where thin margins require filling every square inch with paying customers. But at a deeper level, these adaptations will create a whole new ambience, making restaurants more awkward, more expensive, and less fun. One of the joys of getting a drink in a crowded space is the soundtrack of a hundred strangers’ conversations humming underneath the intimacy of a private exchange. Social-distance dining prohibits the thrum of a full house.

Thinking about it, some people even use artificial crowd noises to help them work, so that sound may feel actively enjoyable to many.

I think there's also the "no awkward silences" factor.

This seems to also apply to other cases where some amount of distraction actually benefits the conversation.

I'm a big fan of crowd noises for improving concentration when you need to drown out other voices, especially a TV. Much more effective than other forms of white noise.

Literally, a noisy room. A bar on a busy night; everyone is shouting in an effort to be heard over the loud music and the other people shouting. (Literal unironic object-level question: why do so many people think this is a good social setting? Maybe the noise serves an important social function I'm not seeing?)

I suppose when it is hard to hear anyone, it provides a kind of privacy. You don't have to worry about someone on the opposite side of the room (or the table) overhearing you.

Plausible deniability? If your partner can hardly hear you, you can insist they misheard.

Some people just don't like talking. In this environment, they have an excuse.