The engineer and the diplomat

by Benquo1 min read27th Dec 201610 comments


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I am skeptical that group conversations have a tendency to fall apart at when they get interesting because people have social reasons for doing so.

Rather, it feels like there's some expectations that group conversations are "supposed" to be lighter, and one-on-one / small group discussions are really meant for intimacy.

So it might not be so much that people deliberately leave to sabotage interesting conversations, but they see it as a signal to start one of their own in a small group, or politely leave to increase the perceived value of the discussion of those involved.

This resonates. When a group conversation became unexpectedly intimate, I've definitely felt that urge to bail - or interfere and bring the conversation back to a normal level of engagement. It feels like an intense discomfort, maybe a sense of "I shouldn't be here" or "they shouldn't have to answer that question."

I think that's often a good instinct to have. (In this context, where 'interesting' seems to mean not just a topic you think is neat, but something like 'substantive and highly relevant to someone' or 'involving querying a person's deep-held beliefs', etc. Correct me if I'm wrong.) Where "diplomat mode" might be coming from:

  • The person starting an intensive conversation might be 'inflicting' it on the other person, who can't gracefully duck out

  • Both people are well-acquainted and clearly interested in having the conversation, but haven't considered that they're in public, and in retrospect would prefer not to have everyone else there

  • Even if they seem to be fine with me being there, my role is unclear if I'm not well-versed on the issue - am I suppose to ask questions, chime in with uneducated opinions, just listen to them talk?

  • Relatedly, conversations specific to people's deeply held interests are likely to require more knowledge to engage with, and thus exclude people from the conversation.

  • If other people are sharing personal stories or details, I might feel pressure to do that too

  • Conversations that run closer to what people really care about are more likely to be upsetting, and I don't want to be upset (or, depending, expect them to want to be upset in front of me)

  • I expect other people are uncomfortable, for whatever (any of the above) reasons

Most of these seem to apply less in small groups, or groups where everybody knows each other quite well. Attempting diplomat --> engineering shifts in large group seems interesting, but risky if there are near-strangers present, and also like managing or participating in that would take a whole different set of group-based social skills. (IE: Reducing risks from the above, assessing how comfortable everybody is with increased above risks, etc.)

Yep, your listed points are a really good extension of the intuition I sorta had in mind.

In particular, I think there can be a lot of awkwardness when it becomes something that other people might perceive as "not my domain", e.g. of a philosophical nature, which can lead to an uncertain role ("what do I say now?", "will they value my opinion?", etc.)

But the other bullet points you raised are also really, really valid. Thanks for expanding on this!

This crystallization really resonated with me. I've recently noticed a social norms divide, where some people seem to perceive requests for more information as hostile (attacking their status), rather than as a sign of interest. "I do not understand your world view, tell me more" can translate as "I like you and am interested in understanding you better", or as "you are obviously wrong, please show me some weakness so that I can show how much smarter I am." Or related, consider:

A: I'm working on X.

B: I've heard Y about X, what do you think?

Is B mentioning Y a sign of belonging to A's in[terest]-group, and a bid for closeness? Or is B bidding for status, trying to show how much better informed B is?

Obviously I've removed all the interesting subtlety from my examples here, and it's easy to imagine a conversation such that the hypothetical questions have obvious answers. It's also possible for B to be unambiguous in one direction or the other - this is a useful social skill. My point is that there's also overlap, where B intends to bid for closeness, but is interpreted as bidding for status. And that's a function of A's assumptions, not just about B but about how interactions in general are supposed to be structured.

Now, imagine you’re a diplomat, at a diplomatic conference. You see a group of diplomats, including someone representing one of your allies, in an intense conversation. They’re asking the allied diplomat questions, and your ally obviously has to think hard to answer them. Your intuition is going to be that something bad is happening here, and you want to derail it at all costs.

Source? I feel very, very confident that this is false. You would only want to break things up if you felt very confident that your ally would screw up answering the questions; otherwise, having lots of people paying careful attention to your side's proposals would be a very good sign.

Epistemic status: probably BS This could be a causal explanation for why engineers are seen as having poor social skills and the usefullness of ASD traits in engineering. If you aren't sensitive to the productive conversations being bad socially, and so don't disrupt them, you will learn more.

As for salons the fact that a hostess lead the conversation and selected the guests meant that the conversation had to be interesting to her. Those who didn't have anything interesting to say, or disrupted interesting conversations, wouldn't be invited back. Sadly wikipedia doesn't say much about how they were run. They seem to also have selected books to read, which would steer the conversation towards those books.

[I misinterpreted wubbles above; I retract this comment.]

I think we should reserve the "epistemic status" thing for authors to describe their own works. Using it to insult a work seems pointlessly snarky. The useful part could be communicated with just "Probably BS" or "I think this is probably BS". Leaving it at that would avoid the useless connotation about the author's thought process, which is unknowable by others.

I was using it to describe my own comment. I'll try to think of a way to make that clearer in the future.

"Comment epistemic status" would work.