Lurking More Before Joining Complex Conversations

by Raemon2 min read11th Jul 202011 comments

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Communication CulturesConversation (topic)
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Opinion About Rationalist Parties:

At a nerdy party, when people are in the middle of discussing a complicated idea, if a new person joins the conversation, I'd prefer if the norm were to *not* try to get that person up to speed. Instead, they lurk for awhile, try to guess what's going on and offer some brief comments, and then only fully join the conversation if they guess right.

This puts a big burden on newcomers, but the alternative is that every single time,, attempting to bring a new person into a high-context conversation just kills the conversation, without even successfully onboarding the newcomer.

(this is specifically for conversations where the participants are exploring complicated ideas that depend on a lot of shared context. Other conversations are more about vibing, and catching up, and in those ones welcoming newcomers makes more sense)

This is tricky because not letting someone join your conversation is often seen as a sign that they're unwelcome/you-don't-like-them, and I wish this could change as an overall rationalist-culture-norm specifically so that it _wouldn't_ send that signal. Instead it's just understood that "having a high context conversation" is an activity you can't really interrupt once it's started.

I think this would benefit from some standardized social niceties where you briefly acknowledge the person, smile at them and say "hey, sorry this is is a high context conversation. I'd listen awhile until you get a sense of what it's about before joining it."

Lurk till you grok the deeper context

It's worth noting that to do a _good job_ at lurking and figuring out what the conversation's about, it's not enough to just identify the current topic. You need to figure out how that topic relates to previous topics, and why the various participants are interested in it. This takes awhile, and requires some patience.

After listening awhile, I usually try to make a brief comment, see if that comment is well received, and only if it seems like I've successfully slotted myself into the full-conversational-context do I try participating in earnest. Meanwhile, be ready to gracefully bow out or lurk awhile more.

The reason for all this is I've _never_ seen people try to get a newcomer up to speed, and have that actually help. Instead, it just derails the original conversation, and then everyone invests some effort onboarding the new person, and most of the time the new person still ultimately decides "oh, now that I understand the conversation... I'm not actually that interested." And then all the conversational momentum is killed, and you didn't even successfully welcome a new person.

An alternative strategy (which I think _also_ doesn't work) is to try to start dropping bits of background context without fully stopping to get them up to speed. And unfortunately this still doesn't seem to work because it just adds too much friction. High context conversations are _really delicate_.

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3. If the conversation was more than 4 people, it's probably too late.

This is bundled with a fact that 3-4 people usually seems like the upper bound for a deeper conversation (and the 4th person is usually doing something more like "ask the occasional clarifying question" than "fully participate.")

"Figure out how to have people bud into more conversations" is a key party skill that I want to figure out. I'm not sure how to do it gracefully when people are glomming onto one big conversation, but I at least thing it's useful to have common knowledge that the 5th+ people really can't meaningfully participate in that large a convo if it's trying to talk about anything complex.

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4. This seems even more important in the Online Age of Covid

I've had this opinion for awhile, but it's become more important since parties switched to online video-chats. In real life, you at least get some subtle cues you can give if someone is participating in a way that's detracting from the conversation, without having to explicitly say anything. In online settings like Gather Town (my new favorite online hangout tool), the only options are to either watch the conversation deteriorate, or rudely interrupt.

What I've found particularly frustrating lately is that... this is a surprisingly large amount of inferential distance to cross, which means if I want to convey why I'd prefer to keep a conversation small, I have to be *even more rude* (either by not explaining why, or by spending WAAAAYYY too much conversational space explaining why I don't want someone to participate in a conversation)

I'd like it if it were at least common knowledge that this was a sort of thing One Might Want at a party conversation, so I can at least refer to it briefly without making too big a deal out of it.

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This is tricky because not letting someone join your conversation is often seen as a sign that they're unwelcome/you-don't-like-them, and I wish this could change as an overall rationalist-culture-norm specifically so that it _wouldn't_ send that signal. Instead it's just understood that "having a high context conversation" is an activity you can't really interrupt once it's started.

I want to express a feeling I had reading this paragraph, though not necessarily because I think we have a disagreement about the concrete policy recommendation. (You’re right, this norm seems good, and I’ve been actively trying to follow it myself at recent events.)

My feeling, reading this paragraph, is that it’s making a naive mistake of assuming that the reason a certain behaviour signals a certain underlying fact about social reality is just a mistake and could just be changed.

Whereas in actuality, there’s a reason that this behaviour normally has this signal. There’s something different in this community than in many/most other communities, and I think for this post to change people’s feelings it would be better to name the true fact about other social situations that people are accurately modelling, and then make a simple argument about what’s different here.

Hm, I guess the true fact about other social situations is that most of the time when this stuff happens it's because the person really doesn't want to talk to you ("Social Intercourse", David, Larry). Eg. "I've got to go to the bathroom, but it was nice talking to you".

And what's different here is that it actually is quite likely that a group at a rationalist party having a conversation would be in a high context state that is sensitive to adding newcomers. So when they tell you this, it's actually quite likely to be true and quite unlikely to be an excuse. That does seem like a good thing to point out. Also I assume people at rationalist parties are generally pretty nice and unlikely to be unfriendly to someone.

I think the problem is that newcomer is a relative term. If I have a high-context conversation usually there are people where I think they would have the context to productively join the conversation because of their background and others who wouldn't be able to productively join.

I mostly agree with the premise - deep conversations are fragile, and get derailed easily. I'm not sure that there's a solution for some situations - enforcing a norm by rebuffing people who join conversations makes for a really unpleasant party. It's probably better to note when you're having this kind of discussion, and physically separate yourself.

Also, there are a TON more options in the electronic world - mostly around parallel and threaded communication. Someone can both lurk AND ask their not-quite-helpful questions, on channels that don't interfere. Someone can be muted (for you) or redirected (to a more correct topic) if they're not quite on the topic you want.

edit to add: Note that part of the fragility is the overhead of categorizing the conversation. If the act of noticing that it's become deep enough to warrant isolation is itself a disruption, there are no good options. You don't want this to be a norm for the "mingling and surfing" phase of a party - there you want to encourage easy joining and offering/mixing topics, in hopes that one will fit the cluster and generate a deep conversation.

It's probably better to note when you're having this kind of discussion, and physically separate yourself.

I was thinking about that too. It seems like it'd be the best solution when doing so is possible, like at a house party if you could relocate to the backyard, or to taking a walk around the block.

"That's a good point, but I think you're behind on some of the context on what we were discussing. Can you try to get more of a feel for the conversation before joining it?"

  • It gives the person an understandable reason for their misstep. ("Sorry, I must have misunderstood what you were talking about.")
  • It gives the person a reason to stick around. ("I messed up. If I want to correct this, I need to listen and get more context.")
  • It adjusts the person's behavior in future interactions. ("I should get a feel for the conversation before joining it to avoid messing up in the future.")
  • It's no more aggressive than it needs to be to allow you to disregard what the person said and continue your conversation.
  • What little aggression is there is reasoned and grounded in something easily understood, so it doesn't come off as rude.

The above sounds better in text than it does in an actual conversation, but the same principles should apply in an actual conversation. "Name, hold on. I think you're missing some context. Can you listen for a few minutes to catch up?"

For online events, I want to try the following solution: add a text channel to the conversation.

Like, if you're watching someone have a conversation, but you feel like interrupting to say something might derail them, instead you should be able to post a text thing. The text thing appears next to your character, lasts thirty seconds, and then fades away. If people feel your thing is valuable, they can react to it and make it a part of the conversation; if they don't feel it's valuable, they can ignore it.

Yeah, I do think having explicit secondary channels of communication can help a bit. A lot of the current platforms I know of hide the chat a fair amount such that it's kinda hard to notice, but that's an arbitrary design choice that could be changed.

How about the solution of explaining a set of norms to guests at the beginning of the party? Or maybe just to newcomers who aren't already familiar with them, either at the beginning of the party or beforehand, or delegate that task to whoever invited them?

If it were a "normie" party I suppose doing this could be seen as weird or taboo but for a rationalist party it seems like an option that is on the table.

I really like the idea of there being a cultural norm in the rationalist community about this. To facilitate that, I feel like it'd be helpful if there were a single word or phrase to describe the idea.

Maybe something like, "backflowing"? The idea being that the members of the conversation were previously in a flow and by addressing a new member it interrupts that flow.

From there, if a newcomer interrupts a high context conversation you can point to the idea of backflowing, and maybe that's less awkward than a longer-winded explanation.

Actually, when I try to think about how that looks in practice it doesn't seem true: "Hey, you're actually doing something called backflowing right now that we have a norm against." It seems that it might be better for the word to describe the original conversation, not the newcomer. So that it's more of "we're in this delicate state right now" not "you're doing something wrong".

Maybe we could use the phrase "high up the stack", in reference to a call stack in programming. I think that's a decent analogy for what a high context conversation is. You start discussing point A but in order to address that you have to figure out point B, but to address that you have to figure out point C, and then from there you can pop C off the stack and return to B. The context in this example could be described pretty well by a stack. It's not a perfect analogy, but it seems good enough to be useful.

And from there, I guess the comment to the newcomer would be "Hey, we're actually 'high up the stack' in our conversation right now." But again, that doesn't actually seem so useful in practice. It's only useful if they already are familiar with the idea then a quick mention of "high context conversation" would be all you need and they'd understand. And "high up the stack" doesn't actually seem like an improvement to "high context conversation".

So I think I'm left feeling like the big benefit to a word/phrase is because it can make concepts stick more easily. For example, "Socratic grilling" is an idea that I've been aware of for a while, but giving it a name helped things click for me. Another example that comes to mind is "cached thoughts". I think "high context conversations" might be enough though.