Lurking More Before Joining Complex Conversations

by Raemon2 min read11th Jul 202011 comments

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Communication CulturesConversation (topic)
Personal Blog

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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