Conversational Alignment

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while, partially wrote, but never got around to finishing. And I’m only finishing it today because I want to write another post that refers to it. Welcome to the wacky world that is my mind.

Here’s the question of the day: why is it that we have better and longer conversations with people that we know well? It seems like it should be the other way around – with people that we don’t know, there’s endless amounts to talk about, since no history is shared. With our good friends, we know all of their stories, we know all of the inside jokes, things that would otherwise take thirty minutes to explain can be referenced in a single word. And yet I can often find myself talking for hours with my best friends, whereas with people I don’t know, the conversation dies out in minutes, if not seconds. So understanding what the difference is matters to me, because I like good conversations.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided that it is not despite, but because of, those hours and hours that I have invested learning all of my friends’ histories and inside jokes that we have good conversations. We have invested that time in developing an understanding of each others’ mindsets. We can move past surface issues like definitional considerations and on to the really interesting idea cracking that lies underneath. We can use those inside jokes and references to skip over the boring parts and get to the heart of philosophical issues.

Essentially, all those hours we’ve spent learning about each other has let us align our reality coefficients, so that we are living in the same reality when we speak. As that footnote suggests, there has to be an initial similarity of reality coefficients to make conversation possible at all, but I think that reality coefficients can be jostled into closer alignment by steady application of conversation. The more we talk with somebody, the more we learn to view reality through their eyes, understanding why they place the values on things that they do. And by doing so, we can get to the core value differences and start exploring why those differ, which is often really interesting.

Meanwhile, with people we don’t know, we can start talking, but the conversation will often get hung up on very shallow things like a sharing of history (“Where’d you go to school? Oh, MIT? Wow, you must be smart!”). And there’s nothing wrong with that – you have to go through that stage to get to the more interesting stuff. But often, when faced with the effort of trying to get to know new people and put in the work necessary to get them aligned with my internal cognitive structure, I throw up my metaphorical hands in despair, and either go find some of my good friends or come back home and spew on my blog.

I guess this whole post is a restatement of the idea of exformation from The User Illusion, where exformation is the context that we use to interpret incoming communication. Since all incoming communication, whether speech or text, is relatively low bandwidth, it is up to our brains to unpack the coded information, using the “exformation” context, to make sense of it. I think the bit that is new here (although I haven’t read that book in years so it’s possible he talks about this) is the idea that a greater familiarity with somebody leads to a context that is more shared, and therefore communication that is less likely to be misinterpreted.

Huh. Just pulled out the book, and Norretranders doesn’t quite make the point, but has an apropos quote:

The least interesting aspect of good conversation is what is actually said. What is more interesting is all the deliberations and emotions that take place simultaneously during conversation in the heads and bodies of the conversers.

With people we don’t know, “what is actually said” is pretty much the same as “all the deliberations and emotions”. Because there is no shared context, we are forced to communicate through the narrow bandwidth of speech. With good friends, a shared context of “exformation” has been developed so that we can transmit much higher volumes of information through speech because a few words will evoke whole sets of memories. As I said earlier, “things that would otherwise take thirty minutes to explain can be referenced in a single word”. So our greater familiarity with each other allows us to have much broader exchanges of ideas because we are leveraging that familiarity to exchange vast swathes of information. Or to tie it into my recent line of thought, greater familiarity means building up similar cognitive subroutines, such that the same stimuli evoke the same reactions.

Anyway. More thought required. I think there’s some interesting stuff here, especially in the idea that becoming better friends is a re-alignment of reality coefficients. And that leveraging those reality coefficients is why we have better conversations with our friends than with strangers. But I’m getting tired, and I have one more quick post to write, so I’ll stop here for now.

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