Home
Imagine an advanced alien life form that materializes on Earth in the middle of a popular dance club. The alien has a cloak of invisibility and observes the humans dancing. He is here to watch and learn. My question is this: Would the alien ever learn to distinguish good dancers from poor dancers?

Now suppose the alien leaves the club and finds a bar that is open late. He observes a lot of what we call "conversation" happening. The alien's universal interpreter device allows him to understand the content of the conversations. My question is this: Would the alien ever learn to distinguish a good conversationalist from a poor one?

I started thinking about this after reading that people with Asperger syndrome have trouble understanding the subtleties of human social interaction. That skill doesn't come as a package deal with general intelligence. The advanced alien can't figure out who the good conversationalists are, nor can the fellow with Asperger syndrome even if he has an otherwise exceptional IQ.

Now suppose we gave both the alien and the Asperger guy some rules about dancing and some rules about conversation as benchmarks by which to sort the good from the bad. Would it help them?

With dancing, you could point out that the movement of your hips should be timed with the beat, and that the level of motion should be somewhere in a range that is neither too quiet nor too frenetic compared to the other dancers. You could throw in other rules as well, such as no finger-pointing, no white-boy overbite, no excessive repetitiveness, no monopolizing the entire dance floor, and so on. You might have dozens of rules when you are done, but the highly intelligent alien and the Asperger guy (probably an engineer) could learn them all fairly quickly. And from that point on, they could discern good dancing from poor dancing. They might even be able to imitate it, with some practice.

Consider conversation. How many times have you been in a restaurant and victimized by the loud guy at the next table dominating the conversation without the benefit of being entertaining? It seems somewhat common that people who are neither alien nor Asperger syndrome types have no conversation skills. Indeed, it appears that many so-called normal people don't even understand the concept of a conversation.

A conversation, like dancing, has some rules, although I've never seen them stated anywhere. The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time. A big part of how you entertain another person is by listening and giving your attention. Ideally, your own enjoyment from conversation comes from the other person doing his or her job of being interesting. If you are entertaining yourself at the other person's expense, you're doing it wrong.

You might think that everyone on earth understands what a conversation is and how to engage in one. My observation is that no more than a quarter of the population has that understanding. I was solidly in the conversationally clueless camp until I took the Dale Carnegie course, in which one small part of the learning dealt with the mechanics of conversation. It was a life-changing bit of knowledge.

Prior to the Dale Carnegie course I believed that conversation was a process by which I could demonstrate my cleverness, complain about what was bugging me, and argue with people in order to teach them how dumb they were. To me, listening was the same thing as being bored.  I figured it was the other person's responsibility to find some entertainment in the conversation. That wasn't my job. Yes, I was that asshole. But I didn't know it. The good news is that once I learned the rules of conversation, I was socially reborn. It turns out that active listening is more fun than talking, although sometimes you need to guide the conversation toward common interests.

Three-quarters of the people reading this post just thought "Uh-oh. I didn't know conversation had rules."

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +349
  • Print
  • Share

Comments

Sort By:
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 30, 2010
A really smart alien would suspect that the quality of conversation and dance is subjective, which means in the eye of the beholder. Instead of focussing on the performer or the data, it would observe the observers. How many others watch the dancer [okay, he could be spectacularly bad, but there's error in all measurement]? There are behavioural and physical signs indicating approval or disapproval. An alien could learn that by observation and apply it to "quality of dance/discussion".
From there, a model could be built to map empirical behaviour on semantics of discussion, giving a tool that identifies "good talk" indicators in the data itself. For example repeat agreement, lack of expletives, frequent change of talker, and long duration.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 29, 2010
I was flagged as an Aspie when I was very young, and at times it's very obvious. To me, there are two different kinds of those with it: those that actually have it, and those who use it as an excuse for bad behavior. Those who have it, every one of them I have met (at a convention with Temple Grandon as a speaker, mostly), were all pretty understanding and open. Moreso than most, because if someone messes up with a courtesy, it may not even be noticed.

I tend to listen to myself constantly, monitoring what I say and do. Am I too close? Too far away? Oh yes, remember eye contact helps sometimes...

Question to any other Aspie here: Do you have problem with names and remembering who is who? Can you follow popular culture, or do you get the comment 'you live under a rock' from your friends?
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 29, 2010
It's great to see what other Aspies have to say. I'm p-a-i-n-f-u-l-l-y empathic to others' pain but not their anger or other emotions ... I've often been mystified at why people have gotten angry with me ... I am struck with dread when my spouse chuckles at something I say that isn't intended to be humorous (poor thing then has to explain what's behind that laugh) ... when I was single, I was oblivious to all but the most outre attempts to ask me out (and I'm still oblivious to when others are attracted to me). I am extremely intuitive and analytical, so I've developed sufficient (and sufficiently good) models and algorithms for dealing with people--even my closest friends were shocked when I verified what I thought for years (that I'm Aspie) and told them so. Yes, the alien knows that he is coming here to observe; we Aspies only know we're different and figure out how to observe (so that we can at least try not to stick out) to survive--we get a lifetime, but the alien only has a brief visit. Yes, I avoid social situations that I think could go badly. YES, I get into vast !$%*!$%*!$ of trouble for being too direct (!!!). Yes, I have an unusually high IQ. Yes, I am an engineer.

I am also a very accomplished contradancer (I guess that also makes me an alien).
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 26, 2010
I had to comment to this.

I also have Asperger's, and usually would equate it to feeling like an alien watching another species in its native habitat. For a long time when I was a kid, I could not empathize with humans. In stories and movies, I could usually understand the creatures perspectives far faster than any humans', and one means of teaching me anything about interaction would be to hand me books that used animals as a personification metaphor for human condition, or some such. Watership Down, Animal Farm.

However, agreed with an above poster about an aspie having to learn to observe. When I became aware of it, I took refuge in endless questions that may seem stupid - even would seem that way to me. "Why are you angry? Can you explain this?" Perfectly calm while someone was yelling at me.

It's trial and error. However, for the high-functioning ones who learn by learning to analyze everything, sometimes we're at a bonus later on. We've come to where we are by studying people and analyzing motives for necessity. It'd be like learning to read by studying the meaning in long depth behind the words, instead of just picking up the words' meaning by intuitively looking at the context. Sometimes, you are better at analyzing a scenario better than the people who don't have the syndrome are.
 
 
Jul 25, 2010
If you want to learn conversational skills go to google and type in 'pick up artist' these people are masters at conversation!
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
"Uh-oh. I didn't know conversation had rules."

The honourablest part of talk is to give the occasion[1]; and again to
moderate[2] and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.
-- Bacon, Essay !$%*!$ "Of Discourse"

[1] suggest the subject
[2] guide the discussion
 
 
+18 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 22, 2010
I have Aspergers (AS). I don't 'suffer' from it, it's not a disease. There are no drugs to 'cure' me, its not an illness (mental or otherwise). Simply, my brain is wired differently than 99% of the population. Its called atypical, whereas the 99% are 'typical', or neuro-typical (NT).

Aspies are not !$%*!$%* (at least not with any more regularity thatn NTs), we're just utterly incapable of intuitvely absorbing and following social rules that NTs just get innately. How many social rules an Aspie gets (or doesn't get) depends on how far into the spectrum he/she is. Which rules Aspies don't get is not determined by how far into the spectrum they are, only how many rules. That's why each Aspie is unique. Aspies often come off as jerks bc we don't understand all these social rules and apply our own rules to an NT world. I know it is hard to understand how we can't get these rules, but consider this... We don't get how you don't get that we're different.

The higher functioning Aspies learn these rules by rote and apply them. This is how we learn to dance, but never groove. I know the 2-step, but just can't do that dance, even slowly. However, other dances I "get" and yet others I know and can imitate successfully, but there is just a mental block on the 2-step. Yes, its weird. No, I don't expect NTs to understand.

The biggest difference between Scott's alien scenario and an Aspie's life is that the alien arrives knowing he has to observe. He knows that he is different and requires study to understand. For the longest time, I knew I was different, but I look like everyone else, and I thought everyone was like me. I didn't know I atypical when I was observing and trying to imitate social rules. Now that I know I'm an Aspie, I can understand I am different, why I am different, and be proactive in 'fitting in'. I also can recognize my limitations and avoid situations wwhere I know it won't go well for me or others.

For a good read into the life of an Aspie, pick up any non-fiction book at your local library and spend an hour perusing it. Don't pity us; empathize. Its what you NTs are best at.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
FERT?
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
I think the alien is more likely than the Asperger guy to make someone fert his brain out his ears.
 
 
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
Conversation and intercourse can be quite similar.
If the 2 or more parties involved are all actively engaged, participating and considerate of each other, then it's going to be really good;
if 1 or more of the other parties are only interested in themselves then it's going to be bad. Unless that person is you.
Engaging in it with yourself is frowned upon, but far more common than most people would admit.
 
 
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
I find it rather odd that after thirteen years of school I can do calculus, discuss classic literature, and drone at length about psychology studies, yet no one bothered to teach me things like basic home and auto maintenance or basic social interactions.

Oh wait, I seem to recall 10 minutes of this one Health class about conversation. Compared to say.... three hours discussing verbs that act as nouns.

Expecting everyone to discover the behaviors that lead to optimal enjoyment for all parties in social situations is hardly efficient.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
Comment on Post:

I think you are grappling with the difference between explicit and implicit knowledge and the capaciity of humans to transform one into the other. Explicit knowledge can certainly help but only to a certain extent at which point biological limitations win every time. Just look at second language acquisition in adults. Many non-native speakers have much more explicit knowledge of the grammar of their second language than the native speakers of that language, but they will make many more mistakes because their brain was not hard wired to actualize their second languages rule set during a critical period of their development. I doubt such a critical period exists for conversation skill and many "normal" people might be able to improve with practice, but even people without Asperger's syndrome are going to vary in their capacity for the mental agility required to be a good conversationalist. As for our alien and our Aspie, they are more likely than not doomed to fail(Yes, I know Aspberger's is a spectrum disorder and your mileage may vary). All perception is a highly filtered transduciton of sensory information into a model of reality. In the case of Aspie's the cues "normal" people use to assign emotional valence to incoming data appears to be filtered out, so while he or she might be able to see you are smiling if they force themselves to make appropriate eye contact they will be emotionally blind to whether you are bemused, sneering, or something else. So even if we assume that we really know the rules, that the rules can be memorized, and that they can be recalled and applied in real time, Aspies still cannot collect enought data to apply them effectively. If the brain of someone born on planet earth with essentially the same DNA "normal" people have can filter out something so helpful to living a social life, then I cannot begin to fathom what important data alien brains will filter out. As for the alien dancing, does the alien even have limbs? Can their eyes even detect directional motion of our limbs? As for alien dance judges, I think it is equally likely they will either apply their own aesthetic bias rather than attemtping to acertain human criteria or simply prefer whatever dance moves make our muscle and fat composition most delicious, whether to themselves or to their pets.



Comment on Comments:

The Gricean Maxims seem to be more about rules to responding to queries than rules to having a good conversation. They might apply to queries inside the conversation. They also seem culturally biased or delusional to me, particularly number 4 with its directness requirement. In fact, I think in actual practice indirect speech is the rule in conversation with peers rather than queries from strangers, and part of what gets Aspie's in so much trouble is that they are not indirect enough.

Structural analysis appears to have more to say about what is and what works than what is good, which is probably by design, so I don't think it will helped that much especially in real time application. Furthermore, I studied linguistics for about 3 years and pragmatics for close to one year, and while it was very helpful on the whole I still find it nearly impossible to get a conversational turn where there is more than one other person. The gaps between others' utterances are too small for me to discern and I have difficulty talking over the top of someone until they stop and listen to me instead unless I believe what they are saying is false, intentional or not. However, at that point we are we are arguing, which is a special case of conversation. Other people seem to be able use that technique to change speakers without arguing, but how or why they do it is mysterious to me.
 
 
Jul 21, 2010
There are a lot of human activities that would greatly benefit from just a little coaching or instruction, but instead most of us blunder along using trial-and-error, imitation, and guesswork. It is somehow embarrasing or even shameful to seek help with these "intuitive" activities. We think we know how to hold a conversation. We think we know how to raise our children. We think we know how to manage our money. We think we know how to pick the best foods to eat. I believe the stigma of seeking instruction for any particular activity is directly proportional to the number of other "normal" people who seem to be successful without any instruction.
 
 
Jul 21, 2010
I kidnap talk to my local congress persons.
 
 
Jul 21, 2010
Ever hear the term kidnap talker? A kidnap talker is someone who wants a one way conversation and will never shut up.
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
Dancing has rules?
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
OK - one more comment and then I'll stop (Scott just provided such a lovely opening for the topic):

If you have a kid who started having social issues around 3rd or 4th grade (withdrawing, always in conflict with other kids in spite of not being an aggressive person, etc.) here is a simple test you can do at home.

With the kid, watch a DVD movie- with human characters. Choose something melodramatic. Stop the action from time to time and ask him/her to identify the emotion the character is expressing. Most kids can identify happy. If yours can't tell the difference between the non-happy emotions (angry, sad, thoughtful, etc.) - you need to intervene.


 
 
Jul 21, 2010
Three-quarters of the people reading this post just thought "Uh-oh. I didn't know conversation had rules."

A scary statistic!
 
 
Jul 21, 2010
@hbmindia
According to urban dictionary white boy overbite is a "derogatory term used to describe the facial expression white people make while dancing"

@red33410
As a sometime admirer of some of your work, well, comments or mash-ups anyhow, I respectfully submit that it may have been more sensible to not reveal yourself as a fundamentalist with a shaky grasp of science and probabilties. You also seem to struggle with the concept of 'hypothetical'. The general tenure of the post was whether there is an absolute strandard to judge dancing / conversations, or is this just a relative thing
 
 
Jul 21, 2010
I'm surprised you've never studied linguistics. I think you would find it very interesting, especially conversation analysis. When I studied it I learned that the aim of a conversation is to relay information (not entertainment) and that they do have very specific rules, aka the Maxims of conversation. (Someone has already mentioned them, you can read more about them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gricean_maxims). What is interesting is that it is the flouting of these maxims that often leads to humour. I remember doing a fun exercise in class where we analyzed a chunk of dialog from Monty Python's The Holy Grail by looking at what maxims the characters where breaking to create humor.
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog