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."

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Jul 21, 2010
The negative conversational rules (not interrupting, not going on and on, not lying, remembering which stories you've already told these people, ...) are relatively easy to learn. But you also have to be interesting and entertaining or people will only want to talk at you, not listen to you. That gets boring.

Does anyone have suggestions for the positive side? Ice breakers or conversation (re)starters? Topics of mutual interest? What kinds of jokes work with what kinds of people?
Jul 21, 2010
I have practiced both - active listening (by compulsion) and one-way delivery (by choice)...One-way, non-stop blah blah is definitely much more fun!!! The only real trouble is good listeners are always short in supply...hypothetically, if I am able to find a good listener who really enjoys my blah blah, how will that conversation be any worse-off then when two people are talking 50:50? I feel the only real way good conversastion can be measured is how long the conversation went without compulsion on either side...who talks and who listens is purely personal preference and should not be the criteria...
Jul 21, 2010
I am not an engineer and I know that puts me in the minority here, but with that said, I am in sales and I sell a product that no one wants to think about much less buy. Selling is like a dance between the seller and the client with the seller taking the male lead and ultimately trying to get the female client in bed (bed being a signature on the dotted line) at the end of a long night of conversation and dancing. I'm not that good at it compared to some amazing people that I've worked with and I have stood in awe many times watching them seduce person after person into buying something that they had no intention of even talking about when they walked in the door of our office.
I consider a good car saleman/woman or a life insurance agent a genious. I know what they are doing and I still can't help but buy their product. I read where Scott knows alot about hypnosis. It's almost like these super salespeople have their client in a state of contented hypnosis by the end of the sales process. I wonder if there is some truth in that.
Jul 21, 2010
I don't see why the alien wouldn't be able to eventually figure out who the good dancers and conversationalists are. All he (assuming this alien species has genders) would have to do is set up an experiment, ferret out the noise factors (physical symmetry probably being number 1), and count how many times the humans mate. We do the same experiment with all sorts of animals to figure out what the best traits are.
Jul 21, 2010
Scott - does humor have a similar set of rules?

I've always felt the same way about humor as masturbation - I mostly do each to please myself. Am I doing either one wrong?

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
red33410: way to completely miss the point...

Before I start let me just state, I do believe in God and I do attend church every Sunday.

Firstly the alien in the story isn't relevant it's a complete outsider that Scott is trying to represent.

That aside, you've taken a bunch of facts and arrived at some 'interesting' conclusions. The existence of other solid planets merely suggests that it is possible that there are other planets that 'could' be in the 'm-class' range and the extreme planets being there doesn't mean that the temperate ones aren't, we've got two extreme planets right here in the solar system AND an nice cosy m-class one.

But my main issue with your statement is that you seem to suggest that the existence of God, precludes the existence of life (intelligent or otherwise) elsewhere in the universe. Don't you see the inherent arrogance in saying what God can / can't / will / won't do? If you assume an omnipotent omniscient God how can you then say that ANYTHING can or can't exist. We can't possibly hope to understand everything (be it science or religion) completely, well not in this life anyway, so why passionately deny the possibility of a limit to our understanding?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
The secret to holding a good conversation is to remember you have to let go now and then.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 21, 2010
You mean all these people I've been talking to STILL don't realize how dumb they are?
Jul 21, 2010
havent had time to read the other comments, so i may be repeating other people here however.

scott, what your saying is that you got taught to have a conversation, and !$%*!$ is about to make you take dance lessons to correct that flaw! Its not a flaw, Men (on the whole for sterotypical humour purposes) cant dance. especially if they are white and over a certain age.

Whilst im here, Scott, please do something to get rid of the advertising comments, they are really bugging the crap out of me!
Jul 20, 2010
Sorry, but what exactly is a "white-boy overbite?"
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
The other question might be: even if the alien were aware of the "rules of conversation", would that necessarily allow them to become a good conversationalist? I'd say no. Personally I'm acutely aware of the rules (or at least a representative subset thereof) but have some trouble putting them into action. Being able to know what defines good conversation is only part of the puzzle. You also need to (a) be able to read the emotions of others (otherwise the feedback loop breaks because you can't tell if you're being dominating/boring/obnoxious/weird), (b) know the various expressions/actions to put the required response into action and (c) do all of this in (close to) realtime. Personally I suspect the problem in NP hard and that people who claim to be able to scale the much past n=5 (I start to struggle at about n=3) are either lying or employing some sort of quantum computer - I just can't see how else they can process the sheer volume of data.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
Aspergers runs on my side of the family. I was a complete klutz until the age of 22, when I was effectively drafted onto my college clogging team. Once I associated the moves with the mathematics of the music, I excelled at it, and have been in demand as a dance partner ever since. My son inherited the condition, but he was diagnosed early, and we found a school that has an Aspergers program. He is having a much easier time of his teen years than I did. There is help, and it does work.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010

The alien may not be able to learn to make good conversation, but learn when good conversation is occurring.

We can tell when a good conversation is occurring from across the room. Are the conversationalists laughing at the same time, smiling, animated, doing an equal share of talking? That's one way an alien could distinguish a good conversation from a poor one. I know that's not the point of the question. Just sayin.

Btw I'm intrigued that people are saying social norms and expectations can be taught. I thought I was doomed.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
Let's not forget that people (I'd say a lot of people) make poor conversation not because they are poor conversationalists but because they simply have nothing to say.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
The book "Socially Curious and Curiously Social" by Michelle Winner and Pamela Crooke is a guide for teens and young adults to explicitly teach not just the rules of social engagement but the underlying principals (social thinking) behind the rules. If you or a kid you know struggles with this issue - it's worth checking out.


Failing to understand social rules is not a sign of a defective personality. It is rather a sign that a personal failed the learn the rules on their own. The rules can be (and are) taught effectively. Catching and correcting this problem early can literally change the trajectory of a kid's life.
Jul 20, 2010
Lots of social rules can be taught quite effectively to kids (and adults) who did not grasp them intuitively growing up. There are plenty of theories as to why Aspergers and other Autism Spectrum Disorder kids fail to understand social clues. One is that because they tend to be hyper-sensory - that is take in more sensory data than normal - they discard information that "normal" people don't. Facial expressions are one example. If you don't make the connection between facial expressions and emotion at a young age, you are going to have trouble making social connections later in life. These sorts of social cognition deficits are correctable.

www.socialthinking.com is a great resource with information on studies as well as curriculum and other resources.
Jul 20, 2010
while I agree that conversation skills are distinct from intelligence and/or knowledge if someone with the former lacks the later two I'm still going to find them boring (I think they're called "sales reps")...

greyongrey - anyone who tell you not to wear cute heels & skirt at same time is either a jealous woman or a man w/Aspergers! ;-) (kidding - have mercy on my soul...)
Jul 20, 2010
Conversation does have rules and thy're programmatic:

Jul 20, 2010
wow how much did the dale carnegie course set you back by?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
For a minute I figured you were trapped by a bad conversationalist, who talked your ears out and went dancing afterwards.
But you will never make me believe you are a poor conversationalist. I'll bet you are a genius conversationalist, based on what I read in the blog and strips. I bet anyone who talks to you becomes brilliant listeners (sorry this looks "a little" like ass-kissing, but I'm a faithful reader of anything you write, so I assume that someone who writes that well could only be a good conversationalist).
By the way, do you think you're a bad dancer?
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