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:
Jul 20, 2010
"The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time."

I don't know, Mr. Adams. This seems like a male view of the purpose of conversation to me. A female might say that the goal of conversation is to bond and sympathize. Then again, that depends upon the gender of the participants, and the context of the conversation.

--bossgripes.com
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
Unfortunately I attended the Dale Carnegie Dance Training Course, I got straight A's in white-boy overbites ane repetitive finger pointing though!
 
 
Jul 20, 2010
If it is not a conversation, then you are either giving, or receiving a lecture, which is normally not very entertaining.
 
 
Jul 20, 2010
The answer is
1. Yes, the alien will learn to dance and converse in a socially acceptable way.
2. NO, the Asperger Syndrome will never learn. Our ex-son-in-law fits this category to a T. The storage/learning facility in his brain is not connected to the social side of the brain. After at least 10,000 repetitions each from his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and father-in-law over a period of 16 years, he never learned to keep his mouth closed while chewing or to not talk with his mouth full (he's 48). Both of my children had learned this before they were 7. Women are just a sum of their naughty parts. Children have no feelings and are insensitive to pain. That's what he believes. And please do not try to make someone with Asperger's into a sympathetic character. If you are a defenseless child, it is hell on earth to have such a parent with today's court system. In my day, he would be locked in jail for what he's done to these children.
 
 
Jul 20, 2010
I don't think I have asperger's, but among friends I am known to be someone who makes all the social mistakes to learn the "rules". Hug a friend of the opposite sex? Yes. Hug same friend while your boy/girlfriend is in the room? I now know the answer to be No, and this seems to extend to mutual friends as well.

Wear cute heels to work: Yes
Wear cute skirt to work: Yes
Wear both: Apparently the answer is no....

Now that you mention it, I do feel like an alien in the room when it comes to these social rules.
 
 
Jul 20, 2010
Scott, you may not have heard of Paul Grice's "Conversational Maxims," which are observations by a linguist about the underlying assumptions we normally make when we speak with someone. Breaking these rules does not always mean the conversation will be boring (indeed, Grice noted that the reasons we break them may be very interesting), but ignoring them entirely will mark you as someone with a problem (like Asperger's syndrom) (I learned about them in my linguistics classes at college, but have pasted them from this website: http://www.armannd.com/basic-rules-for-conversation.html)

1. Maxim of Quality. According to the first rule, people are expected to say what they know to be true. When talking with each other we expect the others to tell us the truth. If your friend asks, “…have you seen my dog?” an honest answer is expected.

2. Maxim of Quantity. According to this rule, when talking, we are expected to provide just enough information to get our point across. We usually assume that people are telling us everything we need to know. If they don’t say something, then we assume they simply don’t know that information.

3. Maxim of Relation. According to this rule, you are expected to stay on the topic. In other words, make sure that what you say is relevant for what is talked about. If asked, “Isn’t Larry the biggest jerk you ever met?” you certainly won’t be on topic if you answer by saying “Uh, it sure is nice for this time of year, eh?”

4. Maxim of Manner. The last rule states that your comments should be direct, clear, and to the point. This maxim relates to the form of speech you use. You shouldn’t use words you know your listeners won’t understand or say things which you know could be taken multiple ways. You should also not state something in a long, drawn-out way if you could say it in a much simpler manner. As an example, we have “Miss Singer produced a series of sounds corresponding closely to the score of The Star-Spangled Banner” vs. “Miss Singer sang The Star-Spangled Banner.”
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
Lighten up. The only rule in recreational dancing is no one is watching you dance.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
Rules of conversation only apply when the person speaking with me has something I find interesting to hear. You, Scott, could talk my ear off and I wouldn't mind a bit. Don't let me get a word in edgewise? That's just dandy with me as I'm probably the guy you don't want to listen to anyway. I accept that, no problem. Kind of like when my brother-in-law talks to me and I automatically drift off in my imagination to Crazytown which is, paradoxically, the only way I can keep from going insane. Hey, perhaps that's a rule too, of sorts?
 
 
Jul 20, 2010
And some are such skilled dancers/conversationalists that they can flaunt the "rules" and no-one complains...

I am NOT one of those people.
 
 
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
"Would the alien ever learn to distinguish a good conversationalist from a poor one?"

Yes he can!

He only has to examine the qualities of the conversation medium and come up with two simple logical assumptions:

"IF a person chooses to get together with another person, instead of just recording his/her speech and sending it to him, THAN he has not only came to talk, but to listen (otherwise it would be pointless to pay gas/telephone fees etc.)."

"IF a person chooses to listen to another person talk about something, instead of reading about it on the Internet THEN the information that is communicated, has not been previously written (at least not in the same context).

And if you want to listen to the other person AND share new information for me that makes you a good conversationalist.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
My grandmother is one of those poor conversationlists. She can go on for 20 minutes and not say anything interesting. I listen for about 30 seconds, and then there's 19 minutes and 30 seconds of head nodding and grunts so she thinks I'm still interested.

I have a son with the same problem. But his attention span for speaking is only about 3 minutes, so it's much less painful.

Old people and kids can get away with lots of socially unacceptable stuff.

 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
Getting in the mind of the alien or Asperger guy is nearly impossible but I think they might be able to understand something as innate as mating. Speaking to the club scenario and dancing, if the socially inept were to observe long enough, they might come to the conclusion that certain dance moves were more effective at luring the opposite sex and they might try to mimic these moves. If certain dancers were terrible (drunk, lacked rhythm, or white) and they achieved no success with the opposite sex, the socially inept would try to not perform those moves. Gauging a collective's opinion on what constitutes 'good dancing' would be difficult, especially in a club setting. But observing and establishing a success ratio of dance moves to mating would be worthwhile. And isn't that why we are all there? Then, conversation becomes less relevant.

HINT: After the club, passive listening is your friend. :p
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 20, 2010
I was going to say that surely more than 1/4 of the population can hold an interesting conversation, until I remembered that I have systematically avoided contact with people who bore me. So my sampling of friends isn't representative of whole.
Often these people I avoid are very nice people, but they are boring because of lack of conversational skills. I don't think they are unhappy though, and they seem to hang out with other conversationally deficient people - so it all works out in the end.

 
 
Jul 20, 2010
I think you were already on your way to good "conversation" by reading your blog comments and sometimes responding to or highlighting good ones. It's refreshing to have an entertaining person such as yourself want to become more entertaining by listening to the entertaining people who read your blog.
 
 
Jul 20, 2010
In college mediation classes we were actually able to develop our conversational emotional quotient to the point that we could recognize the patterns a conversation needed to move to have people expressing opposing viewpoints reach a catharsis.

I consider this the black belt of conversational ninjitsu.



 
 
Jul 20, 2010
I am so aware of the public rules it tends to tongue-tie me at times. But my brain bounces from topic to topic rapidly I have to be aware not to interject the new topic until the other person(s) are ready to change. With my sisters we can bounce between topics rapidly, but others can't follow the conversation. It's obvious my sisters and I learned a different set of rules than normal society. So I tend to be an observer in most group settings. So I know there are rules but I won't play the game until I'm comfortable.
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog