Microcast #100 — Awkward Conversations


    Instead of avoiding difficult conversations, aim to make them less awkward. Here's one way.

    Show notes


    Image: Unsplash

    Small talk and sociability

    I admit it, I’m not amazing at what’s often referred to as ‘small talk’. I’m getting better, though, perhaps because I currently live in a row of terraced houses containing people of all ages. Small snippets of conversation about the weather, general health, and relatives are the lubricant of social situations.

    The Finns, however, forgo such small talk. It’s not in their culture.

    Finnish people often forgo the conversational niceties that are hard-baked into other cultures, and typically don’t see the need to meet foreign colleagues, tourists and friends in the middle.

    […]

    “It’s not about the structure or features of the language, but rather the ways in which people use the language to do things,” she explained via email. “For instance, the ‘how are you?’ question that is most often placed in the very beginning of an encounter. In English-speaking countries, it is mostly used just as a greeting and no serious answer is expected to it. On the contrary, the Finnish counterpart (Mitä kuuluu?) can expect a ‘real’ answer after it: quite often the person responding to the question starts to tell how his or her life really is at the moment, what’s new, how they have been doing.”

    This article explores whether the Finns need to adapt to the rest of the world, or vice-versa. Interesting stuff!

    Source: BBC Travel

    Conversational implicature

    In references for jobs, former employers are required to be positive. Therefore, a reference that focuses on how polite and punctual someone is could actually be a damning indictment of their ability. Such ‘conversational implicature’ is the focus of this article:

    When we convey a message indirectly like this, linguists say that we implicate the meaning, and they refer to the meaning implicated as an implicature. These terms were coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice (1913-88), who proposed an influential account of implicature in his classic paper ‘Logic and Conversation’ (1975), reprinted in his book Studies in the Way of Words (1989). Grice distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature. A conversational implicature, Grice held, depends, not on the meaning of the words employed (their semantics), but on the way that the words are used and interpreted (their pragmatics).
    From my point of view, this is similar to the difference between productive and unproductive ambiguity.
    The distinction between what is said and what is conversationally implicated isn’t just a technical philosophical one. It highlights the extent to which human communication is pragmatic and non-literal. We routinely rely on conversational implicature to supplement and enrich our utterances, thus saving time and providing a discreet way of conveying sensitive information. But this convenience also creates ethical and legal problems. Are we responsible for what we implicate as well as for what we actually say?
    For example, and as the article notes, "shall we go upstairs?" can mean a sexual invitation, which may or may not later imply consent. It's a tricky area.

    I’ve noted that the more technically-minded a person, the less they use conversational implicature. In addition, and I’m not sure if this is true or just my own experience, I’ve found that Americans tend to be more literal in their communication than Europeans.

     To avoid disputes and confusion, perhaps we should use implicature less and communicate more explicitly? But is that recommendation feasible, given the extent to which human communication relies on pragmatics?
    To use conversational implicature is human. It can be annoying. It can turn political. But it's an extremely useful tool, and certainly lubricates us all rubbing along together.

    Source: Aeon

    So, what do you do?

    Say what you want about teaching, it makes it extremely easy to answer the above question.

    But that question might not be the best way to build rapport with someone else. In fact, it may be best to avoid talking about work entirely.
    It's better, apparently, to find shared ground about common goals and interests:
    Research findings from the world of network science and psychology suggests that we tend to prefer and seek out relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with the other person. Sociologists refer to these as multiplex ties, connections where there is an overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context. If a colleague at work sits on the same nonprofit board as you, or sits next to you in spin class at the local gym, then you two share a multiplex tie. We may prefer relationships with multiplex ties because research suggests that relationships built on multiplex ties tend to be richer, more trusting, and longer lasting
    The author of this article suggests you can ask the following questions instead:
    • What excites you right now?
    • What are you looking forward to?
    • What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
    • Where did you grow up?
    • What do you do for fun?
    • Who is your favorite superhero?
    • Is there a charitable cause you support?
    • What’s the most important thing I should know about you?

    Unfortunately, unlike the ubiquitous, “So, do you do?” none of these are useful as conversation-starters. And then, after I’ve corrected for Britishness, there’s exactly zero I’d use in the course of serious adult conversation…

    Source: Harvard Business Review