The Conversationalist

I learned most of what I know about conversation from my second father. He never met a person he couldn’t learn something from.

He owned a convention services business. As a kid I would often go with him to work with my brother. He would give us odd jobs to do, like sweeping the dock, stuffing envelopes, or folding drape.

Along the way we would inevitably run into someone, like a guard, an exhibiter, or a convention manager. He would talk with them all with the same respect and interest. And it seemed to me he would invariably learn something interesting from all of them.

I can remember riding in a cab with him one day; I want to say in New York, but I can’t think why we might have been there. But it was a long ride, and in the course of time it took us to get where we were going, he had coaxed that cabby’s entire life history from him. And I remember it fascinating me completely, both how interesting this cabby’s life was, and how effortlessly my father was able to draw it out of him.

My friends loved to talk with him; they would feign otherwise, and talk about playing twenty questions with George. But to this day they never fail to mention those conversations whenever his name comes up.

His questions come from a genuine interest in people, and he is able to ask them in such a way that they don’t feel probing or intrusive. He makes the person he’s talking to feel like she is utterly fascinating to him, and they seem to trust him completely.

I’ve tried to emulate him, but it’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a subtle difference between a question that makes a person feel interesting, and one that makes a person feel threatened. He listens. He’s interested. He’s observant. I can remember him more than once describing roadside scenes that utterly escaped my notice. Somehow he makes his conversations go where most others can’t.

Practicing Sex

I believe that practicing sex is less about technique and equipment than it is about learning to be vulnerable, intimate, and tender with the one you love.

It’s paying attention to the little things, like taking the opportunity to give a nice long hug, or gently rubbing your loved one’s back, or giving a quiet touch as you walk by.  These touches make us feel valued and loved.

It’s about taking the time and effort to be romantic: giving a gift unlooked for, making a special dinner, or planning an adventure to some place or event you’ve never been before.

It’s about savoring your lovemaking with long lingering kisses, passionate embraces, and lots of gentle touching or massage.

Maybe the hardest thing about practicing sex is talking about what you want, or what you’re afraid of, or what you don’t like.  Something as simple as initiating sex, or refusing it, can make us feel extremely vulnerable.

You know it’s time to talk if you feel some resentment about your sex life.  Where does the resentment come from?  What is it you want that you’re not getting, or don’t want that you are?  How can you express that to the one you love in a way that is respectful and not resentful? 

These conversations are usually pretty difficult.  I need to find a way to get some distance from my emotions.  I may begin by writing a letter, and getting down on paper what I’m feeling.  Obviously I’m already feeling some resentment, so I want that letter to sit for at least a day before I edit it.  Then I’ll read it again and try to reword it in a way that is less resentful, more respectful, and uses language that I think my wife can hear. 

What you don’t want to do is provoke the same resentment in your loved one that you’re already feeling yourself.  That’s a recipe for an emotional conflagration, and maybe long term damage to your relationship.

Once I’m happy with the letter, I’ll give it to her and ask her if we can talk about it after she’s read it.  When we begin to talk, I try to breathe through the conversation, be aware of our emotional pressure, and back off if it gets too high.  But I keep trying to find a way to talk about it until we can come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Four Steps toward a Social Practice

How do we describe the nature of an acquaintance?  I use four measures:

1)   propinquity,

2)   breadth and level of interest,

3)   level of trust,

4)   And level of vulnerability.

By propinquity I mean proximity or distance.  We are much more likely to be acquainted with those in close proximity to us than we are with those who are far away.  One way to improve an acquaintance is to shorten the distance between you.

The more interests we share with a person, or the greater our intensity of interest in a shared passion, the more we will be attracted to that person.  The more we cultivate those interests, the more we will have to talk about, and the more interesting will become our conversation.

Our level of trust in an acquaintance is indicative of our expectation of honesty and reliability from the other.  For trust to grow our actions must be consistent with our conversation and commitments.  We want to spend our time with people we trust.

Our level of vulnerability is the extent to which we are willing to reveal those parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or those parts which if injured in some way, could do us great harm.  Vulnerability allows us to bring to light those parts of ourselves hidden in darkness.  With a friend vulnerability can be transformative.  But if that vulnerability is betrayed, it can be shattering.  For vulnerability to grow between friends, what is shared in confidence must be treasured in the heart and protected from gossip.

A social practice then should seek to shorten distance between acquaintances, seek and cultivate those who share our interests, build trust, and encourage and protect our mutual vulnerability.

Communicate with Your Interest Groups

The most subtle and precious treasure in my life is the web of conversation spun over the course of years with my family and friends.  So for the past several years I have meditated on ways to improve my methods of communication.

I find it much more effective and efficient to communicate with clusters rather than individuals.  A cluster is a connected group of acquaintance, usually where each member of the cluster knows everyone else in the cluster, like a household.

If I want to communicate with everyone in a cluster about a particular topic, it will take much more time and effort to write or speak with each member individually than it will with the group as a whole.

The determining factors for me as to whether I can communicate with the cluster as a whole is whether I expect everyone in the cluster to be interested in the topic, whether I trust everyone with topic, and whether I am willing to make myself vulnerable to everyone in the group with the topic.

Weighed against this is the possibility of dividing the cluster if I communicate with some members of the group and not others about the topic.  Generally speaking, no one likes to be left out of a conversation of a group of which they deem themselves a part.  And they will often resent it if they are.

So if I don’t consider everyone in the group to be at nearly the same level of interest, trust, and intimacy the preferable alternative is to write at a level that is commensurate with the lowest level overall.  But sometimes this simply isn’t possible; if I am trying to communicate with them on a sensitive topic, then I will likely feel compelled to communicate with each individually or none of them at all.

How do you deal with these issues?

My Quest for a Social Practice

It turns out there is little, if anything, more important to our happiness than our level of connectedness with others; both in terms of quantity and quality of our relationships.  Even so, I can’t say that I have a formal practice for broadening and deepening my network of social connections, nor do I know anyone who does.  If you have one, please share it with me.

For me, connectedness begins with interest in another person.  Some years ago I decided that if I met someone I had a good conversation with, that I would try to pursue that person in order to renew the conversation; or perhaps connect them with another person I think shares one or more of their interests.

After that initial interest, I need to be able to trust the person, and show myself to be trustworthy in turn.  Those who are unreliable, who don’t keep their commitments, or say things they don’t mean or believe don’t make very good friends.

If we share an interest, and build a solid foundation of trust, then perhaps the deepest level of connection comes from a willingness to be vulnerable with the other person.  Vulnerability implies revealing certain of those aspects of us that could cause great embarrassment or injury if the other person does not value and treat with some reverence those parts revealed.  Here are the greatest risks, and greatest rewards, of a relationship.

But perhaps the heart of a social practice is as simple and as complicated as staying in touch.  It takes time to stay in touch.  It takes some courage (we might be rebuffed).  And as our circle of acquaintance grows, it takes some creativity and diligence in order to keep those lines of communication open.  How do you stay in touch with 150 people?  Facebook right?

One thing I’ve noticed about my connections is that they tend to be clustered.  These clusters tend to exist at a certain level of intimacy across the whole cluster.  Hence I can send an email to everyone in that cluster at the level of trust and vulnerability of the cluster which everyone can feel safe responding to.  I think it’s hard to do that on a venue like facebook.  I still haven’t figured out how to use it.

Basic Concepts of Social Capital

Following is from Social Capital: Prospects for a New Concept by Paul S. Adler and Seok-Woo Kwon, The Academy of Management Review. Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan. 2002), pp 17-40. Via JSTOR.

Social capital has at least two perspectives: 1) the social relations existing within a group, such as the members of a church or the employees of a business (internal social capital); and 2) the social relations bridging one group to another, such as the relationships between churches or businesses (external social capital).

Social capital is capital in the sense that it has value, it persists, it can be accumulated or diminished, and it has a contingent future value.  The value comes from both the structure and the content of the ties between persons or groups.  That is, being well connected is generally better than being isolated, and being connected to resourceful, capable, trustworthy persons is better than being connected to persons without resources, ability, or trustworthiness.

The closure of a group is the degree to which the connections of an actor in the group are themselves connected with each other.  The more closed a group is, the more trust there will be and the more enforceable the norms of the group will be.  On the other hand, the brokers (those who are known and trusted) in a more open or sparse group will tend to have more power than they would otherwise have in a closed group (because they control the flow of information and resources between disconnected nodes or groups).

The benefits of social capital include access to information, both internally and externally; influence, control, and power in the form of political IOUs or bridging disconnected groups; and solidarity, i.e. strong norms and beliefs combined with a high degree of closure that leads to lower monitoring costs and higher commitment.

The risks involved with social capital include investment of time and resources in establishing and maintaining relationships that may bear little fruit; project teams with strong ties may be less productive than those with weak ties because they are less costly to maintain; bridging capital becomes less valuable as the actor’s contacts become more connected themselves; solidarity can become a liability when an actor lacks any external ties to the group, or other nodes in the group become dependent on the actor.

The Talk Dancer


I have described conversations as one person in a group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea; then the next person in the group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea, and so on.

You may reply that conversations don’t actually occur in the way I’ve described.  For example, in a group of 12 people maybe one person has an idea, and only two have a response.  I would argue that everyone in the group has an idea, and everyone has a response.  But that some don’t give voice to either.

That brings me to an idea I’ve been wrestling with for years:  the talk dancer.

The talk dancer is someone who brings everyone in the group onto the conversational dance floor.  He is able to fill an uncomfortable silence with an interesting idea or question that provokes conversation without dominating it; he is able to make those present feel safe enough to participate, and draw ideas or responses from those who are reticent.

For a group to thrive it needs a talk dancer.

I think one of the problems with dividing a group is that if one half does not have a talk dancer, then chances are that the half without a talk dancer will wither and die.  And because talk dancers are such stimulating people to be around, everyone wants to be in the talk dancer’s group.

Moreover I think talk dancers are drawn to other talk dancers because they both share a love for good conversation.  If the group divides, the talk dancers will probably want to be in the same group.  So to add insult to injury, when the group divides one group will likely have all the talk dancers, while the other group has none.

I have not quite figured out how to deal with this dilemma.  I’ve thought about having a secret ballot, and have each person in the group nominate the other persons in the group they think are talk dancers, then have the two with the most votes separate to form new groups.  Or perhaps rank everyone in the group, and sort the odds into one group and the evens into another.  But I’ve never put these ideas to the test.

Constraints on Conversation and the Size of a Group

Have you ever been in a group, and wondered why that group never grows beyond a certain limit?  It begs the question, ‘How many persons can be in a group before a conversation in which everyone participates becomes nearly impossible?’

Suppose you and I have a conversation.  Our communication is bidirectional: you have an idea, and I have a response; I have an idea, and you have a response, and so on.  I believe this is referred to as a channel of communication.

Now suppose Phil joins our conversation: you have an idea, Phil has a response, and I have a response; Phil has an idea, I have a response, and you have a response; I have an idea, you have a response, and Phil has a response, etc.

You have a channel of communication with me, a channel with Phil, and Phil has a channel with me; three channels of communication.

Suppose Gordon joins the three of us.  With four of us, you have a channel of communication with Phil, a channel with Gordon, and a channel with me (3).  Phil has a channel with Gordon and a channel with me (2).  And finally Gordon has a channel with me (1).  That is, with two people there is one channel of communication; with three there are three, and with four there are six.

What we are doing here is finding the number of combinations of N persons taken 2 at a time.  There is a formula for this:

N! / [ 2 * (N-2)] = N(N-1) / 2

This is a quadratic equation, which of course is nonlinear.  With eight people in a group, there are 28 channels of communication, or 4.5 times as many as there are with four.

In other words, we need to be very sensitive to the length of our conversational “bursts” as the size of our group grows.  With two persons in a one hour conversation, they could each talk for four fifteen minute bursts and still complete an entire conversational cycle (you have an idea, I have a response; I have an idea, you have a response).  With eight in a group, that maximal burst time is reduced to thirty seconds.  With twelve persons, that time becomes fourteen seconds.

Building Social Capital – a Thought Experiment

I am particularly interested in finding a way for kids to discover for themselves the joy of learning.  I think for me the joy of learning began with a book I enjoyed reading, and then finding another one like it; and then another, and another.  I wonder whether I could help a child do the same.

Suppose I work with a school to find three children interested in reading a book with me, or maybe let them read three different books.  Maybe we meet once a week to talk about the book(s), with me guiding them in a conversation, asking them questions and so on.

I could ask them what they can glean from the title of the book, ask them to state what the book is about in one or two sentences, what are the important ideas are, what they’ve learned from the characters, and so on.

Suppose I teach them what it means to be a talk dancer, and get them to practice talk dancing in our group.

After we read a couple books I ask them whether any of their friends might like to join us.  If we get say eight kids reading together, and there are two kids I think might be reasonably accomplished talk dancers, I split them up so that there is at least one talk dancer in each group.

Now instead of leading the groups directly myself, I encourage them to lead themselves knowing that each group has a talk dancer.  I linger outside the groups, listening to their conversation, encouraging them, and maybe interject a question if their conversation appears to languish.

If we can repeat this process over and over again, perhaps even inviting people outside the school to attend, such as kids from other schools, parents and grandparents, etc, what would be the resulting social capital?

With each division, the number of persons involved would roughly double.  They would be forming bonds, building trust, and discover how much can be learned and enjoyed from discussing books with other persons.  And every group that started from the root group would be connected to all the other groups; that is, at least one person from each group would know someone that could link them to all the other groups.  In just 6 such iterations, there would be over 100 persons involved.  That’s a lot of social capital.

Social Capital

Social capital is a fairly broad sociological and technical term that refers to the “value” of a social network.

Much has been written about the importance of social networks, both to an individual’s happiness and influence, as well as the health of the greater society in which she lives.  See for example, “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam, or “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

It therefore seems important to cultivate these networks, whether as individuals, or as institutions, or as societies as a whole.

It helps me to understand what social capital is, by understanding some of its measures.  The ones I want to discuss today are for an individual (following are taken from “Network Measures of Social Capital” by Stephen P. Borgatti, & Candace Jones, Connections v21(2)27-36, 1998 INSNA.  They try to ignore relational contents such as friendship, and want to measure neutral or positive relations such as knows or likes.):

  1. Size/degree: the number of persons that you are connected to.  Size has a positive relation to social capital, since the more people with whom you are connected, the more likely it is one of them has the resource you need.
  2. Density: the proportion of pairs of persons in your network that are themselves connected.  Density has a negative relation to social capital, since if all the persons in your network are connected to each other, then they are “redundant.”  That is, relational energy is a limited resource; don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  3. Heterogeneity: the variety of persons with respect to relevant dimensions, such as age, sex, race, occupation, and talents.  Heterogeneity is positively related to social capital, except where it conflicts with compositional quality, since it is likely to bring a broader range of ideas.
  4. Compositional quality: the number of persons with high levels of needed characteristics (e.g., wealth, power, expertise, or generosity of persons).  Compositional quality is positively related to social capital, since the more connected to useful others we are, the more social capital we have.