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The Value Of Small Talk

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If someone makes use of small talk, I'd want to know their motive.

Is it because they need friendliness from me in order to put themselves at ease? Is it because they think it is an act of benevolence to put me at ease? Or is it to obtain a favourable judgement of their character (i.e. Keating's interest in 'porcelain')

In the first case, I would normally engage in small talk, as an act of benevolence. In the second, I would be disinterested in small talk and steer away from it - as I have a healthy level of self-esteem. If I detected it in the third case, I'd develop a thorough distrust of the person.

This is an interesting perspective. Do you really think it boils down only to these three possible cases? What if they have no motive behind it, but are just used to doing it as an act of habit?

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Even though there are standards of discourse, you aren't under an obligation to follow any of them. It's a myth that there's some prototype human that everyone could emulate to better make friends, ge

PPW, I think you're making too strong conclusions based on your premises. You seem to be saying: Your implicit premise is that, (1) Thinking takes up energy. You're explicitly stating the

The idea of "fake it until you make it" has some merit to it. Faking in the sense of falsely acknowledging agreement, acting based on the minds of others, or lying are not what I'm talking about. What

Just focus on what you're suggesting

As for the football thing, if everyone around you is interested in football, then why not learn about football? What's the harm in that? Or even better, learn just enough to be able to crack jokes about how stupid it is. Now you're communicating honestly, and about a subject people are interested in.

You're essentially saying that you should do something, because if you don't, other people might not like you.

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Just focus on what you're suggesting

You're essentially saying that you should do something, because if you don't, other people might not like you.

Right. So?

I'm not suggesting you should do something that goes against your deepest values, like suck the blood of newborns, to make people like you. I'm suggesting you watch football.

And the reason is not exactly what you said. It's not to prevent random people from not liking you. It's to cause specific people, who you are interested in having a good relationship with, to do like you.

P.S. I have a suspicion that you might be going by what some of Ayn Rand's heroes might do, when interacting with others in their world. But you have to remember that their conflicts with their coworkers were not about football. Those characters are all deliberately set in hostile, philosophically evil environments, with no chance to succeed.

That's not the case with you and I. Our coworkers are perfectly reasonable, hard working, life loving people who happen to like football more than you do. That shouldn't be a cause for conflict. That is something you should be compromising on.

Edited by Nicky
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I'm not suggesting you should do something that goes against your deepest values, like suck the blood of newborns, to make people like you. I'm suggesting you watch football.

And the reason is not exactly what you said. It's not to prevent random people from not liking you. It's to cause specific people, who you are interested in having a good relationship with, to do like you.

It's also important to consider if watching football is at all compatible with ppw's values. Football for me is so uninteresting that it would be a disvalue to attempt to use that as a means to interact with others. I would be gaining nothing except misery. A big part about social relationships is that there is at least some amount of commonality in values. Perhaps the only commonality is the job and pursuing your career. Maybe there are science fiction books that are interesting to talk about when on breaks. In general, if you are around certain people a lot, it is nice to have some conversations to put your goals into perspective, or even just to impart general benevolence. Just say hello, that can easily be enough. You don't *have* to be social, to be sure; introversion is not immoral. At the same time, if the other people bother you enough, it may be best to find a new work environment compatible with your way of interacting.

Edited by Eiuol
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Just say hello, that can easily be enough. You don't *have* to be social, to be sure; introversion is not immoral.

I disagree with that. Search for 'introversion' in Peikoff's podcasts and play the result that appears to know why.

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I mean introversion in the sense of being drained by social interaction, as opposed to a person who is more or less unaffected by that. I tend to be introverted personally, not because I'm "absorbed in my thoughts", but because if I'm interacting for too long (especially face to face), I start to get tired. I do not mean an extrovert as being one who speaks about anything just to get attention, but anyone whose energy level is pretty much unaffected by the amount of social interaction. Of course, those sort of traits can vary in contexts, and are often like a continuum.

Edited by Eiuol
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It's also important to consider if watching football is at all compatible with ppw's values.

The reason why I picked football as an example is because I can't imagine a rational basis for any anti-football values. But, if you do provide me with an actual argument (beyond just stating that it's uninteresting), I'd be happy to pick a different example. Like badminton. Would badminton also go against his values? How about bird watching?

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I don't find any value in making small talk. Is there any? Should I focus on learning how to make small talk to enhance work relationships?

Small talk is one of the central themes in Kazuo Ishiguro's "the Remains of the Day". The British author concludes it is the "key to human warmth".

I agree.

It poses a difficult question to resolve though: is verbal language to be used to communicate ideas, command instructions, or to ignite that warmth? probably both. More primitive cultures use actions, or non-verbal communication, to demonstrate warmth. Like serving a cup of tea, or touching.

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The reason why I picked football as an example is because I can't imagine a rational basis for any anti-football values.

It's too low on my value hierarchy to care about; ppw likely feels the same. Talking about football bores me, because as a subject it doesn't correspond with my existing values, nor is needing to talk to people a sufficient reason to make it a new value. Even then, the point of "small talk" is to facilitate a comfortable environment with people. Talking to others isn't the only way to go about achieving that end.

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I mean introversion in the sense of being drained by social interaction, as opposed to a person who is more or less unaffected by that.

Why do you think that happens? Well, let me tell you why - because you actually think when communicating to others - that's why you feel drained - not because you're "introverted": You can learn to talk while not thinking - I have - but I don't think that empty talk serves any purpose, which is why I choose not to do it. And the people who choose default (i.e. don't think) can talk all the time because they're not drained by the thinking involved. It's really that simple.

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Why do you think that happens? Well, let me tell you why - because you actually think when communicating to others - that's why you feel drained - not because you're "introverted": You can learn to talk while not thinking - I have - but I don't think that empty talk serves any purpose, which is why I choose not to do it. And the people who choose default (i.e. don't think) can talk all the time because they're not drained by the thinking involved. It's really that simple.

So what, you don't think introversion is real?

If someone claims they feel drained after interacting with people, but do not otherwise, and you pull this line of reasoning out on them, you are implying that they never think when they are by themselves, or they would consider that draining as well. That's pretty insulting.

About a quarter of the population is more introverted than extraverted, and having extraverts (like you, apparently) who simply won't imagine that other people might not be just like them, deny this and try to treat introversion as if it's some kind of made-up "problem" is also grossly insulting.

Edited by Steve D'Ippolito
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So what, you don't think introversion is real?

If someone claims they feel drained after interacting with people, but do not otherwise, and you pull this line of reasoning out on them, you are implying that they never think when they are by themselves, or they would consider that draining as well. That's pretty insulting.

About a quarter of the population is more introverted than extraverted, and having extraverts (like you, apparently) who simply won't imagine that other people might not be just like them, deny this and try to treat introversion as if it's some kind of made-up "problem" is also grossly insulting.

Good God, I was only arguing against their definition of the word 'introversion' - I hold Peikoff's definitions of the words introversion and extroversion.

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Talking about football bores me, because as a subject it doesn't correspond with my existing values

You are saying that football goes against your values because it's uninteresting, and that it's uninteresting because it goes against your values.

But you're not saying which values it goes against, and how. Keep in mind that boredom is an emotion. Don't use it to build your values on. Use your rational values to justify your boredom. If you do that, I'll take your word for it. I watched one football game all season, so trust me, I'm not biased in favor of football to the point where I would ignore a rational argument against it. But I would like one.

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You are saying that football goes against your values because it's uninteresting, and that it's uninteresting because it goes against your values.

But you're not saying which values it goes against, and how. Keep in mind that boredom is an emotion. Don't use it to build your values on. Use your rational values to justify your boredom. If you do that, I'll take your word for it. I watched one football game all season, so trust me, I'm not biased in favor of football to the point where I would ignore a rational argument against it. But I would like one.

This is like insisting that someone justify their like or dislike of chocolate. Both chocolate and football are optional values.

It would be absurd to expect that someone pick up an optional value just because others happen to have it.

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Good God, I was only arguing against their definition of the word 'introversion' - I hold Peikoff's definitions of the words introversion and extroversion.

Did you or did you not accuse Eiuol of finding interactions with other people draining simply because he is expected to think during them? I don't care whose definition you are using, that's insulting.

Edited by Steve D'Ippolito
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Did you or did you not accuse Eiuol of finding interactions with other people draining simply because he is expected to think during them? I don't care whose definition you are using, that's insulting.

How is it insulting? Thinking is a difficult mental process. It IS draining. Noone is expected to think when they talk. He is not expected to think when he talks. It's not forced upon him. Some people choose to think when communicating - others do not. The former get drained depending on the level of thinking involved and how "mentally fit" they are (think physically fit, only pertaining to the mind), the latter do not.

Yet dispensing with epistemology and focusing on whether someone was insulted or not, giving emotions primacy, speaks volumes about your character.

Edited by ppw
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PPW, I think you're making too strong conclusions based on your premises. You seem to be saying:

Your implicit premise is that,

(1) Thinking takes up energy.

You're explicitly stating the negative phrasing that

(2) Not thinking takes up no energy.

And,

(3) Some people who talk a lot are unthinking.

Therefore,

(4) Given that these people can talk forever, they're not thinking.

So, in actuality, the introvert/extrovert dichotomy is actually a thinking/not thinking dichotomy.

However, there are problems in this presentation. I'll address them all.

(1) makes sense, but only in a literal way: of course it uses energy, that's why your brain needs various nutrients and even consumes calories. However, different activities take up different amounts of energy, and some things are able to provide energy. I can talk about some topics with more energy than others, because the subject itself is stimulating. I don't get tired really much at all when thinking about those subjects. Thinking about calculus makes me tired, while thinking about Objectivist epistemology rarely if ever makes me tired, mentally speaking. So, no, you can't strictly say "thinking takes up energy". I'm not thinking any more or less between calculus (probably due to in part that I'm not very good at it) and epistemology, but they do in fact have different impacts on me. I approach both systemetically in the same way, but calculus uses a whole different kind of thinking.

(2) Thinking still can take up almost no energy at all, and if some things can increase your energy level a bit at the same time, the energy loss is neglible, and perhaps an overall gain of energy, save for the need of sleep eventually.

(3) is absolutely true, but you can't make an "all" statement based off of a "some" statement like this. Some people who talk a lot do think quite well on sophisticated topics, and may be the proverbial "life of the party" even still. No, not all social gathering are like the parties in Atlas Shrugged, so it won't be the case the more socially active are just as vapid. Making a sweeping generalization is what is meant by insulting, given that not all super social types belong in the same category as vapid or vain super social types.

So, (4) isn't a valid conclusion.

Also, you probably didn't intend it, you imply that if you don't get tired from some activity, you aren't thinking. That claim is too strong. It is possible to enjoy the feedback of others while developing your ideas because social interaction comes quite easily for you. I've read that social interaction may in fact use different parts of the brain than you would use when figuring out a math problem. Some people have a legitimately more difficult time processing all the various social cues and subtleties simply as a matter of unique biological/physiological characteristics that they get tired out because of the mental load. This isn't necessarily bad or good; there may be benefits to be sure. I don't get tired necessarily because of rational thought, but because there are automatic processes which aren't my strong point in social interaction.

Edited by Eiuol
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(1) makes sense, but only in a literal way: of course it uses energy, that's why your brain needs various nutrients and even consumes calories. However, different activities take up different amounts of energy, and some things are able to provide energy. I can talk about some topics with more energy than others, because the subject itself is stimulating. I don't get tired really much at all when thinking about those subjects. Thinking about calculus makes me tired, while thinking about Objectivist epistemology rarely if ever makes me tired, mentally speaking. So, no, you can't strictly say "thinking takes up energy". I'm not thinking any more or less between calculus (probably due to in part that I'm not very good at it) and epistemology, but they do in fact have different impacts on me. I approach both systemetically in the same way, but calculus uses a whole different kind of thinking.

OK, so some types of thinking take up less energy for an individual than other types of thinking. Let's focus on the type of thinking that takes up energy more substantially - in your case, that's thinking about calculus.

I am certain that if you worked (even?) harder on calculus, thinking about it would take up less energy for you. (I guess the effect would depend on your age.) The rationale behind this is that if it is indeed true that calculus requires a different kind of thinking, then it very likely uses some other parts of the brain which would need to be trained to be as (energy-)efficient as those which are used to think about epistemology. So it's a sort of mental conditioning that would be required, making those parts more 'fit', eventually requiring less energy for that type of mental process.

The same principle should apply to social skills.

(2) Thinking still can take up almost no energy at all, and if some things can increase your energy level a bit at the same time, the energy loss is neglible, and perhaps an overall gain of energy, save for the need of sleep eventually.

"Not thinking takes up no energy" -- in comparison to thinking, I would argue that it takes up a negligible amount, yes. Thinking -- again -- depends on what type of thinking we're discussing. And, of course, on the type of thinking you've done in the past. (Man basically carries his past with him his entire life.)

(3) is absolutely true, but you can't make an "all" statement based off of a "some" statement like this. Some people who talk a lot do think quite well on sophisticated topics, and may be the proverbial "life of the party" even still. No, not all social gathering are like the parties in Atlas Shrugged, so it won't be the case the more socially active are just as vapid. Making a sweeping generalization is what is meant by insulting, given that not all super social types belong in the same category as vapid or vain super social types.

I did not argue "Some people who talk a lot are unthinking" ==> "All people who talk a lot are unthinking".

It could as well be that they're better trained in social interaction, leaving them free to talk a lot without losing much energy.

Also, you probably didn't intend it, you imply that if you don't get tired from some activity, you aren't thinking.

No. It could as well be that you're better trained in that activity, so you don't get tired easily from it.

This discussion has certainly been draining on me. :)

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  • 2 weeks later...

From "Less Than Words can say":

The weather is right there in the world of experience. Even assistant deans pro tem can see that it's raining. When I meet the assistant dean pro tem on the campus in the rain, I am likely to assert, in one way or another, that it is in fact raining. He is likely to confirm this observation, after his fashion. We have used language where no language is needed, to indicate what is in the world of experience. To point out the rain to each other seems about as useful as mentioning the fact that we are both walking on our hind legs. That may be exactly why it's useful. We have taken the trouble to name something that needs no naming, thus acknowledging our kinship while still being careful not to evoke some other world in which our kinship might be questionable. Should I greet the assistant dean pro tem by announcing that power corrupts, he may well reply, "Absolutely!" and we will have evoked some other world, a world we'd rather not explore just now with the rain dripping down the backs of our necks. Twain probably had the truth in mind when he said that everyone talks about the weather but that nobody does anything about it. In fact, we talk about it precisely because we can't do anything about it. It permits us to establish our membership, which is polite, but it doesn't require that we look at each other's credentials too closely, which might be rude.
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I may have realized something very important; being able to use small talk to build relationships is a skill like any other, and one I'll likely need to master. I've bought this book called "Conversationally Speaking" for that purpose - it just might do the trick.

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Yeah, small talk is like...the mood-setter. It sets a positive environment in which more significant things can be said.

I'm curious, what actually brought you to the point where you were willing to consider the issue, and start a thread such as this?

I ask because: When I was in college, I actually "boycotted small talk" for a time, to the degree that I would not even answer the question "how are you", because people "didn't really mean it" and "didn't want an honest, thoughtful answer". It did not bode well for my social life. I wish I would have learned faster, opened my mind up sooner. It took years of loneliness for that to happen.

Second question, since I glanced at your profile: how did you come to read almost exclusively non-fiction about Objectivism, rather than the fiction first?

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I ask because: When I was in college, I actually "boycotted small talk" for a time, to the degree that I would not even answer the question "how are you", because people "didn't really mean it" and "didn't want an honest, thoughtful answer". It did not bode well for my social life. I wish I would have learned faster, opened my mind up sooner. It took years of loneliness for that to happen.

Haha! I did something similar, for years in high school! You probably remember that thread on OO.net I started...

Eventually, I realized the value of small talk and manners in general, and then more of the differences between good and bad human discourse (many of which I already recognized). PPW, if you're no good at it now, don't worry, you can learn. I recommend the "fake it 'till you make it" approach. In this way, just act like you are good at small talk and engage with people with that in mind. You will quickly learn what works and what doesn't work by the responses you get (for example, when I was doing this process I said to a gas station cashier, "Thank you, sir!" as cheery as I could make it sound, on purpose, which was very awkward for me at the time. He gave me a look like I was retarded! Now I just say, "Thanks" :) ). You slowly gradually learn to change what you say for the better. Eventually, you actually *will* be good at small talk, and won't be "faking" anymore. The key is putting yourself in the situations where you can learn -- that is, practice.

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