Communication Styles

Metafilter posted some interesting links that contrasts several communication styles. The quote below is from Alice Maz’s “Splain it to Me” and in general describes the difference between styles that emphasize “harmonious emotional experiences” or “information sharing.” While I disagree with her apparent trivialization of shared perspectives, identity, privilege, and marginalization, the article has some great examples and footnotes. Plus there is a good discussion in the comments about social games.

New Yorkers tend to have a very high-engagement conversation style. What many from other places might think of as “good listening”—patient silence, thoughtful expressions that telegraph concentration–we see as rude. A listener should be talking along with the speaker, shouting their feelings about what they hear, finishing sentences, asking questions that they know will be answered by the next thing the speaker says anyway–not to alter the flow, but like setting them up for an alley-oop. Silence means you’re bored or distracted. What might cause speakers from other places to feel they’re being interrupted–say, for instance, yelling, “Get the fuck out of here!”—not only doesn’t break the conversation, but improves it. You’re demonstrating that you are fully engaged in their telling, and they ramp up their energy and excitement to match, encouraged they’re doing a good job.

To a “respectful silence == listening” speaker, the listener’s interjection would probably be seen as horribly rude, maybe even menacing. “I think you are lying to me and this makes me angry.” But to an “enthusiastic participation == listening” speaker, it means something along the lines of, “That’s amazing! Please keep going, I’m really enjoying this.” Any attempt to push state from one brain to another necessarily involves lossy compression, and one of the ways we try to save bandwidth is by implicitly referencing complex ideas that we take for granted the other person has in their head already. Whether the speaker concludes from the aforementioned interjection “This asshole thinks I’m dishonest” or “This person really loves my story” depends on shared culture—they just know what is meant, maybe without even knowing how they know–or on their heuristics leading them toward interpreting it as cooperative rather than combative.

Metafilter also references a comment regarding Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture:

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person […] then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people — ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signalling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you’ll have to embrace Ask behavior.

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