The Phatic And The Anti-Inductive


Ozy recently taught me the word “phatic”. It means talking for the sake of talking.

The classic example is small talk. “Hey.” “Hey.” “How are you?” Fine, and you?” “Fine.” No information has been exchanged. Even if the person involved wasn’t fine, they’d still say fine. Indeed, at least in this country giving an information-bearing response to “how are you?” is a mild social faux pas.

Some people call this “social grooming behavior” and it makes sense. It’s just a way of saying “Hello, I acknowledge you and still consider you an acquaintance. There’s nothing wrong between us. Carry on.” That you are willing to spend ten seconds holding a useless conversation with them signals this just fine.

We can go a little more complex. Imagine I’m calling a friend from college after five years out of contact; I’ve heard he’s got a company now and I want to ask him for a job. It starts off “Hey, how are you?”, segues into “And how are the wife and kids?”, then maybe into “What are you doing with yourself these days?” and finally “Hey, I have a big favor to ask you.” If you pick up the phone and say “Hello, it’s Scott from college, can you help me get a job?” this is rude. It probably sounds like you’re using him.

And I mean, you are. If I cared about him deeply as a person I probably would have called him at some point in the last five years, before I needed something. But by mutual consent we both sweep that under the rug by having a few minutes of meaningless personal conversation beforehand. The information exchanged doesn’t matter – “how’s your business going?” is just as good as “how’s your wife and kids?” is just as good as “how are your parents doing?”. The point is to clock a certain number of minutes about something vaguely personal, so that the request seems less abrupt.

We can go even more complex. By the broadest definition, phatic communication is equivalent to signaling.

Consider a very formulaic conservative radio show. Every week, the host talks about some scandal that liberals have been involved in. Then she explains why it means the country is going to hell. I don’t think the listeners really care that a school in Vermont has banned Christmas decorations or whatever. The point is to convey this vague undercurrent of “Hey, there are other people out there who think like you, we all agree with you, you’re a good person, you can just sit here and listen and feel reassured that you’re right.” Anything vaguely conservative in content will be equally effective, regardless of whether the listener cares about the particular issue.


Douglas Adams once said there was a theory that if anyone ever understood the Universe, it would disappear and be replaced by something even more incomprehensible. He added that there was another theory that this had already happened.

These sorts of things – things such that if you understand them, they get more complicated until you don’t – are called “anti-inductive”.

The classic anti-inductive institution is the stock market. Suppose you found a pattern in the stock market. For example, it always went down on Tuesdays, then up on Wednesdays. Then you could buy lots of stock Tuesday evening, when it was low, and sell it Wednesday, when it was high, and be assured of making free money.

But lots of people want free money, so lots of people will try this plan. There will be so much demand for stock on Tuesday evening that there won’t be enough stocks to fill it all. Desperate buyers will bid up the prices. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, everyone will sell their stocks at once, causing a huge glut and making prices go down. This will continue until the trend of low prices Tuesday, high prices Wednesday disappears.

So in general, it should be impossible to exploit your pattern-finding ability to profit of the stock market unless you are the smartest and most resourceful person in the world. That is, maybe stocks go up every time the Fed cuts interest rates, but Goldman Sachs knows that too, so they probably have computers programmed to buy so much stock milliseconds after the interest rate announcement is made that the prices will stabilize on that alone. That means that unless you can predict better than, or respond faster than, Goldman Sachs, you can’t exploit your knowledge of this pattern and shouldn’t even try.

Here’s something I haven’t heard described as anti-inductive before: job-seeking.

When I was applying for medical residencies, I asked some people in the field to help me out with my interviewing skills.

“Why did you want to become a doctor?” they asked.

“I want to help people,” I said.

“Oh God,” they answered. “No, anything but that. Nothing says ‘person exactly like every other bright-eyed naive new doctor’ than wanting to help people. You’re trying to distinguish yourself from the pack!”

“Then…uh…I want to hurt people?”

“Okay, tell you what. You have any experience treating people in disaster-prone Third World countries?”

“I worked at a hospital in Haiti after the earthquake there.”

“Perfect. That’s inspirational as hell. Talk about how you want to become a doctor because the people of Haiti taught you so much.”

Wanting to help people is a great reason to become a doctor. When Hippocrates was taking his first students, he was probably really impressed by the one guy who said he wanted to help people. But since that time it’s become cliche, overused. Now it signals people who can’t come up with an original answer. So you need something better.

During my interviews, I talked about my time working in Haiti. I got to talk to some of the other applicants, and they talked about their time working in Ethiopia, or Bangladesh, or Nicaragua, or wherever. Apparently the “stand out by working in a disaster-prone Third World country” plan was sufficiently successful that everyone started using, and now the people who do it don’t stand out at all. My interviewer was probably thinking “Oh God, what Third World country is this guy going to start blabbering about how much he learned from?” and moving my application to the REJECT pile as soon as I opened my mouth.

I am getting the same vibe from the critiques of OKCupid profiles in the last open thread. OKCupid seems very susceptible to everybody posting identical quirky pictures of themselves rock-climbing, then talking about how fun-loving and down-to-earth they are. On the other hand, every deviation from that medium has also been explored.

“I’m going for ‘quirky yet kind'”.


“Sarcastic, yet nerdy?”


“Outdoorsy, yet intellectual.”


“Introverted, yet a zombie.”

“I thought we went over this. Zombies. Are. Super. Done..”


I’ve been thinking about this lately in the context of psychotherapy.

I’m not talking about the very specific therapies, the ones where they teach special cognitive skills, or expose you to spiders to cure your arachnophobia. They don’t let me do those yet. I’m talking about what’s called “supportive therapy”, where you’re just talking to people and trying to make them feel generally better.

When I was first starting out, I tried to do therapy anti-inductively. I figured that I had to come up with something unexpected, something that the patient hadn’t thought of. Some kind of brilliant interpretation that put all of their problems in a new light. This went poorly. It tended to be a lot of “Well, have you tried [obvious thing?]”, them saying they had, and me escalating to “Well, have you tried [long shot that probably wouldn’t work]?”

(I wonder if this was Freud’s strategy: “Okay, he says he’s depressed, I can’t just tell him to cheer up, probably everybody says that. Can’t just tell him to accept his sadness, that one’s obvious too. Got to come up with something really original…uh…”HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT YOU WANT TO KILL YOUR FATHER AND MARRY YOUR MOTHER??!”)

Now I tend more to phatic therapy. This happened kind of by accident. Some manic people have a symptom called “pressured speech” which means they never shut up and they never let you get a word in edgewise. Eventually, more out of surrender than out of a strategic plan, I gave up and stopped trying. I just let them talk, nodded my head, said “Yeah, that sounds bad” when they said something bad-sounding, said “Oh, that’s good” when they said something good-sounding.

After a while I realized this went at least as well as any other therapy I was doing, plus the patients really liked me and thought I was great and gave me lots of compliments.

So after that, “active listening” became sort of my default position for supportive therapy. Get people talking. Let them talk. Nod my head as if I am deeply concerned about their problems. Accept their effusive praise about how well I seem to be understanding them.

This is clearly phatic. I would say the ritual is “High status person is willing to listen to my problems. That means society considers my problems important and considers me important. It means my problems are okay to have and I’m not in trouble for having them.” As long as I seem vaguely approving, the ritual reaches its predetermined conclusion.


I was thinking about this recently several friends have told me how much she hated “therapist speak”. You know, things like “I feel your pain” or “And how does that make you feel?”

I interpret this as an anti-inductive perspective on therapy. The first therapist to say “I feel your pain” may have impressed her patients – a person who herself can actually feel all my hurt and anger! Amazing! But this became such a standard in the profession that it became the Default Therapist Response. Now it’s a signal of “I care so little about your pain that I can’t even bother to say anything other than the default response.” When a therapist says “I feel your pain,” it’s easy to imagine that in her head she’s actually planning what she’s going to make for dinner or something.

So just as some people find it useful to divide the world into “ask culture” and “guess culture”, I am finding it useful to divide the world into “phatic culture” and “anti-inductive culture”.

There are people for whom “I feel your pain” is exactly the right response. It shows that you are sticking to your therapist script, it urges them to stick to their patient script, and at the end of the session they feel like the ritual has been completed and they feel better.

There are other people for whom “I feel your pain” is the most enraging thing you could possibly say. It shows that you’re not taking them seriously or engaging with them, just saying exactly the same thing you do to all your other patients.

There are people for whom coming up with some sort of unique perspective or clever solution for their problems is exactly the right response. Even if it doesn’t work, it at least proves that you are thinking hard about what they are saying.

There are other people for whom coming up with some sort of unique perspective or clever solution is the most enraging thing you could possibly do. At the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, one of the most frequently repeated pieces of relationship advice I hear is “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions”. It sounds like the hypothetical woman in this advice is looking for a phatic answer.

I think myself and most of my friends fall far to the anti-inductive side, with little tolerance for the phatic side. And I think we probably typical-mind other people as doing the same.

This seems related to the classic geek discomfort with small-talk, with pep rallies, and with normal object-level politics. I think it might also be part of the problem I had with social skills when I was younger – I remember talking to people, panicking because I couldn’t think of any way to make the conversation unusually entertaining or enlightening, and feeling like I had been a failure for responding to the boring-weather-related question with a boring-weather-related answer. Very speculatively, I think it might have something to do with creepy romantic overtures – imagine the same mental pattern that made me jokingly consider giving “I want to hurt people” as my motivation for becoming a doctor, applied to a domain that I really don’t understand on a fundamental enough level to know whether or not saying that is a good idea.

I’ve been trying to learn the skill of appreciating the phatic. I used to be very bad at sending out thank-you cards, because I figured if I sent a thank-you card that just said “Thank you for the gift, I really appreciate it” then they would think that the lack of personalization meant I wasn’t really thankful. But personalizing a bunch of messages to people I often don’t really know that well is hard and I ended up all miserable. Now I just send out the thank you card with the impersonal message, and most people are like “Oh, it was so nice of you to send me a card, I can tell you really appreciated it.” This seems like an improvement.

As for psychotherapy, I think I’m going to default to phatic in most cases when I don’t have some incredibly enlightening insight, then let my patients tell me if that’s the wrong thing to do.

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301 Responses to The Phatic And The Anti-Inductive

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  2. Scott says:

    It seems like anti-inductive systems tend to be produced in a competitive environment that allows for a meta-game (ie, making strategic decisions that take into account not just the rules of the game, but how you anticipate other players to act).

    Certainly the stock-market and job-hunting would seem to fit this description. (when writing CVs/cover letters, you are supposed to “stand out” – something which can only be done by knowing what, on aggregate, others are doing)

    Does anti-inductive apply to anything else? Or is it just non-gamer term for “metagame”?

  3. alwhite says:

    What you are calling the phatic response in psychotherapy is best known as empathy. I refer you to the work of Brene Brown for an understanding of empathy and how it helps people improve their lives.

  4. Quite Likely says:

    Is the ‘phatic’ meme going around, or does whoever wrote this io9 article read Slate Star Codex:

  5. Lost_republic says:

    There are other people for whom “I feel your pain” is the most enraging thing you could possibly say. It shows that you’re not taking them seriously or engaging with them, just saying exactly the same thing you do to all your other patients.
    There are people for whom coming up with some sort of unique perspective or clever solution for their problems is exactly the right response. Even if it doesn’t work, it at least proves that you are thinking hard about what they are saying.

    This neatly frames all the issues I have had helping clever people with mental health issues — all their treatment was phatic and “stupidly obvious” in a way that perpetuated frustration and mistrust.

    Is this distinction (or something like it, as a known subcomponent of “treat patients according to their particular needs”) recognized more broadly among mental health professionals?

  6. Noumenon says:

    I’m having trouble accepting this, can anyone help? I’m hearing the thread saying “everyone should learn phatic mode, it is how humans work, it helps, sincerity desire is a bias, not using it is like trying to walk without using your knees.” It’s all true. But emotionally I still want to reject it and screw the world for being this way. Maybe I need a therapist to tell me it sounds like I’m mad about not fitting in.

    (I’m 37 and only need about ten more years till I don’t have to worry about people any more, and I managed to survive 15 in my last manufacturing job without the phatic stuff — probably because there were so many repeated interactions.)

    • J says:

      In Sunday school growing up, the culture was for the instructor to ask really obvious questions and wait for people to state the obvious answers. This was very frustrating because it supplants all the interesting and difficult ideas.

      As a result, I now have a strong aversion to answering obvious questions with the obvious answers; it just feels wrong.

      So perhaps you have a similar hangup where you associate phatic interaction with something negative.

    • Nita says:

      sincerity desire is a bias

      You are assuming that people communicating in a “normal” fashion are being insincere. But they’re not! By saying “Hi, how are you?” they are very sincerely communicating that they don’t hate you and are open to cooperation. It’s annoying when words mean different things in different situations, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is lying.

      • Creutzer says:

        I don’t think it’s appropriate to phrase this as the meaning of those words in this context. Semantically, it’s still a question about how I’m doing. It’s not like “How do you do”, which is really semantically a greeting. So they are being insincere – it’s just that by insincerely asking a question, they are signalling something else, which they do sincerely want to signal.

        • Nita says:

          It’s not like “How do you do”, which is really semantically a greeting.

          It is now, but it used to be a perfectly normal question (meaning “How are you?”):

          In other words, there’s a question-to-greeting phenomenon similar to the euphemism treadmill or the devaluation of intensifiers. The couple of centuries when “how do you do” was both must have been pretty awkward.

        • Jadagul says:

          The idea that words or phrases have fixed meanings is one of the worst things in trying to understand how communication works.

          Words mean what the speaker reasonably expects the listener to interpret them to mean. If I expect people interpret “How are you doing?” as being a generic greeting, then that is what it means.

          • Creutzer says:

            But there is such a thing as semantics which is pretty hard-wired in our brain. Pragmatics goes on top of that, and the use of the insincere questions as quasi-greetings that we’re discussing here is still stolidly in the domain of pragmatics and not lexicalised as semantic content – yet.

          • Jadagul says:

            I confess to being unclear on the distinction you’re making between semantics and pragmatics, and what you mean by saying semantics are hard-wired in the brain. I am, however, confident that most people will often interpret “how are you doing?” as being a greeting that is not in fact a request for information. And since most people will interpret it that way, and most people know that most people will interpret it that way, that’s what it means.

            (sidenote: tone of voice is important here. I often have interactions where I ask “how are you doing?” at the very beginning as a greeting, and “so, how are you doing?” in a different tone of voice, a minute or two later, as a request for information. They mean different things despite being homonyms).

  7. J says:

    Worst anti inductive thing ever: anxiety.

    Anxiety: we’re having a heart attack
    Self: we’re obviously not having a heart attack.
    Anxiety: anxiety is a symptom of a heart attack
    Self: yeah but I get anxiety all the time. it’s not like I have chest pain or numbness
    Anxiety: numbness, you say?
    Self: GOD DAMMIT

  8. Not Robin Hanson says:

    Another example of anti-induction: logical fallacies. When a logical fallacy is identified, labeled, and gains legitimacy, fallacious accusations that one’s opponent has committed that logical fallacy inevitably follow.

    Also I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Campbell’s or Goodhart’s law.

    • J says:

      So true. I twitch every time somebody trots out the phrase “false equivalence”. (And suspiciously enough, you can see it get popular on Google Trends right after Jon Stewart’s speech urging people to fight against partisanship. Now people always bring it up (incorrectly) any time somebody claims that both parties have flaws)

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  10. switchnode says:

    At the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, one of the most frequently repeated pieces of relationship advice I hear is “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions”. It sounds like the hypothetical woman in this advice is looking for a phatic answer.

    You’re right, but I think not for the right reason—I have been on the ‘woman’ side of this exchange (and given this specific advice) several times, but I am not otherwise phatic at all.

    The vast majority of situational problems* have extremely obvious but nevertheless difficult or unpleasant answers: ‘just talk to them and ask’, ‘just keep jumping through the hoops’, ‘just decide which is more important to you’. The problem is actually doing it, not figuring out what it is. As such, the only true anti-inductive response is to propose an outlandish, unproductive, or pointlessly complex ‘solution’, which would actually be fine—it shows you’re trying to say something different, and it would at least be amusing. But most anti-inductive types would rather propose the kind of solution that would work, i.e., exactly the same solution I (like everyone else) have already thought of and am procrastinating on. This triggers the exact same ‘do you think I’m FUCKING BRAINDEAD?!?!?’ reaction as therapy-speak.

    The issue is twofold:
    1. Due to the nature of the problem, the correct response cannot** be a successful anti-inductive response. However, the same mindset that leads people to favor anti-inductive responses over phatic ones will lead them to favor correct responses over successful ones.
    2. Due to the nature of the problem, the solution cannot** be unknown, so providing the correct response implies that the respondent has forgotten or failed to notice that the asker is a person with a brain (something that, fairly or unfairly, men are accused of doing to women typically). Meanwhile, commiseration is completely inoffensive.
    Therefore, by a sort of local-maximum effect, successful phatic responses are both more common and easier to emulate. Even if you suspect the person you are talking to leans anti-inductive, the phatic response is probably safer. (But I do recommend “That’s bullshit” over “I’m sorry” wherever appropriate.)

    * As ‘interpersonal problems’, but including institutions, minor logistics, etc.
    ** Generally.

  11. Garrett says:

    Your thoughts on “phatic” communication sound like the sorts of thoughts I was having about six months ago. I spent the second half of 2014 really focusing on improving my social skills and gained a new-found appreciation for the subtleties of communication.

    Small talk and other forms of “phatic” communication are less about conveying information and more about conveying emotion. Generating positivity in yourself and others can be an end in itself.

  12. Dear Scott,

    Do you think the phatic vs anti-inductive divide has any relation to the Big Five personality traits? I ask because someone comfortable with phatic communication strikes me as very likely an SJ in the Kiersey temperament system spun off of the Myers-Briggs system, which has some correlation with the Big Five system, or so I gather.

  13. Tom Ash says:

    Some of these examples aren’t all that phatic, at least for a significant number of people.

    For instance, sending a thank you card which says “Thank you for the gift, I really appreciate it” conveys just what it says, and that’s the important thing – a personalised element that you have to reach for would likely not add that much. I suspect that thank you card senders are inclined to overthink this; I know I have been in the past. Likewise, take the conversation where “Hey, how are you?” segues into “And how are the wife and kids?” then maybe into “What are you doing with yourself these days?” I know many people wouldn’t be interested in the answers, but it’s a mistake to assume that few would – I am when I ask them, for instance.

  14. This is really interesting and has taught me quite a bit about human interaction – no joke. This is the first time I’ve come across an explanation how the phatic mode of speaking genuinely helps some people – which is odd, because I’d figured out the reason it’s done ages ago (signalling that one is OK with spending time with someone, despite not having anything to fill the time with). Somehow I’d never managed to make the leap to ‘and that’s why it’s useful’. I suppose that’s at least partly because I never really stopped to think about it before.

    I’m definitely in the category of anti-inductive crowd. I recently had a conversation with a psychologist about my bouts of depression. She was extremely phatic in the way she handled me. To me it just came across as that she was struggling with me. I didn’t feel rejected or patronised, but I felt like I was a bigger problem to her than the problems I was talking to her about were to me. In consequence, I also didn’t feel like she was signalling that it was OK for me to have my problems (also not the opposite, mind), but thankfully that wasn’t necessary. I was talking to the psychologist because my company had asked me to. Moreso, my company was paying for the expense. That tangibly signalled that it was OK for me to have those problems. That helped.

    I have another anecdote on the other side. I used to really struggle with small talk and was, in my early years, very uncomfortable when people asked me How are you?, because it was always clear they didn’t really want the real answer. These days, I answer How are you? honestly, but try to be succinct and positive. For example, last week I had a bout of intense insomnia, where I didn’t sleep a single minute for two nights straight. If people asked me how I was, I’d say I had slept zero minutes, but laugh and assure them that it was nothing to worry about – which is true to best of my knowledge, I am very confident my insomnia goes just the way it comes, which is suddenly and inexplicably (though it always goes soon; as it has again).

    There are two things that have made that a viable tactic for me. For one, I decided that I don’t really want to interact with people who don’t want the honest answer, and so it helps to answer honestly and discern from the reaction I get whether or not the person is worth talking to in future. For two, since I nonetheless don’t like bothering people, being honest has forced me to reflect on my own attitude about things a lot. Basically, I decided honesty was a virtue I really wanted to possess, but I also didn’t want to be a jerk; combining the two things means learning restraint when one is upset, and (for many things) eventually learning not to be upset in the first place. (Yeah, that actually worked. Turns out many emotions can be exercised?)

    I know I balance on the edge to faux pas, but it seems like I’m balancing there reasonably well. It works for me. Though I do wish it was a little less anxiety inducing to try phatic conversation on my end; I haven’t figured out a hack for that yet, for at least wanting to signal that I care about someone, but having nothing to talk about. I am terrible at that – especially because I don’t want to bother people. Bit myself in the ass there. 😉

    Thanks for the article!

  15. Creutzer says:

    Perhaps this has been pointed out already (I haven’t read all the comments), but this whole things extends beyond speech. Going to the theatre with someone without concern for what’s playing, for example, seems to me to be an analogue of verbal grooming in the activity domain. As an anti-inductively inclined person, it took me forever to figure that out.

    • Anonymous says:

      People go to the theatre without concern for what’s playing? o_O

      • Anonymous says:

        I think C meant that A takes B to the theater knowing the show, but not telling. But another example is that it is common for theaters to sell subscriptions to a season – all the shows, whatever they turn out to be.

    • caryatis says:

      Definitely an analogous phenomenon. When I was single, my attitude to dating was:

      Step 1: Find activity I want to do.
      Step 2: Find person to do it with me. If that’s not possible, do it alone.

      If someone asked me out, but their plan for the date was not interesting, I wouldn’t go.

      So it was surprising when I started dating someone for whom spending time with me was the priority–and whether the activity was enjoyable in itself didn’t matter much. I guess I don’t have a point other than…typical mind fallacy.

  16. Anr says:

    I don’t know how many other people this is the case for, but talking to some listening person about stuff actually helps me figure that stuff out. (And I use therapy for that a lot). And like, this sounds like I should then be able to achieve the same effect by talking to a wall or something, but I really can’t. (Someone on Captain Awkward, forget who, called this being an external processor). It’s kind of a frustrating trait to have, but, well, I have it, so.

    Anyway, point is, ‘people get things out of interactions that are not just direct information’ seems to be a point of this post, but I wanted to point out that it’s not just metainformation one can get. It’s also ‘human contact is important to people’ type things.

  17. Steve Sailer says:

    Dear Scott:

    As you imply, Freud was too smart to not get bored doing what was best for his patients — listening patiently and mumbling concerned cliches — so he got bored and got himself up to mischief. But there ought to be a role for the hyperintelligent in therapy.

    It seems like therapy should be organized more managerially, rather than on a professional model. Supersmart guys like Freud or you, after you spend a few years doing low-level therapy to learn the business, should be managing a half dozen 125 IQ senior therapists who should each be managing a half dozen 110 IQ front line therapists.

  18. Simons Mith says:

    I’m a bit surprised active listening skills aren’t being taught.

    I was taught (well, ‘given a few tips and had a few practice sessions at’) ‘active listening’, and it’s kind of a halfway house. It can be treated as a collection of things that make you better at listening, and the tips included some body language advice as well as ways of transforming otherwise phatic responses into something more meaningful.

    It includes quite a number of physical elements that help focus your attention on the person you’re trying to listen to, and giving them visual feedback that you really are listening to them, and giving them your full attention. That alone helps a lot. Suggested elements include smiling, or at least offering a friendly demeanour, using an open body posture, which does a surprisingly good job at encouraging another person to open up a bit in turn, leaning towards them a bit, (or whatever the most suitable physical alternative is – the point is to position yourself so that your body – and hence attention – is aimed at the person you’re listening to, but without becoming too intense.) Eye contact – not constantly, but actually looking properly at the person you’re listening to helps a lot – it’s all too easy to lose the thread if you allow your attention to focus elsewhere.

    Finally, the anti-inductive element is to rephrase what you hear; put what they’ve said into different words, and that gives them feedback that you really are listening and understanding – and if you haven’t quite got it right, that becomes apparent too and they can correct you. Missing from the list, tellingly, is any requirement to offer suggestions that may be trite or impractical, constructive or not. You just listen, and then reflect back some of the key points as you hear them. It’s surprisingly effective. I’m a bit surprised that the article writer appears unaware of these techniques. But I’m also a bit surprised how well the simpler techniques seem to work anyway.

  19. ChristianKl says:

    The post seems to me like it ignores the possibility that empathy actually exists. There are a bunch of people with whom I talk where “I can feel what you are saying” and it’s opposite is useful feedback.

    If a person with good empathy can’t feel what I’m saying it’s usually because I’m speaking in a way that’s detached from my feelings. If the purpose of the conversation is to help me deal with feelings, then the information that I’m speaking in a detached way is useful.

    If I would meet a therapist who would lie about something like whether or not he feels what I’m saying I would consider that therapist incompetent and leave. Creepy cargo culting. Words can be easily faked but underlying body reactions are harder to fake.
    Empathy is one of the key indicators that predicts therapy success. Unfortunately they usually don’t seem to teach it in psychology lectures.

    How do you learn it? 101: Feel into the physical representation of the emotion inside your own body. Feel where in your body a word that the person with whom you are speaking resonates. Is it your heart? Your belly?

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s the most important thing anyone’s said all thread, actually.

      I had been under the assumption that if we’re talking about a therapist saying “I feel your pain” the actual feeling of said pain was being taken for granted; it was just too obvious for anyone to mention it.

      But reading back over what people actually said, I think that might have been a particularly egregious case of typical-mind fallacy. I over-feel other people’s stuff, to the point where it’s a major social impairment because I get overwhelmed easily. But I guess it’s true that some people don’t feel other people’s emotions very much.

      I completely agree that this is an important skill for a therapist to have, and that for anyone wishing to learn it the 101 advice given above is very good.

  20. Daisy says:

    Jane Austen nailed it a long time ago.

    “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.”

    That’s Elizabeth Bennett to Mr Darcy, teasing him for his unwillingness to perform the requisite social rituals involved in dancing with someone at a ball.

    When I look at it from this phatic/anti-inductive angle, I think some of her characters are anti-Darcys too, marked by a total resistance to any kind of non-phatic communication. From P&P, Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins immediately spring to mind.

    It’s a very useful and helpful distinction, so thank you for the post. The post has actually made me realise exactly how much I still do the anti-inductive thing in inappropriate circumstances. And in my case (as well as Mr Darcy’s) those socially awkward habits were driven by some very suboptimal subconscious attitudes: wanting to set myself apart; kind of thinking I was too good to do the social grunt work. So I’m disappointed in myself now I’ve realised I still do it.

    As other commenters said, people need both communication modalities, so using it as a character or even a “culture” label doesn’t feel right. If it catches on, as Scott’s memes often do, and people start labelling themselves as “anti-inductive” in contrast to all those other people who just exchange meaningless platitudes all day, the whole world will become just a tiny bit more obnoxious. I hope that doesn’t happen though; it is such a useful lens for insight.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      If it catches on, as Scott’s memes often do, and people start labelling themselves as “anti-inductive” in contrast to all those other people who just exchange meaningless platitudes all day, the whole world will become just a tiny bit more obnoxious.

      Perhaps less like a ball, but certainly more interesting (to me).

      • Daisy says:

        This comment confused me a lot (the world would be less like a ball? Huh? does he mean it would be flat?) but then I understood what you thought I meant.

        I don’t think the consequence of Scott’s meme spreading would be more anti-inductive conversations in the world. I’d love that; it would make my life way better and yes, it would make the world more interesting.

        The (more likely, I think) consequence I was describing there was that you’d get a bunch of people using the concept to nurture their superiority complexes.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Daisy

          Yes, I was imagining more anti-inductive conversations in the world.

          The ball reference is at

          • Daisy says:

            Ha! I don’t need to click. Now that I get you, I love the reference. It’s weirdly perfect for that context.

            My initial confusion about meaning stopped me seeing it. Thanks for explaining so I could be delighted.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Valuing originality and authenticity is not “anti-inductive”; it’s actually fairly normal. An “inductive” piece of music is derivative. An “inductive” dating profile seems geared to please rather than to express.

  22. Sophie Grouchy says:

    At first glance, it seems like the idea behind the cellular automata of fashion post would apply here, where the super-high level people could counter-signal by talking/replying like the low level people. But when I thought about examples, it quickly became apparent that this is not the case. For example, a super-awesome person doesn’t counter-signal by having their OKC profile to say they are a regular person who couldn’t live without food and air.

    I think the best explanation for this is that in the fashion example in the original post, no one has to worry about being mistaken for someone 2 levels below them. It’s OBVIOUS they’re in a higher group, and so can counter-signal effectively. In places like interviews and OKC profiles, this doesn’t work so well.

    I’m curious if there are any examples of this communication spiral where people DO purposefully go back down to lower levels as a way to counter signal?

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      Reading Scott’s post induced in me a twinge of familiarity. After stepping away from the internet for a while, I realized it related back to Scott’s earlier post regarding hipsters.

      Remember, most everyone hates hipsters.

      I now suspect this hatred is part “status-grab slapdown” and also part “doesn’t play nice with others (since participating in ritualized behavior is too mainstream and not authentic)”. From MB’s comment about SNOOTlet’s getting the swirly, it seems like ostracism, bullying, etc is the penalty for refusing to invest in community norms and rituals.

      For example, a super-awesome person doesn’t counter-signal by having their OKC profile to say they are a regular person who couldn’t live without food and air.

      I’m not familiar with OK Cupid. But I recall seeing a few blogs with catchphrases like “Musings of a warm body. Periodically interesting.”

  23. Matthew says:

    I think people are treating the small talk norm as more of a human universal than it is. Somewhere I saw a link recently to one of those “observations of foreigners who have lived in America” Reddit threads, and there was a chunk of it from Germans who were really annoyed with the phatic requirements of US workplace communication.

    • Anonymous says:

      Those anecdotes doesn’t seem like much, since it could just be that they are failing to adapt to new conventions that they encountered in adulthood. It would be more convincing if there were complementary anecdotes from Americans working in Germany.

    • Anonymous says:

      Some cultures do it less; some cultures do it more; and the expected subject matter differs substantially between cultures, too. But I’ve never been anywhere that didn’t do it at least to some extent.

      This is pretty speculative, but I think one difference might be that English has lost a lot of its grammatical formality markers relative to most European languages, so more of that information has to be transmitted through other channels.

      • Anonymous says:

        >This is pretty speculative, but I think one difference might be that English has lost a lot of its grammatical formality markers relative to most European languages, so more of that information has to be transmitted through other channels.

        I can’t speak to the Slavic languages but the only grammatical status markers in Germanic and Romance languages are the du/Sie, tu/vous, thou/you. Everything else has modern, used close cognates. I don’t think this argument holds up. Victorian Britain and America had quite different standards of behaviour in polite society despite minimal language differences.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Attempted summary and comments:

    In phatic culture, people get satisfaction from the completion of the tasks their roles require. If people are feeling repressed or bullied, they complain to high status people, instigate a change that they want, and even if it doesn’t make the initial problem go away, they feel their pressures have dissipated.

    In anti-inductive culture, people get severe irritation by people conform to their roles, and do not put in any further cognitive work that requires a non-clichéd answer.

    Obviously, all people lie on a spectrum for how they engage with their two sides. I for one practice phatic culture, which seems to be in keeping with standard forms of politeness and cordiality. I know fairly few people who I would say prefer anti-inductive social behaviour, and I crave their attention, else I feel starved.

  25. Pingback: Anti-inductive environments | suboptimum

  26. Anonymous says:

    Indeed, at least in this country giving an information-bearing response to “how are you?” is a mild social faux pas.

    As you have noted, thing like this depends on a country in question. Some countries have very rigid rules for thing like these, e.g. Middle Eastern countries. In my impression, this kind of etiquette in the USA is also quite rigid, which is surprising for a country of immigrants. In my personal experience, Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans seem to be much less likely to think of it as faux pas. Because of that they seem to be more sincere, less fake.

  27. > The classic example is small talk. “Hey.” “Hey.” “How are you?” Fine, and you?” “Fine.” No information has been exchanged. Even if the person involved wasn’t fine, they’d still say fine. Indeed, at least in this country giving an information-bearing response to “how are you?” is a mild social faux pas.

    Heinlein called this “making polite noises.”

  28. Dan Tobias says:

    The concepts mentioned here make me think of “tech support / customer service speak”, where service reps responding to my query seem to devote more space to empty pleasantries (“tech-support-speak”, which I find as annoying as the “therapist speak” cited here) than to anything indicating they actually devoted some genuine reading comprehension to my problem and are attempting to solve it with something more thoughtful than a copy-and-paste of a canned response based on superficial keyword matching. Like, for instance, this bit (taken directly from an actual tech support response I received recently):

    Thank you for writing back to us and sorry for the delay in response due to high volumes at our end.

    I understand your concern is in regards with the Inventory Event Detail.

    I will surely help you understand how the Inventory Event Detail works.

    I would like to inform you that…

    Personally, I’d rather they get right to the point without this sort of meandering, but I guess there are plenty of other customers for whom this makes them feel better.

  29. Steve says:

    Nice post, anti-inductive processes are also known as the red queen effect/hypothesis. Have you thought about how one offers “authenticity” rather than trying to keep up with the latest fad response?

  30. Ronak M Soni says:

    One of my more rude awakenings in life was realising that other people don’t do the anti-inductive thing; I still haven’t come to terms with it emotionally.
    Or rather, there’s a correct fine-graining of this division where I quickly adapted to being phatic in some contexts. My first guess is that I don’t mind being phatic in cases where I feel like the phatic-ness doesn’t dilute the object-level statement – but then that makes me sound like a crusader and therefore should not be believed.

  31. Jos says:

    Two comments:

    1) The best job interviewing advice I ever got was “Get the other person talking about themselves and smile. The more they talk about themselves, the better it’s going.” It turns out to work well on dates and in social situations – express interest in someone and smile, and most of the time, you’ll learn something interesting about them and they’ll think you’re pretty nice.

    2) If I were to go to therapy, I’d hope it was sort of like working with a personal trainer – the therapist would ask me about my goals, spend some time taking an inventory of my current situation, and propose some activities to move me towards my goals. At the next session, we would measure progress, ideally as objectively as possible, and adjust. But I can see how some people get a lot of comfort out of someone listenening to their situation, solution or no.

  32. tr4nslucency says:

    My main problem with phatic communication is that the information transmitted is not explicit and a non-volontary convention. I live in a country where the question “how are you?” is a rather sensitive question and the honesty of the answer you are supposed to give is directly proportional to how emotionally close you are. Similarly I feel like phatic communication is a lot more intuitive to some people (and probably a large part of what’s known as “social skills”. I find that it can almost be cosidered agressive to expect people around you to follow protocol, if the protocol is not explicitly stated and accepted by all involved parties. After all, all servers _know_ what Ping means and that’s what let’s them communicate that so effectively. Because phatic communication is not just about signaling stuff like ” I still concider you an aquaintance.” but also things like status and group affiliation and social grace.

    • Creutzer says:

      In the interest of improving my mental model of the world’s cultures, would you be prepared to disclose which country that is?

      • tr4nslucency says:

        Sweden, although I’t may well be that I have a narrow view of it. Ingroups, dark matter people and that kind of stuff, you know.

    • This seems like a very non-typical-mind reaction to the presence of phatic norms. Like a lot of people here, I used to be annoyed with having to make small talk, but have come around to recognizing its utility. Take this:

      I find that it can almost be cosidered agressive to expect people around you to follow protocol, if the protocol is not explicitly stated and accepted by all involved parties. After all, all servers _know_ what Ping means…

      This is a kind of annoyance is very atypical. The problem is that most people do “know” what small talk signals, and in most situations the protocol is known and accepted by all involved parties. To push the server analogy, you’re the one with a buggy implementation of the protocol, probably because your software was programmed by someone who didn’t fully understand the spec. The fact that you can’t make connections isn’t the fault of the protocol, it’s the fault of the software you’re running.

      I don’t mean to blame you too much, since this is a situation which I recognize sometimes from myself and have a lot of empathy for. But in most cases the onus remains on you to learn the protocol and debug your software. Which is another way of saying: social skills! You can learn them! It’s not something that some people are magically born with and nerds can never acquire.

      • BD Sixsmith says:

        In pro wrestling there is a term “kayfabe” which denotes the maintenance of the illusion of reality. If a performer turned to the crowd and said “this is all fake, you know” the spectacle would be ruined. (What can I say: it’s not among the most Brechtian of arts…) I think formalising small talk with too much protocol would have a similar effect on people who use it as a means of cocooning themselves from external woes.

      • 4hodmt says:

        This is a bad analogy, because individual software features can be changed without substantially altering the software as a whole. If the server isn’t responding to pings because of a bug then you can fix that bug. It’s still the same server.

        In the case of humans, all parts of the software are tangled up in a way found only in the most user-hostile esolangs (eg. Malbolge). There is no way even in principle to fix the bug without destroying their identity, effectively killing the person and replacing them with a new person. The best you can do is hack on a high level approximation of the missing feature, which requires much greater mental resources to run and often fails anyway. Therefore phatic culture is hostile towards those who cannot be fixed.

        • There is no way even in principle to fix the bug without destroying their identity,

          This is an excessively pessimistic estimate of human ability for self-modification. Lots of people modify themselves to do all kinds of things which don’t come naturally. Look around the comment thread, and there’s at least a half-dozen places where people are mentioning that they used to have this problem and solved it with one weird trick. As mentioned above, I’ve done it myself, modifying myself away from introversion, anti-sociability and resistance to phatic small talk in order to better get by in everyday interactions.

          Therefore phatic culture is hostile towards those who cannot be fixed.

          You could just as easily say that the anti-inductives initiated hostilities by defecting against the pro-social phatic norm. But look, we’re not going to get anywhere if we frame this as a war between mutually hostile ways of being which cannot possibly cooperate. There are tricks which can easily be learned to lessen your discomfort in small-talk situations, but first you have to admit that small talkers aren’t maliciously trying to hurt you by asking you how your day is.

  33. Julia says:

    I find that “That makes sense” feels less phony to me than most of the other therapist lines. (Although some of the guys in my anger management group have started making fun of me for saying “Okay,” too much when I don’t know what else to say.)

    I think active listening can be really good for people who don’t have anyone in their lives who really listens to them. Just someone being there to listen to their experiences and saying, “Well, I can understand why you feel that way,” at the end is a novel experience for a lot of people.

    A friend with a particularly difficult family member has adopted the three-word response system. The three words are “Cool!” “Wow!” and “Bummer.” (I assume really bad news would get something like “I’m so sorry” rather than “bummer”.) A minimalist system like this lets the talky person talk and the listening person respond in a way that’s not, “Why don’t you get your life together and do things the way I would do them?!”

  34. stillnotking says:

    Tellingly, phatic expressions are the first things taught to language students. We learn how to say “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, thank you” before we even learn “Where’s the bathroom?”

    This implies that phatic speech is much more important than we tend to think it is. Reassuring others of your positive intent, non-craziness, social fitting-in, whatever you want to call it, is the cornerstone of communication.

    • Ian Osmond says:

      Yep, the following message:

      “Hello! I am a fellow human being who is capable of social interaction, and, indeed, would be interested in engaging in an interaction with you which is within the standard social parameters set out within this culture!”

      “I acknowledge your intention of engaging in one of our standard social interactions, and have now prepared myself to participate in the upcoming exchange in order to facilitate any mutual goals we have, so please proceed to initiate your interaction”
      is, in fact, an AMAZINGLY useful message.

      And the fact that we can cram all that information into “Hello, how are you?”, “Fine, how are you?” is an AMAZING example of conciseness and information compression.

      • Tropylium says:

        It’s also quite depressing to read out the implied inverse: “being obviously of the species Homo sapiens is not sufficient to be counted as a ‘fellow human’, and you must prove yourself worthy of engagement by mysterious shibboleths or be treated as a freak”.

        Seeking reassurance of positive intent, that’s obvious enough as a goal. But reassurance of “non-craziness” as a vetting procedure for conversational partners? … Conspiracy-theory “they all actually hate us” models of discrimination continue to not be convincing, and there seem to be a few possibilities to blame this on Moloch somehow — but it doesn’t actually inspire any extra trust in neurotypicals in me, and perhaps even the opposite. Given people who hate you (or covet your land or so on forth), you at least know where you stand. People who claim to like you, but constantly require elaborate reassurances to remain kind, are rather more draining to navigate around.


        • stillnotking says:

          Considering how big a danger human beings are to other human beings, it’s not surprising that mere common humanity isn’t enough to inspire trust.

          The point of shibboleths is not that they can’t be faked, but that they require some level of effort and familiarity to fake. A low bar is better than none.

    • John Schilling says:

      Pragmatically, phatic speech is necessary to convince speakers of the other language to engage in the conversations which are your only real hope of learning their language. A coldly efficient query gets you, at best, a single coldly-efficient answer.

      And quite possibly an answer in English, which is more efficient for them but particularly unhelpful for you. This is I think a big part of the reason I am not fluent in German despite studying the language for five years.

  35. Troy says:

    You can see something like the phatic/anti-inductive distinction in high church vs. low church services. Low church services center around the sermon, and preachers often seem to feel a need to make every sermon “life-changing,” or at least new and exciting. High church services have a homily, but center around the eucharist and other ritual aspects of worship which are largely the same from week to week (and some of the aspects that change, e.g., Scripture readings, are determined by the liturgical calendar).

    Low church evangelicals and Pentecostals often find high church services stale and lifeless. Those more partial to high church services, like myself, are annoyed by attempts to make every single sermon life-changing — something that is just not possible, at least, not in the context of a healthy life — and think low church services place too much effort on being trendy and new. We find more meaning in repetition and ritual.

    • Brad says:

      Something that occurred to me in the context of biblical reading and yes, teaching, (in the context of readings and discussions with family and friends) is that perhaps I have been too worried about coming up with “novel” observations/connections in the biblical text (shadows and types, prophetic or anthropological observations, etc.) and I should be more concerned with what the church and Christians/teachers/commentators have been saying in the past, which is to focus on the lord Christ Jesus primarily.

      Or more simply, to not try to reinvent the wheel.

  36. thepenforests says:

    As usual, extremely insightful post. This seems like it could be a tremendously useful concept to have crystallized – almost near/far-level-useful. It ties together and explains a lot of disparate thoughts I had: why I hate cliches (they’re unusually phatic), why I always preferred group conversations (I can leave the phatic stuff to everyone else and only speak up when I think of something interesting), why public debate seems to be mired in endless contrarianism (the marketplace of ideas is largely anti-inductive; only new edgy ideas generate enough interest to make it as a blog post/article/editorial), etc.

  37. Anonymous says:

    Regarding the anti-inductive, Goodheart’s Law seems relevant.

  38. With few exceptions, social skills are most useful in the low paying service sector. Whether it’s app developers, web 2.0, stock market traders, finance people etc, the people who have made the most money and success since 2008 have done so with analytic ability, not social skills.

    • Emily says:

      If you classify anything below “people making the most money/success” as “low paying service sector,” maybe that statement is correct. But there are many fields in which if you don’t have a certain type of social skills (and which you need vary to some extent), you’re either unemployable or will get stuck at a fairly low level. The “unemployable” category would have things like many sales and consulting jobs. The “stuck at a fairly low level” category includes a lot of programmers, who will become seen as replaceable by younger programmers if they don’t either have exceptional technical skills or make it into management.

    • Jiro says:

      Looking at the people who made the most money is looking at the tail end of a distribution. It can be simultaneously true that such people made the most money, and such people make less money on average.

    • Anonymous says:

      The people who make the mist money have BOTH skillsets.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      This is almost completely backwards. It’s true that there are a few traders making money interacting with the impersonal market, but they are really rare. Most people in finance are in sales. The big change in the pie in the past 30 or 40 years is that so much money is going to finance. The best salesmen make more than ever before.

      Web 2.0 is all about providing social tools. Often providing ways for people to make phatic communication. Understanding normal communication does not necessarily require being good at it in real time, but in practice it does. And on a smaller scale, the internet changes the balance between marketing and sales. Marketing is another social skill, but it is not a real-time skill. It can be pursued at leisure by analytical people.

      And with a few exceptions like Instagram and Whatsapp, billion dollar tech companies are big, requiring lots of management, that is, requiring social skills to run them.

  39. Ian Osmond says:

    My wife says that the semantic content of phatic speech is the Unix command “ping”. It demonstrates that the communication line is open, and it gives a latency response time.

    This is useful data. Even if the communication itself doesn’t contain any significant information, it generates information.

    And, yes, sometimes my wife will just call into the other room and yell “Ping” at me.

    As far as active listening goes — have you seen this Youtube video?

    We were shown that in training for our crisis hotline — because we are required to know whether a person needs support or advice, and usually it’s support, even if we think it’s advice.

    • Thomas says:

      Your wife sounds awesome. My wife sometimes shouts “Marco”, but that’s not as nerdy.

      • Ian Osmond says:

        Yes, I do have to admit that my wife is, in fact, awesome. But, you’ve got to admit, “Marco” isn’t bad either.

  40. >This is clearly phatic. I would say the ritual is “High status person is willing to listen to my problems. That means society considers my problems important and considers me important. It means my problems are okay to have and I’m not in trouble for having them.” As long as I seem vaguely approving, the ritual reaches its predetermined conclusion.

    As someone who going through therapy felt like my therapist really did understand me when they didn’t do much responding to confirm, I feel like I fell through the ritual. It wasn’t clearly phatic to me. Or, at least, it felt like the therapist genuinely understood me, even if what they were doing was more indicative of signaling behavior. This seems to break the spell of how my therapists were treating me. This is disconcerting, because now I fear that if I were ever to return to therapy, I would only feel I was being taken seriously as a client through anti-inductive therapy. This seems like it would be more difficult for the therapist, and maybe less satisfying for me.

    • chaosmage says:

      I think you don’t need to worry about that. The therapists I know would want to hear about that in the first session, and would near-effortlessly adjust accordingly.

  41. Kaj Sotala says:

    Realizing that I don’t have to say anything interesting in order to be good company has been totally one of the biggest things that’s helped me level up my social skills. I discussed it for a bit at the creatively-named Things That Helped Make Me More Social.

    The same rule is worth applying to conversations: stop worrying about whether the thing that comes to my mind is particularly interesting or witty or anything, but rather just go ahead and say it. Conversation is basically just people saying whatever random things that come to their mind anyway, it usually doesn’t have a deep purpose beyond that.

    I also got a lot of valuable advice from the book “The Charisma Myth“. Possibly the most valuable bit was the notion that I actually don’t need to say much in order to be perceived as someone who’s pleasant to have around in a conversation – if I’m interested in and focused on the person that I’m talking with, then that’s going to be automatically reflected in my facial expressions and body language in a way that the other person is going to pick up on and enjoy. That realization alone was enough to take off some of my worries about not being interesting enough. […]

    Another tip from the book that I’ve found useful, related to the earlier “don’t try to be interesting” advice, is that when in conversation, I shouldn’t let my thoughts get sidetracked into a mode where I’m thinking about the next thing I want to say. Instead, I should just keep my attention and focus on what the other person is saying and let them feel that my full attention is on them, and concentrate on absorbing their words. This seems to actually make it easier to come up with things to say.

  42. MB says:

    Hi Scott-

    To paraphrase talk radio – long-time reader, first-time commenter.

    Because I am late for work, I will skip further phatic communication and just ask: have you read James Carey’s “A Cultural Approach to Communication?” If not, you may find it illuminating as you think about your distinction. The split that Carey works with, loosely, is between communication as the transmission of information (from one head to another) and those communication as a ritual (etymologically akin to both community and communion).

    Like you, I spent much of my life both not getting and hating (hating because I didn’t get?) “small talk” and scripts, mocking people who talked about body language or style as being small-minded folks who missed the true content of the conversation for meaningless details. The shift for me, as perhaps for many nerds, came not through social approbation but intellectual insight: it wasn’t until I read Carey and others (David Foster Wallace’s classic essay on the rhetoric of definitions / definitions as rhetoric for example) that I began to realize the meaningless details *were also* “true content.” The content, in this case, signaled whether I knew the script, understood the rules – that is, was part of the *community* being constituted (or not) in/by that conversation.

    (Here we could dive into a huge and fascinating digression into how it is that people can ever talk or understand each other, how/whether all language/thought are necessarily public, the negotiation of mutually intelligible lifeworlds/Weltanschauung knit together primarily through the ritual as opposed to the tranmission, but boy, not the time for that)

    From that DFW essay (substitute “student grammar nazi” for SNOOTlet):

    Childhood is full of such situations. This is one reason why SNOOTlets tend to have a very hard social time of it in school. A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE (he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six- to twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to cry out “How incalculably dreadful!” etc. The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic Geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and arbitrary cruelty of which children are capable.

    But the other children’s punishment of the SNOOTIet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. [35] They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on … for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid’s life.

    My overall point (which I have not constructed particularly well, because now I’m *really* late for work, and so transmitting via literate statement what I would usually have preferred to perform via rhetorical ritual) is:

    a) nerds/rationalists/whomever should care about phatic communication for thoroughly nerdy/rationalist/whatever reasons, because communication is in fact a multiband, and when you ignore the phatic you’re actually ignoring most of the signal
    b) I’m not so sure the split is between phatic/anti-inductive as culture as much as it is that (as other commenters have mentioned) certain scripts do/don’t work for certain people in certain times, meaning that
    c) ultimately the challenge (for those who want to be literate/successful socially as they are intellectually) is being able to read people as well as they read texts and understand what this specific person in this specific context at this specific time needs/wants/expects, which may (ironically) be a script or may be the exact opposite, which is hard, but that’s why it’s worth doing

    • Matthew says:

      That David Foster Wallace excerpt doesn’t make me sympathize with the other children; it makes me angry. Try substituting “recent immigrant from a non-English-speaking country” for “SNOOTlet” and see how you feel about it.

      • Geirr says:

        Two years after the DFW vignette the nerd will still have poor social skills. The recent immigrant will, depending on age, be indistinguishable from the natives or they will be able to switch registers but speak with a thick accent and have some grammar problems that rarely hinder communication.

        It’s very easy to see why you’re angry with the normal children but neither they nor society is going to change for people they don’t care about who can’t make them. Their feelings about nerds vary from indifference to contempt/hatred from Noah Smith/Arthur Chu to Amanda Marcotte.

        No one cares about child nerd suffering for the same reason no one cares about the late teens/early twenties guys who are suicidal for a variety of ostensible reasons all tied together by the fact they can’t get laid. They don’t have anything anyone wants and no one gives a fuck about the powerless. That will never change.

      • Nita says:

        [warning: wanton pathologizing]

        I think the soul-crushing cynical half-irony permeating some of Wallace’s essays is a manifestation of the depression he struggled with for years (in the end, depression won).

        Ialdabaoth doesn’t seem to comment here any more, but he used to occasionally make similar remarks about anything related to status.

    • Anonymous says:

      And yet, given even an elementary understanding of game theory (which I mostly learned from Yudkowski) the behavior of these schoolyard bullies makes perfect sense.

      SNOOTlets and other such subcategories of mega-nerds as we were, by maintaining the speech and behavior patterns expected of them by parents and teachers, are viewed as signaling their intention to defect (in the same way that passing notes along and referring to unpopular teachers with derisive nicknames [but never to their faces] can be seen as cooperation-signals). As per Scott’s fish-farmer analogy, the rational strategy is to punish the defector with overwhelming force. As authority figures whether theoretical (like Scott’s Mob Boss) or actual (like teachers and paraprofessional) are seen to be on the other side, the kids must take matters into their own hands.

      That many of us never noticed that there was a Prisoner’s Dilemma until we were punished for perceived defection does not necessarily mean it wasn’t there. School, especially American public school, can be an inhumane and dehumanizing institution.

      It is just these anti-SNOOTlets’ cavalier disregard for those who know better than they are coupled with their willingness to take the law into their own hands that will be critical skills in the future. After all, nobody who spends the entire two hours pushing the “wedgie” button will be tempted in the least to let the AI out of the box.

  43. Multiheaded says:

    I would say the ritual is “High status person is willing to listen to my problems. That means society considers my problems important and considers me important. It means my problems are okay to have and I’m not in trouble for having them.” As long as I seem vaguely approving, the ritual reaches its predetermined conclusion.

    This is very illustrative of how SJ culture seeks to deny people nice and useful things based on arbitrary and twisted reasoning. Cf the Aaronson thing!

    (The final straw for me has been Arthur Chu’s awful recent piece and the horrifying, hypocritical SJ reaction to it. I’m so fucking done with that kind of shit.)

    • moebius says:


      I have refrained from reading Chu’s piece for now, because he put an inadvertent content warning on its top (“Here’s what he means”).

      Given that this is treading within race and gender territory, perhaps this is not the place to talk about this — a subthread has been started about Chu’s piece in the newest open thread over on Ozy’s blog. Can you give a brief recap there, and help me make a reasonable judgment of whether reading Chu’s piece would be safe at the moment? (work obligations prevents me from handling a 2-3 day breakdown at the moment.)

      • Multiheaded says:


        Key quotes:

        …None of the pain Scott talks about came from things that happened to him. They came from things that happened inside his head…

        …What’s the biggest difference between Scott’s and Amy’s stories? Scott’s story is about things that happened inside his brain. Amy’s story is about actual things that were done to her by other people against her will, without her control.

        And Scott, and his commenters, are treating the two as worthy of equivalent degrees of scrutiny…

        …I don’t know what the best way is to help guys like Scott Aaronson who wrestle with internal demons. Internal demons are slippery things. I do know that what could help women like Amy is to find the guys who are doing bad things to her and stop those guys from doing that. That’s why feminism is more focused on women’s issues than men’s, because women’s issues are the things happening out in the world where we can do something about them…

        …And, with apologies to my fellow emotionally tortured guys, that really ought to be our priority.

        P.S.: sorry to infringe further on gender territory, but this is… awful feminism from a women’s issues perspective too.

        P.P.S. Let’s take this to Ozy’s Open Thread.

  44. Bartek_Bialy says:

    > Well, have you tried [obvious thing?]
    > “I feel your pain”

    When a person is in pain I believe they are looking for understanding, not for advices, sympathy or diagnosis. Ask before offering advice or reassurance.

    > “And how does that make you feel?”

    Don’t ask for their feelings. Guess it and state it. For example: “Are you frustrated because you’d like to be heard?”

  45. BD Sixsmith says:

    For this human being, the most natural thing in the world is chatter: often trivial, ephemeral gossip and “guess who I saw today” and “guess what he said”…which is all very unimportant in the bits it’s composed of but very important in the whole thing.

    Kingsley Amis

    What we usually call the ‘‘modern’’ period, therefore, should instead be understood in part as a period in which sincerity claims have been given a rare institutional and cultural emphasis. As a consequence, ritual has come to be seen from the perspective of sincerity claims, and has come to be relegated in our minds to a supposedly ‘‘traditional’’ order that the modern period has heroically superseded. Indeed, so pervasive have these sincerity claims become that even revolts against this so-called modern era are done in the name of finding ever-more-authentic forms of sincerity.

    Ritual and its Consequences, Seligman et al

    • I could go on for a while about how terrible modern fetishization of “sincerity” and “authenticity” is. It ruins everything, from small talk to religion to politics to sex.

      • Multiheaded says:


        [le horseshoe theory]

      • LilaJ says:

        Could you explain this a bit more? My guess is that the people who love “sincerity” are doing more than just saying they don’t like being lied to or being required to lie/pretend–otherwise I’m not sure how you could object to that.

        Is it that the sincerity-lovers are also exhibitionists who want to display all manner of personal things, and want others to also reveal and display everything?

  46. Anonymous Derek says:

    Slight digression on therapy and the power of high-status figures.

    I sometimes watch Lindsey Doe’s Sexplanations channel on YouTube. Lindsey Doe is a sex therapist on a mission of public information, and sometimes talks about the sort of advice she might provide to her subjects. A concept that’s stuck in my mind is the idea of your therapist giving you permission to do things. For example, giving someone with a staid, conservative upbringing permission to masturbate.

    I can see how having a highly-qualified healthcare professional say “this thing, you can do it and it’s fine” is a very normalising experience, but when you explicitly frame it as “this person who doesn’t have any particular authority over me gave me permission to do a thing”, it seems quite strange.

    I’m now wondering to what extent people can give other people permission to do things in ordinary social contexts.

    • Emily H. says:

      I’ve heard of experienced writers and editors giving new/aspiring writers “permission to write badly” certificates, which seems like an analogous case — the fear of writing badly can be paralyzing for new writers, but it’s more or less inevitable that you will write badly for a long time before becoming a good writer, and it’s useful to have someone (even someone with only as much authority as ‘somebody I know from the internet who’s been doing this for longer than me’) say it’s all right.

      (Once such certificate)

  47. Liam says:

    I think part of it is that the implicit “you have a legitimate problem and I am sad to hear this” component of a phatic reply can’t always be taken for granted with an anti-inductive response. Even as a relatively anti-inductive-type person, sometimes I just want to complain that something isn’t working properly. If I’m talking to most of my friends, I can usually infer that they think the problem sucks, even if they offer a solution. If I’m talking to less close friends, though, the immediate “well, you could…” response could just as likely mean that they think it’s not a real problem or the quick fix hadn’t occurred to me.

    Maybe there are different levels of anti-inductive responses that can at least help disambiguate this, like if you visibly think about it for a few seconds and then ask if they tried something not immediately obvious, that probably signals respect for the other person’s problems and abilities more than just a rapid-fire “you could try restarting” type response.

  48. vV_Vv says:

    Wanting to help people is a great reason to become a doctor. When Hippocrates was taking his first students, he was probably really impressed by the one guy who said he wanted to help people. But since that time it’s become cliche, overused. Now it signals people who can’t come up with an original answer. So you need something better.

    What is the incentive of the interviewer to behave this way? The only thing I can think of is that the ability to come up with an original answer to a stock question might correlate with general intelligence, but I wouldn’t expect a strong correlation since that you can prepare the answers for these questions in advance with the help of other people.

    • Liam says:

      If it’s an interviewer who thinks at that level, you’re right that they hopefully wouldn’t assume that an unsurprising answer to a question like that is strong evidence of uncreativity. To many or most interviewers, though, I’d guess that it isn’t a conscious thing so much as a feeling of “well, I asked the standard questions and they didn’t really seem to stand out”, even if the interviewer still writes down “wants to help people” rather than “gave generic answer”.

      • Anonymous says:

        Surely the problem with saying that you want to help people is that it is quite a weak answer, regardless of how many other people also say it.

        If you want to help people, you could also become a firefighter, teacher, social worker, tour guide, butler or a variety of other roles.

        It is rather like people who apply for jobs in HR because they want to work ‘with people’ when most jobs involve working with people.

        The interviewer presumably wants to know that you understand what the job more precisely entails and that something about your interests, desires or aptitudes matches with that job.

        • Jiro says:

          “This job provides me with money. I need money. It requires that I do X. I can do X.”

          Requiring that people be really interested and motivated to get a job is as bad as requiring people to explain why they are special in order to be admitted into college.

          • Berna says:

            It’s not that they *require* people to be really interested and motivated. But suppose you were hiring, and there were two nice people who were equally qualified, wouldn’t you choose the one who appeared to be genuinely interested and motivated?

          • Brad says:

            But wouldn’t we expect that high motivation/interest to correlate with job performance?

            I’m on the same page when I think it’s irritating to fake enthusiasm for jobs, and I’m not saying there is any correlation, only that this seems like the most intuitive off-the-cuff thing an ordinary person might think on this matter. Also, I’m not sure anyone wants to work with someone who appears to be a curmudgeon.

          • Jiro says:

            It has some of the same problems as deciding who to hire based on race or being a Star Trek fan: someone can have a 1% less chance of doing well at the job but face a 100% less chance of getting a job because the employers all hire from the top of the pile.

  49. Timothy Johnson says:

    Something like this created a rift between me and a close friend a couple years ago. I would tell him about issues I was going through, either through email or chat, since he was on the opposite side of the country. And every time, regardless of whether that was actually what I wanted, he would try to fix things for me instead of listening. Or worse, sometimes I wanted sympathy, and he’d try to convince me that it really wasn’t such a huge problem.

    For a while I stopped talking with him as much. Then when we finally saw each other in person again, we decided on a decent rule of thumb. If I sent him something by email, that usually meant that I had thought about it for a while and wanted his opinion. If I sent him a chat message, that meant I just wanted a safe place to express my thoughts and feelings without criticism.

    It worked surprisingly well for such a simple solution. It seems now like it should have been obvious, but at the time it wasn’t.

  50. Thecommexokid says:

    I always used to take issue with the small-talk question “How are you?” because I understood that the socially correct answer was “Fine” but I’m uncomfortable with lying when “Fine” is not actually true. So I’ve adopted the same strategy that works for “What’s up?”: when someone asks “How are you?”, I just reply “How are you?” back. No lying required, and 95 percent of people don’t notice the difference. And anyone who was paying enough attention to pursue the point will probably not mind a slightly longer answer.

    • Aaron Brown says:

      I have the same problem and have been meaning to try this solution. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Multiheaded says:

      [Jewing intensifies]

    • Anonymous says:

      Listening to normal people, it seems to me that 95% don’t say “fine” but don’t acknowledge it as a question at all and instead repeat the question back, or say another greeting.

      What normal behavior actually is, is not so important, but often I hear people advise nerds to give stock answers like “fine,” claiming that is normal, so it seems to me that these advisers are themselves not paying attention.

    • Berna says:

      If I’m not really fine, I tend to answer “could be worse”, or something like that, in as upbeat a tone of voice as I can manage. It’s not a lie, it’s socially acceptable, and people who really want to know more can ask.

    • puber says:

      I always say “Every day is a blessing” which conceals current bad moods and usually (and somewhat unexpectedly) improves others moods.

    • caryatis says:

      I’m surprised that people feel uncomfortable with dishonest phatic speech. I mean, you think that you must tell the truth in every situation, even when lying does no one any harm and even when no one expects truth?

      I think complete candor is incompatible with politeness. If you tell me your relative died, I will say I am sorry, when I am not. That does not trouble my conscience.

      • Nita says:

        If you tell me your relative died, I will say I am sorry, when I am not.

        Uh… why not? I mean, do you believe that everyone is better off dead, or do you not care about other people, or what?

        • caryatis says:

          I was assuming I never met the relative, in which case I wouldn’t care about them.

          • Nita says:

            Eh, I thought “I’m sorry” in this context was short for “I’m sorry for your loss” — i.e., “I wish you didn’t have this reason to be sad”.

          • caryatis says:

            Usually I wouldn’t care about an acquaintance’s sadness either. “I’m sorry” is just a thing you say, and it’s not necessary to even consider its truth in my opinion.

          • Nita says:

            Fascinating. Not even for selfish/pragmatic reasons? Do other people’s emotions have no effect on your own? Do you not find people who aren’t grieving easier to deal with / more likely to be helpful to you?

          • Creutzer says:

            I don’t think my saying “I’m sorry for your loss” should be counted as honest when the truth is that I wish this hadn’t happened so you would be less troublesome to deal with.

        • caryatis says:

          Nita, glad I fascinate you. Other people’s emotions only affect me if they are very close friends or if I am already emotionally upset myself. I can see how a person might be more fun to be with or more competent if they were not grieving, but I probably wouldn’t notice this.

          • Nita says:

            Well, thanks for the explanation. I think I feel some sort of abstract sadness when something bad happens to strangers. It’s not nearly as intense as personal sadness, maybe more of a thought than a feeling, but I think it still counts.

  51. Mike says:

    Seems like the idea of anti-inductive subjects is pretty similar to the way evolution by natural selection works. Centuries of wolves working harder to kill rabbits results in rabbits that are quicker, better camouflaged, and warier than their ancestors. Human researchers develop antibiotics that work for a while until we effectively breed bacteria that are resistant to them. It is very hard to consistently exploit a technique or technology against an organism without eventually producing new descendants resistant to that technique or technology. Novelty always wears off eventually.

  52. llamathatducks says:

    It’s interesting to me that you present phaticness and anti-inductiveness as not just different conversation modes, but as different “cultures”, because my own preference depends strongly on the situation.

    When I tell a friend or family member about my problems, phatic responses are really important to me. I need it to be acknowledged that my difficulties are legitimate before I can seriously think about solving them, and as a rule I don’t want others to tell me how to solve them unless I specifically ask for their advice. (This may have to do with the fact that my parents are strongly on the anti-inductive side with little comprehension of what “validation” means and a large heaping of “well why didn’t you do X?”.)

    But this emphatically does not apply to therapy. When I finally dragged myself to a therapist’s office after putting it off for months due to fear and shame, I initially saw a therapist who gave only phatic responses while maintaining a look of pained pity, including when I asked for specific advice. I was really frustrated. Yes, I know that this must be so hard and I’m having such a tough time, or else I wouldn’t’ve made the considerable effort to go to therapy! Was it really worth it just to have the therapist tell me the same things my friends had already said, but with less of a personal connection? (I realize this may partly be because I was lucky enough to have friends I could share my emotions with. Maybe this will be different now that I maintain a bit more distance between me and my friends.)

    Eventually I found a therapist who said more constructive things, which was better. It’s not necessarily that I want to hear ideas I’ve never heard before, but I’d like to learn how to think about my particular emotions and circumstances in new ways, perhaps even to apply known concepts to them in ways I hadn’t considered. Therapy is costly enough to me that I’ll only use it if I can get more than just validation.

  53. Anonymous says:

    I recently noticed that I actually do a lot of this with my girlfriend, saying what might be called “sweet nothings” to each other: stuff like “My baby / My baby” “My princess / My prince” “I love you / I love you too” that’s more like giving a hug than saying anything with semantic content. We even do this over cell phone text messages; about half of them are just things like ::hugs:: ::cuddles:: etc.

    • Zubon says:

      We call that “happy noise” and embrace it as the verbal equivalent of primate grooming behavior.

    • chaosmage says:

      It is also feedback. Both of you are optimizing each other’s feelings, and that optimization process needs feedback like any other. If the frequency of these messages drops, you can notice something is up even though neither of you might be conscious of it yet.

      When I do that in text-only communication, I find it more necessary to use novel expressions in order to give a costlier signal. Face-to-face, body language and prosody can carry sincerity just as well.

      I also find that once frequent declarations of love are a strong habit, it is easier to remember in the middle of fights, and really helps settle them down.

  54. Daniel Speyer says:

    I wonder if phatic and anti-inductive are better thought of as cultures or moods. I have a sense that I’ve asked the same people “do you want advice or just to vent?” at different times and gotten different answers, though I’m having trouble thinking of specific cases.

  55. Daniel Speyer says:

    > “Why did you want to become a doctor?” they asked.
    > “I want to hurt people?”

    That’s why to become a dentist…

    People will pay you to be inhumane!

  56. Med school plus residency seems like overkill for active listening. Is status alone the difference between that and a suicide hotline volunteer? Or do those sessions inform the doctory parts of treatment?

  57. Emily H. says:

    I’ve had two therapists in the last year. With my first therapist, I got annoyed at first because she nudged me to do all of the talking, and then after listening to me for six or seven weeks she would bust out with something profound that would never have occurred to me. I felt really, really understood, and by the end of that year I got out of my massive anxiety pit, but there is a difference between understanding your problems and being able to fix them. My second therapist tends toward the more phatic end – at least, she tends to say things that are kind and also obvious. I don’t feel that same level of being understood, but I still get a fair bit out of it because depression and anxiety make it that much harder for me to tell myself things that are kind and also obvious.

    And I do think “creepy” overtures are related to phatic communication – “I will make three minutes of slightly flirtatious small talk before segueing to asking you out” functions to signal both “I am interested in you as a person” and “I am reasonably familiar with protocols of dating.” Much like asking about the wife and kids before asking for a favor. Escalating intimacy too fast looks like cluelessness or deliberate boundary pushing.

    • How can you tell if your interlocutor is feeling phatic or anti-inductive?

      Is it possible that the appropriate boundary between phatic and anti-inductive is itself anti-inductive?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If you don’t mind (don’t want to pressure you to reveal anything personal) can you give an example of something really profound and useful your therapist told you? I would like to be able to do that sort of thing, but it’s hard for me to even understand what the space I’m aiming at is.

      • Emily H. says:

        Probably the best example I can give is her telling me that there seemed to be a connection between my assuming a peace-making, people-pleasing role in my own family, and assuming a peace-making people-pleasing role at work with customers — and it turns out, taking a peace-making people-pleasing role with dozens of weird people who walk in off the street and often want unreasonable or impossible things is likely to lead to some anxiety and repressed anger!

        Another time, I had a panic attack after being in a large meeting with some people who had been hostile to me in the past, and getting an email while I was in the meeting that brought up some vulnerability and anxiety, and she said, “Yeah, you know, it would be pretty normal to feel panicky under those circumstances actually.” And – I’m not even sure whether I should classify that as “just being generally approving/supportive,” but it truly had not occurred to me that my reactions might be on the normal spectrum since I didn’t see other people sobbing on the bus.

    • yea, save people the $200/session and tell us this profound statement

  58. stargirl says:

    “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions”.

    I actually find this to be pretty great advice. Though I wish it was not gendered. The advice seems to hold for men also. Though I would suggest slightly different general advice:

    “If someone tells you their problems lean heavily toward just listening attentively. Unless you have a very good idea that the person has probably not thought of or heard before its better to listen. People need to fell like they aren’t alone an someone loves and cares about them. Of course you have to talk a little. If possible try to use your turns to speak to make it 100% clear you were focuses. For example using the name of someone they just mentioned.”

    • BillWallace says:

      In my experience “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions” is excellent advice as long as you don’t want to have sex with her. If you are or you do it’s more nuanced, in that it’s probably sometimes the right answer and sometimes not, depending on many factors.

      Replace woman with man and it’s less clear. Even if a man is just looking for sympathy or emotional support, he may get the most emotional support from contemplating solutions with someone on his team.

    • Anonymous says:

      Listening attentively is a huge problem for me. When someone starts telling a story, no matter the subject, it’s like there’s a part of me that starts actively seeking out other things to pay attention to. I try to fight that part but it usually wins by the second sentence. The sounds still make it to some kind of short-term memory and I can sometimes catch up with interpreting them, but as long as my conversation partner keeps talking I just can’t keep up.

      I remember one time when my then-girlfriend got a phone call that her mom was in the hospital because she had coughed up blood. When immediately after the call she described (in tears) the situation to me she used a toe-curling combination of two idioms and that was all I could focus on.

      It’d be worth a lot to me to get this fixed. I think I have ADD, but it’s not currently convenient to me to hunt down a doctor who can help me.

      • Charlie says:

        Try Scientology!

        This is only three-quarters a joke – there’s a Scientology exercise where you stare into another person’s eyes for a long time (we did 20 minutes), and I’m pretty sure it actually improved my ability to be attentive to people.

    • ilzolende says:

      I learned this the hard way. Apparently, the correct answer to “This girl and I were dating but her parents screen her email now, and they’re extremely homophobic.” is not “This looks like a problem that can be solved via cryptography!”.

      • Anonymous says:

        Indeed. Any obviously encrypted message will be intercepted and not allowed to be read. This is a job for stenography, not cryptography.
        [/missing the point]

        • ilzolende says:

          Continuing to evade the point, the solution here would probably be some sort of steganographic method to hide human-readable unencrypted text in a larger message, such as using the first letter of each word, because it’s most likely that the point of interception would be a parent reading over the girl’s shoulder.

  59. Shmi Nux says:

    I wonder if there is a quick phaticality test one can take.

    Also “anti-inductive” sounds clumsy. Maybe there is something neutral and vaguely clinical-sounding, like “contraphatic”.

  60. BillWallace says:

    This seems like an appropriate place to say hi. I just found your blog last weekend and spent my free time this week reading the last 8 months worth.

    I found toxoplasma of rage and meditations on moloch to be particularly brilliant, so… good job!

    On topic, I too lean towards anti-inductiveness. I’ve been adjusting this behavior gradually over the years with some success.

  61. Zubon says:

    In Against a Dark Background , the protagonist at times works with a solipsist who has trouble remembering to do things like small talk. They literally say, “politeness” as a greeting/farewell. I can see rationalists doing that.

    “Phatic politeness.”
    “You too.”

  62. Null Hypothesis says:

    Curious thought.

    Conservative vs Progressive opinions. How much are conservative theories dismissed simply because the conservatives today largely hold the same social economic guidelines as they did 200 years ago, and Progressive constantly suggest this *brand-new-idea that will explain everything and solve all problems.

    But either the solutions don’t pan out, or they never seem satisfied with them. To what degree, if any, is support of liberal ideas and policies (particularly by the college-age kids who tend significantly towards phatic-averse personalities) be the result of desiring to support “the new plan” instead of being particularly concerned with the end-goal?

    Food for thought.

    *Most every idea today currently labeled “progressive” has actually been tried and documented in one form or another by history. But that’s besides the point.

    • lmm says:

      Status quo bias is a thing, not its opposite. I don’t think many progressives just want to do something new, anything new; progressive policy proposals tend to appeal to justice or happiness or some such thing that people like, and therefore they spend effort supporting them. If you’re lazy then conservatism is easier, and if you just want to be edgy then libertarianism is better at that.

      The problems of progressivism tend to be more along the lines of “the downsides are less obvious for a theoretical ideal than for an existing implementation” or “governments have agent-principal problems”, IME

      • Anonymous says:

        If you’re lazy then conservatism is easier

        I literally spit water on my computer screen. Someone here has never tried being a conservative in the majority of common social situations.

        • Brad says:

          I’m not sure if the poster above me is referring solely to political topics, but I’m a sola-scriptura protestant Christian, and I have found lots of friction in lots of places, frankly. (also, I suspect that for better or worse, it is possible to just be super-edgy using religion – whether that’s a good thing or not. Consider a comparison between the edginess of being pro-gay marriage (which might annoy your parents, maybe) vs. being anti (which definitely, certainly, annoys *literally everyone else* outside of the red tribe.) Now, this obviously is subject to geographic and social circles, but for the kind of audience that reads this blog, I would say the majority of one’s speaking-terms associates would against the latter, *particularly* if you are vocally against it on the basis of religious doctrine, which strikes me as just, *extra* edgy. I should consider becoming a spokesperson for Gillette or something.

          I’m also reminded of this post, ( which struck me as true to my experience, as I have had to engage in quite a bit of Christian apologetics (myself on the Christian side) with hostile audiences before.

          >Suppose a creationist shows up and starts making arguments for creationism. Most people are going to argue back, but not because they are actually hoping to convince the creationist, or even because they’re hoping to convince neutral third parties. They’re arguing back because they want to be the hero who stood up to the evil enemy of reason and science.

          >If you’re standing up to the creationist, everyone’s already on your side. There is almost no argument so stupid that people wouldn’t cheer you on as you make it. You just have to go through the motions of being a person who argues, and then everyone high-fives you and bans the creationist from the forum for not giving up when he was “obviously beaten in a fair argument”.

          >On the other hand, the creationist has a strong incentive to come up with a good argument. She’s trying to actively convince a hostile audience.

          (that said, in my experience, not everyone was engaging in a stupid shut-down-the-brain style of arguing, but there were certainly enough of them out there, as lots of people just downvote stuff they don’t like. You can usually find the most biblically/theologically rigorous posts on reddit’s Christianity subreddit by looking for the posts with the controversial tag.)

          • Nornagest says:

            Every time I’ve actually ended up arguing with a creationist, it’s been because I was annoyed at them for injecting creation apologetics into a context that didn’t call for it. They’re not the evil enemy of logic and reason; they’re the encylopedia salesman that shows up uninvited and won’t go away when you explain that you’re happy with Wikipedia, thanks.

        • Hainish says:

          lmm’s argument becomes a little more interesting if “lazy” isn’t considered in opposition to “popular.” I think conservative positions are “lazy” in that they don’t require you to substitute simpler, more intuitive models for more complicated, less satisfying ones.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think conservative positions are “lazy” in that they don’t require you to substitute simpler, more intuitive models for more complicated, less satisfying ones.

            I think there might be a plausible distinction here, but I have to ask a minor grammar-parsing question first to make sure we’re on the same page… substitute in which direction?

          • Hainish says:

            I think that the conservative positions allow you to hold on to the simpler, intuitive models (at least for U.S. conservatives).

          • Anonymous says:

            Ah, then we’re going to have to disagree. Perhaps I’m just very non-central (because my background is dynamics/control, and thus I care a lot about modeling), but I often get labeled as Red Tribe because I’m often making an argument that goes something like, “You’re using an incredibly oversimplified model, which is at least missing factors A,B,C. Oh, and here are reasons why those factors could plausibly reverse the intermediate conclusion that you’re relying on when you say we need to [Blue Tribe proposal].”

            I’m not sure I’m entirely non-central, because… without endorsing every argument out there that kind of looks like this (because there are some real whoppers)… I think you can see public elements of this in the current global warming debate and the much more persistent economic structure debate.

            (I thought there was just enough of a chance that you were going for Complicated models -> less certainty in the result of a proposal -> less action -> “lazy”.)

          • Hainish says:

            Ah, but you’re argument is that non-conservative models could be more sophisticated than they are (and they certainly could). Mine is that they are more sophisticated than actually existing conservative models.

          • Anonymous says:

            You may just be saying that I’m non-central, but then you’d be eliding over the examples I gave to specifically counter this claim. Is there a more charitable interpretation that I’m missing?

          • BD Sixsmith says:

            Most conservatives are as lazy as most progressives in that most people endorse simplified versions of ideas. But I would suggest that many conservatives – and the more sophisticated ones – hold that society is so complex that it is hard to transform and unsatisfying to such an extent that it is hard to accept.

          • Null Hypothesis says:

            I’ll agree with that, but I’d like to point out that the more fundamental theory that tends to underline conservative economic and governmental policy is that our simple models, and our complex models, are equally and terribly inadequate to capture the complexity of the world.

            Thus we can’t plan things out and seek to turn knobs until we get things ‘just-right’. It’s much more efficient, and typically much better overall, to focus on distributed decision making with local information and consequences, and to not interfere with the systematic information propagation systems like the individual cost of a good or the exploitation of a resource.

            I’ll freely admit that conservative is often the view held by the stupid that can’t comprehend the world. It’s also held by the insanely smart who understand that they, too, can’t comprehend the whole world. (Self-flattery is fun, but I’m speaking more to the intellectual heavyweights like Thomas Sowell)

            It’s the 110-120 IQ people that see a large divide between them and normal people, and then think this difference puts them on a high enough level to understand and effectively manipulate the world – those are the ones that tend to fall into the progressive camp.

          • Hainish says:

            Anonymous, I am perfectly willing to concede that you, personally, do not arrive at conservative positions through laziness. However, my defense of

            is based on my observations of people who *do* seem to arrive at their positions through laziness. (This isn’t to say anything about whether those positions are correct.)

            (I can’t speak to your examples of global warming and the structure of the economy, because those aren’t issues that I follow all that closely. I’m not sure what you would consider the “lazy” position in each case.)

          • Anonymous says:

            I’m going to side with BD Sixsmith. Most people are lazy. It’s easy to construct an internal narrative that highlights only the laziness of “the bad guys”, especially when we have entire late night comedy programs dedicated to serving this narrative on a platter.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s easy to construct an internal narrative that highlights only the laziness of “the bad guys”…

            I think that needs some qualification. Your average political memeplex doesn’t cast the opposition as uniformly stupid and lazy; it casts them as both stupid and lazy and diabolically brilliant and driven, according to the needs of the moment.

            More sophisticated analyses sometimes break this down into a larger population of the stupid being strung along by the rhetoric of the evil, whom they’re too ignorant to see through. But for the purposes of everyday demagoguery most people are fine with the first version.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Part of the problem is the varying definitions of “conservative.” There is one definition where it simply refers to people who want to avoid screwing with whatever has been working so far for their particular society (Burke is the classic proponent here). But in America it more commonly refers to specific set of positions, many of which have not necessarily been followed by the country at large. This can look a lot like the first form, because those conservatives often cite founding documents like the Constitution or Federalist Papers, but it’s not the same thing.

          Making it worse, under the old terms of political science, American conservatives are classical liberals.

          • Anonymous says:

            The terminology is certainly in shambles. As I said above, the progressives today are progressive by the US standards, in that we haven’t done a lot that they advocate, but the ideas have been tried by the world, either in the last two centuries (mostly in Asia), or in Ancient Rome and prior.

      • Vaniver says:

        Status quo bias is a thing, not its opposite. I don’t think many progressives just want to do something new, anything new

        This isn’t politics, but I’ve definitely met people who are interested in trying strange new diets or strange new exercise plans over old diets and exercise plans that have been around long enough to acquire positive evidence.

      • Good_Burning_Plastic says:

        Status quo bias is a thing, not its opposite.

        It totally is.

      • Anonymous says:

        >Status quo bias is a thing, not its opposite.

        For most people. Increasing need for cognition seems to introduce a bias for novelty and originality.

        See, for example, this blog, or Lesswrong, or art. Note that social signalling and fashion is only anti-inductive around a certain sort of person.

      • puber says:

        In what areas would you say progressives accept things the way they are? Can you imagine a political situation where they say “Yup, this is the utopia we were striving for.” If one does not accept that man is fallen/the poor will always be with us, but instead believes in the perfectibility of man, it makes sense to always be pushing for “justice.” Looking at that actually existed (USSR, PRC [previously, not currently]) you see that even when they have a degree of political control unheard of in the west they are still engaged in “Permanent Revolution” because the inherent failings endemic to society still exist, and because they wouldn’t exist under Communism they must be some exogenous political cancer to be excised. (Wreckers! Bourgeoisie interests! Peasant landholders despite all farmland being equally distributed less than a decade ago!)

        As an aside I am sad to see the hip, anti-authoritarian idea of “The Man” being replaced with the more abstract (and less falsifiable) but more academically respectable “Systemic Racism.” Maybe we can take the next logical step of abstraction and arrive at “Universalist Racism” or “Reality Racism” wherein the actual facts of reality are to blame for the “gaps” of the world.

      • Zvi says:

        The bias will tend to be in the direction of status quo bias, but that in no way means that anti-status-quo bias isn’t a thing as well, in the right contexts or for the right people. The grass is greener on the other side, there’s got to be a better way to reform, and we can solve all of society’s problems with this one weird trick.

        It’s lazy to say “I don’t want to think about all the reasons why things work the way they do, the new hotness is obviously better.” Policy debates should not appear one sided, even if one side is incorrect or out to loot the public till. It’s hard work to actually figure out everything that’s going on, and make damn sure you want to tear down that fence. This idea that your opponents are lazy is a way of saying you are lazy and don’t want to engage with their actual arguments.

        There’s certainly a fetish for the new hotness quite often – we want this year’s song, this year’s car, this year’s novel, the thing that hasn’t had time to be discredited. And of course all of this is as it should be. Status Quo Bias is there for a reason! If you have actual zero SQB then you’re going to get money pumped by people who have knowledge you don’t, unless transaction costs save you. People make both errors, and anyone trying to correct for SQB is certainly going to make both. In general, if you don’t make both errors, unless the cost of the mistakes is wildly unbalanced, then whatever heuristic you are using is badly tuned.

      • cassander says:

        >Status quo bias is a thing, not its opposite.

        sure it is. If everything is hunky dory, then there is no great new legislation to pass, no new crusade to launch, no new bureaucracy to helm. A huge part of modern progressivism, and thus government, comes from people (usually sincerely, but still self interestedly) trying to generate high status work for themselves.

    • TheAncientGeek says:

      Modern societies actually are wealthier longer lived etc, so
      at least a subset of progressive ideas have worked. And why settle for
      ten years of extra life, when you could gave twenty.

      • Mary says:

        “Modern societies actually are wealthier longer lived etc, so
        at least a subset of progressive ideas have worked.”

        So what?

        Even if it’s true — and you are assuming that it was progressive ideas and not, say, the march of technology — if John Doe’s idea worked once, it doesn’t mean his next idea is as brilliant. Especially if the first one went to his head

        And when we are talking about “progressives” we are talking not about John Doe’s new idea, but that of a different person who happens to be named John Doe, too.

        • Anonymous says:

          You know, technology is not an inevitable march. There is no guarantee that a socially static society would successfully innovate on the technological front.

          • Another anonymous says:

            Why wouldn’t it? what would prevent it from advancing technologically?

          • Nornagest says:

            Make it hard to learn the state of the art without becoming heavily invested in the status quo (as per medieval European guilds). Channel all your smart people into politics or culture and away from science and engineering (as per the Chinese civil service system). Lock most of your population into social roles where innovation isn’t rewarded and so nobody innovates (as per most caste systems and some chattel systems). Or just straight-up impose technological stagnation from the top down, if you have a scary dictatorship to work with (as per Edo-period Japan).

            There are probably other ways, but that’s what I can think of off the top of my head. None of these guarantee permanent stagnation, but they’ll all slow technological progress greatly relative to the alternatives.

          • John Schilling says:

            The reverse is also true; a socially dynamic society need not be technologically progressive. Technological progress benefits greatly from some very stable institutions, e.g. universities.

    • Mary says:

      One notes that the brand-new idea has an automatic detriment: the old idea did not, at the very least, bring the world into a crashing ruin.

  63. Tom DeGisi says:

    My family and I really found this to be helpful. Sometimes we are too anti-inductive / Sheldon – like.

  64. Anonymous says:

    I used to feel the exact same way about phatic small talk – it seemed inelegant, imprecise, and a waste of time and energy. I would always strive to be either the funniest, most engaging person in the room, or else the quietest. Then I dated a girl for a while, and she had an interesting perspective which has kind of stuck with me.

    This girl was quirky and outgoing, with a bit of the manic pixie dream girl vibe about her, and at some point in our dates I commented on how odd/remarkable it was how easily she managed to strike up conversations with strangers and engage in small talk effortlessly and apparently sincerely. I laid into the discussion with the usual analytical rigor and cynical self-awareness, and at one point asked her how she so easily fooled people into convincing them she was interested in them, to which she simply replied, “Oh, I’m not faking anything. The way I figure it, every stranger has the potential to be a new friend some day, and I want to meet as many as I can.”

    We broke up eventually, but that one statement of hers really stuck with me to this day. I think in the end I still tend to think of things anti-inductively, even when it is demonstrably the wrong way to look at things, but at least where inter-personal relationships are involved, that outlook helped bridge that gap some and allow me to earnestly engage in simple phatic small talk.

    • Null Hypothesis says:

      Speaking as someone innately, neurotically anti-phatic (Writing Thank You Cards is 7th-level Hell Punishment) I found this quote to be very fitting.

      “Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untravelled, the naive, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as “empty,” “meaningless,” or “dishonest,” and scorn to use them. No matter how “pure” their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.”

      -The Notebook of Lazarus Long,

    • Jadagul says:

      This is, I think, one of the best insights of How to Win Friends and Influence People. And also one of the best insights PUA theory tries not to notice it has had.

      Most people can’t fake “liking you” or “being interested in you” for very long. But appearing interested in people is advantageous. The solution is to become the sort of person who actually is interested in everyone.

      I’m an introvert, so I’m not always up to being interested in people. But I do generally assume that everyone will like me and I’ll like everyone. And you know, it’s usually true.

    • Creutzer says:

      I wonder how atypical I really am, because the vast majority of people are definitely not potential friends for me. I only recently learned that many people seem to think otherwise, and now I wonder if this is actually one of those universal human experiences that I’m missing out on.

      • Tracy W says:

        Out of curiousity, why not? (There being 6 billion people in the world, it seems safe to assume that the answer is not “I’ve met about 4 billion people who I find deeply annoying.”)

        • Creutzer says:

          No, the answer lies in the fact that for me there is a deep gulf between “deeply annoying” and “potential friend”.

          Here’s an attempt to put it into a few words: Most people are just complete aliens to me who I don’t know what to do with and who don’t know what to do with me. I have no way of connecting with them. This must be a consequence of my unusual emotional constitution and the fact that I reside in a sort of limbo between different subcultures. Unfortunately my number one source of utility in friendships is a feeling of mutual understanding and shared emotions.

          I have tried to be more open to people – it didn’t lead anywhere. There are rare people who have traits that trigger sort of a feeling of kinship and with whom I can become friends, but with everyone else, I just feel… nothing.

      • Jadagul says:

        I used to say the same thing you do. Then I changed my mind. It’s worked well for me.

        Importantly, the belief isn’t that everyone I meet will be a close friend. It’s that most people are basically likable and will basically like me. I don’t have to want to spend lots of time with someone to like them. And by default I assume people are basically cool.

        One note: I assume people are likeable and will like me. I usually feel like I’m right. I have friends who assume everyone is terrible and not worth knowing. They usually feel like they’re right. There are many stories I could tell about causal arrows here.

        • Creutzer says:

          I used to say the same thing you do. Then I changed my mind. It’s worked well for me.

          Interesting. I’ve had one other person, somebody who’s actually my friend, tell me they did that. Can you in any way elaborate on how you did that? Because it seems to me I tried to do that and failed. Maybe I did something wrong.

          Did something happen to you that allowed you to change your mind? Or did you actually manage to convince yourself on your own accord that people are likable and then they started liking you back?

          • Jadagul says:

            If I actually had an answer I’d give it to you. It happened pretty gradually over the course of, basically, the tail end of high school and most of college, and was probably triggered by my discovering I had a libido and suddenly thinking it was worth talking to at least some people. But I’m guessing you’re past the point where “I’m sixteen and have suddenly noticed that some people are attractive” is a reasonable expectation of the future.

            For me, basically, I found that people were often fun to hang out with and almost always nice to me, so it’s really easy to like them.

        • LilaJ says:

          I don’t like most people.

          I do care about them and wish them well, and don’t actively dislike them. However, I don’t enjoy the company of most people. This even applies to some people whose presence in my life I deeply appreciate. I would go well out of my way to help these people, and I know they would do the same for me. It might make sense to call that “love”. But I still do not “like” them, by which I mean enjoying their company. I neither like nor dislike them, although I love them. It doesn’t mean I think badly of them, it just means their personality isn’t very compatible with my tastes.

          One of the reasons I dislike small talk is because it involves sending messages of “I am enjoying connecting with you right now,” which is false for me regarding most people. I force myself to do it out of obligation but it feels deeply wrong.

          On the other hand, when it comes to people that I actually do like, I like them A LOT.

  65. Douglas Knight says:

    No link to Seeming and Being Empathic?

    As I said there, I don’t think patients actually know the scripts doctors use. Interviewers see a lot of job-seekers and notice patterns, but patients see few therapists. The scripts they know are what they saw on TV. In particular “I feel your pain” is not a therapist cliche, but Bill Clinton.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Huh. This is the first time I’ve ever completely forgotten I wrote something. I saw that title and I thought “I wonder what that’s going to be. Sounds like it might be a Robin Hanson post.”

      The complaint about “therapist-speak” is one I’m getting from a friend who previously underwent therapy, so I don’t think it’s totally a product of my imagination.

      • Anonymous says:

        Which leads me to ask: How much of what you have written do you still believe? It would be interesting to see how your beliefs have changed.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I suspect that the complaint about therapist-speak is that it is phatic, not that it is cliche. Therapists want sentences that are obviously phatic, but I don’t know whether they want (or should want) them to be well-known or not. I suspect the therapist who said “I feel you pain” (and I doubt your friend had two) chose it to avoid cliche, but this was a mistake because Clinton is more famous than any Hollywood shrink. (But maybe the goal was cliche.)

        There is a difference between therapists and other doctors, which is that the therapist spends more time with the patient, but in fewer ways. So the single therapist can be redundant, even if different from other therapists. But it would be cheap for therapists to commission a list of 300 sentences that they could all memorize and which would seem fresh to almost all patients.* They’d have to do this once a decade to keep ahead of Hollywood. But, again, I don’t know whether this is what you want.

        * ie, patients who don’t subscribe to tumblrs about how all doctors sound the same.

      • Aaron Brown says:

        I was surprised there wasn’t a link to Markets Are Anti-Inductive.

  66. anatman says:

    in this light, what about the carl rogers (or eliza) method? where the therapist mainly rewords the patient’s statements?

    • ilzolende says:

      It’s really great for signaling “I’m paying attention to what you’re saying”, but I’ve only ever used it when arguing with someone, so it might be less useful in other contexts.

    • RCF says:

      What do you think about the carl rogers (or eliza) method?

  67. one of many says:

    “So, how’s life as an upload?” Tom said emphatically.

    • Scott Alexander says:


      (appropriate in this case because I was thinking “you know, we really need a form of scripted, phatic communication to say how much we appreciate a joke so we don’t have to come up with some specific form of praise.” Then I realized we had one and it was just locally low-status. I’m bringing it back.)

      • Anonymous says:

        I started using lol as a joke and now I actually use it to express appreciation of humor.

      • lmm says:

        I think that applies to conversation as well, no? Upper-class conversation is superficially ruder, by which we mean less phatic; these very scripted social exchanges are a middle-class thing.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Interesting observation. I feel like the opposite has been true for most of history. Tea ceremonies and rules of etiquette would have largely applied to the upper class, wouldn’t they?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I think in upper class they apply in different situations. Rules of etiquette are mostly used in formal occasions, but their function is sort of the opposite of phatic.

            As others have described, phatic is a base for non-verbal communication, like the known frequency for frequency-modulation. If you don’t know the unwritten ‘rules’ (which vary among cultures) for non-verbal communication, you’re in trouble (and knowing which cliche to use when, is unwritten [except here] ).

            Rules of etiquette are something that anyone can memorize, from a book. They make non-verbal skills much less important. They give hardly any information between speakers, they just tell you what to do — where to sit at a dinner party, who goes through the door first, so nobody has to think about that. Attention can go straight to interesting talk. Maybe it lets you skip some of the phatic small talk.

            [ Drawn from my extensive reading of costume novels ]

      • Nick says:

        For the past several years I’ve used a three-tier system of lols to express appreciation of a joke: “lol” if it makes me smile or laugh a little, “Lol” if more, and “LOL” if I’m dying. I laid this out explicitly with my friend Justin a few years ago, but I use it as my standard everywhere now, and people who see more than one kind of lol from me seem to pick up the nuance easily. (Unfortunately, this seeps into how I perceive others’ lols too, so I was really surprised to see yours in all caps. It was a good pun, but not that good!)

      • Histocrat says:

        David Mitchell has a similar thought on “LOL”.

      • RCF says:

        +1 like

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      “9/10 since my ISP added bandwidth” said Tom informatively.

  68. Steve says:

    I think small talk is less about creating a positive (I acknowledge and respect you) and more about avoiding a negative (uncomfortable silence). I used to paint houses as a summer job, and I remember that painting in a quiet room with someone else feels extremely uncomfortable if you aren’t chatting. But if there’s loud construction noise or music, not talking is perfectly comfortable. It seems like silence when talking is possible sets off people’s subconscious alarm bells. Maybe there’s some kind of evolutionary psychology explanation for that.

    • Mary says:

      Uncomfortable for some people. Others find the empty chatter painful.

    • haishan says:

      I think small talk is more multipurpose than that, though: it’s also a (highly scripted) Schelling point for opening or closing a conversation, and a form of social lubrication that signals “I acknowledge and respect you” and keeps the connection open for the possibility of more useful communication down the line. Consider the following three examples:

      1. It’s Monday morning and I need to ask senior coworker X for help implementing a feature on the product I work on. I talk to X several times a week; probably 99% of our conversation time is given over to contentful, narrowly-focused discussion. The conversation starts:

      Me: “Hey X, how was your weekend?”
      X: “Good, and yours?”
      Me: “Good. I have a question about where in the code we’re…”

      2. It’s Friday afternoon; I am calling my best friend, Y, a high school teacher. She and I often have meaningful conversations about our lives; we’re pretty emotionally close, at least by my scale. The conversation starts:

      Me: “Hey, Y! How was your week?”
      Y: “Great! How about yours?”
      Me: “Pretty good! How were your kids? [segue into contentful conversation]”

      3. It’s Z’s birthday, a high school friend. He lives in my area, and we’re not not friends, but we don’t talk that often, and only see each other in person occasionally.

      Me: “Happy birthday, Z!”
      Z: “Thanks, dude!”
      Me: “We should get together sometime and catch up!”
      Z: “For sure!”

      It would be inappropriate to start a technical discussion about work with Y, or to share intimate emotional details with Z, or to terminate the conversation with X at the phatic stage. But in none of the cases is the phatic intercourse inappropriate, and in fact it would seem rather abrupt to neglect it. (Although less so with Y; in general it seems like dispensing with small talk is a kind of countersignalling which expresses closeness and social comfort. E.g. it’s entirely comfortable to sit quietly in a room with a good friend or family member without making small talk.)

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I was clueless about such things till I found ‘phatic’ in a college text. It gave another use, too. Even the formulas carry emotional information in tone of voice, rhythm, etc. A whole status negotiation could be carried out that way. More often, the tone/manner of “I’m fine, how are you?” shows the speaker’s mood, state of health, how much time zie wants to spend in this coversation, etc; often you can tell just from that whether this is a good time to ask a favor or give an invitation.

        In my circles, there are more informative formulas available.

        “How are you?”
        “Wonderful! We have a new baby!– Pretty good — Kinda so-so, I guess — Not so good, how are you? — Awful busy” — etc.

  69. Mark Dominus says:

    This reminds me of some of the best advice I have ever heard, from Miss Manners. People would write to her and say “I met this guy Joe I hadn’t seen in three years and I asked how his wife was doing and he said ‘My wife died.’ I was so embarrassed! What do you say when that happens?” And Miss Manners always gives them the same advice: You say “I’m very sorry for your loss.” And you know what? She’s right.

    Then once someone wrote and said “Then someone said ‘I’m very sorry for your loss’ and I didn’t know what to say, and Miss Manners said “You say ‘Thank you.'”

    When everyone sticks to the script it all goes perfectly and nobody has to feel embarrassed. And if you stick to the script and the other guy doesn’t, you’re still off the hook because at least *you* said the right thing

    • Protagoras says:

      Yeah. My mother actually just died, and most people have been sticking to the script, and I appreciate it. Coping with someone who was trying to be creatively helpful would be just one more thing to stress out about.

    • Mary says:

      Moments of high emotion are exactly those that most need scripting.

      • Yes, yes, yes! But it is precisely these sorts of situations where the sort of person who wants to “help” will be tempted to go off-script and say something meaningful. Resist that temptation.

      • Nornagest says:

        When my grandmother died, she requested no memorial service. Her intention was — probably — to avoid spending money on an elaborate ritual whose only obvious function is to showcase grief, but afterwards I actually found it harder to deal with than the last comparable death: the ritual helps contextualize the event, and it provides one of the few venues where open expression of grief is socially acceptable.

        These scripts exist for a reason.

      • AspiringRationalist says:

        You just made me wish SSC had an upvote button.

    • Kyle Strand says:

      Miss Manners is pretty brilliant.

    • RCF says:

      There was an episode of Leverage where the team infiltrates a greeting card company, and Parker designs a card that says “Get well soon” on the front. Then, on the inside, it says “Or don’t. It’s not like it’s your choice.” I’d be tempted to get that card if it were really available. Get Well cards seem so odd to me. The implicature of them is that you care about the other person, but the literal meaning is “If you’re sick, it’s your choice.” NTPs are so weird.

      • Nita says:

        It’s a wish, not a command! Do you also have trouble with homonyms?

        Other examples:
        – Have a nice day!
        – [Have a] Happy birthday!
        – [Have] Good luck!

        Note that these are all things that happen to you (“get well” is an edge case — after all, some of your choices can impact the outcome). So, they are best interpreted as a command or plea to fate on your behalf — in other words, a wish.

        Language trivia: Did you know that some languages have separate grammatical forms for blessings and curses?

    • Anonymous says:

      I seem to remember The Last Psychiatrist saying something to this effect.

  70. Mary says:

    “At the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, one of the most frequently repeated pieces of relationship advice I hear is “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions”. It sounds like the hypothetical woman in this advice is looking for a phatic answer.”

    When I propose solutions, I’m trying to solve my problem, which is that a woman has chosen to dump her problems on me without either noticing or caring that I don’t want to hear ’em.

    • Emily says:

      There are much more efficient ways to solve your problem than trying to solve her problem. The advice is geared at people who care about the woman and wish to be helpful but are going about it in a way that will not be helpful.

      • Mary says:

        Such as?

        • Anonymous says:

          You could tell your acquaintance directly that you don’t care about her problems would prefer not to hear about them. It would prevent her from wasting both your time and hers. Win/win.

        • Emily says:

          What anonymous said, if that is possible given the social context. But if it’s not, you could try half-listening in a way that conveys you’re not interested. (An occasional “uh-huh”, not much feedback otherwise, while you think about something else.) She’s likely to get the hint and stop coming to you.

          If there was a high likelihood that you could solve her problems and that she would stop having problems, just solving them might be a good strategy. But you probably won’t have a solution that’s both good and that she will implement. And if that did happen, she might just come back to you with more problems.

  71. Luke G says:

    One strategy I learned over the years as a nerd puzzled by phatic speech: if someone is sharing their burdens and woes, it can be hard to determine whether A) they just want to be heard or B) they actually want advice and help. A) is a pretty good default assumption, but it isn’t always the case.

    So the strategy I’ve developed over the years, along with the standard words of sympathy and understanding as they share their tale, is to ask at the end a simple question: “So what are you going to do next?” or “So what happens now?”

    If they promptly continue with their tale or have a quick answer, then it is A). Just listen. If, however, they say “I don’t know” or “What do you suggest?” then it is B) and then, and only then, do you offer advice.

    (Of course, if we ALL ask this question, would it then join the “And how does that make you feel?” class of cliche phrases?)

    • Anon Coward says:

      That’s good advice. Thanks for posting.

    • Zvi says:

      That’s a neat trick, playing at the advanced level, which is where one should strive to be whenever possible when phatic. The advanced form of phatic speech is to operate on both levels at once, almost as the productive version of innuendo or parental bonus: Done well you elicit real information and it’s not just deniable that you’re doing it, if the information isn’t there to get, then what you are doing is invisible and the other party does not even notice.

      Tactically in this situation, the problem comes with “I don’t know” being ambiguous. You’re giving an opening for them to play “What do you suggest?” and if they do you can be on confident ground suggesting. But if they say “I don’t know” then you’re more likely to be in case B than before, but still often in case A. If someone says “I don’t know” then you need to keep playing advanced phalic for at least one more move: Generally, you ask a question that contains an implicit suggestion, or ask them how they’re going to figure it out (dangerously explicit if done wrong but good at actually finding out), and see what happens next; within a move or two, you’ll know.

      To answer the last question, which is the real answer I decided to reply, yes, by definition if everyone did it then it would be cliche, but cliche is not bad. Now, it’s a move that says “I’m willing to keep talking about this rather than looking for an excuse to change the topic. You can now attempt to get advice if you want it, or tell me your clever plans if you’d enjoy doing that, or get more sympathy if you’d like that.” In fact, in information-dense advanced-phatic speech, being cliche can be an advantage, allowing the other person to know what to say next that will get them what they want, without having to think about it.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        Oh well, seems like the only comment I can get in today is rather childish. But you did say ‘phalic’ in the second paragraph, so that’s not entirely my fault :p

  72. Daisy says:

    Isn’t half the point of therapy that by responding in a normal, default, (phatic if you like) way you’re giving the client a perspective on where their thinking is skewed? So phatic-type responses can actually provide information?

    Though “phatic” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s not exactly talking for the sake of talking, but it’s definitely not anti-inductive. A lot of the benefit I got from therapy was from my therapist making fairly banal observations about me which a lot of close friends or random hippie strangers had already made, but which I couldn’t dismiss because of the context.

    eg. “You’re too hard on yourself,” I had to take seriously because I couldn’t just be all like “Well, you’re only saying that because you don’t know how terrible I am deep down.” He knew how terrible I was deep down! So I paid attention.

    or “You’re very powerful,” I still don’t quite understand, but when it comes from my therapist instead of any of the assortment of other people who said that to me last year I at least know it doesn’t mean “I am fascinated by your breasts.” So I paid attention.

    • PGD says:

      This. Therapy is not about conveying information directly, making suggestions. Therapy is not aimed at directly transferring information to the patient that the therapist has that the patient doesn’t, the way you go to a doctor, tell him your symptoms, and then he tells you the cure for your disease. Instead therapy creates a context where the patient has to confront their own problems in a new way. The presence of the therapist makes it difficult for the patient to resort to their ordinary excuses and evasions and unhelpful reactions they use in their internal self-talk — neuroses or whatever. Things the therapist says can sort of poke and prod this along — the therapist can ask some questions or make some comments that point out irrationalities the patient is expressing, but it shouldn’t be too overbearing. Lecturing and defining the problem for the other person. Presumably the patient has heard plenty of lectures before and learned how to turn them off.

      The therapy context leads the patient to see the therapist as very powerful but the work is coming from the patient. E.g. in Freudian theory there is transference, where the patient reenacts emotionally charged but dysfunctional relationship patterns with the therapist. But when the therapist doesn’t really respond the patient has space to examine those patterns instead of get into the same old neurotic reactions. Transference is sometimes seen as mystical but it’s not — if you’re caged in a room with another person who doesn’t assert their own views and space then of course you are going to project your standard interpersonal issues on them, many of which may come from childhood.

      The dismissal of the phatic in this post makes me think that Scott might have some problems following subtext in conversation, the way in which the unspoken emotional narrative differs from the meaning of the words.

    • Paul Torek says:

      I’ll put in my +1 too. I think it’s cool that the patients are teaching Scott how to be a good therapist. I kinda figured that that usually happens, and that it explains why therapists of different schools of training get similar results.

  73. jgotts says:

    I would comment on this, but I don’t really have anything meaningful to contribute to the dialogue…

    But so, uh, how about that local sports team? How are the kids doing?

    • Katie says:

      That’s an interesting idea! Does the way we communicate on the Internet (blogs, forums, even Facebook and Twitter) cause us to lean more anti-inductive, because we tend to comment only when we think we have something creative or meaningful to say?

      • I’d say hanging out online not only teaches you to be anti-inductive in terms of what you do.

        Hanging out online also means that you can hang out with people across the globe whom you think are likely to say creative and meaningful things, so the standard you have for others as well as for yourself becoomes different.

        And in person, the people you hang out with will not be selected for being the kind of people who make or provoke interesting insights. So I guess, pretty much necessarily, in all but really terribly intentional communities, the gold standard for friendliness has to be the phatic.

        (I think this would be part of why the kind of conversation you tend to have at college, at least among nerds, doesn’t really help you get ready for worker-to-worker interaction…)

        • Mr. Eldritch says:

          Not that that worked all to well in the main implementation of it I saw (4chan’s /r9k/ board). It turns out that not letting anyone write the exact same sentence over and over again doesn’t actually cause them to discuss anything *new*. There are an essentially infinite number of ways to express >tfw no gf.

      • Nornagest says:




        …you get the idea.

  74. Kolya says:

    “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

  75. Anonymous says:

    > I used to be very bad at sending out thank-you cards, because I figured if I sent a thank-you card that just said “Thank you for the gift, I really appreciate it” then they would think that the lack of personalization meant I wasn’t really thankful. But personalizing a bunch of messages to people I often don’t really know that well is hard and I ended up all miserable. Now I just send out the thank you card with the impersonal message, and most people are like “Oh, it was so nice of you to send me a card, I can tell you really appreciated it.” This seems like an improvement.

    I ought to try this.

  76. fermion says:

    Once you’ve realized that phatic communication serves an important social purpose–and you seem to grasp this concept pretty well–why would you still be against it? People appreciate you sending thank-you cards without a meaningful message because that’s still not a zero-cost task; you’ve spent time and energy and money on making them feel appreciated. It’s true that having a more personalized message might add value, but its absence doesn’t negate the rest of it.

    Maybe this is a problem caused by the geek tendency to over-optimize. Or maybe it’s just because we value thoughts and ideas and novelty so highly that we discount everything else.

    • Wirehead Wannabe says:

      I don’t have a reason, I just do. It’s like asking why I don’t find a brick wall stimulating even after learning its purpose.

    • Matthew says:

      I would happily precommit with friends to a no-thank-you-card policy. I don’t want to waste their time, and I don’t want them to waste mine.

    • Richard says:

      It turns out that it is often counterproductive to personalise even. For instance if you have a rather good memory and remember that your current date prefers a tempranillo wine with the fish (which is a rather unusual choice), the simple act of ordering one can be seen as obsessive and stalker behaviour rather than simply polite. It seems that actually paying attention to what people say is creepy these days….

      • llamathatducks says:

        If someone ordered me a certain wine on the basis that I had liked it before, I would probably be somewhat annoyed not that they remembered but that they were making a choice for me instead of letting me do it, based on a false assumption (that I would like to have the same wine instead of trying a new one). Wrong assumptions and taking away my agency are both things I dislike, and this behavior combines them both! (In a pretty mild way, of course, which is why I’d be somewhat annoyed rather than furious.)

        I can also imagine someone reacting the way you mention based on typical-mind logic: “the only way I’d remember something so inconsequential about a person is if I were obsessively cataloguing every detail about them, so this person must be doing the same to me!” Whereas in reality perhaps you either have a generally better memory than she does, or you’re just more familiar with wine and therefore more likely to remember a particular wine.

        (Which is all to say that I disagree with your conclusion that “paying attention to what people say is creepy these days”.)

        • Richard says:

          I can also imagine someone reacting the way you mention based on typical-mind logic: “the only way I’d remember something so inconsequential about a person is if I were obsessively cataloguing every detail about them, so this person must be doing the same to me!” Whereas in reality perhaps you either have a generally better memory than she does, or you’re just more familiar with wine and therefore more likely to remember a particular wine.

          Sorry for the poorly chosen example, but this bit was what I was trying to get across. I have what appears to be an unusually good memory, remembering conversations from decades ago almost verbatim and obviously I remember wine preferences and just about every other preference by anyone I have spent a non-negligible amount of time with. In order not to appear obsessive, I often have to make an effort to pretend not to remember or to pretend not to care, either of which seems a bit pointless.

          • llamathatducks says:

            I see, that makes sense. It also makes sense that people who don’t already know how good your memory is (and perhaps don’t realize that anyone can have that good a memory!) assume it’s more like most people’s memory.

          • Joe says:

            I’m glad someone else has mentioned this. I have similar memory issues and have learned to hide it. I will often pretend to forget things about people, purposely asking them the same questions I might have asked in previous weeks, so that I can avoid the look of fear in their eyes as they wonder why a casual acquaintance knows so much about them. It has the bonus of keeping a conversation going, which helps them build up trust. Once they trust me enough, I can stop doing it (i.e. I can tell from their body language that they are no longer concerned by it).

      • naath says:

        Ordering my wine for me when eating out would be super creepy! Unless of course I asked you to. I have a very strong preference for being able to choose myself, even if I often choose the same thing.

        On the other hand were you inviting me to dine at your house, and provided a bottle of a wine that I had previously appreciated then that would be nice, even if on that particular day I would have chosen a different wine if asked (in large part because having agreed to eat your cooking I have already agreed to give up almost all control over what the food will be). Or if you buy me a bottle of wine as a gift, then it would be nice if it was one I liked (then I can drink it when I feel in the mood for it).

      • Deiseach says:

        Depends how you do it. Second date, you do the wine ordering without even “I noticed you liked such and such the last time, is it okay if I order that?” can come off a little high-handed.

        Maybe they were only trying out a recommendation someone else gave them, and they really don’t like it. (For instance, I can now say that no, I don’t like vodka, having tried it a couple of different times and different ways). Maybe they do prefer it. But it’s always nice to be asked, particularly if they’re only a “current date” and not someone you’re seeing regularly and long-term?

  77. Glenn Willen says:

    This is super interesting. I would say that I feel like ‘anti-inductive’ is my usual type / culture — much as you describe in your last few paragraphs, I feel uncomfortable or uncreative when engaging in social rituals that play out in stereotyped ways, and I feel like I have to say something interesting or creative. (In fact, in elementary school, when I used to have to write sentences to illustrate vocabulary, it was awful for me — I couldn’t bring myself to write something that was false, because that would be lying, but I also couldn’t bring myself to write something stereotypical and uncreative, and oftentimes I couldn’t find something in the space of sentences that I _was_ willing to write.) I think I’ve gotten a lot better about this. Although I still don’t send thank-you cards.

    On the other hand, when I’m being supportive, I do very stereotypical “active listening” with no creative aspect, because that seems to be what works. So it’s interesting that I’ve pretty much made peace with that.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I had the same problem in elementary school. I solved it by making all my vocab sentences about dinosaurs and aliens.

  78. Pasha says:

    “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions”. It sounds like the hypothetical woman in this advice is looking for a phatic answer.

    Not necessarily. Other sources give the same advice under a different interpretation:

    A rationalist frequently needs to gather as much evidence as possible and discuss the problem before suggesting solutions, especially if it’s not something time-sensitive. So even if you turned on your “problem-solving” mode, listening for a while and getting information is still a good idea.

    Duck-based debugging is a technique where a programmer explains her problems to a rubber duck and then comes up with a solution herself. The act of verbalizing something can help the person doing the verbalizing come to a solution. You are merely acting as a better rubber-duck because your sub-conscious responses still convey information.

    At the end of the day, NVC and Buddhism suggest: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Certain language, “phatic” if you must is just better than the rest of crappy responses out there. It’s not about carrying positive information, it’s more about not carrying negative/confrontational information.

    Otherwise, good post. I feel this is similar in spirit to “every cause wants to be a cult” or every phrase, such as “help people” want to have a cult-like following and move from a carrier of differentiation to a non-carrier.

    • Mary says:

      “Duck-based debugging is a technique where a programmer explains her problems to a rubber duck and then comes up with a solution herself.”

      Programmer etiquette: if a co-worker asks for help and stops half way through the conversation with “Never mind,” the proper response is “Glad I could be of assistance.”

      Had a co-worker once who would insist on you completing it. Ducks have more manners.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      So even if you turned on your “problem-solving” mode, listening for a while and getting information is still a good idea.

      Yes. For some people, if a problem is bad enough to consult someone else, then it’s bad because it’s complicated and there are a lot of factors necessary to understand it. So when the expert jumps in prematurely with an obvious solution, that solution will not be fully informed. This will waste consult time, as well as being an interruption, which is rude per se — and leaves the consultor in the position of having to interrupt the expert to get the necessary information in.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s a specific type of rubber-ducking that people with *strange* problems will attempt a lot. I would call it “rubber-duck smoke testing”, for lack of a better term.

      In rubber-duck smoke testing, you (in the role of a Sherlock-like detective) call in a Watson to explain an increasingly-long and likely increasingly-improbable chain of deduction you have followed to find the ultimate cause of your problem as it stands. Watson’s role isn’t just to listen, but to “throw an exception” for any obvious mistakes (invalid syllogisms, unfounded assumptions, etc.) which Sherlock has made in their deductive process thus far.

      f Sherlock can get to the end of their shpiel without an exception being raised, they might still not have an answer to their problem, but they’ll have reaffirmed their confidence that their current line of attack is useful.

  79. Null Null says:

    Didn’t they have that paper showing that the therapist’s personal characteristics were more important than the therapy?

    Seriously, sounds like you’ve discovered that you don’t have to be clever, just nice, and that will help! So, be happy! You can always specialize in the psychological problems of nerds. 🙂

    • Protagoras says:

      Probably better than specializing in diseases of the rich. Sounds like a great idea when Lehrer jokes about it, but in reality it means going up against lots and lots of competition.

  80. I feel like sometimes when I’m making small talk, it’s phatic – I’m just doing it out of obligation, it would be weird not to talk. But also some of the time, I genuinely do want to talk to the other person, I just don’t know what to talk about because I have no idea what to talk about – either no ideas for conversation are coming to mind, or I don’t know this person well enough to have any idea what sort of common ground we are interested in. So I ask “how have you been?” in the hope that they’ll say something interesting I can latch onto.

    Is there a way to interact with strangers that couldn’t be described as “small talk”?

    • Anonymous says:

      Not really, no. It’s considered socially inappropriate to talk about anything too feelings-y or personal with strangers, and unless they have signaled that they share a common interest with you, it’s hard to find an intellectual topic to discuss.

    • fermion says:

      Sure, you can have interesting conversations with strangers. Here’s one suggestion for amping up the interestingness level. Just have a list of socially acceptable questions in mind (“what town did you grow up in”, “do you have any siblings”, “what neighborhood do you live in”, “what are your hobbies”) and then a strategy or two for going from there to something more intellectually stimulating. Won’t always work, of course, and be cautious because the realm of “socially acceptable questions” may vary by social group.

      I also occasionally find myself in shockingly deep conversations with strangers in situations like public transit where you can be fairly sure you’ll never see them again and therefore can make personal revelations that would be unacceptable with business colleagues or people in your friend circle. (Again, this is of course not risk-free and one should be sensitive to one’s conversation partner’s comfort.)

      • Matthew O says:

        Watch out, though! You still need to embed those “interesting” questions in small talk, or else you risk running into Flight-of-the-Conchords-levels of awkwardness like so:

      • puber says:

        Your point about being on the transit is interesting, because I have seen in both sales and pick-up guides the advice of leading with “I have to go in 5 minutes but…” because with a definite end point people are more likely to engage then when they don’t know if they will be hassled indefinitely.

    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe that’s why it works. You both have plausible deniability for actually desiring to talk.

    • RCF says:

      It’s certainly possible to interact with strangers in ways other than small talk, what’s difficult is doing so in a manner that is not awkward.

  81. Shea Levy says:

    Still reading this, but second and third paragraphs seem to contradict each other:

    No information has been exchanged.

    It’s just a way of saying “Hello, I acknowledge you and still consider you an acquaintance. There’s nothing wrong between us. Carry on.”

    That seems like information, and pretty useful information at that!

    • Gadren says:

      It’s not contradictory at all; it’s the point. It’s the difference between the literal meaning of the words you’re saying, and the implied message that is being conveyed thanks to what you’re saying.

      • Harald K says:

        Yeah, but in the other example, calling up an old classmate and asking for a job, these intermediate questions probably do matter. I know it’s not common to give honest anwers to polite-conversation style questions, but if the honest answer to “how’s the business going” is “Actually, I don’t have a business anymore”, then I expect that to be both 1. expressed, in mild violation of small talk norms, and 2. relevant for the question of getting a job.

        There, the signal that all is well (more or less), is actually used. You don’t ask about job and family just to be polite, you really do care, at least to the point that you might not e.g. make big demands of someone whose wife just died.

        • vV_Vv says:

          More generally, these small-talk questions, even in casual conversation, serve to reassess each other relative social status. Hence they do exchange lots of very relevant information.

          I suppose that people in the autistic spectrum tend to underestimate the value of small-talk because they are not instinctively good at processing information about social status.

          • Deiseach says:

            Yes, these kind of exchanges do serve as acknowledgement of equal status.

            X comes up to you and says “Scott, Dr Thompson can’t take Mr Jones so he’s been put down for your 3 o’clock appointment” is much more likely to be a boss or superior (they’re telling you what work you’re going to be doing).

            Y comes up and says “Hey, Scott, how are you? Wow, it’s really cold today! Listen, I can’t take Mr Jones today, and I know you had a cancellation at 3, could you take him instead?”

            Then Y is someone on your own level or treating you as on the same level of seniority. If Y came up and said “Scott, I’ve put down my patient Jones for you for 3 o’clock”, it would produce a very different impression and even evoke resentment (hey, who does Thompson think he is? He’s not the boss of me!)

    • Mary says:

      When transmitting a handshake, computers are technically transmitting information, but the point of it is not that info, it’s to test the connection for real information.

    • Anonymous says:

      No object-level information is exchanged, but meta-level information (about the transmission of information between the party) is.

    • Scott says:

      I’m pretty sure that Scott’s ‘phatic – anti-inductive’ spectrum here is simply just another way to look at people’s basic level of social skills.

      The way I’ve explained small talk elsewhere is that the purpose of small talk is calibration. It’s for two people to gauge each others mood, response to inquiries, level of familiarity, boundaries, and initial personality. Once this is established, the two people can more easily dive deeper into conversation without fear of overstepping social and personal bounds. It can also serve as a primer so that the next time you see someone you don’t have to go through the same process again.

      Have you ever seen an old friend and have the conversation been a little awkward at first as you try to find out if they’re still the same person as when you knew them before? It’s the exact same process.

      • Mr. Breakfast says:

        ” anti-inductive’ spectrum here is simply just another way to look at people’s basic level of social skills. “

        This seems broad-strokes plausible, but maybe a distinction should be made between smalltalk as a protocall negotiation / skill throw prior to further communication versus smalltalk as a barrier to communication or a norm enforcement mechanism.

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