"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Conversation Deliberately Skirts The Border Of Incomprehensibility

From lierdumoa.tumblr.com:

To my friends on the [autism] spectrum, let me explain to you an unspoken social rule that possibly nobody has ever explained to you before

If a neurotypical asks you, “What game are you playing?” they’re not asking you to describe the game.

They’re asking you if they can play too.

If a neurotypical asks you, “What are you watching?” they’re not asking you to explain the plot of the movie/tv show to them.

They’re asking if they can watch it with you.

When neurotypicals ask you “What are you doing?”

What you think they’re asking: “Please explain to me what you are doing.”
What they’re actually asking: “Can I join you?”

Now here’s the really fucked up part. If you start explaining to them what you’re doing? They will interpret that as a rejection.

What you think you’re saying: [the answer to their question]
What they think you’re saying: This is an elite and exclusive activity for a level 5 friend and you are a level 1 acquaintance. You are not qualified to join me because you don’t know all this stuff. Go away.

This is why neurotypicals think you’re being cold and antisocial.

IT’S ALL A HORRIBLE MISCOMMUNICATION.

I don’t think this is always true – and when it is I would describe it as more of an open-ended attempt to start a fun conversation than a demand for participation – but I agree that it’s not just a straightforward request for information.

And there was some interesting discussion about this on Autistic Tumblr, which centered around: why would someone do this? Why can’t people just say what they mean?

And the best answer I saw – sorry, I can’t find it right now – explained that people were trying to spare their friends the burden of rejecting them. Say Alice is reading a book, and Bob asks “Hey, do you want to talk about that book?” Maybe Alice doesn’t want to talk about it. But the following conversation…

Bob: Hey, you want to talk to me about that book?
Alice: No

…sounds really rude. So by Bob saying his line, he’s putting a lot of subtle pressure on Alice to agree. Bob is a good person and he doesn’t want to do that. So instead he asks “Hey, what are you reading?”

Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
Alice: Not much. Just some random novel.
Bob: Oh, well, enjoy!

Or:

Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
Alice: Oh! It’s really interesting! It’s this book where Apollo 8 crashes into the celestial sphere surrounding the world, and suddenly everything reverts to kabbalistic Judaism…
Bob: Sounds neat! What happens next?

Here Alice either has an opportunity to signal that she wants to continue the conversation, or to reject Bob while maintaining plausible deniability that she’s doing that.

(The beauty of this theory is ruined only by the fact that half the time this happens in real life and I say “Just some random novel,” Bob actually answers “Oh! What kind of random novel?” and then I say “Oh, nothing really”, and Bob says “Come on! Something has to happen!” and then I start despairing that anything about social interaction can ever work at all. I don’t know. Maybe Bob is autistic.)

What I find interesting about “plausible deniability” explanations is that Bob has to operate as close to the border of “inscrutable confusingness” as possible without crossing it. He wants Alice to know he wants to talk to her, but he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to her (I’m being very deliberate in putting the word “know” exactly three times there rather than just using a vague phrase like “common knowledge”). As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to her, Alice can give a non-answer, pretending that she believes Bob will believe that she just didn’t realize he wanted to talk to her.

And this sort of weird common-knowledge-denial-process only works if you’re skirting the border of incomprehensibility, hitting a sweet spot where you think the other person will understand, but it’s also just barely plausible that the other person wouldn’t understand. If you say something the other person would definitely understand, then the game is up. Given some sort of natural variation in how good people are at understanding cues, your best bet is to send a cue that will fail a small but non-zero percent of the time.

But if there are people who are unusually bad at understanding social cues, like autistic people, then any cue calibrated to be on the exact border of neurotypical understanding is likely to fail for them more often than not.

I don’t know how common this pattern is. Making requests seems like a pretty good example. Flirting seems to be centered upon this kind of thing. I’m not sure what else is involved, but I bet it’s a lot.

A while ago I quoted a paper by Lawson, Rees & Friston about predictive-processing-based hypotheses of autism. They said:

This provides a simple explanation for the pronounced social-communication difficulties in autism; given that other agents are arguably the most difficult things to predict. In the complex world of social interactions, the many-to-one mappings between causes and sensory input are dramatically increased and difficult to learn; especially if one cannot contextualize the prediction errors that drive that learning.

And I was really struck by the phrase “arguably the most difficult thing to predict”. Really? People are harder to predict than, I don’t know, the weather? Weird little flying bugs? Political trends? M. Night Shyamalan movies? And of all the things about people that should be hard to predict, ordinary conversations?

And I think part of the answer might be: ordinary conversations are hard to predict because they’re designed to be so. Conversation norms are anti-inductive. Like Douglas Adams’ conception of the universe, any time people start to understand them too well, they have to get replaced with something a little bit less comprehensible.

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374 Responses to Conversation Deliberately Skirts The Border Of Incomprehensibility

  1. neverargreat says:

    “What I find interesting about “plausible deniability” explanations is that Bob has to operate as close to the border of “inscrutable confusingness” as possible without crossing it. He wants Alice to know he wants to talk to her, but he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to him (I’m being very deliberate in putting the word “know” exactly three times there rather than just using a vague phrase like “common knowledge”). As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to him, Alice can give a non-answer, pretending that she believes Bob will believe that she just didn’t realize he wanted to talk to him.”

    I get what you’re trying to say here, but I can’t wrap my brain around these sentences. Is there something wrong with the pronouns? The ‘him’ at the end of them should be ‘her’, right?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right. Kudos for navigating that sentence well enough to notice the error.

      • philh says:

        There are two more “he wants to talk to him”s that I think should be “he wants to talk to her”s.

        • d says:

          I’m still having some trouble parsing it:

          He wants Alice to know he wants to talk to her, but he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to him her (I’m being very deliberate in putting the word “know” exactly three times there…)

          Ok, so Bob wants Alice to think that he *doesn’t* know she knows he wants to talk to her.

          As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to him her, Alice can give a non-answer, pretending that she believes Bob will believe that she just didn’t realize he wanted to talk to her.

          So again, that first clause means (roughly) “If Alice thinks that Bob thinks that she doesn’t know he wants to talk to her”. But in that case, what’s that “pretending” doing in the next sentence? If she thinks that, she should really believe that Bob might believe her.

          I’m probably just tangled up in the logic, but if not, I think that what’s going on is that is that in that last sentence you’re describing the actual psychological experience of the situation, which is more complicated, with more layers of semi-belief and uncertainty, than the “exactly three times” model that you’re using in the rest of the paragraph.

  2. MartMart says:

    I have nothing to add, but thank you for writing this. The previous post you referenced here explained a great deal.

  3. gemmaem says:

    The best technique for improving my flirting that I ever came up with was “Collect phrases that imply ‘I like you, possibly romantically’ in a way that allows for easy responses of both no and yes.” And yes, a certain amount of indirectness does help with making it easy for people to refuse. So I think you are at least partially on to something here.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s about people actually not knowing who knows what, most of the time. Like, if it’s someone you know well, then you may both be fully aware that you are both fully aware of what you are communicating. But it can still feel politer to be indirect about it.

    It’s possible that this standard of politeness is set by how communication works with strangers, however, when plausible deniability can indeed come into play.

    • maximiliantiger says:

      Collect phrases that imply ‘I like you, possibly romantically’ in a way that allows for easy responses of both no and yes.”

      Example?

      • gemmaem says:

        One of my favourites was “I am really enjoying this conversation.”

        Possible responses include:

        “Mm” or a change of subject: welp, better luck next time
        “Yes, me too”: depending on the tone of voice, probably a good sign
        “Yes, we should meet up sometime to talk more”: definitely a good sign!

        Speaking of which, “we should meet up sometime” is also a good phrase, as it allows for responses like:

        “Yeah, although I’m pretty busy these days”: never mind
        “Mm, yeah, sometime…”: probably not going to happen
        “Yes, I’d like that”: maybe pin them down to a time, they seem keen
        “Yes, how about Tuesday”: they like you *and* they know how the game is played, sweet.

        Both of those can be for friends or for a romantic interest; depending on context, it can be advisable to make the romantic interest explicit as soon as possible (although for heterosexual couples at a party, it can definitely be implied from the start). But it’s always good to establish that baseline of “we like interacting with each other (so far) and we both know it” before coming out with something stronger like “Also, you are super cute. Which is not the only reason I’m enjoying this conversation, but I admit it helps” or something similar.

        • BlindKungFuMaster says:

          I thought if an American or Brit says “we should meet up sometime”, he’s just trying to make polite noises, and you’ll embarrass him by pinning down a time.

          And if during a conversation with me somebody said “I am really enjoying this conversation.”, I would definitely be embarrassed. That feels like coming on much too strong.

          I guess it’s all cultural and non generalisable.

          • gemmaem says:

            Yeah, there are definitely cultural differences to this. And it’s true that “we should meet up sometime” can be a rote statement — but only, I think, if it’s someone you already know well and haven’t seen in a while, as in “sorry, must dash, but we should really chat sometime!” which is a polite way of getting out of the conversation while still signalling that you don’t actually object to talking to this person, specifically, at some later unspecified time.

            If you’re saying “we should meet up sometime” to someone you are not currently close with, then I think it’s definitely an indication you might like to know this person better — certainly in California, at any rate, where I was using this.

            Editing to add that I was using “I’m really enjoying this conversation” specifically in situations when I really was, which I think helped. Like, when you meet someone and end up having a really long intense conversation about some mutual interest, for example. But there are probably still cultures where, even then, it might be a bit strong.

          • Tibor says:

            I don’t think that “I’m really enjoying this conversation” comes as too strong but it sounds very robotic. I’d say something like “it’s a lot of fun talking to you”. Sounds more natural, at least to me.

          • gbdub says:

            I’m an American – “We should meet up sometime” is possibly just being polite, but only for someone you’re acquainted with but not super close to.

            To a stranger you’ve only recently met, it’s pretty clear code for “I would like to get to know you better”, which, between heterosexuals of opposite genders, means “maybe in the Biblical sense”.

          • Drew says:

            And if during a conversation with me somebody said “I am really enjoying this conversation.”, I would definitely be embarrassed. That feels like coming on much too strong.

            I agree it could come off as a verbal faux-pas. But I think people over-estimate the importance of being conversationally smooth.

            I think of the big failure mode as “Schrodinger’s Flirt.”

            Someone, call them Lion, is interested in another person who we’ll call Mouse. Lion dislikes rejection.

            So Lion starts up a conversation. Lion is careful to be really ambiguous about their interest. Mouse legitimately isn’t sure if Lion’s interested.

            The conversation continues until Mouse is compelled (by interest or time constraint) to end the conversation one way or another.

            If Mouse accepts the advance, then Lion reveals that they were flirting the whole time! If Mouse rejects the advance, then Lion retcons the conversation so that it always was platonic.

            This pattern shifts all the emotional risk for the encounter onto Mouse.s.

            Even worse, if Mouse encounters this pattern regularly, they’ll infer that some of the Lions had to have been flirting. This injects some uncomfortable social-ambiguity into all of Mouse’s future social interactions.

            —-

            In my view, @gemmaem is getting the really important things right by avoiding this pattern.

            Their lines are fairly direct. But, by being direct, they make it clear that they’re flirting. This gives the other person a clear choice to escalate / de-escalate the conversation from there.

            If the person is interested they’ll probably forgive the verbal Faux-Pas.

            If they’re disinterested, they’ll probably note the compliment, and be happy that they’re not emotionally responsible for all the ambiguity in the conversation.

          • gemmaem says:

            But, by being direct, they make it clear that they’re flirting. This gives the other person a clear choice to escalate / de-escalate the conversation from there.

            If the person is interested they’ll probably forgive the verbal Faux-Pas.

            If they’re disinterested, they’ll probably note the compliment, and be happy that they’re not emotionally responsible for all the ambiguity in the conversation.

            Yeah! It’s actually even more than that. Most people prefer to be polite, most of the time. So if they can see an obvious polite “no”, they’ll use it, thereby sparing you the pain of a rude “no”. Sometimes it can still be a little awkward afterwards, but if you show you’ve understood the “no” and accept it then people are generally pretty happy to smooth things over.

          • Aapje says:

            @Drew

            If Mouse accepts the advance, then Lion reveals that they were flirting the whole time! If Mouse rejects the advance, then Lion retcons the conversation so that it always was platonic.

            This pattern shifts all the emotional risk for the encounter onto Mouse.

            That only happens when Mouse is not smooth enough to respond to the advance with an ambiguous response. Mouse can do so to put the ball back in Lion’s court. Then Lion can judge the level of acceptance/rejection to:
            – escalate rapidly
            – escalate slowly
            – attempt to give more information to make Mouse more willing
            – bail on the attempt

            Mouse can indicate what Lion should do with the response, without committing strongly if Lion happens to screw up a later step in the process.

  4. Toby Bartels says:

    Well, whenever *I* ask what you’re reading or whatever, I do really want to know. I wouldn’t ask it that way if I already knew; I’d put it some other way. Yes, I am also watching for cues in your answer as to whether you want to share it with me, but all the same, I appreciate it when you start with an answer to the literal question.

    That said, I’m terrible at flirting, and sometimes people suspect that I have Asperger’s or something, so maybe I’m doing it wrong.

    • Virbie says:

      I seem to have internalized this stuff well enough to be able to socialize completely normally, thank god. But I still occasionally have issues at work: I’m so focused on being productive and professional (especially in a small company with little buffer), that I forget how badly people’s egos need coddling and how much people try to read every damn thing into plainly-communicated English, even when they’re in a role where they’re supposed to be acting like adults. Going from being surrounded by smart, confident people to a different type of job where I have to work with dummies occasionally has made this transition a lot rougher.

      I literally had a guy tell me that asking him why he did something a certain way instead of just telling him he did it wrong without hearing his side out was making him feel crappy, since I was obviously only asking so that he would be humiliated. How is it _less_ demoralizing to be given the opportunity to explain your design decision?? Especially when the answer to “I just made a mistake” is always “oh ok cool, nbd”.

      • Zodiac says:

        That story is interesting to me. Would you say the guy you’re describing had less, more or normal self-esteem?

      • JulieK says:

        How is it _less_ demoralizing to be given the opportunity to explain your design decision??

        It might depend on the context. E.g. I’ve observed a parent saying to a child “Why did you do X?!” when both parent and child know there is no good reason, so the child just squirms and has nothing to say and it would have been more comfortable (for the child) if the parent would just say “Don’t ever do X again.”

        • gbdub says:

          Second this. An open ended request for explanation (when the explanation may very well be “I just screwed up”, and that seems obvious to everyone) can just seem like extending the offender’s humiliation as they stammer to come up with a credible excuse.

          That said, if there’s a good, correctable reason the mistake was made, (wasn’t in the manual or design standard, test procedure wasn’t designed to catch this, guy before me made an error, etc.), you definitely want to know.

          I think you could spin that into a positive or neutral experience for the employee by changing “why did you make this bad design decision?” into “Is there anything in our process we need to change to avoid / catch similar mistakes more easily in the future?”

        • Robert Miles says:

          I think I’d phrase it like “I’m not sure about your decision to do X”. Then he’s free to say “Oh damn yeah I guess that doesn’t make sense” or “Yeah, I thought about doing Y, but X seemed more elegant” or like “Oh, you’d have chosen Y? But what about [problem with Y]?”, or “I wasn’t sure what to do there myself, what would you have done?”, and now you’re having a conversation about design decisions. Just straight-up asking can sound like “I demand you justify yourself to me” or “please stand up so I can knock you down”. It depends on your relative status, and how often you change your mind based on the answers to your questions.

          • Yug Gnirob says:

            That particular guy sounds like he either doesn’t understand the job, or can’t do it 100% consistently, so any variation on a chance to explain himself can only lead to “because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

            I’d try “normally we do X,” or depending on the work culture, “need some help?” But I’m not a boss of any kind.

      • The Nybbler says:

        How is it _less_ demoralizing to be given the opportunity to explain your design decision?

        I think Julie K has the right of it. It’s a common power game by authority to ask for an explanation from a subordinate when something’s messed up (in the eyes of the authority, which are the only ones which count). The correct response from the subordinate is to roll over and show his belly; a mea culpa, which will be followed by a dressing-down. Giving an _actual_ reason will be taken as giving excuses, and the authority will respond with a harsher dressing-down to put the subordinate in his place.

        • sconn says:

          Yes! I think you’ve got it. When parents, teachers, and bosses have done this as a power game, there is never any right answer and attempting to answer is punished. That has happened to me a lot, which is probably why this kind of question makes me crazy defensive. Other people have poisoned this approach and you can’t use it.

      • John Schilling says:

        Especially when the answer to “I just made a mistake” is always “oh ok cool, nbd”.

        When is that, exactly? Because sometimes the answer to “I just made a mistake” is contemptuous dismissal and loss of status, and everyone who has ever tried to explain a mistake knows that. If there is some restricted subset of occasions on which admitting a mistake is “cool nbd”, how does the person you are talking to know that this is one of them?

        • Witness says:

          This is definitely an issue. One of the things I’m struggling with at my own workplace is an attempt to build a culture where people can own up to mistakes quickly and easily (to expedite fixing them).

          We genuinely want to know whether there was a reason that you chose a problematic path, because it may inform our attempts to fix the problem! But also we want you to be able to just own up to the goof and keep going.

          This is something that’s taken me the better part of a decade to get comfortable with, even with a boss who’s been mostly encouraging and reasonable about these things. So it’s both frustrating and perfectly understandable that people who started working with us more recently don’t catch on right away.

      • sconn says:

        Gah, my husband does this at times when I feel the answer is obvious. “Why is the milk on the counter?” cannot possibly have an answer other than “I’m an irresponsible flake who left it out,” and I always feel he is being passive aggressive. I guess not?

        • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

          Personally, I’d say that, if your husband is a neurotypical, then saying “Why is the milk on the counter?” is perforce a not nice thing to say, but there is a wide continuum of how not-nice. It could easily be a verbal reflex with no particular intention behind it, in which case it would be only very slightly not-nice.

        • simon says:

          There is another possible answer: “because I just poured some and expect to do so again in the near future, so it wasn’t worth returning it to the fridge in the meantime”.

          I’ve asked “is the milk out for some particular purpose?” to inquire whether me putting the milk back would inconvenience someone without sounding accusatory. I don’t know if it succeeds at that though.

          • simon says:

            I am a weird person who says weird things. I think the socially correct thing to say would be “are you still using the milk?”

  5. Acedia says:

    Is it really true that if someone asks what you’re doing/watching they want to be invited to join you? If it is that’s a huge shock to me and tells me I’m not as good at faking normality as I thought I was. :[

    • Tedd says:

      It is very definitely not always the case.

      It is very definitely not never the case.

      It’s hard to nail down what fraction it is. Especially given that it varies by population, of course.

      (Also, “join you” is I think strongly overstating the case; I think it probably is an invitation to conversation at least, say, 80% of the time, but that’s not the same as “asking to join”.)

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      It’s not always true. That would be too easy.

      I guess it’s a possible agenda to keep in mind when getting questions like it.

    • Ketil says:

      Not necessarily wanting to join (join reading a book?). For me, all of those would mean something like “I’m bored or feeling lonely, and would like to have some social interaction”. So feel free to ignore the specific question completely, and start a conversation on some other topic. Which probably explains why outright rejection (“A book, go away.”) is not too considerate.

      As an analog, foreigners will often have problems with phrases like “how are you” or “how do you do” – wondering how to interpret (more or less literally) something which is just a signal of polite protocol.

      And another thought: complicated and unarticulated context makes for social group coherence. Having conversations that we (the in-group) can understand, but they (out-group) cannot, is something that strengthens our group. So deliberating making our conversation protocols obscure can serve an important social purpose.

      • LCL says:

        Yes, this. It’s just a fairly open-ended invitation to engage. Basically, “hey, talk to me?” You could talk about the book if you wanted or about something else entirely. Either would be fine.

        With a game, you could invite them to play or you could tell the story of what was happening in the game, or abandon the game and invite them to do something else, or talk to them about something different while continuing to play the game without them. None of those responses would be surprising and any would probably be welcome. The request is just for social engagement of an open-ended type.

        As for why people would do that: the narrative in the post may be true but generally isn’t conscious. Mostly, it’s just the least intrusive way to ask for engagement – “engage me about the thing that I see you are currently attending to” rather than “stop attending to that thing and attend to me instead.” So it feels friendlier putting it that way.

      • wintermute92 says:

        Yes, this nails it.

        The writer of the original tip diagnosed a problem correctly – it’s a question with a double meaning, not a pure request for a fact. But the proposed cure isn’t very good.

        “What are you reading?” and “what are you playing?” for a clearly single-player game aren’t invitations to ‘join’, because that’s nonsensical. They’re just open invitations to chat/socialize in whatever way feels appropriate, with a prompt so the burden isn’t on the other person.

        That’s a lot of social coding, honestly: taking burdens off the other person. “Want to talk about your book?” conveys the burden of rudely saying “no”, but also “want to chat for a bit?” conveys the burden of deciding what to talk about. “What’re you reading?” says something like “I’d like to talk for a while, and if you agree but don’t have a topic let’s start with that book”.

        • russellsteapot42 says:

          I think one of the issues here is that autistic or just nerdy people have a tendency to feel more comfortable lecturing than being in a conversation, especially when it comes to something in which they have a very significant interest, which can sometimes leave them feeling isolated and eager for an outlet to express that interest in.

          The trick to conversation is to stop talking every 1-3 sentences and let the other person respond. When you don’t do that, and you lecture instead, you are making the other person feel like you are trying to establish a weird power relationship with them, because for most people lectures are what you get from your superiors, not your peers.

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            When you don’t do that, and you lecture instead, you are making the other person feel like you are trying to establish a weird power relationship with them

            Well, you kinda are.

            Or at least you’re showing that you don’t care what the other person has to say, since you don’t make time to listen to it.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            Well, you kinda are.

            This doesn’t make sense. Are teacher’s ‘trying to establish a weird power’ each time they give a lecture? Are they trying to show their student’s they don’t care what they think?

          • Nornagest says:

            Are teacher’s ‘trying to establish a weird power’ each time they give a lecture?

            Teachers already have a power relationship with their students. A very strong one; I think about the only comparable ones in Western society are parent/child and military officers over their direct inferiors. Boss/employee, politician/citizen, police/civilian aren’t even close on a one-on-one basis, though they may wield more total power.

            Between adults, it is generally seen as very very rude to assume the teacher role without consent.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            I like to think that most teachers lecture because they want to impart knowledge to their students and/or get a paycheck, and the power social dynamic is derived from their ability to assign grades.

            Between adults, it is generally seen as very very rude to assume the teacher role without consent.

            Here, someone who suffers from autism might mistakenly interpret a question such as “What is that book about?” as a consent to lecture.

          • Nornagest says:

            The ability to assign grades is incidental. The power comes from the assumption that you are right. And not only right, but worth paying close attention to. Even most students that don’t pay close attention (which is most of them) think that they should and internalize the stuff they caught accordingly.

            I was an independent, nitpicky type (read: defiant little snot) in school, so I didn’t really get this until I started teaching martial arts and found some students of mine repeating stuff I’d told them as a joke, in awed tones, two months later. I don’t make that kind of joke anymore.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            What I am struggling to understand is how, if Alice says, “That book looks interesting”, and Bob says “Oh, it is! Scientists can tell by electromagnetic wavelengths that …” that constitutes Bob attempting to exert power over Alice, as Squirrel of Doom seems to imply.
            Yes, in a broad, abstract sense he is trying to influence Alice by making her think he’s smart, and therefore raising his social standing with her, but then you have just watered down the notion of ‘establishing power’ to include most every interaction between two people.

            I can see both how Bob would not have meant to ‘establish a weird power relationship’ while Alice might feel like that’s what he’s trying to do. What I don’t understand is Squirrel’s assertion that he actually is doing that in any meaningful sense that doesn’t also include telling a joke to make her think he is witty, or grabbing her hand at a dance to make her think he is assertive.

          • Nornagest says:

            Yes, in a broad, abstract sense he is trying to influence Alice by making her think he’s smart, and therefore raising his social standing with her,

            That’s not what he’s doing according to the conventional script. According to that script, he, by lecturing Alice, is trying to establish not only that he knows something Alice doesn’t (a small status claim in itself, but the script has room for that kind of thing), but, crucially, that he has the right and duty to take up Alice’s time telling her about it at length without checking with her.

            Bob, of course, just thinks he’s conveying some information he finds interesting, but Bob’s intentions don’t really enter into it.

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            Note how I used the word “kinda”. I wouldn’t use the term “establish a power relationship” myself.

            My point is more that if you give people lectures they haven’t asked for, you’re showing that you think your thoughts are important, and theirs are not.

            In the case of an actual teacher, the student normally has asked to be lectured by signing up for the class.

        • clearairturbulence says:

          he … is trying to establish … that he has the right and duty to take up Alice’s time …..

          but Bob’s intentions don’t really enter into it.

          What?? These two things say the exact opposite.

          • Nornagest says:

            No, they don’t. The former’s about what Bob is signaling, the latter’s about what Bob is trying to signal. These usually correspond but don’t necessarily; it is possible to signal things inadvertently.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            And, just to be clear, what he is trying to signal is different from what he is trying to establish?

          • russellsteapot42 says:

            The social script says that if he is doing action A he must intend effect B, regardless of his actual intentions.

          • Witness says:

            Alice is attempting to divine Bob’s intention. One of the more common interpretations is examined in the first statement.

            Bob’s actual intentions are unknown to her and therefore (as noted in the second statement) don’t directly impact her perception.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            her perception.

            This is what I was getting at. It makes no more sense to say “Bob is showing Alice how smart he is”, which is objectively wrong, than it is to say “Bob is trying to establish a weird power relationship (or even ‘kinda trying’)” which seems equally objectively wrong.

            Saying ‘he is’ or ‘kinda is’ implies some objective reality to Alice’s perception.

          • Nornagest says:

            No, Bob’s not trying to establish any kind of power relationship. But the social protocol most of the people around Bob are running dictates that his actions will be seen as trying to establish a power relationship, for the very good reason that most of the people around Bob would be trying to establish said relationship if they did the same things.

            This is not “objectively true”, but we’re not talking about objective reality, we’re talking about a social construct. Which exists nowhere outside people’s heads, but can’t be unilaterally changed and has very real consequences: by way of comparison, national borders are a social construct, you can’t isolate a coffee can full of borderium, but I’ll still get shot if I try to cross the wrong one in the wrong way.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            But the social protocol most of the people around Bob are running

            In the original social script we only have Bob’s intent and Alice’s perception of that intent. You can obviously rewrite the script to include Eve and whatever perception of Bob’s intent you’d like her to have.

          • Nornagest says:

            That includes Alice. It also includes Carol, Dan, Eve, etc.

            These people are significant because the social script comes out of a consensus among them that’s partly innate and partly cultural. We can treat that consensus as a black box and ignore them, but only if you trust it. I don’t get the impression that you do.

            If the only people in the world were Alice and Bob and they were trying to invent a new social protocol from scratch (maybe Alice was raised by hyenas and Bob was raised by toasters), most of the reasons to prefer Alice’s set of norms would go away: Bob likes low-context communication, Alice likes high-context, go flip a coin or something. But that’s not the world any of us live in.

          • clearairturbulence says:

            Yes, that clears things up, thank you.

    • Scott says:

      The thing here is, why would you ever care what the book is? What’s important in this context from initiating a conversation with a person is not that the book exists (there’s millions on the shelves at the library), but that they are the ones reading it. Asking them what they’re reading is a clear communication that you’re interested in them, and the book is just a vehicle to do that. Because why would you ever want to know about the book?

      • Aapje says:

        Perhaps the cover looks interesting and/or you trust their taste in books?

        • Scott says:

          Interest in their taste in books isn’t an interest in the book itself, it’s an interest in them and their opinions.

          • carvenvisage says:

            he didn’t say interest in their taste in books. If you trust their taste in books finding out the book would give you a potential read for yourself.

      • carvenvisage says:

        1. curiosity, duh

        2. from this ‘human’ angle being bandied about (which I do not approve of), to touch in with someone or show interest in them or their interests.

        3. to find out if it’s a subject you can comment on. Some answers would get enthusiasm and an aha, some would get a nod and a slinking onwards.

         

        ALso

        why would you ever want to know about the book?

        If this is attitude of people providing this advice it explains their interaction troubles far better than lacking social skills on the part of the book reader.

    • Urstoff says:

      Not always. Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice will signal if this is the case. It can’t hurt to assume they’re generally interested and invite them to join anyway, though.

  6. raj says:

    I understand all that and I still think the world would be better if people could be more direct in communication. Certainly on the margin. For example, Bob: “Hey can I join you” Alice: “No, I do not desire to socialize right now”. In an ideal world Alice would feel no pressure to say yes, and Bob would have no expectations and take no offense. And compared to the “neurotypical” script, there is no risk of miscommunication.

    I find that in my personal life, being more open about my intentions and feelings is almost always a good thing, even if my default mode is to obfuscate it. And human psychology is so goddamn complex that trying to apply reflective agent-prediction patterns fails as much as it succeeds. Which was true in the ancestral environment, except the penalties for risk-taking are now trivial. Like, it would never happen this way but the *worst* case scenario is : “Wow, this interaction has become painfully awkward, welp, goodbye!”

    • gbdub says:

      Do you really want to live in a world where rejection never feels bad, and reciprocal interest doesn’t feel good? Do you want to live in a world where those things do matter, but no one is kind enough to care about your feelings?

      The intent of the obfuscation is kindness – giving and receiving straight rejections is awkward and uncomfortable, and always will be because we are social animals.

      • Civilis says:

        As a somewhat neuro-atypical person and an avid boardgamer, the initial tumbler post confuses me. When I’m playing a game, I fully understand that many people coming up to me when I’m setting up a game and asking me “what game are you playing?” are including a politely obfuscated request “can I join?” in their question.

        The thing is, my descriptive response is also polite obfuscation. By providing a description, I’m asking “what is your level of familiarity with the subject?”, hidden under a polite response to the question asked, giving you a chance to demonstrate your level of knowledge or back out.

        If your response to the description includes familiarity with the game’s concepts (“You say it’s a worker placement game? Is it like Stone Age?”), I feel confident enough engaging at a higher level and letting you play as a veteran. If your response is positive but indicates you’re new to the concepts (“Sounds fun! Is it hard?”), I’ll play in full teaching mode, explaining the rules and strategy as we go along. If you’d rather be playing something else, this is a polite opportunity to back out. (“Sounds complicated! I was really looking for a quick bluffing game…”)

        With games, or TV, or books, or anything I’m interested in, I want to know what level to communicate on, and will react differently to a fellow fan, someone with a casual interest, or someone just looking for social interaction.

        • Brad says:

          I think you are getting what you are supposed to get out of the question.

          Look at the last part of the tumblr quote:

          What you think you’re saying: [the answer to their question]
          What they think you’re saying: This is an elite and exclusive activity for a level 5 friend and you are a level 1 acquaintance. You are not qualified to join me because you don’t know all this stuff. Go away.

          If you actually want to say “this is a an elite and exclusive …” you get it. Maybe you are kind of a jerk, but you get it. It’s only if you thought you were just answering a request for more information but the other person thought you were saying “go away” that there’s a problem.

          • Civilis says:

            You’re right; I rewrote most of that post halfway through as I thought of a more coherent explanation for what I was seeing and my own experiences.

            What I initially was trying to say is that I understand there’s a hidden question at play, what I don’t understand is why the neurotypical asking the initial question doesn’t understand that the response itself has a hidden question. They obviously understand the idea of hidden questions, right? (This sort of stupid logic is why I’m at least somewhat neuro-atypical). In these examples, the problem is not that the neuro-atypical doesn’t understand the subtext, it’s that the neurotypical doesn’t. Either the person you asked doesn’t understand the subtext (and thus you get a direct response to the top-level question) or does and sends back a subtext response (hidden in the direct response). If you understand it’s polite to mask the question, you should expect the response to be masked.

            It’s like a coded spy pass phrase. If you ask the potential contact the phrase in code (“what’s the weather look like on Tuesday?”) you should expect either that the response will be in code (“Tuesday’s weather is good for herring”) or the person will have no clue to the hidden message. You should not expect to get an unencrypted response to an encrypted request.

            One of the things that puzzles me about this is that in my experience, everyone likes talking about things they enjoy. I’m very introverted (offline, at least), and the only ways to get me to open up are either one on one conversation or ask a direct question on something I’m interested in speaking about but won’t raise the subject of. If you raise the subject any of my extroverted neurotypical mother’s interests in conversation, she won’t stop talking about them. If I asked a question about something and got an enthusiastic response, it would never occur to me to characterize that as rejection.

          • gbdub says:

            Okay now I’m a bit confused by the point you’re trying to make.

            what I don’t understand is why the neurotypical asking the initial question doesn’t understand that the response itself has a hidden question. They obviously understand the idea of hidden questions, right?

            They do understand it – that’s the problem, the “hidden question” is coming off as insulting.

            In these examples, the problem is not that the neuro-atypical doesn’t understand the subtext, it’s that the neurotypical doesn’t.

            This is why I think the tumblr author has a bad model of neurotypical people. If they are getting the responses they describe from neurotypical people, it’s because they (not the neurotypical) are sending bad/unintended subtext. Or at least that the two people have very different models of subtext.

            Neurotypical people will not take an enthusiastic description of something as a rejection, but they might take an overly technical way-above-their heads response as a rejection, because it seems like you’re unwilling to make the effort to engage with them in a way they can respond to.

            (If they like you, they probably won’t take it as an insulting rejection or a “you’re not a sufficiently good friend”. But they probably will take it as “I’m nerding out right now, please leave me alone”)

          • Brad says:

            @Civilis

            What I initially was trying to say is that I understand there’s a hidden question at play, what I don’t understand is why the neurotypical asking the initial question doesn’t understand that the response itself has a hidden question.

            The conceit of the original tumblr post was that the objectively reasonable hidden response was “go away” but the personal playing the game didn’t intend that response.

            In the comments there’s a ton of push-back on that — talking about what else it could have possibly meant, discussing body language, etc, etc, etc. These responses miss the point. The idea lierdumoa was trying to convey is that subtext is very important in conversation with neurotypicals, not to provide a completely defensible in every detail example.

            If you raise the subject any of my extroverted neurotypical mother’s interests in conversation, she won’t stop talking about them.

            Doesn’t she has the ability and willingness to, for example, see if the other person is getting bored and redirect the conversation to something else?

          • Civilis says:

            This is why I think the tumblr author has a bad model of neurotypical people. If they are getting the responses they describe from neurotypical people, it’s because they (not the neurotypical) are sending bad/unintended subtext. Or at least that the two people have very different models of subtext.

            In any lossy communication medium, there needs to be an error correction mechanism. If two parties don’t have a matching subtext model, you need to fall back on the less lossy direct communication mechanism. Yes, tone and other non-verbal cues make for stronger communication normally, but we’re talking about a situation where one party is known to have issues perceiving those.

            Neurotypical people will not take an enthusiastic description of something as a rejection, but they might take an overly technical way-above-their heads response as a rejection, because it seems like you’re unwilling to make the effort to engage with them in a way they can respond to.

            And they might take a bare-bones kid-level response as a rejection, for the exact same reason. Through painful trial and error, I’ve learned to figure out many of those non-verbal and other subtextual cues, at least in situations I commonly encounter; I’m just relying on past experience where subtextual cues I missed were followed up by people giving obvious verbal cues I could use to get the barest clue what I did wrong.

            Doesn’t she has the ability and willingness to, for example, see if the other person is getting bored and redirect the conversation to something else?

            No, which raises questions as to how I model neurotypical / neuroatypical. Perhaps the difference between introverts and extroverts plays a role? I worry about how other people perceive me, perhaps in part because I can’t get a feel for that from nonverbal cues. Social interaction is taxing because I spend a lot of time trying to interpret non-verbal cues to make sure the people I’m interacting with are fine with my presence. On the other hand, I’ve known a number of seemingly normal people that can talk and talk and talk; it may be a selective ability to ignore boredom.

          • gbdub says:

            but we’re talking about a situation where one party is known to have issues perceiving those.

            Are we? I thought the scenario was meant to cover interactions with strangers and casual acquaintances, not just intimates. But even in the case of intimates who know your social struggles, keep in mind that, while it’s unfair for them to ask you to unilaterally escape the typical mind fallacy, it is equally unfair for you to expect that of them (and actually, probably harder for them, in that they know few people who are like you, and you know a lot of people like them). Need to meet halfway.

            And they might take a bare-bones kid-level response as a rejection, for the exact same reason.

            See my Skyrim example below – I think it’s usually possible to give an answer that gauges their knowledge/interest level, without assuming it.

        • gbdub says:

          This is a good point, and maybe explains why lierdumoa might have reached the conclusions they did?

          Let’s say you’re playing Skyrim and I ask, “what are you playing?” you answer:
          A) “Skyrim.” That feels rather brusque, plus I can see the title of the game from the disc case on the table. Seems like you’re rejecting conversation with me, maybe even talking down to me.

          B) “Right now I’m focusing on the College of Winterhold questline, doing a bit of level-grinding to raise the Destruction stats for my Breton battlemage. Eventually I’ll get around to conquering the Reach for the Stormcloaks”. Unless I am myself a Skyrim geek, you have just given me a meaningless word salad of jargon. I have no idea where to inject myself into that conversation, and will slink away feeling stupid.

          C) “Skyrim. Have you heard of it? It’s a fantasy single-player RPG set in the Elder Scrolls universe. It’s pretty neat!” You have given me several hooks to enter in, appropriate for any level of knowledge on the subject, without talking down to me, and have indicated enthusiasm for continuing the conversation.

          • kenziegirl says:

            @gbdub OK, so this situation irks me. If, as you say, the questioner can clearly see that I am playing Skyrim, why do they start the conversation by saying “What are you playing?” It’s an idiotic question on the face of it, and to answer it literally is, as you pointed out, standoffish and borderline rude. Therefore that requires me to parse what goals the questioner actually has for this interaction, or what result they expect, in order to respond appropriately. But people do this all the time so I guess I’m in the minority. Conversation is hard 🙁

            And while I’m ranting – honestly, isn’t having your nose in a book kind of the universal symbol for “Don’t bother me, I’m not interested in conversation right now”? If someone looks really focused or deep in concentration, I guess it’s okay to put out feelers, but also don’t be surprised if a person isn’t pleased at the interruption.

            Yeah, I’m fun at parties. /s

          • Nornagest says:

            @gbdub — Option C strikes me as a little clunky. Parts of it are too basic for most audiences, and parts are too detailed; “fantasy single-player RPG” is appropriate for talking to my mother but will come off as condescending to most anyone of my generation, but “Elder Scrolls universe” isn’t going to mean anything to anyone that isn’t an RPG fan already.

            I think I’d go for “Skyrim; it’s pretty fun, I’m robbing a tomb/killing some bandits/on my way to slay a dragon right now”, assuming I was talking to someone about my age. I might go for more detail if I know they’re into gaming or fantasy.

          • carvenvisage says:

            If Skyrim is written somewhere obvious where you can both see it then you would want to ask something like “what’s that game about?”

            And is acting like a salesman to your friends really being friendly?

            I mean, if the tone of the question is ‘wha’cha doooin’?, or otherwise indicates that you aren’t being literal, then sure I get that that’s different, but you seem to be saying here that my default response should be to not take people at their words.

            Well what if someone just wants to know what game I’m playing? Maybe they recognise it as an elder scrolls game and are curious. If that’s the case then your response C tends to rope *them* into a conversation they don’t want to have, because now you’re indicating that you’re needy.

            Norms like “respond with a patronising sales pitch, clearly indicating your ‘enthusiasm’ for discussion”, seem to be clearly non universal, and set up to favour extroverts and obfuscators + profitably blind them to other preferences.

            edit: and to discourage differences seeing as it’s based on the assumption that everyone basically thinks the same way and that it’s therefore immoral *not* to profile them. Isn’t profiling supposed to be lazy and have compounding consequences?

          • Nornagest says:

            you seem to be saying here that my default response should be to not take people at their words.

            Small talk always functions at more than one level. The first level is the literal meaning of the words, which is usually but not always more of an excuse for interaction than a genuine request for information. The second level is the social context you’re implying (status relationships, formality levels, etc; depending on the language some of this might be encoded explicitly). The third and subsequent levels have to do with the social goals you’re trying to serve.

            I think gbdub’s answer C has some problems on the second level, but it’s got the third right; it’s more likely to be an invitation to chat (about your game) than a signal that they actually care about your game. (An honest curiosity about the game would sound more like “That game looks really cool, what is it?”)

            Normally it is perfectly fine to not answer the explicit question, as long as you signal the appropriate context and respond to the implicit social prompt:

            Alice: “What’s up?” Bob: “‘How’s it going?”

            Alice: “Come here often?” Bob: “I wondered when you’d come over here.”

            Alice: “What’re you playing?” Bob: “Man, I just kicked these guys’ asses!”

          • gbdub says:

            Option C strikes me as a little clunky. Parts of it are too basic for most audiences, and parts are too detailed; “fantasy single-player RPG” is appropriate for talking to my mother but will come off as condescending to most anyone of my generation, but “Elder Scrolls universe” isn’t going to mean anything to anyone that isn’t an RPG fan already.

            My intent was to include both parts, because if you know what Elder Scrolls are, you can ignore the first bit, and if you have no idea, you can latch on to all or part of “single-player fantasy RPG” and/or ask about the Elder Scrolls part. Your answer might be a little smoother, but I was intentionally trying to add a little bit for everyone to illustrate my point, at the expense of maximum smoothness.

            And while I’m ranting – honestly, isn’t having your nose in a book kind of the universal symbol for “Don’t bother me, I’m not interested in conversation right now”?

            In some contexts, yes. In others no. Say I’m sitting at a lunch table in the cafeteria eating and reading. I could be signaling “don’t bother me”, but also “I’m lonely, come talk to me (that’s why I’m hanging out here instead of in my office”. Even more so at a party, or a bar. If you and I are friends, I’d consider a greeting of some kind polite, and might be a bit miffed if I notice you walk by and you don’t give me at least a wave. If I just want to read, I’ll politely dismiss you and we’ll both have done our social duty.

            Or consider my example – why am I in your house watching you play Skyrim in the first place? Presumably we have some sort of positive relationship wherein it would be reasonable to expect some acknowledgement of each other’s existence, from time to time.

          • carvenvisage says:

            @Nornagest

            Not sure what your point is. Why should I be expected to assume small talk (not meaning what you say)? And how is that a universal norm rather than one set up to advantage others at my expense?

            I mean there is this whole other set of channels to indicate things like that called tone body language etc.

          • Nornagest says:

            Not sure what your point is. Why should I be expected to assume small talk, (not meaning what you say)

            The point is that this is not “not meaning what you say”. You do mean what you say. But most of what you say is not explicit: if you walk up to an attractive stranger of the preferred sex at a bar and say “garble mumble burble squack?”, it means nothing explicitly, but it will be read as a very clear come-on.

            and how is that a universal norm rather than one set up advantage others at my expense?

            No one set this up; neurotypical people with normal levels of social experience just slide into this mode of interpretation without trying. (Usually they develop it over their early- to mid-teens, which is why middle school is so hellish: misunderstandings and ham-fisted cues flying everywhere.) It does disadvantage you, if you’re one of the people for whom it’s a skill that has to be learned explicitly, but it’s not going to go away if you don’t accept it.

          • carvenvisage says:

            If I say ‘how are you’, what I say and mean can be the same or, more usually in this case, can diverge. If I say ‘what are you reading’, the same is true.

            No one set this up

            No one consciously and calculatedly set this up while cackling about how this would disadvantage people with different temperaments, but when people condemn someone reading a book for giving a straight answer they are probably doing the same thing that created that norm, i.e. thoughtlessly assuming everyone thinks like they do, or that other ways should be considered invalid.

            It does disadvantage you, if you’re one of the people for whom it’s a skill that has to be learned explicitly, but it’s not going to go away if you don’t accept it.

            It’s more like a preference or a habit than a skill.

          • Nornagest says:

            thoughtlessly assuming everyone thinks like they do, or that how they think should be priveleged.

            It’s as hard for them to not do this as it is for those others to do it. “Just [explicitly] say what you mean [and ignore anything implicit]” to a neurotypical person is like “just be yourself” to someone with an anxiety disorder, or “just lighten up” for someone with depression. Some can do it, because for whatever reason they’ve learned to. But it is not a simple or natural thing to do.

            So yes, it is, in a way, assuming that how they think should be privileged. But given that they have a large majority and the burdens of adaptation are roughly symmetrical, this is not an unreasonable thing to assume.

          • Yug Gnirob says:

            I think option C is stronger if you cut out the description entirely. “Skyrim. Have you heard of it? It’s pretty neat!” You’ve got a really bare-bones answer to the question, and a follow-up question the other person can engage with. If they want to actually know about the game they can ask a second question about it, and then you can go into detail.

            I think option A is actually the same problem as option B: “Skyrim” is meaningless to someone who hasn’t heard of it. If the game was “Orcs Must Die” the title by itself might be enough, although adding a counter-question always helps.

          • carvenvisage says:

            but nothing stops someone from recognising that other people think differently. I know that ‘neurotypicals’ (actually I am one, but I know what you mean) are usually less literal minded than I am, and e.g. autistic people are more literal minded than I am. -And that people in general vary on all sorts of dimensions.

            If someone answers my literal question with a social interpretation, I might be confused (or even annoyed) but I’m definitely not going to assume they just deep down don’t like giving me information I request, and must hate me. Different people are different, and part of social competence is feeling out how different people operate.

          • gbdub says:

            Apparently my Skyrim example was clunkier than intended, so mea culpa. Hopefully there was some value in the discussion of the example at least.

            @carvenvisage:

            Different people are different, and part of social competence is feeling out how different people operate.

            Right, but what we mean by “neurotypical” here is “conforms fairly closely to the societal norm” meaning “I can use my default model for how people operate on this person and be mostly correct”.

            If I don’t know much about you, I’m going to apply my default model to you. If you’re neurotypical and I’m reasonably socially savvy, this will work pretty well for our initial interactions. Note that this goes both ways – I’ll try to suppress some of my weirder quirks and react more or less according to the default model, to make it more likely you’ll understand me.

            Now, if I get to know you better and we interact a lot, I’ll start assembling a “carvenvisage” model especially for our interactions.

            If I know a lot of autistic people, or a lot of Chinese people, or whatever, I’ll assemble models for those interactions.

            But I won’t initially have a well-matched model for you unless a) you’re neurotypical b) you belong to a group I interact with a lot, and I either know explicitly or can easily discern that you belong to that group or c) you personally are someone I know well as an individual.

            So if you’re not neurotypical, it’s still pretty important to have a reasonable understanding of the typical model, and to be able to credibly mimic it as your default. Not because it’s “better” by any objective standard, but because the default model will be close enough to the average person you run into that your initial interactions will be minimally unpleasant.

            The more atypical you are, the harder it will be for others to understand you, not because they are out to get you or feel superior to you, but merely because you diverge farther from the default model and it will take longer / more effort to adapt to you.

            Unfortunately this is an additional burden on the atypical, and we should be sensitive to that, but keep in mind there’s nothing sinister about the default – it’s just what we all converge to because it works reasonably well on average.

            I could just assume everyone is a literal minded autistic, but this will work poorly for the vast majority of people I run into. Maybe even the few literal minded autistics I run across, because if they’ve trained themselves to recognize and mimic the default model with strangers, they’ll be just as surprised / put off when I respond atypically.

          • carvenvisage says:

            or you can just be easygoing and like people. Most people I know are way way way way way way more tolerant of responses outside of a narrow super proscribed range and I don’t want to be around anyone who thinks defaulting to literal answers to literal questions is rude or aggressive or any other crazy such thing.

            If me and my friends all agree it’s rude to greet someone without punching their arm, and deeply get offended when it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t make you an asshole for just acting normally and reasonably when you meet one of us.

            And that does not change no matter how big my little super proscribed specific-social-niceties pseudo cult gets, even if I can convince half the idiots in the country that a firm handshake means you’re untrustworthy, it doesn’t somehow, magically, become not-bullshit.

        • Christopher Hazell says:

          The thing is, my descriptive response is also polite obfuscation. By providing a description, I’m asking “what is your level of familiarity with the subject?”, hidden under a polite response to the question asked, giving you a chance to demonstrate your level of knowledge or back out.

          Here’s where I’m a little bit lost. Suppose you provide an answer that superficially uses the same wording is an attempt to convey a different message, or no message at all?

          As somebody diagnosed with Asperger’s, back when that was a thing, I frequently answer questions as quickly and directly as I can, and only after do I begin to ask why the person would ask the question.

          Here’s a common example:
          Person: “Which way is Broadway?”
          Me: “Two blocks that way.”

          A more helpful response would be to say, “It’s two blocks that way, where are you trying to go?” and then I might realize the place they’re going to changed locations, and it’s on tenth street now, or whatever.

          A complicating factor is that Americans, at least, really dislike conversational pauses. If I stop to think about why a person is asking a question (Outside of very informal, friendly settings) they tend to get visibly antsy and go “Never mind, I’ll just google it.”

          So if somebody asks what I’m playing, I might launch into a long explanation, and they might take it as “This person is trying to figure out if I’m good enough to be worth playing with” when what I mean is “I am trying to answer your question in the most direct way I know how, in a manner quickly enough that you don’t think I’m slow or burdened by the question.”

          It’s a miscommunication!

          • Gobbobobble says:

            A complicating factor is that Americans, at least, really dislike conversational pauses. If I stop to think about why a person is asking a question (Outside of very informal, friendly settings) they tend to get visibly antsy and go “Never mind, I’ll just google it.”

            IME this is what “umm…”/”hmm…”/etc are for. It assures them that you’ve heard their request and are working on it, and buys some time to do so without there being a (possibly awkward) silence.

          • Brad says:

            Or the more polished: “That’s a really good question.”

          • gbdub says:

            “That’s a really good question” sounds a bit off when asking for directions (though it would work in other cases). Maybe, “Hmm, let me think about that for a sec…”

            And then be sure to look like you’re thinking – hand on chin, furrowed brows, eyes turned either up or down.

            Basically, the human equivalent of the little spinning ball when the computer is “thinking”. You understand you need to wait while it’s there, but if it’s not, you get antsy.

    • Scott says:

      Neurotypical here, this reads like a rude power play by Alice. Hanging out with people is a normal nice thing to do. If Alice doesn’t give any context to her answer, and doesn’t acknowledge that her rejection is not a normal nice thing, then the implication is that she doesn’t care that she’s not doing a normal nice thing. Since that is a negative trait, the implication then is that she is of such a higher status than Bob that his negative perception of her personality is inconsequential to her social reputation.

      “Sorry, I’m in a weird head space right now,” “I’m tired and don’t have the energy to talk – I hope you don’t take that the wrong way,” and “I’m actually headed out the door to meet up with friends but I’ll catch you next time” are all normal answers in that they communicate “no” but also communicate that Alice knows she is not doing a normal nice thing and the reason is because of an extenuating circumstance.

      Bob wants to avoid a direct answer because that will either a) cause Alice to intentionally lower his status or b) cause Alice to accidentally give a direct answer which will make her feel bad for implying that he is of lower status. One of them could get hurt. So he asks an indirect question like “what are you reading?” in order to avoid all this. That phrase also signals some other stuff, all depends on the context, etc, but maybe this helps illustrate why a direct question will have meanings other than what is literally being asked.

      As a side note, talking about status like this feels pretty hollow, and not true to how real interactions feel. But there is always that subtext in real life of where people fit relative to each other and what I think of you. Perhaps thinking of it like defining a relationship makes more sense.

      • wintermute92 says:

        The always-excellent Ribbon Farm has a wonderful breakdown of this. It’s here, in the part of his Office series about social groups. It’s exactly what you’re pointing out here, expanded to more contexts.

        The big takeaway is a claim that social ‘illegibility’ is an inherent positive for forming stable groups. Groups function best when everyone is at least potentially the social peer of everyone else. Since that kind of actual parity is rare, they depend on leaving enough ambiguity that it’s impossible to determine exactly what the ordering is. It’s not just about preserving people’s feelings, it’s also about not putting genuine unknowns to the test.

        If Alice and Bob have a head-to-head in front of their friends (“Want to talk?” “No.”), that reveals information about status. Even if neither feels hurt, everyone present sees how they interact in a clear disagreement. It’s even possible that neither Alice nor Bobs knows how things will go, and would rather not find out.

        I think this also helps explain your comment about how the ‘status’ talk feels hollow. It’s not about maneuvering to gain status and avoid losing it, it’s about maneuvering to make sure you don’t have to think about status! Think of discovering that you’re invited to a party and your friend wasn’t: neither of you feels good about that, because it creates distance between you.

        • Scott says:

          I think maintaining status illegibility is a really cool way to framing this, good link.

          As another aside, there’s nothing like a ribbonfarm post to bring up that feeling of nihilism. That guy has such a transactional view of the world.

  7. blacktrance says:

    In my autistic experience, others asking what you’re doing isn’t a request to join you but to just engage in friendly conversation with you where they’ve already provided a presumably easy starting topic. They’re usually happy if you launch into an explanation as long as you let them change the subject when they get tired of it.

    Also, it’s too much of a stock social norm to involve plausible deniability.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I’m not autistic (that I know of), but FWIW these social norms vary greatly from country to country. They can be genuinely difficult to figure out even if you’re a neurotypical immigrant (or worse, tourist); so now I wonder — is there some sort of a cultural guidebook somewhere that lists all these norms ? Seems like that would be super helpful.

      • po8crg says:

        There are training courses for people doing business in other countries/cultures that cover this sort of thing. Try the international business section of your local bookstore?

        • smocc says:

          My parents would buy books from a series called “Culture Shock” when we moved to new countries that seemed pretty helpful to them. One thing that I remember is the book explaining how Indonesians prefer to give incorrect, made-up answers rather than “be unhelpful” by admitting they don’t know something, along with some plausible explanation about how this fits into the culture as a whole. (And as I recall, it did this without being judgmental).

          This may or may not be what you’re looking for, but it may be a good place to start looking. Amazon has a book from the series on the US

          • Bugmaster says:

            Awesome, I’ll check it out; thanks ! There are very few reviews, but most of them are encouraging.

          • Virbie says:

            > Indonesians prefer to give incorrect, made-up answers rather than “be unhelpful” by admitting they don’t know something, along with some plausible explanation about how this fits into the culture as a whole.

            Oh man, I took a backpacking trip around the world and figuring out which places did this, as fast as possible, was a crucial skill.

  8. clearairturbulence says:

    This is as much a problem for homeschoolers as it is for those suffering from autism, the key difference being that homeschoolers tend to grow out of it.

  9. dansimonicouldbewrong says:

    In “The Handicap Principle”, husband-and-wife biologists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi explain the secret to understanding signaling in nature: any evolved signaling mechanism must have an associated cost, because if it’s cost-free, then an organism can evolve to send it dishonestly, and its value as a signal disappears. (The peacock’s tail is a famous example.) The Zahavis also mention in passing that the only form of naturally evolved signaling in which lying is (sometimes) cost-free is human language.

    I think this framework helps explain a lot of the subtlety in human social interactions. Ambiguous signals are sent to avoid the costs associated with unambiguous ones. (Think of haggling, where unambiguously signaling a desire to buy has a very literal cost, in additional markup.) The goal in these cases is to convey just enough of a signal to accomplish its goal, while incurring the minimum possible cost. In Scott’s examples, for instance, expressing too much interest (romantic or otherwise) in another person carries social costs: the other person may sense an opportunity for leverage, or may find the accurately-signaled interest level off-putting for various reasons. People therefore try to balance their desire to signal interest against the cost of doing so, and express interest only weakly, in oblique ways–at least, until they have a reciprocating signal indicating that a stronger signal of interest will not incur a correspondingly higher cost.

    • JulieK says:

      Also, a social interaction is more valued if it’s offered freely, rather than if you have to request it. “Would you like to play this game with me?” is more flattering than “Can I play with you?” “Yeah, okay.”

  10. waitwaitwhat says:

    Maybe this is a cultural difference (New Zealander here), but in my experience the central thesis is true maybe 10% of the time, at least in adult life.

    In normal circles, watching someone play a game and asking “What is this?” is a question about what the game is. The most covert you’d ever be about it would be “Is this a multiplayer game?”

    In normal circles, seeing someone watching a show or video and asking “What are you watching?” is a question about what the show/video is. In particular, you’re either asking (a) Is this something I should recognise (maybe it looks familiar to me), or (b) Is this something I’ve heard of, or (c) This looks weird, what is it. If you wanted to watch with someone, you’d ask “mind if I watch with you” or “mind if I sit down” (if you think there’s a chance they’d mind), or you just start watching (otherwise).

    I feel like the veil of pretense you’re describing is something that people have stopped doing by the time they’re out of high school.

    • Phil Goetz says:

      Yeah, I agree with waitwaitwhat, blacktrance, Acedia, and Toby. I think the starting postulate–that people who ask about X are not asking about X–is somewhere between a misleading oversimplification, and wrong. It would be better at least to say that the person asking is not asking about X as much as trying to start a conversation. They don’t necessarily want to watch X with you, and explaining X may be the right move, not the wrong move–though it does depend on how you explain it.

      In my experience, what stands out as weird and “autistic” is an explanation that focuses entirely on X itself rather than on the experience of interacting with X and the people present. Particularly if the explanation is made in a long, unstoppable flow without concern for cues from the listener as to what they are and aren’t interested in.

      Like, once I asked my dad why the sky was blue. He launched into a long lecture on the wave aspect of light, the color spectrum, refraction, the refractive index of gases, and atmospheric scattering–the same lecture he would have given to one of his college students if he had asked him why the sky was blue. I was six. After the first minute, I just wanted him to stop.

  11. Reasoner says:

    To fight sampling effects, I’m gonna chime in and say that lierdumoa’s explanation sounds broadly correct to me, as a Baron-Cohen-certified neurotypical. Though I think they’re overstating how often it happens a little bit, e.g. for someone like me who’s willing to bend social rules, I might explicitly ask to join if your response to my question is noncommital. In general social situations tend to be pretty person- and context-specific. I think the post is useful more as “this is something that sometimes happens” rather than “this is a hard-and-fast rule”.

    Actually the post could maybe be seen as a special case of “ask” vs “guess” culture (this is the first link that came up on Google).

    Also, I’m a neurotypical, AMA

    • Brad says:

      Ugh, die hard askers are the worst.

      • Reasoner says:

        Why’s that? I would like to hear more from a pro-Guess perspective.

        • Brad says:

          Because saying no is unpleasant. My choices when faced with a die hard asker are:
          1) Be taken advantage of
          2) Go through the unpleasantness of saying no all the freaking time
          3) Avoid him

          I generally choose #3 whenever possible.

    • Zodiac says:

      I originally grew up in a “guesser” and later got into an “asker” household. It took years to adjust to this.
      The “guesser way” is still ingrained in me but I very much would prefer being and dealing with askers.

      • Reasoner says:

        Same. I don’t like having to walk on eggshells in order to make sure I’m not violating guesser rules, and the passive aggressiveness that “guessers” display when you don’t correctly guess their rules seems corrosive from my perspective. Relationships in ask culture seem more antifragile.

    • Anatoly says:

      Came to post the same thing – the whole thing “just” seems to be Ask vs. Guess culture repackaged as “autistic” vs “neurotypical”. Ask/Guess has been discussed a few times in the rationalist circles, e.g. Ask And Guess and Tell Culture.

    • …as a Baron-Cohen-certified neurotypical.

      I was about to describe myself as neurotypical, but I score very high on that test.

      Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that I have never been able to flirt.

    • christhenottopher says:

      I feel like when I was younger I would have been a bigger fan of “Ask” culture in theory (and also higher on that test, I wound up with a 5 but I feel like a number of my “neurotypical” answers were kind of borderline), but upon more consideration/life experience I have some appreciation for “Guess” culture to. Also as a person who has worked in a consumer call center, I’ve got a particular personal distaste for pushy askers.

      First off, Ask culture puts the pressure of the conversation on the person receiving the solicitation rather than the solicitor. In Ask culture, the consequences for unreasonable requests are basically nothing which means there is encouragement to test the boundaries of what you can get. Does “No” actually mean “No” in such a culture or if you just tweak the request and get a “Yes”? That puts a lot of mental burden on a person who didn’t even start the conversation.

      Second, Guess culture demands you practice empathy. Are these signals a sign of this emotion or that? Is a person in such a situation really available to accommodate my questions? Can I make the situation this other person different in a way that they’ll be able to do what I want? All of this becomes things an asker must work out without putting a burden on the asked.

      Third, let’s consider things empirically, are the cultures that are Ask culture actually better to live in? Well for one thing they certainly seem lower trust! Russia is cited as a hardline ask culture and is a pretty low trust one. East Asia is fairly hard towards guess and tends towards higher trust (especially probably one of the most extreme Guess cultures and high Trust cultures, Japan). Also as a personal anecdote, people I met in college or other college educated people I’ve known, seem to be somewhat more Guess oriented while those from lower class backgrounds tend towards Ask. I think the higher trust type classes may also lean towards Guess but I admittedly have little data to back that up. While the correlation causation is not totally clear, I would say that the practice of empathy towards others demanded in Guess culture would probably raise trust, if for no other reason than people you understand are more predictable and predictability should increase trust.

      The big downsides to Guess culture I can see are some missed opportunities from failing to ask, difficulty for outsiders to navigate, and difficulties for the less socially adept. But overall I still personally prefer engaging more Guess leaning people, especially once I’ve fully caught on to their queues.

      • Tibor says:

        I think this is really more a north/south thing, at least in Europe. In the north people are more direct and in the south they are more “polite”. For some reason, Britain and its former colonies seem to be a bit different though. So while Russia may not be the most pleasant place to live in, Germany or Finland seem to be quite decent while they often come as equally “rude” to Americans and even more so to Latin Americans.

        At the same time, Americans often seem false to Germans because of their indirectness.

        I think a good polite way to ask is to say “Would you have time to do X for me? It’s fine if you don’t I will find someone else.” That’s more or less how I try to signal to people that they shouldn’t worry about rejecting my request if I’m not sure whether the request is too much. However, with close friends I don’t do that, I just ask.

        • Zodiac says:

          ould you have time to do X for me? It’s fine if you don’t I will find someone else.

          I forgot where I read this but this is apparently a very effective manipulative trick to get people to respond in a positive manner.

          • Dissonant Cognizance says:

            In this light the first episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion seems like the most over-the-top social commentary imaginable.

            “Would you be able to get in the goddamned robot, Shinji, and save the world? It’s fine if you don’t, we’ll just get this gravely injured 14-year-old girl to do it.”

        • christhenottopher says:

          Polite vs rude is an approximation but not exactly the same as this distinction (though I personally found Germans to be really polite when I visited, which is part of the failings of anecdotal evidence, I can’t really say from that who’s view of the culture is more broadly applicable). For instance, there are more friendly ways to ask and more aggressive ways.

          I’m likely somewhat biased against ask culture also because my previous job exposed me to people who consistently tried to push their asks and tended to push back hard when receiving a no. Guess type callers could also be pushy at times, but they did so in more understated ways that were easier to deal with. An example, say someone wants to threaten to go to the media. A pushy asker yells in the phone “IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME $10,000 I WILL GO TO THE NEWS!” Meanwhile, a pushy guesser will go “well I’m not really the kind of person to talk to the news.” The latter is super passive-aggressive of course, but frankly that’s easier on my ears and mental state while I still get exactly what they’re implying. If I’m dealing with a polite person, I suppose I’m fairly indifferent between an asker or guesser, but if I’m dealing with an aggressive one, give me the guesser every time.

    • Aapje says:

      as a Baron-Cohen-certified neurotypical

      Question 9 is highly ambiguous, are they talking about dates as in specific days or the meeting people kind?

      I scored myself an extra point for noticing this.

  12. wiserd says:

    Well, it’s also an opportunity for them to figure out if they want to watch it with you, and for you to bring them up to speed. And it might just be a conversation starter, in some instances.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    Are there characters with autistic/Aspergery traits in Shakespeare or Dickens? In what dramatist or novelist do these seemingly now common traits first appear unmistakably?

    We tend to assume that human nature doesn’t change, but I don’t recall meeting anybody on the autism spectrum until in high school around 1973.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      For example, this Wikipedia page:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_autistic_fictional_characters

      lists only 3 characters in film, TV, or literature from before 1988’s landmark “Rain Man” with Dustin Hoffman. (One is a 1969 Elvis Presley movie with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun that I can remember watching as a child, but I don’t have any recollection of an autistic character.)

      I might argue that Dustin Hoffman’s famous character in “The Graduate” from 1967 could be seen, in hindsight following “Rain Man,” as some kind of autistic spectrum individual as well. Hoffman had had a day job as an orderly at a NYC mental clinic, so he may have had a more realistic appreciation of actual behaviors than most actors.

      But it’s pretty fair to say that our artistic culture didn’t seem to have much of a concept of autism up until shortly before “Rain Man” three decades ago. (My vague memory is that Hoffman’s performance wasn’t wholly novel in 1988 — perhaps sketch comedians had been doing something like it for a few years. But I don’t recall any actor doing anything like that in, say, the 1970s).

      By the way, for whatever reason, Hoffman is extremely out of fashion now that he’s old, but he was an important, influential actor for a couple of decades.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        For example, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any characters in Robert Heinlein sci-fi stories from 1939-1966 that would clearly seem to be somewhat autistic.

        And yet, Heinlein put a lot of effort into studying his fans. For example, the kind of high IQ transgenderism that is relatively common among readers of this blog shows up in Heinlein’s 1958 short story “All You Zombies.” But the autism/Asperger’s/nerd spectrum just doesn’t seem to have been a Thing for Heinlein.

        • Slipstick Libby perhaps?

        • Erasmus Kradle says:

          Here is a synopsis of Heinlein’s 1950s novella Double Star (Street & Smith, 1956), expressed in 21st century DSM terminology:

          Cluster B client Alonzo Smith recovers from narcissism/autism associated to PTSD consequent to childhood abuse.

          The treatment regimen, sustained over twenty-five years, combines psychopharmacy, hypnosis, and sustained dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

          The aggregate cognitive effects of this regimen are transformative. In his (unpublished) biography, Alonzo Smith — having changed his name to Bonforte — writes:

          I have tried to tell the truth and not spare myself because it [this autobiography] was not meant to be read by anyone but myself and my therapist, Dr. Capek.

          It is strange, after a quarter century, to reread the foolish and emotional words of that young man [Alonzo Smith].

          I remember him, yet I have trouble realizing that I was ever he.”

          Historical note: Double Star won Heinlein’s first Hugo Award for Best Novel … yet today it is one of Heinlein’s least-read works.

          It is striking that the older, post-therapy, emotionally mature Bonforte personality finds it difficult even to remember the young Alonzo Smith’s autistic incapacity to feel human social emotions.

          That no character mourns Alonzo Smith’s passing is the single most disturbing aspect of Double Star (at it seems to me). Not least because — whatever Alonzo Smith’s social deficiencies — he is portrayed as a great artist of the stage. Heinlein provides no effective answers to these tough questions.

          Psycho-philosophically, Heinlein’s Double Star regards human rights as grounded fundamentally in human capabilities, including in particular, empathic capabilities (see, e.g., 21st century works by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum).

          It is striking — and in some conservative circles, even risible — that the key technological and philosophical elements of Heinlein’s Double Star fantasy are nowadays playing crucial roles in 21st century practical psychiatry and pragmatic progressivism.

          Is this because — as Heinlein foresaw in Double Star — the progressive extension of human capabilities is what philosophy (at the moral level) and psychiatry (at the individual level) and politics (at the societal level) are all three all about?

          • Steve Sailer says:

            The narrator in “Double Star” is a jerk, but he’s an at least intermittently employed professional actor. Can you be autistic, in the sense Scott is using of not picking up on social cues, and be a competent actor?

          • Aapje says:

            Daryl Hannah and Dan Aykroyd seem to have Asperger’s.

          • po8crg says:

            @Steve

            Autistic is not subconsciously picking up on social clues. The skill of acting is being able to make the subconscious conscious and to deliberately behave as your character would unconsciously behave.

            Autistic people with good social skills have them entirely consciously – which would suggest that they could be very good actors indeed.

          • baconbacon says:

            I wonder if some portion of the rise in autism is the much broader social set that small kids are exposed to. Less consistency in social interactions would make a lot of cues appear to just be noise and get filtered out.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            At least three Bill Murray films present a lead character who grapples with autism-spectrum deficiencies in social cognition: The Life Aquatic, The Man Who Knew Too Little, and (of course) Groundhog Day.

            In all three films, Murray plays a character who experiences cognitive difficulty in acting social role(s), such that the character’s deficiencies in empathic capacity are compensated, imperfectly and hence comedically, by ratiocination.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            That’s interesting: I could imagine that having some trace of spectrum traits would help you play a mermaid or a conehead.

            But too much would get in the way of being responsive to the lines, to other characters, and to the audience.

            At the opposite pole away from autism, the British government during WWII tended to use movie stars like Leslie Howard and David Niven as diplomats and secret agents because they were so sensitive to social situations. Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind; he was shot down coming back from Portugal in 1943 on what appears to have been a secret British diplomatic mission to Franco.)

            Niven, for instance, appears to have been used as a charming social buffer during high level military meetings to, say, keep Montgomery and Patton from coming to blows during arguments over who should get crucial resources. As a Hollywood movie star he was assumed by the British high command to understand Yanks and be able to say the right thing at the right time.

            I may have this wrong: Niven didn’t much talk about his war-time role. He appears to have been appreciated in Hollywood postwar for his six years in what turned out to be a successful joint British-American effort. But he didn’t talk to much about specifics. I suspect he was used as a top PR man, both to sell British high command plans to the troops and to cajole the American high command into doing what the Brits wanted. My guess is that Niven didn’t want to get into a lot of details about what he was involved in.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            “What About Bob” is another Bill Murray role as an autist who torments his psychiatrist, Richard Dreyfus.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            po8crg

            Okay, that’s kind of the theme of Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network:” that Mark Zuckerberg can’t subconsciously understand friendship so he is able to ratiocinate it into code.

            But my impression is that Zuckerberg actually impressed a lot of people from his mid-teenage years onward as a Natural Leader of Men.

            I dunno. I don’t know the man.

            I did have a half hour once with a Silicon Valley investor about the same year he sat down with Zuckerberg. The investor decided to invest money in Zuckerberg, not in me, and I can’t say he made the wrong choice …

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            What is the evidence that Bill Murray’s character in “What About Bob” was specifically supposed to be autistic, as opposed to Hollywood-style-charmingly-mentally-ill? Or that his character in “Groundhog Day” was specifically supposed to be autistic, as opposed to just a huge jerk?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Erasmus Kradle:
            Groundhog Day in no way models someone on the autism spectrum.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            At the beginning of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is unskilled in music, poetry, comedy, and love because he has scant empathic understanding of why people make music, recite poetry, tell jokes, or make love.

            Groundhog Day, as appreciated in the above context, is the saga of Phil’s long journey to acquire both a broad set of social skills and empathic motivations for practicing those skills.

            In a word, integrity.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Phil Connors is a narcissist at the beginning Groundhog Day.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            In regard to autism-versus-narcissism, Susan Heitler’s essay Do You Think of Narcissism as an Autistic Spectrum Disorder? affords food for thought:

            In my clinical practice I have been struck by the frequency with which neither parent of an autistic spectrum child presents with an autistic spectrum disorder, and yet one parent does appear to be significantly narcissistic with difficulties empathizing with others and digesting others’ perspectives.

            In summary, multiple aspects of Heitler’s clinical experience lead her to regard “narcissism as the next-to-the-last stop on the train to the autistic spectrum disorders.”

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Erasmus Kradle,

            That doesn’t jive well with what little we know about the genetics of autism spectrum disorders.

            The association with paternal age and the results of whole exome sequencing in parent-child triads strongly indicate that autism is often caused by brand new (de novo) mutations.

            Since the mutations are rarely transmitted from parent to child it seems unlikely that there’s a direct connection between personality disorders in the parents and ASD.

          • Brad says:

            I thought that the latest results clarified that paternal age when his first child was born was the relevant correlate, not paternal age itself.

          • Tarpitz says:

            Paddy Considine (a major star of the UK indie film scene) has an Asperger’s diagnosis. I’m an actor, and I think not a terrible one, and while I’ve never sought any kind of diagnosis I certainly associate with a lot of the kinds of traits under discussion and score very highly on seemingly reputable (though not conclusive) online tests like the one linked above.

            The way I tend to think about it, though I’m sure it’s a just so story, not an accurate representation of the actual mechanisms involved, is that it’s like most people have the social skills equivalent of a graphics card – a dedicated processor optimised for that work that does nothing else and works on it all the time. I have to do it on the main CPU, which can still get good results if I consciously throw a lot of resources at it. Sometimes, I’m able to work out fairly involved things which more naturally socially adept friends don’t realise. But when I’m not actively making an effort – and especially when I’m drunk – I miss things, act strangely, and commit faux pas. Insofar as it’s a barrier to success at work, it’s in that it sometimes leads to me inadvertently annoying potentially valuable contacts.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Brad,

            My information is about 6 months old. I haven’t been in a paternal age effect lab for a while and haven’t kept up on it since then.

            If you have a cool article on hand I’d love to see it. Unfortunately I’m up to my ears in reviews to read and as such too lazy to do SSC-related research this week.

          • Brad says:

            @NaD
            Turned out I was remembering a paper about schizophrenia not autism.

            http://slatestarcodex.com/Stuff/paternal_age2.pdf

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Brad,

            No prob and thanks for the lightning-fast reply. I wish my co-workers were as on the ball today, I’d have been done at noon.

          • Nornagest says:

            @Erasmus Kradle —

            You are John Sidles and I claim my five pounds.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            “it’s like most people have the social skills equivalent of a graphics card – a dedicated processor optimised for that work that does nothing else and works on it all the time. I have to do it on the main CPU, which can still get good results if I consciously throw a lot of resources at it.”

            I always like CPU chip vs. graphics chip analogies.

            For example, the second biggest factor in IQ after the general factor is related to 3d cognitive skills. That seems like another CPU / graphics example.

          • hlynkacg says:

            @ Nornagest

            Get in line 😉

          • JulieK says:

            @Nornagest- I think you’re right, elsewhere he says “STEAM.”

        • Joy says:

          Mike HOLMES IV, clearly 🙂

        • OptimalSolver says:

          For example, the kind of high IQ transgenderism

          Does this blog really have a higher than average incidence of transgenderism?

          • hlynkacg says:

            Very. I don’t have the precise numbers but IRC the last reader survey suggested that atypical sexuality in general and transgenderism in particular were about an order of magnitude more prevalent among SSC readers than the general US population.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            That seems to be the case every time Scott mentions a survey. I think it was the last one where I commented on the WEIRDness of “women” in his sample being something like 21% male.

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          I think in Heinlein’s case the sample is biased by what sort of characters Heinlein liked to write about. The majority of Heinlein protagonists, and a great many of his secondary characters, are fairly assertive and confident people. (sometimes too assertive, I remember getting annoyed at Hugh in “Farnham’s Freehold” for being so confrontational with Ponse, when a subtler touch might have been more effective). Most autistic people like to avoid confrontation. I don’t know that Heinlein neccessarily wanted to portray his fans in fiction, if he thought about it at all he probably wanted them to be aspirational.

          His Martians seem pretty autistic at times, although we don’t see enough of them to tell for sure.

          Characters by other science fiction writers from the same time period definitely come across as autistic. A few examples that come to mind include Susan Calvin from Asimov’s robot novels, Wade Ormont from De Camp’s “Judgement Day,” and maybe Jommy Cross from “Slan” (although Cross’ telepathic powers allow him to compensate).

          Going back a little earlier, Ralph 12c41+ seems rather autistic.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            Cordwainer Smith’s much-celebrated SF short story Scanners Live in Vain (written 1945) depicts a world in which autistic-style neural disconnection is technologically induced and intermittently relieved. Like the rest of Smith’s work, Scanners Live in Vain remains worth reading.

      • colomon says:

        (Argh, accidentally hit Report instead of Reply the first time. Hope that doesn’t muck things up for Steve.)

        The list you link to is *explicitly* “fictional characters confirmed to be on the autism spectrum by their creators or within the work itself”, which means it simply cannot go back very far.

        One example which I think points very strongly to Asperger’s in fiction earlier than your examples is Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady. (Presumably the earlier Pygmalion version as well, though I haven’t read it in decades so I cannot confirm that.) It reads exactly like a very keen observation of someone with Asperger’s made by someone who had no clue what Asperger’s is and therefore sees many of the traits as extreme personal failings. He’s very smart, hyperfocused on one subject (dialect), and has no insight into the interior life of any other person. It’s portrayed as if he just doesn’t care about anyone else’s feelings, but there’s little to no hint he has any understanding those feelings meaningfully exist.

        As for Heinlein, the example that jumps to mind (though I haven’t read it in 30 years) is Waldo from the story of the same name. And I’d bet you’ll find more examples in, say Asimov (stories involve lots of thinking) than Heinlein (stories involve lots of action). (PS Mind you, I prefer Heinlein.)

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Henry Higgins is an interesting proposal. But he’s a genius at studying other people and engaging in Machiavellian personal manipulation. Theoretically, maybe those traits could be combined with autism, but something seems off about the combination. It could be that GB Shaw was combining some of the traits of an actual person on the autism spectrum with the kind of things that Shaw was interested in, such as dialect and social class.

          Shaw himself promoted various cranky progressive affectations like spelling and calendar reform and always wearing woolen underwear that seem redolent of autism. but, he was also the most popular dramatist of his age, which I’m guessing is not a job that combines at all well with autistic traits. The examples Scott cites above of not getting social interactions are pretty much the opposite of what it takes to be a great playwright.

          I’d guess that Shaw was slightly more autistic than his extremely non-autistic frenemy G.K. Chesterton.

          But like Whitman, Shaw contained multitudes.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            To take the example of another great British dramatist, Tom Stoppard, he was often accused during the 1970s of being more brilliant and systematizing than soulful. (E.g., several of his early works such as Jumpers and Professional Foul were set in the world of academic analytical philosophy).

            You can’t be an autistic playwright, but Stoppard was controversial because he perhaps had more Autistic Age traits than previous dramatists. This made him fresh and interesting, but also opened him up to criticism as all brain and no heart.

            He somewhat took the criticism to heart, writing in response in the early 1980s a fine conventional West End play about adultery, The Real Thing, and then in the early 1990s an indisputable masterpiece, Arcadia, that combines emotion and intellect in a wholly masterful manner. Arcadia, set around 1820, is an extremely fictionalized version of the relationship between the first two computer scientists, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            You can’t be an autistic playwright

            I don’t think this is necessarily true. For one thing, writing plays is (for most people anyway) a much slower and more deliberate process than having a conversation. An autistic person who lacks the intuitive social skills to carry on a conversation in real time could have enough learned social skills to construct one over a period of several hours.

            If you aren’t born with intuitive social skills it’s still possible to pick them up by learning. And having to learn social skills explicitly can grant new insights about them that a more intuitive person might miss, the same way that a physicist who studies motion understands it better in some ways than a baseball player who understands it intuitively.

            In particular, having to learn about social scripts can really open up your eyes to how many disagreements are caused by people using one script drawing wrong conclusions about someone using another (Deborah Tannen’s research on this is quite good).

          • Tarpitz says:

            So… an autistic playwright is basically Michelle Trachtenburg from Ice Princess?

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Heinlein’s Waldo has a lot of high functioning autistic traits, but in this 1940s story, his personality is tied to his physical ailment of extreme muscular weakness that leads him to decamp from Earth to a zero-gravity space station.

          My impression is that this is another example of the validity of a weak form of the Sapir-Whorf theory: that if we have a conceptual category called autism/Aspergers, we fit more things nicely into it. But when people didn’t yet have the category, it was harder to think about. So writers in the past tended to come up with characters that to us seem part on the spectrum part not. Today we’d probably come up with more coherent characters than Waldo or Sherlock Holmes or Henry Higgins because we have the conceptual category to fit them into. On the other hand, maybe they are more interesting because they fit only partly?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The Interesting question that raises is whether autistic people were an objectively real thing in the world when society didn’t have the label. Was Samuel Johnson on the spectrum? Was it what parents were detecting when they said “I think our baby’s a changeling”?

          • sconn says:

            @Le Maistre Chat, the book Neurotribes deals with this question in some detail. I think absolutely there were always people who were different, everywhere from “goodness his manners are so unrefined!” to “Cousin Henry don’t talk so we just set him to fetching water and chopping wood” to “we sent our child to Bethlehem Hospital because he screams so much.”

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Maybe the overly literal Hymie the Robot on “Get Smart” in the mid-1960s was the first autistic character?

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      In what dramatist or novelist do these seemingly now common traits first appear unmistakably?

      Sherlock Holmes at least – possibly other people can come up with earlier characters.

      • Progressive Reformation says:

        Dunno if that’s clear. Maybe my memory is letting me down, but Holmes from the books seemed to respond to social cues in a very normal way most of the time (the newer tv portrayals are a bit different); maybe a few times he acted strangely, but it seemed more because he was bored and wanted to amuse himself rather than simply not understanding it.

        • gbdub says:

          Yeah, Sherlock was a master of reading people, and a master of disguises. Not traits you would expect from someone who failed to recognize and understand social cues. But he looked at everything analytically, and didn’t necessarily bother with the cues when it suited him.

          Nor did he bother sparing people’s feelings most of the time. I’d say he’s less autistic and more “benign genius sociopath”.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Sherlock’s ability to read people, but otherwise analytical nature, sounds like an autistic person who was willing to learn some social skills in order to further his special interest of crime-solving, but otherwise found them uninteresting, and stopped using them as soon as they no longer advanced his special interest.

            I remember in the comments on “Eichmann in Jersualem” ashael described Donald Trump as some who “has learned to work people without knowing how people work.” That seems to fit Holmes pretty well.

          • gbdub says:

            But he doesn’t just read people, he also mimics them – master of disguise.

            It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.

            (from “A Scandal In Bohemia”)

            If you can read social cues, mimic them, and see through them at will (Holmes considered seeing through disguises important), then whether you came to those skills through inclination or hard practice seems irrelevant.

            Is the consensus of autism that it merely makes it harder to learn and practice social cues, or impossible (e.g. like color blindness)?

          • baconbacon says:

            The original Holmes is in the superhero genre, he is brilliant, physically powerful, almost asexual yet extremely chivalrous, cares about justice not money.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Here’s one of my commenters’ suggestions:

        Possibilities based on quick Googling:
        Boo Radley, to Kill a Mockingbird
        Caliban, Shakespeare’s Tempest
        Sherlock Holmes
        Mr. Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice
        Tommy Walker From the 1970’s rock musical and movie Tommy (Actor: Roger Daltrey)
        Lili von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles
        Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye
        Movies produced by Val Lewton, eg Irena Dubrovna from The Cat People, 1942; Amy from The Curse of the Cat People, 1944; Finn the Mute from The Ghost Ship, 1943.
        The children in Village of the Damned, 1960
        The Addams Family
        Vera Rostov, War and Peace
        Confessions of a Crap Artist, by Philip K. Dick
        All “mad scientists”
        Frankenstein’s monster?
        I’m sure folks like Isaac Newton have been characters in novels at some point–I think he shows up in Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.

        Another commenter:

        Sherlock Holmes
        Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird
        Lenny, Of Mice and Men
        Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
        That one that made me quit reading The Sound and the Fury; Benjy?
        Bartelby, Bartelby the Scrivener
        Stevie, the Secret Agent
        Charlie, Flowers for Algernon

        Stevie from Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” (1907) sounds pretty much like the real deal.

        • Erasmus Kradle says:

          Bob Dollar, who is the lead character in Annie Proulx’ comic novel That Old Ace in the Hole, has multiple autistic traits.

          In fact, Bob Dollar’s reasoned-yet-puzzled face-value acceptance of even the most extravagant human emotions is the foundation of both the comedic structure and the philosophical structure of Proulx’ novel.

          Come to think, doesn’t Huck Finn show considerably many socially clueless, autism-spectrum traits too? And ditto for Chaplain Tappman in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22?

        • baconbacon says:

          Sherlock Holmes is not distinctly autistic in the stories. He is a master at reading people, their reactions, their situations and placing cues and clues in the proper context.

        • Holden Caufield never seemed autistic to me. In fact, perhaps he wasn’t autistic enough. His relentless art-school style psychoanalysis of the world, people, emotions, and social interactions, never gave him a break to relax.

        • omegaxx says:

          > Boo Radley, to Kill a Mockingbird — Definitely a possibility.
          > Sherlock Holmes — A lot of posters have already refuted this so I’ll defer to them.
          > Frankenstein’s monster — Definite no. He is shown to be very hungry for companionship and affection, to be very articulate and aware of social cues, and displaying none of the pattern-seeking behavior of people on the spectrum. He’s just isolated from humanity due to his Otherness. Same goes for Shakespeare’s Caliban I think.
          > Benjy Compton — Interesting supposition. He is certainly obsessed with patterns, although I think it’s more because of the associated social and emotional contents (more specifically, memories of his lost sister Caddy) then because of a penchant for patterns and repetitions per sei.

        • JulieK says:

          Mary Bennet, Pride and Prejudice?

        • dansimonicouldbewrong says:

          How about Sydney Carton, from A Tale of Two Cities?

        • Alejandro says:

          Phileas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days?

    • OptimalSolver says:

      Well writers, especially non-science fiction writers, tend to be highly neurotypical and people-oriented. Even the writers on Star Trek famously had to leave the technobabble to actual sperges.

      It stands to reason that the chrome-and-circuits fanboys would be completely alien to the average writer. An exception would be hard sci-fi, where the characters inadvertently come off as robotic due to the aspergic writer being more interested in ship schematics than people.

      This difference between mental architecture sets up an amusing situation best seen on the new Battlestar Galactica:

      TV and film writers are highly people-oriented, with the ones on sci-fi shows often coming from non sci-fi backgrounds and only begrudgingly taking the job. This leads to them using as the sci-fi setting as only a background to what they really care about, character-focus and relationship drama. This in turn, drives away sci-fi fans (or the male ones, at least) who tuned in for advanced technology and exploration of the unknown, not extreme emotional angst.

      These two cognitive types, empathizers (average writer), and systemizers (average sci-fi fan) can’t really reconcile their interests.

      Again, best place to see this play out is in the new Battlestar Galactica, but also the Abrams Star Trek reboots.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Heinlein himself impressed most of the people he met as kind of a superior gentleman. There’s a touching scene in the Heinlein biography where he’s invited to be the guest of honor at the first sci-fi convention around 1941, but he immediately takes over as the host of the gathering because Heinlein, with his Naval Academy manners, is so much more socially adept than his fans. He does a wonderful job putting all the nerds at ease with each other and then gives them a pep talk when he accepts his award about how they are the future of the world. They all go home having had about the best time of their lives and swearing lifelong loyalty to Heinlein as their “dean.”

      • Erasmus Kradle says:

        John von Neumann too impressed his colleagues as a supremely rational intellect who, in his professional life, “had made a detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly.”

        On the other hand, von Neumann’s extraordinary ratiocinative powers served him less-well in his two marriages: in her autobiography The Martian’s Daughter: a Memoir, von Neuman’s daughter Marina von Neumann Whitman vividly describes von Neumann’s second marriage as a less-than-happy codependent union of a high-functioning Asperger’s husband (von Neumann) with a wife suffering from symptoms of what today would be called an emotional dysregulation syndrome, aka borderline personality disorder (Klara Dan).

    • Salem says:

      Malvolio seems a pretty clear example.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      How about Alceste from Molière’s The Misanthrope? His whole deal is opposition to casual dishonesty.

    • Erasmus Kradle says:

      Steve Sailer asks: “In what dramatist or novelist do these seemingly now common [autistic/Aspergery] traits first appear unmistakably?”

      As long ago as Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) — a early novel that by consensus ranks among the greatest ever written — the titular character’s autistically inflexible rationalizations comedically obstruct his appreciation of the broader human condition in which his adventures take place.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      This question is really interesting to me. There are various maladies we cope with now that seem, at least in the numbers we are seeing, somehow to be consequences of modernity. (Pick your explanation: plastics, excessive hygiene, hyperpalatable foods, the Milk Marketing Board; I’m agnostic but fascinated.)

      Looking through the various suggestions, it’s striking to me how poorly the ones I am familiar with really fit the profile. I see why people suggest Holmes and Darcy and Alonzo Smith, and why modern presentations (of Holmes especially) have been interested in trying to cast them that way, but I can’t really see it in the originals.

      This might be that there just wasn’t such a thing a hundred years ago, and we’re flailing around trying to fit a pattern to inappropriate data. Or it might be that it was plenty common, but non-spectrum authors and playwrights had no succinct medical description to work from and so were able to capture it only vaguely.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Right.

        There are various possibilities: Perhaps what we today call, say, high-functioning autism was just as common in the past but we lacked the conceptual categories to notice it accurately, so even perceptive observers of humanity like famous writers didn’t get it right very often in the past.

        Or maybe it wasn’t as common in the past.

        Or maybe it’s not very common today, but, due to our now possessing conceptual categories like “autistic” and “Asperger’s” we tend to overfit a diverse range of behavior into those boxes.

        Or possibly something else.

        This is kind of similar to Foucault’s contention that “homosexual” as an identity was socially constructed not that long ago.

        Foucault may have been on to something: there aren’t, for example, all that many characters in Shakespeare who resemble the stereotypical effeminate gay male stereotype of the 20th Century. Maybe the courtier whom Hotspur mocks in Henry IV Part I? Or is he just an effete snob? In any case, they are relatively rare in Shakespeare. Compare the Shakespearean canon to say, The Maltese Falcon movie of 1941, which got a lot of mileage out of various gay stereotypes: Joel Cairo, the Fat Man, and the gunsel.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’ve heard a theory that Oscar Wilde is responsible for the effeminate gay male stereotype, because he happened to be famous in the right place at the right time to help drive the culture. Contrast Walt Whitman, equally gay but a really manly dude, and just a few years too early to catch mass culture as it was forming.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            A lot of our popular culture comes from the end of the 19th Century, such as Sherlock Holmes and the rest of the Extraordinary Gentlemen characters. It may have had something to do with improvements in printing presses making newspapers, magazines, and books cheaper.

            Wilde was a sort of real life character of the 1890s who was constantly in the papers at the time.

    • Jaskologist says:

      How about Archimedes’ last words? “Do not disturb my circles” to a conquering soldier shows an impressive lack of social intelligence to me.

      It be apocryphal, but you were asking about fiction anyway.

      • tayfie says:

        This is consistent with the sort of lack of social awareness that would allow one to get out of a bath and run through town naked shouting “Eureka” after making a breakthrough.

      • JASSCC says:

        Perhaps, but the soldiers were ordered to spare Archimedes. He was supposed to be taken prisoner as a prize of conquest. Archimedes may well have known about this and expected to be treated with respect. In his lifetime, he was a big shot, so perhaps he was simply too self-assured.

    • Joyously says:

      Jane Austen has lots of socially awkward characters. I’m not sure whether their awkwardness is “autistic” in precisely this way, but plenty of her characters don’t understand social cues and socially acceptable behavior. She treats this as a truly awful failing which at best should be excused because the person is well-meaning but silly. Austen’s lead heroines are (usually) extremely socially aware, which is treated as being one of their major virtues along with other kinds of “cleverness.”

      The example that springs to mind is Mary in Pride and Prejudice who doesn’t realize when it is/isn’t appropriate to play the pianoforte and sing at a party. Or Mr. Collins in the same book, who just doesn’t realize he’s not allowed to go up and speak to Mr. Darcy without being introduced, and the book treats this as absolutely shocking. I can’t remember details enough to know whether anyone ever drops a hint to Mary or Collins which they doesn’t pick up on.

    • Erasmus Kradle says:

      Young Jubal Droad, the minority-race lead character in Jack Vance’s SF novel Maske: Thaery (1976), rejects careers in the STEAM/academic professions on the psychiatric grounds that

      The skilled professions not only demanded years of preparatory discipline, but worked psychological distortions upon their practitioners.

      Spoiler alert: by the end of Vance’s story, Jubal Droad has established himself as a highly successful secret agent — a profession that itself is notorious (ironically) for “working psychological distortions upon its practitioners”. 🙂

      Resolved for Purposes of SSC Debate   Prolonged immersion in the profession of computer programming — or other ratiocinative professions that diversely include higher mathematics, cognitive science, complexity theory, poker-playing, literary deconstruction, WoW gold-scraping, analytic philosophy, libertarian economic theory, top-level Scrabble, and even psychiatric practice — can induce and/or amplify autism-spectrum and/or Cluster B cognitive traits.

  14. leoboiko says:

    After reading this, I think autistic people should all read How to do things with words (and so should the non-autistic, be them neurotypical or not; it’s a great little book).

    If you’re reading it, please go on until the end; for some reason a lot of people seem hung up on the performative/descritive binary he traces at the beginning, despite the fact that later on he proves the distinction false. Though maybe these people are all reporting from tertiary sources; I don’t think anyone would begin this book and not end it, with it being so short and readable. (It’s a bit like Kuhn, where you can instantly see whether the person has read Kuhn or not when they’re talking about paradigms and scientific revolutions, because there’s such a huge difference between Kuhn and Straw Kuhn).

    I’m a fan of the rhetoric technique where you show your audience the first, simplistic model to get them engaged with the core idea, and them refine the model with them until you arrive at the best version you can. It makes for engaging writing, and that’s no small feat when doing theory. However, I suppose one has to keep in mind the risk of the scaffolding model being popularized farther than the better one.

  15. Squirrel of Doom says:

    I can’t help wonder if conversation standards are deliberately veering towards incomprehensibility, to weed out the undesirables who can’t keep up?

    By “deliberately”, I don’t mean “consciously”. More like something that happens consistently as a side effect of our nature and urges.

    • gbdub says:

      No. My impression is that current American culture is neither the most direct, nor the most indirect, and both more and less direct cultures exist before, currently, and after us on the cosmic timeline.

      • leoboiko says:

        If a person believes that modern conversation standards are in any way especially indirect, subtle or hard to analyze, I’ll safely bet money that said person has never tried to read Japanese Heian courtly literature in the original.

  16. opulentjoy says:

    Lierdumoa says, “If a neurotypical asks you, “What are you watching?” they’re not asking you to explain the plot of the movie/tv show to them. They’re asking if they can watch it with you.”

    No. Wrong.

    They are signaling: A) “I am curious about what you are watching. B) And I am interested in talking to you. C) I like you.”

    Your response should signal whether your movie is worth watching, whether or not your are interested in having a social interaction with them at that moment, and whether or not you like them in general.

    *Some* of this social game is about plausible deniability. (Namely the third question.) But mostly we neurotypicals play this game because it’s a pain in the ass to say, “Is your show worth watching, are you interested in having a social interaction with me at this moment, and do you like having social interactions with me in general?”

    Intuitive reading of signaling cues makes social interaction less exhausting.

    Also, if I said all that stuff, not only have I burdened you with a cognitively demanding question, but I’ve put *a lot of effort* into interacting with you. That signals things about how interested I am in talking to you. How much effort you put into your response signals something about how invested you are in talking to me. If you respond with a terse, “Yes, no, yes.” You have signaled a lack of effort. So you can never leave the signaling game! YOU ARE TRAPPED HERE. People can always make semi-plausible inferences about why you did what you did and said what you said.

    Plausible deniability is a thing that matters. But mostly this social ritual is about making social interactions less cognitively taxing. Besides we can’t avoid the fact that our actions signal information about us. So we might as well signal in such a way that communicates what we want.

  17. SchwarzeKatze says:

    I interpret “what are you doing?” depending on context as showing interest in what I’m doing, curiosity and/or a way to start a conversation. They might have the ulterior motive to want to participate in what I’m doing or not. You only find out later in the conversation. Immediately interpreting “what are you doing?” as a request for participation is jumping to conclusions, overinterpreting.

    Also a vague answer does not necessarily mean you are annoyed, it might also just mean you don’t know where to start to explain. You have to take context into account and dig a bit more. Facial expression is actually a very important cue. If I give a vague answer and I’m smiling to you a lot it’s probably that I just don’t know where to start to explain but I am not actually averse to it.

    The plausible deniability thing sounds like someone thinking of every interaction with someone else as a some sort of confrontation.

  18. sty_silver says:

    I find that there is often a third reason for asking “what game are you playing?”. You don’t really want to know, you also don’t necessarily want to have a conversation, but you feel like it is proper to ask right now.

    I don’t know how common that is. I noticed that I started doing this much less a few years ago when I thought a bit about it.

    • gbdub says:

      If I have to ask someone at work for something (who’s not directly on my team) I’ll usually ask “what are you doing” or “how’s it going” as a polite conversation starter. It’s sort of like “I’m about to make a demand of you, the least I can do is be socially available”.

      A simple short response is a signal that I’ve discharged my duty and can ask what I really came for. If they give a long and excited answer, or if I follow up with more questions about their day or whatever, that probably means “I’m bored and I want to chat”.

  19. Besserwisser says:

    Isn’t politics just lots of people? Which could be easier to predict than individuals once statistics get involved. If you have a pretty big change about a person being something you still got a chance of being wrong about them being that. The higher the number of people, the more likely they are to be just the general distribution.

    • Archon says:

      Have you noticed the world of politics being easy to predict lately (Or ever)?

      I do think that, it’s a little easier that people, though.

      • Besserwisser says:

        I didn’t say politics is easy, just easier than people. It also depends on what you want to predict. If it is important whether something is over or under 50% and numbers end up being close to that than it is hard to predict on what side you land on even if your margin of error is really small.

        It’s kind of like quantum mechanics*. Even though people think a lot of things are really hard, we assume everything follows a pattern of cause and effect. But everything consists of smaller things and they don’t seem to work like that. Which is one of the reasons why everyone agrees quantum mechanics is really hard.

        * Or rather, my understanding of quantum mechanics.

  20. Jack V says:

    I’ve often thought something like that. In particular, humour and sarcasm often depend on knowing what the other person already finds obvious. Eg. british tweets saying “this person is really clever” is almost always sarcasm because if they ARE you don’t say it like that.

    But the same in other cases. Definitely flirting. But even other communication. Telling someone something they don’t know is a different dynamic than telling them something they do know, but that only works if you KNOW what they know and what they don’t.

    Polite circumlocutions like this are often “do you respond with more detail than needed, then you’re probably interested in a conversation? Or less, then you probably want to be left alone.” But that requires knowing what a “normal” amount of response is.

  21. TheEternallyPerplexed says:

    EDIT: Argh, neverargreat beat me to it. Move on, nothing to read here.

    …he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to him*…
    and again
    As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to him*…

    *her — is this a test? I failed? 🙂

  22. J Milne says:

    In Ireland, it’s common to make invitations that people are in no way supposed to accept, with genuine invitations being the ones you make a point of repeating (as exaggerated by Mrs. Doyle in Father Ted). Supposedly it dates from when everyone was super-poor and couldn’t actually invite the neighbour to have some food, but still had to appear to do so to be polite.

    • AnthonyC says:

      I was taught that (at last in the past, not sure if it is still common) in Mandarin “Have you eaten?” was used as a greeting the same way. In a world where everyone is poor, that actually implied a lot of trust and familiarity.

  23. Majuscule says:

    In the first example, when the theoretical person asked “What game are you playing?”, my first impulse was that they were being confronted, e.g. “What are you up to, you schemer? I know you’re up to something!” Which seemed like advanced challenge topics in autistic conversational guidance until I realized the person was literally talking about a board/video game.

    I think I might be a different kind of neuroatypical.

    • zz says:

      Hello, fellow different kind of neuroatypical!

      When you said “What are you up to, you schemer”, my first impulse was that they were a programmer, e.g. “What program are you writing in a Lisp dialect? How long until you break your parenthesis keys?” This despite having just had the same initial impulse to Scott’s post!

  24. Levantine says:

    But if there are people who are unusually bad at understanding social cues, like autistic people, then any cue calibrated to be on the exact border of neurotypical understanding is likely to fail for them more often than not.

    I fail to respond to cues. Then I leave people, lock the door behind me, and write an account of what happened that lists many or perhaps even all of the cues that I’ve failed to respond to. The problem here (in my case) is less in failing to understand clues, and rather unwillingness to engage in communication that’s indirect.

    And that unwillingness is arguably *not* about being culture-deficient, but a desire to belong to a culture that is different.

    And that, in turn, is because deep down I can’t stand this world. I’m sick of it, and the reasons for that can be learned from any medium, because they’re explicitly described.

    Indirect communication techniques are like elegant architectural spires in that they can ‘work’ only where there are solid basis and solid materials for them. I mean things like: people keeping their word, law and order, and cultural homogeneity. It’s much easier to be indirect in a fairly static society like pre-revolutionary France, or if you have such a social status that it secures a lot of things in your life, like belonging to a highly disciplined organization: a hospital, perhaps a street gang….

    I mentioned homogeneity: perhaps our expectations for sociocultural homogeneity are (naturally?) higher than what we find around us.

    • J Milne says:

      I’m not sure I believe “I behave like an autist because immigration/no monarchy”. Are you sure you haven’t always behaved this way, or that you behave this way even in ethnically homogeneous company?

      • Archon says:

        What the fuck.

        I think you missed the point a little. The Gist I got from that was more:

        “You can only afford to spend your time learning how to put up with long trains of indirect speech when you know everyone will be speaking in the sameriddles”

  25. bintchaos says:

    As an aspie, I thought of this instantly. Maybe vague conversational conventions are a way of adding noise?

    • bintchaos says:

      I would like to extend this…perhaps autoids dont perceive noise in the same sense that neuro-typicals do.

  26. bessiambre says:

    I rarely use Tumblr and I am not even sure I’m using it right, but I was one of the people who gave the “plausible deniability” explanation over there. This is a long shot, but in case my comment was the one you called “the best answer I saw” I’d like to know so I can update my resume or whatever…

    http://bessiambre.tumblr.com/post/162063573797/to-my-friends-on-the-spectrum-let-me-explain-to

  27. peterlarson233 says:

    This conversation reminds me of the book Games People Play by Eric Berne. It helped me make some sense of the subtle social expectations behind some kinds of interpersonal interactions.

  28. papermoon2277 says:

    I wonder if there are lower rates of autism in cultures that have much more formal and structured modes of addressing people that you don’t know very well. It figures that some societies would be easier to navigate socially than others, or at least more clear and rehearsed in social custom. Arguably it would be more difficult to detect people with autism in such a society, or at least they’d be better functioning.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Yeah, if autism is genetic, then the null hypothesis should be that it’s homogeneously distributed above the level of individual families (It’s not improbable that things like racial differences exist, but you have to prove them). So the much more formal and structured cultures can’t be said to have fewer people on the spectrum, but rather people on the spectrum are suffering less.
      The logical implications for utilitarian are left as an exercise for the reader.

      • albatross11 says:

        To the extent we’re talking about inability to read social cues and infer hidden motives, it seems like autism would be strongly selected against in most environments.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Sure, but what human consequences are you thinking apply to the bloodless scientific term “selected against”?

          • The Nybbler says:

            Failure to reproduce would be the main one. Though such misunderstandings can also lead to death of the individual doing the misunderstanding (e.g. in an honor culture), if you want something less bloodless.

  29. Robert Liguori says:

    This is one place where I feel that the text-only medium of the Internet does a disservice. There is a world of likely difference between a “So…whatca reading?”, a breathy, excited “What are you reading?”, and “Hey, that book looks really interesting. What’s it about?”

    A lot of information is conveyed along the side channels of posture, tone, and enunciation. The problem there is that people don’t have common baselines. I was just talking with one of my female friends the other day, whose baseline interactions hover around the Breathlessly Excited! mark, and who often gets her normal social interactions mistaken for flirting.

    The thing is, even when you consider the side-channel stuff, the point is still the same. People modulate their behavior just as they do their words, and for the same reasons of indirection and plausible deniability. I just bring this up in response to people saying “Whenever I say this, I mean this thing.”, because my own assumption is that many people will attempt to convey different things by saying the same thing differently.

  30. enye-word says:

    This post suffers by the fact that the first half of it is a bad tumblr post that made me vaguely worried I might be autistic.

    You should remove that part of the post. I realize that the tumblr post is what inspired you to write this post. But consider that the tumblr post is imperfect to the point of being wrong and unhelpful, and usually the big blockquotes on this blog are from good sources or sources that you’re about to disagree with very strongly and dismantle.

    If you can get rid of the tumblr post part entirely, maybe just write “Tumblr user lierdumoa informs us that non-autistic people ask ‘what are you doing’, it’s because they want to join in.”

    • Zodiac says:

      If that tumblr post is to be taken seriously I am most definitely on the autism spectrum and nobody noticed. Not impossible but this has thrown me a bit into panic mode just now, so I would second that.

      Edit:
      Upon reading the comments I am very glad that the tumblr post seems to be wide off the mark.

    • gbdub says:

      Eh, my response wasn’t “man, I must be autistic” but “man, lierdumoa really doesn’t get neurotypical people”. I think the actual quote from the tumblr is very helpful to frame the rest of the post.

      But maybe it would be better if Scott introduced the quote with something like, “lierdumoa tries to explain to autistics how neurotypicals don’t always mean what they say literally, but I think they badly miss the mark:”

    • Aapje says:

      I also got confused when Scott said “I don’t think this is always true” after that tumbler post. It is mostly wrong, not not always true.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Scott is (I believe?) non-neurotypical, which might be an issue here.

      • baconbacon says:

        It is correct in the sense that “what are you playing” usually doesn’t mean “describe to me what you are playing”, it is incorrect in the sense that “what are you playing” is some distinct substitution code where X = Y and proceed from that specific question.

        • Aapje says:

          @baconbacon

          I put more weight on the new model being correct. The Earth is not flat is not equally informative as: the Earth is round*.

          The former merely eliminates 1 possibility, the latter eliminates (many – 1) possibilities.

          * Yes, I know that the Earth is not actually round.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Aapje

            People don’t have final emotional states. We are friends ……… NOW! All pre now time we were not friends and all post now time we are friends. There is an answer for the question “is the world flat or a sphere?” that closely approximates reality. When you approach someone and ask “what are you doing” it is as much an acceptance that you don’t know the specific correct sequence of questions to ask (are you in a good/bad mood, am I interrupting) as it is a question you need answered. So you start with a probing question, and the response eliminates a bunch of pathways and makes the next question much simpler.

            You can describe some people on the spectrum as having difficulty with empathy, the question asker is looking for information to interpret, the answer then needs to be semi specific to the asker.

          • Aapje says:

            I didn’t mean to argue that eliminating possible models means that one remaining model has to be simplistic. It can still be a complex decision tree.

            I think that you interpreted my answer on a different level of abstraction than I intended.

            You can describe some people on the spectrum as having difficulty with empathy, the question asker is looking for information to interpret, the answer then needs to be semi specific to the asker.

            Or having difficulty with the kind of casual pattern matching that others learn to do more easily.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Aapje

            The issue isn’t the simplistic nature, it is that a persons emotional state can depend (to varying degrees) on the type and manner that you ask the questions.

            Is the world flat or round doesn’t depend on the question being phrased politely or not, but the answer to “do you want to hang out” will change based on how the sequence of questions goes.

            “why are you acting like a bitch?” is miles and miles away from “are you feeling ok?”, even though they could both be seen as”correct” responses to similar behavior. Conversations are much deeper than this, as they can be near constant back and forth of information giving/gathering. Lots of inane small talk stems from this, I ask my wife in the morning “what is the weather like today” not because she will give me a more accurate description than opening a window or looking up http://www.weather.com would, but because the information I want is not about the weather, but her mood. However asking directly every morning would actually alter her mood in the long run (most probably by sounding accusatory every morning), a neutral topic gives a little information without carrying a lot of weight itself.

  31. gbdub says:

    The first part is sort of true. Asking “what are you doing” sometimes means “I would like to join”, but usually just means “I’m interested in social interaction with you, and that thing you’re doing now seems like a good conversation starter”.

    The second part is not even close to true. I have literally never read a literal answer to the question “what are you doing” as “I reject you as a friend”. A sufficiently brusque answer probably means “I don’t feel like talking right now” or “please let me keep doing this thing uninterrupted”, but that’s the worst of it.

    EDIT: thinking about it more, the advice is worse than wrong, it’s actually harmful. If I ask “what are you doing?” And you respond, “No, I’d rather you not join me”, that sounds way more rude than “eh, just playing a game”.

    • Witness says:

      Agreed on the “actually harmful” bit.

      Bob is sending at least three social cues in varying strengths:

      1) I am interested in socializing [you can tell because Bob is starting a conversation]
      2) I am interested in you [you can tell because Bob is addressing you]
      3) I am interested in the book/movie/game/whatever [you can tell because Bob chose it as a topic of conversation]

      Alice’s response is an opportunity to indicate receptiveness on each channel.

      A polite refusal of 1 shuts off the conversation: “I’d like to finish without interruption please.” An addendum of “Maybe we can talk about it later?” indicates receptiveness to 2 and 3.

      “Just some random novel” backs out of channel 3, and Bob’s “Oh! What kind of random novel?” is possibly an attempt to keep 1 and 2 open, since they have not been explicitly shut off, and Bob lacks another topic to keep the conversation going. (Or Bob could just be incredibly rude, it’s hard to tell from here.) At this point if you are not interested in 1 or 2, it’s best to be explicit, as politely as you can manage.

      An info-dump response entirely on channel 3 may be off-putting even to someone whose primary interest is in the same channel, if the tone or other indicator suggests that 1 and 2 are unwelcome: “The game sounds cool, but you sound like you aren’t interested in talking to me about it. I should back out of this conversation.”

  32. baconbacon says:

    The fact that there are half a dozen (already) different explanations is telling, we don’t analyze conversations this way, but there is a huge amount of potential information you gain from simple interactions.

    Q. What are you watching?

    A1. Nothing (tersely, no eye contact)
    A2. Nothing (tersely, eye contact)
    A3. Nothing (normal, no eye contact)
    A4. Nothing (normal, eye contact).

    You can add in length of pause before speaking, how long they maintain eye contact, if they turn back to the TV in the same body position.

    What you are really getting with these types of questions is information on how to proceed AND the opportunity to convey the information you want. Opening with yes or no questions limits these interactions.

    Q. Can I play with you?
    A1. No (because this is a one player game)
    A2. No (because I am about to go out and run errands)
    A3. No (because I don’t like you)
    A4. No (because I want to spend time alone right now)
    A5. No (because you surprised me with your question, and I tend to answer no if I am asked something without any time to process who asked it, this is my 2 year olds default position).
    A6. No (because I am mad at someone else and taking it out on you).

    The difference between the two is that direct questions assume a huge amount, indirect questions work as probing questions. Are you in a good mood/bad mood? Do I really want to hang out with someone who is going to be complaining about X the whole time? Indirect questions are a concession that you don’t know the other person well enough to presume the direct question, if you knew them well enough you often wouldn’t even have to ask.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I signal boost this response.

      Also, tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.

      Hell, even though we can’t qualify/quantify it, we might be chemically signalling too.

      One big problem with model in Scott’s OP is that it is strictly textual.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Sometimes I think it would be harder for an AI to successfully flirt than to do something like come up with a new scientific theory on the scale of evolution or relativity. Not only is social communication ambiguous, but it’s contradictory. It really is amazing that we are as proficient as we are.

  33. HeelBearCub says:

    I feel like a huge problem here is that the model being discussed is digital, composed of a series of on/off, yes/no, signals.

    The real social world is not like that, and can’t be modeled that way. Conversations like the one in question are analog. The starting point is the sending of a signal that is an analog signal in many dimensions, it represents a signal of desired social interaction, and a starting point for what kind of, and how much, interaction is desired. It also represents a request for a return signal in kind, the early part of a conversation is a negotiation where these signals are modulated and repeated. Ideally this allows a social interaction that is as optimized for the desires of both parties as possible.

    Another issue is that the signals are not merely verbal, and definitely not only textual. My sense is that non-neurotypicality might be like color-blindness in this sense. One is trying to divine the meaning of being presented with a circle composed of little gray dots of various sizes. The answer is of course that the red dots, that you can’t tell apart from the green dots, make the number 42.

    • bintchaos says:

      non-neurotypicality might be like color-blindness in this sense


      Good call, but it isnt just digital world.
      Its commonly described as “mindblindedness”.
      I’m really awful at signal detection and subtlety myself. If someone asks what I’m reading they will just get a core dump. Unless I feel they are faking interest from context or prior behavior, and then I just tell them to go away.

  34. MoebiusStreet says:

    friends on the [autism] spectrum

    Apologies if this is insensitive question; no offense is meant.

    Does the above quote carry any actual information? AIUI, the concept of “autism spectrum” is intended to show that there’s a great deal of variety in the neural functioning of autistic folk, and indeed of people in general. So it’s incorrect to understand them as conforming to any particular model.

    Thus, aren’t we *all* “on the autism spectrum”? It seems the “autism spectrum” would seem to cover *everyone*, from neurotypical to Rainman.

    I suppose that in common usage, then, the phrase is actually intended to mean “on the autism spectrum, some non-trivial distance from neurotypical”. So I’m tempted to ask “what should we consider that non-trivial distance to be?”. But that feels like an effort to put the “spectrum” concept back into a box; yet on the other hand, not having an idea of what’s being referred to interferes with a having a clear understanding of what’s being referenced.

    • Brad says:

      No. The autism spectrum both as a term of art and in common usage does not include non-autistic people. It is a spectrum in the sense that the disease can manifest with a very large range and combination of symptoms rather than in a few discrete buckets. Also, the line from neurotypical to Rainman excludes the majority of people with autism. Scott discusses this pretty extensively in Against Against Autism Cures.

  35. alwhite says:

    I’m no longer accepting these explanations as true as I used to. What I have started noticing is that these social constructs only work on very small, very homogenous groups. If you take a conservative from central Kansas and analyze their interaction with a liberal from San Francisco, you’re going to get a lot of the same failures of communication.

    This study here is a good example that people aren’t nearly as good at reading others as they think they are. I think the explanations given above are a continuation of that false belief. I think a lot of people are convinced they know the secret code of communication because they surround themselves with people who the communication works on and then ignore all the people it doesn’t work on.

  36. random832 says:

    If a neurotypical asks you, “What game are you playing?” they’re not asking you to describe the game.

    I don’t think this is always true – and when it is I would describe it as more of an open-ended attempt to start a fun conversation than a demand for participation – but I agree that it’s not just a straightforward request for information.

    And if it is a request for information, they probably want the name rather than for you to “describe” it.

    Especially since the name is more likely to be what they’re missing than any information they can get from your description that they can’t get from watching.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I think it’s just a request to see if they know it. If not, then you either change the topic or drop the conversation. But if you do, then they get a chance to talk about one of their interests.

  37. Mike K says:

    Does not this make it clear the fallacy of multicultural society?

    An occasional outsider is clearly identified and his/her failures to comply with local etiquette are perceived as acceptable and even endearing.

    In a “salad bowl” society when a local person may or may not share or understand your culture but does not feel like an outsider, social interaction becomes greatly impeded.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      You are correct.

    • Christopher Hazell says:

      I think you’re leaving out a handful of variables:

      1. How many rules of etiquette (Spoken or unspoken) are there?

      2. How seriously do we take breaches of etiquette

      In my city, Portland, OR, people will wear jeans and a t-shirt to any occasion, no matter how formal. Outside of certain business occasions, it is very hard to dress inappropriately. I don’t actually think this is an unambiguously good thing, but social consequences for disobeying what little sartorial etiquette we have are generally quite small.

      In other words, it’s somewhat difficult to mark yourself as an outsider through clothing etiquette, because we largely aren’t bothered by it. And to the extent that you do mark yourself that way, social penalties are not that huge. When I got my current job at a nice restaurant, I was too broke to buy a suit and so I went to the interview in a polo and slacks, and still got the job.

      One of my breaks with modern American progressivism or social justice is that it feels like an attempt to build a society in which there aren’t any clearly articulated, universal rules, but where the stakes and punishment for breaking the rules are extremely high.

  38. Blue Tribe Dissident says:

    I wonder if I’m alone in that I think I’m reasonably competent in most types of conversation, but I feel like I have very little idea what “flirting” means, much less how to do it. I mean, I am aware of the dictionary definition, of course, but what would that look like in practice? Is this really a thing that people do, or is it just in movies, like drag racing? uncertain shrug. Heck, maybe I am doing it and I just don’t know, although I’m surely not doing it very well.

    Actually, come to think of it, I seem to struggle with subtlety in general, other than humor, which I can be pretty good at on a good day. I know how to be blunt or funny. So maybe it’s not accurate that I’m “reasonably competent at most types of conversation”, but merely that I’m competent at >1 types.

    • Erasmus Kradle says:

      Command Riker and Guinan show Wesley Crusher the essential elements of flirtatious social interaction. Flirtatious cognition is fast-acting, effective, physiologically stimulating, and highly contagious: so ask your doctor if your heart is strong enough for impassioned romance! 🙂

      • HeelBearCub says:

        This is a marker for later.

      • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

        Aha, so what you’re saying is, it is only in fiction? I knew it. I’ll bet there’s also a clip someone could dig up where Riker and Guinan teach Wesley the essential elements of drag racing.

      • Erasmus Kradle says:

        Blue Tribe Dissident, the YouTube comments convey the social reality of a super-strength “Rikerian-Guinian” selection-gradient:

        luna wolfking  “If a boy talked to me like that, those smart word games combined with metaphors and what not all while remaining smooth and savvy, I would melt and be his instantly”

        Roxanne Avasuru  “I’ve always loved this scene!! 😍😍😍 swoon!!”

        Mel Sheehan  “Smoooooth Riker…. I was swooning watching this …. if only men were actually like this!”

        As a non-fictional example, this month’s Vanity Fair cover story provides in-depth coverage of the flirtation-to-reproduction succession of Serena Williams’s Love Match (pun! 🙂 ) with Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian … including artsy photos by Annie Leibovitz! 🙂

        Thus in regard to the presumed efficacy of flirtation, popular fiction and reproductive realities coincide pretty well … hence flirtation’s enduring cultural popularity.

        • baconbacon says:

          Blue Tribe Dissident, the comments convey the social reality of a super-strength “Rikerian-Guinian” selection-gradient:

          The scene is contrived. Not one of those commentors would have been able to make it past “the most beautiful woman in the galaxy” as they wouldn’t be giving just the right answers to set up the next line. Half the smoothness in that scene comes from a willing and able partner who is involved from the jump. For most people opening with “you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen” leads to an awkward pause and faltering. Negging works partially because it is far closer to normal conversation than those types of compliments.

          • axiomsofdominion says:

            Plus Riker is Riker. Female viewers are already invested in his character as the handsome and charming rogue.

            If a random dude says that stuff its a totally situation.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Right. If Lieutenant Barclay said that no girl would swoon. It would almost certainly make things worse.

          • James Miller says:

            But if Lieutenant Barclay were capable of confidently saying that kind of thing to a woman, wouldn’t he be significantly more attractive?

          • Zodiac says:

            Wasn’t there an episode like that? I’ll need to filter through an episode guide later.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Yep. It’s always easier to make dialogue work if you can write both sides, in advance.

          • Matt M says:

            But if Lieutenant Barclay were capable of confidently saying that kind of thing to a woman, wouldn’t he be significantly more attractive?

            If Barclay is sufficiently confident that this is something he does regularly, as a matter of course, with most women he meets, then maybe.*

            But, if it’s something he generally would never do, but is attracted to one particular woman and on one occasion works up the courage to say something he wouldn’t normally say, no. He gets a court martial, not a date.

            *As a random aside, there’s a TV character (usually reserved for sitcoms) that’s very common to see, but that I’ve never actually encountered in real life. It’s basically an unattractive, weird, socially awkward nerd that, nonetheless, somehow has the confidence and ability to shamelessly hit on women out of his league on a constant basis. Steve Urkel would be one example of this (tied to one specific woman). Upchuck on Daria might be another (any and every woman). These people usually stumble upon success once in awhile as a pure numbers game. Do people like that actually exist in real life? And is it a real thing that at some point, that sort of behavior becomes “just the way he is” and nobody really judges you for it or holds it against you?

          • John Schilling says:

            Wasn’t there an episode like that? I’ll need to filter through an episode guide later.

            “The Nth degree”, 4th season.

            Flirtation scene at 18:47 here. Less obviously scripted and with somewhat more plausible deniability than Riker/Guinan.

          • baconbacon says:

            Yep. It’s always easier to make dialogue work if you can write both sides, in advance.

            Most of the scenes would never work for so many reasons, always underappreciated is the way the background noise of a popular bar/club disappears when the talking starts. Trying to be smooth when every 3rd line is misheard doesn’t work so well, and setting up the meet somewhere private enough to be quiet is half the battle anyway.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Matt M

            I definitely know a guy like that. Absolutely fearless with women, quite aggressive and handsy, no seeming understanding of where he stood on the attractiveness scale.

            People did hold it against him, or at least, did hold the aggressiveness and handsiness against him. The way he related to women was not an example to emulate.

          • Randy M says:

            Most of the scenes would never work for so many reasons, always underappreciated is the way the background noise of a popular bar/club disappears when the talking starts.

            But some people do go to bars, and presumably manage to convey smoothness. I imagine the alcohol helps to fill in any misheard conversational gaps?

          • baconbacon says:

            But some people do go to bars, and presumably manage to convey smoothness.

            The smoothness is generally not about in depth banter, titillating the woman’s intellect. Typically it is about appearance and confidence, which are conveyed without much conversation.

    • liquidpotato says:

      marking this until i have time to write

    • Wrong Species says:

      I think this scene from The Imitation Game is a great example of effective flirting. No cheesy compliments, conveys confidence, and raises the sexual tension.

      • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

        When I’m feeling gloomy, I’ve often thought that what women desperately want is a man who is a psychic mind-reader (“I looked at him once, 15 minutes ago …”), and there’s nothing they find more appealing than one who gives the impression of being just that.

        • Wrong Species says:

          To be fair, trying to discern the meaning of a smile is a lot more difficult in real life than the scene let on. The important part is when he actually starts talking to her.

          • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

            To be fair, trying to discern the meaning of a smile is a lot more difficult in real life than the scene let on. The important part is when he actually starts talking to her.

            Oh, I don’t doubt that. The early part of this scene, to my ear, plays as a parody of female enthusiasm for telepathy, more so than as a celebration of same. And I’m aware that your intention was to direct me more toward the later part, where they were actually talking. Now, I would never want to act like this fellow under any circumstances, but at least it gives me the opportunity to reflect on why that is. It seems to me that what’s a drag about him is that he has to carry on with this schtick indefinitely. With jokes, I can say something absurd that I don’t really mean, but that digression only lasts momentarily. If the tension created by the joke’s ambiguity fails to resolve quickly and pleasurably, then the joke has failed. But this cad character from Imitation Game has to keep jabbering more or less for good. I can hardly think of anything more exhausting or alienating.

        • JulieK says:

          Note: Riker is also a master poker player.

          • John Schilling says:

            Note: Riker is also a master poker player.

            Against a psychic, a superintelligent AI, and a guy with X-ray vision, but never against the one person on the ship who could order him to take a dive. I have my suspicions.

          • Nornagest says:

            Never thought about that. I can handwave LaForge, and Data’s trouble reading people would be a disadvantage even if he can calculate hand odds perfectly, but Troi ought to be a terror.

            Maybe she’s letting Riker win. It’s the kind of thing they’d do to flirt.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Nornagest,

            Well we know from the first episode that they can communicate telepathically. It might be that what seems like him winning is really them winning.

          • Matt M says:

            Troi technically is an empath, not a psychic. She can only read emotions. I’d imagine that part of being a really good poker player isn’t just keeping your face in check, but also legitimately keeping your own personal emotions in check. So long as Riker doesn’t get “excited” at having a good hand, Troi should pose little difficulty.

            Data; however, is a different matter. You say he “can’t read people” but he should be able to notice patterns in facial expressions or something like that far better than most. To defeat Data is essentially proof that you have no tells whatsoever because if you did, even little ones, he’d pick up on them.

          • Wrong Species says:

            In the year 2017, we have socially unaware AI that’s able to win at Poker. It should be a piece of cake for Data. He has to be handicapping himself.

          • John Schilling says:

            Troi technically is an empath, not a psychic. She can only read emotions.

            But it was made explicit in the first season that these people don’t have or care about money, so what are they playing for if not for the emotional payoff? Riker can maybe defeat Troi if he doesn’t allow himself to have any fun in the process, but why would he care to? If he cares, he loses.

            Or, as Nabil suggests, Troi is handing him the victories for her own purposes, which might be in character for her but I’d expect Data to notice the pattern. And not know better than to bluntly ask about it, whereupon we get to find out whether Worf considers that sort of play honorable.

          • Nornagest says:

            But it was made explicit in the first season that these people don’t have or care about money, so what are they playing for if not for the emotional payoff?

            This is probably one of those things that we shouldn’t think about too hard.

    • liquidpotato says:

      I think there are two broad definitions of flirting and that is the male version and the female version. In most situations, the female version works better, because all it really is, is about bantering. It’s just being playful, lighthearted teasing, roleplaying and/or telling ridiculous jokes. Good eye contact*, slight touch on the arm lasting no longer than 2 seconds at appropriate moments** are essential. The important thing to note here is that under this definition, we can flirt with anyone, and it’s an important concept because it’s a skill, which can only come from practice.

      The male version should really be called escalation, and usually will be effective only in the later stages.

      Anyway, as a general comment, it just feels like going out to talk to actual people will solve most of the issues here. I don’t know if what Scott is writing is some kind of satire because that whole bit about Bob asking what random book Scott is reading seems really far-fetched to me if he really doesn’t know what the purpose of those simple questions are for and I assume he has decent social skills.

      If it’s satire, please skip this part. If not:
      The purpose of those questions is to find a topic to generate rapport on. As an example, some weeks ago I was on the bus home. A woman sat down beside me and pulled out the Handmaid’s Tale. I saw it and turned towards her and said “That’s an interesting book, how does it compare to the Netflix show?”

      I have never read the book, nor seen the show and have no intention to do so. I know nothing about the book beyond what gets discussed here on the SSC, so when she said “I have not seen the show either, but the book is about how in the near future, religion can distort society if it becomes dominant especially for women”, I have zero idea if that’s true.

      I took what she gave me however and shared a bit of myself and said “My sister was a convert to Catholicism, and the initial years saw some difficult and awkward conversations between us.” Then I spun the conversation to a new direction and asked her what was the one thing that affected her most strongly about the book. And this was the question where she gave me a lot. How it made her feel more aware of women’s place in society, how important it is to keep working for women’s rights and a whole bunch of other stuff.

      The conversation lasted the whole trip, which was about 40 minutes. I don’t remember very much beyond the first few minutes when I opened the conversation, but I followed that format. Ask a question, pay attention to what she gave me, shared a story or a fact or something about myself that has some kind of connection to what she said, then ask another question to steer the conversation.

      I don’t think that subtlety or guessing this or that really has anything to do with being social. Social cues and what not is a red herring I think. It’s about paying attention and showing interest in what the other person have to say. I can be as blunt and direct as I want as long as I pay attention and show that I am more interested in what the other person has to say than myself. And of course, never lie or exaggerate. Every bit of sharing must be absolute truth.

      My two cents.

      *Good eye contact DOES NOT mean staring into the person’s eyes the whole time, because that can really raise the tension. Look in for a few seconds, break away, look at something else, then look back again. It’s to show that you are the type of person that can hold someone’s gaze and not be uncomfortable, not a staring contest.

      **Touching when appropriate is when the situation calls for it. When they laugh at your jokes, or when they say something funny, or share something personal. Touching without some kind of context or constant touching will weird people out.

      • John Schilling says:

        **Touching when appropriate is when the situation calls for it. When they laugh at your jokes, or when they say something funny, or share something personal. Touching without some kind of context or constant touching will weird people out.

        I rather suspect that applying the algorithm “IF (laugh at joke OR say funny OR say personal) THEN (reach, touch arm, duration = 2 seconds)”, will also weird people out.

        • liquidpotato says:

          2 seconds is max duration John. You generally want to be a lot shorter than that. So it should really be

          if (stuff) == True:
          touch >= 2 seconds

          But let me put it into context.

          So first we obviously need to stand close enough for this not to be awkward. If I’m sitting across the table from you and then reeeeaching oveeer from a meter away to touch you, that would be really deliberate and weird, and you’d be right to think I’m playing some game. So close enough that we can casually reach out and just lightly tap each other’s forearm with the back of the hand. I know a lot of autistic people shun physical touch, but physical touching is really important part of creating rapport for the average person.

          Then imagine we’re talking about some stuff John. Anything. And you say something really funny, and I laugh, and at the same time just lightly tap you as mentioned, that is an extra level of affirmation for your sense of humour. Or if you talk about your childhood and how you might have spent your time with your parents building star destroyers (or anything), and if you ask about mine, I might have said something like my mother passed away when I was young and you might touch my arm briefly in sympathy. It’s a reinforcement, like a powerful punctuation.

          I want to stress again that this is a skill. Someone upstream used the phrase low-functioning nerotypical and I think that describes me pretty well. I also share some autistic characteristics like a large enough, crowded enough gathering will overload my senses and shut me down. Any group larger than 5 including myself will quickly wear me out.

          Socialising in general is the most cognitively demanding task for me. I feel more tired afterwards then when I was trying to learn rotation matrixes and quaternions as an adult with no mathematical background. And in the beginning when I was trying out all these stuff it was super awkward. My touch was either coming a tad too soon or too late, or too strong. But after a lot of tries and a lot of calibration it became a lot smoother. It’s like riding a bicycle for me. I learnt as an adult too. Watched lots of how-to videos online but none of it mattered until I started trying it out.

      • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

        Thanks, liquidpotato, I thought this was really interesting and hopefully has helped me clarify my thoughts about flirting. Incidentally, I think I’m reasonably competent, possibly above average, at doing appropriate eye contact. But I have near zero understanding of when appropriate touching. I suspect I’m below average tactile with everybody I know, not just in flirting-related situations. This is probably pretty typical of so-called Low-Functioning Neurotypical types (or LFNTs).

    • Joyously says:

      True, embarrassing story:

      One of my roommates bought a dating advice book. One night before going to a party we sat in our living room and read out loud the flirting-tips for women, and agreed we were going to try them. At the party, I tried the book’s tips, which went like this “make eye contact, smile, literally twirl your hair like a cartoon, look away.” And it worked. Like, bizarrely well. What freaked me out was when a guy called me out on it. He mentioned the hair twirling! And then he said, “And it works. Girls outnumber guys here two to one, and you’ve had a guy talking to you the entire time.” I feel like part of the social contract should be that I twirl my hair and guys don’t acknowledge that I twirl my hair.

      • Aapje says:

        I feel like part of the social contract should be that I twirl my hair and guys don’t acknowledge that I twirl my hair.

        Why?

        It’s an unnecessary act that is thus perfect for signalling. Once you know that it works, you are in full control whether you use it or not and on whom. It’s also pretty easy to do, if you have long hair.

        That’s a lot better than a lot of other signals that are far harder to do or not do & which may be indiscriminate. For example, dressing up to signal openness to dating/sex requires knowing the appropriate level of sexiness and sends signals to all men, not just those you fancy.

        • random832 says:

          Why?

          Because our social norms dictate that women are allowed to impose the burden of interpreting ambiguous communication on men, and for men to explicitly “call out” signals that they’ve noticed (rather than acting on them without acknowledging them, leaving open the possibility for the woman to plausibly deny sending the signal and deliver a humiliating rejection) violates this norm.

          …Well, “shoulds” are tricky. My comment is, more precisely, an explanation of why it is.

          And, to be fair, your “unnecessary” is a bit of a loaded description – not much is truly necessary, after all, but someone could have reasons for touching their hair other than flirting. For example, if they have noticed that part of it is out of place or tangled. But this explains why it causes discomfort to have it called out even when it was explicitly intended as a ‘flirting’ signal.

          • Joyously says:

            Yeah, that was my point. Flirting is the prime example of interaction that’s intentionally ambiguous/incomprehensible, and so when someone strips the ambiguity away (even tissue-thin ambiguity) it’s really weird/uncomfortable/embarrassing.

          • Aapje says:

            @random832

            And, to be fair, your “unnecessary” is a bit of a loaded description – not much is truly necessary, after all, but someone could have reasons for touching their hair other than flirting.

            Perhaps I should have said ‘functionally useless’ rather than unnecessary. I am specifically referring to twirling one’s hair, which seems 100% useless aside from signalling purposes or the generic benefit of fidgeting/stimming. Removing knots doesn’t involve the kind of twirling that we are talking about, AFAIK (but I have never had long hair, so…).

            This in contrast to wearing revealing clothing, which generally seems to keep people cool better. So women get considered more sexy as the temperatures go up, they sometimes endure feeling too cold to send these signals, etc. Seems like a very inconvenient form of signalling.

            @Joyously

            In hindsight, I got triggered too much by the signalling part and didn’t focus enough on the explicit calling out. You are right that by calling you out, the guy broke the social contract where you had plausible deniability.

            Then again, your act is a power play and in general, the social contract has repercussions that the guy may dislike and he may wanted to counter with a different power play of his own. Or perhaps he was just clueless.

            it’s really weird/uncomfortable/embarrassing.

            Some men try to make the woman uncomfortable to create the kind of tension that some people really find exciting (and some women do this to men, as well).

            A lot of (mutually) abusive relationships seem to involve people who are energized by this kind of tension.

    • sconn says:

      If you have Netflix, you can find this Friends episode that explains it pretty well: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0583479/

      From this I concluded that I can flirt casually (playful banter with an opposite-sex stranger) but not seriously (introducing sexual tension that is meant to be understood as real). Friendly humor is considered mildly flirty. More flirtation than that (pointed compliments, pickup lines, sexual references) is basically asking someone out … you’d be shot down 49 times out of 50 so nobody does it unless they have boundless confidence. And it risks giving offense if it’s in a situation (work, on a lonely street in the dark, from a doctor to a patient) where people don’t want to be thinking about romantic possibilities. I prefer to play it safe and stick with the casual banter, which some people wouldn’t call flirting at all.

  39. Blue Tribe Dissident says:

    I always figured that a lot of skirting the borders of incomprehensibility in conversation was done for its own sake. You’re showing off and playing with your own ability to understand where the border of incomprehensibility is and you’re testing the other person’s ability to do the same. That’s what humor feels like to me, which per above seems to be the only form of subtlety that I can understand: it’s a fun exercise in itself and you also learn a little about the people around you by running something up the flagpole and seeing who salutes.

    The thing about trying to use a lot of subtlety in conversation is that it’s somewhat hard to imagine that it ever works, or works often enough to be much of a thing. Most people don’t strike me as very smoothe or subtle conversationalists. They’re kind of dopey, not to put too fine a point on it. Are they really much fun to play around with with subtle hints and implications? Maybe there is something to the metaphor of color-blindness which HeelBearCub used above. Distinguishing different colours doesn’t feel like a subtle or challenging skill to the people who can do it.

    • albatross11 says:

      There is a kind of joy to finding a clever, subtle way to express something–some sentence that takes a second or two to untangle and then hits, or some slightly convoluted way of saying something that causes a chuckle. But it’s also kind-of risky as a communications strategy, because the more subtle double-meanings and clever wordplay you use, the more listeners or readers either get lost or misunderstand what you’re saying.

      Over the last couple years, I’ve tried not to give into the temptation to do that. If you’re going to be discussing complicated stuff anyway, adding a bunch of mental work for the reader to untangle what you’re saying is a good way to leave your reader scratching his head in confusion.

  40. KieferO says:

    There’s a whole subfield of linguistics, pragmatics, dedicated to the study of this sort of thing. In your example, I don’t think that ambiguity is Bob’s goal in the phrasing of his utterances. I think that a token ambiguity is necessary, but that beyond that precondition, the goal of his utterances is flexibility. Bob wants to cede the power to dictate the terms of the conversation to Alice, but beyond that he’s free to be as clear as possible. If Bob really did need true ambiguity in order to remain polite, we would see a “politeness treadmill.” Over time questions like “What are you reading?” would become conventionalized and loose their ambiguity. Bob would have to up the ante with something like “Wow, that book sure looks like it contains a lot of words.” And then once that became conventional shorthand for “I’m interested in talking about what you’re reading,” future Bobs would have to invent increasingly tangential comments in order to stay in the arms race against future Alices. In euphemisms, where ambiguity really is the goal, we see a constant churn of acceptable words replacing formerly acceptable words. I.e. “privy” → “toilet” → “bathroom” → “restroom.” These euphemisms start out as ambiguous, but once they become conventionalized, and loose their ambiguity, they have to be replaced by new ambiguous words.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I think it’s a big mistake to model this interaction as strictly textual. Linguistics can only tell us so much about the utterance of a single sentence, verbally, in close proximity to the individual.

  41. Error says:

    I would describe it as more of an open-ended attempt to start a fun conversation

    I think this is accurate and it often bugs the crap out of me. I see it most often in the form “what are you reading?” and interpret it not-terribly-charitably as “I can see that you are reading, and I am nonetheless going to interrupt your mental flow for no particularly pressing reason. Failing that, I will at least force you to shift to metacognitive mode to describe the book for my benefit. In short, pay attention to me and not the book.”

    I usually just close the book and hand it to them, perhaps with an invitation to read the dust jacket. This answers the question they asked but is never what they wanted, which suits me fine.

    • Paul Crowley says:

      Why not just say “I don’t want to be interrupted right now”? You’re clearly not worried about being a little rude; this is less rude and gives you more of what you want.

      • gbdub says:

        It’s also less of an interruption to the reader.

        “Closing the book and handing it to them” is not merely a little rude, it’s going out of your way to be an ass.

        • Error says:

          I am reasonably comfortable with being an ass to people who are being an ass to me. Particularly when I can do so while giving them exactly what they asked for, such that they have no leg to stand on.

          • eyeballfrog says:

            Being unnecessarily rude to people seems all-downside. I guess there’s some amount of “gee, I sure showed him.”, but long-term having people willing to say “That guy? He’s such a jerk.” can only come back to bite you.

          • gbdub says:

            they have no leg to stand on.

            Their leg to stand on is that they greeted you politely and you got all passive-aggressive on them in a way that not only hurt their feelings but also hurt your own ability to get back to reading quickly. In other words, you are unwilling to make an effort to dismiss them politely, but you are willing to expend a greater effort to be rude.

            I guarantee you being handed a book is not “exactly what they asked for”. What was the context? Yeah if you’re in a library reading room, a stranger asking you what you’re reading is rude.

            But a friend seeing you and sitting near you? Not rude at all (in fact the opposite – wouldn’t it be rude of them to not acknowledge you in some way)?

            Also, for many people (and some cultures I think), entering a person’s personal space (e.g. on a bus) and not acknowledging them is itself rude or at least awkward, and “what are you reading?” is just an easy way to signal “I’m discharging my social duty, and indicating an openness for additional conversation”. It is not asking to be handed a book, any more than “lovely weather today, isn’t it?” is primarily a request for meteorological information.

    • Yug Gnirob says:

      Ooh, free book!

      I wonder what else that applies to.

      “Hey Error, is that your car? How does it handle?”

  42. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    Other people have expressed this point upthread but it bears repeating: this is a lot simpler than you’re making it out to be.

    Bob: “Hey Alice, what are you reading?”
    Greetings fellow human! I notice that you are performing an activity. I would like to engage you in conversation.

    Alice: “A book.”
    Fuck you Bob. I will block off all possible lines of conversation with answers that are difficult to follow up on.

    Bob: “Oh, uh, enjoy your book I guess?”
    Alice you’re being a jerk right now. I’ll try to initiate conversation again later.

    Alice: “Bye.”
    No, seriously, fuck you Bob.

    Conversations need a give and take. If you respond in a way which prevents the person you’re talking to from responding in turn, you’re effectively ending the conversation.

    • cuke says:

      This made me smile. Maybe you’d be willing to do this kind of translation for occasional comment threads on this blog?

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Thanks.

        I think it would probably get old very quickly and sound super condescending. Besides I’ve burned a lot of forum good will by ranting about politics so if I was going to do that I’d start over with a new handle.

    • carvenvisage says:

      Obviously “a book” is rude. That isn’t simplifying it.

       

      “Hey Alice, what are you reading?” (curious? wants to socialise? wants to touch in? unclear at this stage)

      “book name, it’s about x y z” (testing the waters, providing some ‘hooks’ but not so many bob can’t leave)

      “oh, uh, enjoy your book I guess?” (wasn’t looking for conversation, or isn’t interested in that particular book)

      Alice: “thanks”

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        The thing is, you’re fundamentally changing the interaction by having Alice give conversation hooks. From my perspective it’s precisely the failure to provide usable hooks which is the problem.

        We can imagine a dialogue in which Alice’s answer is less curt but still leaves nothing for Bob to work with. Maybe Alice describes the book in a particularly inaccessible way, such as comparing it to her favorite visual novel. She could even prevent him from responding by unleashing a long in-depth review of the book. Those still read as rejection because they’re making it more difficult for Bob to continue the conversation.

        Autistic people can be very verbose but still have great difficulty holding up their end of a conversation. I’d argue that’s because they don’t anticipate that the person they’re talking to needs something to work with for their follow-up.

        • carvenvisage says:

          Upon reflection, I’d like to apologise for being such a fag, by pandering to the idea of calculated ‘hooks’ as a conversational necessity. If you ask someone what they’re reading, without indicating a desire for further conversation through body language or tone, and getting your request for information granted upsets you, and you’re proud of it, please fucking kill yourself. Your weird religious rules about how people are supposed to interact don’t make you special, no matter how many braindead morons join you in proclaiming their universality and objectivity. My idea of a conversation isn’t someone else calculatedly and self sacrificingly setting me up for the great pleasure of hearing myself talk.

          It’s more like hearing what they want to say and saying what I want to in response, and vica versa, as long as that natural interaction wants to continue. All this ‘social skills’ shit is really just dumb social norms shit that kills the soul of conversations.

          -Observe that most people get more ‘socially skilled’ with a few drinks, and it’s not because they think more about this kind of thing when they do, it’s because they become more comfortable, confident, easily interested, outgoing, happier, etc, and probably because they pay less attention to stupid petty shit like this.

          (disclaimer: if your goal is only to avoid conflict, or maintain minimal harmony, -perhaps at work, maybe these rules aren’t totally stupid, just really conservative and unambitious)

  43. Calecute says:

    I think another important factor is that you have a short time limit to predict human behavior in social contexts. The weather might well be more complex, but usually you can leave your computer running models all night. In social contexts you usually have seconds to make a useful prediction.

  44. Matt M says:

    What if you’re just overly paranoid about being judged?

    I feel like about 10% of my workdays are taken up by coworkers asking me what I did last weekend and/or what I’m going to do on the coming weekend. I usually answer something like “Not much, just hung around the house and relaxed”, primarily because I feel like “Well, I spent maybe 15 hours or so playing video games, and maybe about 8 or so arguing with strangers in the comments section of a rationalist blog,” is an answer that would cause them to think less of me.

    • gbdub says:

      “Well, I spent maybe 15 hours or so playing video games, and maybe about 8 or so arguing with strangers in the comments section of a rationalist blog,”

      Pretending for the moment that that description never fits my weekends, that answer might make me feel awkward because I’m not sure how to respond to you without you thinking I’m judging you, or just reacting with an incorrect emotion. Did you tell me that because it was a great weekend for you, that’s your favorite thing to do? Or are you trying to tell me you were bored? Give me a hook to tell me how to sympathize! “It was great, got to spend a solid 15 hours on some games I’ve been meaning to get through” is a lot better.

      • Matt M says:

        The point is that, due to fear of being judged, I never GIVE that answer. “Relaxing” sounds like a thing normal people do, so I say that instead.

        • baconbacon says:

          I never reply “reading economics blogs and playing starcraft” though that has frequently been the case in my life. Having kids makes this an easy conversation now with other parents as there is just so much common ground. “My kids 4th birthday party” or “kids had a sleepover at gramma’s house, so I slept in/caught up on projects/poured whiskey over my naked body”. I used to follow sports and play fantasy football to make these interactions easier, but that is falling away steadily.

          I will reply with specific stuff that is odd, but that I think other people will find interesting. “I fixed the roof on our chicken coup/brewed beer”, but never with the stuff I do most often.

        • gbdub says:

          I guess I’m saying that you’re right to not say that, but for the wrong reason. You probably could give that level of detail without being judged, as long as you also add a signal for how your interlocutor should feel about that detail.

          Of course there is a such thing as judgy people so who knows. Then again you may be in an office full of closeted gamers just dying for someone to be the first to admit it.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I like to say that I “keep busy”. It’s the polite way to say stop talking about this topic.

      • Matt M says:

        Which is fine, until everyone starts sending you articles about how your generic and non-detailed answers to questions reveal that you’re probably autistic and need extra help understanding social norms.

        • Wrong Species says:

          I don’t think all “normies” believe that being private equates to being autistic.

    • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

      Understandable. For the same reasons, I hardly ever admit to spending my weekends eating fun-dip & not giving a fuck. I have sometimes resorted to “I smoked a lot of heroin and I passed out in manure,” which is no small exaggeration.

  45. Nyx says:

    It sounds like the word you’re looking for is “ambiguity”, not “incomprehensibility”. Ambiguous statements are not incomprehensible.

  46. Christopher Hazell says:

    And I think part of the answer might be: ordinary conversations are hard to predict because they’re designed to be so. Conversation norms are anti-inductive. Like Douglas Adams’ conception of the universe, any time people start to understand them too well, they have to get replaced with something a little bit less comprehensible.

    I think this varies from time to time and place to place. This is not linguistic, but I’ve lately been nerding out by reading about classic menswear. And what’s interesting is that how to dress guides written in the last 10-20 years all basically say some variation on this: “If you ever need a job in the 1950s I can tell you exactly how to dress for the office. If you need a job today, I can’t tell you what you’re going to need because what counts as “business” or “business casual” is now different for every office. What I can do is point out which details of clothing tend to be salient, and what formality level they displayed in the past, and then you can use that knowledge to more correctly read what the influential people at your office are wearing.”

    Or, to put it another way, in the 1950s, the answer to “Should I wear a tie to the office” was “Yes.” and now it has changed to “it depends”. Now, arguably, this just pushes things down another level; maybe you know to wear a tie, but you are still subtly judged on which tie you wear. On the other hand, perhaps there is a real benefit to knowing that you can’t go too far wrong with a grey suit and a tie?

    Here is a theory which I can’t even begin to support with evidence: Perhaps the rise in autism diagnoses is related to the increasingly informal (Or more properly, semi-formal) nature of society. It’s not that there are no rules for what to wear at the office, (Just ask that NASA guy who wore a girly shirt to a press conference) its that the rules aren’t determined by the fact that you’re at an office, they are determined by who in the office has the most cultural capital.

    In other words, perhaps fifty years ago it was easier to learn correct etiquette through the kind of book learning and rote memorization that autistic people are good at, and therefore it was easier for them to come off mostly normal, whereas now etiquette is much more about copying the norms of the people with the most social capital, a task which autistic people are bad at more or less by definition?

    • beleester says:

      “Business casual” has meant “polo or button-down shirt, no tie” everywhere I’ve seen it used.

    • Zodiac says:

      Can’t blame autistic people to not be able to handle that, even as a neuratypical this kind of stuff is driving me crazy.

  47. Drew says:

    The meaning to the “plausibly deniable” conversations to be relatively clear to neurotypical people. This makes me think that Alice isn’t really trying to be ambiguous about her desires right now.

    Instead, she’s being ambiguous about how she’ll react in the future.

    When we see the interaction:

    Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
    Alice: Not much. Just some random novel.
    Bob: Oh, well, enjoy!

    We know that Alice doesn’t want to talk to Bob. About this specific novel. Right now.

    Maybe she’s between meeting and hopes to finish this specific scene. Maybe she’s embarrassed by her interest in military Science Fiction. Or maybe Bob made a horrible first impression and she doesn’t want to talk to him about anything.

    An ‘honest’ reply would require people to reveal information. And, it would force people to express minor social frictions in ways that are hard to retroactively ignore.

    Consider the possibility that Alice and Bob just got off on the wrong foot. Three years later, they’re assigned to the same team at work.

    If we’re in the “ambiguous” world, then Alice’s rejection of Bob’s conversation about books has probably been forgotten. The two can start the project pretending that there was never any initial dislike.

    If we’re in the “honest” world, where Alice’s response was, “I’m sorry Bob. I don’t want to talk about books with you, in particular,” then their initial relationship has been set more firmly.

    Ambiguity means that we don’t distinguish, “No, because circumstance” and “No, because it’s you.” This makes things easier going forward.

  48. baconbacon says:

    Question for people who identify as on the spectrum, which is a better description of awkward social interactions for you?

    1. I thought that X meant Y, but I was mistaken, and X meant Z.

    2. I didn’t notice X at all.

    3. Neither of these even sounds close to what I experience.

  49. Virriman says:

    If someone asks me “What’s that thing you’re doing?” I’m much more likely to interpret the question as curiosity about the thing than a generic request to socialize.

    On the other hand, when I ask someone else “What’s that thing you’re doing?”, it’s almost certainly a generic request to socialize. Strange.

    • beleester says:

      Well, you can’t really “generically socialize.” Conversations are always about something.

      So you’re not necessarily doing anything wrong by answering someone’s questions about the thing you’re doing, it’s more a question of whether you answer the question in a way that allows further conversation, or if you’re trying to answer the question and get back to what you were doing.

  50. eh says:

    Conversation isn’t anti-inductive in the same sense as a market, where the rules will change until you are bankrupt. If someone knows that you frequently misunderstand a particular social convention, they’ll use it less and be more willing to explain it to you. Thus, conversation between people who know each other forms an equilibrium.

    • Zodiac says:

      If someone knows that you frequently misunderstand a particular social convention, they’ll use it less and be more willing to explain it to you.

      Or they decide you’re a weirdo and avoid further contact with you.

  51. Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff says:

    It’s not often that an intelligent man’s post begins in babble and descends to blather, but here we are.

  52. lambdaphagy says:

    If it helps, the theory referred to here is summarized in Pinker, Nowak and Lee (2007).

  53. Worley says:

    All of polite society is a lie, starting with “Pleased to meet you.”

    I see noting to contradict in this article.

    And of course, dealing with other humans is difficult because dealing with them is the most complex and high-stakes game one plays in life, with allies and adversaries who are as skilled as one is one’s self.

  54. BBA says:

    Just to tie this in to another local obsession: sometimes at work, people see me microwaving a mealsquare and say “what is that? it looks good!” And every time I respond “It isn’t.” If they press it I’ll give a cursory explanation of it basically being solid Soylent.

    Of course they know me by now, so my deflating snark is kinda expected.

    (For the record, I used to think I had Asperger’s but now consider myself a low-functioning neurotypical.)

    • Aapje says:

      For the record, I used to think I had Asperger’s but now consider myself a low-functioning neurotypical.

      Same here. Greetings, fellow incompetent person. 🙂

    • Zodiac says:

      low-functioning neurotypical.

      I’ll need to keep that in mind. If I ever write a profile somewhere about me this will be worked into it.

    • Matt M says:

      people see me microwaving a mealsquare and say “what is that? it looks good!” And every time I respond “It isn’t.”

      You can’t buy viral marketing like this!

    • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

      I should be so lucky, working with people who knew what Soylent is.

      I think it’s interesting how polarising Mealsquares prove to be. I think they’re delicious. Borderline hyperpalatable. I wish they made them in a less sweet version.

  55. faith says:

    Most comments seem to come down pretty firmly on the side of these questions being veiled requests for social interaction. I see them more like invitations to be friendly.

    Rather than interpret it as, “Please talk to me,” I’d consider it more like, “If you’re interested in socializing, you’ll find me a willing participant.”

    In fact, to many people, it’s simply being polite to verbalize an interest in something someone else is obviously interested in. With extroversion considered the default in American cultural norms, many people would consider it rude NOT to ask. The assumption is that social activities are always more enjoyable than solitary activities, so offering to socialize with someone is a way of attempting to make his or her life more enjoyable. There are times I’ve asked “What are you doing/reading/watching/playing?” out of social obligation, and have felt relieved when the other person doesn’t seem to want to talk!

    Even if you don’t want to socialize, you can generally preface your response with “Thanks for asking,” to let the other person know that you recognize their questions as polite overtures and appreciate the thought.

  56. dabos says:

    This post sounds exactly like something written by
    cultureby.

  57. P. George Stewart says:

    Maybe language itself is the florid result of a deception arms race.

    IOW, language starts off as a more or less automatic signalling of inner states to conspecifics, to help social co-ordination, then a mutation arises, the possibility of deception occurs, and we’re off to the races.

  58. Mixer says:

    Great conversation, as usual. I have my nickel to add:

    There has been a lot of discussion on the social aspect of ASD, language, cognition, etc. The best way to try and understand the ASD perspective is to look at any individual element through the lens of Executive Function, not any of the subsets of it. People with ASD tend to have deficiencies in some areas of Executive Function, and, conversely, aptitude in others. The baselines are off; while a neurotypical has a baseline of 0 for social interaction, someone with ASD/Aspergers might be a -3. So a lower need to socialize, a lower ability to socialize and a lower cap on socialization, making that person appear to be some sort of mutant reject or organic robot. Conversely, a person with ASD/Aspergers might have a +3 baseline compared to a neurotypical on pattern recognition or problem solving, so it appears that the neuroatypical is some sort of genius in those areas. We’re all human, and all of us chart all over the neural landscape. The folks with ASD, however, tend to have Executive Function oddities that the rest don’t have. The difficulty for someone with ASD is the social need to conform to the baseline. While some can get close, it takes a lot of energy, effort and time to get there, while neurotypicals do it naturally. And it is constant, unlike problem solving, which is situational; the effort put in would be similar to the effort a neurotypical puts into a class or at work – not just for a few hours of a few days a week, but every waking moment, of every day, for the rest of your life. Sounds exhausting :).

    At some point, I think we’ll chart those folks who are +3 on the social interaction scale and -3 on the problem solving scale, and decide if they also have Executive Function oddities. It might take a while, since most of our societies value the former over the latter.

  59. Joyously says:

    Steven Pinker has an interesting lecture on innuendo/mutual knowledge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU

    The bit I remembered when reading this post is the part about When Harry Met Sally–specifically, Harry tells Sally she’s “a very attractive person” and she gets upset because now “it’s out there.” It’s interesting because Harry thinks he’s being coy–he’s saying “you’re attractive” not “I’m attracted to you”–but Sally thinks he’s being too overt–making it too obvious that he’s attracted to her. She would rather he say something more subtle she could ignore.

    • baconbacon says:

      There is some good stuff in this lecture, one portion I disagree with is the sexual innuendo part.

      “Do you want to come up and see my etchings?” This person isn’t saying “Do you want to come up and have sex with me”, he is saying “I want to have sex with you*, but if you don’t want to there will be plenty of time to back out upstairs.”

      Communication isn’t just about transmitting knowing information, it is simultaneously creating information to be shared.

      * Really he isn’t necessarily saying this, he is saying “lets go somewhere private and move the relationship along in a more intimate direction, which doesn’t always imply immediate sex, even for guys!

  60. Plucky says:

    There’s one key thing I think both you and the guy you quote you’re missing in the conversation set-up.

    The “what are you reading/watching/doing” question is a conditional request to engage, with the condition being that what is being read/watched/done is of sufficient mutual interest to continue. You started with this setup:

    Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
    Alice: Not much. Just some random novel.
    Bob: Oh, well, enjoy!

    But Alice’s polite deflection can have multiple reasons- perhaps she doesn’t want to talk to Bob specifically, perhaps she is afraid Bob will take a dimmer view of her for what she is reading, perhaps she has pretty high confidence Bob will have no interest whatsoever in the book, and that if she starts talking about it at length she puts Bob in the awkward position of regretting asking the question in the first place

    Imagine other ways conversation could go:
    1:
    Bob: What are you watching?
    Alice: Oh nothing much, just some random youtube clip
    Bob: C’mon, what are you watching
    Alice: [pensive look]
    Bob: [judgy look]
    Alice: OK fine, it’s yesterday’s TMZ
    Bob: [rolls eyes]

    2:
    Bob: What are you watching?
    Alice: Oh nothing much, just some show
    Bob: C’mon, what are you watching
    Alice: It’s really nothing
    Bob: really?
    Alice: [sighs] It’s a documentary about people who torture animals for fun. Turns out lots of them were horribly abused as children
    Bob: oh… I see…. that’s tragic….

    One of the reasons Bob (normally) would desist after the blow-off answer is that he recognizes he might not actually want to know the answer, and that Alice is saving him from awkwardness as much as herself. The plausibility of Alice’s denial is not related to the ambiguity of the denial, since in the situation Bob is expected to understand that it is definitely a denial. The plausibility is instead that the denial is a rejection due to the subject matter rather than a rejection of Bob per se.

    In both of the above examples, Bob doesn’t take the hint, and bad/awkward social results ensue, which he likely regrets, and which Alice could see coming a mile away. The key element is that the actual answer is one which kills the conversation, and comes with an implied “I told you so, you really shouldn’t have kept digging” kicker. This is where the spectrum-example really ends up screwing up the social cues:

    Bob: What are you watching?
    Alice: [deadpan, just-the-facts] It’s a documentary about people who torture animals for fun. Turns out lots of them were horribly abused as children
    Bob: oh… I see…. that’s tragic….

    In this case, not only has Alice given him the TMI answer, which also is taken by Bob to come with the “I told you so” kicker, but since the it came without the initial warning, it gets interpreted additionally as “Not only am I rejecting your request, I’m intentionally doing it in a way that gives you no way to save face” and “I deem you too socially inept to correctly interpret a non-literal cue, so I’m just skipping that kabuki and dropping the hammer”, which combines to one big, giant GFY personal insult. Obviously, in the spectrum case this is clearly not intended, but that is the unfortunate result.

    So, the “Q: what are you reading/watching/doing? / A: nothing really” setup is constructed in such a way that the rejection is ambiguous as to the reason for the rejection, which could be
    – “I just don’t want to talk to you”
    – “I’d rather not talk to you at this time about this particular topic”
    – “You wouldn’t be interested”
    – “I’m embarrassed to admit the answer”
    or several other things. The ambiguity of reason is what allows Bob to choose the most charitable interpretation and accept the rejection gracefully.

  61. stanprollyright says:

    All communication happens on multiple levels, but plausible deniability is too specific and complicated to explain most conversations. Conversations do indeed skirt the border of incomprehensibility, because to do otherwise communicates no useful information. People don’t generally go around saying “The sun is shining” unless they have reason to believe that you wouldn’t know that (i.e. you’ve just woken up in a dark room) or are using it in support of a conclusion (“The sun is shining; take a walk with me,” with the implied logical steps: “the sun is shining->it is pleasant->it will not always be this pleasant->you should take advantage of it->take a walk with me”). Instead, people go around saying “It’s a nice day,” where “nice day” is a subjective judgement that is being voiced aloud in order to see if you agree.

    I wouldn’t say “Would you like to have a conversation about what you’re reading?” because by asking “What are you reading?” I’ve already started that conversation. In order to continue, I need to know what you’re reading. If you don’t respond, or respond tersely with redundant information (“What are you reading?” “The newspaper,” when I can clearly see the newspaper in your hands), that usually means you don’t want to have a conversation.

    When I say, “What game are you playing?” I do want to know what game it is, and whether you enjoy it (based on your tone), before I decide if I want to join. “What game are you playing?” “Monopoly” “Oh. Can I join you?” Or “What game are you playing?” “Monopoly” “Oh. Well, have fun! See you later.”

  62. 4bpp says:

    > a vague phrase like “common knowledge”

    Common knowledge has a rigorous standard definition in the knowledge-representation literature: X is common knowledge if everyone knows X, and everyone knows that everyone knows X, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows X, etc. for every finite number of “everyone knows that”. Moreover, it seems that your argument would in fact work with this definition.

    (See e.g. this)

    • Zodiac says:

      Under this rigorous definition I don’t think there is any common knowledge.
      Which is something I’ve argued for 13 years in school where “This is common knowledge, so you need to know” was the justification for 80% of what we learned. It had a bitter-sweet taste to go around asking adults if they knew what we just learned in school.

      • 4bpp says:

        I think the usage you cite is meant to be interpreted not as “this is common knowledge for everyone”, but “this is common knowledge among real adults who amount to something (*)”: in particular, it’s exhorting you to (1) know the piece of information itself, (2) know the statement you were just given (that it is common knowledge among real adults who amount to something), and (3) actively exclude others who fail (1), (2) or (3) from your category of real adults who amount to something (so (2) is in fact true for you). If you follow all three points, (*) will be true for the set of people you define to be real adults who amount to something, but people will of course not in general agree on what that set is.

      • rlms says:

        That’s a different kind of common knowledge: common as in frequent rather than common as in shared.

        • John Schilling says:

          Knowledge which is sufficiently frequent is knowledge which is shared. Asserting that it doesn’t count as “shared” without 100% confidence of 100% dissemination is for pedantic geeks who are not really interested in comprehensible conversations.

          • rlms says:

            I’m saying that the things Zodiac and 4bpp are referring to are different, see the Wikipedia pages “Common knowledge” and “Common knowledge (logic)” respectively. It happens that most the things in common knowledge(1) (conventional wisdom) are also in common knowledge(2) (what the blue-eyed islanders have when the outsider announces they can see someone with blue eyes), but that fact isn’t really relevant to anything.

          • random832 says:

            what the blue-eyed islanders have when the outsider announces they can see someone with blue eyes

            Of course, they only get this if it is previously common knowledge that the outsider (I thought it was a high-status islander, for this reason) does not lie or make mistakes, that everyone heard and understood them, that everyone knows how many blue eyed people they can see (no-one is blind/colorblind), etc, that those facts are common knowledge, etc.

            Really the main difference “logic” definition and the “frequent” definition is whether you care about corner cases like these.

  63. onyomi says:

    A question the answer to which I’ve still not figured out, despite several years living in Asia:

    If there’s a favor you’d be perfectly happy to do for someone, assuming that favor would make him happy and not awkward, how can one possibly find out whether that person would actually like for you to do the favor if you’re in a culture where politely turning down any favors offered is de rigeur (the offerer is supposed to surmount the objection by e.g. insisting on paying the bill despite strenuous objection on the part of his guests)?

    Example: friend, not super close friend, but still a friend is coming to town. Should I offer to meet him at the airport? I would be perfectly happy to meet this person at the airport if it will make him happy, but don’t want to do so if it will feel weird and awkward (like I’m assuming a level of intimacy usually reserved for a family member or very close friend). But I also know that, given his upbringing, he will decline my offer to do a favor for him regardless of whether or not he would actually like me to do it. Then I’m left guessing whether that was a fake, polite “refusal,” which I should override by insisting on going to the airport, or a real refusal indicating he’d be more comfortable if I didn’t.

    I’m sure this problem exists to some extent elsewhere, but I find it especially difficult in the Sinosphere, where polite refusal is always the initial reaction. One can press the offer after one refusal, but then it becomes harder to tell whether the person is accepting the offer to make me happy or because he actually, genuinely wants the favor.

    • baconbacon says:

      One trick that can sometimes work is to downplay the size of the favor in the offering. “Would you like me to meet you at the airport, I am going to be right around the corner for (unspecified reason), it’s no trouble.” Or some variation of “I love that place, can I come to, I could show you around”.

    • Matt M says:

      I don’t think this is exclusively Asian. My general rule is basically “everyone gets one free refusal for social reasons.”

      In other words, I’ll offer something once. I’ll assume the first refusal is just social custom, then I’ll offer it again *one* more time, perhaps with an additional “are you sure, it’s really no problem at all” or something like that. And then, after the second refusal, I drop it.

      • Anonymousse says:

        This is exactly what I do, though I don’t think everyone picks up on it. A close acquaintance of mine often almost always responds to the second offer with something along the lines of “no, and why did you ask a second time?” Sometimes I catch myself before habitually repeating the offer.

      • lvlln says:

        It may have changed in the couple of decades since, and it may also not have been universal in the country, but back when I was growing up in Korea, the rule I was taught was 3 refusals. If someone offered you something and you wanted to accept, you were expected to refuse twice then accept the 3rd time. Likewise, if you wanted to offer someone something, you were expected to offer it 3 times. If you accepted the 1st or 2nd refusal, that was considered rude and an indication that you didn’t truly mean to offer that. If you continued to offer after the 3rd refusal, you were considered to be overly pushy and not taking No for an answer.

    • Brad says:

      In terms of the restaurant check, which is where this sort of thing comes up most often for me, I wonder if I’m ever causing offense from the opposite direction. If someone offers to pick up the check, I’ll generally say no once, but if he insists after that he’s paying. I wonder if people from some cultures interpret that as freeloading.

      • baconbacon says:

        Do you ever pick up the check with anyone?

        If yes, what recognizable dynamics are at play then?

        If no, then eventually people will come to see you as a freeloader (though not always the people picking up the checks).

        • Brad says:

          Yes, I do and use roughly the same dynamic. I offer, I reject one objection, and then if there’s a second objection I concede to it. (Except in the case of a first dates which have their own terrible dynamic).

          For people that I dine with frequently, I attempt to keep some sort of very rough parity over time. I’m pretty sure that my close friends use a somewhat similar model, and I don’t worry about them at all. It’s the one-offs where I don’t necessarily know that we share social norms.

    • sconn says:

      When I refuse a favor, I usually offer a hint in the way I refuse. If I am refusing out of politeness, I’ll say, “I wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble” (expected answer: “it’s no trouble at all!”) whereas if I’m refusing because I don’t want it, I say “I’ll really be more comfortable getting a cab” or whatever. “Ah, no, don’t worry about it” means possibly yes, while flat “no” probably means definitely no.

  64. Anonymousse says:

    A similar issue I’ve frequently encountered is the question “What are you up to?” I have seen it used (and indeed used it myself) as both a conversation extender (exclusively via texting) and to subtly precede an invitation.

    The ambiguity bothers me, as the intent completely colors my response. If it is simply meant to extend the conversation, I want to say I am doing an interesting thing so that I can seem interesting and perhaps strike up another topic. However, if it is meant to precede an invitation (as in, “Are you free to hang out right now?”), I want to seem available so the other person feels free to offer the invitation knowing they won’t be rejected because I’m busy.

    Does anyone else use this strategy, or have any better alternatives? Short of leading with the invitation, as that defeats the purpose of opening with a more innocuous statement such as “What are you up to?”

    Ran through the comments briefly, sorry if someone mentioned this already.

    • sconn says:

      My husband does this and I’ve figured the real question is, “is what you’re doing so fun you don’t want to be interrupted, or something we could chat about, or something so boring you want to ditch it and have a conversation with me instead?”

      If the first option, I’ll say, “I’m doing this thing” in a brief and final sort of way, perhaps with an apology. “Sorry, I’m busy reading.”
      If the middle option, I’ll answer in a longer way that leaves some room for him to have a conversation about it.
      If the latter option, I’ll probably answer, “Nothing much, what’s up?”

      In chat or texting, the “I don’t want to chat” answer is silence. You answer the text later when you’re free … “sorry I was busy earlier, how’s it going with you?”

  65. lemmycaution415 says:

    this situation comes up with sexual assault because a normal way to reject some one is to not say anything in response for about a half a second.

    me: do you want to help me move on saturday?
    you: pause
    me: If you have something planed I totally understand

    This causes problems in sexual assault trials because sometimes juries and judges will require explicit rejections that hardly anybody does in other situations.

    • Aapje says:

      Sex is not instantaneous, so the woman still has a lots of opportunity to say no if the pause is misunderstood.

      • sconn says:

        Theoretically, but since women are socialized not to say no, they might struggle to actually say no in these situations. So they might freeze up, pull away, try to excuse themselves, but be afraid to say no right out because they’re afraid the guy will be offended, or even that he will actually hurt them. It causes a lot of confusion and problems.

  66. untimelyreflections says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, neurotypicals have a lot of trouble getting this right too. See e.g. any movie or situation comedy.