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"You know nothing”: a conversational mindset
For my birthday this year I decided that my new goal is to have better conversations.
Post-pandemic I feel motivated to meet new people and break out of set routines. I also have had a number of conversations recently where I forced myself to get out of my comfort zone and without fail, every one of them was rewarding.
Overall I would say I have ~average conversational skills. I am not afraid to talk with strangers but it’s not something I typically seek out. I have some friends and family members, however, that are excellent at having conversations – if you put them in a room full of people, by the end of a day they will leave with a bunch of new friends. I aspire to this...
On my recent trip to Brazil I tried to push myself to have better conversations and I think it kind of worked... Overall I found the main “unlock” was to shift my mindset: my new mantra was to remind myself that “I know nothing.” Let me explain.
There’s an odd thing that happens when I see a stranger for the first time: objectively I know nothing about them, and yet, instead of recognizing this gap, my mind makes tons of subtle, subconscious inferences: I form a vague image in my mind that blunts my curiosity. “That’s just another person” my mind says, “there’s nothing new to learn…” But this is false.
Similar to how my eyes fill in blind spots and make it seem like the world is smooth and predictable (see this excellent tweetstorm), my mind uses heuristics to make the world seem simpler than it really is. When I see someone new, I subconsciously move into pattern matching mode and create a profile that fills in gaps. It’s only by consciously pushing beyond this that I can enhance my curiosity, and with it, my conversational abilities. I need to actively remember my mind is lying to me.
The world is not like you
The world is complicated and most people are not like you. This applies to every person no matter who you are. The overwhelming majority of people are from different places, they do different things each day, they like different foods, they work in different industries, they dream different dreams...
I was made more aware of this on my recent trip to Brazil. As I wrote a few weeks ago, traveling “reminds me how large and varied the world is. It reminds me that my concerns are so narrow: different countries have their own daily dramas, their own political issues, their own worries and aspirations… It’s wonderful to be outside of my comfort zone and remember how little of the world I actually experience.”
Some places where you can see this clearly are large venues like airports, beaches, promenades and malls. These places bring people together from all walks of life. They are small windows into the diversity of humanity. As Alain de Botton writes in “A week at the airport”:
“Entry into the vast space of the [airport] departures hall heralded the opportunity, characteristic in the transport nodes of the modern world, to observe people with discretion, to forget oneself in a sea of otherness and to let the imagination loose on the limitless supply of fragmentary stories provided by the eye and ear. The mighty steel bracing of the airport’s ceiling recalled the scaffolding of the great nineteenth-century railway stations, and evoked the sense of awe – suggested in paintings such as Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare – that must have been experienced by the first crowds to step inside these light-filled, iron-limbed halls pullulating with strangers, buildings that enabled a person to sense viscerally, rather than just grasp intellectually, the vastness and diversity of humanity.
Of course, really paying attention to the diversity of humanity isn’t only true abroad - it’s true in my local grocery store, around my neighborhood and everywhere I go. It’s just that I am usually numb to it, focused on my own problems and concerns.
After spending a few weeks in Brazil actively trying to have conversations with strangers, when I arrived at the San Francisco airport I realized I had newfound curiosity about the people around me. It felt different to have this new lens. I realized I normally hold back from meeting strangers. Newly arriving home, I kept repeating to myself “I know nothing” and realized just how true it was: Do I know if this person sitting next to me has a family? Do I know what they like to do? Do I know why they are here? Do I know where they were traveling to and why? Do I know anything about them?
Conversations are underrated
People want to have good conversations. It’s just that we usually under-estimate how easy and positive they will be.
There’s a tweetstorm on this by Nabeel on how cold emailing (i.e., emailing someone you don’t know), starting conversations and providing compliments are all worth pursuing:
I know it's been said before, but most people seriously underestimate how easy it is to cold email people and how impactful that can be. Confidently sending cold emails/DMs is a life-changing skill.
IRL most people are nervous about cold emailing their favorite author or researcher or whatever, not realizing that: (a) the person would probably love to hear from them (b) it's a pure-upside bet (worst case they ignore you!)
I wrote Zadie Smith once just telling her how much I liked one of her books and she wrote the nicest note back to me, and I've never forgotten it. One of hundreds of examples. Tell people you like their stuff!
Anyway, this is just one of a category of low-hanging fruit that includes:
most people love *good* conversations with strangers, but are reluctant to start them
most people love receiving *thoughtful* compliments, but are scared to give them
In both cases, there's no systemic solution, but these are inefficiencies of sorts and imply that you, personally, should:
send more cold emails
give more thoughtful compliments
start more conversations with strangers
Starting more conversations with strangers is a skill worth learning.
Mind the “liking gap”
What I also try to remind myself is that more often than not, I’m underestimating how rewarding the conversation will be and how much the other person will enjoy it. This is called the “liking gap” (h/t Nabeel as well). Here’s the abstract from the research:
Having conversations with new people is an important and rewarding part of social life. Yet conversations can also be intimidating and anxiety provoking, and this makes people wonder and worry about what their conversation partners really think of them. Are people accurate in their estimates? We found that following interactions, people systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company, an illusion we call the liking gap. We observed the liking gap as strangers got acquainted in the laboratory, as first-year college students got to know their dorm mates, and as formerly unacquainted members of the general public got to know each other during a personal development workshop. The liking gap persisted in conversations of varying lengths and even lasted for several months, as college dorm mates developed new relationships. Our studies suggest that after people have conversations, they are liked more than they know.
Take the first step
There’s this quote from Tim Ferriss’ interview with Gabby Reece in “Tools of Titans” that I’ll end with. Gabby is a Women’s Beach Volleyball League champion that also has a string of other accomplishments. Her life advice is to “always go first”:
I always say that I’ll go first. . . . That means if I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across somebody and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be first, because—not all times, but most times—it comes in your favor. The response is pretty amazing. . . .
I was at the park the other day with the kids. Oh, my God. Hurricane Harbor [water park]. It’s like hell. There were these two women a little bit older than me. We couldn’t be more different, right? And I walked by them, and I just looked at them and smiled. The smile came to their face so instantly. They’re ready, but you have to go first, because now we’re being trained in this world [to opt out]—nobody’s going first anymore.
And so as the year unfolds, I will try to hold onto this mindset. I’ll try to remember that everyone has a story to tell. Conversations make life better. I just need to take the first step.
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