November 19, 2016

Be Polite With Strangers

If I say something unconventional, uncommon, or obviously wrong in conversation with you it likely means we’re already good friends or I find you interesting and want to see what you might say in return. I’m always polite to strangers.

The standard advice for maintaining relationships as I understand it is to avoid topics of contention. If politics, religion, sex, money, or some other uncomfortable topic was raised at a party in which there isn’t clear uniformity of belief it’s too common that someone will inject that these topics aren’t good to talk about. It’s not polite. And that’s likely good advice for weak-tie relationships that you’d like to keep that way.

The reason it’s good advice is that most political or moral conversations lead toward a predictable exchange of flag waving. Neither side is particularly interested in learning anything. Responses are spoken more toward the audience than the ostensible converser. This is bad for your dinner party. It’s also boring, despite how irresistible joining the battle often is.

I more enjoy talking to people that are less constrained. The most interesting people to talk to love to explore things you can’t say. To be sure, I don’t mean the most provocative things you can think of. Some provocative topics are interesting. Many are similarly boring. Controversial is not the same as interesting.

The conversations that are most fun are the ones you haven’t had before. A conversion of this sort should be an exploration, not a performance. If you start to get a feeling that you’re trying to win, you’re doing it wrong. If you end up updating your beliefs, you did it right. Beliefs that you never have to defend from yourself or anyone else, are likely to be poorly supported.

It’s hard to picture a close friendship that doesn’t contain shared secrets. Most often these shared secrets are personal. But if you’re weird like me, you should consider supplementing those with secrets about the world. You might end up with both a friend and a little more wisdom.