[disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

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[disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by nearly_takuan on Mon Aug 17, 2015 1:40 am

Article: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/11/the-phatic-and-the-anti-inductive/

Since approximately last night I've been "catching up" on not having read Scott Alexander's writings since that infamous piece sparked so much...conversation...on Paging. I don't know why I haven't just been following the blog since then; I may not agree with his positions on a great many things, but the way he thinks about stuff is very much familiar to me and I find his presentation of thesis consistently compelling and clear and funny even when we are not agreeing.

If at this point you feel slightly tempted to point out that Scott Alexander is gross and I am gross for liking him, allow me to add that I frequently feel as though Alexander understands me (or, more accurately since he does not know anything at all about me specifically and I've never commented on any of his sites, understands most of the things I think about and the things I worry about) better than most, so that you can feel greatly tempted. And then I will point out that reporting my post and/or browsing somewhere else is a more efficient use of your mouse than typing your opinion(s) at me.

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

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

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

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

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

This seems related to the classic geek discomfort with small-talk, with pep rallies, and with normal object-level politics. I think it might also be part of the problem I had with social skills when I was younger – I remember talking to people, panicking because I couldn’t think of any way to make the conversation unusually entertaining or enlightening, and feeling like I had been a failure for responding to the boring-weather-related question with a boring-weather-related answer.

...

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

(To a certain extent I have already hashed this out a bit with others on Paging, but here I am hoping to bring things more into [disc/adv] territory; the strictly-linear format, larger post width, and absence of notions like downvotes, among other things, seems to lend itself better to this.)

Needless to say, I identify very strongly with the "anti-inductive" mind. On particularly exhausting days, I've even caught myself accidentally answering (say) grocery-store checkout staff when they asked how my day had been by talking about my day, and only later remembering that real humans* are supposed to say, "it's going great; how is yours?" and then they would reply, "wonderful!" and gleefully move their arms the same way they've been moving them all day while leaving me to silently question whether "wonderful" referred to their day or to mudita at my joyous reply.

But until today I didn't have a term for it. And having a term for things is, despite all the disadvantages Alexander himself will write at length about, sometimes very useful to facilitate understanding. In my case, it creates a Grand Unified Theory for all the ways my behaviors and thought processes and beliefs are—at least as compared to what is expected—fucking weird.

(I'll blame my parents at least partly for my similar experiences with thank-you cards, though; they taught me, probably correctly, that it's Very Important to write something personal on a birthday card, and so when it came time to write thank-you cards for my graduation gifts I assumed the same was true in that case and they watched me do it without correction.)

To the extent that "appreciating the phatic" is indeed a skill, it's one I seem to badly need to learn. If I am sufficiently "with it" (which I'll boldly claim is usually, in my meat-space life) I can generally respond acceptably to phatic exchanges initiated by others, but only as a sort of trained reflex whose mechanisms I never understood. Initiating a phatic exchange is somewhere between so trivially mechanical that I feel like I'm committing the sin of insulting someone just by considering it, and so alien and mysterious that I'm terrified I'll screw it up somehow. (That's not to say I'll never open a conversation with "how are you?", but if the answer is along the lines of "all right" I'll almost always ask a much more probing and context-heavy question immediately, which I gather is also not how humans* do things.) So, questions: what are your thoughts on the relationship between those seemingly-contradictory thought processes, and how would an otherwise mostly-functioning/independent adult-shaped person develop lagging skills in this area?

*(I'll admit there's meaning loaded behind my decision to use the word "human" here, but it is not entirely literal nor entirely metaphorical nor entirely serious nor entirely sarcastic, and I don't know if I can describe that one feeling without writing an entire multi-part essay just about that. So...if anyone has a preferred term for what in this case is probably reducible to "those who prefer/understand phatic communications", by all means let's use that instead.)
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by Werel on Mon Aug 17, 2015 7:12 am

Hm, this is interesting. I've never minded phatic exchanges; they're easy for me to do, they can be mildly gratifying if they go well despite obstacles (e.g. big cultural differences), and their content-lessness doesn't annoy me. They're almost never meaningful*, but they help move the day along. Couple thoughts:

-Like Alexander says, the main event is what the exchange is signaling. "Hey,you're worthy of inclusion in the default social contract." On the "disliking having to do them" front, maybe it'd be useful to imagine being as routinely excluded from phatic exchanges as, say, an ethnicity that's extremely unwelcome in your area-- being subjected to the phatic when it's not your bag is surely some degree better than being excluded from it out of malice.

-Respecting/understanding the reasons some people like or even prefer phatic exchanges to anti-inductive ones would probably help. Phatic interactions leave a certain amount of distance between the participants; this is comforting to many people. Any closer, especially the type of truly engaged interchange that usually produces the anti-inductive side, can be suffocating to those who need significant... what to call it... "psychic personal space"?

-I'm not sure he's quite right about this bit:
Scott Alexander wrote:At the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, one of the most frequently repeated pieces of relationship advice I hear is “When a woman is telling you her problems, just listen and sympathize, don’t try to propose solutions”. It sounds like the hypothetical woman in this advice is looking for a phatic answer.
Leaving aside any questions of gender for a sec, I don't think "listening and sympathizing" is always a phatic answer. Real sympathy is not a question of mechanical social contract fulfillment. Having a person experience legitimate emotion, especially negative emotion, on your behalf/as a result of things that have happened to you is not equivalent to a zero-effort "have a good one" to a cashier. When I can see that someone's care for me is sufficient for them to be impacted by things which concretely affect only me, not them, it is meaningful to me even if they do not then begin proposing solutions.

-And finally: Data, because it's polite. Razz

*Kinda related to my first thought: phatic exchanges have once or twice nearly brought me to grateful tears because I did not expect to be included in the relevant social contracts, e.g. in countries/places where foreigners are treated with suspicion or hostility.
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by The Wisp on Mon Aug 17, 2015 12:45 pm

I think what's helped me with this is to think of them in terms of the underlying message rather than focusing on what's literally being said. It makes is more meaningful this way.

Werel wrote: don't think "listening and sympathizing" is always a phatic answer. Real sympathy is not a question of mechanical social contract fulfillment. Having a person experience legitimate emotion, especially negative emotion, on your behalf/as a result of things that have happened to you is not equivalent to a zero-effort "have a good one" to a cashier. When I can see that someone's care for me is sufficient for them to be impacted by things which concretely affect only me, not them, it is meaningful to me even if they do not then begin proposing solutions.

I agree with this a lot. Also, personally I find it pretty obvious when somebody is just going through the social motions versus when somebody actually empathizes.
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by Enail on Mon Aug 17, 2015 1:24 pm

I agree with what Werel said, especially the bit about "listening and sympathizing" not necessarily being a phatic answer. Just as the problemsolving response can be essentially phatic ("just be yourself," for example), a person can be sympathetic and listen in a way that is thoughtful and specific to the person and situation.

And also especially about phatic exchanges being useful for maintaining psychic personal space. I value genuine, probing, context-heavy interactions - but I don't value them with all people. If the person in the office down the hall, the cashier at the store, and the father of one of my friends from high school that I run into on the subway all initiated deep, meaningful conversations, that would be my social energy for the week, and I'd have none to care about how my friend's day really was or to talk about something cool I thought of with my wife. The social contract of meaningless politenesses is a very useful way to set fences between me and people I don't want to discuss meaningful things with (or don't want to discuss them right now) - but polite fences, the kind that say "I acknowledge you're my social neighbour and I will do the social equivalent of keeping my trash off your yard and taking in your mail when you're on holiday," not the kind with barbed wire and a half-starved, mean dog behind it.

And some thoughts of my own: I'd consider small talk to have two functions. One is that polite, distant social contract signal. The other is sort of providing a safe, neutral space that's accessible to everyone (everyone's experienced weather and can give an opinion on it without fear of censure!), which the participants in the conversation can wander around in, feel each other out, and look for a mutually interesting turn-off to move onto together, or decide you're not actually interested in continuing the conversation and can politely move on without making them feel unwelcome or ignored. So, for you, maybe it would help to consider the phatic exchange a chance to get a feel on whether you might want to ask them a more context-heavy or probing follow-up to "how are you," and whether they might welcome it, or if you'd both be happier saying "I acknowledge you as valid, fellow human" and moving on.

I've noticed the ability to transition from small-talk to medium- or large-talk is one of the big things that make socially skilled people seem really socially skilled to me, and I think it's a relatively easy skill to observe (for some aspects, at least), so if you know some people who are good at that, you might find it useful to pay attention to what kinds of comments they use to test the waters on whether a topic would make a good turn-off path out of small-talk, and what they say to transition to the deeper topic.  I think the bigger the difference (jumping straight from small to large talk) or the deeper the level of personalness, the more it uses harder-to-observe skills like awareness of context and reading body-language, but small- to medium-talk or medium to somewhat large is pretty observable.
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by kath on Tue Aug 18, 2015 3:01 am

I agree that those things aren't actually opposites. "oh yeah, know how that goes" [in depth advice session] and [active reception of in-depth venting session] are very different. Usually if someone gives me a ton of advice I didn't want, what I did want was some active vent-reception, and I hopefully didn't get into that in an interaction where phatic is the speed it's running at. That's not what I'd associate with just "performing a social task" - it's often conveying information about how you feel for the other person in the situation they've described. Also I do want all three of those things in different contexts and from different people, and I'm not sure I have a general preference.


nearly_takuan wrote:
To the extent that "appreciating the phatic" is indeed a skill, it's one I seem to badly need to learn. If I am sufficiently "with it" (which I'll boldly claim is usually, in my meat-space life) I can generally respond acceptably to phatic exchanges initiated by others, but only as a sort of trained reflex whose mechanisms I never understood. Initiating a phatic exchange is somewhere between so trivially mechanical that I feel like I'm committing the sin of insulting someone just by considering it, and so alien and mysterious that I'm terrified I'll screw it up somehow. (That's not to say I'll never open a conversation with "how are you?", but if the answer is along the lines of "all right" I'll almost always ask a much more probing and context-heavy question immediately, which I gather is also not how humans* do things.) So, questions: what are your thoughts on the relationship between those seemingly-contradictory thought processes, and how would an otherwise mostly-functioning/independent adult-shaped person develop lagging skills in this area?
For what you do after "all right", I'd just develop some ladder questions to see if they actually want to get into an in-depth conversation, or keep it surface level. "Do you want to talk about that" can sometimes work, if you can say it in a non-therapist-y way. Or slightly more deep, but not 100% full bore questions about whatever they said. Like, "oh yeah, so your job's going well? Is it busy over there?" and see if you get something substantive or not. And if you give openings for deeper conversation but they don't bite and you're getting bored of surface-level talk, phatically end the conversation.

I also think there's part of it that is just accepting that it can make other people feel valued, even if you don't understand why or how, or don't feel that way yourself when people are just socially polite to you. Sometimes just understanding that it can make someone else feel welcome is enough to make it worth doing, even if you don't understand why it makes someone else feel welcome.

I know I do feel a lot more welcome if people in a space are saying hi to me or smiling at me, even if we don't have any other interaction. Because it's a small positive thing, and being ignored is pretty negative.

For moving from phatic to more interesting conversation, I find talking about a general topic can help a lot, versus trying to talk about each other's lives. I've had great conversations about space with people I didn't know (because I was wearing a space scarf). Your great ideas and perspectives will not be holding forth about someone's personal problems like you know exactly how they should be living their lives - you'll just be someone who's somewhat informed about something cool. Topics in which neither person is an expert seem to be good ones, because you can each throw out cool things, but you are neither claiming to be very well informed, so being wrong won't matter. Then if that conversation seems to be meshing, you'd have a good read on whether you'd actually want to talk about something personal.
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by nearly_takuan on Wed Aug 19, 2015 11:23 pm

Werel wrote:-Like Alexander says, the main event is what the exchange is signaling. "Hey,you're worthy of inclusion in the default social contract." On the "disliking having to do them" front, maybe it'd be useful to imagine being as routinely excluded from phatic exchanges as, say, an ethnicity that's extremely unwelcome in your area-- being subjected to the phatic when it's not your bag is surely some degree better than being excluded from it out of malice.
Enail wrote:The social contract of meaningless politenesses is a very useful way to set fences between me and people I don't want to discuss meaningful things with (or don't want to discuss them right now) - but polite fences, the kind that say "I acknowledge you're my social neighbour and I will do the social equivalent of keeping my trash off your yard and taking in your mail when you're on holiday," not the kind with barbed wire and a half-starved, mean dog behind it.
kath wrote:I know I do feel a lot more welcome if people in a space are saying hi to me or smiling at me, even if we don't have any other interaction. Because it's a small positive thing, and being ignored is pretty negative.

This is a super good set of points and is definitely of use in reframing "phatic" interactions for me.

Brief tangent: this morning I found an article that reminded me of alexithymia. (here if you're curious, but it won't be required reading Razz ) The person they spoke to for the article (it's a pop-sci media article, not a rigorous study) described how emotionally-charged situations would produce physical effects in his body, and how he'd be aware of the way his body was reacting, but his brain wouldn't translate the reaction back the other direction to let him experience the abstract emotion associated with it. (They also seemed to be implying that this effect also hampers emotional release, so that for example Stress would produce the associated somatic tensions...but then not cause the alexithymic person to feel stress or have an outlet for stress, so they just carry that tension around for a super long time.)

I feel like there's a limited and certainly much lesser-degree sort of analogy to be drawn here. Because in hindsight, I think I've often felt excluded or forgotten or invisible without really knowing why, and the answer was probably lack of phatic interaction. (Any interaction at all, really, but a "phatic" one would've sufficed.) So I really shouldn't consider it meaningless when people respond to my "mornin'", and especially not when they say it. Presently there are some temps at my workplace who audibly and articulately greet me every morning with "good morning, nearly_takuan" before I've even become aware of their presence. It's a...good feeling, I think? But I couldn't figure out why. Or why it was important to me that after the first day they did that I started prepping myself to entirely complete the handshake with their names instead of reflexively leaving it at "mornin'". So it's like there were parts of me that received the signal—the parts that were aware of "included" and "excluded" and "cares"—and other parts that didn't—the ones that would normally connect the dots between cause and effect, reverse-engineer and explain the interaction, highlight the important bits to appreciate, and so forth.

Werel wrote:-Respecting/understanding the reasons some people like or even prefer phatic exchanges to anti-inductive ones would probably help. Phatic interactions leave a certain amount of distance between the participants; this is comforting to many people. Any closer, especially the type of truly engaged interchange that usually produces the anti-inductive side, can be suffocating to those who need significant... what to call it... "psychic personal space"?
Enail wrote:And also especially about phatic exchanges being useful for maintaining psychic personal space. I value genuine, probing, context-heavy interactions - but I don't value them with all people. If the person in the office down the hall, the cashier at the store, and the father of one of my friends from high school that I run into on the subway all initiated deep, meaningful conversations, that would be my social energy for the week, and I'd have none to care about how my friend's day really was or to talk about something cool I thought of with my wife.

And this is another set of things that would never have occurred to me on my own (typical mind fallacies are a common vice for me), but makes quite a lot of sense. I value physical personal space because people getting really close usually either means that things are crowded and/or I'm in the way, or that there's about to be some form of physical interaction between us (e.g. handshake, hug, shoulder pat) and I'm going to guess which one it is entirely wrong and screw everything up. (The degree to which I value physical personal space often seems to be overestimated, based on comments close friends have made, but that's a different thing entirely.) Psychic personal space, though, is not something I tend to automatically recognize. Or rather, I generally have enough of an idea of the maximum amount of information I'm willing to divulge (and at what scope) at any given time that I don't feel threatened by the idea of people prying "too much"; should it ever get to that point, I'd just stop sharing. Ditto with the maximum amount of stuff I'm willing to listen to or sympathetically deal with from another person: if it's too much then it's too much. Contrariwise, I don't have as firm a grasp on the minimum, and maybe part of the reason it's rare that I have to say "you're asking for information I'm not willing to share right now" in the first place is that I over-share first and that makes people back off.

Werel wrote:Leaving aside any questions of gender for a sec, I don't think "listening and sympathizing" is always a phatic answer. Real sympathy is not a question of mechanical social contract fulfillment. Having a person experience legitimate emotion, especially negative emotion, on your behalf/as a result of things that have happened to you is not equivalent to a zero-effort "have a good one" to a cashier. When I can see that someone's care for me is sufficient for them to be impacted by things which concretely affect only me, not them, it is meaningful to me even if they do not then begin proposing solutions.

Given the above I might not have been sufficiently aware of it if I had, but I don't think I've seen this in action very much. I have tried slight escalations of Talk About Emotional Stuff with certain friends, but so far everyone's reaction to me being slightly more open about personal stuff has just been "oh." Followed by changing the subject to someone else or something they think that is at best tenuously related. Shrug

And not that I'd necessarily have good knowledge of this either, but I don't think I've failed too heavily at deducing without interrogation when the thing that will comfort a sad/angry/etc. person is to act sad/angry/etc. with them. Sometimes the thing also does in fact make me sad/angry, but I have to admit sometimes it doesn't really. Like a certain friend recently quit their job because their boss was doing some pretty clearly and severely doing some abuse-of-power type stuff, and I was genuinely sympathetically angry/indignant...but I amplified a lot more than what I actually felt, because even though I am convinced Boss's actions were needlessly punitive and disproportionate to any failing Friend may have had, I am also pretty sure Friend is flaky enough that they probably screwed up more heavily and more often than they claim. Intent in amplifying in that way was to be helpful/comforting/sympathetic, because I doubt a lukewarm "statement: this circumstance makes me somewhat indignant" would've gone over well. But I wonder if, like Wisp, they could tell the expressed outrage was also not 100% authentic and felt a little bit hurt by that too. Sad
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by reboot on Thu Aug 20, 2015 2:56 am

Those social niceties thst are often poo pooed as meaningless matter. As you know NT, when people do not even offer the phatic exchanges, you (general not NT) feel an incredible sense of isolation. Phatic exchanges can lead to true connection, but you have to read the response well. I fucked this up more than once, especially overseas (but not only there) when I mixed an "I acknowledge your situation but only through politeness" with "I know your situation/care about your situation. Please tell more".

I have learned to let the other person lead since I know my urge to talk colors my interpretation. If the ask questions about the situation, they want to know more. If the subject changes, ed topi
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

Post by celette482 on Fri Aug 21, 2015 6:12 pm

It's definitely a way to re-establish social bonds. Like cavemen, bumping spears coming back from the hunt or dogs, sniffing you when you come in the door, or cats, rubbing against your legs.

What's really insightful is when you engage in an phatic exchange and something seems off.

"Hey! How's it going?"

"Fine" *expression/body posture/whatever seems NOT FINE*

"Hey, are things okay?" *concerned eyes*

*shoulders sag* "No.. not really." *fills in some shitty life situation* *feels HEARD and SEEN*

People can feel really isolated when no one picks up on the fact that they are in fact NOT fine. It's a weird dance, maybe, because why don't they just say "NOT FINE I AM NOT FINE"?? Well, the answer is mainly that forcing someone else to deal with your sorrow/pain/anger/whatever is a major invasion of psychic personal space. If someone came up to me and announced "MY ENTIRE FAMILY JUST DIED" I would be horribly taken aback and also not able to actually provide any of the care or comfort that they are clearly seeking. It's too personal, too soon.

Actually, same would happen if I randomly accosted sad people on the street "Tell me your problems!!!! I care about the human condition!" WAY overstep.

Meanwhile, if I start out with an anodyne "Hey" and they respond with something that suggests "NOT FINE" I have the chance to say "No, really, what's up?" and then THEY have the chance to decide whether or not to actually tell me. Because deep personal conversations are a tough thing to handle, you want to make sure both parties are down. Cool with receiving, cool with sharing. Phatic chat, as rote as it often seems, can be a way of feeling out the other person's emotional state.
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Re: [disc/adv] Learning to appreciate the phatic

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