Half-rambled conversations

We’re standing at the edge of the bar, in one of the few places lit with stark, fluorescent light. The music is loud behind us, and the room is humid with body heat.

“What?” My conversational partner yells at me, as I start describing what I’ve been up to. I’ve got my hair up, so the earplugs I’m wearing are visible. But with the general volume in this room, earplugs aren’t affecting how well I can pick out individual voices.

“I’ve been doing weird hippie-woo stuff,” I yell back at him, enunciating and speaking slowly. “Emotional introspection for nerds.”

“What does that mean,” he yells back. I give him a brief explanation, trying to shove what’s usually a rambling paragraph into smaller, shorter phrases. He sits there, puzzled.

We stand there, for a bit, until I see he’s struggling to generate a clarifying question.

“I don’t think I’ve thrown enough words at you!” I interrupt him.

“So throw more words at me!” he says.

I smile and internally shake my head. We’re already doing that weird dance of wanting to look at each other straight on, so we can read lips, while simultaneously trying to lean an ear forward to hear better. But if he’s game…

“Oh,” he says, when I’m done. “It’s a style of engaging? Of trying to ask deeper questions?”

“Basically!” I yell back at him.

“How about let’s try it?”

I goggle at him. “It’s really loud in here! This would be a really hard environment!”

“What would it look like if you were to do it here? How does it start?”

I stare some more, then jump on board. “Well, usually you just start with ‘How are you,’ but you actually answer the question. So, um, if I’m doing it…”

I stare up at the ceiling, musing and checking on what I’m feeling for long seconds. I describe it, when I’m done. He nods, takes that in, and dives, natural as anything, into the mood of it. The noise in the room means you really have to think about your thoughts, have to crystallize each word, before they’re revealed.

I’ve never had someone tell me “then let’s try it,” before. I wouldn’t have when I was first hearing about this, and I don’t expect anyone to. And yet, as I go along telling this hippie-woo story to the people I encounter, I’m continually surprised by the number of people ready to join in. I guide them a little, ease their way, but there’s always that one person, the one who “yeah, I’ve always been weird in that I’m happy to talk about this stuff” person, and I wonder about how many weird people are in the world, all those people ready to communicate how I love to communicate, that can be drawn out with a story like that.

Someone comes up to us near the end, taps him on the shoulder, greets him. He responds, and she nods appreciatively towards my earplugs and asks me about them. I get started in a back-and-forth with her.

He turns to me, breaks in during a pause. “Wow, so that was a really tense conversation, and now,” he says, gesturing to the room, dancing friends and moonlight through the windows.

I smile. I’m quite used to switching back and forth between modes by this point—being able to transition seamlessly between surface-level social behavior and deeper communication is a skill that’s demanded of me and that I’ve been cultivating. But there’s something about it that will always remain a jarring transition.

“Well, if you want to do it again, I’m always around. I love this stuff,” I tell him.

He nods, smiles, then drifts off into the crowd.

I turn back to the friend who interrupted us, and start the conversation.

We’re sitting across from each other at a quiet coffee shop. She’s a friend from high school who has just moved to the area; this is the first time I’ve talked to her in more than six years. Her makeup is heavy and flawless, and she’s a beautiful woman to begin with.

I learn that she’s in a high-powered tech job straight out of college, and seems to be working insane hours but is pretty pleased with how much she’s learning. I tell her a little about research and we catch each other up about people we both know, but with far less of this than I’m used to.

An hour in, we’re talking about dating apps. I’ve gone first, and she’s now telling me about the guys she’s been seeing, one of whom she’s meeting tonight.

“Can I see your Tinder profile?” I ask her. “I bet I can guess what it looks like.”

Uh oh, I think. There’s no way she’s going to let me get away with that one. If someone said something like that to me, I’d be all over them to describe their guess before I showed them. My friends are remarkably indulgent of this behavior, and I appreciate it every time they formulate their intuitions and explain them to me, but still, an opening like that…

She lets me gets away with it. She looks up briefly, then slides her phone across the table. I marvel at the ease of that interaction, then flip through the pictures, unsurprised.

(She has beautiful friends, beautiful pictures, heavy makeup, flawless.)

I tell a quick story of my own, and she laughs. “Well, the best part about dating apps,” she says, grinning, “is that you can throw in a little white lie here and there. You could have been in bed for 15 hours and just woke up, and he texts you, and you can say, ‘Oh, just got back from yoga and on my way to brunch with friends.’ Guys love yoga, by the way. Makes them think you’re flexible.”

I laugh along with her, marveling. Is that even allowed? I think. Are you allowed to lie on social media? Nah, I don’t think that’s allowed. But huh, that does sound like a good thing to say, a lot of good social signaling. But I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed…?

I tell her about my hippie-woo nonsense, and she’s fascinated. She’s the best person I’ve ever had a conversation with about it, actually. Intensely analytical and interested in the question of why one would do this, she asks me question after question, clarifying and reiterating my points, sorting them into categories. Her openness and willingness to assimilate my experience is remarkable; usually people push back more based on their own experiences, but her eyes are wide open to evaluate and learn. I’ve never met someone who didn’t show any unease after a detailed jaunt through this world of mine. She was just curiosity. An usually warm curiosity, intensely intellectual curiosity that nevertheless didn’t feel at all threatening and also fit her.

It’s almost eight, time for her to meet her guy and me to go home. She’s texting him, arranging a meeting spot. “I’m mad at him,” she tells me, looking up. Her voice holds emotion but her face belies the comment, smooth and easy as she talks to me. I nod agreeably. In my own lens of how I express emotion, anger would either bleed frustration and upset, or be delivered offhand with a smile. Through my lens, “mad at him” almost sounds like a reminder to herself. I grin companionably at her, an appropriate response to her facial expression, I think, regardless of what the correct interpretation is.

We part ways, and I get on my bicycle and pedal my way home. It’s so interesting, I think, who I feel is “my type of people”, what lines I draw. The balance and tension when someone so clearly is, and just as clearly has parts that aren’t, when ties in history overlap and blend with who people were and are, when people are even more themselves than they used to be.

(She’s beautiful, so intelligent, driven and curious and a friend, tech-oriented and fond, makeup heavy and practiced, flawless.)

Heard in my kitchen:

(International) housemate: “You know the date I went on yesterday? It was really nice, I want to see him again, but I don’t know if he likes me.”

Me: “Oh ho! Finally, the tables turned for once! I’m glad you finally found one you like.”

Housemate: “But now I have to wait for him to ask me again…”

Me: “You know you can ask him, right? Just say something like, ‘I had a nice time yesterday, would you want to go on another date sometime?’ Easy.”

Housemate: “But I thought he was supposed to ask first…?”

Me: “If we both thought that, no one would ever get asked!”

Housemate: “But…”

Me: “But yeah, historically, the guy asks the girl out. But in today’s society, it doesn’t matter!”

Housemate: “Really? But what if it’s too soon?”

Me: “Yeah, I’ve read about that, apparently there’s a whole philosophy about not seeming too desperate or something, I mean, I don’t follow it, but I think it probably has merit, if you’re trying to seem, actually, wait, I always like when people tell me they’ve enjoyed something right away, huh, but I know there were situations where it seemed like it made sense…”

Housemate: “Well, if it’s acceptable, then I’ll go do that now!”

Later

Housemate: “He said he had a good time as well, and would be happy to go out again! Now I’m waiting for him to send details.”

Me: “…You could organize the details too?”

Housemate: “No, he needs to work for it. He can choose location and times and such.”

Me: “…I guess I usually send out details because then I can choose a time that’s convenient for me, and a location that’s easy for me, and so it’ll get done quickly…?”

Housemate: “But I feel like already made this move; it’s his turn. I think maybe it’s because I come from a culture where the man has to work to get the woman.”

Me: “…Okay? I’ve never thought of it that way before. But the event you mentioned already has a date and a time attached, I’m sure. And then dinner before, that’s classic, or drinks after.”

Housemate: “But it’s going to be at night, so that means I’ll have to get an Uber…”

Me: “Does he have a car? Can he drive you?”

Housemate: “I don’t want to tell him he’s required to drop me off…”

(It does amuse me how I’ve apparently become the house expert in casual, internet-based dating. Look at me go :P.)

I’m waiting for my housemate to finish shopping at Trader Joe’s, leaning on the exit ramp. There’s a woman next to me who is waiting for a receipt return. She turns.

“I like your shirt,” she tells me. “I really like blue.”

“Thanks!” I say, frantically trying to remember what I’m wearing. “Yeah, I like this sort of geometrical pattern and colors.” That’s true of all my shirts; I can say that without looking.

“Yeah, I really like blue,” she replies, friendly.

I look at her; she has vibrantly-dyed hair, purple and pink. “Is your hair normally blue?” I ask.

“Yes. Someone told me to try something new, and I hate it.”

I laugh. “Well, it looks good.”

“Thanks,” she says.

My housemate returns victorious, and we leave.

(A funny thing: I wouldn’t have had this conversation last year. I didn’t really appreciate dyed hair before this year, and its variations and what it means to people. Also, I immensely enjoy the pragmatics of this conversation. There was such a huge amount of subtext that she was giving me with her replies, and I still can’t believe my brain spontaneously came up with the hair question, or that the reply was yes.)

There are three of us in the car, with asymmetric relationships. The driver is close friends with both of us, but neither of us know each other.

I’m sitting in the back, which naturally makes it harder to talk. But the new person is very friendly, and keeps me in the discussion.

But at some point the conversation switches to SnapChat, so I’m sitting quietly, listening. They’re arguing about the merits of the app when I get pulled in.

“Um,” I say, “Sorry, I don’t actually use SnapChat.”

She’s cheerful, shows me how to use it on her phone, and it seems like it’s got some pretty interesting features with the story lines—I can see it.

I ask her about what she likes most about it, and she has good reasons—not my own, but I could see it. She asks if I would get it.

“Um.”

See, the thing is, with the relationships in the car, I can’t actually slide a half-answer through. The driver knows me super well, and knows my opinions on this front, which are fairly strong. Moreover, he wants everyone to get along. I know that in his mind, getting along with strangers can involve flattening one’s personality. But I would guess that for two of his good friends getting along, he probably doesn’t recommend personality flattening. Regardless of what he thinks, if someone’s watching me giving answers they already know the answers to, by my rules I have to be consistent with the fuller answer. Also, by my rules, if someone wants me to get along, then not giving full answers under these circumstances is an indication that I’m feeling uncomfortable and need to checked in on, and I certainly don’t want that.

But on the other hand she’s really into it, and I can totally see her perspective, and if I were talking with her alone then I’d mention the features I think seem pretty cool and direct the conversation down that line. I can totally see where that conversation would go, and it’d be good. Also, I’ve been nodding along all the way through this point, and it’s something like a betrayal to turn around and reject this whole venture at the finish line. Also, I’m about to seem super judgy and also a little lame.

I pause a little longer, then bite the bullet. There are three of us in this car and so honesty’s going to win.

“Yeah, actually, I don’t like phones or use them much; I really don’t like how you can be contacted at any moment.”

Sigh. Sigh sigh sigh.

A bit later, we’re talking about TV shows. It’s pretty entertaining from the back, and things are going well. We’re talking about whether cringe-y shows are good or not, and I’m asking about the appeal.

They answer, and then she asks me about what TV shows I watch instead.

Good lord, I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this sinking sensation. It’s not unfamiliar by any means— high school, college, whatever— but I’ve actually forgotten that I haven’t felt like that here.

“…I actually don’t watch TV.” There’s no way out of that one, no matter who’s in the car. This is not a shameful thing in itself, of course—I’m happy with it—but there are certain contexts in which you seem unbelievably cloistered/introverted/possessing no life. It’s all completely in the context—I know I’ve been asked that question this year, and been applauded for my answer—but this is an old context, one I forgot used to be my standard.

“Oh. Then what are your hobbies instead?”

I’ve got to give it her, she is damn polite.

(That actually makes this question even more internally agonizing, but that’s not her fault.)

“Uh, not much. Exercising—ellipticalling—and reading meaningless stuff.”

“What’s the meaningless stuff about?”

No no no no no.

“Uh,” I begin, and sketch some very broad outline. How to change the subject? She’s trying to get me to talk about something I’m enthusiastic about, this isn’t going to work unless we get there. She’s also in charge of question-asking right now, it’d be weird if I took over.

We meander around that topic for a bit before thankfully switching out of it—I don’t remember how.

Later on we get on topics that show that I’m not as sack-of-potatoes as I appear. But it’s funny to me that I’ve forgotten. With who I hang out with now, I’m interesting by default. I can tell when people are interested in certain topics that I care about, and I’ll dive in. But there’s this whole set of scenarios that I can fall into when I don’t control the conversation, or even sometimes when we’re both trying really hard but don’t have good common interests, where I’m super boring or stereotyped, and I’ve forgotten. How special it is to be recognized and respected for the weirdness I have; how special to have the communities and people around me that I do :).

Something else that I find interesting is that I’m pretty sure I could have made this work if it were one-on-one. Nowadays I’m decent at guiding conversations to topics we can both find interesting, and in fact it seems like I should have been able to do that even with three people in the car. Why couldn’t I? I’m not sure, but I think it’s something about the setup. Someone is politely asking me questions, for which I felt implicit pressure to give a normal-type response, while someone else is watching who is not actually interested in the answer to this question because they know it already. So I’m feeling pressure to rush through this, since no one’s genuinely interested anyway, and I know exactly the normal-type answers I’m supposed to give, but I can’t give them because I don’t do those things. And normally I’d slide some half-answer in and redirect the conversation to something I’m more interested in, but there’s no space to maneuver in the polite-asking-questions-with-someone-watching format, since if I did anything weird it’d feel like I’m performing or trying to make myself interesting or not acknowledging the format or something…

… so I was feeling flustered, and backed into a corner, and fell into old habits. The solution to this is to bring up weird things that people might find genuinely interesting when asked, which I do frequently, but I think the particular “being watched” format of this made me wary. I would urge myself to set a new rule and correct this problem the next time ‘round, but I actually trust my in-the-moment decisions much more than any post-hoc analysis I could do on conversational tone, these days. I keep on telling people that while my research is about making computational models of social interaction, we all know much, much, much more implicitly than what we can currently formalize. (Not to say that we can’t make improvements, but I’ve found that just thinking through what happened is often good enough to make any implicit improvements that need to be made. Of course, if things are actually upsetting me on an identity-level then I’ll force through an update, but this isn’t the case here :)).

In the end the conversation was good, though, despite these two moments of drama and remembrance. I was asked at one point to summarize how I’m analytical in the social domain, and I said: “I don’t know, like, I guess always trying to figure out how people are achieving the effects they are, and why they’re doing it in specific ways? Especially with what people say,” and she said she’d never thought of doing that before, and that was kind of a revelation to me, realizing that that’s a summary of my unusual thing, and maybe that’s what my research is going to be about, in the end, in the thesis, after all.

I saw the back of someone’s sports shirt the other day, and it said:

PLAY HARD

PLAY SMART

PLAY OFTEN

This is my favorite sports quote I’ve ever seen, and feels close to an ideal life philosophy for me.

Heard in my kitchen:

“Hey, what’s up?”

“I’m taking a tea break. I’ve been working on writing about the relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia all day.”

“…I’ve… never heard of that country? I’ve been trying to figure out this null distribution?” I point at the screen and the messy code, and she laughs and tells me I can look at her thesis if I want.

Warmth in her eyes as she invites me on the dance floor. Warmth in another friend’s eyes as we talk in a corner. Interest and respect in a stranger’s as we talk. Still and concerned in one of my therapist’s, interested and rushed in the other’s. Wide-eyed and bright as he runs over and high-fives me, another friend amused and pleased as he turns to me and makes a joke. Eyes interested and curious as they look at my poster. Eyes calm, present, clear, in the mirror.

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