Tribescanning: the Science of Small Talk

Just to get things started off, I thought I’d repost an old blog entry from a previous blog.

Some background with this issue: I’m an introvert and a bit of a geek, so for a long time, I found myself at a loss in many social environments and social situations… I got along perfectly well in geeky/nerdy circles but there was quite discernibly something “out of sync” about the way that I related to non-geeks.

Many of the retroactive observations I made of the geeky world, after I left it, agree with the observations made in the famous (within the geek subculture)  Usenet post about “Fanspeak” which posed the interesting claim that people in fandom communicate differently from the mainstream. One observation I have made is that in geek circles, people tend to jump right to the point of a conversation pretty quickly, without as much of the usual process of “feeling the other person out”. People bring up common interests with the intention of discussing those interests, not merely establishing “oh, we share those interests”.

Here, therefore, is my blog entry “Tribescanning”. Enjoy. Let me know what you think, and I’d especially love it if you’d share your own observations.

I have less aversion to small talk now that I’ve come to understand its purpose. Small-talking is a social signal in and of itself, rather than being intended to convey real content.

“I’m feeling you out. If you throw the small talk back to me in the right way, you are Not A Weirdo. You are a member of my tribe, not an outsider. If you don’t participate, or if you bring up your mommy issues, I’m going to back away slowly.”

There’s also another level that goes on. By throwing out minor things about TV, music, or the weather, they’re looking for synchrony/parity, which for many people is a major trust signal. “This person is of the same tribe.”

It’s easier to spot this behavior in “invisible minority” and counterculture populations though than it is among the majority, even though all people do it. You see a bit of name-dropping going on. My hypothesis is that this is a form of parity-establishing social signal, the same as when teenagers ask each other what music they like.

For example, when a gay person suspects you’re gay but doesn’t want to make a deal, often he drops a vague cultural reference that only someone else who is also a member of his social circle, will “get”. For example, referencing the author Michaelangelo Signorile – as opposed to mentioning a gay reference that everyone knows. Being homosexual itself doesn’t mean you’ll get the reference; being part of his group, however, means you probably will. In this case, there’s less chance of being harassed or abused if you ARE gay but he doesn’t “tag” you because you didn’t get his social reference, than if you aren’t gay, but you get a reference that everyone knows (such as “Will & Grace”). He’s chosen the safer of two paths to establishing parity. In the case of the invisible minority, it’s safer to miss a potential connection than to trust the wrong person.

Once I started recognizing this behavior in the counterculture, I suddenly started noticing that people do it everywhere. All people. They just use mainstream-culture references instead of counterculture references. What’s “weird” or uncomfortable to people is to talk about intimate or controversial topics before social parity (basically, what tribe you are from) has been established.

I went through a phase where I thought I had Asperger’s Syndrome, when I was in my 20s. I would mention I was “pretending to be normal” to other people, to “tribescan” people for familiarity with Asperger’s culture – “Pretending To Be Normal” is the name of a well known book about Asperger’s. The irony of this is that most people with AS generally do NOT tribescan. At all. Period. And neurotypicals DO. It’s one of the ways to distinguish an “Aspie” from an “NT”. The Aspie will talk without tribescanning first, whereas most normatively socialized NTs will ALWAYS pre-qualify people (by tribescanning, or joint group membership) prior to talking about anything actually of personal relevance or interest.

Now that I understand tribescanning and how it works, I don’t have a problem engaging small talk. It’s not about communicating. It’s a process by which people decide whether or not to communicate further.

In some settings, where the parity has already been established (pre-qualification via joint group membership – they are at the same convention, belong to the same church or are at a group specific to your invisible minority), you’ve already cut through the primary reason for tribescanning: safety. Tribescanning now serves to establish subtler levels of parity. At a science fiction convention, your trick is to find out “literature geek or media fan?”, not “are they geek-friendly”. The object has changed. It is no longer about not weirding out someone in the mainstream. It’s now to find out where their interests lie, before you bore a Trekker with an analysis of the work of Arthur C. Clarke (although in my experience, in SF geek culture, there is plenty of overlap of interests).

Suppose you are going to tribescan at a gay pride parade. Your trick is to find out, “gay or straight ally?” or which social camp of gay, not “are they going to stomp my head or not”. People *in* church social settings don’t bring up church as much as people outside of church settings, who are trying to establish whether or not you go to the same church.

But outside of those settings, it’s all small talk. You are still struggling to establish synchrony and parity.

For example, if a stranger says, “Did you see last night’s episode of The Apprentice?” it means something completely different from if a friend asks you the same question.

The stranger doesn’t really care that you did or didn’t. They’re looking for volumes of information “between the lines”, without being too direct about it. If you catch the ball and throw it back – “Yeah!! I’m glad Jen C finally got fired – what a moron!”, you’ve established some parity – you both watch “The Apprentice” – although you may have given too much information. Again, they didn’t want to know what you actually thought.

The book “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker talks about advanced tribescanning and rapport – that victimizers, con artists, and rapists often have a very keen sense of these techniques, and will do whatever they can to force rapport. They create an artificial sense of rapport with the other person, establishing “we’re in the same boat together”.

Most people seem to get their food-for-small-talk from television, which may be the ultimate safe topic among strangers. Which TV shows they watch can tell you volumes, without the person actually saying they are gay, Christian, conservative, working class. It’s also less threatening than asking a person what they read, although “what books do you read” follows “which TV shows do you watch”.

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13 thoughts on “Tribescanning: the Science of Small Talk

  1. Weird. Now I’m not sure if I do this or not.

    I very rarely throw out “test questions”. If I make the opening move in a conversation with a stranger — not usually something I want to do — it’s usually something in the immediate environment: that car that just tried to hit us, that t-shirt you’re wearing. Otherwise, if I’m open to converation, I wait for the other person to pick a topic.

    I suppose this is why I am often stuck with people who talk a LOT.

  2. Dan Peterson says:

    I continue to get confused and frustrated by people who tribescan, because I never have the responses they want, even if I’m “part of their tribe”. This is easiest to note when I think back on a certain mush I used to hang out on. There were plenty of science fiction, fantasy, and literature fans all over the place there, but if they’d chosen a name or dropped a reference to something I hadn’t read, they assumed I wasn’t interested in the same kinds of books they were, even if I was. In quite a few cases, where I discovered much later what the reference was, I discovered new and fascinating reading material. But, because I’d failed at their tribescanning small talk I had to discover it all myself later. (fortunately it’s easier now to simply look up a reference)

    While you turned out to not have AS, I’m constantly reminded of things that indicate ever more strongly that I do have it. Me not tribescanning or engaging in small talk is just a small example of that. I remember as a teenager I would sit and watch people interact, not consciously knowing that I was actively studying their body language and tone of voice, and subconsciously trying to dissect it all so I could comprehend both how others interacted, but how they felt. I already knew I was different, but it took well over a decade to discover a term for how and why.

    • gmdreia says:

      Dan, I think one of the troubles with observing the geek world (for the purposes of figuring out muggle social pragmatics) is that no two geeks are even necessarily operating by the same rules, and many geeks have social quirks themselves, …but no two necessarily have the SAME social quirks. It wasn’t really until I was halfway out of the geek world that I actually started to get a handle on mainstream social pragmatics at all – I had to take a vacation from it, in a completely mainstream line of work (health care), where I got to be around non-geeks. Around other geeks, the ineptitude was reinforced. Now I can comfortably be in either group to a large extent. It strikes me that what’s going on with your tribescan fails is that you and the other geeks are talking past each other. If these were two muggles, it would go like this. Muggle A would miss the LeGuin reference. Muggle B would be less literal or try to include the other in the conversation. “Oh, he doesn’t like LeGuin. See if he likes Clarke.” but because I’ve noticed that a large number of geeks don’t really tribescan, unfortunately, they often move on past the “ok, are we both geeks?” test. The conversation wouldn’t simply just drop. The point of a conversation between two muggles is to bond and mirror; the main Topic of Interest isn’t the “conversational object”, the two people are. The point of the conversation between two asperger leaning geeks is to literally and specifically discuss Topic, and if the other isn’t interested, move on and find someone who will, or pursue interest in Topic on one’s own; the bonding takes place over sharing of Topic. Anyway, this is my thought.

      In addition:

      Interestingly, Dan – in the years that I’ve learned to identify people who seem socially “off”, you actually don’t seem that “off”. The “off” people i know will say or do little things that just… feel… Somehow out of sync, even online, …and I discovered i could tell the inepts in my personal development community because when they sought help for their social awkwardness, their posts were always long and meandering and painfully analytical and often seemed to go nowhere. I have thought for a long time that social awkwardness and AS aren’t the same thing. interestingly, when I compare the AS people I know… They’re often much better communicators than the socially inept neurotypicals… Short, blunt, to the point, logically constructed. I can actually follow their writing.

    • gmdreia says:

      Another point…

      I started to notice that tribescanning went on and was “a thing” when I started socializing in different subcultures. After I started hanging out in LGBT circles, I started to catch little odd things… a woman made conversation with me on the bus, but then she asked “so did you go to the Matthew Shephard memorial”. Then it sunk in like three tons of bricks dropping onto my head. Tribescanning is a THING. I’d never quite “gotten it” before. People don’t really tend to tribescan quite so much *when within their own tribe* except to find out what *other* tribes you belong to… which explains why I’ve never gotten tribescanned by geeks past a certain point. I think some geeks expect geeks to be so easy to spot that they often don’t bother to scan people who may be “closeted”. I discovered this when I stopped wearing cargos and carrying messenger bags, and started wearing businessy clothes (though my own “uniform” is a slightly more artistic variant, so graphic design types will positive-tribescan me while business types also STILL tribescan me, if I’m in uniform). Suddenly, I was a positive tribescan for business and a negative tribescan for geekhood. There really is kind of a geek uniform… just a *look*. Watch some geeks sometime and then go hang out where non-geeks hang out, and see if you can spot the geeks. It’s fun. 😉 I’m a humongous peoplewatcher. That’s where I get a lot of my material. Sitting in a crowded coffeehouse in the downtown of a big, diverse city is one of the things I most like to do.

      • Dan Peterson says:

        I think the reply button placement confused me twice, and I replied to myself yet again. I’ll get the hang of it…

  3. Dan Peterson says:

    My “tribescan fails” are typically because I’m completely unaware of anyone else doing it, and never bother doing it myself. I don’t even think about it until after a conversation, if ever. I rarely found geek behavior to reinforce any kind of ineptitude at social behavior, but rather to reinforce social behavior that inherently makes sense to me. Rather than caring who is in what tribe, I care what an individual may know about that’s worth discussing with them. If they can share a different perspective on something or help me learn something I didn’t already know, I want to cut straight to that. The concept of tribe isn’t something I think about, even on a subconscious or instinctual level.

    What I do think about when it comes to social behavior is that many non-geeks and average NTs confuse me with how they associate with each other. I know intellectually a lot of reasons why, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still look at them and think “Why are you doing that? It serves no purpose and wastes your effort.” (apparently to them it serves a purpose that I don’t feel a need to bother with)

    • Dan Peterson says:

      I think I failed to reply directly to that. oops. Replying to your “In addition” part up above, cut and paste from where I first said it on FB.

      From what I’ve read, social awkwardness is just one symptom of AS, and like many symptoms, can be overcome with work and effort (I put in a lot of both). Additionally, when it comes to communication, people with AS may have severe difficulty communicating verbally (I still have quite a bit of trouble sometimes), but are actually quite skilled at communicating in text. Personally, I’ve been writing as long as I knew how, and have always been more easily understood by NTs when they read what I write rather than listening to what I say. Sometimes I see almost no difference in what I said aloud and what I then wrote when they failed to understand me, but the written form is almost always immediately understood.

      That’s just one of many reasons most NTs confuse the hell out of me.

    • Dan Peterson says:

      I’ve actually considered trying to alter my outfit so I get more positive reactions from certain groups of people, but I’m not entirely sure what would be appropriate attire. So far I’ve only made subtle changes, going from basic jeans and t-shirt to higher quality of both. I’d be wearing slacks more too if the local big & tall store hadn’t gone out of business before I could get any new ones. My last pair of decent slacks was ruined a few years ago… I’d also have nicer shoes if I could find ones that fit (10 1/2 is easy, but not in double wide), so I just find nice looking solid black sneakers that fit well enough and are easily replaced once my feet stretch them too far to wear them.

      • gmdreia says:

        It’s really, really amazing what clothes do for others’ perception; one’s entire presentation is part of the communication.

        It would be interesting to hear from you about what effects you observe when you change things up.

        I found people reacted to me VERY differently depending upon which of my “outfits” I was wearing:

        * black “Happy Noodle Boy” t-shirt, cargo pants, Doc Martens, messenger bag. Very “Bay Area Geek” look. Hasn’t been my look since I turned 30…

        * “Mage trying to pass for Mundane”, to paraphrase you. Reads differently in my late 30s than it did in my teens and 20s… now it just reads as “office wear”. I just can’t pull off Steam Casual anymore, because at my age it no longer codes the same way.

        * Dieselpunk Office/Mad Men/Graphic Designer. More Bay Area designers actually look like the first example, but this gets me more taken seriously as a professional artist when dealing with commercial/business types… it’s more the East Coast commercial artist look.

        * Tan pants or skirt, white button down top, nice purse, nice scarf… “Office Casual”, Mundane Style.

        * Mundane Office (skirt suit, heels, pantyhose, sensible makeup, nice purse). Only landed me computer or office jobs but I wasn’t getting put in creative positions.

        Each style communicates something different.

        The thing is, as a woman, I have a lot of options so I have more opportunities to observe how each one lands.

  4. Mados says:

    This explains a lot:-) Excellent post! Thank you.

    I am female, and there are certain types of questions that other women tend to ask to establish rapport (I presume) that have always puzzled me, and I can never answer (or don’t want to… because the questions are stupid and irrelevant). With this concept: ‘TRIBE SCANNING’, that kind of questions make more sense.

  5. Mados says:

    I disagree with your last remark, though: that ‘which TV shows do you watch’ is a safe question to ask… Not everybody watch TV, and if you ask someone who doesn’t, it gets a bit awkward.. For example: I don’t watch TV. People sometimes ask me: ‘Did you see X in TV?’ and my reply is always: ‘No.’ Then they look awkward and stop talking. Not much of a conversation starter!

  6. Prevent says:

    You know what. You are a genius.

  7. Quran (4:104) – “And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy; if you suffer pain, then surely they (too) suffer pain as you suffer pain…”

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