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”.