Good conversations have lots of doorknobs
Or "Spiderman Is My Boyfriend"
Photo cred: my dad.
I used to perform in an improvised musical comedy show where we could burst into song at any time. You’d be doing a scene about, say, bringing your boyfriend to Thanksgiving for the first time and having to explain to your parents that he’s Spiderman, and all of the sudden the pianist would thunder out some chords and now you’re singing something like:
THAT’S WHO I’M DATING, MOM AND DAD
WILL HE EAT?
DO NOT ASK
HE WILL NOT REMOVE HIS MASK
Doing this on the spot is really hard, and the trick that kept us afloat was called “take-and-take of focus,” meaning that whoever was singing had to keep going until someone jumped in to take the spotlight from them, which should happen quickly and often. Though it's nearly impossible to invent a whole funny song, you can probably fire off a verse, your teammate can come in with the chorus, and if you can do that twice and toss some harmony on top, the audience will go wild.
For me, learning take-and-take suggested a solution not just to songs about Spiderman, but to a scientific mystery. I was in graduate school at the time, running studies aimed at answering the question, “Do conversations end when people want them to?” I watched a stupefying number of conversations unfold, some of them blooming into beautiful repartee (one pair of participants exchanged numbers afterward), others collapsing into awkward silences. Why did some conversations unfurl and others wilt? One answer, I realized, may be the clash of take-and-take vs. give-and-take.
Givers think that conversations unfold as a series of invitations; takers think conversations unfold as a series of declarations. When giver meets giver or taker meets taker, all is well. When giver meets taker, however, giver gives, taker takes, and giver gets resentful (“Why won’t he ask me a single question?”) while taker has a lovely time (“She must really think I’m interesting!”) or gets annoyed (“My job is so boring, why does she keep asking me about it?”).
It's easy to assume that givers are virtuous and takers are villainous, but that’s giver propaganda. Conversations, like improv scenes, start to sink if they sit still. Takers can paddle for both sides, relieving their partners of the duty to generate the next thing. It’s easy to remember how lonely it feels when a taker refuses to cede the spotlight to you, but easy to forget how lovely it feels when you don’t want the spotlight and a taker lets you recline on the mezzanine while they fill the stage. When you’re tired or shy or anxious or bored, there’s nothing better than hopping on the back of a conversational motorcycle, wrapping your arms around your partner’s waist, and holding on for dear life while they rocket you to somewhere new.
Takers are especially valuable when you add more minds to the mix. Some of my research is about how turn-taking works differently in two-person vs. multi-person conversations. When it’s just you and me, taking turns is easy: you go, I go, repeat. When it’s you and me and Nina and Marlon, who should talk next? It’s often unclear, so we all stand around waiting for someone else to take their turn or to invite us to take ours. Givers try to salvage these situations by turning them into laborious seminar discussions (“Why don’t we all say what we thought about the movie?”). Takers, on the other hand, simply make conversation happen (“That movie sucked and anybody who liked it can fight me!”). When we’re all standing on the perimeter of an empty dance circle, takers are the martyrs who will launch themselves into the middle and do the stanky legg.
While takers deserve some redemption, givers deserve some scrutiny. On day one of Improv 101 they’ll tell you not to ask questions in a scene because it puts undue pressure on your partner. “Hey, what are you doing?” “Uhh I’m making things up in an improv scene.” Similarly, refusing to take the spotlight in a conversation may seem generous, but in fact can burden the other person to keep the show going. (“What’s up?” is one of the most dreadful texts to get; it’s short for “Hello, I’d like you to entertain me now.”) And asking your partner question after question and resenting them when they don’t return the favor isn’t generosity; it’s social entrapment, like not telling your friends that it’s your birthday and then seething that they didn’t get you cake.
Neither givers nor takers have it 100% correct, and their conflicts often come from both sides’ insistence that the other side must convert or die. Rather than mounting a Inquisition on our interlocutors, we ought to focus on perfecting our own technique. And the way to do that, I think, is by adding a bunch of doorknobs.
When done well, both giving and taking create what psychologists call affordances: features of the environment that allow you to do something. Physical affordances are things like stairs and handles and benches. Conversational affordances are things like digressions and confessions and bold claims that beg for a rejoinder. Talking to another person is like rock climbing, except you are my rock wall and I am yours. If you reach up, I can grab onto your hand, and we can both hoist ourselves skyward. Maybe that’s why a really good conversation feels a little bit like floating.
What matters most, then, is not how much we give or take, but whether we offer and accept affordances. Takers can present big, graspable doorknobs (“I get kinda creeped out when couples treat their dogs like babies”) or not (“Let me tell you about the plot of the movie Must Love Dogs…”). Good taking makes the other side want to take too (“I know! My friends asked me to be the godparent to their Schnauzer, it’s so crazy” “What?? Was there a ceremony?”). Similarly, some questions have doorknobs (“Why do you think you and your brother turned out so different?”) and some don’t (“How many of your grandparents are still living?”). But even affordance-less giving can be met with affordance-ful taking (“I have one grandma still alive, and I think a lot about all this knowledge she has––how to raise a family, how to cope with tragedy, how to make chocolate zucchini bread––and how I feel anxious about learning from her while I still can”).
There’s some recent evidence that what makes conversations pop off is indeed the social equivalent of doorknobs. You might think that the best conversationalists wait patiently for their partners to finish talking before they start concocting a response in their head. It turns out that we like people the best when they respond to us the fastest––so fast (mere milliseconds!) that they must be formulating their reply long before we finish our turn. Abundant affordances allow for this rapid-fire rapport, each utterance offering an obvious opportunity to respond.
A few unfortunate psychological biases hold us back from creating these conversational doorknobs and from grabbing them when we see them. We think people want to hear about exciting stuff we did without them (“I went to Budapest!”) when they actually are happier talking about mundane stuff we did together (“Remember when we got stuck in traffic driving to DC?”). We overestimate the awkwardness of deep talk and so we stick to the boring, affordance-less shallows. Conversational affordances often require saying something at least a little bit intimate about yourself, so even the faintest fear of rejection on either side can prevent conversations from taking off. That’s why when psychologists want to jump-start friendship in the lab, they have participants answer a series of questions that require steadily escalating amounts of self-disclosure (you may have seen this as “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love”).
The main reason we don’t create more affordances, however, is pure egocentrism. When we just say whatever pops into our heads, we may think we’re making craggy, climbable conversational rock walls, when in fact we’re creating completely frictionless surfaces. For example, I’m thrilled to tell you about the 126 escape rooms I’ve done, but my love for paying people $35 to lock me in a room blinds me to the fact that you probably do not give a hoot. I may even think I’m being generous by asking about your experiences with escape rooms, when my supposed giving is really just selfishness with a question mark at the end (“Enough of me talking about stuff I like. Time for you to talk about stuff I like!”).
There is no known cure for egocentrism; the condition appears to be congenital. The best we can do is offer our interlocutors all sorts of doorknobs––ornate French door handles, commercial-grade push bars, ADA-compliant auto-open buttons––and listen closely for any that they might give us in return. The best improvisers, like the best conversation partners, have very sharp hearing; they can echolocate a door slightly left ajar, waiting for a gentle push from the outside.
So the next time you find yourself slogging through a conversation that just ain’t working, remember this little ditty:
IT’S ABOUT THE AFFORDANCES THAT YOU MAKE
DO NOT BE
A SOCIAL SLOB
USE CONVERSATIONAL DOORKNOBS