Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Active listening by the numbers

I like hearing mathematicians talk about doing math things. Usually I do not follow along, but it's nice to listen to. The [name] algorithm passed through the [name] filter and then cleaned up through the [name] process. It all makes sense to someone, probably.

There are different ways to approach discourse you do not understand. One is to simply throw up your hands and declare you do not understand any of it. Sometimes, this is in fact the most useful approach - radical honesty and all that.

Another approach is to take what you do understand and try to parse it using available data. If we know that, in math, procedures are often named after those who formulate them, we can gather that each time a name is mentioned, some sort of procedure is brought into the context. The names themselves do not matter as much as the courses of action they connote; they are shorthand for what to do and how to go about it.

This does not make the specifics any clearer, to be sure. But when someone objects "but what about the [name] conjecture?", you are now clued in to the fact that there is something amiss with the proposed course of action, which needs to be addressed. The content of this objection is unknown, but the form of it is clear. Whatever comes next - be it an "oh, but the [name] postulate solves that" or a heartfelt "shit shit shit shit shit" - your act of active listening has provided you with some insight into what's going on.

The same goes for any context. There are always two conversations going on at any given time, where one might be more prominent than the other. There is the factual conversation where specifics are tossed around left and right, where knowing what's what helps tremendously. These facts are timeless, and can be grappled with later on, on their own terms. There is also a very time-sensitive conversation going on in the now, where everything is specific to the very moment it is happening. This is the realm of moods, postures, physical positioning within the room, hierarchy - everything that affects a situation without necessarily being explicitly mentioned by anyone involved.

Needless to say, the fact that it goes without saying does not mean it is unimportant.

There is an ideal out there that conversations ought to take place solely in terms of the first conversation. Putting ideas against each other and all that. It has the merit of being an ideal, but as an analytic approach to actual social situations, it leaves out too many relevant aspects to generate useful insight. The "shit shit shit" response above might be a response to the fact that the [name] conjecture makes the thing difficult to perform, but it might also be a response to the fact that the person in question was planning on going home early that day, and just had that very plan dashed to pieces right there and then. Merely thinking in terms of content leaves out the very real life implications of form.

Be sure to keep both ears open as you move through life. Arguments are very seldom about the things they are about, and there are cases where losing the argument in the first kind of conversation means winning in the second. You just have to know to listen for it.