How to have a good conversation

Here is an excerpt from Tim Herrra in the NYT, under the title “Three [sic] Tips to Have Better Conversations“:

To be a true conversation superstar, try these tips:

  • Be attentive and give eye contact.

  • Make active and engaged expressions.

  • Repeat back what you’ve heard, and follow up with questions.

  • If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening.

  • For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.

And keep in mind that when you say something declarative, seek out the other person’s opinion as well.

Those seem mostly wrong to me, and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic.  I would suggest some slightly different tips, admittedly not for everyone in all situations:

1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.

2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour.  Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.

3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.

4. Be worthy of a good conversation.

Rinse and repeat.  I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.

What is conversation for anyway?  I don’t even recommend being charming, or trying to be charming, unless a work situation is forcing you to do so.  Let yourself be sullen when the mood beckons.  Feel free to let eye contact lapse.  Don’t repeat back what you’ve heard.  Say something surprising.  Be willing to go meta.  Most of all, try to establish a “we actually can have a more genuine conversation than we thought was going to be possible” level of understanding, taking whatever chances are needed to get to that higher level of discourse.

By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.


Herrera's list should start with Find someone who is worth listening to for an hour. Because his suggestions are about getting the other person to talk.

If you want great conversations with libertarians or liberals, start by putting on your red hat, the one that says MAGA on it. Then tell them they are all a bunch of autistic cucks who hate America and we need to build that wall now. Then watch as they squirm, make funny faces and act like they want to leave. Works every time. Also helps to be a tall, physically fit white man with a deep voice and a sh!t-eating grin.

That would work great with Paul Krugman.

If you ever find yourself in a room with Paul Krugman, you need to re-evaluate your life.

I've yet to see anyone squirm quicker than a Conservative when you bring up, "Grab her by the p***y". (Helps to be a tall, physically fit, white male Liberal veteran)

I was at a dinner party recently with a prominent golf course architect, so I was planning a series of challenging questions for him about his design philosophy and his famously fraught relationship with his father and brother golf course architects. But then it turned out that the host seated him next to my wife, who doesn't know anything about golf course architecture other than that I like to talk about it. And it turned out that the famous golf course designer didn't want to talk about golf courses, he wanted to talk about his grandchildren, a topic upon which my wife's advice is far better than mine.

What is it with you and gold courses?

What is it with you and Brazil?

Host did his/her homework.


LoL. Thanks, Steve.

I eagerly wait for "conversations with Tyler" to shift to domestic arrangements.

Seriously, rule #1 at dinner parties is "don't talk shop".
Many people are tired of doing what they do and don't want to spend their leisure time talking about it.

'and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic'

And some people think that academics are haughty.

'so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end)'

Ah, the accelerationist perspective. Instead of just honestly ending a conversation, treating the other person with respect, try to increase the destructiveness inherent in the conversation. 'A number of philosophers have expressed apparently accelerationist attitudes, including Karl Marx in his 1848 speech "On the Question of Free Trade":

But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.

In a similar vein, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that "the leveling process of European man is the great process which should not be checked: one should even accelerate it...", a statement often simplified, following Deleuze and Guattari, to a command to "accelerate the process".'

'Say something surprising. Be willing to go meta.'

Just imagine the conversations to be had by pointing out that Marx was a free trader.

Yeah imagine that Marx was a Free Trader. To bad free trade has never been tried, what is called free trade in modern times, is actually negotiated industry destruction all in the search of the cheapest input costs. Primarily labor.

'is actually negotiated industry destruction all in the search of the cheapest input costs'

Schumpeter is the destruction guy, finding it a plus of capitalism. And it isn't as if the industrial capability has been eliminated, just relocated.

'To bad free trade has never been tried'

Ever heard of this obscure European common market thing? Though it certainly follows the general practices of capitalism in terms of seeking the cheapest input costs, it actually appears that building cars in Romania (cheap labor) does not destroy the auto industry in France.

What will happen to the UK's auto industry after Brexit is another story, one involving a nation actually leaving a free trade zone.

"Ever heard of this obscure European common market thing?"

Ever heard of this obscure American "United States" thing. The US beat Europe to a common market by over a century.

When having a conversation with someone who has views opposite of yours, start the conversation by agreement with the person about something. For example, if I were a liberal or libertarian and was having a conversation with a conservative, I might start the conversation by stating that the ideas promoted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are half-baked at best or stupid at worst. This will likely lead to other issues on which the two of us agree, including many ideas promoted by many conservative politicians that are half-bake or stupid, ideas that the person with whom I am having a conversation hadn't given much thought and had just accepted them because they are being promoted by her tribe. One may be surprised to learn that this approach to both sidism (i.e., both tribes promote things that are stupid) actually works to establish common ground. Recognizing common ground is essential to having a good conversation with someone from the other tribe.

Here's an example of using this method on the subject of inequality. I might start the conversation with the truism that financial crises are terrible, terrible for wealthy people, terrible for poor people, and terrible for everybody in between. This likely leads to shared experiences of just how terrible financial crises are, and what should be done to avoid them. Out of control wealthy bankers and ignorant poor and middle class taking on more debt than they can afford would likely be more common ground for us to agree. At which point I might point out the historical correlation between high levels of inequality and financial instability. Having established common ground, the person is unlikely to question the historical correlation (why would I mislead her by misstating a fact).

Now here's an even better example: China. I might start the conversation with the statement that China is a follower of the U.S. when it comes to developing technology ("stealing" tech from the U.S. even). Having established common ground about those untrustworthy Chinese, I might then make the statement that China excels in the implementation of technology "stolen" from the U.S. As an example, I would cite AI as technology first developed in the U.S. but being rapidly implemented in China. For authority, I might mention Kai-Fu Lee, who worked successfully on developing AI in the U.S., is now a venture capitalist, and has written of the advantage China has over the U.S. in implementing AI technology first developed in the U.S. I would refer the person to this article in the NYT: Establishing common ground is the key.

Different strokes for different folks. Cowen: "I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better." Barney Frank: "On what planet do you spend most of your time? Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table . . . . I have no interest in doing it."

I was in the room at the Senior Center in Dartmouth,Ma. Standing about 5 feet behind that young lady when he said that. It was one of the greatest things I've ever witnessed. That guy stood there for hours listening to some of the dumbest shit ever, and at that point he had enough.. it was Epic..

I guess it depends on who the person is that you are having the conversation with, and the purpose of the conversation. If I am having a weekly catch up with my parents for instance I will engage in a very different way than if I am speaking with say a potential sponsor of my latest project that I need to get support from. The conversations that I most enjoy tend to be ones with friends that you haven't seen for a while, you have the benefit of an easy relationship and you have lots of material to cover both news and remembering old times.

It sounds like you're talking about more informal conversations, where you feel comfortable and spontaneous enough to engage in mutually exclusive self-disclosure. Potentially these conversations require less structure and allow for flow of dialogue, free association and stream of consciousness. Even more interesting is when you compartmentalize elements of the conversation into process versus content, meaning "how" you talk versus "what" you say. It's a tenet of the marketing/advertising industry, in an attempt to capture these more meaningful, intimate, and resonant interactions.

Something about the NYT article did not sit well. I like Tyler's suggestions better. I must reduce the use of alcohol when socializing. Every time when drinking I am more talkative but less substantive.

>By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.

Some people are so inhibited they'll never rarely say something interesting unless drunk.

I would go out with industry competitors and make sure they got drunk while I pretended to drink. I learned a LOT doing that.

"If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening."

I'm trying to do more of this. It helps me better understand a perspective. I've also noticed the best podcast interviewers are good at letting a guest fully make a point.

Agreed. And the worst interviewers are the ones who set up their opposing guests with loaded questions and then don't let them complete their answer!

Because I'm the type who is willing to go meta, I gotta say: This is the most revealing post Tyler has ever written.

I was well aware he was a snob, and had a serious ego/talent discrepancy.... but here we see him drift into "utter disdain for humanity" territory.

“Be willing to go meta,” because a conversation will often be derailed by some meta-disagreement (or other disagreement about a fundamental background issue), addressing which will be more profitable than attempting to discuss the original topic directly.

Now that smoking is frowned upon indoors, removing the possibiliity of holding a pipe while talking, I would say a glass of something is pretty much a necessity for good conversation

Only Marginal Revolution would post something so contrarismZ

Some of the best conversations I've had involved alcohol, and restaurants full with laughing young women enjoying themselves. You're biased, Tyler Cowen. You don't drink alcohol, therefore you shouldn't state as fact something you don't know anything about.

Not drinking alcohol still lets your observe and hear the conversation of people who do drink. It's not great. And just because someone doesn't drink now doesn't mean they haven't previously.

I've had enough conversations with a wide range of intoxicated people to agree that alcohol (at least in sufficient quantities) generally makes people more obnoxious and less interesting than they would otherwise be.

Skip the snack tray or master the art of chewing and talking with your mouth closed. There is no better conversation killer than looking at chewed carrots and celery in someone's mouth as they speak.

Learning to speak with out spitting is also helpful.

Don't be afraid to go meta.

I used to do this and most of what Tyler's recommends here. Then one day, I woke up and realized that I was an asshole. Seriously. I played back a lifetime of conversations in my memory, and understood that if the person I am now ever encountered the person I was then, I would be fascinated by his clumsy, arrogant jerkiness.

The difference between me then and now is working in a field (healthcare) with life-and-death stakes, where communications have consequences, and where simple kindness pays an enormous return.

Don't be afraid to be charming, or to pretend to be interested in someone else.

If you think you shouldn't be talking to a particular individual because they are lower status than you are, challenge yourself, and enter into it wholeheartedly.

With all respect to Tyler, the only worthwhile advice here is "Don't use alcohol" -- and that's the best advice you'll ever get.

> 4. Be worthy of a good conversation.

This was my favorite point. The most underrated way to be a good conversationalist is to be an interesting person to start with. The most effective way to be an interesting person is to do interesting things. I'd rather talk to a guy who spent last Saturday scuba diving or playing acoustic guitar than someone who was binging Netflix or commenting on blogs.

So I was at the California DMV this week, which is getting hammered, probably because so many people are coming in to get Real IDs.

Anyway I got there early I was standing in line at 7:30am, when they came out to tell us the computers were down and we can stay if we wanted to. The staff were smiling and friendly, maybe because for them it was a snow day. But it rapidly became a friendly conversation or everybody in line.

The girl next to me was from China and for some reason she wanted to talk about horoscopes a lot, even though I might have mentioned once or twice that I didn't believe in them. I was a good sport and I told her my signs and my girlfriend's. We had a good time. She put her hand over her mouth when she laughed which was kind of cute.

I thought it was a pretty positive experience, and showed good human nature all around, even if I didn't I gain any unique insight of the political economy of China or anything.

I ended up hanging out for 2 hours, and going away and coming back another half hour, but I got my Real ID.

"... even if I didn't I gain any unique insight of the political economy of China or anything.”

If she was a Leo, you blew your chance to learn a lot about the political situation in China.

I am not sure exactly what you mean, but yeah.

We did discuss my being a Scorpio and trouble, but a Dog and loyal.

"Ah," she said "a contradiction."

That reminds me...

see married biologists having fun in nature here;

What would Tyrone’s tips be?

+1. I wanna see those.

Tyler’s tips are designed for what he thinks conversations are about—that is, what he values: conveying and learning new information. Most people, I suspect, just want a short pleasant interaction that leaves the other person feeling positively toward us and us toward them, and thus it’s not the “median USA Today reader” but “most humans” who should disregard Tyler and listen to the first set of tips.

Yes, people have different motives in conversation.

Reminds me of Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis and how most people have conversations to exchange 'strokes', a kind of emotional or egoic reification token. While some people have conversations like Tyler- to mine information. Nowadays, I have conversations to see 'maps' or other people's world views or the structures of thought they use to navigate this thing called life. This is either truly collaborative, the kinds of conversations I most enjoy, or merely you auditing the maps of others, which I imagine is what James Joyce meant when he said he never met an uninteresting man. The Golf Course Architect who sat next to Sailer's wife probably wanted to get some strokes at first (please recognize that I am caring, that I have been successful at passing on my genes, etc.) and the conversation developed beyond chit chat when he audited Lady Sailer for useful maps (he says she gave advice) and perhaps even developed some with her if his grandkids' circumstances were outside her ken.

The NYT advice is for callow sycophantic salesmen: how to act like you give a fuck without actually giving a fuck when you are too clueless to find a job you can actually give a fuck about. Stroke your mark in exchange for a sale. Emotional whoring.

I notice a bifurcation in people lately with a good chunk circling in the emotional whoring whirlpool and a good chunk looking for information or even architecture for information in their experiences, such as Tyler, or me, or James Joyce, or perhaps anybody who has ever been tagged 'on the autism spectrum' which really just means they don't play the feel game their labellers are running. I see this everywhere.

I am also reminded of 'surprise friends' from the post 'Friendship with Telepathy'. These would be people that you have conversations with for information and architecture and both parties to the friendship probably have continuously expanding information and architecture frontiers and/or are developing proficiency in *rapidly* accessing what they have. That's not everyone.

When you say, "most humans", I think you are norming your own social experience. Mine is quite different.

And there you have it.^^ I just inferred a ton about you and drew some maps of my own based on that. Architecture. Thank you.

Interactions between individuals in social species are incredibly complex, and while you are certainly right that a transactional view (based on either status or information) will be right some of the time, I don't think it is right all the time.

I think the reason so many in my DMV line could fall into easy conversation with a random neighbor is that conversation as a social lubricant is deeply ingrained. And more than a few were altruistic and gracious in their interactions for that reason.

Why be nice to a bunch of strangers you'll never see again in your life? I guess you could cynically say that in an iterated game it proves an advantage. Or that over thousands of years it encourages group survival.

Or don't worry and consider it a positive aspect of human nature. It's what we do.

'Why be nice to a bunch of strangers you'll never see again in your life?'

Because it's nice to be nice? I'm pleasant to strangers all the time because pleasant is my nature, not to flatter. "Make an engaged expression" (NYT) and "Be engaged and express yourself" are not the same injunction.

The NYT advice twice advises against spontaneous genuine expression.

It's easy to make conversation with people with whom you have intellectual interests in common. A conversation that could be put on a stage is the easy kind to have. Small talk is hard.

"By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination"

How would you know?

That's deep. Perhaps by decades of observation?

I found Tyler’s comments to be ever so slightly condescending, calling to mind Ezra Klein’s tendency to proclaim his Vox conversations to be “important”. That said, Tyler and EK’s convos ARE more important than the average discussion and should probably be judged by a more elevated set of rules than those of the average man. Two sets of rules, then - USA Today and USA Tyler.

Americans are very good at conversation. Complete strangers will gladly talk to you in the United States. Very useful for tourists who need advice or directions. There is probably less random conversation in my country because it is difficult to be certain what class someone is by looking at them. But in the United States socially acceptable conversational groupings appear to be based on outward physical appearance.

Tyler, your rules seem to fly in the face of "How To Make Friends & Influence People" by Carnegie. Perhaps the goal of conversations are different for different people? People who are generally good conversationalists generally feel like smart interviewers who add commentary. So the example above of the Golf Architect---a good conversationalist would have been prepared to "interview" that person about either Golf or Grandchildren. The goal of the conversation is to learn something alright, its learn the person.

I find it difficult to have these conversations because they stop when I attempt to take them meta or attempt to improve the informational quality. Take my attempts to talk to relatives about subjects that interest them (not me):

Relative: "Manchester United are doing well"
Me: "That's interesting. Have they always done well? What exactly is causing them to do well? What are the general principles behind good performance in this sport?"
Relative: "...urm...nuthin', just saying they've had a good season.... "

Most conversation isn't about trading information.

You seem to define 'conversation' very narrowly, as the kind of highly-structured thing you do on your podcast, which, sorry to say, is pretty mediocre. I prefer Russ's conversational style- some structure, but willing to follow the trail where it goes, rather than looking back to your clipboard every 45 seconds to check things off.

Alcohol is an obviously destructive thing, but your absolutism here is, I'm pretty sure, intentionally provocative.

I would love to hear an example of #1 and #2. How do you manage to control the conversational premise? What conversational premises allow for easy outs?

Tyler doesn't understand that conversations are frequently a repeat game scenario. Undermines his goals in the long term without realizing it.

I like Tyler's idea, but the instructions are a bit vague to implement. I really like Sara (Authentic Revolution)'s approach of providing a conversation menu of questions that are guaranteed to be interesting. The URL was long, so here it is shortened via google:

Actually here's the long URL in case people think it was spam:

The key to good conversations is asking good questions. Often the easiest good question to ask is "why?"

Follow the basic premise of the Zone diet, but adjust as needed. Some people are more carb-sensitive so you may have to reduce the carbs slightly. If you lack energy, increase the carbs a little.

Although your fasting is lower on the first diet, you're spiking into the "danger zone." That's 140 mg/dL or 7.8 mmol/L. Evidence suggests that chronic levels over this range contribute to diabetic complications. If you are 8.5 mmol/L at 2 hours post-meal, you could potentially be even higher earlier on or in the hours afterward. In diabetics, blood sugar doesn't always neatly spike in the first hour and return to normal the second hour. Sometimes the 2- or 3-hour reading is higher than the 1-hour reading, especially if you consumed a lot of protein or fat with your meal.

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