Philosophy, Social Skills, Spotlight

I thought it was rude but Noam Chomsky said it’s okay

Photo by Antoine Walter

A man and a woman are at a bus stop. I’m the man, and a woman is the woman.

A minute passes. I decide to say something.

“Are you familiar with Noam Chomsky?”

The woman looks at me, but doesn’t immediately understand. It’s normal to strike up a conversation when you’re stuck waiting with someone. But she expected something like “Hot out, isn’t it?”

It sinks in, though.

“Um, sort of,” she says. “I know the name.”

“Noam Chomsky is a linguist,” I say anyway. “He studies language.”

“Oh.”

“Noam Chomsky says that when two people are near each other, it’s almost impossible for them not to start talking to each other. He says that even if it’s strangers at a bus stop, we have this powerful urge to just start talking, just because we’re stuck together.”

The woman nods and says something very polite.

“But I disagree with Mr. Chomsky. I think some people have this trait and others don’t. I personally hate talking to strangers. Sometimes I even hate talking to my friends. I like them, I just don’t want to talk all the time. I’d rather pretend to be alone, and just think. Or read a book on my phone.”

She’s actually listening now, and she’s tilted her head and opened her mouth, but doesn’t seem quite sure what to say. I go on.

“So what I’m asking you,” I asked, “Is are you the kind of person who wants to talk to strangers? Or are you the kind of person who would rather I just shut the hell up?”

Transmission Lost

This theory really is one of Chomsky’s, although I’m sure that in the literature he has already accounted for the variation between introverts and extroverts. (Let’s not rehash that topic, internet.) The reason I bring it up is that it’s made me feel slightly better about one of my worst qualities.

One of my worst qualities is that I don’t listen to people, and I don’t like to talk to them either. Don’t get me wrong; if you’re a friend and we’re having a good conversation, and I’m making eye contact with you, my head is 90% in the game. I hear you. But if you can see my eyes twitching toward my computer screen, or a book, or the ingredients I’m chopping, or any other task I decided voluntarily to be involved in before you started talking to me against my will, it’s a sure bet that André is safe in his private inner life and the only person hearing you is my auto-responder.

If you are a stranger, the chance of getting the auto-responder is very, very high.

During these exchanges my number one goal is finding a way to exit the conversation: either an excuse to leave, or a body language cue that will get you to shut up. Really anything just so I can go back to spending my mental energy on what I wanted to spend it on, instead of using it to either filter out your attack or (worse) actually engage what you’re saying.

I consider this a worst quality of mine not just because it’s disgustingly rude, but also because it seems like a failing of my mind itself. Maybe a better meditater would be more present in all conversations, and a more spiritual, compassionate heart would truly listen to strangers.

Being “present” is, I suppose, a sign of a sharp mind. Caring is a sign of a good person.

So I’ve always secretly loathed this run-from-contact side of myself. But Noam Chomsky has given me a reason to reconsider.

Noam says (and seriously, you should read this interview) that language is not primarily designed to communicate. Language mostly helps us shape our thoughts, and talking to other people is really just kind of a side-job.

Which means that a lot of our out-loud talking is also not designed to communicate.

The example he gives is the bus stop. The two people just feel compelled to talk to (at) each other, just to fill up the time. Or, as Chomsky says, to solidify social relations. The small talk lets them establish that they are friendly, not creepy, and maybe it also establishes their relative importance to each other. (I made that up, by the way; I don’t know if that’s what Chomsky means by “solidify social relations.”) So they end up talking about the football score, the weather, where each person grew up. They shoot the shit.

“You don’t care, they don’t care, you’re not trying to transmit any information,” Chomsky says.

Moving the Conversation

This is a great source of relief for me. Because, you see, I always thought that you do care when you’re prattling at me. I thought the NFL draft really meant a lot to you, or that you were hoping I would have an interesting response. That you were disappointed that I don’t like football and all your hopes for making a new friend just got dashed.

I thought you really cared.

(Or in the case of truly meaningless talk like the weather, I thought that you hoped I’d say something clever and we’d hit it off.)

I thought all this because I am not wired to talk immediately to anyone I happen to be near, so the reason why other people do it has always been a mystery to me.

But Chomsky says you don’t really care. You don’t care any more than I do what we’re talking about, or how I respond (unless I suddenly get really offensive, I suppose). You’re just saying things out loud because it makes you feel good.

Which means that really, when a stranger is making chit-chat, they are broadcasting garbage at me. My auto-responder is exactly the amount of my mental effort they deserve, because they’re just burping words near me for their own personal comfort. Not only am I not the asshole in this scenario, I’m sort of the victim.

Now I can’t deny that my own strange impulse—looking for any way to get out of the conversation, quickly—may be just as annoying to them as the word burping is to me. But at least now we’re in this together, both of us doing selfishly whatever we can for our own ease of comfort, with little regard for the other. I don’t really feel too bad about that.

With a friend it’s a little different. I can indulge a friend who needs to off-gas some words for their peace of mind. Maybe they had a bad day at work or an argument with their parents. But when I find myself daydreaming, I’m not really cheating them out of the great gift of my considered opinion. I’m giving them exactly what they want, which is someone who will listen while they put their thoughts “on paper” (paper being my ear) and organize what they think and feel about the situation. Chances are, any seeming clarity they get comes from that process of venting it all out—not from any advice I give.

Looking back over my life, my habit of not listening seems to always happen when the other person is broadcasting junk, when they aren’t really trying to transmit meaningful two-way communication. That tells me two things:

  1. Instead of feeling guilty about not paying much attention, I suppose I can feel comfortable with it. I’m giving them what they need (someone who will let them talk) without pretending they need anything more.
  2. If I can move a conversation toward meaningful two-way dialogue, as I did with the woman at the bus stop in the beginning of this essay, I will actually enjoy the conversation.

This is where I’d like your opinion (in a meaningful, two-way sense). The auto-responder may be just what someone needs, but what is the limit? When does it become just as rude as I always feared it was?

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22 thoughts on “I thought it was rude but Noam Chomsky said it’s okay

  1. I love this, Drew, and I had some of the same thoughts when I read the interview with Noam Chomsky a long time ago. I think the limit of the “auto responder” is that people miss out on how ideas “land” with a different person. In some ways, it is the simplest, most condensed form of brainstorming, isn’t it? For example, if I designed a new type of lawn mower, I could hypothesize how well it performed, but I could not know how it performed (and make necessary tweaks) without trying it out on different topographies. In the case of shaping my thoughts, I can’t see how those ideas perform without testing them in different settings with different people.

    • That makes sense. That’s an excellent point. Interestingly, if someone is taking an idea that’s important to them and looking for serious feedback and questions about it, that’s likely when my auto-responder turns off and I take a real interest in the conversation—unless they’ve tried to initiate it at a particularly awkward time, like when I’m in the middle of working.

      I’m often surprised at how people will ignore seemingly obvious cues and start up a conversation. I’d like to live in a world where people are a bit more reluctant to start talking to you if they can see that you’re (a) reading, (b) looking at a computer, (c) watching a video/movie or (d) writing. Beyond a cursory “hello” you’d think those would be obvious signs that the person is already engaged in something that requires their concentration, and unless they put it away and start up a conversation of their own accord they likely want to keep doing it.

      I might have to start being a bit more pushy about this when people ignore said cues.

  2. I don’t have many friends. When I am with a stranger while waiting in line or for a Dr. appointment. etc. I generally enjoy talking to others. I find it pleasant and it passes the time. And often I learn something. Not just about a new receipt or a great place to eat, but about the problems, heartaches or joys of others. I may be able to offer new ideas of how to handle a problem, give sincere sympathy or have a wonderful laugh. So, if someone feels the need to talk to you, they may be reaching out for some reason. Listen to them. Share your insight if you can, keep it light and perhaps offer a few pleasant moments to their day. Oh, I think this is called kindness. There is too little in our busy world.

    • I think that version of kindness would appeal to me more if I was an extrovert. As an introvert, even though I enjoy socializing it exhausts me. If I go through my day chatting with every stranger everywhere I go, I’ll end up tired, grumpy, uncreative an unable to finish my writing work for the day. Often when I’m in a line or waiting somewhere, I’ll start reading a book in order to give myself “alone” time. That alone time refreshes and recharges me so that I can be kind and considerate to others. Without it, I’m just crabby.

  3. Alien Mind Girl says:

    I pay attention, disengage, or pay partial attention on a case by case basis.

    People sometimes do feel obligated to small talk. I figure they are talking out of obligation only if they ask a question, I answer, and then they either don’t respond or barely respond.

    I find some people actually do just want to be “talk at” me, but these tend to be the people who quickly talk on and on, not asking questions and barely breathing. I find this is usually when people want to complain, and they often won’t notice or care if I’m not paying full attention. I have to caveat that I do know some people who have social disorders or just a love for storytelling and will carry on in a similar manner; this is different and I can tell by the subject matter and/or their body language that they actually want my close attention. Either way: if I can’t keep my mind in the conversation enough to know what they are talking about even on a basic level (ie, She is complaining that her mother is always late), then I figure I need to disengage from the conversation out of respect for both of us. Which brings me to the next point…

    It is OK to tell people that I don’t want to talk to them. Not jump down their throats about it of course (“How are you today?” “DON’T TALK TO ME!”), but to politely tell them, when they are trying to engage me in extended conversation and I do not want to participate, that I need to concentrate, get back to work, or even that I would rather be left alone for a little while. I find that people usually understand and go away without being offended. This is my most often-used method.

    When it is very difficult to disengage from someone, maybe they need me. I try to be flexible. If it seems important I will commit myself to quality attention for them. If I really need to get away, I give them a few more minutes of attention and then try to disengage again.

    I also consciously use my body language and select my verbal responses to cue people as to whether or not I want to be approached; If we don’t talk much to begin with I don’t have to worry about what is polite during conversation.

    OH. Also, in response to language as a way to form your thoughts… even if all they are doing is verbalizing to form their thoughts, the listener still has a role. Asking the speaker the right questions at the right places in their verbalization can help them crystallize their thought process and can be very helpful indeed. The listener can also generally show support or not, which helps the speaker analyze their thought process.

    All this with the caveat that I learned most of my social skills from a past life working in bars. Good for me, but I can’t speak to the widespread validity of it. There, I studied body language and developed a habit of approaching people in the way I wish they’d approach me: “Do you want company, or do you want to be left alone?” If they want company, I ask them only the questions wherein I am sincerely interested in hearing the answers; not small talk; and I answer their questions honestly.

    What is polite varies culturally. You are in Mexico now. They may be different there.

    A stranger will probably not be wounded to the core if you are rude, but you can still affect their day, for better or worse.

    I can’t believe I wrote this much here. o_O

  4. Alien Mind Girl says:

    Ok. Now that I am off the winding path I can condense to answer your question:

    I think the auto-responder is sometimes ok and sometimes rude, and I try to read the other person as well as my own internal response to the person to figure out where that line is, per some of the above examples. If they expect full attention, I ought to either give it to them or be honest about being unable to give it to them. If they don’t seem to need my full attention and I don’t want to give it, auto response is ok if not taken to extreme.

    Sorry about the extensive rambling. Don’t know what came over me. Truly.

    • Haha. Yes, I suppose it is a strong word… but bear in mind it’s not the friends (or the strangers) I hate. It’s how hard it is for me as a natural introvert to carry on a conversation when I’m either busy, exhausted or not expecting it.

      Let me put it this way: you might love talking to people, but how would you feel if they tried starting a conversation with you at 3 a.m.? For whatever reason, I’m wired to feel like that at a lot of walking hours as well.

      For the record, when we were trading stories aboard your catamaran, there was no auto-responder! I loved getting to know you.

  5. Great post. I will go back and read it again but here are some initial thoughts. I understand. I spent most of my life in my internal world, whether I was with someone or not. Only over the past few years did I start to realize how this was keeping me from falling in love and letting someone truly love me. I spent a lot of energy in my last relationship determining when I was talking to work things out, and when I wanted my partner to listen, and when my partner was talking to work out his thoughts or really wanted me to listen. Then the challenge was to learn to be present, truly present, when he wanted me to listen, and when I was talking, wanting him to listen. The caring came with practicing presence.

    Dating now is making me realize just how introverted I truly am. I talk a lot and listen a lot, but being present instead of in my internal world continues to take effort. Also I realize I want someone who just wants to be together, like next to each other, maybe touching, but still comfortable enough to be in our own internal spaces.

    I wish more people could be as honest with themselves and the people around them, as you are with these issues.

    P.S. Someday I will make a button or a shirt that says ‘observing silence’ and I will wear it and point to it whenever people start conversations with me. I think about this a few times/week.

  6. Thanks for this reply Jackie. This is terrific. It’s good to know someone understands.

    Someday I will make a button or a shirt that says ‘observing silence’ and I will wear it and point to it whenever people start conversations with me.

    I like it, but I suspect it will work about as well as pointing to the book I’m reading or saying I’m working…. that usually buys me about 8 seconds of quiet before the talking starts again.

    Also I realize I want someone who just wants to be together, like next to each other, maybe touching, but still comfortable enough to be in our own internal spaces.

    That is the best.

    So here’s my question: I agree about presence, but how do you, personally, practice being present?

    • I learned mindfulness while on a silent retreat at a chan buddhist monastery. It was my first exposure to long term silence. Without talking, or even really acknowledging the presence of people around me, I was suddenly super present. There was nothing else to do but be aware of my thoughts, then make a little effort to bring them to the task at hand (eating, walking, sitting, etc). I think that formed the base of my practice of presence. Though years have passed since that retreat, I still often remind myself to eat mindfully, to be present in my senses, to live in my mouth and experince food fully. I do the same often while walking, feeling each part of my foot as it hits the ground.

      That is only really the beginning… A few years ago I read the Bhagavad Gita and the yoga sutras and learned about the practice of vairagya, non-attachment. To be truly present, we must not attach ourselves to desired outcomes. Like walking into a conversation thinking you know how it will go, or you know the outcome you want or how you think things will play out… Like waking up for the day, thinking you know how it will go or so dead set on one outcome for the day… You lack presence when you do that. You miss what is in front of you, or what possible miracles might develop if you wandered off, took a different path, let presence lead you instead of desire or wanting. Does this make sense?

      So I practice no attachment. I practiced it a ton while listening to friends, family, partners… I realized the more I focused on hearing and feeling and understand the other person in that moment, the more present I was, the better listener I was, and the less attached to myself I became. It has started to come back to me in beautiful ways. The people around me, even a random homeless woman last night, seem to see that I give, or strive to give presence when I listen. People have started sharing more with me, more deeper things, asking for help more, evening listening to me more.

      So that’s a start. Presence is quite important to me so I have a myriad of other practices I employ, but those two, mindfulness and vairagya, are probably the most significant.

      With love.

  7. When talking with new people, or people not so new but not yet friends, I personally engage in a no-eye-contact conversation until I get to know them better, otherwise I become uncomfortable. When I am seriously listening – I look in their direction but not at them per say (when visual demonstration is required it is just a quick eye movement away from seeing it). Which I guess is something I picked up as the Anishinabek traditionally do that when there are teachings that they are keen on learning. It is really focused listening. For close friends I do look at their faces in most every circumstance, but only glancing looks at their eyes. When someone I am unfamiliar with gives straight up eye contact I am immensely uncomfortable and want to fight or flight – in other words stop the conversation immediately by which ever means I can get away with without being terribly rude. I find eye contact is far too intimate or a strong challenge – and if I feel like someone is threatening me I give them a stare down like no tomorrow. I once participated in a workshop that unexpectedly involved socially forcing strangers to engage in sustaining eye contact in silence – I left feeling that it was a bit violating to my personal space. I never liked small talk as I feel like we’re wasting time and want to jump into more meaty topics if we’re going to talk at all. This, I’ve found, often makes the other person uncomfortable, because they’re not actually interested in serious conversation. So I rather just be quiet if that is the case and go on auto pilot (smile and nod for the most part with the appropriate yeses, and ahs here and there). It remains challenging to know when it is just small talk to pass time and genuine want-to-get-to-know you time. For the most part I treat it like the later as I enjoy making friends, even if it is for a brief time.

    • “and if I feel like someone is threatening me I give them a stare down like no tomorrow.” with the exception of it being more sensible to leave the situation if I am physically threatened. It ultimately depends on the circumstance of how I gauged my competence against them and my ability to safely leave the situation without any trouble. If a fight is inevitable I’m all in. That being said I’ve only engaged in physical fights in my youth and have successfully avoided all potentially physical conflicts since then – prevention is invaluable.

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