One of the most unexpectedly different facets of life during my internship has been the meals.

I’m not talking about the food; it’s certainly different in a fantastic way (Dropbox’s food (link to Facebook page) is like something out of a high-end restaurant), but I knew that before coming already. Also of note is the way I started eating ∞% more ramen over the weekends than I did over the entire school year at MIT, because here I can’t buy that many groceries without them spoiling and am amazingly lazy in this new environment.

No, this (deadlined, so not that well-thought-out, but whatever) post is about conversations at meals, which happen basically every lunch and some dinners when my team eats together.

I’ve never had any regular experience like it. Of course I’ve had many meals at home with family, but they feel different because, well, it’s family and we have so many topics in common. I went to the same school for twelve years and we didn’t generally use a cafeteria; we just ate at our desks in our classrooms, or while doing things like attending club meetings or taking makeup tests. Sometimes if people felt like it they would push desks together to eat, but eating by oneself was totally normal. (At last, I feel like that was what it was. It seems so far away now that I don’t trust my memory, which is pretty sad… I faintly suspect I would have this experience in a more stereotypical American high school. But this is mostly just based off the cafeteria in Mean Girls, a movie I only watched in its entirety on the flight here, which is weird because I know I’ve seen the “The limit does not exist!” part much much earlier. /aside)

And at MIT? “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

I am glad for these conversations over lunch because I get to know my team more personally (and don’t have to awkwardly eat alone in the bathroom), but they’ve also given me a lot of time to ponder my (lack of) conversation skills.

I think I’m not as bad at it as I once was, but conversation isn’t an art that comes naturally to me. I have looked up how to have conversations on the internet and know the standard trite analogies well. It’s like cooperative tennis (i.e. not tennis); you have to keep hitting the ball back into the other player’s court. So sometimes you ask people questions, because people like talking about themselves, and the questions should be open-ended, because there’s more interesting things to say. Some other times you share things you were inspired to talk about based on the other person. I say “inspired” but in practice it’s more just like you think of something vaguely related and talk about it because you have to keep the ball going no matter what. At least that’s what I feel like I’m often forced to do where I usually fail. I talk too quickly and create malformed sentences and introduce oddball topics in oddball ways so that nobody else knows how to follow up to them. Then I stop talking. Oops.

Meanwhile, the really good people will, when they’re out of things to say, pull something off like point at a tomato on their plate and spout a fun fact about how in ancient Rome tomato-juggling was a highly-esteemed competitive sport (a fact I just made up, because I’m trying not to do the thing where I interrupt writing a post aiming to research for ten minutes to find a suitable example, but end up three hours of fascinated clicking later with nothing, which is especially bad because deadline!) Somebody will pile on a joke or two and then somebody else, or maybe the original person, will ingeniously find some topic linking the fun fact to ourselves, making it totally relevant and normal, and the conversation carries on normally.

Hyperbole aside, there are a lot of junctions of conversations where I often don’t know how to say anything at all, and sometimes I’m not sure why. Some part of me wants to say I don’t have enough life experience that some of it will be relevant to all these scenarios or topics. Others have worked at other places, lived in different countries, gone to different schools, known different people, and just lived a lot of different experiences. My mentor has a lot of stories about hobos for some reason. I can’t match all of these things.

It doesn’t help lacking experience or interest in a lot of the commonly discussed culture. I’m not much of a gamer, and definitely not the normal kind who plays a lot of multiplayer battle-arena real-time-strategy games (it feels like every other person introduces themselves on the internet as a gamer and has accounts on these things). I’m clueless about sports (except for a really bizarre part of elementary school where I studied next to an office and some teacher working there, who I literally had never seen or would see again outside of this episode, talked to me and was so astounded by my lack of sports knowledge that he assigned me extra homework to look some sports players up. I don’t remember any of that and I imagine it would be obsolete by now.) I don’t watch TV series either; I saw this video today and it’s silly, but I feel like its point rings true for me:

Having said all that, there are plenty of biases that would make me feel like my conversation skills are bad and I might be pretty average now. It’s easy to be too self-critical and “compare my behind-the-scenes to others’ highlight reels”, and also I’m confirmation-biased. Further, I feel like there are a lot of good talkers who don’t have or rely on the typical cultural shared knowledge either. I have been to some different places and known different people. If years of competition-hopping and my convoluted path to college aren’t enough experience, what is?

Maybe I just don’t think of things from my life readily enough to hit the metaphorical tennis ball in time. Or maybe I only need to pay more attention to my life, or to relevant things in the news. Maybe I just need to remember and write down more things.

(Maybe I should blog more.)

It’s interesting how much of my boundary-pushing at this internship is about soft people skills.


2 thoughts on “Conversations

  1. Disclaimer: conversation isn’t something I claim to be good at, and is something I’ve (probably?) unsuccessfully (but not super seriously?) tried to improve on, but…

    (Also sorry if you don’t get some of the terminology I’m going to use, idk how well you know SPARC-ish terminology? Feel free to ask. (And also sorry for incoherentness?))

    It sounds like you’re trying too hard?

    In any case conversation is almost certainly system 1, not system 2, though yeah potentially trying to conversation with system 2 might work to eventually get it to happen with system 1. And it could be that what you’ve described is just the symptoms of playing to learn instead of playing to win.

    But my instinct is that looking up and trying to implement conversation tactics is barking up the wrong tree. At least ideally conversation seems like it should be more natural or free-flowing than formulaic.

    Who knows? Given that I also tend to explicitly advocate against solving Rubik’s Cubes by memorizing algorithms from the internet (and yet that’s probably how most speedcubers get good– and anyone who has seen me cube can tell you I’m really slow), I’m like to be more biased against this kind of search-and-implement thing than it really deserves. Maybe it’ll work if you’re persistent enough. At the very least I would be willing to believe this kind of training is useful if you want to learn to manipulate people in conversation (which I do not intend to imply you are doing, by the way), so maybe it’d also work to have fun in conversation.

    In any case, my best suggestion is to just relax, try to enjoy the conversations as you have them, try to not be too bothered by gaps in conversation, and trust/hope that you’ll get better over time, just by virtue of having conversation. Or do more social things in general– I think such experiences tend to give good conversation fodder. Shrug.

  2. Pingback: Music II | BetaWorldProblems

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