The frequency of our mutual interruptions

A law of nature

I have a hypothesis which I would be curious to test empirically, if only I had the data. We could summarise this hypothesis as a natural law:

Two people in a conversation will interrupt each other with a frequency that grows with the number of people listening to the conversation

I see examples of this law everywhere around me: conversations with friends, video calls, online forums and social media. A relaxed, pleasant exchange is way more likely to be a one-to-one conversation. You only need to add a couple of people listening to make the very same exchange much more likely to escalate.

The bigger the audience, the greater the fall

Why is that? When a conversation happens in front of an audience, the social cost of being wrong goes up. We are always instinctively afraid of losing social status when shown to be wrong (or even when we simply change our mind). And obviously the more people are witnessing our “defeat” the greater the fall.

This is a recipe for a dishonest and unproductive exchange of ideas, especially in the wider world of mass media where the potential audience of people listening or reading any conversation is huge. This fact alone must be a big part of the reason why political debates or exchanges on social media are rarely productive.

Framing is everything

What to do then? Part of the solution is recognising this trigger in ourselves. We can try to stop seeing conversations as chess games. For example, it’s incredible how much more relaxed a discussion can be if you simply begin it by asking questions rather than making statements. It magically frames the whole exchange as a cooperative game where both players are working together to find the truth. Framing is everything.

Flee the noise of outdoor markets

But none of this is simple in front of  dozens of people in a Zoom call, let alone the huge audiences of social media. So maybe the very first thing to do is to start moving meaningful conversations away from those places.

I recently started appreciating messaging apps more in this respect. I have always used them primarily as a way to keep in touch with friends and family, but I have come to realise that they are excellent replacements of “public” social media. The space they offer is more private and relaxed. Now when I read an interesting article I am more likely to share it with friends on Whatsapp, Telegram or Pocket, rather than posting it on Facebook. The quality of the conversations has definitely improved1.

Whether online or offline, leave the noise of the outdoor markets and re-discover the pleasures of private, one-to-one dialogues.

[1] Admittedly this solution doesn’t solve the problem of social bubbles. But neither do “public” social media.

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