Social faux pas 1: don't talk like an 8-year old
Hello again guys. I could have written another piece about how miserable my current lockdown is but instead, I shall be writing a series of short pieces on how to improve our social skills since this is a topic I revisit a lot on my blog. In each of these pieces, I shall examine a common mistake that people make when it comes to conversation. I will explore why they make such a mistake and offer a much better way to approach such a situation. So to start us off, I'm going to examine a common mistake that some people make and my parents particularly guilty of this. I call this "facts rather than opinion" fallacy: when I speak to my parents, they would mention something they have seen in the news and expect me to be impressed that they remembered that piece of information. So quite recently, my father noticed that the EU and the UK managed to reach a deal at the last minute, so the UK didn't have to crash out of the EU without a deal. My father brought up that piece of information during the conversation but obviously, it was something I knew about already given that I live in London. However, he didn't know how to craft that piece of information into the conversation - he had no opinion on the matter and simply expected me to somehow reward him for knowing that piece of news after he had clumsily inserted it into the conversation - why do people like my father do this? And what should he have done instead?
Now the first question is actually pretty easy to answer: that's exactly what young children do in primary school. For a science lesson in primary school, the children would be shown a picture of the sea and the teacher would ask the students simple questions like, "can you tell me some of the animals who live in the sea?" The children will then shout answers: jellyfish, squid, prawn, sea cucumber, crab, lobster, dolphin, octopus, turtle, whale, shark, starfish - when a child simply offers the answer "fish", the teacher then asks, "ah but there are many different kinds of fish in the sea, can you name me some of the fish we might find in the sea?" Then you'll get answers like tuna, salmon, eels, clown fish, sting ray, cod, halibut, sea bass, mackerel, herring and this list goes on - note that the students are rewarded for a right answer that doesn't really require any analysis. Either the student knows that piece of information or he doesn't. At that age, students often resort to rote learning to memorize a lot of information for exams, they are not expected to provide a profound analysis of the information they have memorized. Teenagers in secondary school get to memorize complex processes such as the effects of climate change on the environment in Singapore - but once they get to A levels, they would be expected to tackle far more challenging questions like, "why should small countries like Singapore bother when it comes to tackling climate change, given that even if they do make a real effort, it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the actions of bigger countries like USA, India and China?" Feel free to answer that question in the comments section.
My father wasn't highly educated, he never got to the stage where he was asked difficult questions that required critical thinking and analysis - he got through most of his education simply memorizing facts that he regurgitated in the exams. Furthermore, he worked all his life as a primary school teacher where his job was to make the students memorize loads of information through rote learning. That's why he comes across like an 8-year old child during a conversation - an 8-year old would only be expected to answer simple questions at school like, "what colour is the egg yolk?" Contrast that simple question with the kind of research that a typical undergraduate would need to do at university, if you've never been challenge to analyze the information you're given and come up with an independent opinion on a topic like Brexit, well, then you can come across like an adult talking like a child which is exactly what my father does. When I meet adults who talk like children, the conversation ends pretty quickly as I am not prepared to give them the validation they seek - I deny them that as they are adults and should know better. This reminds me of a very awkward conversation I had with one of my father's friends who is equally autistic: I stopped by in Singapore on my way to Australia a few years ago and my father asked me to go out for lunch with two of his friends. During the lunch, when I mentioned that I was traveling onto Brisbane, one of my father's friends yelled out that Australia is a former colony of Britain and that the two countries are good friends. I was like, well okay, I might have expected an 8 year old kid to say stuff like that in a desperate bid to impress the adults - but uncle you are so much older than me and the fact that you are acting like a child is very awkward.
It was an awkward situation of course - on one hand, I thought, you're not just an idiot, you have no social skills and your autism is off the scale. On the other hand, he was my father's friend and I thought I had little to gain by provoking him so I decided to simply ignore that comment. But like an 8 year old kid so desperate to show his parents the painting he had done at art class, he literally grabbed me by the hand to get my attention and then repeated what he had said about Australia being a former British colony. He thought I didn't react because I didn't hear him clearly in the first instance. It was especially disconcerting to see a man in his 70s acting like an 8 year old, he was completely oblivious to the fact that he was talking someone who clearly knew a lot about Australia and thus clearly this wasn't any kind of new information for me. It was not like he had any useful information about what I should see or do when I got to Australia. I asked him if he had ever been to Australia and he said no, he doesn't speak English so it would be difficult for him there. The worst part was, he was totally oblivious to the fact that I thought he was utterly pathetic and his attempts to impress me had totally backfired. Nonetheless, I am gracious enough to give a polite smile and changed the topic. I knew I was never ever going to see this autistic old man ever again, even if he was one of my father's friends. I have often wondered what autistic people like my father do when it comes to making friends and I guess the answer is that they seek out other equally autistic, socially inept people with equally atrocious social skills, so they do not feel inadequate in their company.
You may say, "Alex you've set the bar very high, were you expecting that man to know a lot about Brisbane before he could talk to you about visiting Australia?" Actually no, I didn't begrudge this man for not knowing much about Australia, no - I begrudged him for behaving like an 8 year old child in trying to impress me with his knowledge of Australia. There is a fine art to impressing someone: firstly, you need to ascertain if the piece of information you are about to present is going to impress that person and then based on how high that bar is set, you will need to decide if it is worth trying to impress that person. You could try if you have a high chance of success but if you have little or no chance of success, then you should keep your mouth shut - as in the case of my father's very autistic friend. So the basic rule is that you should only bring up a fact if you think that the other party doesn't yet know it (and thus might find it useful) or if you have a specific purpose in bringing up that piece of information. An example of that is when I was going to see the pandas at the zoo - my friend Oliver told me to get up early and see the pandas in the morning as pandas like to take a long afternoon nap after a big lunch. So if I went in the afternoon, I might only see a sleeping panda as opposed to a playful panda having fun climbing trees. Not only did Oliver teach me something new, it proved to be a useful information for me to make the most of my visit to the zoo. So whilst I was indeed impressed, I was also quite grateful to Oliver for his help.
An example of the latter is more subtle of course, it is the fine art of using subtle pieces of information to let the other person know you are part of their social group or community. So for example, my friend Michael has a podcast which I listen to sometimes, if the topic he is discussing is interesting to me. I know how much effort he puts into those podcasts every week, so instead of saying something like, "I love your podcast, good job!" I am more subtle about it, I would pick up on one piece of information that he has mentioned in his podcast and I would ask him a question about that - in so doing, he would realize, "aha Alex has listened to my podcast, so that's why he is asking me that question about a topic which I talked about in my podcast." It is my way of saying to Michael, "the topic which you talked in your podcast about is both interesting and important to me, that is something we have in common." So my purpose is not really to give Michael more information about the issue (in fact I may have nothing to offer him but a question), but to simply remind him how much we share in common. Michael would answer my question and that would usually lead to an interesting conversation. Likewise, I don't crave for compliments in the comments section of my blog - simply responding to something I have written is more than enough to put a big smile on my face because I know that the reader has taken the time to respond when s/he could have easily just surfed over to another website, but s/he has chosen to interact with me.
So let's go back to the example I used earlier about me visiting the zoo to see the pandas, my friend Oliver had a rather useful piece of advice for me but how would I have dealt with the situation if I didn't have a relevant piece of information like that to share? Well I would simply ask questions to show interest and stimulate a conversation - that's right, your friends are not expecting you to be Wikipedia, they're simply expecting you to be a friend. So in this example, questions could be like, have you seen pandas in a zoo before, would this be your first time? Are you only going there to see the pandas or would you be spending time seeing the other animals as well? Why do you like pandas so much? Are you going to buy any panda souvenirs at the zoo or are you happy just taking photos and videos of the pandas? Even if I don't know much about pandas, I am still able to formulate questions to express an interest in the other person's activity - imagine if I went to the Wikipedia page on pandas and picked up the following fact: a fully grown male panda can weigh up to 160 kg. That's the kind of thing a young child (and my father) would do - he would put a fact out there and expect you to be impressed. How is one supposed to respond to that, it is awkward at best. Whereas an adult with better social skills would simply use leading questions like the ones I have suggested above, to try to craft a meaningful conversation.
Instead of simply putting the fact that the UK and the EU have reached a deal over Brexit, my father could have tried asking me questions about the issue. Do you think this is a good deal? How did you vote in the Brexit referendum? How would Brexit affect your work - will it be bad for business or will it create more opportunities? Even so, is a bad deal better than no deal at all? What is the mood in London - are people generally relieved that some kind of deal was reached, even if it wasn't the perfect deal they had hoped for? Do you think Boris Johnson has regained some trust and credibility upon achieving this last minute deal? Is there any chance of the UK applying to rejoin the EU in the future if it is clear that Brexit isn't going to make the UK better off? Do you think the people who voted for Brexit will regret this in due course? I could go on - my point is simple: I don't need to be an expert when it comes to Brexit in order to ask intelligent questions about the topic. Asking me even one question would have led to a conversation but since my father put a fact out there - well, that kinda killed the conversation. I didn't quite know what to do with that fact since it was something that I had known for a few days already, it didn't inform me nor was it useful information for me and so I couldn't pretend to be impressed that he knew about it. Obviously, I didn't want to say anything unkind or cruel to my father so instead, I simply chose to ignore him, I pretended I didn't hear him clearly, changed the topic and talked about something else altogether.
So my father could have said something as simple as, "the UK and EU reached a deal at last, so how do you feel about it?" That would then have been an invitation for me to volunteer my feelings about the issue and I may then respond with some other questions for him, to see how he may have felt about the issue from a Singaporean perspective. But no, my father doesn't know how to make conversation, he only knows how to say awkward things that leaves everyone in the room in silence, not quite knowing how to respond to his autistic interjections. Allow me to contrast this to an event I attended in Florida in 2016 - I was invited to be a part of an award ceremony as I consulted for a company that won an award in a competition hosted by NASA. Thus I found myself in a room at Cape Canaveral surrounded by the most brilliant scientists in the world and I swear I really felt like I was the dumbest person in the room at that point. Did I try to do what my father did by trying to impress these brilliant scientists with what little science I knew? Of course not, I would only expose my ignorance if I did that! I was very aware of whom I was talking to - this may seem like a simple but vital point, but it was never something my father considered when talking to me. So instead, I simply used my method and asked loads of questions - so when this super genius Ukrainian scientist told me about his award winning project (which I didn't understand at all - after all, I know I'm no award winning scientist, I'm just a dumb banker) I asked, "wow that's so interesting, did you develop this concept on your own or did you work as part of a bigger team?" Even though I honestly felt quite intimidated, I knew I had the social skills to navigate my way through that event without exposing my ignorance.
This method of using questions instead of stating facts is a lot more than a coping mechanism when talking to someone who is clearly a lot more intelligent than you are - it does boil down to the simple matter of being aware of whom you're talking to. So if I have a piece of information that I am tempted to bring up during a conversation, I must ask myself this: does the other person already know this piece of information? If so, is there any point in bringing it up? In the case of the 8 year old child in the classroom, when the teacher is asking a question like "what is the colour of egg yolk?" It is pretty obvious that the teacher already knows the answer to that question: the purpose of the teacher asking the question is simply to test if the students have that knowledge and answering that question would no doubt gain the teacher's approval in this case. However, most adults are rarely ever in that situation, well not unless they take a class and play the part of the student again, but unless you're specifically being asked a question, adults should not revert to that 8-year old student trying to impress the teacher because that kind of behaviour does inevitably come across as child-like and socially awkward. If you are confident that others will respect you, then you won't feel the need to try to impress others by telling them how much you know - the brilliant scientists I met at the event at Cape Canaveral were some of the most humble people I have met whilst some of the least educated people I've met (like my father's autistic friend who insisted on telling me that Australia was a former British colony) have been the most desperate to try to impress me; oh the irony!
So in conclusion, this rule is simple: when you're speaking with another adult, always avoid trying to impress the other party by how much you know - it is a tactic that you should only use if you're definitely sure that the other party is going to be impressed. Otherwise, the correct way to participate in a conversation is to either offer an informed opinion (which could be your own or someone else's) or even simply ask a question. Your objective is to stimulate a respectful flow of opinions between the parties participating in the conversation as equals, rather than defaulting to this 8-year old kid desperately trying to impress the teacher by getting the right answer position. So that's it from me on this issue - what do you think? Have you come across adults who have been guilty of acting like 8-year old kids? Why do people feel the need to try to impress others, even though this often backfires? Is this simply a matter of really poor social skills or more a case of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think, many thanks for reading.