Two ways to beat those early conversation jitters

by Dorian Minors

November 27, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


When two people come together for the first time, they engage almost entirely in social scripts, like ‘hi, how are you’ and ‘what do you do for a living’ and the obvious responses to those questions (which often ends in awkwardness). While...

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When two people come together for the first time, they engage almost entirely in social scripts, like ‘hi, how are you’ and ‘what do you do for a living’ and the obvious responses to those questions (which often ends in awkwardness). While that’s going on, each person is trying to portray a certain image of themselves, based on what they want to get out of the interaction (you’ll act differently toward a potential friend than a potential business partner to a potential love interest). And while you’re each doing that, you’re also trying to fit each other into stereotypes so you can more quickly and easily find common ground (although you probably mess that up a lot).

Arguably the most important element of early conversations

We do all these things in an effort to reduce the uncertainty that lies between us. Whenever two people come together, there is a certain amount of uncertainty about how the other is going to act.  Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese said that uncertainty comes about when we believe that 'all outcomes are equally likely' in an interaction (like, they're equally as likely to follow the normal scripts as they are to throw their drink in your face).

This uncertainty is terribly uncomfortable for us (I mean, you’ve experienced awkwardness before, I’m sure), so we need to figure out and thus be able to predict how each other is going to act. In this effort, we try to portray a consistent image not only to achieve a goal, but so that they might more accurately get a sense of how we behave (and vice versa).

Two types of uncertainty

  1. Behavioural - when we don't know how the other is going to act. From the throwing the drink  in the face example from before, to standing too close for comfort. From talking normally and following the correct verbal scripts to yelling and abuse. If we don't know what you're going to do physically, we don't like it.
  2. Cognitive - when we don't know what the other is thinking. What are your beliefs, values, attitudes? What's safe and what's dangerous to talk about (we've talked before about why this is so important). But also, we get a bit antsy when we don't know how our new buddy sees us. Are they seeing what we want them to see? Hopefully not assuming we're talking too fast, sweating too much, laughing too loud... Do they see and value me (which makes sense, since it's the basis of attraction).
So, when we start a conversation, we don't know what they're going to do, say, or think about us and that makes us understandably super uncomfortable.

It's even MORE uncomfortable when:

There are times when we're driven even harder to reduce this uncertainty:
  1. If we perceive that they can reward or punish us in some way (like a job interview),
  2. If we the other person starts acting in ways that go against our expectations (like if they stand too close for comfort),
  3. If we think we're going to see them again (like that one, daunting, wild-card friend).

Two ways to reduce uncertainty

So, our initial conversation is heavily focused on reducing this uncertainty. You'll be at a pretty great advantage if you can circumscribe how limiting this drive is. But how do you do that? Well, focus on information trading. The more you know about them and the more they know about you, the more comfortable they'll feel. Also, highlight points of similarity. Similarity is one of the three cruxes of attraction and in this case, it's because the more similar we are, the more easily I can predict what you're going to do. Do those two things and you'll be well on your way to creating deep intimacy in no time. And by that, I of course mean, that intimacy will come slightly faster than if you'd just gone about it normally. Conversation really is the key to intimacy. Learn why, here. Then go and learn how communication REALLY works (and why we're so bad at it). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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