Of all life’s pleasures, one of the sweetest is good conversation. I suppose for some, good conversation is just taking turns telling stories apropos of nothing in particular, but for the rest of us good conversation is a kind of rigorous play, the kind of detective work kids do together, exploring for new clues and extrapolations, inventing together—trying things out, but with some focus. The play part is an “anything goes” attitude that invites all potentially useful ideas. The rigor part is serious, active discernment about which ideas ultimately make sense.

Play itself entails this tension between fooling around and serious rigor. Puppies or lion cubs scrapping with each other may look cute to us, but part of what makes them so cute is that they take it so seriously. Play is always half serious. After all, what’s the fun of a game if you don’t care what happens? On the other hand, caring too much makes it no fun too.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

You know the look of a puppy trying to play with a dog that’s just not into it? Peer to peer, we can encounter something similar in conversation. One person wants to explore; the other can’t or won’t, maybe even snarling to make it clear that exploration is a no-go. There’s a good reason for this resistance to conversational play. For each of us, some ideas are foundational. They’re load bearing. They’re holding up something heavy, difficult, and dangerous to move: the assumptions that underpin our sense of who we are and why we do the things we do.

All of us have foundational assumptions we won’t play with anymore. Call them “read-only values”: you can access them, declare them, uphold them, but you can’t or won’t modify them. Prancing up to someone’s read-only values and saying, “Hey, let’s play with these assumptions,” you confront a monolithic load-bearing wall, like a puppy trying to play with an old dog who’s just not into new tricks. There’s no engagement, and if the puppy persists he may get a sharp bite for his troubles.

I encounter a lot of “don’t go there” load-bearing walls in my conversations because of where my own load-bearing walls are located. I’m self-defined as a guy who wants to play with foundational questions. My read-only values contain a commandment that thou shalt play with fundamental questions of purpose, meaning, change, and the like. So when I encounter someone who declares a set of foundational assumptions, my natural reaction is to say, “Oh goody. Great starting point. Let’s play.” And then I find out that the declaration wasn’t an opening gambit at all; it was the last word on the subject with no room to move.

I could misconstrue the evidence. I could claim that since I want to play and they don’t, I’m load-free—that I’m the open-minded one in a world of closed-minded stick-in-the-muds. That would be wrong. We all have load-bearing walls. Because of my line of work, mine are just in unconventional places. Challenge me about my line of work, and I’m as likely to nip you as any old dog.

Opening up walls is foundational to me, so some of the most tempting conversational openers I hear are people declaring themselves to be open-minded. As you know, one of my favorite topics is the relationship between more-of-the-same repetition and open-minded variation (search “Your RV”). When someone declares himself totally open-minded, I light up. I love a good conversation about how open-minded any of us can be, or would want to be. And then I find out the truth: the question of the other person’s complete open-mindedness is closed. Why? Because his self-definition depends on an assumption that he is entirely open-minded. If I start playing around anywhere near that load-bearing wall, I’ll be warned off.

Open-mindedness is sometimes used as the warning itself. A conversationalist declares his certainties about how life works. You listen at length. You raise a counter position, and the conversationalist deflects it. You go meta (search “Meta”), suggesting that perhaps you have different fundamental assumptions. The conversationalist disengages, saying, “Well, no—actually, I don’t have foundational ideas. I’m just open. I love diversity.” His actions say he’s not into conversation. His words say he is. You go with his actions and change the subject to something safe.

It feels like a bait-and-switch ploy. With his strong opinion, he tempts good conversation and then retreats as soon as you engage. Call it debate and switch, with you taking the bait.

It’s not really cheating, though. It’s more like overreacting, lurching way out of engagement at the first sign of someone digging near that load-bearing wall.

The best conversations are with people whose load-bearing walls are in the same places as your own, and whose questions are similar to yours as well. The least playful conversations are the “thank you for sharing” ones, between people who really aren’t anywhere near the same page. But in between there’s another kind of conversation that can be quite productively playful even with people who have incompatible load-bearing constraints. I call this middle option “Shop Talk,” and will describe it next week.

My negative role model (Search “Negative Role Model”) for playing with other people’s load-bearing walls is from Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, Princess Ida—the character King Gama, who sings:

If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
I’m a genuine philanthropist—all other kinds are sham.
Each little fault of temper and each social defect
In my erring fellow-creatures, I endeavor to correct.
To all their little weaknesses I open people’s eyes;
And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
I love my fellow-creatures—I do all the good I can—
Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
And I can’t think why!

To compliments inflated I’ve a withering reply,
And vanity I always do my best to mortify;
A charitable action I can skillfully dissect;
And interested motives I’m delighted to detect;
I know everybody’s income and what everybody earns;
And I carefully compare it with the income-tax returns;
But to benefit humanity, however much I plan,
Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
And I can’t think why!

I’m sure I’m no ascetic; I’m as pleasant as can be;
You’ll always find me ready with a crushing repartee.
I’ve an irritating chuckle, I’ve a celebrated sneer,
I’ve an entertaining snigger, I’ve a fascinating leer.
To everybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two;
I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute—and I do.
But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
Yet everybody says I am a disagreeable man!
And I can’t think why!


Nietzsche said, “A man’s maturity—consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”