Conversation Hospitality

I want to introduce a concept which I call Conversation Hospitality. Conversation Hospitality is different from something like politeness because it depends on a particular notion of who is a conversation host and who is a conversation guest.

Specifically, my version of conversation hospitality must be understood in the context of personality. I have written a lot about the Big Five personality factors, but here I want to focus on a conversation between two people: O, who is high in Openness and N, who is high in Neuroticism. These two traits aren’t exactly opposites, but they come pretty close.

For O, a new idea is exciting. It leads to a burst of dopamine that motivates O to follow the idea to see where it goes. To N, a new idea can be threatening. It can lead to a burst of stress hormones, and can be associated with feelings of fear and anger.

The main insight underlying conversation hospitality is that conversations can have an emotional signature that marks them as being based in Rational Land or Emotional Land. When the conversation happens in Rational Land, O is a native, and even if the trip is enjoyable, N is a visitor. If a conversation happens in Emotional Land, N is the native and O is the visitor.

So, conversation hospitality is the idea that when a native is engaged in a conversation with a visitor, the native has the responsibilities of a conversational host, and the visitor has a different set of responsibilities.

Let us first consider the situation when the conversation takes place in Rational Land. O is the host, and the host has the responsibility to make sure the visitor is comfortable. This requires a little extra thoughtfulness. Sometimes O tends to want to move forward quickly from definitions to implications and then on to even further implications.

What O doesn’t realize is that this makes N uncomfortable. To N, words have emotional implications. Plus, N is a little outside their comfort zone, and they have a need to be validated with something that says: Yes, you are welcome here. One way O can do this is to look for an opportunity to praise N for making a useful contribution to the conversation: “That was a really valuable insight,” or “What a great point!”

On the other hand, N has a responsibility to give the host, O, the benefit of the doubt. When the conversation moves from one idea to the next, there might come a point where O asks N to do something like concede a definition or accept and assumption. N is going to be uncomfortable because they don’t know where O is going. Unlike natives of Rational Land, N doesn’t really like agreeing with definitions and assumptions without knowing the final destination, because they might end up trapped in a logical net. But there is an easy way out. Give the host some credit and let O give the tour through their thoughts. N can do this by saying something like “OK, I’m not sure where you are going with this, but let’s take that as an assumption for now and see where it leads us.”

By contrast, when the conversation takes place in Emotional Land, N is the host and O is the visitor. In an emotional conversation, N is likely to express some pretty powerful feelings. This might seem a little strange or even over the top to O. As host, N needs to realize that this kind of thing makes O uncomfortable. In some cases, the whole point is to make O uncomfortable. But as a good host, N can provide O with an opportunity to explore guilt without feeling trapped by it. One way to do this is to validate O’s emotions by saying something like: “I know you have good intentions,” or “your reasons are valid.”

An of course, O has some responsibilities as a visitor. When N begins expressing emotions, O needs to let N give the tour before shutting things down with too much defensiveness. For example, O can say something like “Ok, I may not agree with everything you are saying but I want to hear why you feel this way.”

One of the reasons conversation hospitality is difficult is that we often don’t even realize when we are the host, when we are a guest, or when we are both locals playing ball on our own home field. One reason for this is that it seems like everyone feels a bit of pressure to pretend like they are a Rational native. But not everyone is, and it’s okay if you’re not.

But if N insists on acting like a native, it is less likely that O will be inclined to play conversational host. Then things can get uncomfortable pretty quick. Sometimes the conversations shifts from being a rational conversation to being an emotional conversation without warning. Then, all of the sudden O is a fish out of water, and N needs to play host.

So understanding your own personality (and that of your conversational partner) is critical to conversation hospitality. You can be polite without really understanding yourself, but you cannot really be hospitable if you don’t even know when you are at home and when you are away.

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