Conversational incongruence

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A recent xkcd:

Who knew that the guy in the hat was actually Sasha Baron Cohen?

Of course, almost every conversation is a little bit divergent in this way, or there wouldn't be much point in talking.


  1. Mark P said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    Or blogging?

  2. greg said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Or, rather, commenting in blogs.

  3. John Baker said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    I was struck by the suggestion that almost every conversation is a little bit divergent in this way, or there wouldn't be much point in talking. But what is "divergent in this way"? Notwithstanding the woman's statement in the last panel, they are in fact having just one conversation. Each statement responds to the prior statements in the conversation, with apparent understanding of their meaning. (The man did choose to ignore the woman's question whether he really sneaks into operating rooms, but I don't think that undercuts my thesis.) They are not, however, actually expressing empathy for each other's views, even though the conversation seemed to start that way. Rather, rooting for hurricanes is an extreme version of misanthropy for her, but for him it is only the beginning.

    So how is the conversation divergent? Is it divergent because the speakers are expressing radically different points of view? Or is it divergent because it started as a conversation about the morality of rooting for hurricanes and ended with hunting terrorized drivers from horseback? Either works, but I assume that only one meaning was intended.

    Incidentally, this is an odd strip in that the man in the hat and his female companion usually are more simpatico on issues of this kind. Perhaps it's a different woman; it's hard to tell with stick figures.

  4. greg said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    I think the divergence arises because the last of the events described involves direct participation by the speaker in the suffering/deaths of other humans, whereas the others involve separation. Hurricanes are a natural disaster from which most people are well-removed. Shuttle explosions are a failure of technology which most people are removed from, but I would say cause a greater emotional impact because the deaths are of people whose faces may be known. Watching someone die on the operating table decreases the distance even more, until you reach the point of being the cause of the suffering and death.

  5. Oskar said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    I see a clear conversational divergence because of the different expectations they both had of the conversation. The woman was attempting to comment on a very common human trait and explore the paradoxical background of it, while Black-Hat Man was just showing what a sociopath he is.

    The both went in to the conversation in synch, but they ended up in VERY different places. I'd call that divergence.

    As an aside, it has to be said that Randall Munroe is extremely talented with language. He effortlessly transitions from the very scientific and nerdy ("…that's just natural human attraction to spectacle") into almost the language of myth ("..then you hunt them on horseback, like men used to do!") And how great is that phrase, "like men used to do"? It's so deliciously evocative.

  6. Emily said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    @Greg: There's also the "one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic" factor. Watching a single identifiable person(or a smallish group of people who are probably identifiable, in the case of a shuttle explosion) suffer and die, even if you aren't deliberately causing it, somehow seems more cruel than enjoying, from a distance, the large-scale damage wrought by a hurricane.

  7. Mark P said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    There is another element here. In the woman's case, her interest is in witnessing spectacular and possibly catastrophic events. In the man's case, it appears he is interested in active participation and even the creation of such events. It's the difference between a reporter and the reporter's subject. A reporter has a pathological desire to see terrible things, while a sociopath has (or may have) a pathological desire to do terrible things.

  8. peter said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    "Of course, almost every conversation is a little bit divergent in this way, or there wouldn't be much point in talking."

    Perhaps the best example of this is Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 novel, Die Panne (published in English in 1960 as A Dangerous Game), in which a traveler staying overnight with some strangers enters with them into an enactment of a legal trial, which the others all understand to be pretence, but which he comes to believe is for real. All the parties enter the dialog willingly, all take it seriously as a conversation, and all respond appropriately to the utterances of the others, but the different participants assign different meanings to the words spoken in it.

  9. D.O. said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    Of course, almost every conversation is a little bit divergent in this way, or there wouldn't be much point in talking.

    From my experience of once being a scientist, most interesting conversations and very much worth talking are of the exactly opposite kind, that is with convergence. You start not even understanding what the other person says (it is almost certain that the other guy uses slightly different terminology or relies on impied knowledge that you don't have) and luckily might end up understanding what they mean. Or better else, you both end up understanding a little bit of what neither of you knew before.

  10. Sparky said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Don't see many references to caltrops any more.

    [(myl) Too true. But I knew the word when I was a child, because they were occasionally found in the woods near our house, along with Indian arrowheads, left over from late-17th-century differences of opinion.]

  11. John Cowan said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    It's not really a conversation at all. Alice says something which provokes Bob, in disagreement, to start a 3-panel monologue. Alice raises a very mild dissent, which is ignored; then asks an incredulous question, which is ignored; then finally says something which certainly is not a response to Bob, and doesn't even seem to be addressed to him. By this point, Bob has been carried away by his rhetoric: he's turned his back on Alice and isn't addressing her either.

    At a higher level, this is a collision between the Trouble Talk paradigm, which expects Bob to contribute his corresponding trouble, and Male Answer Syndrome, which, as often, answers a question that hasn't been asked.

  12. Faldone said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    Then there was the time I ovrheard a conversation about skiing that started off totally divergent but neither of the participants realized it at the start. The conversation just got more and more disjointed till they finally figured out that one of them was talking about water-skiing and the other about snow-skiing.

  13. Mark P said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    Caltrop – I had to look it up, but it turned out I knew what it was from hearing my father talk about them during his WW II service. I don't recall what he called them but I'm pretty sure it wasn't caltrop.

  14. Tom said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Steven Krantz, in his book about how to teach college-level mathematics, told of a conversation he once overheard. He used it to illustrate the point that one should beware of a wide divergence between the point of view of teacher and student, but the conversation was between two adult academics. One was talking about the Audubon Society, the other about the German Autobahn. They went on and on, never noticing the misunderstanding.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    I got distracted by "caltrops" at first read because it seemed misspelled, but apparently there are lots of variant spellings out there and "caltrap" (the one I had filed away in my own lexicon) may be a less common one. But it's one of those words that's sufficiently rarely-used that even those who can recognize it in writing may never have heard it spoken aloud (absent relevant life history in, e.g., the military) and thus may have trouble figuring out, especially when the context is potentially lacking because of a sudden shift in subject. So the comparatively obscure word choice might have made the conversation even more difficult to follow for the woman had she not already realized the divergence.

  16. Mary Kuhner said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    My personal favorite conversational divergence:

    I work on phylogenetics: the construction of evolutionary trees from data based on observation of mutations along the "branches" of the "tree". "Tree" here is a graph expressing relationships among species, and "branches" are edges of that graph.

    So I was talking to a botanist at an Evolution Society meeting, and he told me that he was measuring mutation rates along branches. I nodded in understanding. He went on to say that long branches were problematic, which is a common finding in phylogenetics because the mutations start to saturate. I nodded some more.

    Then he said, "Only a really sloppy house-owner ever lets the branches get that long."

    And I suddenly realized that when he said "tree" he meant a big woody plant, and "branches" were the limbs sticking out of it. And he was literally measuring mutation rates along limbs, looking at the genetic difference between one end and another. Or he would have been, except most homeowners kept their trees pruned and didn't offer him sufficiently long branches.

    In other words, I had not understood a single thing he'd said. (I explained this, and he immediately grasped the issue–he knew the phylogenetic jargon–and was much amused.)

    [(myl) This is a true story, I believe, though it happened before I was born. The setting is an academic cocktail party in 1947, shortly after the sound spectrograph was declassified. A recently-hired assistant professor is introduced to the wife of the institution's president, who exclaims that she's heard of his work with this new device, and he must tell her all about it. He obliges, with enthusiastic geekish detail about kilohertz and heterodyning and filter bandwidths and signal-to-noise ratios. She responds more and more enthusiastically, until finally she gushes "All my life I've known this day would come. It's so exciting to be alive when scientists have learned to make pictures of voices in the spectral realm! Just think of what they might tell us! Please, I want you to tell my husband all about this — he's almost as interested in spiritualism as I am!" ]

  17. Paul Wilkins said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    Not all dialog is scripted this way. On Deadwood, E.B. tends to repeat things that Swearingen says, to the point that Swearingen is moved to comments like "Stop repeating back to me everything I say in different words!" and "Advance the topic or pick up a broom."

    Apparently, I need to go get a broom.

  18. AJ said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    I remembered caltrops from the computer game Deathtrack.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    It also has some resemblance to Alexei Sayle's take on the "Just me, then" routine, that starts from a similar basis of the speaker describing a mildly shameful shared experience, and then gradually elaborating it into craziness.

  20. tablogloid said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    Wait! What? Yeah, no!

  21. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    I'm late coming into this, but (as a creative writing prof) I had to add this: One of the hallmarks of fiction produced by immature writing students is extremely con-vergent dialogue. The writer wants a conversation to make a point, and the speakers too happily oblige. The result is more like a monologue in two voices. Real-life speakers, I try to explain, are more likely to have separate agendas, even when they stay on topic.

  22. dr pepper said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    Caltrops are common in frps. That's because the players are usually a small group and they frequently find themselves facing possible attack from much larger forces.

  23. AlexJ said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    Once three of us were having a conversation: a veterinarian, a politically activist minister, and a science fiction writer (me). The term "AI" came up, and we had an increasingly meaningless discussion, at which point we realized that the vet was talking about artificial insemination, the minister about Amnesty International, and I about artificial intelligence.

    [(myl) If a hoops fan from Philly had been there, then Allen Iverson would have been in the mix as well.]

  24. peter said,

    July 25, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    Mark Liberman said:

    "[(myl) This is a true story, I believe, though it happened before I was born. The setting is an academic cocktail party in 1947, shortly after the sound spectrograph was declassified . . . he's almost as interested in spiritualism as I am!" ]"

    The lady was in good company. The physicist Oliver Lodge, who successfully demonstrated the transmission of radio signals before Marconi did and who invented the spark plug, was also a spiritualist. He believed that our apparent failure to communicate with the dead was merely a matter of not yet having invented the appropriate scientific instruments, as was the case for radio signals before the 1890s.

  25. ajay said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    I remember a conversation about the anti-stalking laws then coming into force in England – one person in particular opposed them, saying that, while he wasn't a stalker himself, he didn't disapprove of it, and thought it was a morally acceptable pastime, probably the least objectionable of the blood sports, and actually served a useful function – at this point it was pointed out gently that in England "stalking" is not, as he had thought, simply another word for "deer hunting".

  26. Nikki said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    Caltrops are what I call D4's laying on the floor. Man, have you ever stepped on one of those? OW!

  27. Graeme said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    I love youse guys. Pulling the cartoon apart over its divergence/convergence trope. (On Femoblog they pointed out the gender aspects: she regretful/empathetic, he analytical/cold).

    It's a funny. It only works because the Black-Hatted He takes the confession to its extreme. He's given a black-hat so you know he's the baddie. But the laugh is on her, or rather those of us who take him literally, because the stick couple will go to bed and he won't pull out an axe.

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