Lost in conversation

Feb. 14, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

“Granted, one can’t effectively convince someone who is skeptical of the truth of P that it is true by relying on an inference that ultimately comes back to P, but perhaps circular inferences can provide justification despite being dialectically ineffective.”

I catch myself nodding in agreement, strategically placed mumblings of “of course” and “mm-hm” giving the impression that I understand the matter at hand. I don’t. In fact, I have been lost for the past three minutes, since the conversation slipped from familiar grounds to unknown territory, something to do with … propositions?

You know the feeling. On this campus, where everyone seems to know more than you do, it’s not uncommon for things you’ve never even faintly heard of to pop up in casual conversation. When that happens, chances are that you don’t subtly change the subject or simply ask for an explanation. Instead, you nod. Or you bullshit. Usually both.

We’ve all caught ourselves doing this –  sometimes because our interlocutor expects us to follow along, sometimes because we want to avoid the discomfort of admitting we don’t understand what they seem to be discussing with ease, other times because we let our minds wander without even realizing it. There are also times, however, when we are guilty of being on the other side – it’s so easy to get carried away by a topic we’re passionate about without pausing to consider what the other person might know about it.

Although this might be the easiest way to do things, it’s also often the least valuable one. Instead of asking questions or taking the time to explain things in a little more depth, we’re missing out on so many opportunities to learn or share. The irony of it all is that we are here on this campus to learn. In classes and other structured settings, yes, but most of all from the people who surround us every day. They are the richest resource on campus, and yet perhaps one of the most underused.

Seeking mutual understanding doesn’t have to be difficult – like any habit, it just takes times to develop. So the next time you get coffee with a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on Nietzsche or a peer who has a niche interest you’ve never heard of, let them know when you have no idea what they’re talking about but would love to hear more – you’ll be surprised by how glad they’ll be that you asked, and by how much you’ll learn.

Contact Axelle Marcantetti at axellem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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