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Much Talk Is Sales Patter
The world is complex and high dimensional. Even so, it sometimes helps to try to identify key axes of variation and their key correlates. This is harder when one cannot precisely define an axis, but merely gesture toward its correlates. Even so, that’s what I’m going to try to do in this post, regarding a key kind of difference in talk. Here are seven axes of talk:
1. The ability to motivate. Some kinds of talk can more move people to action, and fill people with meaning, in ways that other kinds of talk do not. In other kinds of talk, people are already sufficiently moved to act, and so less seek such added motivation.
2. The importance of subtext and non-literal elements of the talk, relative to the literal surface meanings. Particular words used, rhythms, sentence length, images evoked, tone of voice, background music, etc. Who says it, who listens, who overhears. Things not directly or logically connected to the literal claims being made, but that matter nonetheless for that talk
3. Discussion of, reliance on, or connection to, values. While values are always relevant to any discussion, for some topics and context there are stable and well accepted values at issue, so that value discussions are just not very relevant. For other topics value discussion is more relevant, though we only rarely every discuss them directly. We are quite bad at talking directly about values, and are reluctant to do so. This is a puzzle worth explaining.
4. Subjective versus objective view. Some talk can be seen as making sense from a neutral outside point of view, while other talk mainly makes sense from the view of a particular person with a particular history, feelings, connections, and concerns. They say that much is lost in trying to translate from a subjective view to an objective view, though not in the other direction.
5. Precision of language, and ease of abstraction. On some topics we can speak relatively precisely in ways that make it easy for others to understand us very clearly. Because of this, we can reliably build and share precise abstractions of such concepts. We can learn things, and then teach others by telling them what we’ve learned. Our most celebrated peaks of academic understanding are mostly toward this end of this axis.
6. Some talk is riddled with errors, lies, and self-deceptions. If you go through it sentence by sentence, you find a large fraction of misleading or wrong claims. In other kinds of talk, you’d have to look a long time before you found such errors.
7. Talk in the context of a well accepted system of thought. Like physics, game theory, etc. Where concepts are well defined relative to each other, and with standard methods of analysis. As opposed to talk wherein the concept meanings are still up for grabs and there are few accepted ways to combine and work with them.
It seems to me that these seven axes are all correlated with each other. I want to postulate a single underlying axis as causing a substantial fraction of that shared correlation. And I offer a prototype category to flag one end of this axis: sales patter.
The world is full of people buying and selling, and a big fraction of the cost of many products and services goes to pay for sales patter. Not just documents and analyses that you could read or access to help you figure out which versions are betting quality or better suited to your needs. No, an actual person standing next you being friendly and chatting with you about the product or whatever else you feel like.
You can’t at all trust this person to be giving you neutral advice. Even if you do come to “trust” them. And their sales patter isn’t usually very precise, integrated into systems of analysis, or well documented with supporting evidence. It is chock full of extra padding, subtext, and context that influences without being directly informative. It is even full of lies and invitations to self-deception. Even so, it actually motivates people to buy. And thus it must, and usually does, connect substantially to values. And it is typically oriented to the subjective view of its target.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from sales patter is practical talk in well defined areas where people know well why they are talking about it. And already have accepted systems of analysis. Consider as a prototypical example talk about how to travel from A to B under constraints of cost, time, reliability, and comfort. Or talk about the financial budget of some organization. Or engineering talk about how to make a building, rebuild a car engine, or write software.
In these areas our purposes and meanings are the simplest and clearest, and we can usefully abstract the most. And yet people tend to pick from areas like these when they offer examples of a “meaningless” existence or soul-crushing jobs. Such talk is the most easily painted by non-participants as failing to motivate, and being inhuman, the result of our having been turned into mindless robots by mean capitalists or some other evil force.
The worlds of such talk are said to be “dead”, “empty”, “colorless”, and in need of art. In fact people often justify art as offering a fix for such evils. Art talk, and art itself, is in fact much more like sales patter, being vague, context dependent, value-laden, and yet somehow motivating.
There’s an awful lot of sales talk in the world, and a huge investment goes into creating it. Yet there are very few collected works of the best sales patter ever. Op-eds are a form of sales talk, as is romantic seduction talk, but we don’t try to save the best of those. That’s in part because sales patter tends to be quite context dependent. It also doesn’t generalize very well, and so there are few systems of thought built up around it.
So why does sales patter differ in these ways from practical systematic talk? My best guess is that this is mostly about hidden motives. People don’t just want to buy stuff, they also like to have a relation with a particular human seller. They want sellers to impress them, to connect to them, and to affirm key cherished identities. All from their personal subjective point of view. They also want similar connections to artists.
But these are all hidden motives, not to be explicitly acknowledged. Thus the emphasis on subtext, context, and subjectivity, which make such talk poor candidates for precision and abstraction. And the tolerance for lies and self-deception in the surface text; the subtext matters more. Our being often driven by hidden motives makes it hard for us to talk about values, since we aren’t willing to acknowledge our true motives, even to ourselves. To claim to have some motives while actually acting on others, we can’t allow talk about our decisions to get too precise or clear, especially about key values.
We keep clear precise abstract-able talk limited to areas where we agree enough on, and can be honest enough about, some key relevant values. Such as in traveling plans or financial accounting. But these aren’t usually our main ultimate values. They are instead “values” derived from constraints that our world imposes on us; we can’t spend more money than we have, and we can’t jump from one place to another instantly. Constraints only motivate us when we have other more meaningful goals that they constrain. But goals we can’t acknowledge or look at directly.
If, as I’ve predicted, our descendants will have a simple, conscious, and abstract key value, for reproduction, they will be very different creatures from us.