Sunday, January 1, 2017

Fluent Powertalk by Venkatesh Rao

At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, per HR requirements, Wallace casually invites Jim to blow off the party for a while and shoot hoops in the backyard. Once outside, Wallace nonchalantly asks, “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?” He is clearly fishing for information, having observed the bizarre couple dynamics at the party.

Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know... (pregnant pause) where to begin.” (slight laugh)

David Wallace laughs in return. This is as eloquent as such a short fragment of Powertalk can get. Here are just some of the messages being communicated by the six words and the meaningful pause and laugh.

Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).
Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.
Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.
Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.
Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.
Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.
Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.
Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?

The key here is that only Message 1 is comprehensible to the truly Clueless; this is what makes for plausible deniability. You cannot prove that the other messages were exchanged. Losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk. To them, Powertalk is a spectator sport.

We can speculate with a fair amount of certainty what someone like Michael would have said in such a situation if his and Jim’s roles had been reversed. He would have been so gratified by the attention that he would have babbled out an incoherent and epic narrative without further prompting. Wallace would have taken the information and walked away without paying.

What distinguishes Powertalk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little. Sometimes both gain slightly, at the expense of some poor schmuck. Sometimes one yields ground to the other. Powertalk in other words, is a consequential language.

When the Clueless or Losers talk, on the other hand, nothing really changes. Relative positions remain the same all around. Shifts happen only by accident. Even in the rare cases where exploitable information is exchanged, its value is not recognized or reflected in the exchange. Posturetalk, Babytalk and Gametalk leave power relations basically unchanged. Posturetalk and Babytalk leave things unchanged because they are, to quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Gametalk leaves power relations unchanged because its entire purpose is to help Losers put themselves and each other into safe pigeonholes that validate do-nothing life scripts.

Why? Both examples illustrate the reasons clearly: for Sociopaths, conditions of conflict of interest and moral hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations. To function effectively they must constantly maintain and improve their position in the ecosystem of other Sociopaths, protecting themselves, competing, forming alliances, trading favors and building trust. Above all they must be wary of Sociopaths with misaligned agendas, and protect themselves in basic ways before attempting things like cooperation. They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath.

So effective Sociopaths stick with steadfast discipline to the letter of the law, internal and external, because the stupidest way to trip yourself up is in the realm of rules where the Clueless and Losers get to be judges and jury members. What they violate is its spirit, by taking advantage of its ambiguities. Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation. That’s a story for another day. Good Sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality. Evil Sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck. Losers and the Clueless, of course, avoid individual moral decisions altogether.

Original post by Venkatesh Rao