The affinity paradox: How does eye-to-eye become eye-for-an-eye in casual conversation?

How does eye-to-eye become eye-for-an-eye in conversation?

Posted Jul 10, 2010

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It started out well. You and a friend were talking about a topic of interest to you both, sharing your opinions, listening and collaborating on thinking things through. But something went wrong; you don't know exactly what. Now you're arguing, the tension is thick and the stakes are high. He thinks you turned it into a power struggle over whose right and--well, frankly you think he did.

What exactly happened?

Simplifying a lot, try picturing thinking as travel through a maze comprised of branching options. Throughout your life you've been walking down corridors coming to intersections and choosing consciously and unconsciously the paths you'll take. At a fork in the maze a question presents itself. For a while you wonder what to choose, but then you decide, taking one branch or another and the question is behind you.

Picture conversation as relating to someone else within the maze. Sometimes you're conversing over the walls, talking to people who made different choices at the forks and ended up somewhere else:

Dana: Hey over there.
Ryan: Hi.
Dana: I see you became Mormon.
Ryan: Yes, I took the religious fork, tried a few options and ended up here.
Dana: Cool. What's it like?
Ryan: Pretty satisfying so far. Nice people, great rituals, a sense of purpose. And you? You're an atheist, right?
Dana: Yep, I bypassed the whole religious branch.
Ryan: What's it like down that path?
Dana: It's good. You don't get the purpose delivered, you have to roll your own, but that suits me fine.
Ryan: Cool. Well happy trails.
Dana: You too. I wish you the best.

I'll call this Shoptalk. It's like a conversation between two car lovers comparing notes on their rides without feeling a need to agree that they should have the same cars or tastes. There's a warmth and respect even at a distance within the maze. You could call it "agreeing to disagree," but that emphasizes the disagreement. The warmth comes from appreciating that we each get a life and a quest through this maze. We start out in different places and see different parts of the maze. It's fun to watch other lives and appreciate the varied paths we take. With Shoptalk it's all good, like running into someone you met on the train to Rome now that you're in Paris.

Dana: Hey, there you are again!
Ryan: Zo we meet again my leetle French friend!
Dana: I got here Tuesday. You?
Ryan: Just today. I stopped in Florence.
Dana: There's great pizza at that place over there on the square. And I loved the Musee D'Orsay.
Ryan: I'm only here a day and I'm planning to relax and just hit the Louvre.
Dana: Cool, well have a great trip.

No pressure to agree on the D'Orsay. It's sharing notes--not even comparing notes.

There's another kind of conversation I'll call Affinity and Beyond. You meet someone in the maze, someone who, by whatever paths has ended up in the same corridor as you, facing the same forks and choices:

Pat: Hi. Nice to find you here.
Casey: You too. Are you doing well?
Pat: Yeah, my path seems good so far. And you?
Casey: Happy to be here too. So what are you thinking about these options we face?
Pat: That is the question, isn't it? Interested in exploring a little together?
Casey: Sure. I'd love some company. I'm leaning toward Path A here.
Pat: I've thought about that one. We could try it together. My intuitions lead me to think it's Path B.
Casey: Great. We'll try one and then the other and see which we like best.
Pat: I'm really glad we can do this together. Nice to get a second pair of eyes on it and nice also to have your company.
Casey: I agree. This will be fun.

In this kind of conversation you meet on common ground with common goals and a common quest. The affinities are strong enough that you venture forth together beyond your current assumptions attempting to develop one line of reasoning between the two of you. These conversations are especially exciting and warm. It's nice to have company on the journey. Active thinkers thrive on this kind of conversation. We need our affinity groups. They don't have to be large, but we love the jam sessions in which we're affirmed in the assumptions we've already made and can travel with people we trust, enjoying an exploration of the options out beyond. From Bible study groups to book clubs to academic institutes of advanced study, Affinity and Beyond is the name of the game.

Affinity and Beyond is the name of the game anytime we have to team up with others to develop one line of reasoning jointly. Building a business, planning a trip, raising children, playing in band, deciding our country's destiny-whenever there's going to be a single collective outcome, one decision about what to do, we're forced into Affinity and Beyond conversation.

For now, I want to concentrate on recreational conversation where the choice between Shoptalk and Affinity and Beyond is at the discretion of the people involved. It's just a friendly chat, just people trying to make it as warm as possible.

Conversational problems arise because "as warm as possible" through Shoptalk and Affinity and Beyond require opposite conversational approaches. With Shoptalk you don't try to find or stay on common ground. The differences between your positions are irrelevant and need not be addressed. If anything, they're to be celebrated: Vive la difference!

With Affinity and Beyond, the differences are the focus, and the juice is in addressing them together and working it out. Pat and Casey's next step is down paths together with an at-least-tentative commitment to stay together as they go. They're holding hands as they travel, like partners at a zoo or out shopping. When they feel a tug, as one is inclined to go this way and the other is inclined to go that, out of respect for each and their joint venture they need to negotiate their different inclinations.

Why would they make the commitment to hold hands? Because Affinity and Beyond is simply more fun than Shoptalk. That is, if you can maintain it. It's such a delight to have someone to travel and think things through with. It's so amazingly sweet to find someone who thinks the way you do, or close enough that you get that perfect mix of similarity and difference, difference that enables you to scope out more of what's of central interest to you naturally.

But of course, it depends who it is. Traveling and thinking things through with someone with very different inclinations is just endless yanking, negotiating, and resigned accommodating. Better not to be holding hands. If you can't find common ground then Shoptalk is more fun than Affinity and beyond. Rejoining Pat and Casey:

Pat: Yeah, I'm not feeling path A actually. Are you ready to move on to explore B?
Casey: You're not? Wow. I think it's pretty good down this way.
Pat: You do? Really?
Casey: Yeah, path A has a bunch of things I've wanted in a next step.
Pat: Wow. Nope, it doesn't do it for me. You said we could explore both A and B.
Casey: Are you sure you've given A enough of a chance? I think it's really nice.
Pat: Let's see a little B before we decide.
Casey: OK, but you'll keep an open mind about A? 
Pat: Sure, I guess...

You can feel the tension begin to mount, a tension that wouldn't be there at all for Dana and Ryan because they aren't looking for, and don't expect affinity. But Pat and Casey...

Casey: OK, I've seen B and I'm that much more sold on A.
Pat: Why? B has a bunch of features going for it.
Casey: It's good, but I think you'd have to agree that A is better.
Pat: Why would I have to agree?

Why, indeed. Maybe Casey just means that since they already have so much affinity the advantages of A should be equally apparent to Pat. Or maybe Casey expects Pat to agree so Casey can get what she wants.

Now that there are both affinity and differences Casey and Pat would probably explore the advantages of A and B next, but by now the conversation totters ambiguously. It's hard to tell at this point whether it's exploration of ideas on their merits or a power struggle. If it starts to feel more like a power struggle, how it got that way becomes a second layer of conversation, with potential for new yanking, negotiating and resigned accommodation, about who is to blame for starting the conversation down a competitive path, each partner suspecting that the other started it.

And who is to blame?

Perhaps we don't assign enough blame to the Affinity Paradox*: Affinity and Beyond is always a speculative venture. You can't tell at the outset whether the Beyond can be reached with the Affinity intact. If you can't make Affinity and Beyond work, then it would have been better to settle for the warmth of Shoptalk from the get go. But by now, having already decided to hold hands and travel from Affinity to Beyond together, you're kind of stuck.

Not blaming circumstances enough opens the door to blame for not treating it as Shoptalk from the beginning:

Pat: You seem to need me to travel with you down the same paths? What ever happened to live and let live? Why can't you just honor my choices?
Casey: You're the one who insisted I visit path B. I should be free to find my own path.
Aren't I allowed my own position?
Pat: Well, aren't I also?

Of course they are but the speculative venture they both set out on was the higher highs of Affinity and Beyond. It's disappointing when they aren't reached but it doesn't necessarily follow that either person is being coercive, and it certainly doesn't follow that there has been a violation of the universal live-and-let-live standard. Shoptalk is not the universal standard for conversation.

Since this is a column on ambigamy, it's worth noting that there's a good parallel between Pat and Casey's downgrade from Affinity and Beyond to Shoptalk and any romantic couple's need to downgrade from partnership in a breakup. There's no need to be partners, but deciding to try raises hopes of an affinity and beyond relationship. When there becomes simply too much yanking, negotiating and resigned accommodating, partners have to figure out how to extricate themselves which is both disappointing and difficult, especially when the partners get stuck on whose yanking caused the rift and what motivated the yanking-differences of opinion or a power-struggle attempt to dominate.

It's also worth noting that in the conversational realm we get these idiomatic phrases that play on the edge between Shoptalk and Affinity and Beyond. "Thank you for Sharing," is a warm phrase turned ice cold. It's a way of saying "I've shifted back to Shoptalk because you're just too stupid and weird to continue with in an Affinity and Beyond conversation." It's also a way of saying "If you want to believe that stupid stuff, it's your loss. You should think twice before thinking differently from me."

Then there's the current cold cut, "How's that working for you?" At face value it's pure Shoptalk like Dana asking Ryan out of curiosity and respect how she likes being a Mormon. Its subtext is gloating that Ryan is an idiot for becoming a Mormon. It's a way for Dana to yank Ryan to Dana's side as though they were in an Affinity and Beyond relationship. It's especially effective with someone you once were with in an Affinity and Beyond relationship, but who decided to part ways: "So last I saw you, you left me for your aerobics instructor who then left you for a man her own age, twenty years younger than you. Now you're all alone. How's that workin' for ya?"

* For a more general version of this paradox check out Exploratory Commitment: The Try/Buy Dichotomy