Picking up oon a term in a conversation: Obsessing? (Sorry, no better title)

When I have been in a few conversations lately, I noticed that it gets sidetracked. Not often, but every now and then. It isn’t my fault, I believe, but I’m wondering how to get the conversations back onto track when I see them going off. It could, however, be deliberate sidetracking by the other conversationalist, which means that it won’t get back on track. However, it seems like it is their dullness, or obsessing that takes a conversation off track.
hh: I heard that John was arrested when he was 20. I would never have figured that. John is so laid back, and even 20 years ago, I can’t see John doing something like that.
xx: I don’t think that we should judge John for something that he did that long ago.
hh: No, I like John, and I fully understand we do things when we are younger that we would never think of doing as mature adults. I was just saying that I would never have expected that of John even as a youth, troubled or not.
xx: Well, I don’t think that we should hold it against John for something that happened 20 years ago. He works hard, and we haven’t had trouble…after all, it was 20 years ago. We shouldn’t judge him.
Now, we can see what is happening here. The conversation derails, and I say everything possible to get the person back on track, and it doesn’t happen. The other person picks up on a sub-aspect of the conversation, and sticks with that, irrespective of what the main point was, and subsequent explanations. As far as I know, XX has no dog in this fight, and shouldn’t be stonewalling me in re the conversation.

Question: Is this sort of thing an actual ‘effect’ or ‘syndrome’ or some other psychological barrier that has been identified and named? If so,what is it?

Or is this the sort of thing that people do that are bored by me, and are intentionally doing as a last desperate act to get me to shut my gob?


You know, conversation is not all about the explicit literal meaning of the words. It’s about context, relationships, feelings, agendas, social cues, social norms, what people are really thinking, wanting, and care about …the implicit as much as the explicit. People tend to respond to those things even more than they respond to the literal meaning.

So let’s look at your example. Maybe it’s just poorly chosen example, but what it looks like is you’re gossiping. Saying “but of course I’m not judging” really doesn’t fool that many people. it just makes it harder to respond to in a straightforward way. And in fact, from a purely rational Spock-like analysis, you obviously *are *judging John’s character from a 20 year old arrest, what you mean is you’re not moralizing.

If it were me at the point you start protesting you’re not really judging. I don’t know exactly how I’d respond because it’s totally contextual.

Do I want to get meta and point out what you’re doing - only if i have too much time and I’m with friends who are interested in that kind of thing and can shut me up if they’re annoyed.

Do I want to slap you down because I want you to shut up about John’s arrest record which is none of your business? Do you have a history of gossiping and trying to act like you’re not? Do I want to play dumb and just get you to stop it?

Do I totally not care at all and want to move on to something else because I’m only half-listening anyway?

Do I want to gossip about the arrest record? Wow what a shocker. Maybe with a friend. Maybe not at work.

Do I want to look self-righteous and make you look like a gossip?

You’ve got to stop thinking one-dimensionally about your social interactions. They’re vastly multidimensional. It’s what makes them fun. I mean maybe the person in question was stupid - but maybe they were being smarter than you too.

Well Harry, I’m with Beech on this one.
You missed an important learning opportunity. The person you were conversing with was trying to teach you something. If he/she really didn’t want to talk about it, they could have just walked away. Instead this person stayed with you and in my view tryed to teach you two things:

  • Always defend the absent
  • Avoid judging others

In the future, if you see similar behavior in others, think in the perspective of the other person instead of assuming that they have a psychological disorder because they are not responding as you wish.

I’m not completely in agreement that you were gossiping – maybe you were, maybe you weren’t – but I third **uglybeech **in the idea that this is normal conversational behavior. If you are one of those rare birds that believe you really don’t have a subtext to what you’re saying, I feel for you – my mother believes she doesn’t either, owing to her unusual Spock-like self-image (she really believes she is fully rational at all times, and expresses amazement whenever anyone around her is irrational). It can make social interaction confusing.

Trust us: most people are saying several things in the interstitial spaces around what we actually say, denotationally speaking, and most people expect to be understood when they respond to our subtexts. It’s a social construct. Try not to think of it as “sidetracking” but instead as “attempted decoding.” If you really didn’t mean the subtext your conversational partner is assuming, gently say so while acknowledging their perspicacity. Realize that your C.P. does not think of his or her comments as being off-track, and that he or she might be right.

It’s also quite possible that xx simply assumes that any such discussion implies that you are casting aspersions on John, regardless of how you couch it. Because xx would only mention such a subject if xx thought negatively of John; it’s impossible for xx to discuss the subtle distinction you mention. This is the whole, “if you don’t have something nice to say…” school of thought.

I’ve seen this in action: I have a friend who, when people are talking about a mutual acquaintance who is gay and brings up the fact that he is gay–just the fact of his sexual orientation, not a judgment about it at all, but just acknowledging it–she chides us for our line of discussion. Why? Because that sexual orientation is a negative thing to her, and it feels to her like we’re spreading rumors or talking badly about someone behind his back.

ETA: To clarify further, while xx is saying, “We shouldn’t judge him,” it may be that what xx really means is, “if what you say is true, then my psychological makeup means that I have to judge him; I don’t want to face that, so let’s please change the subject.”

I think uglybeech already said it well; when you talk with someone, the communication happens on more than just one level: you do almost never just share information, you also reveal something about yourself, indicate what you think about your partner in communication, establish a relationship with him and appeal to him with a conscious and not so conscious intention that he might or might not understand in all its nuances or agree with.

When a dialogue turns into a direction that you might not have intended, ask yourself what the other guy is refering to.