Playing with relativity during conversations

Important note:
First of all, to be clear I think conversations should be genuine in general. I believe beauty is about genuine conversations where there is coherence between the mind and the things you say. Read more about that in this blog. However, I believe that the nature of conversations and our mind is an interesting topic to talk about. Nevertheless, I want to underline that I do not encourage consciously manipulating people using the material below.

The focus on a conversation
When we are engaged in conversations, we focus on certain topics. When we talk, the next things we refer to are typically close to the area of the topic. For example, when a Dutch child says he is quite hungry, we would assume he just wants to snack. We automatically think about a situation that is relatively close to him (fitting in this context). We don’t expect that a Dutch child hasn’t eaten for days when he says he is quite hungry. But when an African child says he is quite hungry, we already make different assumptions in our minds. We have associations that are relatively close to the thing we talk about. I call this area with the standard (close) associations; the reference frame. In almost all situations we reason from our reference frame. For example, when someone in a nice suit says he bought a nice car, we implicitly expect this car to be quite expensive, like a BMW or Mercedes. When a child said he did something great, you would expect something relatively small, but still a good achievement from his point of view. Usually, our reference frame flows along with the assumptions we have in our minds. This way of looking at things might bring strong associations with discrimination and stereotyping of people. In a sense, it is but this way of looking is completely based on your own assumptions that are based on your own experiences. 

So to summarize, we talk about a topic (our focus point) and have certain associations around that topic (our reference frame). Thus, there is a:

  • Focus point (the topic that you are talking about, something we see or notice around us) 
  • Reference frame (the associations and experiences we have that we tend to relate to the focus point)

The hidden reference frame
The interesting thing is that we hardly speak about the reference frame out loud. The focus is the actual thing you talk about, the reference frame is the unspoken area in which we steer towards in our subconscious mind, the underlying pattern. Therefore, it is quite hard to “catch” someone on their actual reference frame. A reference frame gives a deeper insight into your own mind and how you think about any other person. For example, if I ask you: what kind of movies would your boss adore? If you don’t know about his actual preferences, then you need to answer using your reference frame (your associations) of your boss in general. Through your answer, we get a sneak peek into your reference frame; who you really are and how you think about others. But the fun thing is, you can play with the reference frame during conversations for understanding people, comedy, and making people think differently about you. Many of us do this already but I believe we hardly ever do this consciously. Until this time of writing, I’m also not doing it consciously. So, the question is; how does one play with the reference frame consciously?

How to play with your reference frame
One could use a reference frame to nudge your conversational partner towards a specific direction or one could use them to comfort or to challenge their conversational partner. This could be done very easily by changing the reference frame towards desired directions. You can lower or increase -the quality/direction of- your reference frame to send certain signals. Let’s go back to the example where the rich guy has bought a car. He tells you: “I bought a car” (focus). You would then expect that he bought a BMW or Mercedes (reference frame). But if you would reply; “Oh, did you buy a Fiat?” You are lowering you reference frame to make him say with confidence and proud; “No, a BMW!”. It is a great subtle way to make people feel better about themselves. However, it is a risky game. When you use a reference frame that is too low, this could be perceived as offensive. However, when you go too low, you could recover by implying that you were making it a sarcastic joke. Because this is also how jokes work. For example, when your rich friend says; I bought nice clothes. And you respond: “Oh, you went to the thrift shop?” You definitely went too far, suggesting a joke. A slight grin would assist you here.

Going over and under
But one could also use this technique to comfort people. Imagine someone with a decent IQ says: “I forgot to put the garbage outside”, an appropriate response on the same level would be: “That is a bit stupid”. One could play with the reference frame by going far under the appropriate response (lower than the focus). By going far under, this implies that you would expect way less of this person, in your (fictional) reference frame he would have a very low IQ. When you go under, you could respond with: “Well, it is not as bad as accidentally killing ten people”. He will feel better about himself. You can also make people feel worse about themselves by going far over the reference frame. When you go over the reference frame, you could respond with: “You are making this building a filthy place!”. In this situation, we act like we have enormous expectations of this person. Words like “I expected more from you” or saying “How stupid are you?”. Also do the trick, because those make the reference frame quite explicit and hurtful.

Appropriate responses
Maybe you recognize familiar situations when you were doing something good but you didn’t get the appropriate response. Imagine you are a salesperson for a moment. You made a sale, but your boss has several ways to respond. He could respond from a low reference frame (your sale is exceeding his expectations): “What a fantastic job, you made a sale!” Appropriate: “Good job, this is what we need” Over: “Well, the sale could be much bigger”. From his responses, you learn what he thinks of you, even though he doesn’t say anything about you that explicitly in these responses. Both under and over can be quite hurtful, because Under (low expectations) implies that he’s thinking not that much of you. While Over (high expectations) imply that you’re not doing good enough.

Learning who people are through the things they say
When you play with the reference frame, you are sending out a certain implicit message which could be picked up. With the things you say, you often implicitly tell what you think and expect from your partner. Many conversation partners are very good in learning about themselves through the things you say about them. For example. when you get a genuine complement on tying your shoes, you know that this person thinks you are dumb. When you play with the reference frame, you are thus actually sending out the reference frame towards this person. 

This could be quite a tricky business, but good luck applying it! There is more theoretical basis behind this blog, but I tried to make it quite practical. If you’re curious about this, let me know!

Other material

A blog I wrote about playing with the reference frame and perception of happiness

More stuff to write about on conversations and reference frames:
The multi leveled signals of conversations (how to play with the face and body to send implicit signals
The change of the reference frame over time and growth (how growth is not always growth)
The (tree) structure of conversations and changing it