Two Manipulative Ways to Close Conversations

I have a morbid fascination with the idea that conversations represent two computers trying to program each other in real time. Pondering this sometimes yields insights that seem to be valid but manipulative. Here are two examples; you can decide whether these moves should be used. The first has to do with IM/chat conversations. Do you ever tire of closing rituals that take too long?

A: Ciao!

B: Yup, ttyl

A: Have a good weekend

B: Thanks, am looking forward to chilling on my camping trip. You have a nice weekend too.

A: Oh, where are you going?

I’ve found a move that tends to cut off these sessions surgically. I call it repeat-or-complement. The first time the other person uses a closing phrase, you either repeat it exactly (mirroring) or provide the most ritualistic, banal complementary response available. In the example above, the response to Ciao! should have been Ciao!, not ttyl. This works for neutral/symmetric closings. If you get something like Thanks, you should choose You’re welcome (no exclamation point). Not no problem or anytime dude.

A second example before I generalize. In straggling email exchanges, when no closure is in sight, I find that the shorter-than-your-last-response rule works. No matter what I say, I should make sure that I say it in fewer words than your last response. So this sort of closing move, in terms of the email’s word count, would go something like A: 100 words, B: 80 words, A: 60 words, D: 40 words. It almost never fails to work. People subconsciously seem to synchronize their shortening rates in a sequence of responses. You don’t want to shorten too much at each step, since that will be perceived as insulting. How much you can shorten depends on the formal power relationship. A VP can respond to a 100-word email from Joe Schmoe in 3 words and not cause offense. A peer will need to hit around 80 for anything that clearly needs a substantive response and does not merit offline escalation. No strict rules here of course and a LOT depends on the content of the email.

The psychology of both examples is a mix of power-parity tendencies and null-detection.

Power-parity first. In either medium (IM or email), whoever says shorter things is perceived as having more power. In IM, since everybody is saying very short things anyway, the party perceived as “weaker” is the one who is more effusive/enthusiastic. Unconsciously, people try to mirror each others’ level of power signaling, and try and gain a slight advantage in each move of the game. Paradoxically, in closings, this tendency is somewhat reversed, and we are inclined to feel generous, by being the last to say something nice (in ritualistic exchanges, striving to have the last word is considered polite, whereas in information-packed exchanges, it is considered rude).

Null detection is a more subtle effect. Humans are not particularly great at judging the information density of what they say or hear, but are great at detecting null events. You may not be able to tell how much two colors differ, but you are amazingly accurate at detecting when they don’t differ. The same applies to text. When you mirror a closing phrase, the other person subconsciously goes “ttyl-ttyl= zero bits” and shuts up. Even though the subtle gradations of meaning between ttyl and ciao are non-trivial, strict cancellations are easily detected. When strict cancellation is not an option (thanks! is not an appropriate response to thanks!), we try the next best thing: complementary responses. You’re welcome does the best job of  cauterizing a thank you because it is the most ritualistic response possible. People recognize that no more bits of information are coming their way. Anything else is ambiguous and leaves a sense of “hmm, is there something either or us meant to say but didn’t?”

And no, I don’t use either rule of thumb too often. They work, but they make me uncomfortable somehow.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. You never cease to amaze me with some of your observations and thoughts. I usually read something here and go “hmmm, of course”, but had never put the 2 together to realize the significance. Another brilliant piece. And concise too. :)

  2. Dear Venkat,

    Just let me in on one thing (perhaps a secret:)) that has always made me curious about your thought pattern:
    How do you identify these subtleties & then extend these as ideas to work on? Is that how most of the “innovation champs” work?

    How do ideas emerge from the recesses of our minds? Which are the triggers that cause us to think of something and extend it as an abstract, solution, hypotheses etc? Is it really only practice or is there that one extra neuron that results in more engaging thoughts to develop and branch out?

  3. Heh heh, I’ve shared too many secrets already :)

    But I don’t know really. I would guess it has to do with what you pay attention to and get sensitized to for a long time. Like wine enthusiasts after years being able to tell differences that others can’t detect.


  4. Alex Feinman says

    This paper might be of interest to you:

    It’s about how people initiate the “goodbye” conversation…

  5. Awesome, thanks. Was not aware this had been studied academically :) Will definitely read this paper.

  6. Interesting. I generally have this problem with email more than IM. In an email you often reply to or comment on information from the sender’s previous email, and it can be hard to do so without leaving some ambiguity as to whether a response is expected.

  7. “They work, but they make me uncomfortable somehow.”

    My instant guess for the reason of this feeling is that since you normally use language to transmit information, intentionally transmuting a null line feels repetitive and meaningless, so you don’t like to do it.

    Of course, in this case the null line itself contains meaning. You want to finish the conversation.

  8. Here’s one way to feel a little better about it if you want to:

    There is an extent to which the purpose of conversation is to coordinate different ways of acting; if you’re on a project that’s having trouble, everyone starts talking really fast to everyone else about everything: Just the sign that they’re doing a lot of that (and that people are doing lots of pausing or coming back to things people said earlier) implies that at the level of integration people are trying to pursue, their not meshing yet.

    Giving someone a null line prematurely is like cutting them off with “I understand”, it’s saying that we don’t need to talk any more because we have enough to get on with what we’re doing. If that sounds too business focused and pragmatic, you can think of it as “we’ve done enough exploring our differences to have a stable relationship for now”. The reason it can be harsh is that you’re saying to them, at a very basic level, “You know enough about me, and I know enough about you to relate to you at this distance“.

    It’s also harsh because sometimes people talk like new couples or people you will likely soon be a really good friend with; exploring the space for further cooperation (your value to each other and common interests) and getting a grip on how you relate to this person. If someone else is trying to do this with you, talking too long etc, then maybe they have more time to develop really overlapping relationships, and they may just expect to live in a more tangled way. If you pull back to formalities or echoing, then your saying that you have reached stability, and your relationship with them is settled for now as far as your concerned.

    Here’s an alternative you might like, which sometimes works and sometimes fails; if they’re not directly working with you, take a short amount of time and a small amount of brainpower (if you have it) to ask them about what else they were doing when they bumped into/phoned you etc. This will remind them of the differences in what your doing, and they’ll either try to involve you (have some polite rebuffs ready or accept if it’s actually useful), or move back onto thinking about their own projects and leave you be (beware that if you refocus them on their own work too well they may phone you back as their guru!).

    Alternatively, if you already have a defined relationship, pull the conversation round to that. For the reasons suggested above, that should encourage them to leave you be, because you’ve orientated yourself according to your business relationship, which is presumably reasonably defined, and that is the same stable point you imply with the null signals.

    As far as power and sentence length go, I’ve always thought that the less important someone is to you, the less you need them to understand you, and the more important you are to someone, the more they have to understand you. So powerful people can just talk crap and force everyone else to divine meaning from it. Of course they do actually need those people somewhat, so they are shooting themselves in the foot! Power delays the consequences of being lazy, but that doesn’t mean you should default to it.

  9. Nice Josh! /NULL hehe :)
    no really your comment was even more insightfull than the blog authors thoughts.
    Ciao dude

  10. “[…] the party perceived as “weaker” is the one who is more effusive/enthusiastic. ”

    rebounding from your gervais principle posts, if you remember dwight’s refusal to smile; his reasoning was that that was how chimpanzees identified submission.

  11. Hi Venkat,
    This kind of loops back to improv where to carry a dialogue/conversation forward you contribute “an inspiration” to egg the conversation forward a little every time it’s your turn to speak or guide the conversation toward a new topic – kind of like in ping pong or tennis where when the ball is in your court you hit it back, if the other player doesn’t hit the ball back then the volley dies and the conversation ends.
    So in case of the observations you made above about repeating the good bye message you are essentially cutting of the oxygen from the conversation by not adding any more inspiration