Sunday, January 26, 2014

Conversational Centres of Gravity

Have you noticed that when sitting at a dinner table, conversations have centres of gravity? Not as in metaphorical centres of gravity about subject matters, but as in physical locations. The centre of the conversation is an actual point in space, usually somewhere on the table.

To find out where, the procedure is simple. Look at where everyone's head is facing as discussion proceeds, and then draw a line out from their eyes, perpendicular to their face. Do this for everyone in the group. The spot closest to where the most lines intersect is the centre of gravity.

Here's an example to show you that you don't need to hear any words to know exactly who has what role in the conversation from body language alone:

The centre of gravity is not actually in the middle of the table - instead, it's slightly in front of and to the right of the girl in the brown top.

Once you realise that conversation has an actual locus, it's easy to see that the guy in the red shirt is at risk of being excluded. In a loud room, he would likely be at the periphery of the discussion, sitting there looking inwards trying to stay involved. He's already leaning in quite a way, whereas the girl in pink (equi-distant from the physical centre of the table, but closer to the centre of gravity) looks far more relaxed. Generally, I've found that anything more than 1m away from the centre means you're effectively shut out.

It's hard to see in an example like this, but another sure-fire way to almost guarantee exclusion is if the line of sight from your eyes to the centre of gravity has to pass through part of another person's body. The guy in the grey is physically closer to the centre than the guy in the red, but the fact that the girl in brown is leaning forward with her arms out means he's almost shut out. If the girl in brown turned her left shoulder slightly towards the girl in pink, he'd likely be shut out altogether. Even in the current setup, he looks disconnected from the discussion.

I find that when I can see that the nature of the seating arrangement and the dominance of the various personalities means that I'm going to be excluded, I'll often give up early and try to strike up conversation with the person next to me instead. You can only fight gravity with gravity, and try to create another centre that draws in others when their conversation falters. Usually on a long table there'll be multiple centres of gravity, and one or two guys inevitably in no-mans land. The only hope for them is that the other unaligned powers have something insightful to say. Usually, unfortunately, they don't. In the example above, the centre is significantly determined by layout. As the table gets sufficiently long, the focal point all comes down to who's the most interesting or conversationally dominant (either by being bombastic and loud, or being of higher social status).

In case it wasn't obvious, this theory was honed over various accumulated hours of being shut out of discussions by geography and trying to figure out why.

No comments:

Post a Comment