My personal history with the STFU system is below under ‘background.’ Its also available as a one-page PDF for printing, and as a vector graphics package for remixing. This post is an expansion of the talk I gave at the Flux opening.
Divide the number of people in the room by the length of the discussion. This is how much time each person has to speak, if everyone is to get an equal opportunity. Try to keep a rough tally of your own speaking time, and gently inform others when they are taking more than their share.
Take three seconds to think
Pause after someone else finishes a thought, or between your own thoughts. Remind others to do the same. It takes at least three seconds to internalize what you hear and frame a response based on the actual words someone else says. A pause also allows others to enter the discussion.
Find empathy for others
Picture the emotional state of those you are speaking with, both while they’re speaking and at the times in their lives that they describe to you. Frame questions to confirm that your picture is an accurate reflection of another’s state of mind, and that you recognize their emotional reactions.
Understanding isn’t necessary
Realize that someone else’s experience may be so different from yours as to not be understandable, and that one life can only contain a small fraction of the range of human experience. Nobody owes you an explanation for their life, especially not within one conversation.
I thought I’d write up some more background for the talk I gave at the Flux opening (embedded below).
I was an introverted kid and spent a lot of time building things and reading books by myself. I still do. Growing up, my primary conversational contexts were school and the internet. Like talking at school, internet conversations are primarily about exchanging ideas and figuring out who is right. But that’s not actually the reason why people talk to each other in the real world. As I got older, I realized that talking isn’t usually about exchanging facts and determining the truth of those facts, it’s about developing and maintaining a rapport with the people around you. I recognized that I needed to get better people skills, but didn’t really know what to do except observe what wasn’t working.
I started to notice that a lot of people thought I talked too much. Outside the context of the boisterous nerd gatherings to which I was accustomed, it was hard to have real conversations. I was used to having to talk over my friends, raising my voice to get a word in and getting into snarky, aggressive debates about things for fun. But sometimes I would be talking at someone, and they would just tune out. Or I wouldn’t hear from someone I was hanging out with at all.
This little voice started creeping into the back of my head while I talked, saying “shut up! let other people talk!” That little voice made me a lot more social, but it wasn’t a panacea. I clearly still had issues of tone and style. I noticed that the people who tuned out when I was talking, or when one of my similarly loud friends was talking, were primarily female or persons of color. This, along with my obsessive consumption of history books, lead me to recognize that the patterns of conversational domination I was trained in –especially through school– were a part of a larger social problem of domination. My conversational style at first just seemed like an impediment to my own social life, but it was actually a small part of a serious global problem of elite Westernized men trying to tell everybody what to do, and being encouraged to do so. White supremicist capitalist patriarchy sucks, I realized, even for people like myself who benefit the most.
As someone primarily interested in machines, I needed to create a programmatic approach to fixing my own habits of domination. A system that let me take skills I was good at –like doing math in my head– and apply them to the thing I wasn’t so good at: being a good conversationalist with people of a wide variety of backgrounds. About eight years ago I began codifying and adding to a series of guidelines that gave weight to the little voice that said “shut up!” and in honor of that little voice, I call this four point program the STFU system. I hope you also find it helpful. I have to remind myself of it every day.