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The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk (ribbonfarm.com)
84 points by cool-RR on Nov 12, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments

On both this piece and the earlier one, I was kinda surprised that startup/hacker types would be so interested. I guess my mental image of the audience here is younger, fresh-out-of-college entrepreneurial types. Perhaps I am wrong, and there is a good proportion of people with mature org. experience as well?

I am also surprised by the number of people who seem to think small/startup companies are immune to these dynamics :)

(p.s. I did spend 1 year as the first employee of a startup... I found the same dynamics to apply, mutatis mutandis). Anyway, thanks for reading and keep the great conversation on!


Well I'm 40 and I've seen a number of people drop comments that make it clear that they've been around long enough to not be kids.

That said I'm sure there are a lot of bright kids around as well.

I wonder if there's a vocabulary in some industry, like maybe the gambling world, that can describe the players in this game without loaded words like 'sociopath' and 'loser'. I sort of liken the clueless to a scam artist's potential victims, someone who thinks he can play and win against a scammer but clearly can't, vs. a 'loser' who knows not to bother.

but it's only about "winning and losing" from the sociopaths perspective. as mentioned in the first installment, lots of "losers" lead very fulfilling, non-work centric lives.

That's what I mean, the 'loser' is the one who chooses to not play the game when he knows the house (sociopaths) sets the rules to always come out on top.

Very long article, but very interesting points. Worth a careful read if you've skipped it because of "tl;dr". The first article, "The Gervais Principle", is also very good.

It is very good that Venkat(author) is introducing all these words and giving them solid definitions. It brings conversation to this new plane because we now have these words in our vocabulary. Great job, worth a careful read.

Very often a lot of management posts tend to be fairly short and be very heavy on jargon. It makes it hard for those who haven't been following the field for a while to follow along.

I also like the way he actually explains the connections to other books and posts when appropriate instead of just referencing them and assuming they have been read as I've seen some other authors do.

Dealing in paradigms this way is definitely a higher skill. Creating this much vocabulary, with this much subtlety is very difficult. You are automatically eliminating random access. All this vocabulary is a huge overhead, you need to make it worthwhile.

Compare this to what someone like Seth Godin (who, I actually like). He creates one word per book.

If you are writing books or blogs or other things that people read by choice, you are very limited in how much you can do here. It's like adding equations to a pop-science book. Formal courses (EG at universities) can force you to understand new vocab (or equations) and build on that knowledge. The problem is that this means they don't need to be sparing.

Venkat doesn't have that kind of privilege. The only way he can make you do hard things is by making it pay.

Worth a careful read is one hell of a compliment.

A strange game.

The only winning move is not to play.

How about a nice game of chess?

I've always felt that as an engineer I don't know how to handle or maneuver through office politics.

And you're right!!

<so sorry - couldn't resist..!>

I was deeply upset by this on an emotional level, mostly because for all of my life, I have not had an intuitive hold of this kind of communication. Consequently, I have been operating on an entirely separate plane, making it difficult to relate to and understand other people.

I would truly appreciate advice from someone who understands my situation. I am not interested in sympathy.

I completely understand how you feel. I've been there.

I think a key takeaway from that article, that the author didn't get around to stating explicitly, is that for a 'sociopath', _everything_ is a negotiation. Everything. In fact, all of Powertalk is subtle positional negotiation hidden in everyday language. (For the security research-minded, I think a helpful metaphor might be covert channel information attacks/information passing).

If Powertalk is negotiation, then learning how to actually negotiate might help. Luckily, there are hundreds if not thousands of books written on the subject. _Negotiation Genius_, by Malhotra, _Bargaining for Advantage, by Snell, and _Negotiating Game_, by Karrass are all seminal works. I've found them helpful.

(Note that these books are usually written from the perspective of someone trying to sell a thing or a service. It takes a bit of a mental leap to figure out how to apply these strategies to the rest of life, but if you're intelligent enough to be a reader of Hacker News, I'm sure it won't be that hard.)

I think a lot of engineering types are out in the cold on this one. what helped me was studying acting (the art of believably imitating social situations).


start reading Robin Hanson's blog Overcoming Bias, he's an economics professor who posts a lot about signaling.

I am an engineer, but I am inclined to agree with you. As an undergrad, I was the dramatics/theater secretary of my hostel (==dorm), and did enough directing/script writing to get a real sense of the medium (even though I quickly found out I had little talent on stage or backstage).

Theater/acting related metaphors and ideas are pretty central to the way I am developing the series... the next piece is shaping up to be even more theater-informed.

Overcoming Bias is a good reco -- I used to read it regularly, but (pot-kettle complaint here...:)) I couldn't keep up with the length of some of the stuff, especially by Yudkowsky. Hansen is thankfully briefer.


The article references the book "Impro". I agree -- it has a really fabulous chapter on status, and how to use it in interaction. While the book is focused on improvisational theater, the exercises they do will teach you a lot about how people use these same techniques in day-to-day life.

That article is tremendously helpful because I don't have a natural intuitive grasp of status. Thank you.

One thing that confuses me is when it's strategic to act high status, and when it's strategic to act low status. For example, sometimes, when you need something from someone - do you want to raise their status, and make them like you? Or do you want to convey high status, so they will want to associate with you? Or should you try to juggle raising your status and then lowering it, in order to achieve the illusion of parity?

E.g. Selling to a customer, getting a job, getting help with something in the workplace. . .

Somebody has got to have written something about this. Please help.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

the original. so lucid I doubt it will ever be dethroned as the best. hmm, can't find an online version right now even though I know multiple sites have a plain text version. anyone have a link?

a direct answer: I personally think it's better to act high status the vast majority of the time, only acting lower status when it is absolutely required. when I started doing this people's reaction to me immensely improved (night and day difference).

I recommend listening instead of reading it for those who sometimes find self betterment books hard to stomach.

One of the reasons this book is easier to digest then a lot of its modern equivalents is that because it is old. It's easier to seperate fad from truth. It evokes less troublesome emotional responses for the same reason that the Trojan War evokes less troublesome emotional responses then the war in Afghanistan. Listening seems to highlight that.


Well, doesn't How to Win Friends and Influence People offer advice like sincere and lavish praise? That's low-status, unless coming from the position of an authority position (high-status).

Maybe I'll do some experiments.

Something else I am interested in is how social/contextual status subconsciously sabotages people in the context of sport or business.

(before I get started, I can't praise HTWFAIP enough - http://www.pchristensen.com/blog/articles/verifying-theories...)

It's not low status unless you overdo it. Everyone enjoys validation for what they do, and while some people get more praise than they want for some things they do ("Hey, Michael Jordan, great game!"), there are other parts of them that are starving. People are not monolithic, they're made of many facets.

One example from the book was of a guy who built theater seats trying to get a deal with a bigwig from Kodak. No one ever got to meet with Mr Bigwig for more than 5 minutes, and Mr. Theater had to wait months for his 5 min appt. When he went in, Bigwig was gruffly resistant to a sales pitch, but Theater first complimented his fine wood paneled office. That disarmed Bigwig and got him talking about how he used to really care about carpentry and craftsmanship but has been taken over too much by his work. Two hours of conversation, no mention of the theater, and next week Bigwig ordered the chairs for his new theater fro Mr Theater. Complimenting Bigwig's business acumen or wealth would have had no (or probably negative) effect, but there was another part of him that was starved for recognition.

Enough rambling, go read the book! You can find a pdf online if you poke around.

Found the PDF. Thanks for giving that clue :-)

agree with what pchristensen said. a lot of people read HTWFAIP and the next week they're smarmily complimenting everyone. when this doesn't work they assume the book is bull shit and go about their lives. this isn't how it works. the compliments have to be genuine. as mentioned in the anecdote, the compliment is just a way to segue from business into genuine engagement with the other person. this would never work if the compliment wasn't about something of substance.

anyhoo. the main thing I took from the book in combination with everything I've learned about behaviorism and cognitive bias leads me to believe that the underlying trick is to bolster people's internal narratives. everyone constructs a narrative of their life in which they're the hero, validating this narrative will win you loyalty like you wouldn't believe as deep down, it's a major part of what everyone wants.

Get out more. Pick a hobby that requires some kind of interaction - the drama class is a fine example - and then commit yourself to it for at least a year.

You don't need to "relate", or "understand" other people. You just need to recognize and develop an appreciation for their point of view, even if it doesn't make sense to you.

The best way to do that is to immerse yourself in it. If "people" were a new programming language that you needed to learn, how much would you dedicate to learning it? If it were a language that you would be required to use for the rest of your life, how much would you give to it?

It won't be easy, and it won't come all at once. I assure you, as someone who has gone through all of this, that it is totally worthwhile. Professionally and personally.

Understanding this level of communication becomes simpler if you understand the dynamics at play in office relationships.

Listen to gossip, try to understand the way your boss feels about his boss. About his peers. About his portfolio. And look for leverage.

<PostureTalk>I find it exhausting and truly boring so I don't do it. But maybe that's because my personality doesn't enjoy power plays and I want a happy life over a rich/powerful one.</PostureTalk>

> And the third and most important reason of course, is that your moves have to be backed up by appropriate bets using your table stakes, exposing you to real risks and rewards

This is the most important line of the article, in my opinion.

First step to learning how to play this game is setting goals for yourself which will expose you to real risk if you were to try to achieve them in earnest.

In the tech world the most common place this sort of game is played out is the recruiter/engineer relationship. Spineless developers are favorite targets for sociopath recruiters. Next time one of them calls you, treat it like a game in which you are trying to dominate him or her.

Are you saying the recruiters manipulate developers into working for them?

Most of the time, yeah. The margins are massive. Most developers are terrible negotiators who roll over for $40-75/hour (and think they are getting a great deal), when recruiters and consulting firms routinely charge their clients $150+/hr on the back end. It's pretty easy to see why the word "loser" is used in the article to describe these people.

You can use this to your advantage in permanent roles where the recruiter's cut is a percentage of your starting salary.

That's right, one of the first steps to becoming a ruthless sociopath is to align your interests with the right people. IT could learn a few things from the pro sports/entertainment worlds. A good engineer ("rockstar", as it were) can easily make their corporate overlords just as much money as a real rock star or pro athlete.

Ahahaha. Are you going for Sociopathic Posturetalk, or sarcastic Gametalk, also by a sociopath?

In either or any case, nice!

Edit: Oh, you're serious. Oops. Well I enjoyed reading it as sarcastic gametalk ;-)

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