The Sport of Language

When I first started to play Squash, Samwise helpfully pointed out that my reaction times were abysmal. It was almost true. During 2nd Pro we needed to do a statistics project, and a couple of people did various kinds of reaction tests. I finished in the top couple (out of 120) for all tests. This is despite some unfortunate brain damage affecting my co-ordination when younger.

Anyway, I’m pretty good at most reaction sports because I can anticipate and have prety good positional skills. Plus, I think my reactions are pretty good. The reason I was so slow seeming at Squash was because of the unfamiliarity of it all: the physics behind it all is pretty intelligible to me, but my muscle-memory and internal newtownian physicist were not especially well trained at Squash. So, it’s like running a poorly optimized program: however good the hardware below, the results are not going to be perfect.

Playing Frisbee and Volleyball for the first time this year has proven much the same thing all over again; but it wasn’t until , , and I were trying to guess the age of two girls this afternoon that I realised a couple of things. I’ve been pondering a lot about the way we communicate, following lines of thought through “implied conversations” and your basic introvert/extrovert divide (by way of logical post-facto rationalisation)… which is all cool, but missing a crucial point:

“I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” – Kasper Gutman, The Maltese Falcon

You see, they were flirting with Mike, who was I think nonplussed due to their age (certainly prudent). But what they were doing wasn’t really flirting I think, but merely getting in the necessary practise. Suddenly I realised that the implied conversations which I had been thinking of as a form of intimacy between friends is really something else: trickier and trickier maneuovres and set-piece plays in the Sport of Language.

They were, I think, preparing themselves to go through the actual process of hooking a man by harmless extraversion (sure hope you girls know how to spell). They were trying to ensure that when they are interested, or not, they say the right things at the right times.

In one of my favourite books My One Contribution to Chess the author makes the astute observation that a game of chess is at its peak of fun when both players are of equal skill. Something I’ve certainly noticed in virtually every sport I’ve ever played. I think the exception may be communication; or at least, equal fluency shouldn’t be a guideline when picking a sparring partner due to the relatively small component that language makes up of a relationship.

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15 Responses to The Sport of Language

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sport… or play?

    — Ivan

    P.S. Read any Stephen Potter?

    • mashugenah says:

      “Sport of Language” just sounded right. ๐Ÿ™‚

      No, never read any of him. What’s that in connection with?

      • Anonymous says:

        It was just tangential. The language you were using — “sparring,” “manoeuvres” — struck me as the language of deliberate, planned activity, specifically of practice for competitive activity where the goal is to win. That in turn put me in mind of Potter’s “Upmanship” books, which are satirical manuals of social interaction as competition — “Gamesmanship” for example being subtitled “The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.” Potter “advises” students to practise social gambits in order to “win” social interactions. Amusing, yet horribly true.

      • mashugenah says:

        My my, aren’t you full of fascinating insights? ๐Ÿ™‚ Where’s our new puzzle buddy?

        Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth in viewing communication as a kind of non-competative activity utilizing competative formulations. I mean, some people just kind say stuff without really seeming to have a goal in mind. This rapidly becomes a bit dull, inasmuch as whatever they’re saying might be tangentially interesting, but it’s just a collation of random facts.

        I’ve noticed over the years that I generally have a very defensive play style in games. I win by essentially arranging things such that my opposition can more and more easily make mistakes and give me victory. This is a viable strategy until you start to play at the top levels: I’ll never be championship class at Table Tennis because at that level people don’t make mistakes. This, ultimately, was why I never developed as a chess player, but why Sam was the perfect partner for me. He’s all untamed aggression, which forces me into appropriate defensive positions, enveloping his attack. We both got what we wanted out of the game.

        I’m the same in conversation: once a discussion is going, I can react appropriately, but I find it hard to initiate things. That’s partially an objective of Livejournalling: to initiate thinking processes rather than simply jump on anyone else’s bandwagon.

  2. eloieli says:

    Interesting insight

    But I’d be careful of taking it too far. The analogy of sport and communication can only go so far. It should be obvious (well it is to me anyway) that not all communication is competitive, and that’s just one place that the analogy falls down.

    In fact you can amke a case that most conversation is not competitive, though it’s equally obvious that some is. You should read (or better see) anything by Oscar Wilde where conversation is a competition. It’s all very engaging, but if life was actually like that nothing would ever get done.

    Conversation that is not pointless prattling is more often cooperative in the sense that the conversationalists are trying to reach some kind of conversational goal. When this goal significantly differs is where you are likely to get competition.

    But this isn’t to say we shouldn’t practice the Art of Conversation. Obviously we should as it enables us to become better communicators (at elast if we learn from it) in either a co-operative or competitive sense.

    • mashugenah says:

      Re: Interesting insight

      What makes you think that all sport is competative? When I turn out to play Chess with Sam, you think it’s a cut-throat win-or-die scenario? Mostly it’s not: we’ve played in the order of 1500 games of chess, so a win here or loss there is statistically irrelevant. We play as an exploration of possibilities. The payoff for being in top form, for thinking clearly and far ahead is that the exploration is proportionally deeper and more enjoyable.

      Of course you can play competative sport, just as you can have competative conversations; the difficulty with communication is realising when it’s a sport, and when it’s just the sharing of some information.

  3. It should be an ‘s’. Trust me.

    • And there ought to be an ‘a’ in there as well. Except anyone who isn’t a pyschologist tends to spell it the other way because it looks prettier.

      • (sure hope you girls know how to spell)

        Well, you could always just check the dictionary…

      • Your dictionary reference would be more compelling evidence if the HTML page for it wasn’t spelt “extraversion”.

        Myers-Briggs Type Indicator:

        My spelling is very good actually, it’s just everyone else who’s wrong. ๐Ÿ˜‰
        [Realises she’s just mispelt psychologist.] Bother.

      • Well, I can get you the same page with “extroversion” in the URL if you like ๐Ÿ™‚ —

        But I think my point is that Mash, rather than worrying, could check the dictionary and see that “extraversion” is an accepted spelling..

      • mashugenah says:

        Mash, rather than worrying, could check the dictionary

        At what point did I look worried?

      • mashugenah says:


        The OED online:

        1. A turning out; a rendering manifest. Obs. rare.
        2. Psychol. = EXTROVERSION

        1. In the language of mysticism.
        2. Path. The condition of being turned inside out; esp. applied to a malformation of the bladder; = EXSTROPHY
        3. Psychol. The fact or tendency of having one’s interests directed exclusively or predominantly towards things outside the self; the turning outwards of the libido; opp. INTROVERSION. Cf. EXTRAVERSION 2. Hence extro{sm}versive a., characterized by or given to extroversion.

        So, it seems like either an A or an O is correct; but a T is definitely wrong.

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