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Ritualized Conversation

How the form of a conversation determines its function, and how to fix conversational market failure.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
8 min read
Ritualized Conversation

Introduction / tl;dr

What do practices like therapy, counseling, psychoanalysis, life coaching have in common? Ritualizing a conversation, as through setting a time/place and specific intention for it, reduces the amount of cognitive effort required to socially manage the interaction. Ritual also establishes relatively clear roles for the conversation partners.

As a result, ritualized conversations can bear huge personal development value. The freedom created within the constraints of ritual lends itself to exploring uncharted, highly abstract territory.

Unfortunately, markets in the conversational arts are super dysfunctional: government regulation of therapists (and health insurance involvement in paying them) creates mistaken impressions about what value ritualized conversation can provide and in what settings.

In reality, the value of a good conversation is not strictly medical, but (even when it is) licensing can't guarantee that a provider will deliver.

If you are interested in the power of ritualized conversation and want to try making it a bigger part of your life, the best thing you can do is to find someone who you think might be a good match and pay them directly out of your pocket for their services.

Types of conversation

Beginning with your first effective demands for "milk" or "cookie," you learned that requesting things, asking for information, and expressing your emotional states could often cause other humans around you to act in beneficial (to you) ways. This is transactional language, language with clear instrumental value.

But sometimes conversations do not have straightforward instrumental value. Conversation can be its own reward (I'm setting aside my philosophical discomfort with strictly "intrinsic" value here). Think about that time that you ended up drunk with a simpatico stranger on a roof, and riffed effortlessly on the meaning of life until the sun came up.


Conversations fall all along these spectrums. An exercise I'll leave to the reader: try placing these on the 2x2: Catholic confession, grief rituals (e.g. shiva), one-on-one with your boss, first date, networking event, small talk, Zoom calls for online courses.

Intrinsically valuable conversation doesn't have to stay a happy, occasional accident. Ritualizing conversation can reliably make this magic happen.

What is "ritualized" conversation

As Sarah Perry explained in a now-classic Ribbonfarm post, Ritual Epistemology, rituals can create conditions for the successful establishment of truth and meaning. Legal rituals, like rules about Miranda rights and testimonial procedures, lend gravitas to legal trials in addition to merely promoting truth-finding. Since it's necessary for individuals living in groups to settle their disputes effectively, legal rituals contribute greatly to human flourishing.

A properly ritualized conversation works the same way. Because "ritual is more powerful than arguments and facts," an exchange of words in a ritualized conversational setting can impact participants much more strongly than the same exchange of words in a casual setting (or via different means, like from reading a book or website).

How does conversation become ritualized? There aren't strictly necessary or sufficient conditions, but we can observe a Wittgensteinian family resemblance.

Setting a specific time and place for the conversation well in advance contributes to its ritualized character. The conversation partners may go so far as to choose a particular topic or intention for the session, focusing their minds on the purpose at hand.

While conversing, the partners in a ritualized conversation assume particular roles in the service of their goals. The guiding partner may offer the student partner some kind of "homework," a physical or psychological task to attempt before the next meeting.

The value of ritualized conversation

Through these ritualized practices, the partners in a ritualized conversation create space for the meat of the conversation to grow as messy and abstract as it must in order to serve the conversation's goals. And those goals are things like: personal growth and development generally, establishing clarity of thought on a troubling issue, or figuring out how to make an important decision.

The problem with regular conversation in the wild is that people have disparate needs, personalities, and backgrounds that make satisfying everyone concurrently very difficult (if not straight-up impossible). Moreover, it's usually not socially acceptable to offer feedback about the conversation itself. This prevents conversational problems from getting corrected in a timely manner.

Social interactions, however messy, are still usually worth their while over time and on net, so they keep on happening. But ritualized conversations pack a punch when it comes to getting people's needs met in an efficient way.

While establishing my life coaching practice, I've spoken with a motley crew of fellow travelers. They confirm in their own words what I'd suspected: ritualized conversation is often valuable not just in a philosophical sense, but in a demonstrable dollars-and-cents sense. The need to be heard is real, and it's weighty. People who grow accustomed to the ritualized conversation of therapy often miss those interactions, even as their discrete and pressing need for mental health treatment fades.

In ordinary contexts, conversation partners are usually "judging" each other, which feels scary and narrows the scope of conversation. When we do try to lean on our partners, friends, and coworkers to provide meaty conversation beyond the appropriate scopes of those relationships, it's easy to threaten existing social value in the delicate pursuit of more.

Who gets screwed the most in regular conversations?

When more than two people are involved in a conversation (like around the snacks at a party), the odds than even one person is truly benefiting from the conversation drop precipitously. These conversations are sometimes fun, but rarely edifying. In mixed groups of introverts and extroverts, introverts tend to find themselves energetically overextended without receiving compensating value in return. If all a conversation offers is fun, but it's not actually fun, then there's no purpose left at all.

Individuals on the autism spectrum may encounter special difficulties in finding the right partners for ritualized conversation. They also stand to benefit even more than others from the opportunity to make their assumptions explicit, to suspend usual anxieties about conversational norms, and to take charge of the direction of a conversation without self-consciousness. Ritualizing conversation makes it possible.

The history of ritualized conversation

I suspect that ritualized conversation used to figure more prominently in more people's everyday lives. Serious handwritten correspondence seems ritualized, as we observe in historically important letters. Religious institutions provide opportunities for purposeful, ritualized conversations, but the world is secularizing quickly. I'm certainly not the first person to wonder whether therapy is some kind of secular analogue to interaction with clergy (like confession).

Stronger, clearer social hierarchies added structure to social life that maybe wasn't all bad. But now, various aspects of social life seem to be growing less and less formal - language, dress, etc. This is not to say that those previous power structures were "better" per se. Instead, as always, change always bears costs as well as benefits. It's easy to notice that a more informal, less hierarchical society creates opportunities for upward mobility that weren't available before. It's much less salient that patterns of interpersonal communication may have changed, in part for the worse.

Conversational market failure

Ritualized conversation offers value that's not often stumbled upon in everyday life. It maybe used to be more available to individuals (especially through religious organizations), but now ritualized conversation is undersupplied by regular conversational markets.

By default, conversation is unpriced. But "free" conversation ends up producing a lot of exchanges that are, in effect, costly for at least one of the conversation partners. There can be a direct cost, like the draining of energy and time. Or the cost may be less noticeable - simple opportunity cost.

Think of the existence of too little ritualized conversation, according to people's existing preferences, as a kind of market failure. Skilled conversational partners, people who are capable of ritualizing conversation in the service of others' personal development, have a hard time explaining, marketing, and selling their value.

As economist David Friedman characterizes market failures due to externalities, the problem:

"is not that one person pays for what someone else gets but that nobody pays and nobody gets, even though the good is worth more than it would cost to produce."

Thus, a valuable thing (ritualized conversation that serves personal development goals) fails to materialize in the right places at the right times. We shouldn't charge everyone who ever wants to talk to us (though the thought experiment might be fruitful!). But, as usual, prices have their normal function in conversation as in everything else: they stimulate production of the right stuff.

Does money ruin ritualized conversation?

There's some precedent for monetizing ritualized conversation, but things look pretty dysfunctional. Therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists operate in an ecosystem regulated closely by law. Mental health professionals are also forced to choose whether to participate in health insurance networks, which greatly curtail provider autonomy but may increase foot traffic to a practice.

Individuals seeking the kind of intangible benefits that ritualized conversation provides face a confusing landscape of costs and tradeoffs on the other side of the ledger. If some conversational partners are highly educated (i.e. credentialed) and have received the blessing of the state, then shouldn't you go to them? Isn't it suspicious that some therapists agree to insurance network compensation rates that are half of what market-rate therapists in the same cities command? Why should insurance and the government become involved in who you talk to at all?

Money doesn't necessarily ruin ritualized conversation, though. These problems are more closely related to third-party insertion into these working relationships and the (related) overmedicalization of conversational arts than money changing hands, per se.

Markets in everything

If money doesn't necessarily ruin ritualized conversation, and you think there's too little of it in your life, the solution to this first-world problem is very simple: pay someone out of your own pocket to talk to you.

Who do you choose? Well, that's a bit trickier. The framework provided by medical licensing and insurance networks creates a feeling that conversational partners blessed by the establishment are high-quality. But that feeling is illusory. Bad therapists receive cut rates for performing mental hack jobs all the time.

So whether you like it or not, caveat emptor. Genuine markets for professional services, including conversational ones, bestow consumers with the right and the responsibility to make informed choices. Consumers must also exercise voice and exit in response to their experiences in the marketplace.

To bring this down a level in abstraction: it sucks that the quality of "life coaching" is hard to assess, and for that reason the profession is a bit of a joke. But actually it's hard to assess the quality of conventional mental health treatments too, and many potential consumers of ritualized conversation don't exactly have an active psychiatric disorder anyways.

Against the backdrop of a market society, the best way to get more of what you want or need is to pay for it, and you can change your mind (within the confines of a contract) anytime. None of us can unilaterally choose to return to a time and place where childcare was provided freely within neighborhoods, women cooked every meal from scratch, and religious leaders counseled everyone wisely. But we can employ babysitters, order food, and hire life coaches.

If you are living above a subsistence level but find your social networks a little thin, your personal goals a little out of reach, or your sense of meaning in life a little shaky, take out your wallet and see if you can fix it. Thinking yourself in circles may be a first-world problem, but it's a problem all the same.

Life coaches are ready, willing, and (sometimes) able to capture merely a portion of the value that ritualized conversations can create, in a mutually beneficial stand against conversational market failure.

And the extremely soft sell: I do this kind of work now, get in touch if you're interested in working together.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.