Conversational SIGINT

SIGnals INTelligence is learning by listening to things. Which sounds like the most obvious way of improving yourself in existence, because it is, but it’s also one of the most powerful techniques in warfare. And the one you’re best able to use in civilian life without being arrested.

SIGINT’s smartest idea is traffic analysis: even when you don’t know what someone is saying, you know that they’re saying something. If you’ve got a thousand-mile frontline but start picking up a million messages in one sector you don’t need to break the code before you start defending that area. The civilian version is hearing your children in another room: you can’t tell what they’re saying but you know where they are. And when they suddenly go quiet it’s an even scarier warning sign

Simple traffic analysis is the easiest upgrade for all conversation. An example: I was sitting at the bar of a Jack Astor’s because that was the closest drink and flat surface when an idea hit, and those are the entirety of perfect writing conditions. (If you don’t know Jack Astor’s, it’s one of those restrobars which think a stupid name, female staff, and tight tops are all you need for financial success. It’s a depressing place. Not least because it seems to be right).

WRITING TIP: anyone writing human interactions who hasn’t spent a day sitting quietly at a bar has not been doing their research.

Time passed from early afternoon peace to five o’clock desperation with the flood of office escapees desperate for a pint of pleasure. Including the saddest bastard I’ve ever seen with a drink in his hand. It’s sad enough to be an office nobody stealing a few flirty lines with the barmaid before returning home to a wife you hate, but that description shouldn’t be your flirty lines. If your conversational opener is explaining you hate your wife, now two women hate you.

The barmaid was an absolute professional. Some day there’s going to be a police procedural where the unconventional detective is a bartender. Because they’re better students of human nature than a soccer team of any eleven eccentrics, experts, and psychopaths you care to mention. (Though that would also be an excellent TV series). She’d already picked up on my polite-but-working response to her first flirty hello and left me in absolute (but instantly served) peace for half the day. For him she was bright and bubbly and responded to his every inquiry, because that was her job, a motivation which became painfully clear as the conversation wore on. His hints were more excruciating than nipple-pliers. I’d sooner spend an hour with electrodes than his innuendo. And his utter cluelessness kept it going like an infinite train-wreck.

But the simplest SIGINT would have shown him the problem. At the start she’d opened with inquisitives and energy, but as the exchange whined on her responses got shorter and shorter, down to single-word, then the rarely heard sub-word monosyllabic. A graph of her response length was an exponential decay down to an x-axis of hating him.


Conversation isn’t just words in the same way food isn’t just fuel. There’s also flavor, presentation, arrangement, and the easiest extra information to access is serving size. Practice talking traffic analysis the next time you’re sitting in public and you’ll learn an awful lot about other people. And hopefully the results won’t be too upsetting when you apply them to yourself. But, like all true learning, finding a problem is just the first step towards solving it.

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