I was working in a cafe when a woman sat nearby and asked me if there was anywhere in the neighborhood she could see some art. Hoping to get back to work, I made a couple of suggestions. She asked many follow-up questions. Where were these places? Did I like them? What did I like about art?
Something felt slightly off. Did it take her a fraction of a second too long to speak?
Eventually, a man came and sat next to her. I assumed that they were on a date, meaning he would be annoyed at my presence and I could get back to my Important Projects. But no—he seemed pleased that I was there and kept me in the conversation.
This seemed odd. Didn’t they come to talk to each other? But he was more at ease, meaning the conversation was more natural. And I love the idea of strangers chatting in a cafe.
Things got philosophical. They kept asking for my opinions. What makes art good? Should we see art? What’s a good way to spend our time? What’s the meaning of a good life? These are interesting—if slightly banal—questions, and they seemed like nice people.
Still, what I really wanted was to get back to work. It felt rude to say that outright, and they didn’t seem to notice how my eyes kept drifting back to my notebook. Finally, I came up with a plan: I’d get up and order some food. I wasn’t hungry, but surely they would start their own conversation in my absence and I’d be free.
It didn’t work. As soon as I was back, they said “Hey! We were just saying…”
Finally, I told myself I should just try to make the best of the situation. It’s good to be open to experiences, right?
After 30 minutes or so, I realized I was never getting back to work so I made an excuse to leave. They suggested we get lunch sometime, and we exchanged numbers.
What was going on here? I saw three possibilities:
They wanted to be friends.
They wanted to have sex with me.
They wanted me to join their religion.
Even if they were just friendly, had this happened by chance? I talked to a few friends who all told me I was crazy and paranoid. The people from the cafe seemed kind, and it would be good to have some friends who were a bit older. So when they texted me a few days later about lunch, I agreed.
We met up at the same cafe. They didn’t seem to care where we went for lunch, so we walked to a taco place across the street.
After we sat down, the conversation immediately went to “deep” topics again. They wanted to know: Was I happy in life? What did I worry about? How did I see the Big Questions?
This felt a bit too personal. Now, I talk about this kind of stuff with friends and family a lot. I bring them up so much that people drop hints that a life can be over-examined. But there’s an unspoken “intimacy schedule” for how long you’d know someone before discussing such things. That schedule wasn’t being respected here.
On top of that, why did my answers to their questions sound so… grim? I love good old-fashioned existential angst, but with self-mockery and humor. With them, my jokes didn’t land at all. When I expected them to laugh, they seemed sympathetic and worried.
At the same time, the conversation was also weirdly impersonal. After answering their questions, I’d ask what they thought. They’d respond, but I never seemed to really learn anything.
Soon after lunch, they needed to go elsewhere, so I left, confused.
What was this? Why did our chats gravitate to such heavy topics, and why did they feel so odd?
A week later, they suggested we go to lunch again. Again, I was tempted to cut off contact, but I asked some friends and again they all said I was insane and imagining things. Determined to prove that I was capable of normal human interaction, I carried on.
After meeting at a crêperie, our chat was similar to the previous one, just with them pushing a tiny bit harder to hear about all my angsty thoughts.
There was a new feature to this meeting: A few times they said, “This conversation is so great! You can’t talk to many people about this kind of thing.”
I thought: You can’t? Our conversation is not as amazing as you’re implying…
But I didn’t want to be rude, so I just kept saying things like, “Well, I talk about these things with everyone.” That seemed to throw them off a little, but then they’d circle back and make similar comments again.
A couple of weeks later, they suggested brunch, and I agreed.
Why did I keep meeting them? I’m not sure. At this point, I’d spent enough time with them that it felt rude to refuse. They were nice people, and our meetings were only slightly uncomfortable.
In retrospect, “only we understand you!” looks like an obvious tactic. But at the time it just felt like one small quirk. And when two other people behave the same way, you tend to feel it’s normal.
This time, the questions got another level more personal. A couple I remember were:
- “Have you ever gone to therapy?”
- “Do you make an OK salary?”
And again, there were these repeated implications that we were special, that we were deeper than other people. There was a “heaviness” they were putting out. I tried to shrug that off and steer the conversation toward lighter topics. They’d seem to accept that, but then the heaviness always came back.
Eventually, I sensed that they were determined to go in a direction I didn’t want to. I became a bit standoffish, and gave them a skeptical look.
There was a pause. The man sensed I was annoyed and said, “Look. We’re not going to beat around the bush. We have a group of people that meet privately to discuss this kind of thing, and wondered if you’d like to join.”
At this point, of course, sirens started shrieking in my head, but I wanted to get more information. So I tried to act relaxed and said, “Oh! And this group, does it… have a name?”
“No, no name. Don’t torture yourself.”
“And why… why do you meet privately?”
“I’m just a private person. Most people wouldn’t understand these things.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to ask, so I just said, “That’s not for me.”
I think there was a flash of annoyance, but it only lasted a moment. He quickly said, “No problem. We can still be friends.”
I made casual conversation for a few minutes, trying to act like I wasn’t terrified. Then I left.
They texted me a few times after this, but I ignored them. The texts stopped without drama.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this story, I know. Still, I keep coming back to it. I mean, you want to recruit for your cult? Fine. You manipulate social norms to do so? Fine. You feign friendship? OK! But they walked into that cafe, looked around, and decided I was the easy prey.
More importantly, there’s something I just can’t wrap my mind around: What were they thinking throughout all this?
Clearly, they knew that if they were open about their goals, I would have bounced. So instead, they had a well-tested funnel, designed to guide people toward their group while not consuming too much of their time.
Their actions were too deliberate to be some kind of unconscious cultural learning. They knew they were using an optimized funnel. The subterfuge was conscious.
So why did they do it? Maybe they were totally cynical, and just thought I looked like a gullible fish they could exploit for money. But I doubt it.
Most likely, they thought they were doing something good. (For me? For their organization? For the world?) How is it possible to convince yourself that being this manipulative and this misleading is a good thing? It makes me re-evaluate what people are capable of.
But here’s an uncomfortable analogy: I’ve talked before about how when I first wrote about ultrasonic humidifiers, everyone dismissed the argument for “nonsense” reasons, like not having any citations. Eventually, I realized I could change my argument to avoid that reaction: I was “calmer” and put the citations earlier. Most importantly, I knew that if I clearly stated my thesis early on, people would dismiss my article without reading it. So instead I let my claims appear gradually. (I’m not stating that thesis here, either, for the same reason.)
Isn’t that… pretty much exactly what my friends from the cafe did? How do you draw the line between “sensibly taking into account how real people react” and “manipulative dark patterns to literally get people to join your cult”? Perhaps there is no clear boundary.