Ferris Bueller, Jim Halpert, and Francis Underwood

The fourth wall is a term in television, movies, and plays where the character steps out of his role and addresses the audience directly. Think of it as an actor being surrounded by three walls on the stage. There are, of course, the back wall and the two side walls. The fourth wall is the space directly in front of the actor. When the actor speaks directly to the audience, he is breaking the fourth wall.

Break the Fourth Wall

The fourth wall is a term in television, movies, and plays where the character steps out of his role and addresses the audience directly. Think of it as an actor being surrounded by three walls on the stage. There are, of course, the back wall and the two side walls. The fourth wall is the space directly in front of the actor. When the actor speaks directly to the audience, he is breaking the fourth wall.

If you’ve ever seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with Matthew Broderick, he breaks the fourth wall constantly by addressing the audience as if he is aware that he is being watched. Another example is Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. He would directly address his audience either through words, or just simple expressions to convey how he really felt. And of course, who could forget Jim Halpert from The Office and his bewildered looks toward the camera?

When you break the fourth wall, you are subtly acknowledging something about the conversation at hand that you are presently participating in.

Imagine that your conversation is a television show in which you are both characters and you are reading your lines from a script. To break the fourth wall would mean stepping outof the conversation and making an observation about the discussion or topic or something else concerning the context of the conversation. You can also refer to this as being “meta” about the current conversation.

You are breaking the fourth wall of the conversation by commenting on the conversation itself in an observational or analytic way. You are speaking as if you were studying it from the outside.

For example:

“Wow, this conversation has really taken an odd turn, hasn’t it?”

“Did you just make a reference to the Spice Girls and ’90s boy bands?”

“We got so distracted that we were walking in the mud!”

“I apologize in advance for talking too much about coffee.”

Breaking the fourth wall is a comment on the conversation itself and is observational. It is best delivered with a bit ofsurprise and curiosity, because the context is that you are so moved in a good way that you were compelled to comment. You had to break character and comment where it was due. If you do it right, breaking the fourth wall shows a higher level of self-awareness.

It calls attention to something that you noticed about the other person, and in most cases, it s something the other person did consciously or was proud of.

With the above example, it s very’ likely that someone consciously made a reference to a ‘90s boy band because they thought it was entertaining—they d’ be very glad to know that you also thought so.

This tactic also tells the other person that you are paying attention to what’s happening at a deeper level of the conversation.

Just as with other techniques I ve covered ’ in this book, don’t overdo it. In many cases, people are in such a rush to try to look smarter than they actually are that they end up using the fourth wall in a disastrous way. This will result in your attempt coming across as forced and overly self-conscious, which will only make the other person choose their words more

carefully around you out of fear of being misinterpreted.

On that note, you shouldn t comment negatively or doubtfully because that will

come off as particularly judgmental and as if you are looking down on the other person. Forexample, breaking the fourth wall to say something like “Did you really just make a comment on holistic medicine?” would likely appear as an attack. This is in contrast with breaking the fourth wall positively, which in effect is praising the other person for something.

Instead of getting both parties in the conversation to laugh at the conversation, or at least feel a tremendous amount of comfort, breaking the fourth wall negatively makes you end up looking patronizing, condescending, or downright insulting. These effects are the mirror opposite of what you are trying to achieve and do not help you.

Bad example: “Are you really directing the conversation toward yourself again?” Bad example: “Just a side note, I think it s funny that you were the butt of that’ joke.”

In both cases, Breaking the fourth wall to say something negative lends the impression that you were especially offended by something, while doing it for something positive results in the opposite outcome.

So when do you use it? Here are two easy occasions and contexts where you can break the fourth wall with a strong, positive impact.

First, this technique can be used to point out what both people are thinking but not saying. This can be related to your surroundings, or something notable from the conversation itself.

“Did we just talk about toilet brands for ten minutes? We definitely are a good match.”

“Wow, we just walked by a sixty-year-old Michael Jackson impersonator, didn t we?”

Second, you can use the fourth wall conversation tactic to point out your opinion on the conversation or what is happening at the moment. Make sure that your opinion, however, is positive, entertaining,

or preferably both.

If the conversation has progressed to loud laughing and vigorous fist-pumping, then you might comment, “This conversation has really escalated, hasn t’ it?”

Conversely, if you are confused about where the conversation topic is going, you might say, “Frankly, I have no idea where this conversation is headed, but I like it.”

The “Us Against the World” Technique

People like to feel as if they belong. It’s a universal desire. Regardless of what culture we come from, regardless of what geographic region we are from, we all like to feel as if we’re part of a greater collective.

Some of us need to feel we’re part of a greater global ecosystem and others just want to feel included and accepted by their soccer team, or even just the person they’re talking to. This is a tremendous psychological reservoir you can tap into to help you become a better conversationalist.

Granted, that’s a pretty high and lofty description for the simple “us against the world” technique, but it accomplishes all those things at once in someone’s mind.

What does the technique look like?

Simple: “Boy, it is really loud in there. Can you believe all these people getting deaf in there?”

It doesn t seem like much, but it’s quick and effective.

That statement creates an in-group that is special and separate from the rest of the room orworld. You’ve essentially created your own group that contains the two of you—the two of you possess special knowledge, share the same thoughts, are above the rest of the people milling about and damaging their eardrums, and are essentially the only two sane people. It’s you two against the rest of the world, which has gone crazy. In a sense, you’re breaking the fourth wall here as well, because you are commenting on a situation that you are inside, from the outside.

It’s the same feeling when you witness something incredibly odd, and you and a stranger lock eyes and exchange knowing glances. You’re calling outa commonality in thought process or current environment and making it clear that only you two have that commonality. When you comment to them out loud, you make it clear that you view them as being on the same level of understanding and train of thought as you. And whether or not they agree, they will feel inclined to agree and join your in-group.

“Us against the world” is an especially helpful tactic when you’re in some way “forced” to stay with an acquaintance or even a complete stranger in certain situations. How many times have you attended a party which had you stuck with a friend’s friend ata table, with no one else but the two of you silently munching on your snacks? Unless you have the conversational skills to remedy it, this situation easily disintegrates into an awkward dance of eyeballs avoiding contact with one another and the occasional dry smile while silently praying for boyfriends return at the soonest time possible.

The next time you find yourself in such a position, try this technique as a conversation starter. Voice outan observation about the eventuality both in, the food that’s served, or the general behavior of the people around you. Doing so will be an open invitation to the other person to also present their opinion or observation on what you have just pointed out, acting like a spark on wood to ignite a conversation.

Ideally, point out something which you are fairly certain the two of you have in common, or something both of you share in contrast with the rest of the world (who don’t possess this characteristic). Here’s how such a chat might go:

“Hey, have you noticed how the tables around us have piled on greens on their plates while we both went for meats aplenty?”

“Yeah. I’m a big carnivore.”

“Me too. Though I once tried going vegan several years back.”

“Really? How was it?”

“Let’s just say I had a cow.”

As such example showed, the initial comment made about food choices at a party became a springboard for sharing preferences and experiences about food and eating habits in general. The conversation would likely blossom as each person could continue sharing more about their own eating habits and interesting food experiences.

Another way to think about it is that you have created your own inside joke. When you are truly part of an in-group that consists of two people, you have unique, exclusive shared experiences that you can talk about at a later point. “Hey, remember when we met and our eardrums almost blew out?”

As you can see, using the “us against the world” technique can be subtle and easy. But it’s also easy to miss the mark. And if you miss the mark, you will sound as if you’re just making an observation about something obvious with no good reason to do so.

It turns a proper usage of the technique, like, “Can you believe the types of awkward small talk people are trying here?” into “Yeah, these events are awkward.”

What you need to do is take stock of how you can create an in-group with someone. Generally, you want to observe (1) what is noteworthy at the moment to comment on,

(2) what you share in common contextually and not personally, and (3) general emotions that you probably share based on the context. For noteworthy things to comment on, you might say “Yeah, I saw that Michael Jackson lookalike too and feel like I’m going crazy. Same with you?”

For sharing a common context, you might say “Can you believe how aggressive everyone is here? It’s a bit much!”

For general emotions that you probably share, you might say “Glad I’m not the only one here who…” or “Yeah, it’s exhausting in there, isn’t it?”

When you use the “us versus the world” conversation technique, it allows you to draw on similarities you may have with the person you are speaking with. It also teases out similar thought patterns that both of you may share. You do this by simply recognizing and highlighting them. In reality, you two probably aren’t different from everyone else in that geographic space or context, but your comments can make it seem as if you are.

By calling out this perceived similarity, you openly create a feeling of closeness and kinship. At least, the other person thinks you are thinking along the same lines, and on the same level, as they are. In some cases, you’ll also be able to use this technique non-verbally. Simply gesturing toward something odd with your head or eyes and laughing about it establishes the same bond. This can be particularly useful in loud places or where the person you’re trying to gesture to is sitting far away from you, like ata large table.

This technique is tremendously helpful because the number-one rule in likability is to make people feel that you are like them. Regardless of skin color, religious, ethnic, and other differences, we prefer people who are similar to us at some level.

This taps into that psychological reservoir I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter. We’d like to create a psychological “safe spot” for us and people similar to us. These are our friends; these are people we can rely on, and people we can trust.

This is such a deep and profound psychological truth forhuman beings because it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Imagine yourself on an African savannah 50,000 years ago. Imagine walking through that grassland and having an “Us versus the World” mindset.

With that mindset in operation, you could identify allies that would help your family or tribe members stay alive. Now, imagine the opposite situation. Think of what would happen if you didn’t think that way.

’ You’d probably end up as lunch to a local lion.

Use this basic psychological truth to youradvantage by creating a perception of similarity. The reality is that you and your conversational partner aren’t really all that different from the rest of the people around you. But by using this technique, you create an artificial feeling of closeness and similarity that leads to a higher level of likability.

It also creates the impression that you are an observant person. It makes you look observant enough to notice these things and call them out. And this is why you and the person you’re speaking to are on the same wavelength. Where does this all lead to? Well, it leads to the other party being encouraged to further share their thoughts with you. They feel they belong, and that feeling creates a higher degree of comfort which pushes the conversation along.