Small Talk in the Worlds of WEIRD and un-WEIRD

“Save oxygen: stamp out small talk.”
Thus Spake Aforista

jpegI seldom agree wholeheartedly with the Postfuturist Sage Aforista, but I’m right on board with this saying. Whenever small talk starts, Pat and I both glaze over and remain in a quasi-catatonic state until the conversation returns to something real. As someone who loves language and works with it every day, I find small talk downright offensive. I once had an English teacher who loathed slang, calling it an “abuse of language.” I actually like slang, and agree with Steven Pinker that it enriches and enlarges language. But small talk is another matter. It does use up precious oxygen, and it clutters up the brain.

Call me a snob if you like. I don’t see it that way. Here’s what I’ve always thought: When human beings lived closer to nature and to each other, surely nobody wasted time on pointless blather. Surely small talk is a sign of language in its decadence; we “civilized” people talk in inanities because we don’t give our brains enough meaningful stuff to think about. We’re mentally just plain lazy.

But Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, has given me cause to reconsider. Subtitled “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”, Diamond’s book reflects upon years of fieldwork among people living traditional lifestyles. It is an unsentimental assessment of what we in the world of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) have to learn from traditional peoples. Diamond points out that small talk was hardly invented by us WEIRD people:

I have been impressed by how much more time New Guineans spend talking with each other than do we Americans and Europeans. They keep up a running commentary on what is happening now, what happened this morning and yesterday, who ate what and when, who urinated when and where, and minute details of who said what about whom or did what to whom. They don’t merely fill the day with talk: from time to time through the night they wake up and resume talking. That makes it difficult for a Westerner like me, accustomed to nights spent in uninterrupted sleep and not punctuated with conversations, to get a good night’s rest in a hut shared with many New Guineans.

So these uncorrupted children of nature are not communicating gems of ancient wisdom; they’re engaged in the idlest possible chat about food and bodily functions and what have you. (Diamond calls it “gossip” because it consists of people talking about other people; I call it “small talk” because it is about trivialities. Let’s just treat the two terms as interchangeable.) What’s more, explains Diamond, small talk serves perfectly valid functions in the non-WEIRD world. In a society lacking in mass media, it is a justly valued form of entertainment; in a community where interdependence is crucial, it is a way to create and sustain social relationships; in a habitat where danger is everywhere, it is a source of precious information about every possible contingency.

But in his review of Diamond’s book, Steven Mithin goes further …

The value of gossip provides one of the best theories for the evolution of language among our hominin ancestors …

I can’t say I much like this possibility. I prefer Julian Jaynes’s idea that the first words were warnings: not nouns or even verbs, but modifiers like “far,” “near,” “slow,” or “fast”—utterances to communicate the proximity of danger and the urgency to do something about it. That idea appeals to me, because it suggests that language has its origins in matters of life and death importance.

But maybe it’s just not so. Maybe primordial language was all about bowel movements, embarrassing physical mishaps, and spur-of-the-moment sexual encounters—a cultural step lower even than People magazine.

Surely none of this justifies the continued use of small talk by our species. As Diamond also points out, we crave salt and carbohydrates because they were once so hard to come by; now that we’ve got them in abundance, such cravings have become hazardous to our health. It seems to me that our craving for small talk is likewise toxic—an adaptation that has long since turned maladaptive, causing the mental equivalents of hypertension and diabetes. If we can cut down on unhealthy substances at the dinner table, can’t we do the same on Facebook and Twitter?

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