A bright orange tab flashes at the bottom of my screen: Instant Message from So-and-so. Hey what’s up? Typically, I’ll type back a nonchalant nothing really or the ever short nm for “nothing much”; when I’m feeling particularly gregarious, the occasional description of what I’m actually doing at the moment will appear – eating, reading, studying, playing Spin Blox. However, as fascinating as these things may seem to the person who just IMed me (not really), all of this pretty much amounts to idle small talk.
So why do we waste so much time on AIM, engaging in unnecessary chit-chat? Why do we insist on perpetuating pointless social rituals like shaking hands or asking about the weather? At its best, small talk is silly and harmless, at its worst, glaringly fake.
Yet, there appears to be a method to the madness.
In Laurence Wylie’s Foreword to the textbook French in Action, he illuminates the purpose of “What’s up?”:
In this ordered universe, no human being can live in isolation. We must be bound together in order to participate in an organized effort to accomplish the necessary activities of existence. This relationship is so vital to us that we must constantly be reassured of it. We test this connection each time we have contact with each other.
However, to carry out this kind of test literally each time we see each other would be too tedious. Each culture has developed the custom of greeting, which requires that we pause at least briefly with each other. All cultures I know require that a verbal exchange take place in which we talk about health or the state of the weather or our destination. This exchange takes only a few seconds and the words have no significance in themselves; nonetheless, it is long enough for our amazingly rapid and complex nervous systems to record and process thousands, perhaps millions, of messages about each other that permit us to draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship.
From an anthropological standpoint, small talk gives us a minute opportunity to reassess where we stand within the social hierarchy. We check in with each other to reassure ourselves about our friendships and other social connections. Despite this take on the issue, however, I can’t help but think: where does the Internet and instant messaging fit into all of this?
If all the words within this ordinary exchange “have no significance in themselves” and yet, text on a screen is all you get to see from the other person, how are we really supposed to “draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship”? And what kind of meaning can we really gather from the friendly messages we are sent online? Even with thirty different smiley faces to choose from and a superfluous usage of onomatopoeias, can we really tell how someone is actually doing if all they have to do is type a simple pretty good to appease our curiosity?
Maybe we shouldn’t cut the small talk, but let’s make the effort to get off the computer and actually do it in person.