Why We Talk

I spent the day after the election reading essays written by friends on Facebook. They wrote paragraphs, paragraphs revealing their wounded, worried hearts to the world. They shared their personal histories: who they are and what their country means to them. They speculated about their place in the world, their purpose in the months and years ahead. They asked for help.

These were friends who, until this moment, used Facebook only to share the concerts they attended, the meals they ate, the trips they’d taken.

This is not a critique.

Something has changed.

In the period following a disaster, our sense of community swells. In this circle of shared trauma, we feel comfortable sharing ourselves in our full complexity and contradiction, full of fear and stress and hope. We tell stories we’ve never told. I see my friends more fully now, and I find myself smiling. Like superheroes, we shed our civilian clothes and save each other.

It’s possible that as a writer, the past few days have been especially profound, as I’ve had the opportunity to read my friends. Writing is the most direct access we have to the gestures of our inner monologue – not just what we think, but how. We learn that a friend who speaks in terse declarations, thinks in wild, winding, upside-down musings. We learn that a friend who fills the room compresses their thoughts into ordered, logical clips. Perhaps we have heard their song for years, but this is the first time we’ve seen them dance to the music.

I know this will recede soon. If we had Facebook after 9/11, we would have shared our pain for a several weeks, we would have posted forceful political opinions for a few months, but slowly, the new movies come out, and a football player makes a cool catch, we have a busy stretch at work, and the emotion draws back.

But I can’t help but remember who we were then, who we always could be.

Why We Talk

A middle-aged woman at the table next to you chokes up as she discusses with her friend the swift unraveling of Brangelina’s marriage. “They just seemed so politically aligned, too.” She sighs hard, a frustrated push, like forcing air from a bike tire. She clutches her friend’s forearm: “Ugh, and what about the kids?”

You get the sense from her nervous worry that she’s not really talking about Brangelina.

Conventional wisdom in the United States is to not talk intimately with strangers.

When we chat with a mutual friend at a birthday party, we might cover the recent celebrity breakup, but we don’t dare share our worry that we selected the wrong spouse.

Sharing our own turmoil feels too intimate, too vulnerable. We don’t trust that the person across the table won’t judge us, attack us, or run far, far away.

And so, we use intermediaries.

This is why we created banks. As commerce expanded between cities, strangers needed a way to track and exchange debt with each other, but didn’t have a way of verifying the amount of money each had, or a means to safely deliver their funds. When you said you’d pay me for a shipment of blue dye, I couldn’t trust you had the money, or that your money would reach my hands. So we created banks as a central ledger, a trusted, neutral 3rd party to verify and conduct the transaction.

Popular culture acts as a bank for our attitudes and beliefs. We might share our deepest fears, our guilty desires, our stubborn, fact-free opinions with our closest friends, in the same way that we pick up the tab for a pricey dinner, figuring it will all even over the course of our relationship.

But for most people, we use pop culture as an intermediary, a trusted 3rd party. We use celebrity relationships to indirectly talk about our own our relationship. We side with the actions of TV characters to vent our nagging suspicion that we’ve disappointed a friend. We argue about presidential politics to confront our fear that the person sitting in the seat next to us doesn’t want us to exist.

Banks are convenient. They are a useful, responsible means to conduct transactions. But those who delegate too much trust to them, who don’t actively work to manage their own finances, tend to get burned.

As we age, we also come to learn that we must stop using pop culture as a container to launder our personal feelings. That we must speak with honesty, vulnerability, and passion directly to the people we need to hear us: our spouse, our friends, and yes, that person in the seat next to us wearing the red hat. That we can’t store our identity in the bank; we must spend ourselves in the real world.

Why We Talk

Here’s how to land the job of your dreams. No need to spend weeks studying. Don’t bother learning about their business problems. Forget about power poses and positivity. All you need is One Great Story. Actually, just half of one.

On second thought, you will also need one accomplice, a wingperson, inside the building. And you will need to be skilled at thumbing your phone from your pocket, because you are going to signal them with a text message at the correct moment. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.

Now, the set up: your interviewer brings you into a room. You shake hands, sit down. They start out by asking you a general question – it really doesn’t matter what it is – perhaps an inquiry as to how you would approach blah-dee-blah given schmo constraints.

You respond, “Funny story, actually,” and begin to tell your One Great Story. The story, given that it is great, takes several minutes to recount. You notice that your interviewer is initially confused, then annoyed, but eventually (and this is important) intrigued. The story is implausible, bonkers, and yet utterly relatable human drama. Perhaps there is a tangential dash through a stranger’s wake or an illicit three-way tryst with the ambassadors of two warring nations. This is your Great Story, so the details are really up to you. The action intensifies until you see beads of sweat on your interviewer’s forehead.

And then: you signal your accomplice. Your accomplice pulls the building’s fire alarm. Sirens blare, and your story is brutally severed.

There is a cognitive phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. Psychologists wanted to understand how waiters could memorize multiple complex orders for half an hour, and then completely forget the orders as soon as they were brought to the table. Their studies observed that people were twice as likely to remember tasks that were interrupted than those that they completed.

We understand this intuitively; we talk about closure as a means of letting go.

But we don’t want our interviewer to let go. We want our interviewer to fixate, to ruminate. On their long walk to the designated fire safety zone outside the building, they should be turning your Great Story over in their head, muddling the greatness of the story with the greatness of the storyteller.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve already recognized the flaw in this plan. The firefighters arrive and scan the building. They give the all-clear. You’re going to have to walk back into that meeting room and sit down with your interviewer again. And you only prepared half a Great Story. That’s all you prepared. Shit. Your interviewer stares at you from across the table. What are you going to do?

Your heart clangs inside your chest. Your eyes dart around the room, searching. Desperate. Your mind grasps for an answer.  Then, blam, it hits you. Of course! All you need to say is

Why We Talk

The fear feels like a lightness behind your eyes, as if your head wants to float up like a lost balloon and leave your fumbly, stumbly body for good.

You spent three years learning French out of a textbook, five years ago. The woman behind the bar asks you a question and you stand there terrified, mentally swiping left on every garbled response that enters your brain.

When you speak a new language out in the wild, you’re terrified of being misunderstood.

In fact, you will be understood better than ever.

In your second language, you will speak with more emotional clarity and honesty. There are two reasons for this:

1. Words are more than their definitions. Words are collective memories. Without the weight of history behind them, we toss heavy words lightly. We’ll use horrific curse words like monopoly money. We will call our taxi driver our dear friend and tell him it was a pleasure to meet him.

2.  Precision is the enemy of clarity. Large vocabularies obscure meaning. Which of these reviews of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is more precise? Which is more clear about the author’s feelings?

“What The Epic does come to sound like, over the course of its significant running time, is a generational intervention—an educational tool that widens the definition of styles that fall under “jazz classicism.” With his writing for string sections and chorus, Washington even flirts with that most dreaded of appellations:smooth. But these specific choices also wind up paying dividends: The calmly spiritual voices and Washington’s wailing playing during the back half of “Askim” feels novel.”
Pitchfork review of The Epic

“The Epic sounds beautiful. I love it. I love listening to it. You should listen to it too.”
-My review of The Epic, as translated from my Spanish vocabulary.

The average native speaker knows twenty to forty-thousand words depending on their level of education. The average foreign language speaker knows around five thousand words. Who will be more more clear about how they feel? Who will be more direct about what they love? Who will sound more human?

Why We Talk

Most language learning programs boast of their ability to help you speak like a native. They can (for a moderate price) shorten your vowels, soften your B’s, erase the habits of your heathen tongue. Bloggers build massive audiences teaching expats and tourists to dress like a local, eat like a local, queue like a local. We learn that the biggest mistake a visitor to a country can make is standing out in any way. The perfect traveler knows the customs, speaks the slang, orders the right drinks (but not too early), dances at the right clubs (but not too late).

For hip travelers, anonymity is the highest virtue, an expression of social mastery.

This is a bizarre reversal of our ambitions at home.

When we order a medium coffee at the local cafe on our way to work, we are completely unremarkable to the barista. And vice versa. Odds are you don’t remember the names or faces of the last five strangers you interacted with. It’s unusual (and often marvelous) when we make an impression on anybody at all in our day to day life. We remember people because of their accents, not in spite of them.  The waiter might have an amusing habit of pluralizing single nouns. Our visitors from the foreign office pepper us with questions we’d never considered. Our friend’s cousin seems to think our surname is both lovely-sounding and absurd. Everything that is wonderful and memorable and powerful in our daily conversations emerges from new perspectives, skewed priorities, happy ignorance, and funny hats.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger can attest, the slyest move you will ever make is to keep your accent.

Why We Talk

Consuming media for which we are not the intended audience is a type of cultural eavesdropping.

Every article we read, movie we watch, and album we listen to is an interaction between a speaker and an intended audience. Sometimes a speaker’s intended audience is “everyone within earshot,” anyone capable of listening. But often, a speaker’s audience is more narrow: teenagers navigating body image issues, white-collar professionals with child care concerns, first-generation college students coping with campus life, LGBT millennials looking for a decent movie to watch on a Saturday night.

How often do we listen to music we are not fans of? Read books that impart lessons that don’t apply to us?

Until recently, the only people motivated to do this were those eager to learn about the world around them, expand their tastes and perspectives, or those with a public presence and the means to respond.

The internet has thrashed this dynamic. Now, we are able to do more than simply eavesdrop. Whether on social media or in comments sections, now we are able to interrupt conversations.

The social contract around eavesdropping in physical public spaces is fairly clear:

  1. Don’t make it obvious you are eavesdropping
  2. Don’t interrupt the conversation, no matter your personal reaction

Follow those two rules, and you are free to listen comme vous préfèrez: record a surprising perspective in your journal, subtweet the conversation to a friend, despair at your inability to parse this year’s slang.

Alas, humans (specifically their brain parts) experience a profound difficulty transferring lessons from one domain to another. What we follow in the real world we forget in the digital.

A common scenario: A rap blog publishes a glowing review of the latest, hottest trap record. The comments section below the review fills with people complaining that the review is biased, that this blog always rates trap music highly even though it sounds terrible, and why don’t they review the latest Wye Oak album, which is way more relevant in 2016? Interrupters.

Or: Lena Dunham posts a message on Facebook about her experience as a female screenwriter in her 20s. She directs the message toward other women. In the comments, hundreds of men respond with their hot takes. Interrupters.

What we frequently fail to recognize is that we are not part of every conversation that we are able to observe online. Sometimes, we are eavesdropping. And as in the physical world, we must follow the social contract:

We may listen. We may learn. We may not interrupt.

Uncategorized, Why We Talk

Should you spend an afternoon wandering through any internet forum, you will observe the breadth of human interaction at play. Friends and strangers buzz with tension, disagreement, snark, and bile. Also: encouragement, condolences, anticipation, and gratitude.

Yet there is only one place I know of where people share apologies.

In the game Journey, you wander the pale, sun-baked desert. In solitude, you slide over sand dunes, scale ancient dust-choked ruins, soar through rose-gold valleys. Against the desolate and uncaring plain, we are reduced to a survival instinct. Perhaps the curiosity of what lies beyond the next hill propels us forward for a little while, but in the long stillness even that falters.

And then, suddenly, there is more. At a key moment you find yourself floating beside a red-cloaked companion, a real person playing the game alongside you. Your companion is unnamed. You pass through each other, like ghosts. The only way you can communicate with each other is with a melodic chirp.

As you travel together you can help each other navigate obstacles, but your partner is more than a tool to advance through the game. In this lonely expanse, this anonymous internet stranger becomes your beating heart, a reason to keep caring, to keep moving forward.

Wordlessly, relationships form. One guides the other. Or, you dance like fools in the air, for a moment unconcerned with the temple in the distance. Or, you chirp back and forth, la, la-la, perhaps the first song these sands have ever heard.

Perhaps the first anonymous kindness you have ever received.

That feeling of connection, so deep and unexpected, has led some to quit the game entirely after accidentally separating from their partner. And in one corner of the internet, people apologize to their companions. For the spotty internet that left them alone, for the bungled jump that stalled their progress, for “real” life calling them away.

All with a single melodic chirp.

After Journey, it is difficult to return to the roaring furnace of social media. The wordy diatribes, the looping gifs, the winking emoji, it’s all Times Square loud. Boisterous and garish and menacing. You wonder whether we really need any of this.

You have a golden memory of a friend in the desert. We sang to each other. For a time, it was all we needed.

What Came Next, Why We Talk

On days when I need a pick-me-up, I remind myself that the first extraterrestrial life we encounter will be likely be indifferent to us, just as fish and grasshoppers and ducks are broadly disinterested in human swimming, jumping, and quacking.

Of course, when we meet our aliens we can’t assume that. Of course, we are scientists, so we will demand a rigorous examination of the alien-hopping-fish-duck’s capacity for intelligible conversation.

Carefully, thoughtfully, the eggheads will concoct an elaborate light and music show in an attempt to communicate without language. We’ll spend months crafting the proper message and two of the lead scientists will get into a fist fight over the use of a diatonic rather than pentatonic scale (with some implications of racial bias). They’ll later apologize to each other over email, both agreeing that they were very tired and have been put into a stressful circumstance with a very tight deadline, that this is water under the bridge as far as each party is concerned.

Following twenty tense months of deliberation, composition, and review, we play our light and music show for the hopping-fish-ducks. Then we hold our breath.

They seem to just be hopping more-or-less in place, like they always do. Wait, did one do a little dance just there? It was quick, but it looked like it perhaps shimmied slightly before its little hop. The lead zoologist leans in: Yes, there is a possibility that the shimmy was an intended response. We will require a follow-up investigation.

An application is submitted to concoct an elaborate dance routine for the hopping-fish-ducks. We can’t rule shimmying out. We can’t rule anything out.

Why We Talk

On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.

The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.

Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?

Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between quick disasters and slow disasters.

Quick disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.

Slow disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.

In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.

Not Superman problems.

Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.

The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between quick and slow disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.

Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.

Why We Talk

There is a special class of words: adjectives that fall short of their noun forms. Descriptors that are less than the ideas they describe. For example,

Things that are abysmal are less terrifying than the abyss
Things that are fantastic fall short our fantasies
Things we call awesome don’t inspire awe
Things that are wonderful, we do not wonder about

In turning our most powerful experiences into modifiers, we commoditize them, industrialize them, homogenize them. Anything mass-produced will be more lifeless than something crafted and bespoke.

What is more beautiful, the room filled with a bunch of cheap junk from a department store, or the room bare, save for a handwoven tatami mat and an open window streaming the afternoon light?

No faint adjectives.

Silence and strong words.