Why We Talk

The 3rd party

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.