Economy of Everyday Conversation

11 Apr

Communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means “to make common.” We communicate not only to transfer information, but also to establish and reaffirm identities, mores, and meanings. The two major localities of communication are: the consumption of mass media, and everyday conversation. While both inform how we view the world, and what is considered important, scant attention has been paid to understanding the nature and shape of everyday communication, and charting its impact.

In the entire realm of human communication, arguably the most important part is the everyday conversation — the repeated mundane conversation. Everyday conversation isn’t the most important because it occupies the most time, for admittedly consuming mass media does that, but because everyday conversation is still the primary site where people seek approval. While the motivations for entering into a conversation have remained largely the same, the nature of everyday conversation has changed dramatically over the last century.

Firstly, today the conversation is carried out between socially competitive peers rather than empathetic family members, and secondly the things that provide value, or things that people seek approval on, have changed from “being a good son or daughter or some other social relation” to fickle, competitive identity markets based on consumption of commercial products (or related training like cooking shows, home improvement shows, travel shows) and entertainment. In other words, with increasing atomization and resulting heightened anxieties about identity, for we no longer get most of our identity from family or some other archaic system, but through consuming the right kind of entertainment and consuming appropriate products, everyday conversations have effectively become negotiations of cultural identity among social or (generally “and”) economic equals.

The negotiation of commercialized cultural identities is done via issues like sports, movies, and other cultural products while contentious topics like politics, religion, and race with little or no commercial value are frowned upon as conversation topics. The key ideal in conversation is politeness (and conformity) and it is just not polite to bring in contentious topics except to mention harmonious approval, cues for which may have been exchanged before.

Given that the motivation for everyday conversation is garnering social approval, attention is paid to story telling, artful handling of anecdotes, sarcasm etc. and not on “accurate” objective reasons. Additionally, the exchange about product preferences is liable to be subjective, and hence not eligible for closer scrutiny, and anchored to some accepted commercial shtick or parameters of “coolness” or “hipness.” This ineligibility for closer scrutiny is there for a reason for it is in the protection of that kernel of ‘irrationality’ and some vague notion of ‘individuality’ can one sell absolutely anything. The fact is that trillions of dollars in this economy rides on the fact that tomorrow millions of people will wake up and make a suboptimal decision, or perhaps more accurately, be convinced about their economically sub-optimal decisions.

The other important facet of everyday conversation, as I mention earlier, is that it now happens primarily between economic and social equals. Conversation between classes has altogether dried up. This drying up can be seen as a result of drying up of places where these interactions used to take place. Cross class interaction or conversations always took place when the person from a lower class offered a service to the person from the higher class. The fora for these exchanges of anecdotes and stories between economic classes have almost dried up under current economic regime. For example, the mom and pop stores manned by neighborhood people have been replaced by chain stores that hire salaried employees with high turnover and whose only focus is to provide an efficient economic transaction and offer an empty courtesy. These routine commercial interpersonal transactions not only keep us from learning the difficulties across classes and hence possibly build empathy, but also have a profound impact on our everyday interaction with other people- even of similar social status. Let me weave in another anecdote here to illustrate the point. When I first came into this country, I was often asked some variation of “how I was doing?” at the beginning of each conversation. I frequently responded by providing full descriptions of how I was doing. It was only after many months and after receiving numerous impatient glances that it dawned on me that people expected nothing but empty curtsies.

The normative point is that our everyday conversation affects the nature and extent of our knowledge and style of argumentation. For example, it affects whether one is interested in politics or not, and the political proclivities one may have. The site of “everyday conversation” needs to be reclaimed to build a healthy body politic. Specifically for politics, we may need revival of public conversational spaces what Habermas writes about and what Tocqueville observed.