Is my therapist's definition of "social currency" correct?
December 19, 2013 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Recently I spent hours with a former co-worker gossiping about our former workplace. We didn't actually connect or strengthen our own friendship; I just felt shitty after. My therapist labeled this conversation/habit "social currency" because workplace gossip was something impersonal to talk about that could ease conversation, but didn't result in actual sharing. But I've Googled the phrase and don't see "social currency" defined in that way. Is there a phenomenon by another name that she was referring to?

More details:

She said social currency included gossip (both real-life and celebrity) and:
- can be on subjects people are passionate about and are unlikely to disagree on
- doesn't reveal any personal details/vulnerabilities on the side of either party
- could easily take up a lot of time, for example discussing last night's TV show plot
- is a way to engage without really connecting or strengthening the relationship

The key seemed to be that the participants in the conversation are *actively avoiding* any personal topics -- for example if you don't want to open up to an acquaintance, you steer the conversation to something innocuous like Dennis Rodman in North Korea and avoid sharing anything personal about yourself.

I was intrigued by her definition of this type of conversation, but when I went to research more, I couldn't find anything else about it. Could she have been referencing something else? I don't think it's just "small talk" since "small talk" CAN be a building block to a friendship if you've just met someone. Thanks in advance!
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf to Human Relations (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think you may be taking what she meant a little too literally.

I think what she was getting at is that "social currency" means more like "something to talk about so you can say you talked about something without having to talk about yourself." What she's getting at is, sometimes for people, "socializing" actually isn't about sharing personal stuff or bonding, it's just about being able to say that you were in a room with people talking about or doing something. A lot of people actually don't want to divulge personal details about themselves or bond as people until they know someone way better first - but, the paradox is that you need to spend time with someone to get to know them, so what the hell do you do during that in-between time?

That's what she was getting at, I think - that "social currency" is any of that stuff people can either do, or talk about, while they're in that in-between stage of getting to know each other. It's kind of like, the next step beyond just small talk; people don't jump right from small talk to "I wet my bed sometimes still as an adult" or anything like that. You want to build up more of a trust. It can also be a thing that gives you an excuse to regularly connect - if you're on the same sports team, or in the same knitting group, or the same volunteer group. It's a regular thing that you both do together that gives you a reason to follow up with each other and check in with each other on a regular basis; even if all you're talking about is "shit, I missed that episode of LOST last week, tell me what happened," it's still a regular connection.

I think what may be going on is that you're looking for every conversation you have with acquaintances to be Bonding Experiences; I was in the same habit for a long time. And unfortunately, that doesn't happen as often; maybe in college, when everyone was in the same weird boat and we all had time to sit around and talk about Big Heavy Stuff, but after that, it doesn't happen like that. You may not have "Connected" In the way you're thinking of, where you divulged information about each other, but you did connect, in the sense that you were both in the same room and spoke about things.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:23 AM on December 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

The Psychology of Social Currency

You are essentially proving your worth to each other as friends by "paying" social currency (gossip, jokes, interesting info, etc). Only once you've built up enough social currency can you "cash it in" by burdening them with your personal issues.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:42 AM on December 19, 2013 [15 favorites]

Gossip is social currency, yes, but your therapist's definition of social currency is not correct, no.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on December 19, 2013

I think I know what's causing the disconnect here. There's some strong equivocation going on with the term "social currency," in that both the marketing and sociology disciplines use the term. The term itself seems strongly connected to the marketing side, but it's based on a sociological concept.

The term is ultimately derived from a sociological concept of "social capital," as distinguished from "financial capital" (which should be pretty obvious) and "cultural capital," (i.e., personal non-financial assets that have more to do with skills, knowledge, and attitudes rather than social relationships). "Social capital," generally speaking, is the totality of one's non-financial assets that have to do with social relationships, both with other individuals and with group connectedness. It's the "socio-" part of "socio-economic status".

But "social currency" is mostly a marketing term and where you're going to get most of your internet hits. I believe the Vivaldi Partners developed the concept, or at least strongly promote it. As far as I can tell, marketers have latched on to the sociological concept of "social capital" and decided to monetize it as a way of thinking about the value and utility of branding and marketing efforts. After all, the value of a marketing/advertising campaign is notoriously hard to quantify, particularly as we move away from traditional TV/print media into the internet, where expenditures are far lower and interactivity far higher. The idea that there is some sociological component to the value of these things does seem intuitively correct, though there's undoubtedly a lot of MBA-style buzzword bullshit going on too.

Your therapist is almost certainly talking about "social capital" here, as the marketing connotations of "social currency" are irrelevant. She's trying to communicate the fact that even though no personal information was shared during this interaction, the mere experience of it is socially valuable. It's an opportunity for the two of you to engage as social beings qua social beings, with the interaction and engagement as an end in themselves. So yes, this is basically "small talk," and engaging in small talk is a way of building social capital. If nothing else, it's one more positive social experience between the two of you, and over time, those experiences can easily add up to camaraderie, even friendship. But at the very least, it's a reason for the two of you to think that the other person isn't a total asshole, and believe you me, that's not something you want to undervalue.
posted by valkyryn at 10:48 AM on December 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

Something somewhat similar to what your therapist was talking about, though not at all thought in psychological terms, is Heidegger's notion of Idle Talk. The idea of idle talk would also get at why you felt shitty afterward because it is based on non-genuine disclosure and the ability to "pass along" information and experiences as if they were objects easily had and understood by anyone. It can give the appearence of something "genuine" going on, but it is not.
posted by Blitz at 10:56 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm with @EmpressCallipygos - perhaps you're taking your therapist's use of the phase "social currency" a bit too literally here. I'm guessing she was not trying to define the term for you so much as to use it as an example to show you why you feel the way you do after that encounter: because while that was a way to engage, you failed to deepen your relationship. (Also: it would be a good idea to ask your therapist to please clarify. Therapists generally want to know when clients aren't totally picking up what they're putting down.)

Sounds like your therapist was reflecting back to you your insight that those hours you spent with your former co-worker gossiping about your former workplace made you feel like shit. Why? Because you didn't share any part of your authentic selves. You didn't actually connect. You didn't strengthen your friendship bond. I'm guessing she was trying to show you WHY you felt like shit, by suggesting you were hoping to accumulate some "social currency" vis-a-vis gossip - and why you perhaps subconsciously expected one result (fun, intimacy) but it backfired (negative feelings, distance).
posted by hush at 11:00 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

> I just felt shitty after. My therapist labeled this conversation/habit "social currency" because workplace gossip was something impersonal to talk about that could ease conversation, but didn't result in actual sharing.

I think your therapist and you were not on the same page in this discussion and perhaps kind of talked past each other.

To you, this conversation with your co-worker is something you offered to your therapist as an example of something that made you feel shitty about yourself or your ability to connect to people or something.

To your therapist, it was an example of a commonplace social behavior, and the therapist was perhaps trying to explain how it serves as a relatively low-stakes way for people to feel more included as part of a group, more connected to one's fellow humans.
posted by desuetude at 11:15 AM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

You guys and gals are amazing. I really appreciate everyone's answers so far. Very helpful both in a holistic way and a specific-concept-definition way.
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf at 11:30 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

So I think talking about "impersonal" things like sports or news or, I guess, gossip actually can be a first stage to escalating intimacy, because as you are discussing those topics you are naturally disclosing your viewpoints and beliefs on some level and you are responding to others' disclosures of their viewpoints and beliefs. So I think that kind of talk is worthwhile in general.

As to the question of gossip specifically and does it make you feel shitty about yourself, I mean, yes, I think it does. Or it makes me feel that way when I engage in it.

If you are interested in researching more, you could pop the keywords "self disclosure" and/or "intimacy" into Google Scholar.
posted by mermily at 12:24 PM on December 19, 2013

« Older I need health insurance and MassHealthConnector is...   |   Help me find a great, easy baked French toast... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.