Where did I read about the bonuses of banal small-talk?
January 21, 2021 11:26 AM   Subscribe

In the past month, I've read an article (I think in the New Yorker) that referenced a piece of sociological research from the Seventies. But where did I read this?

The gist if it was: a sociologist in the 1970s published a theory that acquaintances reward us for the mundanity of our conversation. Too much detail or any originality is regarded as suspicious by people we don't know well.

The example given was that, if my neighbour asks how my day was and I reply, 'OK, but traffic was terrible on the A40,' I am meeting the social norm.

If I say, 'Interesting day – I was sitting in a traffic jam on the A40 and noticed that there are four different shades of green in the grass on the verge, which makes me wonder if the bank is constructed from different soils, perhaps draining at different rates' – then I come across as weird.
In other words, it's better to be boring. My neighbour, like all of us, is trained to be wary of overt individuality.

I'd love to learn more about this idea but, in order to do that, I'd have to remember where I read it in the first place. I have a feeling it might have been a piece in the New Yorker – but whether that's a recent edition, or an archive piece, I have no idea (or could it even have been a link on MetaFilter?)
posted by MinPin to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The Economist had a piece on this earlier this month:
posted by niicholas at 11:39 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Beth Blum, The Hidden Depths of Alex Trebek's Banter with 'Jeopardy!' Contestants (New Yorker, 6 Jan 2021):
Sacks asks us to imagine if, instead of being ordinary, we were to come home from work and describe “what the grass looked like along the freeway; that there were four noticeable shades of green, some of which just appeared yesterday because of the rain.” In this case, Sacks warned, “there may well be some tightening up on the part of your recipient.” If you were to make such unorthodox reportage a habit, you might lose friends, and people might find you strange or pretentious: “That is to say, you might want to check out the costs of venturing into making your life an epic.” Sacks argued that banal speech, far from unworthy of study, offered insight into the hidden structures of the social contract.
(Referencing the work of Harvey Sacks on conversation analysis, and Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)
posted by verstegan at 11:53 AM on January 21 [12 favorites]

I think "keep small talk boring" is a specific example of the Gricean maxims. My favourite linguistics podcast Lingthusiasm has episodes both on the Gricean maxims and small talk!
posted by invokeuse at 3:58 PM on January 21 [3 favorites]

Impedance matching
"Impedance mismatch" redirects here. For the computer science concept, see object-relational impedance mismatch.
Object–relational impedance mismatch

Oh, screw you Wikipedia. In regards to verstegan's quote... not matching the impedance (in the information communication way) is lossage of information because neither side shares a similar enough interface medium (neither understands the others questions or answers enough to be right on point) and in these cases the fix is to only accept/emit the lowest possible actual informational signal until there is a shared interface where communication can evolve into higher information density back and forth. Maybe Wikipedia isn't so screw you worthy.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:26 AM on January 23

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