The word “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 where communication takes place 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 what is considered communication, arguably the most important part is the everyday conversation – the repeated mundane conversation. I say this not because everyday conversation 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 remain 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. 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, and 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. 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 storytelling, artful handling of anecdotes, and sarcasm, and not on “accurate” objective reasons. Additionally, the exchange about product preferences is liable to be subjective, 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. It is in the protection of that kernel of irrationality and some vague notion of individuality that can one sell absolutely anything. Trillions of dollars in this economy ride on the fact that millions of people will wake up tomorrow and make a suboptimal decision — or more accurately be convinced about their economically sub-optimal decisions — about their decision to buy some product.
The other important facet of everyday conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is that it is done 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.
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, 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 are you 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 people expected nothing but empty curtsies.
The normative point I want to make 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.