How are you doing? What’s new? How’s it going? How’s life? I don’t know how to answer these questions anymore. How I doing?
It is still possible to remember an age where we responded with courteously brainless white lies. You were always “Fine,” or “Good,” or sometimes “OK.” The truthfulness of the response was irrelevant in a world where it was possible to conceal the localised anxieties of our personal universes.
So it speaks to the enormity of this moment that the coronavirus has completely supplanted small talk in our social contract. How can anyone fib through a compulsory “How are you doing?” in a time like this?
Instead, the empty space at the top of my conversations has been replaced with an inventory of the many tragedies, mysteries and hopes brought on by the coronavirus news cycle and a more spiritual meditation on, in the words of my friends and family, “How crazy this all is.”
A typical call with my father begins with a cordial navigation of the swelling death toll, the deepening economic collapse and the paralysing terror we both felt on our weekend grocery store trip. Then, after that purification, we settle back into the purpose of our phone call. For the foreseeable future, nobody is expected to be doing fine.
The provocative texture of coronavirus-era small talk propels us into the thick of our feelings — we can panic more openly and freely. There isn’t any room for artifice anymore.
In that sense, we are probably more honest citizens than we’ve been in the past. But I’ve begun to miss the blase nature of our pre-Covid-19 language measures. I’m realising that small talk is a necessary lubrication for society to function. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “You Just Don’t Understand” believes that human beings find an equilibrium by talking about nothing.
It proves that we are willing and capable of being friendly with one another and that the parameters of our exchange will be limited to things we can agree on. No matter where you are in the world, it’s rude to express an existential uneasiness upon first impression. The pandemic has broken that golden rule.
Something important to say
“If everybody was strangers, and we didn’t exchange talk unless you had something important or personal to say, we wouldn’t have a lot of conversations,” Dr. Tannen said. “That’s true for every culture. Like shaking hands or waving goodbye, we have physical and verbal ways to indicate, ‘We’re in this together,’ ‘We’re both humans.’”
Maybe that’s why the absence of small talk has been such a disorienting experience. People I barely know volunteer their frayed nerves to me from the moment we start talking. Every interview, every business meeting and every bodega exchange is coloured by these brand-new norms.
At its best, small talk allowed us to escape the global pressures bearing down on us; it was a chance to lose oneself in the milieu of politeness to pretend that everything was OK. Small talk ensured that our worst fears wouldn’t interfere with the simple pleasures of company. I’d like to be capable of talking about something else again.
Dr. Tannen attributes this phenomenon to a glitch in American communication. In some parts of East Asia, the semantic version of the salutation “How are you?” translates into “Have you eaten rice yet?” Like its American counterpart, that greeting is meant to be taken ceremonially rather than literally. (Hong Kongers tend to respond with “Yes, I have.”) But grammatically, “Have you eaten rice yet?” is also more grounded and neutral compared with our inward-looking “How’s it going?” The pandemic severed the ritual overtone of our small talk from its verbatim meaning. “Have you eaten rice yet?” always has the same answer. “How’s life?,” as we’re learning, is a much more volatile query.
Disruptive, chaotic situation
“Given the circumstances we’re in right now, people really are wondering how other people are doing,” Dr. Tannen said. “Everybody, in some ways, is dealing with a disruptive, chaotic situation. To not ask something specifically related to that, or to not answer in a way that takes that into account, would be unrealistic, and you could say that it would be inappropriate. I assume that if you were in a country where the opening was ‘Have you eaten yet?’ it would be different.”
Already, people I know are starting to learn that lesson. My girlfriend opens her weekly business calls with a gossip symposium. She and her co-workers air out a few scandalous titbits they’ve gathered around the virtual water cooler before settling into the day’s agenda.
Other friends have generated their own breezy icebreakers — loose, first-day-of-school questions like “What’s the best movie you watched recently?” or “What book are you reading?” — at the top of their Zoom check-ins as a buffer to pandemic discourse. This is our way of manufacturing small talk, avoiding asking that dreaded question “How are you doing?” at all costs. By now, most of us already know the answer.
Dr. Tannen endorses those strategies. If, in her words, you don’t want to “open the floodgates,” then temper your salutation with something positive, something light and something that everybody does. “’What’s the best thing you ate,’ not ‘What did you eat this week that you wish you didn’t,’” she said. That’s the essence of small talk, floating conversations about the weather, the weekend and the Knicks.
It’s ironic how much sweet relief we now find in one of our most irritating social responsibilities, how we yearn to talk about nothing important. Maybe that’s a sign. Things will have officially gone back to normal when we say we’re doing fine without really meaning it.
Luke Winkie is a writer who lives and works in Austin, Texas