Abstract: So here’s a challenge for ya. Imagine a philosopher. Got him? Okay. Now imagine him entering into a normal, everyday conversation with someone. What, you say you can’t imagine that? Well, my dear reader, you are not alone. There are vast numbers of people out there who have no idea what philosophers talk about when they’re not philosophizing. Perhaps, then, this blog post will be of help to you. Because, please understand, Elvis Wu is the consummate philosopher…but he knows how to talk about all manner of things.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Jennifer Smith is hanging out on the front patio at the Panera Bread in downtown Chattanooga, sipping a latte and reading something by Debbie Macomber. (If you were to ask her, “So what’s the title of the book you’re reading?” she would roll her eyes at you. She would probably not even know the title. She doesn’t typically make her reading selections based on their substantial content…and she figures that the title is more or less randomly chosen anyway.) However, when Elvis Wu spies her sitting at her table on the sidewalk, the first thing that pops into his mind is not the title of her book. He is, as ever, focused on matters of greater substance.
Elvis Wu: Well, if it isn’t Jennifer Smith! Fond greetings to you!
Jennifer Smith: Er, “fond greetings” to you as well, Elvis. [she smirks playfully]
Elvis Wu: Hah! Do you take exception to my somewhat unusual salutation? I guess no one else says “fond greetings.” Yet it’s precisely what i meant.
Jennifer Smith: It’s okay. At least you didn’t say, “I choose to greet you with fondness in my heart,” or something extra uber-nerdy like that.
Elvis Wu: [contemplative] Wow, that one was really good. I’ll have to file it away for future reference.
Jennifer Smith: Rar rar rar. So what are you up to today, good sir?
Elvis Wu: It’s a beautiful afternoon, no? So i’m just walking about the downtown area soaking up some rays before the really wintry weather sets in.
Jennifer Smith: Good plan. I guess that’s sort of what i’m doing, as well. You got big plans for Thanksgiving?
Elvis Wu: Oh, i’ll be getting together with some friends for our own version of a Thanksgiving feast.
Jennifer Smith: Sweet.
Elvis Wu: And you?
Jennifer Smith: Thanksgiving dinner with the fam. We all sort of live around the Chattanooga area.
Elvis Wu: Nice! Well, i hope you and your family have a delightful holiday.
Jennifer Smith: Thanks. I guess you’ll be spending your holiday wishing “fond greetings” to people.
Elvis Wu: Well, probably something along those lines. Do you approve?
Jennifer Smith: You know, it’s funny. We do have all these accepted ways of talking to each other, that have sort of developed as fixed conversation patterns. And even slight departures from the basic “hi, how ya doin” sort of thing really do come off as odd. I just never really bother to think about it.
Elvis Wu: A terrific observation! I like to mess with those conversation templates a bit, when i think i can get away with it, to shake people up a bit–get them out of their fixed ways of thinking about conversation.
Jennifer Smith: No wonder you seem to have a somewhat limited friend pool.
Elvis Wu: Mmm. Mm-hmm.
Jennifer Smith: I’m sorry–that didn’t come out the way i intended it to.
Elvis Wu: No, it’s okay. You’re right. I choose my friends carefully, and not usually on the basis of whether they know how to talk like regular people. [smiles]
Jennifer Smith: Gosh, i just don’t know if i could be that committed. When i’m talking with someone, i don’t want to have to think through every single thing i’m saying to make sure it’s fresh and original and…
Elvis Wu: Genuine?
Jennifer Smith: Owch. Touché. Sure, okay–genuine. We all have these conversational patterns that we’ve learned–it sure does make talking with people a lot easier than if we had to come up with brand new stuff every time.
Elvis Wu: I get that. And, really, the whole idea of “social skills” is largely attached to whether a person has mastered those ready-made templates for conversation. Philosophers, regrettably… [he smiles sadly] …tend not to have the reputation for making use of the regular conversational patterns that everyone else does.
Jennifer Smith: Well, i mean, you’ve got excellent social skills. But then, i don’t think you represent all philosophers very well.
Elvis Wu: Shall i interpret that as a compliment?
Jennifer Smith: By all means.
Elvis Wu: So. I wonder if it’s possible to be a true philosopher, and at the same time have excellent social skills?
Jennifer Smith: Gosh, i don’t see why not. In principle, y’know? Philosophers like to talk about real stuff, real issues–but surely that can be done without wierding out the people you’re talking with.
Elvis Wu: Fair enough.
Jennifer Smith: Y’know, i have wondered sometimes–what it would be like if people had conversations based on what they were really thinking and feeling. So much of the stuff that we say to each other really does seem to be memorized junk. I do it. We all do it. Well, not you. [she scowls at him]
Elvis Wu: [laughs] Why don’t we try an experiment?
Jennifer Smith: Er, an experiment? Like what?
Elvis Wu: Like, let’s try to have a regular sort of conversation, and analyze it as we go along.
Jennifer Smith: Oohh. I do not EVEN know about that. [she smiles] But sure.
Elvis Wu: Okay. Why don’t you start? Pretend that you just walked up to me, and you want to initiate a conversation. Do you start with a greeting?
Jennifer Smith: Uh–sure. I’d say, like, “Hi, how’s it going.”
Elvis Wu: Whoah, stop, stop! We could spend the next half hour just analyzing that!
Jennifer Smith: Oh golly, let’s not. Please.
Elvis Wu: [laughing] Okay. Let me just make a couple of observations.
Jennifer Smith: Fire away.
Elvis Wu: First, there’s the word “hi,” which essentially doesn’t mean anything. Think about it. What does “hi” mean? It’s basically a way of acknowledging the other person. “Hi,” “hello,” “greetings,” etc. are basically just ways of saying, “I acknowledge your value and the relevance of your presence in my life,” something like that.
Jennifer Smith: OMG. I do not even.
Elvis Wu: [laughing] And then there’s the part where you said, “how’s it going.”
Jennifer Smith: Mmm-hmm. And now i’m thinking, i have no real idea what that means.
Elvis Wu: Ah! Well, perhaps it means something like, “I wonder what the–long or short, depending on the circumstances of the conversation–table of contents of your life would feature, were you to lay it out for me.”
Jennifer Smith: Elvis, you are so weird.
Elvis Wu: [laughing again] Oh, it’s probably gonna get worse. So then, if i were a normal sort of person, i might reply to you, “Oh, nothin’ much. You?”
Jennifer Smith: Mmm, that sounds right.
Elvis Wu: Which is a completely wasted opportunity to talk about real things, but we can set that to one side for now.
Jennifer Smith: Good. Please.
Elvis Wu: So it’s basically just a reflexion of what the first person said, and we’ve already covered that.
Jennifer Smith: [breathes a sigh of relief]
Elvis Wu: So then, what would you say next?
Jennifer Smith: Um, i might say, “Not a whole lot.” Or, if i really wanted to talk about what’s going on in my life, i might mention something specific, like, “Well gee, i just got a raise! That’s pretty cool.”
Elvis Wu: Nice! You’ve provided two possible branches the conversation might take. The first one isn’t very interesting, so let’s pursue the second.
Jennifer Smith: Okay.
Elvis Wu: If i’m really interested in you, and the circumstances of your life, i might pursue the idea of your raise. How much? Was it for doing good work? Will it enable you to expand your household budget?
Jennifer Smith: People don’t usually go into all that.
Elvis Wu: No: Because people usually aren’t all that interested in learning about what’s going on in your life. Sad but true.
Jennifer Smith: Harsh!
Elvis Wu: Am i wrong?
Jennifer Smith: Er, well, not really. Most conversations take only a few seconds, and don’t go into any real detail at all.
Elvis Wu: Well. So if i’m really interested in you as a person, i might pursue the details of your job situation. But if i’m not, or if time is limited, i might just say, “Sweet! That’s great.”
Jennifer Smith: Sounds about right.
Elvis Wu: And what would you say in response?
Jennifer Smith: Well, maybe something like, “And what’s up with you?”
Elvis Wu: Perfect! And, again, if they really feel like engaging you, they might come up with something interesting that’s going on in their life. Otherwise, they’ll probably just say, “Aw, nothin’ much.”
Jennifer Smith: Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes.
Elvis Wu: And that takes us to the exit point, if the two people aren’t really interested in pursuing a real conversation, or they haven’t got the time. So one of ’em might say, “Well, all the best to ya!” And the other one might reply, “Sure, man, you hang in there!” Both of which could be translated, roughly, to mean, “I hope your future circumstances are consistent with your best plans and hopes,” something like that.
Jennifer Smith: Something like that.
Elvis Wu: And then they go their separate ways.
Jennifer Smith: My word.
Elvis Wu: Such a funny thing, conversation.
Jennifer Smith: Y’know, from now on i’m going to be terrified–well, maybe half terrified, and half curious–about what you’re really thinking when we chat.
Elvis Wu: Ah! Such a feeling of power. [clasps his hands under his chin after the fashion of someone named “Smedley” or “Igor”]
Jennifer Smith: Dude, you are SO strange, i cannot EVEN.
Elvis Wu: [laughing heartily] I assure you, my thoughts are nothing but charitable toward you, even when you’re talkin’ ’bout nothin’.
Jennifer Smith: [smiles] Well, that’s comforting. Sort of.