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September 16th, 2020
Chances are you’ve had the strange experience of unintentionally eavesdropping on a conversation between two people at a coffeeshop or a restaurant and realizing after a number of minutes with strange astonishment that neither person has actually said anything despite a constant exchange of words. And yet both parties are animated and engaged with the interaction. What exactly is going on during this absurd phenomenon?
The answer lies in conjunction with a common aphorism:
It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
Most communication is not an exchange of information, it is dance of emotional alignment. We need only approach the situation through the other end of the metaphor: when two people are dancing together in a synchronous and unified way and it’s clear that both people are having fun, what exactly is the meaning of the dance?
This is of course, a nonsensical question: a dance doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Sure we might be able to awkwardly paste some sort of interpretation on it, or swap in tangential facts about exercise, but at the end of the day, we dance mostly because it’s fun. Plain and simple. We understand this intuitively and no one watches a dance in utter confusion because there doesn’t seem to be any useful information that’s being transmitted between people.
But talking is different, right? Words mean things, and when we string them together, we do so for the sake of creating and transmitting meaning. Right?
The fact is, this is what language is used for sometimes.
Language is a multifaceted tool, just as the body is. We can use the body to dance and have fun, but then we can turn around and do something with the body that is purely utilitarian, like pick up the toys and put them in the toy box so no one steps on them, or so we can clear the floor for dancing.
Language, likewise is most often used for a form of dance between minds. In debate we might think of it as a volley of combating ideas, like, say, tennis, but when it comes to a couple of friends having a whole lot of fun talking an incredible amount of nothing, we’re best to think of it as an emotional dance through the medium of words.
This desire and pleasure of emotional alignment is at the heart of the social impulse we all have. It’s perhaps at the core of why we have such tribalistic tendencies. Simply put, there is a pleasure reward for being emotionally aligned with a group that you feel kinship with, and resisting a rival tribe only amplifies this emotional reward as delivered by your in-group.
This is most certainly an evolutionary adaptation. Well-formed groups stood a much higher chance of surviving, particularly groups that developed a hardwired assumption that other groups are most likely bad. This is perhaps best evidenced by the lack of speciation around humans despite archeological evidence that many existed, the most commonly discussed example being neanderthals who were wiped out along with a dozen or so other human-like relatives.
In the absence of a commonly perceived enemy, however, we turn on each other and our own internal subdivisions become the new boundaries of conflict.
This is a shared cognitive program that is doomed to self-immolate. Even if one group were to somehow achieve the tragic goal of wiping out all humans who are somehow not like their group, the demarcation of differences would simply collapse again to a lower level, and subgroups within this surviving group would again start becoming rivals until a new internal conflict adopts the same extreme measures. All because our need to belong is so deep and our pleasure of feeling like we belong promises to be so great, just so we can merely sit and talk pleasantly with each other about absolutely nothing.