Idle Chatter

Jason Ferris, Head Editor

Idle Chatter

Walking the halls of school every day, people offer me a small “hey” or “what’s up” or, my personal favorite, “nice weather we’re having.” I stretch my lips into a brief smile or, if I’m feeling particularly brave, I tell that I have three tests today and hours of homework and that I’m so tired my eyes feel like they are going to melt out of my skull. They widen their eyes and speed off. They were never interested in my answer and yet they offered artificial gestures and pleasantries anyway. They offer this polite speech to support their self-image and conform to human law at the expense of meaning-filled conversation. Unfortunately, teenagers are not the only ones serving this idle chatter.

When I was small, I often asked my mother why she stopped old friends in the store and promised they would get together soon when I knew she would seldom even call them. She told me it was just what people did, that it was proper manners. She felt a pressure to be cordial, to acknowledge people, because she wanted to be friendly, even neighborly. As I grew older, I learned that she was not the only one with this preoccupation. I saw this same internal need in old friends stopping in the middle of store aisles and restaurants to reunite, always squeezing each other in nostalgic hugs and promising they would get together sometime soon. These lies seemed to be a mark of proper etiquette, the same as setting the table or excusing one’s self to the bathroom. I soon found myself doing the same because I wanted this air of “friendliness.” But, there did not seem to be anything friendly about pretending. Like my mother, I never offered this polite speech with the intent of starting “real” conversation. I never offered it with the intent of sharing the intimate details of my life, the kind that forge strong bonds. I knew that these conversations would never be the conversations I had with my mother about surviving the horrors of school or the conversations I had with my brother about the future. Inconsequential as these interactions were, I wanted and still want to connect to my people, to make myself likeable. It is nothing more than Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a need for a sense of belongingness. It is why people have invented Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and other social networking apps. These social media outlets are an extension of our need to feel connected, even if these interactions are brief and superficial. Polite conversation is an expression of our inner need for the self-image of a proper member of society.

But, it is not only an internal need that prompts this polite speech but external pressure. Those who refuse to subscribe face ostracization. They are unfriendly recluses without a care for anyone else. At least, this is what onlookers think. I recently attended a reading by author David Sedaris alongside my English teacher. Applause rattled the room. I clapped of course, but my English teacher and I agreed that we hated clapping. We did not want to clap but felt we had to, that people would confuse our behavior with being unappreciative or uninterested. When someone greets me in the hall with a “hello” or “hey,” I reply, not because I care about the interaction but because of the alienating comments that come with going against the grain. An external fear of being ousted motivates polite speech. It is one I see in the movies I watch and the novels I read. The Scarlet Letter’s Arthur Dimmesdale, for example, relies on polite speech. The townspeople admire the reverend’s polite demeanor. But, they are not his allies or his confidants. He cannot tell them that he fathered an illegitimate daughter. He cannot tell them that social pariah Hester Prynne is his lover. Polite speech is his defense against being ousted like Hester. Ironically, Dimmesdale’s defense is the very thing that takes his life. His fear and his guilt cripple him, author Nathanial Hawthorne’s statement about the pressure of human law. Polite speech, then, is but an agreeable façade people don in response.

That’s not to say that polite speech does not serve a purpose. It fulfills our subscriptions to our self-images and reputations. But, it does not accomplish the goal of a conversation. People engage in conversation because they want to be understood or because they want to understand others. It is a means to progress, intellectually or emotionally, and one which authors capture. Authors do not spend pages on characters greeting each other or gabbing about the weather or about how they really must get together soon. If they mention polite speech at all, they reduce it to one-sentence descriptions: “they exchanged greetings,” “they nervously talked about the weather until the real conversation began.” They know that the substance of their stories is not in shallow exchanges but in shows of emotion that advance a character’s journey to solve their problem. No one wants to hear that Hester Prynne asked a passerby about the weather but they do want to hear about whether she can protect her daughter. No one wants to hear that Star War’s Luke Skywalker greeted a soldier but they do want to hear about whether he is able to defeat his father. Stories are memorable for their challenges and questions, not politeness. It is why President Donald Trump is so popular. He is unfiltered, critical, seemingly sexist and wants to erect a great wall of Mexico and yet he is the leader of the free world. It is not that his story has substance; it is certainly not that. People adore him because he does not bother with the deceptive political correctness of the current political establishment, one that distances people from their government. People are willing to trust their country with the volatile candidate because they are weary of false pleasantries and sweet nothings. Polite speech; Hester Prynne, Luke Skywalker, and Donald Trump prove; serves people’s basic internal and external needs but not to the extent of conversation that prompts growth and understanding. Polite speech is a superficial fix for people’s hunger for deep connection.

Polite speech has been touted as a measure of friendliness and connection. People gab with their neighbors about the weather and with their coworkers about getting together sometime because they are chasing the expectations of human law. Society has convinced them that their inner nature and their standing in society are measured by how many people they fool with false smiles, but my mother’s actions, The Scarlett Letter, Star Wars and Donald Trump’s presidency show that people need more than formalities. They need the connection and understanding and acceptance that polite rhetoric cannot satisfy. They need more than a cheap imitation. They need more than idle chatter.