"The Pats won!" A woman watering her garden cheerfully announced this as I walked by her home. I smiled and walked on. She may as well have told me that Kelly Clarkson had once again made the Billboard Top Ten: I have no interest in professional sports or pop music culture.
I do understand that "sports talk" is part of social grooming. It's oil for conversation, something to share, safe common ground. Fairly safe, that is: there are some folks who are truly rabid about their favorite teams and when two of that ilk with opposing views meet, it can get very ugly. But for most, team affiliations are light and not completely serious: as I said, it's just social oil. When someone invites you over to "watch the game", it isn't really the game that is important. That's true even when none of the people present are consciously aware that it isn't.
But that brief exchange did remind me of a conversation from my poker game earlier in the week. Someone mentioned "the game" (which turned out to be football), and someone else suggested turning on the TV. I protested, suggesting that if he wanted to watch football, he should go home and watch football, because we were playing poker, and I didn't want to put up with distractions and delays from the football game. Somewhat to my surprise, most of the table supported my view, so the TV stayed off. But my objection caused one player to approach me during our break.
"So you aren't a football fan?", he asked, not unpleasantly.
I replied that I'm not a sports fan at all. If you share my disinterest in these subjects, you've probably had the experience of some disbelieving soul trying to find the sport that you do watch and enjoy: eliminating all sports with a single wave saves time.
But it doesn't give any grooming opportunities. In many contexts, the would be social groomer simply gives up and decides I'm not worth grooming at all. In my case, the groomer wasn't giving up so easily. He sensed a social misfit, and couldn't quite believe it. "You go to the movies?", he asked. No, I had to confess, I don't go to the movies. "A reader, then?" he pressed on. Yes, sure, I suppose I'm a "reader".
"So what have you read recently?"
I don't know what he was thinking about after that. He was probably thinking that he'd be sure to avoid me at future games. I, on the other hand, was thinking that the Long Tail is probably going to cause more uncomfortable grooming failures.
Sports, movies, popular singers, popular writers are all in danger of not being something we "all" share. Of course they never were, but the number of people who didn't watch the game, who didn't listen to the Beatles, who didn't "go to the movies" or read light fiction was small enough to be safely ignored. But that was always because of lack of choice: you watched Monday Night Football because you only had five or six TV channels and four of them carried the game. You watched the same movies as everyone else because your entertainment choices were limited. The limited choices gave shared experiences that could be used for social grooming.
But now, we have much more to choose from. We only have so much time for entertainment: you can't keep up with Deadwood, John Stewart, American Idol, Monk, Reno 911, Kelly Clarkson, Tom Cruise, football, baseball, soccer, and the latest goings on in mathematics or whatever else really interests you. You can't read The Long Tail, The World is Flat, Blink AND the latest Stephen King novel while still being ready to talk about the latest movies. If you do manage to keep up with all that, surely you aren't also doing sudoko and the Sunday crossword puzzle. There simply isn't enough time for all of it.
So, it would seem that we must become more insulated from one another. If we don't have shared fluff to groom one another with, how do we groom at all? It may take longer and longer for two people to find any point of commonality in their lives, any common knowledge that they share.
In some ways, this is good: understanding and acceptance of diversity is harder when people are surrounded by other people whose thoughts move in lockstep. But without social grooming, you can't build trust easily. We feel "comfortable" with people who we understand; we understand one another through social interaction.
Do you observe a lessening commonality of culture and interests?
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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2012-07-11 Anthony Lawrence