Television is more interesting than people. If it were not, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms.
– Alan Corenk
I’ve been mulling over this post in my head for a long time. It’s been a perplexing conundrum for me, because it’s one that I’m party to and one I’ve shared with others before. Heck I say one I’m party to like it was an incidental part of my life. It’s not. It’s probably the most significant trend I’ve noticed in dealing with other people and initiating conversations with them.
It started from recalling one dinner long ago, which started awkwardly and indifferently. It had been a long day, and people weren’t in the mood to talk. So we sat there, eating silently, not a stony awkward silence, but that vague silence that seems to hang from the walls when no one knows what to say and nothing worth talking about has graced the news desk.
Someone mentioned how addicted they were to Heroes, the new hit NBC series and how they’d binged on almost a dozen episodes of it in two days. Suddenly the conversation sprung to life. This show, that show, the complications of Lost, had anyone seen the latest episode, what was going on in House and did anyone like Scrubs or did they prefer Grey’s Anatomy? What had started out as a dull dinner with no words exchanged had suddenly sprung to life.
We found a shared experience that we could talk about. We had all experienced this; here was a conversation we could participate in . Even the people who might not be watching a particular show, or had started watching it and then subsequently stopped felt that they could get involved. If you hadn’t seen it you could ask those that had what they thought about it, what the story was and why it was gripping. Was the acting good? Is it something like ER?
Why is it that we find our most common shared experiences in fictional experiences; experiences scripted by others and designed as entertainment?
Now I don’t want to turn this into a diatribe about the nature of mass media, or low quality TV production or the virtues and viciousness of P2P. What I’m more interested in is that when we had nothing to talk about, a bunch of twenty and thirty something men who share the same religion and culture and live in China had to turn to the American Entertainment Moguls to find something that they shared.
There are a lot of factors that I can think of that clearly played a part. Globalization of entertainment has meant the Americanization of entertainment and I think everyone who’s lived through a TV schedule on their Saturday night in has heard and seen lots of American TV and precious little of anything produced by any other culture.
There is the internationalization and broad congruity in the English language. People who speak English gravitate to the natural center of the English speaking world in the US for their source of cultural cues for entertainment and so even English speakers in China and India will still follow and watch the big Hollywood blockbusters.
The biggest question: why did we have to talk about entertainment in the first place?
The answer is comfort. Here was a topic that we knew was safe to discuss. Even in such a homogenous cultural and social context, there is just no risk associated with talking about TV. What you like and what you dislike is accepted as a personal choice, and you can watch the shows that you want to watch without suffering any evaluative judgment. By contrast talking about music in my cultural milieu is still a topic that is slightly off limit and people won’t discuss their favorite artists or what CD they bought recently. So we had to talk about TV or movies because those are the accepted forms of entertainment.,
Surely we have anything else that we could talk about?
Partially the answer is yes, of course we had other things that we could have talked about. But the reality is that most of those topics are either too serious or too potentially divisive to talk about in so open a setting as a social dinner.
Partially the answer is no, of course we didn’t have other things to talk about. The reality of urban life in a pluralistic and multiethnic society is that we don’t have a lot of shared experience. Even in a situation as unified as those of the same faith and age sitting down for a meal, there is a huge diversity of experience that makes it hard to be certain that we share the same experiences. There is also the risk that others may not understand or may simply not care about those different experiences.
Finally, and as part of the last point, It is incredibly easy to get out of touch with a set of cultural roots and with the cultural standards without any effort on your part. In fact it is so easy that people do naturally sort themselves into these sets which create these fake unifying experiences. That’s why society has subcultures that span the range from Goths and Emos to Furries and probably everything in between.
Why I Don’t Like It
I guess the point I’m making, the point I’m struggling to justify to myself, is that there are a lot of reasons to talk about TV. Its safe, pragmatic, everyone can participate and its something that we can be reasonably sure that the other person has some experience of.
On the other hand, and this is where the struggling comes in, it was just smoke and mirrors in it at the end. Yes TV is a major form of entertainment, and people need entertainment and distractions from their daily lives. But when the focal point of talking becomes about these distractions, when what we have to say each other is so limited that we have to talk about the fictions that we chose to accept, well there’s a deeper problem there.
It may be something as simple as people being reserved, it may disclose an incompatibility of personality or it may disclose, as I think it does a desperate search for common ground, that clings to the first safe raft in a difficult search for handholds. But I feel that once this handhold is grasped, once a relationship is about saying “yeah I saw that too” and “did you see the one about”, you’re pretty much doomed. You’re not going to get any higher or deeper than that.
There is no magic trick that can transfer a relationship that settles to be that hollow into anything more significant.
What I Want To Do About It
What I’m looking for is a list of topics that are reliable enough to take with me and which I see as having more potential to form better conversations.
I don’t like having conversations about the motives and actions of fictional beings, at least not in the TV sense, and though I have a higher tolerance of it in books, it’s not higher by much.
The only topic that serves reliably are sports, current affairs and politics. The last two are rightly acknowledged as loaded topics, and the first can be as dull a discussion and as meaningless as TV.
The end result is that I have a list of potential topics that aren’t good enough. What I’m doing now is paying more attention to what does start conversations. Usually there are people in life who excel at getting a discussion started. I’m now honing in on them and listening to what they talk about and what they do that keeps a conversation going.
When I have some results I’ll let you know.