On Friday, Alex Trebek’s last “Jeopardy!” episode will air, closing his remarkable run on the show. For future anthropologists, the beloved host’s historical contribution may not be his status as trivia icon, but rather his friendly role in the show’s awkward small-talk sessions. The real test of a contestant’s mettle on “Jeopardy!” often begins after the first commercial break, when competitors put down their buzzers and tell Trebek about themselves. Described as “the oddest 2 minutes of television” by Chad Mosher, the creator of a “Jeopardy!” stories Twitter account, the anecdotes can be captivatingly bland: what does the contestant who likes telling “dad jokes” have in common with the one who was once at an “incredibly cold football game” or the other who tried to jump-start a car, only to make the cables melt? Through their narratives, these contestants are engaged in what the sociologist Harvey Sacks called “doing ‘being ordinary.’ ” The verb “doing,” in this curious formulation, suggests the work that being ordinary takes, and points to the effort involved in constructing an agreeable and innocuous social façade.
Sacks was a “conversation analyst” and a university lecturer in California until his untimely death from a car crash in 1975. With sources ranging from Nathalie Sarraute’s writing to tape-recorded telephone chats, he set out to scrutinize the everyday stories that people tell and came to see that what is even more interesting are the non-stories we most often relate. Even when we describe supposedly exciting experiences like a recent date or a sunset, we go out of our way, Sacks noticed, to report only the commonness of what occurs. In his view, we are all constantly scanning situations for ways to affirm our normalcy: “What you look for is to see how any scene you are in can be made an ordinary scene,” because this is what society rewards.
Sacks asks us to imagine if, instead of being ordinary, we were to come home from work and describe “what the grass looked like along the freeway; that there were four noticeable shades of green, some of which just appeared yesterday because of the rain.” In this case, Sacks warned, “there may well be some tightening up on the part of your recipient.” If you were to make such unorthodox reportage a habit, you might lose friends, and people might find you strange or pretentious: “That is to say, you might want to check out the costs of venturing into making your life an epic.” Sacks argued that banal speech, far from unworthy of study, offered insight into the hidden structures of the social contract…
Though the interview segments offer a reprieve from the competition’s intensity, they extend the show’s question-and-answer format and also its performative pressures. When they don’t go off the rails, what they stage is the nail-biting feat of transforming a situation of extreme social pressure into forgettable television filler. There is probably no better theorist of the coup of seeming ordinary than the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose own studies of everyday talk referenced Sacks’s. Goffman is known for his dramaturgical analysis of social interaction in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” but as important as the theatrical analogy was to Goffman’s sociology, so was his view of conversation as a “game.” In his essay “Radio Talk,” Goffman argued that the seemingly benign small talk that fills our airwaves is actually composed of a series of calculated moves and countermoves in which the slightest stumble can result in an embarrassing loss of face. He maintained that mediatized interviews mimic the bouts of informal bandying that make up our everyday lives: “Catching in this way at what broadcasters do, and do not do, before a microphone catches at what we do, and do not do, before our friends. These little momentary changes in footing bespeak a trivial game, but our conversational life is spent playing it.” Bear this game in mind during your next Zoom meeting.
We all have these moments where we are asked to describe ourselves or share something interesting about ourselves. This happens in social media profiles, when we meet new people or groups in social interactions, and when we interview for jobs. Who are you? What makes you stand out (or not)?
We have fallbacks for this. Two quick examples. In many conversations with adults, the conversation either starts with or quickly gets to the jobs or occupation of each person. “What do you do?” is not a question about how you prefer to fill your time but rather a loaded question about what job you have. Then, that information is quickly judged with the listener(s) deciding what kind of value the occupation imparts, what it might mean about a person’s personality and experiences, and so on. An interesting answer can lead to a lot of conversation while an answer perceived as less interesting can pause a conversation.
Social media profiles have some common patterns. Think of the quick bio required for Twitter. What do you list first? Which five details are most important to communicate about you or your account? In some religious circles, this starts fairly regularly with some combination of these: husband or wife | father or mother to # children (or names) | Christian (or God follower or something similar). In contrast, it would be gauche to list your net worth here or that you have been married multiple times or an annoying habit you have. If people do try to be “out of the ordinary” or “quirky” in their descriptions, there are certain ways to do that too.
The first time I remember running into this myself was during middle school. Before a competition, I was asked to describe myself. This flustered me: what does one say when I preferred to read and follow sports? I eventually said something about doing well in school and was told I could think of something better. I do not remember what I came up with. I could do better now but I would also be following the scripts referenced above.
Jeopardy! has the extra element of having bright contestants. There are people who have knowledge, education. How does one fit into the ordinary when they are already on the show as a reward for knowing things?
As the article notes, these short interactions on one game show hint at the importance of small talk and the introductions in conversations. Small talk may seem banal and introductions can be moved past. Yet, our lives are full of these small snippets that help us form impressions of people and society – even if we are just watching game show contestants on television.