“Being ordinary” in the small talk on Jeopardy

Jeopardy! contestants had to have several interesting facts about themselves they were willing to share with host Alex Trebek. And then, they would engage in a short conversation:

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.

Sociologist Robert Merton featured in Final Jeopardy!

Sociology rarely makes an appearance on Jeopardy! but the discipline was featured in the Final Jeopardy! question on January 8:

Final Jeopardy! clue: Often applied to athletes, this 2-word term popularized by Robert K. Merton refers to an example we aspire to.

I was not aware that this term was popularized by Merton. If anybody popularized this term in recent decades, it was Charles Barkley who several decades ago said:

“I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

Read a quick overview of the concept of role model as well as a summary of Merton’s wide-ranging career (which included popularizing other terms such as “self-fulfilling prophecy”).

Lack of sociology on Jeopardy

Jeopardy recently had a college tournament and the opening sequence featured sociology:


I don’t watch every episode of Jeopardy but my wife DVRs all of them and we agree on one thing: we have rarely seen categories involving sociology. There was one a few months ago but that stood out for its unusual questions. There are multiple disciplines that aren’t featured much, including calculus and math, which is in the same screenshot. On the other hand, certain disciplines come up all the time: politics, literature, history, pop culture, and current events. So why doesn’t Jeopardy have more sociology? Perhaps they are simply catering to viewers who may not be able to answer questions about sociology when they arise. It is interesting to see sociology and calculus come up with a screenshot for the college tournament – perhaps this is where most viewers and Jeopardy producers think these subjects should remain.

Analyzing gendered uptalk on Jeopardy!

As part of a household that regularly watches Jeopardy! via the magic of DVR, I was intrigued to read about this sociological study of uptalk on the show:

Linneman’s study involves issues deeper than how game show contestants talk—specifically, the implications uptalk has for gender identities. According to his article, “The primary sociological controversy surrounding uptalk concerns the fact that women use uptalk more often than men do, and some interpret this as a signal of uncertainty and subordination.”Linneman found that both gender and uncertainty played a role: “On average, women used uptalk nearly twice as often as men. However, if men responded incorrectly, their intonation betrayed their uncertainty: their use of uptalk shot up dramatically.”

The use of uptalk is not merely an academic concern, as Linneman discovered with one of his results.

“One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show…The more successful a man is on the show, uptalk decreases. The opposite is true for women…I think that says something really interesting about the relationship between success and gender in our society, and other research has found this too: successful women in a variety of ways get penalized.”

Uptalk’s sometimes-negative connotations bring up the subject of how women speak, a provocative issue.

While this isn’t an earthshaking finding, two things are very interesting here:

1. It is a reminder that language usage and speech patterns reflect larger social forces. While individuals may have unique ways of expressing themselves, language and expression is also learned behavior influenced by others.

2. Selecting Jeopardy! as the research case for this particular phenomenon is clever. While uptalk is related to perceptions of a lack of confidence, the contestants on the show should not have as much reason for nervousness as others might have about being on TV. In order to make it on air, they have to be smart enough to pass a qualifying test and then they have to pass an in-person audition. In other words, the contestants, males and female, are bright people. Granted, being in front of a camera is a different matter but these contestants aren’t caught completely unaware nor should they be fully perplexed by the questions they are trying to answer.

The billable value of humility

In a previous post, I linked to an IBM executive who claimed that Watson’s success on Jeopardy! might revolutionize the legal profession.  Gary Kasparov, the chess champion who was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, makes an interesting observation over at the Atlantic:

My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson’s performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all….A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty…but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering “Toronto” in the “US Cities” category, as Watson did.

It would be ironic (in the extreme!) if what saved the legal profession from being taken over by computers was lawyers’ own humility.  In a world where machines can process far more data far faster than human minds, perhaps our weakness is also our greatest asset:  we know our limits.

The Turing Test and what makes us human

Each year, the Loebner Prize competition takes place where judges are asked to interact through computer terminals with humans and computer programs. The judges then vote on whether they were talking with a human or a computer in this version of the Turing Test.

Two things struck me in this article:

1. The writer frames this issue of “mind vs. machine” as a more fundamental question about what separates humans from other animals:

Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls “The Sentence.” Specifically, The Sentence reads like this:

The human being is the only animal that ______.The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it’s not just the animals that we’re worried about.

We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.

If this is the case, then the Turing Test, or Ken Jenning’s battle with a computer on Jeopardy!, become the final battleground as humans lose what we thought made us distinct: thinking or reasoning. But this quick definition of human selfhood seems to leave out a very important component: the human search for meaning. Sociologists, like Peter Berger, have talked about this for decades in order to help explain the prevalence of religion. Berger argued that religions arise because people have enduring questions about why the world is the way it is and what their place is in it. Do other animals pose such existential questions? Is spirituality or religiosity what might really separate humans from other animals?

2. As the writer explains his strategy for showing the judges that he is human, he recounts past conversations computer programs have had with humans. Several of these were quite interesting. One program from the 1960s, Eliza, took a more therapeutic approach to dealing with humans:

User: Men are all alike.

Eliza: In what way?

User: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

Eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

User: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here.

User: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

Eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

User: It’s true. I am unhappy.

Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

User: I need some help, that much seems certain.

Eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

User: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

Eliza: Tell me more about your family.

This program was apparently quite effective in fooling people and some even went off to have therapeutic conversations with this program. Another program acted belligerent at random points and threw some people off.

It sounds like these computer programs will continue to get more sophisticated.

Law jobs in Jeopardy

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy! — and its win.  Now, the pundits are trying to digest what the implications will be now that Watson has already been hired as a physician’s assistant.

What, specifically, does this mean for lawyers?  Robert C. Weber, a senior VP and general counsel at IBM, breaks it down for us over at over at the National Law Journal:

Imagine a new kind of legal research system that can gather much of the information you need to do your job — a digital associate, if you will. With the technology underlying Watson, called Deep QA, you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.

But won’t this mean fewer jobs for lawyers?  Oh no, reassures Mr. Weber:

Deep QA won’t ever replace attorneys; after all, the essence of good lawyering is mature and sound reasoning, and there’s simply no way a machine can match the knowledge and ability to reason of a smart, well-educated and deeply experienced human being. But the technology can unquestionably extend our capabilities and help us perform better.

Humanity — I mean — lawyers win, huh?  This is great!  Where can I put Watson to work?

The technology might even come in handy, near real-time, in the courtroom. If a witness says something that doesn’t seem credible, you can have an associate check it for accuracy on the spot.

Wait a minute — I thought you said that we’ll always need lawyers?  But if using Watson/Deep QA is just as easy as running a Google search against a witness on the stand, why do you need to have an associate perform it?  Associates are expensive, or, at least, used to be.  Why not a paralegal?  Why not someone even cheaper, with even less training?  Are you sure it has to be an actual lawyer?  (Besides, Weber also tells us that “We’re pretty sure [Watson] would do quite well in a multistate bar exam!”)

Perhaps when he said Watson “won’t ever replace attorneys,” Mr. Weber meant that Watson won’t ever replace someone like himself:  a successful, established, general counsel at a Fortune 500.  You know, the sort of person who passes off his “research” to an “associate.”  Or whomever.  Or whatever.

I’m not buying it, Weber (neither is Above the Law, for whatever that’s worth).  Watson is going to put a lot of lawyers out on the street, which is precisely the conclusion that Andy Kessler comes to over at the Wall Street Journal.  In Kessler’s colorful employment taxonomy, lawyers are classified as “sponges”:

Sponges are those who earned their jobs by passing a test meant to limit supply. According to [the WSJ], 23% of U.S. workers now need a state license….All this does is legally bar others from doing the same job, so existing workers can charge more and sponge off the rest of us.

But eDiscovery is the hottest thing right now in corporate legal departments. The software scans documents and looks for important keywords and phrases, displacing lawyers and paralegals who charge hundreds of dollars per hour to read the often millions of litigation documents. Lawyers, understandably, hate eDiscovery.

We can argue whether this is a good for society overall (or not).  But come on, Weber.  Don’t say that Watson “won’t ever replace attorneys” when what you really mean is that “I personally am going to be able to keep my job.”