“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.

Facebook’s greatest accomplishment may be a massive change in the scale of human interaction

Facebook certainly did at least one thing: it gave users connections to more individuals than humans have ever had before.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The giants of the social web—Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram; Google and its subsidiary YouTube; and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—have achieved success by being dogmatically value-neutral in their pursuit of what I’ll call megascale. Somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that it needed not just a very large user base, but a tremendous one, unprecedented in size. That decision set Facebook on a path to escape velocity, to a tipping point where it can harm society just by existing…

The on-again, off-again Facebook executive Chris Cox once talked about the “magic number” for start-ups, and how after a company surpasses 150 employees, things go sideways. “I’ve talked to so many start-up CEOs that after they pass this number, weird stuff starts to happen,” he said at a conference in 2016. This idea comes from the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argued that 148 is the maximum number of stable social connections a person can maintain. If we were to apply that same logic to the stability of a social platform, what number would we find?

“I think the sweet spot is 20 to 20,000 people,” the writer and internet scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who has spent much of his adult life thinking about how to build a better web, told me. “It’s hard to have any degree of real connectivity after that.”

In other words, if the Dunbar number for running a company or maintaining a cohesive social life is 150 people; the magic number for a functional social platform is maybe 20,000 people. Facebook now has 2.7 billion monthly users.

For much of human history, social interaction included only a relatively small number of people. The interactions occurred in a small geographic space. Some exchange in terms of news, trade, and people happened but not on the fast, global scale of which we are accustomed to today.

Facebook and other social media companies allow users access to thousands, if not millions, of users. Even as users have some choice about these connections, the possibilities are unprecedented. If humans found it daunting in the nineteenth century to encounter growing big cities (and early sociologists looked to explain the massive social changes connected to urban society and interaction), how do we comprehend all of the possible interactions today?

Some research suggests that even if users could access all these connections, they do not necessarily do so. Do Facebook users or Twitter users or other social media users regularly interact with people they do not know or do they primarily stick to people they know and/or known sources? Actually stepping across boundaries may be easier in the social media realm but they are still boundaries.

Does this suggest that humans cannot interact with global communities? Or, is this interaction not possible on an individual level and instead needs to be mediated through institutions, such as mass media or governments or corporations? Facebook’s experiences may just be helping people think about how to broaden connections without overwhelming those involved.

Missing the collective effervescence of Christmas shopping this year

Americans like shopping. And this year, even amid COVID-19, the shopping will go on. But, it will take a different form for many as the busy stores and shopping malls will be replaced by online shopping and shopping trips intended to avoid contact with people.

There are two components to shopping at Christmas time. First, Americans generally favor consumerism and can make commodities out of lots of things. Second, shopping can involve being around other people. In a large society where private lives are the norm, shopping near people in an excited holiday atmosphere feels like being part of something bigger. Even if you have no interactions with anyone else outside of your shopping group, simply being in the same time and place can be exciting.

Just as religious rituals can produce collective effervescence according to sociologist Emile Durkheim, so too can Christmas shopping. It may be based on consumerism, have no touch of the transcendent, and involve no direct social interaction with other people. Yet, shopping at Christmas is a different kind of experience than shopping for different kinds of items at different times of the year.

Shopping online produces no such collective effervescence. A person and a screen. The social energy is limited. Of course, one could head to social media to share their online shopping exploits. But, it is not the same as being physically near to other people in a space designed to push you toward Christmas cheer and more spending.

64% of Americans “say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country” – but does this mean individual users will leave?

Pew Research recently released a new report on how Americans view social media’s effects on the country and politics. Here is one of the takeaways from the report:

This chart moves beyond many of the other takeaways which suggest majorities of Americans are skeptical about the intertwining of social media companies and politics. The responses to this particular question suggests the effect of social media is beyond politics: it affects “the way things are going in the country today.”

Since the other questions are about politics and government regulation, it is a little hard to know exactly what this means. Is it bad for young people? Families? Communities? Education? Public spaces? Physical health? It takes up a lot of time? Social media is too powerful compared to other institutions that should be leading the way?

All of these could be very interesting to explore. But, it is also worth examining how this question about social media and the direction of the country is related to the social media use of individual users. Does this mean that more people are not participating in social media? Are accounts being deactivated or deleted? Are people curtailing their time on social media? Is there interest in and movement toward more conversation outside of social media?

One finding of research I have conducted with sociologist Peter Mundey is that young adult social media users can articulate some of the problems with social media. And they modify their social media behavior to try to avoid negative interactions.

But, this does not necessarily mean that they drop out of social media or do not join in the first place. These young adults could also explain the advantages of social media, particularly the ability to maintain connections with people. Some of the connections may not always require effort but they are available. Other connections, say with family and close friends, are worth engaging in through social media. Plus, if they are not on social media, they might be missing out on social connections and events that are hard to access in other ways.

This might lead to a bit of an impasse. Americans think social media and politics is not a good mix. Social media could be bad for the country. But, withdrawing completely from social media might be a lot to ask. In many ways, it could work for individuals, particularly through providing connections to people and information.

Perhaps individual users will continue try to find ways to do both: engage with social media on a limited or focused basis. Or, avoid politics on social media. Maximize the good portions, minimize the negatives. Participate at arm’s length.

Only time will tell. Social media has had a meteoric rise but it is not guaranteed to last. Social media platforms can evolve. New opportunities can arise and social conditions are dynamic. We need to continue to look at how users engage social media. And if we see a steady trend of users leaving social media platforms, that will be worth noting.

Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Opening a 56-story Chicago office building during COVID-19

The new Bank of America office building, 816 feet tall and 56-stories along the Chicago River, is ready for business. But, COVID-19 is around…

From film at https://110northwacker.com/

The lead tenant, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, expected to have more than 2,600 people working on its 17 floors of the 56-story tower. But fewer than 200 work there now, according to company spokeswoman Diane Wagner…

By drastically reducing the number of columns that come to the ground, this structural tour de force allows the tower’s caissons to reach bedrock without hitting the remaining caissons of the old Morton Salt building. It also opens up the riverwalk, which would have felt constricted had it been hidden behind a row of columns.

To some, the arrangement may appear unstable. But new section of riverwalk, with its long, curving benches and still-to-be-planted greenery, is among the strongest contributions the tower makes to the public realm. It will not become a windblown cavern, the architects assure…

With COVID-19 still a significant threat, the developers have put several safeguards in place, including walk-through temperature scanning in the lobby, antimicrobial cladding on the building’s entry doors and upgraded air filtration systems. Tenants can swipe their smartphones on high-tech turnstiles that call an elevator. There’s also none of the welcoming seating that animated other downtown office building lobbies before the pandemic struck.

It sounds like the pandemic has effects on two major features of the building:

  1. The interior will not be functioning as it was designed for a while. This building has a lot of office space; will it ever be fully filled after COVID-19 passes and businesses reckon with shifts to working from home? We have not heard much about what it is like to work in such conditions – a relatively empty building – nor do we know how building owners and developers plan to use office space if they cannot attract firms.
  2. The excerpt above describes how the building interacts with the surrounding environment. It sounds good. But, how does it look and/or function when the typical street life of the Loop is not present? Can aesthetics overcome a lack of social interaction? When will the building fully participate in regular urban life?

Since this is not the only large downtown building under construction in Chicago, let alone in large American cities, it will be fascinating to see what comes of these structures. Will they be regarded as the last of the big central office buildings in a decentralized work landscape or will they be brave attempts to do business as normal or do they represent a new wave of exciting buildings that mark a post COVID-19 era?

Utilizing the front porch during COVID-19

With social life changed to COVID-19, front porches offer a unique opportunities for social interaction:

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

Thanks to the pandemic, the front porch is enjoying a new golden age. Like their near cousins, stoops, steps, even fire escapes, porches offer a semipublic setting where we can meet friends and neighbors face-to-face—even if those faces are masked. In the words of Claude Stephens, founder of a tongue-in-cheek group called Professional Porch Sitters Union Local 1339, a porch is “the only place where you can feel like you are outside and inside at the same time; out with all of the neighbors and alone reading a book.”…

“The front porch was an escape from the heat of the wood-burning kitchen stove,” explains historian Donald Empson, the author of “The Street Where You Live,” an architectural guide to St. Paul, Minn. “On the porch, in the cool of the evening, the family could gather to discuss the day’s events and exchange the latest news with neighbors strolling by.” Porches offered neighbors a place to exchange gossip, to spin sagas and sing songs, to flirt and court and air political views. The front porch at the turn of the century was Starbucks, flash mob, church social and Facebook rolled into one…

We no longer need front porches to broadcast our political agendas or to keep cool, as our grandparents once did. But we still need them, perhaps now more than ever. Porches give us a physical space to safely host friends, neighbors and passersby for the small talk and deep conversations otherwise difficult to foster in the middle of a pandemic.

If you’re yearning to add a porch, a 300-square-foot version will set you back an average of $21,000. One study shows you can recoup 90% or more of that investment at resale. But you can’t place a dollar value on the intangible elements of a porch—a social lubricant, a casual meeting place, an eye on the world, a place that’s a little bit yours and a little bit theirs.

Architects, urban planners, and others have argued for decades that front porches and the social life associated with them would help improve community. By spending time in a zone connected to the single-family home yet open to people passing by, residents open themselves up to interactions in a way that is not possible with the common holing up inside to watch TV or driving in and out of the garage at the beginning and end of each day.

It would be interesting to see how exactly front porches are being used right now. There is a time period of home construction lasting at least a few decades in the postwar era when front porches were not common. Older homes may have home as might some newer homes, though these newer porches can be fairly small or more cosmetic than usable. Do people in neighborhoods where front porches are more common report higher levels of social interaction during COVID-19?

In addition to the new opportunities for social interaction during COVID, the front porch can also function as a work or social space separate from inside life yet still connected to the home. With many working from home or students going to school remotely, the front porch offers a covered yet open-to-nature space. Just make sure the Wifi works well…

Addressing COVID-19 and public noise issues at the same time with “library rules for America”

While Derek Thompson suggests less or no talking in public would help limit the spread of COVID-19, his solution would also address concerns people have about noise in public:

Photo by Inga Seliverstova on Pexels.com

Here’s one solution: Library rules for America. Every time you walked into a school, a medical clinic, a drug store, a barbershop, an office, an airplane, a train, or a government building, you should see a sign that read: Hush for Your Health; or Make Good Choices, Lower Your Voices!; or Keep Quiet and Carry On. “In terms of the science, I am convinced that something like this library rule would reduce all modes of viral transmission,” Jimenez told me.

Thompson also hints at a persistent noise issue:

If Americans imported Japan’s subway rules to our public life, we might be able to accelerate our return to a more muted form of normalcy. Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard people talking loudly on their cellphones in grocery stores and pharmacies, sometimes with their masks pushed aside from their mouths to improve the clarity of their diction. Such behavior displays a total failure to understand how the disease spreads.

These loud conversations in public, whether the user is on speakerphone or talking loudly to someone nearby, are an annoyance to many. Some noise in public is to be expected: vehicles go by, people are around, airplanes fly overhead, etc. But, having people around you who are carrying on loud, conversations can be frustrating.

On the user end, it can be easy to end up yelling into your phone without being aware of it. You get caught up in talking, there is noise around, the phone call audio quality may not be great, and you sound like a lunatic to passerby even though you think you are just having a normal conversation. Or, a regular social interaction could be fun or maddening, leading to increased volume.

I wonder if this solitude attributed to libraries would match what they aspire to be these days. When people need public spaces and resources, libraries can be gathering places. The days of hushed shelves of books may be gone and replaced by tool and gadget rentals, computer labs, meeting rooms, and interactive areas.

More broadly, Americans are known for their loud conversations and convivial spirit. The friendliness or public conversation plus the volume can rankle some. Asking Americans to act like they are in a library might be a lot to ask. Imagine: “If I want to talk loud in public, that is my right!” A quiet American soundscape, particularly in certain settings, might be jarring.

Perhaps the bigger question is how far Americans would go to slow or eliminate COVID-19. Is not having loud conversations in public too much to ask? Now, if COVID-19 and noise guidelines could speak to the loud playing of music…

The current social contract: we get along by leaving each other alone

A Washington D.C. resident says he is leaving the city because social order has broken down. Here is how he describes what made city life work:

time lapse photography of people walking on pedestrian lane

Photo by Mike Chai on Pexels.com

All I asked in return was relative safety and to be left alone to enjoy the city. City-living in America, for decades, meant tolerating mild inconveniences so that you could be left alone, alongside millions of others. That was the tacit pact…

Gay? Black? Trans? No offense, but, so what? We are city people: we have seen it all—literally, all—our entire lives. You are our neighbors, our friends, the president of our HOAs, our coworkers. The great beauty of the city is that we come from all walks of life and we get along. We accomplish this by leaving each other alone.

This sounds similar to how sociologist M. P. Baumgartner described the “moral minimalism” pervasive in suburban social life:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

In both descriptions, residents want to be left alone. They want to live life as they see fit without interference or social control exerted by others. This does not necessarily mean there is no social interaction or residents dislike the local environment; the Washington, D.C. resident describes partaking in and enjoying urban culture and interacting with neighbors. In Baumgartner’s study, suburbanites might know each other or interact; they just do not get too deeply involved or try to pressure others.

At the root of this seems to be a deep seated individualism that provides space for people to make their own choices. Every space or community provides some constraints on what people can do (or can imagine doing) yet Americans often imagine themselves as solitary units. The strains of this are everywhere: as long as it does not hurt other people, people should be free to do it; what people do on their own time or in their own dwelling is none of my business; a man’s home is his castle; you do you and I’ll do me; and so on.

Even though this idea is widespread, it also has limits. If individuals are masters of their own fate and this should not be interfered with, it can be tough to rally people around particular causes that require collective effort. Indeed, I think a good argument could be made that some of our current political conflict is due to the fact that different groups would like to introduce ideas/values/legislation for others to consider and/or follow while wanting to claim that they also support individualism.

More broadly, this is an odd social contract to have considering the sweep of human history and societies. Much of what humans experienced took place in relatively small groups with strong bonds. Today, more of our world is organized around people with whom we have chosen to interact with more tenuous ties to traditional bonding agents like extended family, religious groups, and specific geographic locations and the communities there.

I do not know if this social contract will last. The individualism of the last few centuries has changed much. Yet, it is helpful to keep in mind as we consider how to do anything together.

Moral minimalism and addressing social issues

In the 1989 study The Moral Order of a Suburb, sociologist M. P. Baumgartner argued that suburban order rested on what she called “moral minimalism”:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

In a later description of moral minimalism, she writes:

Moral minimalism entails a considerable degree of indifference to the wrongdoing of others…If people in such places cannot be bothered to take action against those who offend them or to engage in conflicts, neither can they be bothered to help those in need. (131)

Most residents do not want to involve third parties when conflict arises (unless it involves strangers) – it would be better to do nothing at all.

The pervasive moral minimalism found in the suburbs contrasts sharply with claims that American society is particularly violent or litigious. However true such characterizations may be for other settings, they do not reflect suburban reality. Residents of suburbs like Hampton rarely aggress against one another physically, and for them, law remains primarily a theoretical option for handling grievances that arise in their everyday lives. They are happy to have police at as their champions in preventing and resolving trouble that unknown persons might cause, but beyond this, they have very little use for law. When problems occur, most people do not seriously consider recourse to legal officials, and, in fact, they generally act as if law did not exist at all. In this sense, suburbia is a king of limited anarchy. (127)

In conclusion:

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

All of this does not lend itself to addressing social issues or community problems. If people are used to leaving each other alone and avoiding conflict, what happens when legitimate structural issues arise? Or, what happens when others make the case that addressing a structural issue is necessary or helpful? Or, if there is need, how do people used to moral minimalism respond? Convincing suburbanites to move on from moral minimalism, particularly when it seems to “work” in wealthier, whiter communities where people have the resources and agency to generally do what they want (having a single-family home, a good life for their kids, etc.), is a difficult task.