Language

Language series: Is chit chat selected for survival?

I’m notoriously unsocial.  It used to be called shy, but now it’s a disorder about which everyone seems to be an expert.  If, like me, you have low tolerance for small talk, finding the experience of it like unto pain, then you know what I’m talking about.

I’d like to argue that people with a skill for chit chat enjoy that skill because natural selection favors it.  It’s not a terribly controversial argument, and I may be a bit unscientific in some of my conclusions.

In Sociolinguistics: an introduction to language and society, Peter Trudgill explains why chit chat serves an important purpose.  He sets up the scenario of two strangers meeting on a train who begin talking about the weather.

In some cases this may simply be because they happen to find the subject interesting.  Most people, though, are not particularly interested in analyses of climatic conditions, so there must be other reasons for conversations of this kind.  One explanation is that it can often be quite embarrassing to be alone in the company of someone you are not acquainted with and not speak to them…by talking to the other person about some neutral topic like the weather, it is possible to strike up a relationship without actually having to say very much.

He goes on to say that “the most important thing about the conversation…is not the words they are using, but the fact that they are talking at all.”

Trudgill’s  context is obviously sociolinguistics and not evolutionary biology, but I’m curious to tease out the idea that individuals who master chit chat are better equipped to survive than quiet, unsociable, shy people.  There are obvious qualities in a consummate chit chatter:

  • An ability to talk to anyone (comfortably). Doesn’t this dramatically increase the chance that you will meet — or, by concentric waves of social diversity, mate — with someone?
  • An ability to talk about anything (or fake it well). This suggests a predisposition (whether nurtured or natured) that, again, makes you more inclined to meet a wider variety of people, mates among them.
  • An aversion to introspection and isolation. For some with chit chat skills, the experience may have negative associations: the joy is not in the constructive opportunities of chit chat, but in the distance it puts between you and uncomfortable solitude.
  • An ability to simulate sincerity. “I feel for you.” You can’t succeed (dialectically) if you can’t convince others that you mean what you say, even if you don’t mean it. This draws a line between trivial chit chat and influential chit chat. The ability to use chit chat to influence others seems a natural progeny of the ability to talk to anyone and the ability to talk about anything.
  • An ability to collaborate (“yes, let’s improve our overall story through collective chit chat”) or compete (“I can talk more or with greater facility/humor/drama than you can about something that interests us”) in settings that encourage chit chat. Let’s not forget that people who can talk incessantly about nothing aren’t necessarily consummate chit chatters.

Which brings me to a position I should clarify. In asserting that accomplished chit chatters are selected for survival, I do not propose that shy, unsociable people are necessarily less successful at survival — only that they may, through a variety of means, need to work harder. And that their numbers are rarefied. Nature favors success in volume, but is not binary in its thoughtless criteria for selection. If it were, homogeneity would prevail. Since it is not, variety rules. Excellence with chit chat is an example of this.

What of the other side? Am I suggesting, by posing the question, that shy people are more inclined to extinction? No. The scientist or musician who socializes poorly may be less likely to enjoy mating variety, but may be far more capable of articulating (through instruments other than chit chat) an intellectual or attractively artistic point of view than most chit chatters. This means, perhaps, that the wideness of the mating pool is replaced by narrowness with depth. There is every reason to believe that natural selection accounts for this. I refer you to the predatory implications of the koala’s success.

Next up: If Stephen Pinker thinks language skills are innate — despite arguments to the contrary — then surely chit chat skills fall under this umbrella and are not merely artifacts of cultural conditioning, or, is it all about the brain?

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