What Do We Talk About?

What are humans doing when we are talking? Surely, we can communicate about mundane things such as what to have for dinner, but also more complex and abstract things such as the meaning of life and death, liberty, equality, and fraternity, and many other philosophical thoughts.

Studies show that people love to gossip. By gossiping, humans can communicate and share their representations about their social world—who their friends and enemies are, what the right thing to do is under what circumstances, and so on. [Image: aqua. mech, https://goo.gl/Q7Ap4b, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/T4qgSp]

Well, when naturally occurring conversations were actually observed (Dunbar, Marriott, & Duncan, 1997), a staggering 60%–70% of everyday conversation, for both men and women, turned out to be gossip—people talk about themselves and others whom they know. Just like Adam and Ben, more often than not, people use language to communicate about their social world.

Gossip may sound trivial and seem to belittle our noble ability for language—surely one of the most remarkable human abilities of all that distinguish us from other animals. Au contraire, some have argued that gossip—activities to think and communicate about our social world—is one of the most critical uses to which language has been put. Dunbar (1996) conjectured that gossiping is the human equivalent of grooming, monkeys and primates attending and tending to each other by cleaning each other’s fur. He argues that it is an act of socializing, signaling the importance of one’s partner. Furthermore, by gossiping, humans can communicate and share their representations about their social world—who their friends and enemies are, what the right thing to do is under what circumstances, and so on. In so doing, they can regulate their social world—making more friends and enlarging one’s own group (often called the ingroup, the group to which one belongs) against other groups (outgroups) that are more likely to be one’s enemies. Dunbar has argued that it is these social effects that have given humans an evolutionary advantage and larger brains, which, in turn, help humans to think more complex and abstract thoughts and, more important, maintain larger ingroups. Dunbar (1993) estimated an equation that predicts average group size of nonhuman primate genera from their average neocortex size (the part of the brain that supports higher order cognition). In line with his social brain hypothesis, Dunbar showed that those primate genera that have larger brains tend to live in larger groups. Furthermore, using the same equation, he was able to estimate the group size that human brains can support, which turned out to be about 150—approximately the size of modern hunter- gatherer communities. Dunbar’s argument is that language, brain, and human group living have co-evolved—language and human sociality are inseparable.

Dunbar’s hypothesis is controversial. Nonetheless, whether or not he is right, our everyday language use often ends up maintaining the existing structure of intergroup relationships. Language use can have implications for how we construe our social world. For one thing, there are subtle cues that people use to convey the extent to which someone’s action is just a special case in a particular context or a pattern that occurs across many contexts and more like a character trait of the person. According to Semin and Fiedler (1988), someone’s action can be described by an action verb that describes a concrete action (e.g., he runs), a state verb that describes the actor’s psychological state (e.g., he likes running), an adjective that describes the actor’s personality (e.g., he is athletic), or a noun that describes the actor’s role (e.g., he is an athlete). Depending on whether a verb or an adjective (or noun) is used, speakers can convey the permanency and stability of an actor’s tendency to act in a certain way—verbs convey particularity, whereas adjectives convey permanency. Intriguingly, people tend to describe positive actions of their ingroup members using adjectives (e.g., he is generous) rather than verbs (e.g., he gave a blind man some change), and negative actions of outgroup members using adjectives (e.g., he is cruel) rather than verbs (e.g., he kicked a dog). Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, and Semin (1989) called this a linguistic intergroup bias, which can produce and reproduce the representation of intergroup relationships by painting a picture favoring the ingroup. That is, ingroup members are typically good, and if they do anything bad, that’s more an exception in special circumstances; in contrast, outgroup members are typically bad, and if they do anything good, that’s more an exception.


In addition, when people exchange their gossip, it can spread through broader social networks. If gossip is transmitted from one person to another, the second person can transmit it to a third person, who then in turn transmits it to a fourth, and so on through a chain of communication. This often happens for emotive stories (Box 2). If gossip is repeatedly transmitted and spread, it can reach a large number of people. When stories travel through communication chains, they tend to become conventionalized (Bartlett, 1932). A Native American tale of the “War of the Ghosts” recounts a warrior’s encounter with ghosts traveling in canoes and his involvement with their ghostly battle. He is shot by an arrow but doesn’t die, returning

home to tell the tale. After his narration, however, he becomes still, a black thing comes out of his mouth, and he eventually dies. When it was told to a student in England in the 1920s and retold from memory to another person, who, in turn, retold it to another and so on in a communication chain, the mythic tale became a story of a young warrior going to a battlefield, in which canoes became boats, and the black thing that came out of his mouth became simply his spirit (Bartlett, 1932). In other words, information transmitted multiple times was transformed to something that was easily understood by many, that is, information was assimilated into the common ground shared by most people in the linguistic community. Morerecently, Kashima (2000) conducted a similar experiment using a story that contained a sequence of events that described a young couple’s interaction that included both stereotypical and counter-stereotypical actions (e.g., a man watching sports on TV on Sunday vs. a man vacuuming the house). After the retelling of this story, much of the counter- stereotypical information was dropped, and stereotypical information was more likely to be retained. Because stereotypes are part of the common ground shared by the community, this finding too suggests that conversational retellings are likely to reproduce conventional content.


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What Do We Talk About? by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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