Jun 4, 2008

The First Nicety

"How are you?"

"It's raining."


"How are you doing today?"

"There is rain."


"What's new."

"Today, it's raining."

That is how several conversations that I have with students begin. They walk into school, and if I'm there I'll say hello to them in the lobby. I use the standard English openers ("How are you?" etc.) and they usually reply by telling me about the weather. Not all students, mind you. There are several who dutifully say "I'm fine," and a rare, advanced, few who give me a real answer. But most of them, especially those in lower level classes, respond to my initial question with an assessment of the perfectly visible weather.

Of course it's raining. It's been raining for a while now. Late spring and early summer is Japan's rainy season, the season of typhoons and downpours. The stuff collects on the windows of my classroom, and in the evening lull sticks to the glass like circular ice crystals against the bright lights. Or it runs down the window in rivulets, little rivers with a vein of neon in them. It's pervasive and obvious, and when I begin talking with students, they first mention the pervasive and obvious.

Some, though, especially kids, robotically say "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" "I'm fine, thank you. How are you?" But it comes out all wrong. It comes out as a single memorized phrase, a single chunk of information. Which is fine, I guess, because that's how they learned it. But both the robotic intonation of "I'm fine thank you, and you?" and the incessant talk about the weather reveals a lot about the rituals of starting a conversation.

When my kids say "I'm fine thank you, and you?" and when my students answer "How are you?" with "It's raining," both of them are taking part in a ritual, a formality, a bit of theater, a bullshit mantra. In English, we say "I'm fine," and in Japanese one obviously comments on the weather. In either case, the polite, expected way to start a conversation is to not exchange any real information at all. It's speech without discourse, talking without communication. It's the first nicety- saying nothing real.

Of course you're fine (whatever that means). Of course it's raining. The teller has revealed nothing, the asker has learned nothing- the only thing we've done is open our mouths in a simulacrum of real discussion. I tend to dislike smalltalk because of this. Of course, since I teach lots of people who can't express complex ideas in English because they simply lack the linguistic resources, I have to engage in and teach smalltalk as part of my job. I'm good at it, but I still don't find it as nourishing as real speech. I'd rather hear someone say "I'm hungry" than "I'm fine" any day.

It's the teaching part that's odd. To be effective communicators, to fit in to an English-speaking environment, I have to teach them new rituals, new formality, new theater, new bullshit mantras. And it can't be robotic or perfunctory, like my kids do it. If the theater looks like theater, if the ritual is revealed as a ritual, it loses its effectiveness. "I'm fine" and other smalltalk has to pretend, a little, to be something real. The intonation of it has to sound somewhat genuine, even if it's not. And it's almost always not, really. People tend to be happy, tired, depressed, annoyed, or bored throughout the day. What the hell is "fine," anyway? I guess it's some neutral, inoffensive state, an emotional Switzerland.

At least idle comments about the obvious weather don't do too much to mask the state of the speakers being. Yes, hearing "it's raining" is annoying. God, it's insufferable sometime. But at least it doesn't pretend that everyone is at some equilibrium of fine-ness. Still, I have to teach them, have to show them how to put a little bit of English language bullshit into their speech and tell everyone that they're fine.

I'm fine.

You're fine.

We're all fine here.

Also, it's raining.


Rip Tatermen said...

I'm OK, how are you?/
Thanks for asking, thanks for asking./
I'm OK, how are you?/
I hope you're OK too.

Joseph said...

I used to hate small-talk. But I've come to view it as a lot more useful, recently. Essentially, it's a really convenient way to keep the conversation going in some way until one or the other of you can figure out something non-vacuous and interesting to talk about. Because the alternative is uncomfortably sitting around without talking or walking away.

Nobody likes small-talk, of course, and I some people are definitely bad about trying to make the leap from small-talk to worthwhile conversation. But still, I contend it's generally useful, if undesirable.

Joseph said...

It's a stalling tactic, is what I'm trying to say. Curse you, blogger, for your refusal to let me edit my previous comments!