Monday, January 26, 2015

Nothing Doing

One of the nagging things in my life is searching for an answer to the question, "what's going on?" This informal conversation-supplanting tool has me utterly and completely flummoxed. Every single time. Never in my life have I produced a satisfactory answer, either to myself or to the person asking the question.

Let's try to break this down:

Specifically, I'm referring not just to "what's going on?", but also to an entire class of phrases that are commonly used right at the beginning of conversation. These phrases are employed directly pursuant to the acknowledgment of another person, either in words ("Hello, Steve!") or in deeds (a smile on seeing someone familiar approach). The basket includes phrases like "what's up?" and "what's happening?" or "what's new?"

I'm familiar with the typical use of this...

Me: <approaching someone> Hi, there!
Them: Oh, hi, Andy! What's up?
Me: Nothing. Boy, your squirrel sure is relaxed.
Them: He had a tough day at the office.

Here, the construct serves as just a convenient way to indicate interest and acknowledge that I am approaching in a way that may suggest I have something to say. And I respond with "nothing," even though I then immediately bring up "something." In this case, that is one super-relaxed squirrel.

But every now and again, the question seems to inhabit some larger context, or be somehow more deserving of thought and a serious answer than it typically does. I am completely flummoxed. It's basically the same question. It probably even serves a similar purpose -- that being: this is a thing to say that is more than hello but only slightly.

Allow me to share a real version of this from just this week.

Her: Hi, Andy! What's the news?
Me: Hi. <awkward pause as I can be seen to be scanning my hard drive> Err, nothing, I guess.
Her: <laughing> Well, this is a short conversation, then.

To be fair, she is British, and therefore more familiar at navigating the pathways of conversational shame than I am. But I still felt unprepared to answer the question. Why is that? Wasn't I present as I was doing things?

Part of the problem is that I don't actually use the phrase myself. Ever. While writing this entry, I was trying to think of the last time I remembered saying it, only to find that I don't ever remember saying it. Then I started to get self-conscious: this is one of the regular pieces of social glue that our society uses. How could I not use it?

It turns out it's because I construct my greetings with statements. Instead of an open-ended question, I can quickly recall many instances of me making a statement.

"Hi! It's good to see you."
"Good afternoon. I can't believe how much snow we have."
"It's good to see you again, Thomas. Your pants are unzipped."

These declarative don't necessarily invite any less response than a form-letter question would do. The generic "what's up" questions are often so generic and purposeless that they function more like a word association test than a question about the times.

How are you/I'm fine.
What's happening/kicking butt taking names
I don't know/Third base!

Nothing more than a conversational formality, observed with all the strictness -- in its own way -- of a Japanese bow. When you meet, you bow. That's just... what happens. Similarly, when someone asks "how are things?", you have a response quickly available that requires little thought (and is little comprehended by the asking party). Only then can the conversation move forward.

Not being prepared for this sort of conversation is the equivalent of tossing a speed bump in front of someone.

Them: Hey, Andy. How's it going?
Them: Err. What?
Me: I mean, 'nothing much; how about you?'

And it's not like I'm trying to disrupt conversation for the better. Such stilted social interactions tend to reflect rather badly on me, as though I'm somehow not prepared for the day, or that I'm so uninteresting as to have nothing to say (and ridiculous enough to comment on it).

Maybe it's just another one of those situations where I'm caught up in being technically correct, at the expense of being actually incorrect. In Victorian London, if someone greeted you with "how do you do?", the correct response was to return the question with a falling intonation. It had the pleasing audio of the question/answer pairing, without anyone needing to communicate anything. It was considered rude to actually answer the question "how do you do?" by actually telling anyone how it was that you "do."

So maybe I just need to train myself to simply offer another one of those questions back, to show that I reflexively understood that I've been spoken to.

Them: How are things?
Me: What's up.

Or maybe it's everyone ELSE's fault. Perhaps we should refrain from questions that don't need answers. It puts the burden on the person who "gets there second." In that way, not unlike the conversation phrase "what are you doing?" I remarked on last year ("Tentative Interrogative"). Perhaps we should switch to listening, remembering, and remarking on things that happened recently.

Me: Good morning. Wasn't it today you were going to start being on time?
Them: Morning. I'm certain that was only supposed to come after you started bathing. Surely, you haven't given up on self-improvement already?
Me: Touche.
Them: Quite.
Me: Indeed.

So much better!

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