In the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the protohuman animals are shown scratching in the dirt, grooming each other, screaming to scare off opposing groups, and being awed by the alien monolith.
It turns out that all human discourse falls roughly into those same categories.
Social Grooming in Linguistic Form
Many animals, including primates, birds, and insects, engage in social grooming. They scratch, stroke, and massage each other’s body parts to clean them and to promote their hygiene, health and utility to the group. Animals groom each other also in exchange for food or sex and to reinforce social status and maintain group cohesion by reducing stress and consoling injured or humiliated members. Animals bond and establish alliances by initiating grooming or by reciprocating the offer.
I remember my younger brother and I used to comb our mother’s hair when we were children. People also pat each other’s back to express our sympathy, and couples stroke each other’s arm or face on dates to create intimacy.
However, humans wear clothes most of the time, so we might believe our opportunities for social grooming are limited. Moreover, we assume we’ve outgrown the need for such primitive displays, because we’re people rather than pure animals.
But the majority of our communication has the same functions as social grooming, which suggests that grooming can occur in linguistic form.
Gossip, face-saving white lies, and small-talk or chatter are clear symbolic substitutes for physical grooming. Gossip is the sharing of (often petty) secrets that reinforce social status or puff up the pride of the speaker and the listener at the expense of the person who’s the subject of the rumor.
White lies preserve our fragile self-esteem, while small talk spares us from boredom or from awkward moments of silence or relieves us of having to entertain ourselves by introspecting and perhaps dealing with our neglected thoughts.
The point is that this kind of communication is meant to smooth social interactions.
The same can be said for more negative kinds of discourse such as posturing, bullying, and one-upmanship in addition to demagoguing, spin-doctoring, obfuscating and the gamut of political or power-based communication.
Here the aim is the reverse of lifting up someone else by lowering yourself and serving the other; now the person with higher status in the cultural hierarchy consolidates that status by belittling or deceiving the other to block their ascent in the organization.
The Normality of Sleepwalking
In existential terms, the purpose of this speech-based grooming is to distract with trivialities and false narratives, to reassure each other that the situation isn’t as disturbing as it might appear, and to protect the cultural myths that automate our social interactions.
This social lubricant works by lulling us into a collective daydream. We sleepwalk through our interactions, to avoid overtaxing our brain with too much attention to detail or to the underlying significance of events. This trance is similar to the calming effect of physical grooming, which has been observed to put the groomed animal to sleep.
To take an amusing, albeit stilted example, notice how whenever a news anchor such as Wolf Blitzer on CNN turns the coverage over to a reporter whom Blitzer introduces, the reporter always begins her coverage by saying, “That’s right, Wolf.” Blitzer must be publicly reassured in that perfunctory fashion at least a dozen times a day.
So Blitzer will say, “We have breaking news; there’s a major fire in Pittsburg and it looks like a dangerous situation. Miss Reporter is on the scene and she has the details for us.”
The camera cuts to the reporter and she says, “That’s right, Wolf. It’s a dangerous situation indeed, what with the uncontrolled fire and everything.”
That’s how the illusory justification of Wolf Blitzer’s elevated status is established, with white lies and flattery that subtly make it seem as if Blitzer knows everything and never errs even though he’s only stating the obvious or being fed information into his earpiece by a news producer.
It’s not just the televised news presentation that’s guided by such cues, but the audience’s response to it as we become accustomed to the scripted performances. And it’s much the same in all civilized communication between strangers or associates. We avoid challenging topics at parties, such as religion and politics, since those have the potential to upset the group’s harmony. Instead, we lull each other into the trance of civility, babbling about the weather or our latest purchase or our vacation plans or our baby’s antics.
We focus on what we agree on, because in such “polite” contexts we’re not really speaking as our true selves. We don the mask of our persona, deferring to social expectations and performing as required by an implicit script. In short, we’re stroking each other’s ego, grooming with words rather than our hands.
Heart-to-Hearts and Meetings of Minds
Perhaps between half and two-thirds of everything we say as adults, on average, is made up of linguistic grooming, depending on our occupation and degree of extroversion. Most of the rest of what we say will consist of time-wasting inanities (the equivalent of scratching in the dirt) or will convey information to solve specific problems, such as by giving instructions on how to unclog a sink or bake a cake (or by shrieking to scare off foreigners, as in Kubrick’s film).
In short, in so far as our discourse is meaningful, we mostly become servants of society or tools that tweak certain mechanisms to make an objective change in the world.
Rarely do we engage in the third kind of meaningful discourse that’s the equivalent of being stunned by the alien monolith. This is known as platonic dialogue or a heart-to-heart conversation. This kind of communication is guileless and collaborative. The implicit subject matter is neither the social dominance hierarchy which dictates a script, nor a particular problem that can be solved with the efficient use of a technique. Instead, the subject is always ultimately the underlying existential mystery, the strangeness of being alive as a person in an impersonal world.
Very rarely do we surrender our masks and open up our mind to someone else to work toward a radical breakthrough or a reorientation of our perspective. This can happen not just in dialogue but in reckoning with a great work of art which challenges our presumptions.
If the meaningful verbal communication in postindustrial societies consists on average of around 60 percent speech-based grooming and 39 percent mundane problem-solving, that leaves one percent or less for the heart-to-heart or meeting of the minds. In developing societies, the first two components may be flipped in their proportions, as more time is needed to improve living conditions. There will be outliers, too, such as extreme extroverts or introverts who engage almost exclusively in either banter-based posturing (flirting, boasting, white lies, and so forth) or in philosophical dialogues.
Over the years, I’ve had several such heart-to-heart interactions and each one has been a hundred times more memorable than any bout of speech-based grooming. In high school, for example, a good friend’s girlfriend dropped me off at home. She parked her parent’s car on the driveway and we got to talking. The conversation opened up into a meeting of our minds and we sat in that car for hours talking about our interests and attitudes until the sun came up the next morning.
This wasn’t an overtly philosophical conversation because we were just teenagers and knew next to nothing. But the discussion felt profound, because of the rarity of such open-mindedness or “mind-melding” (to borrow the Star Trek image) She drove home and her boyfriend got wind of what had happened, misinterpreting it or perhaps becoming envious or resentful and we eventually ceased being friends.
I had another, more elevated meeting of the minds at a philosophy conference in Liverpool. It was with a Danish fellow who was writing his dissertation on Kierkegaard. We stayed up all night alone, talking about Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and neoconservatism, in a room in the hotel where the conference speakers were staying. Again, there was no ego in that discussion; we flowed with the philosophical ideas, teaming up in a quest for the truth as we examined our worldviews.
I recall the next evening we went to a pub with some other conference members, and it felt awkward because we’d had that burst of platonic intimacy and creativity, and were now restrained by the public setting. We stood there, drinking beer, chattering with the others on that lower mental plateau, as it were.
In fact, I’ve had at least one such free-flowing, open-minded, in-depth dialogue with each of my good friends over the years, going right back to public school. This seems exactly what distinguishes a “good” or “close” friend from an acquaintance or a lesser friend, namely the extent to which you’ve faced the great mystery together as your true selves.
Confronting or Evading the Great Mystery
These elevated conversations are comparable to entheogens, in that the partner’s open-mindedness acts as a springboard for your ideas to take on an independent life, to seem to flow of their own accord or from the mouth of a muse the pair of you are sharing. Just as a psychedelic experience can be exhausting and can serve for years as you mine it for insights, a meeting of the minds may happen only rarely even between close friends, as they use the memory of that encounter to guide the rest of their often more practical or pedestrian exchanges.
This may be one reason why Plato preferred spontaneous oral dialogue to written philosophy, because it’s much harder to conjure this relatively sacred, existential co-exploration just by reading a prepared text or even by listening to a lecture. Two things must certainly be banished as preconditions of the experience: society and instrumentality (a focus on solving mundane problems).
Needless to say, the brevity and anonymity on social media and the internet are impediments to existential exploration, although YouTube and podcasts can foster vestigial intellectual intimacy, as you’re invited to rehash records of other people’s heart-to-hearts. This seems the chief merit of Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, for example.
To be an existential explorer, you needn’t retreat to a cave, but you must at least know the difference between your true self and your public roles, and be able to disentangle the former from the latter so that you can ignore the needs of the herd, set aside your preoccupations with survival and with creature comforts, and join in confronting our awe-inspiring existential condition.
The more often we reach that mental summit, the smaller and less significant our ordinary discourse seems. This is fitting since the grooming portion of our mundane exchanges amounts to the pretense that there’s no existential mystery to explore — which the fact that naked minds can meet explodes.