Behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner once wrote, “Human conversations are as varied as stars in the night sky, and no less infinite in their possibility.” Malarkey, says I. When the pretense has been stripped away, there are but three basic reasons driving human beings to talk to each other. Whether the pretense is “flirting,” “arguing,” or even “Ygnacio Valley High School’s 30-Year Reunion,” the underlying motivations behind conversation are simple: food, sex, and trivia.
1) Procurement of meat
No matter what the ostensible subject matter, conversation is often just a ritualized encounter in which each party attempts to assess the other’s meat-obtaining abilities. Perhaps the other party will reveal a new way to obtain meat, a new place to eat meat, or a story about how meat and other foodstuffs were combined in an unthought-of-but-still-delicious manner.
“You got a new job?”Translation: You are more able to purchase meat. I can spend time in your presence and share in the bounty of your future feasts.
“Tell me more about that new restaurant.” Translation: I must diversify my intake of meat.
“I’m glad you did well on your midterm.” Translation: Your future meat-obtaining abilities have increased incrementally.
“So you’ve decided to take a semester off.” Translation: And for that semester, your expectations of future security will diminish, as will your consumption of meat. As will my interactions with you.
And obtaining meat goes hand in hand with…
2) Procurement of sex
Conversation is also a mating dance. The male is constantly assessing the female’s ability to bear and raise many children, as well as the chances that she’ll go down on him relatively early in their relationship. For her part, the female is constantly evaluating the male’s ability to provide meat and shelter for her future offspring (See #1) and the likelihood that his social status could elevate her own. Any conversation that involves physical contact or discussion of sexual habits is the equivalent of examining a horse’s teeth before buying it.
“I just got back from the gym.” Translation: Imagine how attractive my newly enlarged muscles would look were my shirt not present.
“Your hair looks nice.” Translation: Daily compliments and affection like this could be yours if we entered into a sexual relationship.
“So I was talking to my pastor, and he said…” Translation: Other males have not had an opportunity to replicate their genetic information with me. Nor will you.
The final motivation for interacting with other human beings is less glamorous, but no less omnipresent.
3) Procurement of trivial information for future use
Like a squirrel storing nuts in the ground, or an emperor placing nubile young concubines in a harem, conversationalists store nuggets of data away for use in future talks. More information means more potential conversation, which means more chances to hunt for meat/sex.
“Hey, how did that midterm go?” Translation: You previously mentioned an upcoming midterm, and now, having no other excuse to initiate social contact, I will simply reference that encounter.
“Is your mom/dad/grandparent/pet feeling better?” Translation: I have listened and shown concern during our earlier chats. Won’t you reward my attention and sympathy by providing meat and/or sex?
I hope that you can keep these motivations in mind when thinking about making small talk with someone else. Realize also that when it somes to eating and fornicating, “wit” and “cleverness” are on the same level with markmanship and cocksmanship.