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Social Grooming

© September 2006 Anthony Lawrence


"The Pats won!" A woman watering her garden cheerfully announced this as I walked by her home. I smiled and walked on. She may as well have told me that Kelly Clarkson had once again made the Billboard Top Ten: I have no interest in professional sports or pop music culture.

I do understand that "sports talk" is part of social grooming. It's oil for conversation, something to share, safe common ground. Fairly safe, that is: there are some folks who are truly rabid about their favorite teams and when two of that ilk with opposing views meet, it can get very ugly. But for most, team affiliations are light and not completely serious: as I said, it's just social oil. When someone invites you over to "watch the game", it isn't really the game that is important. That's true even when none of the people present are consciously aware that it isn't.

But that brief exchange did remind me of a conversation from my poker game earlier in the week. Someone mentioned "the game" (which turned out to be football), and someone else suggested turning on the TV. I protested, suggesting that if he wanted to watch football, he should go home and watch football, because we were playing poker, and I didn't want to put up with distractions and delays from the football game. Somewhat to my surprise, most of the table supported my view, so the TV stayed off. But my objection caused one player to approach me during our break.

"So you aren't a football fan?", he asked, not unpleasantly.

I replied that I'm not a sports fan at all. If you share my disinterest in these subjects, you've probably had the experience of some disbelieving soul trying to find the sport that you do watch and enjoy: eliminating all sports with a single wave saves time.

But it doesn't give any grooming opportunities. In many contexts, the would be social groomer simply gives up and decides I'm not worth grooming at all. In my case, the groomer wasn't giving up so easily. He sensed a social misfit, and couldn't quite believe it. "You go to the movies?", he asked. No, I had to confess, I don't go to the movies. "A reader, then?" he pressed on. Yes, sure, I suppose I'm a "reader".

"So what have you read recently?"

Ahh. Well, I was pretty sure he wouldn't care about Javascript - The Definitive Guide, so I mentioned The World is Flat, The Long Tail, and Blink. None of these sparked any recognition (he apparently expected a conversation about popular fiction), and my would-be groomer gave up. The break was over anyway, so we returned to the only obvious thing we had in common: poker.

I don't know what he was thinking about after that. He was probably thinking that he'd be sure to avoid me at future games. I, on the other hand, was thinking that the Long Tail is probably going to cause more uncomfortable grooming failures.

Sports, movies, popular singers, popular writers are all in danger of not being something we "all" share. Of course they never were, but the number of people who didn't watch the game, who didn't listen to the Beatles, who didn't "go to the movies" or read light fiction was small enough to be safely ignored. But that was always because of lack of choice: you watched Monday Night Football because you only had five or six TV channels and four of them carried the game. You watched the same movies as everyone else because your entertainment choices were limited. The limited choices gave shared experiences that could be used for social grooming.

But now, we have much more to choose from. We only have so much time for entertainment: you can't keep up with Deadwood, John Stewart, American Idol, Monk, Reno 911, Kelly Clarkson, Tom Cruise, football, baseball, soccer, and the latest goings on in mathematics or whatever else really interests you. You can't read The Long Tail, The World is Flat, Blink AND the latest Stephen King novel while still being ready to talk about the latest movies. If you do manage to keep up with all that, surely you aren't also doing sudoko and the Sunday crossword puzzle. There simply isn't enough time for all of it.

So, it would seem that we must become more insulated from one another. If we don't have shared fluff to groom one another with, how do we groom at all? It may take longer and longer for two people to find any point of commonality in their lives, any common knowledge that they share.

In some ways, this is good: understanding and acceptance of diversity is harder when people are surrounded by other people whose thoughts move in lockstep. But without social grooming, you can't build trust easily. We feel "comfortable" with people who we understand; we understand one another through social interaction.

Do you observe a lessening commonality of culture and interests?

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Take Control of IOS 11

More Articles by © Anthony Lawrence

Mon Sep 11 18:49:15 2006: 2449   BigDumbDinosaur

I read this article with both a grin and a feeling of deja vu. I, too, am not a sports fan. I really don't care if the Chicago Bears manage to get to the super bowl again, nor am I overly concerned about whether Lance Armstrong's string of Tour de France victories was due to his innate athletic abilities or the quality of the controlled substances he may or may not have ingested. My perspective on athletics in general is that they are a great way to get hurt, and an equally great way to teach children defective values.

Regarding pop music culture, it was only a short while ago that I found out what the big deal was about Kelly Clarkson (to me, she sounds like every other pop princess: loud and not very musical). My interests in music are very different, as I am a classically trained musician with little interest in pop music in general. I do like the old-time rock 'n' roll of the 1950's, primarily because I grew up hearing that stuff (especially guys like Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino). Also, I have a strong attraction to jazz (not that Kenny G. crap that some call "smooth jazz," which isn't jazz at all -- an apt description of Kenny G. and his colleagues is "saxadronist") and blues.

Aside from computers and electronics, my other main interest is railroading, which I have embraced since childhood. If there's a train to be watched and I have the time, I will watch it. I'm nearly four years into scratch-building a 1-1/2 inch scale locomotive (capable of pulling cars carrying passengers) and hope to have it on the rails by next year.

Since most of my interests are not mainstream (whatever that may be) and I don't do small-talk very well, I'm not a socializing sort of person. For many years, I was close to being a loner, primarily because I did not have the ability to mix well with others. It wasn't until I met my wife and discovered that she didn't expect me to be like everyone else that I was able to shift out of loner mode and somewhat resemble a regular sort of person. However, that resistance to social grooming, as Tony calls it, is still there, and my wife, who thoroughly understands my personality, is very good at insulating me from those who would think that because they know the details about sports teams or the latest CD released by Beyonce, I should as well.

So I completely understand what Tony is getting at, especially the part about not wanting to be disturbed by a football game while playing poker. And at this stage of my life, it is very clear to me that not being a social butterfly didn't do any harm.

Now, where can I go to hear the latest release by Jessica Simpson? <Grin>


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