I Never Have Conversations With My Friends…And We’re Closer Than Ever
‘Imagine…that language is only part of a method of communication. Imagine that it isn’t even the important part but more like the pipeline, the highway. A conduit only.’
I adore this quote from Jeff Vandermeer’s paranoid, crawling biological thriller Authority, the second in his Southern Reach trilogy. It crystalises something I’ve often thought about language – that, in a conversation, the meaning of the words themselves is only a very small part of what’s being communicated. Plenty has been written about gossip and its role in our species’ evolution: it occupies the same social bonding role as chimps picking each other’s fleas. It’s the interaction that’s important, not so much the messages being shared. In fact, if we had as many fleas to pick off as chimps do, we’d probably gossip less.
I’m not one for small talk. I’ll do it if forced, but my good ol’ brain will feed back slurs of self-hate after each sentence. “So, how’s your job?” She doesn’t want to talk about her career, you imbecile. You’re not even listening properly anyway. “Me? I’m OK, plugging away at the next book.” What are you talking about? You haven’t finished a single chapter in a month. And stop talking about yourself, you egotist.
Evil internal monologue aside, perhaps I despise small talk because deep down, there’s no deeper thrust or drive behind the words. It’s just sharing information because we ought to do so. I’m also not one for deep, probing sessions where we bare all and dig out our most personal hopes and fears. In the right situation, these are great, and if someone shares themselves to this extent with me I’m honoured, if terrified and underprepared. But still, these are the conversations I’d choose to have with almost nobody, if I can help it.
I have three friends who I’d classify as ‘best’ ones. We played in an orchestra together as teenagers and then formed a band, and despite patches of not-being-in-touch-much, we’re still really close now. Often I’ll come home from an evening out with a combination of these three, and my fiancee will ask, “What did you talk about?” I’ll look at her blankly for a bit, and then blink. The answer is always the same: “Nothing, really.” It’s not because we secretly chat about babes and make lewd bum jokes, and it’s not because we sit there in silence until it’s time to leave. We certainly don’t make small talk, and we rarely go deep with ‘big’ chats. But we definitely talk. Like…I remember talking, and I remember them talking, and I remember it meaning lots.
The answers is, we play games, I think. Games without defined rules, which morph and change and sometimes appear like not-games-at-all. Games such as DRAWBAR, which I’m tempted not to explain, but just include a picture of this morning’s WhatsApp exchange. The game emerged at least a decade ago, without agreement, without prior organisation, and is still played from time to time, generally signalled by one player bellowing, “DRAWBAR!”
Often, the games that form our conversation are much less defined than even that. They’ll be hypothetical role-plays or laborious extensions of a long-dead joke. This sounds awful, but don’t judge. If Jeff Vandermeer’s correct, then the words themselves aren’t important. The talking itself is a conduit for a deeper source of meaning, nonverbal yet charged with semantics, and held with such fragility amongst the structure of our playing that an onlooker would likely, and rightly, declare, “These men are idiots.” I sometimes worry that our lack of legitimate conversations betrays a fear of truly sharing how we feel, and yet a few hours with these men not talking about our careers and holiday plans can produce a truer sense of bonding and real interaction than I can possibly express in a blog. Perhaps I can express it better with a quick game of DRAWBAR.
If you want more, click here for the latest episode of my podcast, The Floor is Lava, where I play games with lifelong friend (and one of the above) Ike Lockett. And if that’s not enough, Round 6 features another of the old gang, Charlie Scarr.
My latest book, The Floor is Lava (and 99 More Games for Everyone, Everywhere), contains one hundred games that I play with my friends. You can get it on amazon, or in your local bookshop.