The vaccines are here, and with them, the promise of getting back to some sort of normal. Over the coming months, many Americans will be returning to offices or schools, traveling to see family and friends, eating cheeseburgers inside sports bars. But the vaccines’ arrival has also provided a more immediate relief: giving people something to talk about.
After a year of awkward conversation, the United States has entered vaccine exuberance. People are sharing vaccine selfies, posting photos of their vaccine cards to Instagram, and even just broadcasting tips on where they got appointments or found short lines. “I got my first shot” is news worth hearing. Finally, you have an answer to the dreaded “How’s it going?”: perhaps, “My parents are fully vaccinated as of today. What a relief.”
Some people are even comparing the vaccines as if they are catalytic converters or dog shampoos. It’s almost reflexive to bring up which of the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines went into the arm. “Which one did you get?” you might ask a friend. (All three are very good.)
Of course people are talking about inoculation: It’s the most recent news to process. But the liveliness of vaccine talk makes clear how fitful all previous pandemic conversation has been. Looking back, that void issued a constant, if unseen, stressor on daily life. Now vaccine discourse shows how badly people—Americans especially—want and need small talk.
Despite its name, small talk plays an outsize role in socialization. Social scientists refer to this type of speech as phatic communication, which they usually divide into two related but different theories for understanding its function. One theory, devised by the early-20th-century anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, used phatic speech to account for small talk as an essential part of social bonding. You answer the phone, saunter into a shop, or pass a neighbor on the street. “How are you?” you might ask each other. When this happens, nobody really cares to hear how you are doing. The question is posed for social communion; it’s a way of saying hello, of acknowledging someone’s presence, of beginning a more meaningful interaction.
The other theory, put forward by the linguist Roman Jakobson, sees phatic speech as the chatter used to manage the channel of communication. It’s language that cues people in to where, how, and when they should speak. These days, you might pass fewer neighbors and see fewer co-workers, at least in person. Instead, those interactions are largely mediated by technology. And with that comes the need to talk about how to operate those apparatuses and how to behave when using them. “Oh, you’re breaking up,” or, “Your video froze,” or, “Bob, you’re still muted,” or even, “Wait, were we meeting on Zoom or on Teams (or on Slack, or by phone)?”
Altogether, phatic speech is the linguistic glue that holds our interactions together. And the pandemic has utterly broken it, making social interactions even more exhausting. First, the Malinowskian, social-bonding flavor of phatic speech has stopped working. Normally, people hear past the meaning of “How are you?” and recognize its social purpose. But as early-pandemic dreams of flattening the curve and getting back to normal devolved into a whole year of online meetings, schooling, piano lessons, and happy hours, each invocation of a phatic greeting became more noticeable—and newly burdensome. Suddenly, asking “How are you?” involved really and truly asking the question, whether you meant to or not. Who knows, after all, if the other party (or someone in their family) might be sick, or has lost their job, or has even just reached a new low of sorrow and terror.
While Malinowskian phatic social bonding collapsed, Jakobsonian phatic channel-fluffing ballooned in the worst and most awkward ways. In part, that’s because everyone started using communication technologies unfamiliar to everyday life. Zoom’s 2020 profits swelled fortyfold over the prior year as workplaces and schools shifted to video meetings. Other, similar services, such as BlueJeans, Slack, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, also witnessed huge growth. Figuring out how to get a co-worker into a meeting, a child into a virtual classroom, or a parent into a family videochat required a great deal of irritating meta-discourse. “Is it a phone call, or is it on Zoom?” “Meet in mine, or are you sending an invite?” “Oh, we don’t have a subscription, so you’ll have to host if it’s more than two of us.”
When it works best, phatic speech disappears into the background. A hello begets a conversation. But when coordinating speech loses its phatic function, it has to be dealt with as actual speech—and today, as speech fraught with emotion: “I guess I’m okay, under the circumstances.” Then the rest of the interchange floods with phatic channel-management. Bob’s still on mute, your camera won’t work, or the connection is bad. Even after the introductory awkwardness ceases, it gets replaced with piles of apparatus-wrangling. Together, the combined failures of the two kinds of phatic speech are a lot worse than either one breaking down on its own.
That’s made pandemic small talk less effective and more onerous. It joins a host of other behaviors and habits the pandemic has altered, some perhaps for good. Last spring, my colleague Megan Garber nailed the coffin shut on handshakes. Hugs and cheek kisses also fell out of favor as greetings, perhaps for good. As the pandemic spread through North America and Europe, my colleague Uri Friedman hypothesized that those continents’ residents might begin wearing masks regularly, as many East Asian nations do, long after the world has tamed COVID-19. Likewise, it’s possible that the pandemic has changed phatic speech for good. Perhaps the utility of a salutatory “How are you?” is forever poisoned.
But I don’t think so. The long winter of lockdown is breaking, and vaccines promise hope of a return to a new, if different, normal. The sense of dread and despair that made casual greetings feel notable and oppressive for so many people has begun to lift. Small talk’s function remains a little marred—I find myself still answering the literal meaning of phatic utterances, only now with statements of measured optimism: “I’m good, starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.” But small talk’s use in social bonding is returning. “Which vaccine did you get?” has become a low-stakes way to move from phatic communion to small talk to business. As the pressure eases off the pregnant How are you?, the unfair demands placed on that phrase will ease.
Language and culture also just don’t change so quickly. Even at the nadir of pandemic small talk, people still made it work. “Oh, you know,” you might have found yourself telling someone asking how you are. And that person probably just responded, “Yeah.” Social communion succeeds, if with a stutter. A friend of mine even invented a new stock response to the ubiquitous how-are-you greeting: “I’m Covid-OK,” she says, chasing the rogue exchange back into its phatic cage.
Human speech is resilient and adaptable. It is baked into our embodied experience of the world. As more of that world returns, so will the old patterns of speech we left behind in the shops and parks and offices we abandoned. Americans in particular are obsessed with social pleasantries, and it will be difficult for us to resist the urge to send off a casual “How’s it going?” at the earliest opportunity.
Recovering the normalcy of small talk might alleviate more pandemic fatigue than you’d think. Maybe phatic communion will even feel newly invigorating, after a year of unexpected decline. Think how delightful it will feel to say “I’m fine” and not notice, because you mean it.