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The Modern Family: Mired in Red-Tape Conversation

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FAMILY CONVERSATIONS
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How much actual conversation is there in family conversation? I'd like to see this depicted on a pie chart, because after years of observing family conversation, it seems that a depressingly large percentage of domestic talk today is devoted to procedural, logistical banalities, and less to qualitatively richer themes, by which I mean conversation about current events, work, feelings, insights, passions, friends, politics, cultural trends, intellectual debate or anything more memorable than what the best route is, how the toilet was unclogged, where the dog food is, or who's going to purchase what shampoo.

This red-tape conversational overload seems somewhat new, or at least exacerbated, in contemporary life. We've got scholarly articles galore on hours spent on chores in modern marriage, but none to my knowledge on the hours spent on talking about chores.

The usual tone in this red-tape conversation is mildly argumentative and disputatious. It's best summarized as niggling. Spouse A reports, "I purchased the train tickets online, and it took a while." Spouse B demurs listlessly but nonetheless persistently that it wasn't really the fault of the online site that it took so long, or that another site is better. Spouse A responds, "Well, no, it really was that the site was slow, because..." And on it goes.

Neither side cares too much, but nor can they let go of the logistical non-event.

You've probably overheard or been the accidental audience for conversations like this between spouses, or between parents and children, or between all of them at the same time. Family life seems to be choking on conversational junk food about details of things done, things to do, and things getting done. As with any junk food, it fills us up and consumes space but is mostly empty calories that leave us nutritionally deprived.

I'm not sure why this happens. Is it because we have to do a lot of red-tape talk because our lives really are this complicated? Maybe it's symptomatic of the nerve-jangling times, that we're overwhelmed by a cascade of small decisions to make each day, as life ironically becomes more "convenient" with new technologies and a gazillion online sites.

Or maybe the banal procedural drone is a manifestation of the tyranny of choice, as psychology professor Barry Schwartz describes. An excess of choices, he says, doesn't make us happier. It just makes us more uncertain and anxious. I do sense in eavesdropped moments of red-tape conversation a good deal of fretting, self-soothing, reassurance, and what reasonably could be described as anxiety, or the angst of small things.

It's also mostly the case in modern, progressive marriage that we don't have easy and socially prescribed ways to allocate chore domains anymore, according to sex. On the whole, to be emphatically clear, that's a good thing. But without the Husbandly role that covers one domain of chores, and the Housewifely role that covers another, each particular chore or domestic activity invites discussion, negotiation, deliberation, or confirmation from one spouse to the other that the chore's been done.

Has the oil in the car been changed? Have the cocktail franks or cupcakes been purchased for the potlatch? In the old days a husband and wife wouldn't have needed to inquire because, naturally (and oppressively, I must reiterate), the husband was king of the realm of Boring Male Chores, including, but not limited to, cars and breadwinning, and the wife was queen of the realm of Boring Female Chores, including, but not limited to, cooking and childrearing. Obviously, the wife would get the cupcakes; the husband would get the oil changed. It required no red-tape conversation.

Now it's also true, what with husbands meddling in decorating and wives meddling in lawn mowers, that each task invites an opinion and preference from the other spouse. A wife can't assume that her husband has no stake in the color of the towels; a husband can't assume a wife's indifference to weed whacker techniques. While this chore gender-bending is -- again! -- a good thing, it also vastly multiplies the number of daily speech acts lost to life maintenance logistics.

And there are darker hypotheses for the red-tape chatter. In extreme cases I wonder if the proliferation of niggling, detail-fixated conversation isn't a type of white noise that drowns out in a din of chatter a deeper, more existential problem, or emptiness, within a marriage. Sometimes I suspect that the act of derailing a conversation rife with substance or possibility into an "urgent" nag at a child is a way to preempt a meaningful conversation that's potentially disruptive of the status quo.

In other words, I worry that red-tape family conversation is occasionally more a premeditated act than just a collateral damage of modern life. Maybe we talk about all of these procedural details so much because we don't have much more to say. Maybe we've forgotten how to converse meaningfully on big topics. Maybe we're afraid to say the other things, or silence scares us. Better to displace into procedural chatter than to speak, or listen, too deeply.

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