Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shop Talk

We're going to attempt to unravel one of the mysteries of human existence here tonight. As anyone will tell you, we are social creatures. Somewhere deep within the chemistry of our brains, we need social contact. This varies from individual to individual to different degrees, with the gray area of diagnosable psychological conditions hovering at both extremes: being co-dependent or misanthropic. As the mysterious result of the ages-long, convoluted science experiment that is human existence, it has been decided that the best way for us to function is to physically need interaction with each other. All else that falls into the category of "Culture" and its many subcategories follow from that.

And where does this impulse lead us? The motivation is there, but it's unfocused, a vague yearning. As a fairly introverted person, I notice this often. Watching other people, it often seems they are physically unable to exist in a space for any length of time without striking up a conversation, text messaging on their cell phone, or talking or singing out loud to themselves. This happens especially in unstructured social situations - like waiting. Waiting in line at the store, waiting in a doctor's office, waiting at a bus stop. The gregariousness almost seems performative, needy, even desperate when you're as {self-contained?} as I am. It's something I've always been perplexed by, like watching fish through glass, or perhaps being a fish looking out.

Enter Shop Talk

What is shop talk? Shop talk is a very focused thread of conversation revolving in a tight pattern around specific, objectively-verifiable circumstances and subjects. Anyone who has been around a couple Guy-guys for more than 3 minutes has witnessed the phenomenon known as shop talk. The first two minutes constitute time spent looking to the side off at the ground and taking a sip of beer so as not to seem to need the interaction that will follow, but we are social creatures and so the third minute usually begins something like this: "That your Mustang I saw in the driveway out there? That a '67? Great year for Fords." And WHAM!, you've hit the ground running.

The great thing about shop talk is that it draws upon a predetermined and clearly understood field of knowledge. This knowledge is easy to acquire, can be repeatedly infinitely and, by virtue of its objectivity, serves to create a quorum of opinion after the well-worn series of point-counterpoint arguments have been dutifully acted out. It doesn't matter what subject you're talking about: whether professional or college basketball is more in line with the spirit of the game, whether the American league system of DH hitters or the National league's having pitchers bat is better, how to rebuild the engine of a 70's muscle car, what gearing your fixie is, or what cellphone has the superior collection of apps. What's great about shop talk is that it provides a well-worn spectrum of conversation that safely includes differences of opinion, irresolvable arguments that can be rehashed again and again, a wealth of technical knowledge and detail to fill the space, and, ultimately, a sense of resolution and of order; of all the parts of the world being right and fitting into place as the credits roll at the end of the day. All this, and somewhere along the way you get your hit of human interaction without seriously challenging your beliefs or how you live your life, as well as providing affirmation of your worth and bolstered confidence in your specific conception of reality. It's especially great when these "thoughts" and "opinions" are repeated verbatim from talk radio, be it sports, NPR or Rush Limbaugh; because, why do the work yourself when you can just get the Cliff Notes?

What is shop talk? Shop talk is a very important lubricant in human interactions. We need these interactions. Without them, we'd become crazy, weird, and self-destructive, much like the biological phenomena Island Gigantism, in which otherwise normal creatures evolve to freakish proportions in isolated conditions. Among humans, this leads, approximately, to what Tom Waits so aptly describes in his song What's He Building?, or else what this asshole is doing. Shop talk gives us a forum in which to reaffirm each other, ourselves, and our sense of an ordered and understandable universe.

Not Your Daddy's Shop Talk

Up to this point, I've used bombastically stereotypical male examples of shop talk, but shop talk isn't just for men. I would also classify as shop talk: gossip, ogling over babies, discussion of relationships, as well as more technical and cross-gendered topics like work-related gripping and, really, discussion of the particulars of any hobby, be it baking, books, philosophy, what kind of camera you have, woodworking, embroidery, or comparing the virtues of different household appliances. I think shop talk for women tends to be more abstract and shop talk for men highly specific and concrete, but feeling are just things, after all - things that can be studied, argued about, and decided upon. And it's all just entertainment in the end, isn't it? Just a way to pass the time and "get your needs met", as my friend Christine calls any manipulative behavior (Christine does social service work with kids who have serious emotional issues and generally fucked up lives). Perhaps this is zoomed out to the point of transcending what it even means to be human, but it's all just a way to fill the void, isn't it? And what better way to do that than to discuss something especially technical, which is simultaneously safe and easy and contains a breadth of knowledge which never runs out and is infinitely renewable from conversation to conversation? Shop talk is the freaking Fountain of Youth. It's El Dorado. It's the Holy Grail.

Which makes me wonder, what else is there besides wonderful, glorious shop talk? Does it, in fact, adequately satisfy all human needs?

I guess there are the things you talk about when it's dark out, and you're walking through the empty streets with a friend, and the constraints and constructions of the world have slipped away, and you may or may not be smoking a certain decriminalized substance, and you... imagine. You summon into existence infinite iterations and variations of world between you. Shadows stretch out to become chimeras and houses look like foam core scale models. The branches of trees move enigmatically, casting sibylline shadows as you gaze into rooms washed in TV blue, wondering at how strange it is to think of others existing so near and yet impossibly removed.

Or maybe, the opposite of shop talk is simply generalized speech. Linguistically, shop talk falls under the heading "jargon", a subset of a language focused on the collection of words and ideas encompassed within a specific area of knowledge. While discussing the back stage functioning of a candidate on the campaign trail may be a subset of political jargon, discussing how you feel, what you're thinking and learning and how you're growing certainly is not. So, what is this strange, threatening, unfocused collection of words and morphemes? Just existence, I suppose. Just some people, figuring out who they are. Perhaps the space in which growth occurs. Perhaps just the unknown and the unknowable, and the will to puzzle out into them.

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