Sunday, November 16, 2008

Parallel Conversations

Laura likes her apples!

A couple of weeks ago, Laura and I were in our orchard picking apples, chattering away like a couple of monkeys. The chattering stimulated me to remember the article I’ve always been meaning to write about “parallel conversations.” So here goes:

People in mainstream America don’t do much physical work anymore, and whatever physical tasks they perform – carrying groceries, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house – are very often performed in isolation. There is very often nobody to talk to while working.

When mainstream Americans have conversations with each other, they are usually face-to-face, and they usually give each other their full attention. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there’s another way, which is very common in cultures where people do physical work together. I call this “parallel conversations,” because the people are frequently parallel to each other while they’re talking, rather than sitting or standing face-to-face.

The beauty of parallel conversations is twofold: 1) the conversation turns an otherwise-tedious task into a delightful social interchange, and 2) the physical (and relatively mindless) work makes the conversation flow better, often into unexpected channels. The participants enter a timeless space of creative flow, and before they know it, the work is done and their social needs have been satisfied. Shelling peas is a good example. Done alone, shelling peas can be a tedious task; but if you have another person to talk to, the work becomes a pleasant experience and the time passes effortlessly. Or consider a quilting bee. A bunch of women gather around a quilt-in-progress for a couple of hours, talking all the while, and at the end have accomplished a useful task while catching up on all the gossip.

The Amish are always “doing something useful.” The women always have some knitting waiting for another row of stitches during an idle moment. The men always have a list of minor repair jobs waiting whenever there’s a gap between major jobs. What keeps this from being workaholic drudgery is the fact that the work is intrinsically meaningful to them, and they almost always have somebody else to talk to while they share the work.

Parallel conversations are a fundamental component of the basic tribal reality that our species evolved within. By comparison, mainstream American culture is something quite alien and sterile. Our lives are often too isolated to fulfill our basic inner needs; thus the ubiquity of TV, movies, internet, and all the myriad ways of providing a synthetic connection to other people. Up until now, the power of the status-quo mainstream culture has been virtually absolute. But the economy is now starting to crumble. Before long, we can expect that vast numbers of Americans will be underemployed by the status-quo economic system. This will give the underemployed undreamed-of leisure time in which to interact with each other. People who have the right attitude about not having as much money as they thought they deserved will find the new era fulfilling in a way many of us have forgotten, but half-remembered under the surface. It will all be very familiar somehow. It will be like coming home.


Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

Excellent observations.

There are many such advantages coming our way, if we can learn to value the simple and fulfilling pleasures like the conversational style you described. There are many such pleasures poised to be reintroduced to our culture. I believe it's important to do as you have done, and begin and begin naming them. Being able to welcome many aspects of the coming changes
will enable people to move forward with more acceptance and joy, and less fear and stress.

Thanks again.....

6:35 AM  

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