I recently had the pleasure of catching up over drinks with my college friend, and, as he did much of the lifting when we wrote songs together, the Lennon to my McCartney, Johnny. The night began after dinner when we resolved to get drinks at Hopcat. Once we arrived there, seeing the line wrapping around the entire front walkway, making a loop through the crowds around the entire bar counter, absolutely confused about whether customers who wanted to drink but not eat were expected to wait in line or –, we gave up and left. Back in the cold street I pointed out that “it’s a little embarrassing that neither of us knows how to go to a bar.”
“Yeah, I have no idea what we were supposed to be doing in there,” he agreed.
“It actually made me really anxious, sort of like when you’re at a grocery store and everyone is both trying to get somewhere and in the way of someone else–”
“That grocery store anxiety.”
So we made our way to Mash, hopeful that we could do better, since Johnny’s 21st birthday had been there. But we went in through the door and walked down the steps and the entire bar was empty so that was fucked and we turned around and left again.
When we finally sat down at Arbor Brewing Co and got to talking over some beer, I mentioned that a big part of socializing in college was a specific type of signaling. Talking about nothing. Or not quite nothing, but maybe just the lowest common denominator. Into this bin I throw complaining about finals, bragging about how cynical you’re becoming about school, and “bonding” over beliefs that everyone finds easy to agree about. This observation for me started in high school, when the accepted way of starting conversations was to joke about how much homework and little sleep someone had gotten, and it almost felt like a taboo to admit that I didn’t feel like we got that much homework, and I didn’t find it too hard to get enough sleep. It would be uncharitable to suggest that this was therefore all lies from other people, and I do think that for some students “too much homework, too little sleep” was the extent of their experience.
But the reason it felt like a taboo, I would later realize, was partly because these signals were supposed to be a method of play, like a love-language but for small talk, and they were also tightly coupled with concepts of social status. It was expected that you shouldn’t overtly seek social status, and if it seemed like you were bragging about being smart, it must have been because you expected people to give you more status points. What you had to do instead, according to convention, was gracefully admit to others that you weren’t especially smart, but you worked hard because you had to, hence the lack of sleep and complaints about homework, and this would win you the fair number of status points that each student can earn if they just remember to be humble.
We talk about the weather because it’s unobjectionable. For most students it was also fine to talk about school that way because it’s basically unobjectionable; most teenagers don’t get enough sleep, and as for homework, even if it’s not very much you probably don’t prefer to get more of it unless you’re one of those strange oddballs who thinks doing more work in school will benefit you later in life.
I call this signaling and that implies a receiver. There is a specific audience that reacts the correct way to the signal you send when you complain about finals, and it’s basically the average on-the-smart-side college student.
But the fact that small talk isn’t good conversation doesn’t mean that complaining about small talk is good conversation. In this same way, calling out signaling does not make me exempt from trying to signal. It just happens that I’m broadcasting to a different kind of receiver. Because I’m more interested in talking to someone about the masses of people sending out boring signals, the signal I send out is tuned to be received by someone who is interested in the tendencies of the masses, and feels like they are above those masses, if not in status, then perhaps in frequency of the carrier wave.
And by that same adage, the fact that I will then go and point out that my counter-signaling is actually still a form of signaling acts as another signal to an even higher receiver. It says that aside from the last message I sent out, I’m also interested in discussing meta-signaling and self-awareness of the signals we send out. It says that I’m critical of my own tendencies and looking for a receiver that’s similarly critical to talk about how even when we talk about signaling we are still signaling.
Thus we form the infinite regress of signaling – where any effort to talk about signaling could get interpreted as a merely higher-frequency signal. And here’s the thing about ultra-high frequency signals: they’re indistinguishable from noise. If I start to complain that everything is just signaling, if I look everywhere and see the same thing, that’s the same as getting no signal at all. It’s the same as being blind.
We can solve this by mostly staying out of the meta level and focusing on the object level. The object level says that when someone is complaining about finals, you should reply the same way you do when someone complains about anything else, regardless of the patterns you’ve noticed where everyone seems to complain about finals at the same time every year instead of doing something about it like starting to study earlier. The object level says that when a Senior tells a Freshman that “they’ll understand when they’re older why they shouldn’t schedule 8 am classes,” you should engage them as if they really believe what they just said, regardless of the number of times you’ve interacted with people who have parroted that sentiment without really believing it. If you’re talking about signaling, then the object level says not to back up an extra meta level and get confused about how you’re probably still signaling, regardless of your growing inner suspicion that all of your blog posts are just becoming noise.