Doing the Dishes; Pounding the Corn; Chewing the Fat.
In the eighth grade, when I was about 13 years old, one of my classes was “Metal Shop.” Metal Shop was a double period which meant it was an hour and a half. We learned some interesting things in Metal Shop, to be sure, but mostly it was extremely boring. We would, for instance, file something for an hour and a half or sand something for an hour and a half or use steel wool on something for an hour and a half or wind wire around a core for an hour and a half.
Talking was strictly forbidden. I think it’s safe to say that none of us would have been incapable of talking and filing, sanding, or polishing. And, when I say “strictly forbidden” what I mean is that our 6 foot 4 inch instructor, Mr. McKeever, would paddle anyone who let out a peep. Eventually, we reached an agreement with Mr. McKeever that we could play chess during class, but only if we agreed to be paddled at the end of class.
Sad (or sadistic?) to say, the “no-talking” rule was not confined to Junior High School. In many industrial settings, even for adults, there was also a “no-talking” rule. More commonly, the workplace was arranged and built so that talking to someone else proved nearly impossible. What do you suppose the purpose of the no-talking rule is? Does it make the workplace safer? Does it help prevent underpaid and overworked folks from organizing? Or, do some bosses (and teachers) just like being mean for the hell of it? Whatever the reason or reasons, it was not uncommon for folks with boring jobs on assembly lines to be prohibited from speaking unless it was immediately work related.
By contrast, in many so-called primitive societies, much of the work was carried out in a social setting. And, by a “social” setting, I don’t just mean that other human beings were physically nearby. I mean especially that they could see, hear, touch, and talk with each other. In some cases, they would sing or chant together; for instance, when he work required coordinated movement as in pulling a fishing net, or poling a boat.
Clearly, talking was sometimes discouraged as when silently stalking prey. However, gathering nuts, or leaves, or berries or roots or firewood; preparing meals; cleaning; migrating; watching children; nursing; pounding grain; tanning leather; building a hut — these were activities that were easy enough to do and repetitive enough that talking was easily accomplished.
In modern domestic life, many of these opportunities have disappeared. If you sweep or mop a floor, you can talk to someone. When you use a vacuum cleaner, the noise makes talking unpleasnt. When people took clothes down to the river to clean on stones, they could talk to each other. In modern times, people do not generally hang out near a banging washing machine and chat. If two people go out and shovel snow, it is hard work, but conversation is still possible. With a snowblower, it’s quicker and a lot noisier and typically done alone. If you wash dishes by hand, it’s easy to converse. Loading and unloading a dishwasher however, is more of a one person job.
In fact, washing dishes is a great opportunity for chit chat but also for some heavier duty conversations. Two people work together side by side. Instead of looking at each other directly, they are focused on the task at hand. But the task is generally easy enough that there is minimal cognitive load in washing or drying dishes. There is plenty of time to converse and because you are working together on a common task, it provides a felicitous setting for broaching difficult topics.
Even when no difficult topics are broached, conversation in such activities increases trust and social capital. It also provides an opportunity for common ground. If you work together successfully on a task, you are far less likely to see the other person merely in terms of their “positions” on contentious political or religious issues. You have built some common ground.
Traditional societies, at least those that survived long enough to leave any sort of record, had many opportunities for doing “mindless” (or, perhaps mindful) repetitive tasks together in a way that afforded a chance to talk. These were not timed “debates” — they were simply occasions for talk. These tasks were woven into the fabric of work and allowed for the group and the individuals within it to strengthen their bonds.
I doubt that these occasions were “designed.” I don’t see the elders of a tribe sitting down together and “deciding” it would be “good” for the tribe to spend more time talking. It is simply that the nature of their technology happened to facilitate working together and talking very often. Conversely, I don’t see the early captains of industrialization sitting down together and deciding to fragment society by designing tasks that were more atomized and individual. And, I doubt that industrial machinery was designed to be noisy, dangerous, and hot. It just turned out that way.
When folks today talk about “finding common ground,” it is all too often misdirected. It is not common ground to start a conversation with something with: “Well, surely you believe in a women’s right to choose!” or “Well, surely, you don’t think murdering babies is all right.” These statements may be clearly and obviously true to some people, but they are not attempts to find common ground. To find common ground that will allow you to approach a discussion about topic X, do not start with topic X.
I know it seems direct and efficient to do that. I also know that it doesn’t work. No matter how stupid, evil, ill-informed, or absurd your “opponent” seems, you will not find “common ground” about topic X by starting with topic X. Wash some dishes together; pick some berries; go for a hike; pound some grain into flour, hand wash your car together and then go wash their car together.
Casual conversations were crucial for so-called primitive tribes where people shared many common experiences. Now, we live in a society where people have different educational experiences, different religious upbringings, different economic circumstances, and listen to different subsets of a thousand different TV channels. Building trust first by working together was crucial for tribes that were relatively homogeneous. For us, today? It’s absolutely critical! If we can’t abide washing dishes together, we certainly won’t be able to agree on anything that is “controversial.”
Even so-called “recreational” activities have mainly become more “efficient” and speed-oriented. Golf, for instance, used to involve a small group of 2-4 people spending 4-5 hours mainly walking together. Yes, occasionally a golfer would hit a golf shot. A good golfer might hit the ball 75 times over the course of 5 hours while a mediocre golfer might hit the ball 100 times. But there was plenty of time to talk. When you play today by riding in carts and being constrained to “keep up the pace of play” there is much less time to talk, exchange ideas, find out how the other person is doing, etc.
Spectator sports have also devolved into advertising opportunities punctuated with game play. I recall going to see Lakefront stadium with my dad to watch Cleveland play major league baseball. There was plenty of time to talk during a game! On a number of occasions, I had questions about the fine points of the game which Dad was happy to answer.
In the last few years, I’ve gone to watch local teams compete in the World Tennis Association league. Do you know what they do after every single point? They play snippets of extremely loud music. It’s as though the management doesn’t want people in the crowd to be able to discuss what just happened on the court. The rules have also been altered so as to make the match times more predictable (and shorter). Ads are ubiquitous. I enjoy watching the play itself; but the spaces between play are so obnoxious that it’s much less pleasurable than it would be if there were silence between points. More importantly, the relationships of the people watching are twisted into an increased alignment with advertisers and promotors rather than with other folks in the audience.
Our society needs time. It needs space. It needs a chance to work together on easy tasks. Our society is losing the chance to chat, in person, aloud, synchronously.
We need to do the dishes together.
Do you want to wash or dry?