Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Friends and Cohorts: Small Talk and Big

According to the Washington Post, the Inuit people have approximately 50 words for snow and the Sami people who live in Northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. These language differences expose the relative importance of snow and reindeer in the lives of the speakers. Unfortunately, the English speaking world has a dearth of words for friendly relationships that are neither romantic nor sexual.

We are limited to the words acquaintance and friend. Friend implies a whole range of intimacy from catching a movie together, to the kind of genuine soul mate that can help make the world a less lonely, unforgiving place. I feel compelled to add another category, the label of cohort. Cohorts are important but not as intimate as friends. They are folks we have genuine connections with, often meeting in places like political organizations, classes or support groups, but they fall on a different level of intimacy than friends. You might call a cohort to help process an issue but you probably wouldn’t call her if you just found out really terrible or very wonderful personal news.

Cohorts have always been important in my life, but they are not the cogs it turns on. Those cogs are friends. Friend is a word that gets thrown around recklessly in our society. In the span of a lifetime, I have had few friends at any given moment but have cycled through many of them over periods of time. When paths diverge and interests shift many times friends are left behind, leaving deep memory traces and inevitable feelings of regret and nostalgia. Friends are precious. Cohorts are valuable. Acquaintances are nice. Folks who don’t care one way or another are numerous and enemies, well, I’m not even going to go there right now.

The division between cohorts and friends is often one of small talk versus big talk. Small talk is just filler in life, like popcorn it can be fun to consume but lacking in nutritional value. This fiber aids personality digestion, but is completely devoid of in protein. An acquired skill and a staple at larger parties and gatherings, it is often goes hand in hand with the word mingle.

Big talk goes beyond simple observation into connection. It reflects back into personal experience. Big talk can cause people at parties who are looking for more superficial interaction to recoil, make polite excuses and walk away. The new online initials for big talk can be TMI (too much information). To some, it is the exclusive domain of lovers and college students, a tacky tendency left behind in youth. But to weirdos like me it is the first step to making friends.

So, some folks find probing parlance threatening or just mildly irritating. Others find it interesting and ingratiating. I guess it all just depends on the perspective of the speaker and whether she wishes to become your acquaintance, cohort or friend.