Some people are even comparing the vaccines as if they are catalytic converters or dog shampoos. It’s almost reflexive to bring up which of the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines went into the arm. “Which one did you get?” you might ask a friend. (All three are very good.)
Of course people are talking about inoculation: It’s the most recent news to process. But the liveliness of vaccine talk makes clear how fitful all previous pandemic conversation has been. Looking back, that void issued a constant, if unseen, stressor on daily life. Now vaccine discourse shows how badly people—Americans especially—want and need small talk.
Despite its name, small talk plays an outsize role in socialization. Social scientists refer to this type of speech as phatic communication, which they usually divide into two related but different theories for understanding its function. One theory, devised by the early-20th-century anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, used phatic speech to account for small talk as an essential part of social bonding. You answer the phone, saunter into a shop, or pass a neighbor on the street. “How are you?” you might ask each other. When this happens, nobody really cares to hear how you are doing. The question is posed for social communion; it’s a way of saying hello, of acknowledging someone’s presence, of beginning a more meaningful interaction.