A Short Piece
Why We Need Them
What is a “metatalk?”
A metatalk is when we talk about the mechanisms of talking, thinking, relationships, and the like. It’s not just any talking, but a particular kind of talking in which we try to figure how and why all parties interpret things the way they do, why they feel a certain way, and what they think we’re saying when they say this or that (countless more examples could be made).
“Talking” is about dinner, what we did today, how we’re feeling, etc.
“Metatalking” is about why we thought it was good to do what we did today, why we felt x way when y happened, etc.
“Talking” is more subject-focused.
“Metatalking” is more focused on mechanics.
(“Why”-based, which entails questions about context, personalities, etc.)
(There can be overlap, of course.)
“Talking” happens within assumptions, rules, definitions, etc.
“Metatalking” is talking about assumptions, rules, definitions, etc.
(If we don’t know or understand the rules of a game, it is very unlikely we will play the game well.)
A healthy relationship doesn’t just talk about what’s happening in the relationship (what the people want to do, plans, etc.); a healthy relationship also talks about the relationship itself (what the people think relationships are for, why keeping the house at a certain level of cleanliness matters to them, why they think it’s important to take walks together at certain times, etc.).
We “talk” about what is happening.
We “metatalk” about why it’s happening.
Talking doesn’t discuss mechanisms of interpretation (the moment we start doing so, we’ve started metatalking); talking doesn’t draw attention to interpretation, mechanics, and the like.
(Please note that none of us experience our interpretation as an “interpretation” — we necessarily experience it as just “seeing.”)
“Metatalking” draws attention to the reality that what we think is an interpretation, and thus forces us to make space for “the other.” Metatalking is inherently more empathetic than talking, not that talking can’t entail empathy, but that talking can easily cease doing so without us noticing. Metatalking also creates more humility, for when we consciously and seriously recognize that what we believe is an interpretation, we become more willing to entertain ideas that disagree with us and to learn from them. This is critical for relationships.
(Please note that just because we interpret x, it does not follow that we are wrong about x. “Interpretation” and “mistake” are not similes; however, paradoxically, the less we recognize we interpret versus “see,” the higher the likelihood we will interpret poorly, we lacking reason to question ourselves.)
Now, we can’t metatalk all the time, and a life without any talking would be very sad and burdensome. At the same time though, a life without metatalking at all is a life that will be very fragile and susceptible to drama. This is because we will not have thought about all the ways we can misinterpret the actions of our spouse, we will not be self-skeptical in ways that could help fight pride and overconfidence, and so on.
Imagine trying to play football without anyone ever discussing the rules of the game — chaos, right? Well, that’s what can happen in relationships and within our very souls.
Talking is a wonderful part of life.
Metatalking helps talking, relationships, and the like from being fragile.
If what makes life wonderful is fragile, it will last until the unexpected.
The unexpected can be expected.
Gary Chapman famously talks about “love languages,” and I personally love his work. But I think there are also “productivity languages,” “justice languages,” “freedom languages,” “silence languages,” “language languages” — what Chapman taught about love can be expanded drastically.
Unfortunately, we can naturally dislike metatalking, because we can feel like people “should just know” how we think, how we feel, why we interpret x the way we do, and so on. After all, if they loved us, wouldn’t they know us? (This is an idea that causes people a lot of pain.) As a result, people never move beyond “self-evident” to “us-evident,” and relationships dwindle.
Metatalking requires humility, abstract reasoning, and self-skepticism, while talking simply requires subjects. Subjects seem to be all we need for talking, but those who metatalk understand that we also need to clarify the “invisible structures” through which those subjects are filtered.
Nobody fully knows what’s going on inside the head of another person (heck, we hardly know what’s going on inside our own heads). If someone loves us, that probably means they are willing to find out what is going on inside of us, but nobody can instantly and magically know what we are thinking (or how to rightly interpret us). We have to tell them (rarely easy) and explain why we feel and think like we do (and knowing how to explain well can be hard too). Assuming people who care about us will “just know” what’s going on inside of us will keep us from talking at all, let alone metatalking, and also set up an expectation nobody can meet, making drama unavoidable. A slow and gradual resentment can then develop; relational osteopetrosis can set in.
Similar points made here on relationships can be made about politics, communities, careers, and so on. On the topic of politics, if people can’t talk to one another, democracy is doomed. Democracy can’t operate according to the silent thoughts inside our heads: it is only in the “public sphere” that democracy can be exercised and made possible. Democracy is necessarily rhetorical — democracy must be spoken (and acted on, but not just acted on, for that is totalitarian) — but if it is true that we will fail to talk well if we don’t also metatalk, then metatalking is utterly necessary for saving democratic societies. Unfortunately, metatalking is against human nature, which suggests the difficulty of maintaining democracy.
Metatalking is needed everywhere, and it’s hard for me to imagine forms of mental and emotional osteopetrosis not setting in where metatalking is lacking. In conclusion, we need to fight the natural feeling inside of us that we should just be able to talk and be fully understood. That’s not how the world works. The world is imperfect, so metatalking is necessary. It’s also worth it.