Treading through the jungle, children in Venezuela’s Piaroa tribe have their eyes trained on the floor, seeking out the den of the world’s largest venomous spider. They cry out in delight when they spot a suitably dark space under a decomposing log. With a slender stick, they tease the tarantula out of its den before catching it, pulling its legs above its head and wrapping it in a leaf to carry back home to cook over an open fire.
These children are playing games that teach them survival skills.
Friends are those with whom we play to learn survival skills. The ability to read the jungle will be invaluable to the children as they grow up and seek bigger morsels to feed growing bodies and then their children, partners and tribe.
In societies where snacks are available in the brightly lit aisles of corner shops and supermarkets, the games we play to learn survival have changed somewhat. However, the basic principle remains: learn while in a relatively safe environment by “wargaming” or simulating a situation on which survival hinges but without the same risk. In the case of the children they are learning how to read the jungle from the bottom up without the danger of doing it at speed with dangerous weapons in pursuit of large animals.
One example of how we carry on this tradition is gossip, which occupies a surprisingly significant amount of our time.
“We average six to twelve hours per day in conversation, mostly one-on-one with known individuals. What has been found out shouldn’t come as any surprise to you. Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, has studied the content of conversations and learned that 80 to 90 percent are about specific named and known individuals, which is to say, small talk.”
Around the dinner table the other day, while discussing the plight of mutual friends one of the participants resisted the nudge to change topic, saying “listen, I need to know, in case I am ever in this situation”.
Gossip is (at its best) not just idle sharing of confidences, opinions and inferences, but a simulation of emotional or relationship survival moments. Through regular exposure to these moments of relationship crisis or success, participants in gossip are honing their own responses, their own intuition. In the safety of an after-meal coffee, surrounded by close friends, it is possible to consider what you would do if you saw your best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her. Perhaps the calm examination of the alternatives, without the pressure of being in that position, ensures an appropriate response should that occasion arise. (We decided to confront the cheater).
A similar dynamic is at play in the game of “how did he get there”, “how did he do that” – often the journey or action under discussion has already taken place and yet the participants discuss the merits of alternatives, conveying information, knowledge and submitting themselves to a simulation of a situation in which a specific deployment of skill and knowledge is necessary.
Like any good game, though there is more going on than simply the stated goal and one emergent function. These players are also reinforcing their social ties, securing influence, building alliances and assessing status.
It may also be that in talking about other named individuals participants are not only gaining exposure (at a safe distance) to troubles, but also generating their own group rules pertaining to status which will also determine behaviour.