If you’re as fascinated by words as I am, then you know there are phrases in other languages that don’t properly translate to English but still describe a feeling or event that we English-speakers also experience. I guess we could refer to these as Stefonisms. “It’s that thing where…”
One well-known example is schadenfreude (German, literally “harm-joy” in English), that thing where you take pleasure in other people’s misfortune. Or l’esprit d’escalier (French, literally “wit of the stairs”), that thing where you figure out the perfect comeback well after a conversation is over. A lesser-known one that I stumbled across a while back is Japanese, mono no aware (“the pathos of things”). This is tricky and beautiful. According to its Wikipedia entry, it’s a term “for the awareness of impermanence or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.” The Japanese have a whole slew of incredibly specific phrases like this. Another is koi no yokan, the feeling you get when you meet someone and instantly know you’re going to fall in love. Note that it’s not love at first sight; you’re not in love yet, but you know you will be. Or komorebi, the interplay of sunlight filtering through leaves.
I encountered a phenomenon once again this week that made me realize we need a word for it in English, but I’m having a hard time nailing down the specifics. It’s that thing where you’re in conversation with with someone you’ve just met and most likely won’t see again, but you’ve got some time to spend with them today. The conversation never gets into anything personal or original, but you find yourselves recycling platitudes either so general, so benign, or so unprovable that the other person has no choice but to offer vague agreements.
“You know, in Europe they really know how to enjoy their food.”
“Everyone’s staring at screens all day now. When I was a kid people actually talked to each other.” Note that this is delivered via actual spoken words, face to face. Note also the inclusion of the phrase “when I was a kid.” Common in this phenomenon.
“Oh, who knows what they’re putting into food these days. You can’t trust anything.”
“The problem with politics is all the money.”
You find yourself saying things that you don’t care about, or don’t necessarily even believe. If someone says something you do find somewhat objectionable or incorrect, you don’t bother to contradict them because there’s just no point. The things you’re saying could have been controversial opinions five years ago, but at this point everyone is so aware of them they’re not even worth bringing up any more. “Everything’s just sound bites these days.”
It’s like the doldrums of conversation. It’s a total whiteout of words; everything is indistinguishable. Pablum comes close, as does the aforementioned platitudes, but I feel that the context of having just met, knowing you probably won’t see them again, yet still being forced to engage in conversation elevates it to something else, something new.
My proposed term for this is DMVese (dee-em-veez), because that’s just the sort of place you find yourself engaged in this level of conversation. Alternatives include background chatter, because if you’ve ever been a background actor you know this is how you spend most of your day and also it may as well just be sounds in the background, or shit chat if you want to get a little blue. But maybe that one is best applied to the conversations about poop which new parents and dog owners find themselves constantly having.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.