By Bob Litton
I was astonished to discover that chickens are neither sending messages nor involuntarily clearing their throats when they cluck. Their noises at once say nothing but mean something.
What chickens share when they cluck is a feeling of reassurance. They are saying, “I am here and you are there.” This feeling of togetherness is very important to them. A young chicken kept alone will die.
Thus, although purposeful, the clucking of chickens has no meaning; although constant, it is not autonomic.
Of all places, I garnered this bit of information out of a chapter about the origin of human language in a book titled The Treasure of Our Tongue by Lincoln Barnett. Drawing the obvious parallel between the noises of the chicken coop and the living room, Barnett quotes linguists C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards: “‘Throughout the Western world it is agreed that people must meet frequently, and that it is not only agreeable to talk, but that it is a matter of common courtesy to say something even when there is hardly anything to say.’” (Shades of Bre’r Rabbit and the Tar Baby!)
Accepting the premise of that quote, I must not be as much a westerner as I had thought. Social clucking — or “small talk”, as we frequently describe it — comes hard for me. Let me relate an anecdote to illustrate how extensive the clash can be between a clucker and a non-clucker.
In a hardware store where I once worked the employees ate their lunch in the break room because only thirty minutes was allowed for lunch and the distance was too great to the nearest restaurant. Usually, I would go to a supermarket delicatessen nearby and pick up a plate filled with whatever looked good that day. The delicatessen clerk wrapped the plate in very adhesive cellophane.
Upon returning to the store, I would often find a very garrulous lady in the break room munching the salad she had brought from home. Never were two lunch companions more incompatible — she extraordinarily talkative, I extremely taciturn. Each time I began my daily struggle to remove the cellophane, this lady would chirp, “Whadja get?”
Her question irked me for several reasons. First, I have a one-track mind, and when it is intently engaged in some exasperating effort — such as removing adhesive cellophane from a lunch container — my mind doesn’t appreciate other demands on its concentration. Secondly, by the time I came into the break room I had usually forgotten what I had ordered anyway; and the “politeness” of sitting there recalling what it was seemed out of proportion to the validity of the request that I do just that. Moreover, my opinion was that if the woman would just wait two minutes she could see what I was about to devour, and by waiting for that vision she would save us both wasted words.
The first three times this scene was enacted, I played the nice guy, stopped what I was doing, scratched my head, and informed her of the contents of the box. On the fourth occasion, however, I was sufficiently exasperated to cut the whole conversation short by exclaiming, “Food!”
She looked taken aback for a moment and then commented, “Well, I guess a stupid question deserves a stupid answer.” She didn’t speak to me again for three weeks.
Because of that and similar experiences, I have spent a considerable part of my time among people observing the mechanics of social clucking and trying to understand it. Social clucking, as inane as it appears when looked at directly, nevertheless is as important as the size of this year’s wheat crop, the search for energy sources, or the survival of the postal service. It is important because it has been sanctified by mass participation. Whether reasonable or not, most people are obviously convinced that the recognition of their existence can be communicated and validated only by saying silly things.