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The Illusion of Choice in Conversation

By Ellen Efstathiou

Staff Writer

Illustration by Ophelia Jackson

Imagine that you are on campus for winter term. For some of you, this might be easier to picture than for others. But I don’t know you personally, I don’t know your life.

So, you are on campus for winter term. Now, we are going to add something to this daydream. You are having a conversation with somebody. This isn’t somebody you know well. Maybe they are an acquaintance, maybe you’ve just struck up a conversation while in line at Stevie because someone decided that having only one dining hall open for dinner during winter term was a good idea. I digress. The point is, you are having a conversation.

What do you talk about?

You may think that you can talk about anything. You may think that the world is your oyster in this conversation. You may think you have a choice. You are wrong.

The only place that this conversation can land is the question, “What are you doing for winter term?”

There is nothing else to talk about at this point in time. Nothing else of note is happening right now.

You could answer this question with a lie, I suppose, if you really want to. But why would you? It’s not like anyone would be able to tell the difference between a lie and the truth.

You will answer their question.

“I’m writing a research paper.”

“I’m learning a language.”

“I’m building a killer robot.”

“I’m involved with a play.”

“I’m practicing living in a mountain cave.”

“I’m knitting scarves.”

They will respond.

“Oh, cool.”

You will have nothing else to talk about. There is only one thing you can think of to say.

“What about you?”

They will respond. Perhaps their answer will be similar to yours. Maybe you will ask each other some more questions about what you are each doing. Maybe you will even understand each other.

Perhaps you are a better conversationalist than I am. Maybe this question about winter term projects will lead to more things that you can talk about. Again, I do not know you.

But here is what you must know.

Talking about winter term is inevitable. This is the illusion of choice in conversation. But you already knew that. You’ve participated in these conversations yourself.

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