Some people are more socially savvy then others. No doubt about it. When it comes to casual, ostensibly fun situations, like a work holiday party or a kegger, some people are able to work a room of friends, acquaintances, and unknown folks with deft aplomb. Others simply are not as self-assured or able. Interest plays a part in this. Perhaps I don’t want to attend a colleague’s cocktail party because I suspect the evening will be filled with awkward chit chat about work and the weather, and I get enough of that at the office. Conversely, perhaps I do want to attend a colleague’s cocktail party because I suspect that jib jab about work and the weather is always more interesting than the same talk at the office when it’s soaked in booze. It’s not my intention in this post to try to place myself on the continuum of social adeptness. EMP’s fair readers know well enough towards which pole I tend to gravitate. Rather, I’d like to submit an observation about an almost instinctual, or more precisely reflexive, fallback of mine that I observed about myself at a recent holiday get-together for folks in my office building. My building houses the faculty of four humanities departments: English, Women’s Studies, Media and Society, and Religious Studies. It’s a friendly bunch on the whole, with no shortage of gifted scholars, skilled teachers, and unique personalities. The world of academia is filled with people of all stripes when it comes to social abilities. Just like any “population,” there are easy-goers, ego maniacs, cut-ups, patronizers, dourly types, curmudgeons, friendly types, competitors, shy types, and so on.
I arrived late to the party (which was boozeless, by the way). Many folks had already split or were jacketing up in preparation to leave. As I sidled up to the fruitcake and cheese, begrudgingly I allowed myself to be roped into a conversation about the Epimenides paradox. Before fully entering the conversation, for the fourth time in two minutes I reread the bottles of sparkling apple cider and grape juice to make sure that I wasn’t somehow missing the wine at the spread–this non-alcoholic fare was in what looked like wine bottles, after all; they even had corks! Anyway, the conversation progressed until it couldn’t be sustained anymore. When the four or five of us who had been chatting were suddenly looking at each other, wondering what to say next, I pointed to a guy who happened to be wearing a crown and said that “he reminds me of that Seinfeld episode when Elaine dated the mattress Wiz.” And I half-laughed, half-sighed, “nobody beats him.” Quickly someone blurted, “I don’t have a TV.” Another said, “When I hear ‘the Wiz’ I don’t think of Seinfeld, I think of Nipsey Russell’s masterful portrayal of the Tin Man.” Another person said something like, “Oh, Seinfeld, which episode? I thought Elaine dated that big guy with the funny name.” I nodded, smiling at everyone, eventually turning to the person who remarked about Elaine’s paramour and mumbled “David Puddy.” The conversation quickly changed to something else, and the Seinfeld digression couldn’t have lasted more than a minute. No harm, no foul. But on reflection, I realized that in my “regular” (or old) social circles the Seinfeld reference I had lobbed to my work compatriots the other night would have been quickly snatched from the air, knocked back with lines from the episode — “I’m the Wiz, I’m the Wiz, and nobody beats me.” — and punctuated with some spin off lines and scenes from other episodes that the Wiz brings to mind — the Assman, “The Ukraine is Weak,” “The Jerkstore called and they’re running out of you!” “No soup for you,” and on and on and on.
And so, somewhere amid my reflections on the topics of conversation at the party, especially my contributions to them, I began to wonder to what extent the culture of everyday life that Seinfeld seems to capture–comedic and otherwise–is a marker of my sociability, a social yardstick that I naturally fall back upon in situations, almost unconsciously, to gauge the potential commonalities of perspective and fleets of fancy that I might or might not share with the company I’m keeping. I might call it the Seinfeld Social Hypothesis.