Why Do We Make Small Talk? According To This Study, We Have An Evolutionary Need
When I’m seated on a airplane, I pop on my headphones, and pray that the passenger next to me won’t strike up a conversation. But according to new research, chattiness is perfectly natural, as there may be an evolutionary need for small talk! A study conducted by Princeton University, and published this week in the journal Animal Behavior, found that ringtailed lemurs are most likely to call and respond to the individuals in the group with which they have the closest social bonds. Hence, what we think of today as trivial chatter, may actually be an important social bonding tool inherited from our primate ancestors. We can finally blame all those countless texts, IMs, and instances of over-sharing on our monkey forefathers and foremothers!
To determine the closeness of the social bonds between lemurs, the researchers observed their grooming habits. Grooming for primates is assumed to be the most important social bonding exercise. When testing the relationship between grooming and vocalization, the researchers found that the lemurs didn’t just chat with every member of the group that they groomed, only those they groomed most frequently. This displayed a social selectivity similar to how humans will talk most with those they are closest (unless you are like, the biggest social butterfly ever!).
Could this research finally explain why my mom calls me five times a day? This behavior is a kind of “groom-at-a-distance” — the vocalizations allowing the lemurs to maintain their social bonds, even when separated. Again, similar to humans — I’m fine mom! I ate lunch! I’m taking my vitamins! Please stop calling!
The lemurs’ vocal differentiation was tested through a playback experiment. The researchers recorded individual lemur calls and played them for the group to hear. Only the lemurs who displayed close social grooming bonds responded, even if the vocalizing lemur was not present. The lemurs didn’t need visual or smell-centric clues to vocalize. First author of the study, Ipek Kulahci Ph.D affirmed, "By exchanging vocalizations, the animals are reinforcing their social bonds even when they are away from each other."
So what does this mean for our idle conversations?
These findings could change the way we think of the evolution of human speech. Co-author, Professor Asif A. Ghazanfar, explained that current theories assume speech developed as a way to maintain familiarity when community sizes increased. With a large group, grooming would become too time consuming, so speech and grooming grew independent of each other. However, as the lemurs in the study's numbers increased, it didn’t affect the amount of chatter. As Ghazanfar said, “Talking is a social lubricant, not necessarily done to convey information, but to establish familiarity.” If that's true, perhaps we can't help but talk to our seat-mate on the airplane. We're just establishing a comfortable familiarity, and we can blame evolution for that!