It seems that everyone’s favourite hip formula for a title is “What we talk about when we talk about X”. It certainly caught my attention that there were two books by prominent fiction writers with titles of this form, Haruki Marukami’s memoir What I Talk about when I Talk About Running, and Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I take these to be derived from Raymond Carver’s celebrated story What we Talk about When We Talk about Love, though I can’t be sure the phrase didn’t exist in some form before.
But it’s definitely taken on a life of its own. I was inspired to write this post by an article in The Atlantic titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Privacy. A recent book on the future of books included a chapter titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata (which is somewhat ironic, because what we talk about has changed radically in the past few months, as metadata have gone from being a niche concern of bibliographers to a main topic in the discussion of domestic espionage). A quick Google Book search turns up books from the last few years: What We Talk About When We Talk About God, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, as well as WWTAWWTA Vision, Emotion, Error, Revolution, and Ralph Sampson.
So, why the swelling concern with talking about what we talk about when we talk about things? Obviously, it’s a great phrase, conveying both intense focus and ironic detachment. It promises to lift the lid on the “real story”, to get behind all the “talk”, while still sounding itself kind of chatty. To move to talking about what we talk about, you must have already mastered all the things people talk about on the relevant topic.
In this way, it works like the popular word of the 80s meta. I don’t know if the word is still used colloquially — I don’t think I’ve heard it in a while — but at least among mathematically aware students of my generation, the word came by way of Douglas Hofstadter, and people talked about discussing something on the meta level as a way of saying, we all understand how these discussions go, about, say, relationships, so it’s more sophisticated to talk about how we talk about them. But discussions on the “meta level” lack grounding in specifics, and can come to seem like just a lot of abstract blather to avoid the real issues. Hence the common criticism (which I think continued on as a popular phrase for some time) of a conversation, “This is getting too meta.”