Marks My Words: TMI? NEI.

Opinion by Miriam Marks
Feb. 18, 2011, 12:27 a.m.

Marks My Words: TMI? NEI.For those of the earlier generations — TMI is an acronym for the expression “too much information.” It is usually uttered to halt a conversational trend, and it is often exclaimed in shock or protestation. I have heard it shrieked most often when people go too far into the realm of the sexually explicit, but also in reference to things like descriptions of violence and gore or narrations of bodily functions such as bowel movements.

Rather than provide sample anecdotes of situations in which my friends gave me TMI about their sex lives, I’m going to explore the realm of the opposite — NEI (not enough information). Yes, I made it up myself just now. But you should totally spread it around.

Anyway, picture the following conversation between two people who pass by each other outside Meyer Library:

“Hey, how’re you doing?”

“Hey! I’m good…how’re you?”

“I’m good!”

Then what happens? Sometimes the two people part ways there, maybe even feigning some excuse for departure. “Oh, I have to run now, but good to see you!” Occasionally the conversation continues, but in my experience at least, it goes haltingly at first, like a car that has stalled and needs to be restarted. “So, um, how’re classes?” But the damage has been done. What damage, you may ask?

NEI!!! The issue with answering only “good!” to the “how’re you?” question is that it sets a very low precedent for the level of information sharing that will take place in the conversation. It’s the lowest TMI — the highest NEI. Each person answers the minimum “good” or “fine” or “okay” and moves on with their lives. And who would break the cycle? If you pose the question and the other person says “good” in response, are you going to tell the person all about your life? Probably not. The person said “good,” so you’ll say “good” too, right? It’s the cycle of NEI.

In my mind, this recalls the question of who moves first in the game of conversation (thank you, game theory). If you’re answering the “how’re you?” question first, you set the precedent. If the other person is answering first, they set the precedent of how detailed the conversation should be, and initial precedents can be hard to change.

However, it is possible to change the game. If you decide to add in a tidbit like, “I’m good, I just got out of a midterm!” you’ve implicitly given permission for the other person to also add an additional piece of information. I’ve seen this happen many a time — when asked how I’m doing, I provide one little sentence of description, ask how the person is doing in return and receive one little sentence of description. It brings to mind the idea of raising the price of a good in an auction — I’ve raised my “bid” in the conversation, so I force the other person to raise theirs too.

Okay, no more economics. The point is that these little one-liners are the most important aspect of the casual run-in. Even if the only thing you gain from that interaction is hearing that the other person just had a midterm or is really tired or is going to an interview, it’s one more way you’re involved with their life and one more way you can feel connected to them. Plus it’s conversational ammunition for the next time you run into this person — if you remember what they said before, you can bring it up in the future and ask about their interview or nap or post-midterm ecstasy.

Now, what do you do when you ask, “how’re you doing?” first and the person says “good” in response? I dare you, when they ask you in return, to volunteer a tidbit or two. They may have set the bar to the highest level of NEI (is this catching on?), but you don’t have to keep it there. In this situation, I usually go ahead and volunteer a few things. Sometimes it’s as egregious as:

“Hey [name], how’re you doing?”

“I’m good, Miriam! How’re you?”

“Oh wow. This week is killing me. I have a ton of work, and then I had to scramble to find a good topic for my Daily column. Now that’s over, but I still have a midterm this week. At least this weekend will be good! You should definitely check out this big show on Saturday called Rhythms. Sanskriti is putting it on in Memorial Auditorium, and it features 14 difference student performance groups…” etc.

I usually take the other person aback at first. After all, they probably wondered why I volunteered so much information. But then the best part happens. If the person clearly isn’t dashing off to another engagement, they often readjust to the new, lower level of NEI that I’ve set, and then we have a real conversation! No more monosyllabic answers — we have a good exchange until one of us really does have to leave.

How was this article? No NEI. Email Miriam at: [email protected].

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