Memes: The Sixth Love Language
Memes are everywhere. Migrating from the primal steppes of social media, these nuggets of quantized relatability have made their homes in ads, print media, college classrooms, and even the Smithsonian. Meme-friends are everywhere too. Think of the last time you saw a meme that made a little more air puff out your nose than usual, and how you thought “I know exactly who to send this to.” Those friends, and more importantly partners, with whom we frequently share relatable content form a distinct tribal network, complete with its own understanding of who appreciates what and when, and how best to get it to them. In particular, the memes we choose to share with our significant others occupy a special niche, and form a growing part of communication in relationships. In this post I will explain why this has happened, why it’s a good thing, and why meme-sharing has earned its place as one of the highest and most sacred dynamics in a relationship: a Sixth Love Language.
The Love Languages — Where We Are So Far
Everyone has heard of the Five Love Languages. In his eponymous book, Gary Chapman described them as the five fundamental ways in which we show love to our friends and partners. They are Physical Touch, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Words of Affirmation. Early in childhood each person learns a particular pattern for showing affection, typically focusing on one or two of these love languages, which he/she then uses throughout his/her adult life. For instance, I tend to show affection through Quality Time and Acts of Service, while frequently forgetting about Gift Giving holidays until the ads remind me. My partner is different, exhibiting a preference for Physical Touch bordering on hug addiction. The internet is rife with Love Language tests which, though equivalent to carving a sculpture with a hatchet, can at least provide a framework for communicating your needs with your partner.
Now that we know what a Love Language is, why do we need a new one? Surely the Big Five, accepted for decades with minimal revision, are good enough? No, I say, and here I’ll provide two interlocking arguments why.
First, the Big Five effectively predate the internet. Before fast transmission of content, sharing relatable ideas required either spending time together or writing letters. The former was a love language all its own (see above), and such idea transfer was merely folded into it, ignoring its qualitatively different nature. The latter was slow and cumbersome, requiring laborious manual writing, mailing, waiting…. waiting… waiting… then finally discovering your letter was “lost” while your sweetheart married the blacksmith. These factors constrained content sharing and prevented its widespread recognition as a separate phenomenon.
Second, the sheer quantity of relatable ideas has recently exploded. Due to social media voting systems, top-tier memes (usually) float to the surface, providing a buffet of content from which to select those things which you believe your target will enjoy. In this way, sharing ideas is no longer a demonstration of the dynamism of our own minds, but rather our understanding of the other person’s — a crucial distinction, as we’ll see below.
So we’ve seen how the internet has given birth to a new content sharing phenomenon without prior precedent, but does it really qualify as a Love Language? The internet also birthed Facebook arguments and 4chan, and neither is known for love. Next we’ll prove that memes indeed provide an avenue for demonstrating affection, and more importantly, just how powerful that avenue is. There are two distinct reasons arguments — those of humor and understanding — which we’ll tackle in that order.
It’s Fun To Be Funny
If you’ve ever seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you’ll remember why Jessica (whose cartoon sensuality deserves a deep Freudian exploration) remains in love with her bumbling husband: “He makes me laugh.” This isn’t a joke. Time and again, we find humor to be a powerfully romantic trait. A funny person distinguishes themselves as clever, light-hearted, and generally associated with a good time, all things we want in a partner. (Plus, never forget how big a clown’s shoes are.)
Sending quality memes allows us to leverage humor in three ways. First, by making our significant other laugh, we prove to both them and ourselves that we are a quality partner, ideally suited for their type of humor, and especially able to keep them laughing for a long time. Next, provided we don’t suffer from deep sociopathy, bringing our partner joy should bring us joy too. Finally, laughing together registers in the brain as a form of cooperation, which has routinely been demonstrated to generate tribal behavior — we’re on the same team, a concept both necessary for couples and in need of consistent reinforcement
I See You (Na’vi Style)
Though James Cameron’s Avatar left virtually no imprint on popular culture, it demonstrated two things: First, cultural impact does not equal money made. Second, and more importantly, it introduced the blue aliens and their method of greeting one another — a friendly “I see you”. The Na’vi seem to realize intuitively what behavioral psychologists and Dale Carnegie have so frequently repeated — everybody wants to be understood.
A profound demonstration of this principle is Reciprocal Self-Disclosure. In an experiment, strangers took turns revealing to one another more and more personal aspects of their pasts and secret attitudes. After less than an hour, they stopped. Despite the shortness of the experiment, many of these pairs went on to form romantic relationships. Another demonstration lies scattered through the plots of numerous romance novels, in which the protagonists’ attraction rises in proportion to their understanding of one another’s motives. “It’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” ~Orson Scott Card.
So how do memes help demonstrate understanding? It turns out that selecting a quality meme from the flood of online content is no picnic, especially when everyone has different tastes, which in turn come in many layers. For example, everyone has varied levels of interest in different subject matter, and choosing memes in relevant categories demonstrates an understanding of that interest. Additionally, people have highly personalized experiences, giving rise to unique ideas with different levels of relatability. Finally, the one-on-one relationship between you and another person is filled with shared context (e.g. inside jokes and favorite memories), and calling back to this context sends a powerful message — “I understand you, and I want to make you happy.”
So there it is, Memes are the sixth Love Language. We’ve seen how meme-transfer is sufficiently novel to qualify as its own phenomenon separate from the previous Love Languages, and how its demonstration of love relies on the same engine that powers romance novels and relationship studies. Through sending quantized relatability nuggets to your beau, you demonstrate your own fitness as a partner, your desire to make them happy, and — most importantly — your ability to understand them. So meme away, my friends, your relationships depend on it.