Reorganizing my social life: Quality and quantity

Near the beginning of this semester, I ran a ten-day experiment in being a hermit. I worked in places where I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, avoided groups of people I knew, kept spontaneous conversations brief, didn’t go on organized runs with strangers, and in general only interacted with people when it had been scheduled before the experiment. [1] I deactivated my Facebook account. During that time I felt as if I had a lot more free time and was much more relaxed, and I only felt a little bit lonely. I realized that the social interactions I had been skipping weren’t really valuable.

Friends are useful. They provide entertainment, advice, insight, and sometimes material support. In addition, since I becoming a grad student I had been very cognizant of the fact that since colleagues are important to career success, it mattered a lot whether people knew me and saw me as competent and pleasant to be around. So during most social interactions with people in my department, I focused entirely on maximizing what the other person got out of the interaction and left feeling as if I’d earned another point in Forming Relationships. [2] This is tiring, and my hermit experiment revealed that if that’s what being social is like, social interactions don’t make me happier at all. Networking is useful, and many social interactions are enjoyable, but stepping away from unnecessary interactions made it clearer to me which of these I am doing and what I get out of it.

Close friends add much more to my life than not-close friends. When I think about the times I’ve been glad to have friends, I think about these things like these [3]:

No, wait. Having read several articles speculating that social media causes unhappiness because people present their joys and successes but not their failings and make others feel inadequate, I’m hesitant to publish a list of “reasons my friends are awesome and I love having them!” My friends are cool and I do love having them, but the sort of event I’m about to list is pretty rare, and it took me a while to write this, so I hope you don’t feel socially inadequate.

  • Walking around Somerville or going on long drives with Amirah and talking about love. Do all hopeless crushes eventually die? How sure does she have to be that there’s no future with him before she breaks up with him? Should I get married?
  • Sitting around a failed campfire with two old friends and one I had only recently gotten to know, talking about what was awful and wonderful about our parents and whether we can really blame them for how we are now.
  •  Making it feasible to do activities that are difficult or risky without a partner, like hiking, rock climbing, or buying furniture on Craigslist.
  • Knowing that if something happens to me, financially or medically, there are people who will lend me money keep me from dying.
  • Spontaneous dorm conversations: Hours talking about race relations in the US and what it’s like to enter the mainly-white American upper middle class from somewhere very different. Working out what we owe to where where we’re from and what we owe to the rest of the world.
  • Comparing experiences with people from different backgrounds.
  • Riding a bus with a woman I had met earlier that evening, who asked about my life and my research and was encouraging and caring with a genuineness I hadn’t encountered in ages. (Thank you, Marya. I went home and cried, either because I was happy or because there aren’t more of you.)
  • Walking back from dinner with Diana as she talked about how her life felt disarrayed whenever she moved or changed jobs, and realizing that I hadn’t had that feeling since I moved in with my boyfriend.
  • Being grounded by people who know me very well, who can either explain things to me or make fun of me in a way that makes clear that  I’m dealing with an issue differently than most people would (and that I can probably worry less about it).
  • Making it comfortable to do activities that are unusual to do alone, like eating in restaurants.
  • Any conversation that results in learning: Even if I’m not participating, I like to hear smart people talk about whatever they find interesting.

In short, I like deep conversations, new information, and activity partners. With the exception of the last two bullet points, having many casual social interactions and adding to my list of acquaintances doesn’t do many of the good things that friendship does for me.

After my hermit experiment, I started trying to cut back on low-quality interactions and increase high-quality interactions. [4] I am a big fan of spending a few hours alone (or alone in public) with someone. I’m generally afraid that it’s way too weird to ask someone to join me in the park for 2.5 hours for an interesting conversation [5], so I tend to ask people to dinner, even though this is expensive and constrains scheduling. I find that dinners with someone I’m not already very close with have a bimodal distribution of outcome quality. Sometimes we end up having a quiet and pleasant but mildly awkward meal while talking about work. Often I end up learning many interesting things about someone I thought I knew well, learning more about the world from their perspective, or bonding over our deepest hopes and fears. Having more than two people reduces both the mean and variance.

I suspect there are better ways of instigating interesting and serious discussions. Although one-on-one meetings tend to naturally lead into great conversations, there is a serious barrier in that I can’t just “ask out” someone I’m not close to without making them (and maybe me) uncomfortable. One of my friends in college ran a “relationship support group”, which mainly covered romantic relationships but also had special editions like “parent problems day”. Anyone could come. I could organize something similar, like a “how to stay sane in grad school support group”. Leah Libresco invites her friends over to debate a particular topic. I’m not too interested in touching hot political issues, but I could invite people to my place with some formally stated topic planned in advance. (“What do we owe to society? Nothing? Everything? Come by at 3 pm for tea and conversation. Bring only yourself and your opinions.”) [6]

It just occurred to me that this is exactly what church youth groups and young adult groups do: gathering disparate people together in a safe space to discuss difficult topics. I’ve participated in some non-religious discussion groups, but despite the high quality of the conversations, the people in them didn’t easily become friends. I think this was because they didn’t know each other outside the discussion groups, so that doing something else with the person felt like a big step, and because the discussions were formal and sometimes adversarial. The people in those groups didn’t feel at all like people I could come to for advice outside the context of the discussion group or share personal issues with. A church discussion group is valuable in that it brings together people who are already friendly and inclined to trust each other.

Next part: Why I’m not on Facebook anymore

Footnotes
[1] I kept hanging out with my boyfriend.
[2] I’m not that good at making other people like me. On further reflection, I think this sort of other-oriented behavior is good for coming across as a generally pleasant but boring person and is good for ensuring that no one strongly dislikes you but bad for forming close friendships.
[3] Names randomly generated to protect privacy.
[4] It’s tempting to eliminate meeting new people, since I generally don’t like new people, but since my friends will gradually move out of the city I’m in and I will eventually move myself, this is not a good long-term strategy. Meeting people should be thought of as an investment — it doesn’t pay off if I’ll never see them again.
[5] Want to sit in the park for 2.5 hours and have interesting conversations? I’m down. We can let the conversation flow where it will, or you can suggest a topic (tell me all your problems, please!), or I can bring conversation-starter flashcards.
[6] Since writing this blog post, I organized a dinner rotation, which I think is going quite well.

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About adaldrida

I'm a grad student. My interests are diffuse. Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Empirical Bayes, psychiatry, and sports physiology.
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2 Responses to Reorganizing my social life: Quality and quantity

  1. Pingback: Why I left Facebook, and reading recommendations | blog

  2. Dad says:

    Interesting choice of words; blame our parents for the way we are. Why not say credit our parents for the way we are?

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