Against Social Optionality

8 Jan 2019, 800 Words

I sometimes feel like being stuck on a desert island with someone is the only way to interact with them truly sincerely.

In different social situations, we have different degrees of social optionality — the ability to freely abandon one person/group for another.

Consider the following situations, ordered from highest social optionality to lowest:

How might you approach each of these?

Let’s say you meet someone new at a party. In the back of your mind, you’ll probably be evaluating them — “Could I be friends with this person?”. To paint a picture of what they’re like, you might start to pattern-match their behaviour to other people you’ve known, and make inferences about their character based on the vibe they give off.

This guy is really into football and beer — he’s probably a douche. This girl is interesting and attractive — she probably thinks you’re lame. This group is talking about Bitcoin — tiresome. Of course, there are also positive signals that might draw you to people — shared interests, a particular sense of humour, and intangible good vibes.

If you hit it off with someone, then great! But if a few red flags crop up, you might politely excuse yourself from the conversation and go talk to other people.

At a dinner gathering, this would be harder — there might only be a couple of different conversations going on, with moving between them non-trivial. A group holiday would make it harder still — over 10 days you’ll end up spending a lot of time with everyone, no matter what. And on a desert island, there’s nowhere to even go.

At the very least, less social optionality forces you to spend more time with people, putting less emphasis on the initial interaction. This is a good thing — I think first impressions are largely a reflection of our own biases, and that most people take a little while to get comfortable enough to reveal their “authentic selves”.

More important than this, I think less optionality actually makes us view our interactions in a different way.

At a party, you know you can walk away from anyone and probably never see them again. At a dinner gathering, less so — you’re stuck with them for the evening — but you can wait it out. On a group holiday, you’re stuck with them for 10 days. And marooned on an island, maybe forever.

Because of this, your frame of mind on the desert island turns from “Could I be friends with this person?” to “How can I connect with this person?”.

If you know that you’ll be with someone for 10 days, or maybe the rest of your life, it’s in both of your best interests to find a way to valuably connect. Low optionality encourages the long game.

Wanting to connect for no other reason than because you’re two human beings on the same floating rock — this is the intention with which I’d like to approach all social interactions. Low optionality situations make this significantly easier, and I’ve started prioritising them when choosing how to spend my time.

Here’s Hermann Hesse on the topic, 100 years ago:

The man whom I look at with dread or hope, with greed, designs, or demands, is not a man but a cloudy mirror of my own desire.

Whether I am aware of it or not, I regard him in the light of questions that limit and falsify: Is he approachable, or arrogant? Does he respect me? Is he a good prospect for a loan? Does he understand anything about art? A thousand such questions are in our minds as we look at most people we have to deal with…

At the moment when desire ceases and contemplation, pure seeing, and self-surrender begin, everything changes. Man ceases to be useful or dangerous, interesting or boring, genial or rude, strong or weak. He becomes nature, he becomes beautiful and remarkable as does everything that is an object of clear contemplation. For indeed contemplation is not scrutiny or criticism, it is nothing but love. It is the highest and most desirable state of our souls undemanding love.

(from "Concerning the Soul")

thanks for reading!