The Friendship Challenge

The Limits of Friendship” is primarily about the Dunbar number, and the article’s attendant Hacker News discussion evolved or devolved toward discussing friendship more generally (“Reading the comments, I’d say many members of HN should probably invest more time fostering friendships”). Both remind me of discussions with friends, about the nature of friendship, and how most people seem ill-prepared for social life after school.

In American and perhaps Western society as a whole like-minded people at similar life stages continuously mix together from age five up to at least age 18 and often well into the 20s through school. Then people often stop routinely mixing with new people, different people find themselves in different stages of life, and the friend machine often stops.* Yet it doesn’t have to, but making friends and meeting people becomes a skill more than a side effect of being.

A friend observed that I have a “gift” for talking to strangers, which would probably be a funny observation to my family or people who knew me in high school. Still I thought the comment was awesome because I’m quite the opposite: when I was a teenager I was pathologically shy for a lot of my life, and it’s taken a lot of effort to cultivate the ability to be social with strangers. I wrote to the friend that casually and regularly making friends is a learned behavior for me.

I used to never do it (flirting with women was also a learned behavior, as extensively and embarrassingly discussed here). Now that I do, however, I’ve noticed that people think I’m automatically good at it. A lot of things people now identify as characteristic Jake behaviors are really, really learned. I think that the temptation to see them as innate is attractive because it excuses us from doing the work necessary to cultivate and practice them.

I don’t want to be one of those people who hit 30 and are like, “Gee, I don’t have any friends anymore…” Part of the challenge comes from friendships being defined by time-of-life. Single people want to party and mingle with other single people. Couples (often) with couples, since single people can be threatening to relationship stability. Parents of young children rarely hit the bars at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night.

Generalizations are obviously not universally applicable to all people all the time, but they exist for a reason. People with kids identify with other people with kids and so on. Parents talk about babysitting and their children’s shitting habits (I seriously hope to never do that). Your best friend at 20 might have nothing in common by 30 depending on when / where / how you evolve.

I see more and more lonely people who are like “Why am I lonely?!?” Let me be harsh for a moment and say they’re like fat people who are like, “Why am I fat?” and “I want to lose weight.” Some people have medical or medication issues, but for most the answers are straightforward: “Stop eating cookies and drinking soda and do some pushups and ride your bike instead of driving your car.” The response is usually, “I don’t have time blah blah blah.” Problems have solutions and there are many ways to falsely divide people into two groups, and one of those ways is between people who do the shit necessary to be effective and the ones who don’t.

Everything I have learned I feel like I have learned the hard way, through enormous amounts of error. That’s one reason I’m not too pissed about being told I’m a novice lifter at the gym. Chances are the trainer is right and I need to practice. Practice is everything. I suck at everything until I try, really hard and really repeatedly, to get better at it.

Friendship also isn’t quantifiable, which probably dissuades some high achievers who want everything measured in grades, dollars, or some other metric (that Facebook can be measured in this way may be one problem with it). There are still guides to becoming better at people. For example, How to Win Friends and Influence People is surprisingly good. I heard about it through reputation and assumed it would be stupid. I was wrong. Read it, annotate it, read it again in three months. There is a reason it has endured for (literally) generations—I think it first came out in the 1920s or 1930s—and that’s because its advice is timeless.

How to Be Polite” has one or two paragraphs that are brilliant (it also has some other paragraphs):

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The resources are there. The challenge is implementation. Let me repeat myself: Making and keeping friends is a learned skill, which many of us never learn and some of us learn much later than we should.


* (Adolescence is hard because it scrambles all the rules and principles learn about friendship from approximately toddlerhood to say age 12. Tom Perrotta’s Election has a great line in which a character observes that sex habitually turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends. Francine Prose’s young adult novel Touch hits similar themes. It may be that many people are unhappy that we never really return to those pre-puberty rules and roles because our desires and incentives change, and we have powerful evolutionarily shaped drives to do certain things and behave in certain ways.)

Life: The purpose of life edition

“I may think socializing is a way to waste time,” Zhang says. “Also, maybe I’m a little shy.” [. . .]

Seven days a week, he arrives at his office around eight or nine and stays until six or seven. The longest he has taken off from thinking is two weeks. Sometimes he wakes in the morning thinking of a math problem he had been considering when he fell asleep. Outside his office is a long corridor that he likes to walk up and down. Otherwise, he walks outside.

“What is the purpose of life” is a question everyone answers with their life.

The blockquote is from “The Pursuit of Beauty: Yitang Zhang solves a pure-math mystery,” and the article is itself beautiful and brilliant. Edward Frenkel gets name checked, and his book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality could be profitably read in tandem.

Sometimes when I read articles about income distribution and fights over slicing up the massive economic pie I think of articles like “The Pursuit of Beauty.” What would a world in which people signaled less and did more look like? But the preceding sentence is itself signaling, so I’m part of the problem by saying so.

The Dan Savage Interview Problem

Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:

Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.

Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.

Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.

Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.

It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.

The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.

We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.

Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.

Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.

I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.

Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this  direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?

How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too, and it concerns a question allegedly given by a high school biology teacher on a high school test about genetics:

“LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess” the biology assignment prompts students.

The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?”

As I go on to say in the post, this question comes from media accounts, and we should be skeptical of what we read in the media. But, with that in mind:

Let’s attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.

We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?

A friend saw the post and he called the big bootie incident a “reverse Poe’s Law,” and while I’d never heard of Poe’s Law it’s brilliant: “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

The teacher in question, however, might not have been trying to deliberately parody excessive cultural awareness. Being a teacher has taught me a lot: one is that if people have to make thousands of micro decisions in a given year, as teachers do, some are going to end up being wrong. That’s true of me.

In class, for example, I usually try to err on the side of being entertaining rather than boring, but that has the side effect of also being potentially offensive. I’m sure that if someone had a mic on me every time I teach, that person could take something out of context and throw it in an article and make me look bad. But I’ve had to sit through insufferably dull classes, which is totally inexcusable in literature classes, and I don’t want to inflict insufferable dullness to the extent I can avoid doing so.

Nonetheless in the current media climate, and in a climate in which it’s impossible to tell in advance what’s going to be acceptable to everyone, the risks of being interesting and real are real. The friend who linked to Poe’s law says that the dangerous class on his campus is “The Biology of Sex.” As he says,

If you teach it straight, you end up giving a plumbing lesson. My favored approach is to treat it more like a stand-up routine, but then you run the risk of offending someone. You can usually get away with a lot if you have built up a rapport with your class.

But, on the other hand, he says that no one knows anything about the subject and that students study hard because no one wants to fail sex. The phrase “study hard” may be an indication of the sense of humor possessed by my friend.

I’m inclined towards the benefit of the doubt where possible because we’re now living in a world where a small number of hypersensitive or humorless activists can cause a disproportionate amount of grief. Academic novels have largely traced this development—Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one good example; Francine Prose’s Blue Angel is another—but they seem to have had little impact. Too bad. Paglia’s descriptions of shrinking violet students is distressingly apt.

As being reasonably sensitive transitions towards being unable to function in a reasonable way for a small but noisy number of people, we’re going to see more stories like “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law:”

Imagine a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood. What should his instructors do? Criminal-law teachers face a similar question with law students who are afraid to study rape law.

Much of this issue is academic, because when people hit the real world they’ll often find that clients and customers are indifferent to their feelings and want their problems solved, whether that problem is rape prosecution or human sexuality or writing or whatever.* Some big companies are intensely bureaucratized and can still have a large institutional feel, but the majority are small and just trying to make it however they can. In which case an excess of sensitivity can be an excessive liability.


* This is one reason it’s often not worth arguing with academics.

Loneliness and revealed preferences

Philip Greenspun starts a post:

Nearly everyone in the U.S. has Internet access. Many online dating services are inexpensive or free. Many people are single and say that they would prefer to be partnered and/or married.

From the above facts I think it is reasonable to infer that online dating services are not very effective (see my 2011 posting on the subject).

I left a comment, however:

1. The term “revealed preferences” was invented for moments like this.

2. Most people would probably prefer to be partnered and/or married with a person of sufficiently high status, however the first party defines “status.” But many if not most of us have contradictory desires or preferences or dreams.

3. People who can make reasonable compromises do not appear to spend much time alone, especially because they tend to find other people who can make reasonable compromises. We live in a society that valorizes rejecting the existing order and heroically going it alone. In some circumstances that is probably good and probably works, but in many others it’s probably bad and doesn’t work real well.

From points 1 and 2 I infer that the online dating industry may be working reasonably well but that a) search costs are high, b) people don’t want to admit who they can “get” given what they bring to the table, c) a lot of people want novelty more than security regardless of what they say to others, and d) a lot of people are full of shit.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto — Chuck Klosterman

Pop-culture essays age in dog years while retaining the occasional long-term insight that stays fresh by accident. I’m reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and mostly noticed age spots but also saw a few prescient moments, like this:

But Junod claims that he [made up details about Michael Stripe of R.E.M. in an article] in order to make people reevaluate how the press covers celebrity, and that’s valid. It’s valid because conventional celebrity journalism is inevitably hounded by two problems: Either the subject is lying, or the writer is guessing. Junod just happened to embrace both of those obstacles simultaneously.

The relationship of the Klosterman essay to say John Jeremiah Sullivan’s more recent Real World essay, “Leaving Reality” essay is obvious, but I think Kloosterman is also forgetting—or doesn’t want to simply say—that people read celebrity profiles in part because they want to be lied to. There is more than a little complicity in the lie, which changes the relations of the liar to the person being lied to. Or perhaps people want to feel false intimacy, which can be achieved partially through lying.

klostermanThe “subject” of these profiles—like the Michael Stripe one, or others in its genre—is probably trying mostly not to say or do anything that will make him or her look like an asshole when taken out of context. This can be shockingly hard to do, since the subject can’t tell when the writer is “guessing” or what the writer is “guessing.” In this context “guessing” can be another word for “interpretation.” One reason to read the New Yorker, incidentally, is that its writers appear to attempt to be scrumptiously fair and to avoid gossip—yet those are the very qualities that can give rise to accusations of being “boring.” One person’s boring is another’s accurate.

Imagine someone followed you around, all the time, for a couple of days and maybe for longer, and that the person has some bad will, or at least wants to make your life into a story. Could the person get some stuff that would make you look bad? Probably. I know that someone who could observe everything I wrote, and watch everything I do could make me look really bad. So smart celebrities avoid the real press, or only interact with the relatively small, non-jerk parts of the press—like The New Yorker.

Let’s take a specific example of an article about the world behind celebrity journalism: Sarah Miller’s hilarious “Anna Nicole Smith Kind of Made a Pass at Me.” I dramatically read parts of it to some friends the other night. This paragraph stands out in particular:

I wrote a first draft, in which, without spelling everything out, I attempted to give some real sense of that day. “I can’t publish this,” my editor said, and in her defense, I’m sure she was right. I wrote another version that made it sound like I’d had fun, which took hours and hours, because it was not real; writing something that is not real is not impossible, but it is very close to it. Through every long moment I worked on it I cursed myself for not taking that stupid trip to Magic Mountain, which would have made it all so much easier. Anyway, they published that version, and I got my money.

Miller describes what actually happened this way:

“Sarah Miller,” [Anna Nicole Smith] said, “You’ve got the prettiest blue eyes.” If we were in a movie, she’d have added, “I do declare.”

“Thank you,” I said formally.

“You ever had sex with a girl?”

It was none of her business, but I thought being honest might somehow give her back some of the dignity my mind had robbed her of, and I thought she might sense it, and that we might have a real conversation. “Yes, actually, Anna. I have.”

“Well, did you like it?” The word “like” lasted for several seconds.

“I actually did not,” I said. “It was a…misbegotten adventure.” I was pleased at how much I sounded like my father.

But that can’t be published, not at the time Miller was trying to get the story. Her editor, however, doesn’t want “real.” The number of readers who do is small. How many people watch PBS versus celebutainment shows? How many read The New Yorker versus US Weekly? The truth is hard and amusing fictions easy, so we choose the latter. In the introduction to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Klosterman writes that “accelerated culture [. . .] doesn’t speed things up as much as it jams everything into the same wall of sound. But that’s not necessarily tragic.” I’m not convinced there is such a thing as “accelerated culture,” but I am convinced that elements of what passes for low or contemporary or whatever culture do emerge from the collective decisions of millions of individuals.

But it is also worth stepping back and looking for larger patterns, which is what Klosterman almost but doesn’t quite do. He is a little too fond too of grand pronouncements. Like:

The main problem with mass media is that it makes it impossible to fall in love with any acumen of normalcy. There is no “normal,” because everybody is being twisted by the same forces simultaneously. You can’t compare your relationship with the playful couple who lives next door, because they’re probably modeling themselves after Chandler Bing and Monica Geller. Real people are actively trying to live like fake people, so real people are no less fake. Every comparison becomes impractical. This is why the impractical has become totally acceptable; impracticality almost seems cool.

What is an “acumen of normalcy?” I’m not sure either. I had to check Google for “Chandler Bing” and “Monica Geller.” And has it ever been the case that “real people” have not tried to model themselves on “fake people?” If you read major religious texts as fundamentally mythological, as I do, the answer is “no:” people have been trying to emulate the Christian Bible and the Old Testament for literally thousands of years. Early novels with melodramatic endings encouraged their readers to attempt to reenact those ending. We seek narrative fiction in order to learn how to live—and that isn’t at all new. I don’t think there has ever been as firm a normal as we’d like to project on the past.

Eventually, with paragraphs like the quoted section, one comes to the conclusion that either everything is “fake” or everything is “real”—which is the sort of conclusion high freshmen hit when they’re in their dorm rooms at 2:00 a.m. The next day they still get up for class and go to breakfast. What is one supposed to do differently if one decides that real people are fake?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the next essay in the Kloserman collection concerns the video game “The Sims.” Also not surprisingly, some SF writers have wondered what might happen if we get a wholly immersive and wholly fake world. One possible solution to the Fermi Paradox is that sufficiently advanced civilizations make video games that are so cool that they’d rather live in constructed worlds than explore the real universe.

That’s an interesting thought experiment, but like the high freshmen mentioned above no one does anything differently today based on it. Klosterman tells tales about meaningless arguments. Eventually, however, generative people come to realize that arguments that don’t lead to any sort of change or growth are pointless, and they get on with their lives. One sign of “low culture” may be that winning or losing the argument means nothing, and the participants should go build or make something instead.

“Sisu:” a new favorite word that comes from Finnish and was popularized by war

A Thousand Lakes of Red Blood on White Snow” brilliantly describes how tiny Finland successfully fought the Soviet Union twice during World War II:

Thus with a thousand lakes of warm red blood on cold white snow did the Finns purchase their escape from assimilation into the Soviet Union, ensuring that when the Iron Curtain was drawn, it ran along the eastern side of Finland rather than the western one.

The word “sisu” captures the mindset necessary to persevere against formidable, unlikely odds, though it is unlikely to have the resonance it needs unless you’ve read the entire article:

Sisu resists exact translation into other languages but loosely translated refers to a stoic toughness consisting of strength of will, determination, and perseverance in the face of adversity and against repeated setbacks; it means stubborn fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds; the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and fighting with the will to win.

Sisu is more than mere physical courage, requiring an inner strength nourished by optimism, tempered by realism, and powered by a great deal of pig-headed obstinacy.

“Grit,” “stoicism,” and “tenacity” express similar concepts in English.

Anyone know a good, general history of Finland? Many people are currently enamored of its schools, but perhaps the same cultural thing that enabled the country to fight the Winter War also enable it to succeed educationally where others fail.

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