Functionalism vs. Sociability


I am rationally minded. And by this I do not mean the self-congratulatory “I am intelligent” sort of claim, but a more technical side of rationalism. One definition of rationality is that means are chosen to fit their ends. This is easier to understand if one thinks of how irrational it is to try to eat soup with a fork. It is rational, then, to choose means (spoon) to fit their ends (the consumption of soup). There is also a range here, because fork<teaspoon<spoon<straw (for liquid soup at least), and we can order the rationality of actions based on their fit to this model.

But when I talk about rationalism as a trait, I mean something a bit stronger. I have a strong preference that the chosen means would be optimal to their ends. I feel discomfort when something appears to me to be inefficient. Large bureaucracies often cause me deep frustration and lead me to try to change them, which rarely goes over well with the staff of these bureaucracies.  I cannot read Kafka without cringing at every page. Army service was a nightmare, at least until I have become an officer.

This trait is very useful in many cases. Among other things, I run a small company, and I am trying to do things very differently from other companies, and so we are able to save a lot of money. I optimize a few things in my academic work, which make me marginally more efficient than my peers. I have switched to drinking coffee with  a straw, which saved my shirts from countless stains. etc.

Over the last few years, I came to realize that there is a large cost to this trait. It led me to realize that the following spectrum applies to most of our human interactions:


On the one side of the spectrum is functionalism and on the other is sociability. This implies that in most human interactions, we trade-off efficiency for a somewhat diffused notion of sociability, which I take to roughly mean something the feeling of a connection, care, or depth of relationship between two people.

Suppose you call a friend with whom you’ve arranged to go see a movie. The most functional, and hence most rational, form would be to say a quick hi (to verify the other person is on the line and can hear you), and then tell them the time that you believe would be most mutually convenient to meet.  If you are confident in the information you have, you would not seek advice, and then hang up as soon as this information was conveyed. Heck, you might even text this info and avoid this needless hi. A more sociable person, however, would preface the information exchange with a long small talk, exchange pleasantries or trivial complaints (I had such a long day, how was yours?). Then, instead of telling the optimal time to meet, she would ask if the other person has any thoughts. If he is as sociable as her, he will return the question. And they will engage in this spurious back and forth of “yeah, I really don’t care, what do you want?” 5-10 times, before somebody musters the courage to say what they both knew, that they would have to leave at 7:30 to catch the 8:00 show.

A rationally minded person like me find this exchange distasteful, boring, and non-nonsensical. But this does not make me at all a better person; it makes me a worse person, at least when it comes to making friends and creating relationships. Nobody ever congratulated me for being efficient in my communications, but I have probably missed out on a lot of friendships with very good people, because they found my short temper and lack of care distancing.

I am now starting to think about the world through this prism, and I feel that it makes me a better people’s person. I still cannot fully let go of my distaste for small talk, but I recognize it as a hindrance that I need to overcome. Hopefully it will be of use to other readers.


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