People are Strange

Simple social strategies for enjoying yourself with people.

I went to an event yesterday for Reed College Alumni. This was always going to be a dubious idea since most of my friends are out of town for a frisbee tournament in Washington, but usually when I go to such an event I know at least enough people to keep it entertaining.

I went on my own. It turned out that most people there were either significantly younger than me, or just hung with a crowd I never ran with. This was strange. It made me think that this must be the sense of displacement people feel when they go back to high school reunions– people you recognize and were maybe even once close to, but don’t talk to anymore. I felt estranged from a community of which I used to be a part.

Afterwards, my friend invited me to a barbecue. This was nice. People I know and like and trust attended, and we had interesting things to say to each other. The lesson to be drawn, simply enough, is “hang out with your friends.” Make plans with them and follow through.

I feel a bit silly writing this down, but I’m stubborn and kind of thick headed when it comes to such things, bringing such conclusions to consciousness and writing them down is a step towards avoiding bad kinds of social discomfort.

But my own stubbornness isn’t the only thing at play. I don’t keep going back for no good reason. There’s the possibility of meeting people. I like talking to strangers, especially if they’re attractive or intelligent as Reedies tend to be. The carrot is just as alluring as the stick is repellent - acceptance, social stimulation, natural selection - all drive me to events like the Alumni Sloshball, even if I don’t go with a group. If you stay home you will never find acceptance. You’ll be bored. You won’t be selected.

The risk is that you might end up in a group of people who don’t select you, who spurn you or worse ignore you. The fact of the matter is we are herd animals, and if you take Jared Diamond’s word for it, the peaceful meeting of human herds is a recent innovation. To some extent Hobbes had the right of it: the purpose of the state is to keep us from the Hobbesian state of nature. Political philosophy aside, strangers are strange. At least at Reed outsiders don’t seem to hold particular value.

So it makes sense that going alone to social events is difficult. You may mispronounce the shibboleth, and find yourself friendless but surrounded. And why should they accept you? You’re not from their tribe!

In fairness I have no doubt that much of this is in my own head. The fact remains that some communities are more approachable than others.

The Exception: Activities

That said, there are events where going on your own is totally reasonable and likely to result in a good time. Events designed around activities or education are still pretty comfortable to go to on your own– easier the better you are at the subject matter. You have a reason for being there, and if you are good at it, your credentials speak for themselves.

The other exception: You’re on A Mission

I find if I have a purpose then it doesn’t much matter who else is there or who I’m with. Working in a café is comfortable. Perhaps a braver person would embark on missions like “make friends with that group of stranger.” I am not so extroverted– write a blog post or solve a problem is usually enough for me.

The other other exception: Radical Inclusion

I’ve heard of short lived communities that try to embrace this philosophy to a great degree– Burning Man and the Rainbow Gathering come to mind. It’s interesting that such places exist, and if you’re lonely I have no doubt a group that embraces radical inclusion is a good place to seek solace. It’s also interesting that one of the prime attractions of the two events above is to experience a different kind of society. The excuse for being there is to experience being there. My experience is limited, but it’s interesting that I have neither practiced nor participated in groups that embrace this philosophy, especially given my stated desire to talk to people different and unfamiliar. Perhaps this should be a goal for the future.


Social situation are hard for me. I’d be interested to hear if other’s have similar experiences, and if you do how you frame them to yourselves. Hit me up on twitter at @andywinterman or via email: andywinterman at