The case for being unsociable: Joe Collier’s antidote to the party season.
Although many see me as sociable, in reality it is only partly me. In many ways I am much more at home being unsociable, a trait which I believe generally deserves recognition (and respect) as a positive, rather than a negative, attribute. I feel strongly that we now live in an over-sociable society (witness, the compulsive use of texts and tweets), and that a bit of unsociableness would do us the world of good.
At one level, being sociable (which by definition relates to situations outside work itself) means enjoying the company of others, being at ease with others (able to chat, pass the time of day etc), and ultimately seeking out company generally rather than choosing to be alone or at home. Superficially this is attractive and within limits is something with which I even pursue. However, at another level, for me being sociable also means speaking with people who I do not know or with whom I have nothing in common; or spending time with people who I find boring or frankly distasteful. It also means being at gatherings (functions, dinners) in the pursuance of duty or office etc rather than being with those with whom I am ‘at one’.
Being sociable almost always demands limiting ones conversation to matters that are trite, formulaic, or simply gossip (how I hate gossip), and so necessarily avoiding talking about things that might be provocative or controversial (avoid politics/ religion/salary – keep to sport, pets and children). Finally, it can mean my being ‘stuck’ (imprisoned) with people when conversation has dried up and with whom I have nothing more to say, and inevitably wishing I (or my guest) would leave.
I have developed a whole set of strategies for avoiding these more awful aspects of being sociable. I avoid having meals etc with people with whom I feel meetings longer than the equivalent of a coffee break would be a mistake. In these circumstances, when faced with an invitation to dine, I simply decline, saying, for example, ‘No, I am unsociable, its not my bag’. In conversation, I make it clear that I am not interested in endless tittle-tattle, and speak essentially without compromise, ie honestly, directly, and if needs be, critically. When people come to dinner at my home, increasingly I will tell them before hand (sometimes on the invitation) how long the meal will last (‘7.30 -10.30pm’ for example). Then, at 10.30pm, it’s good-bye. When out to dinner I rarely stay later than 10.30pm (getting up to leave without any excuse is sometimes seen as a tad odd!). It is unusual for me to accept invitations to formal dinners whatever their purpose, and if at such a dinner will engineer changing places when conversation becomes ‘unproductive’ (for the sizeable dinners that I have arranged myself, moving at least once during the meal was standard). Finally, when I offer close friends our cottage to stay, I quickly add that it would be when we were not there and, of course, going on holiday with friends is unthinkable.
I know that my various strategies are seen as odd, brash and probably plain rude. But I see them as offering honest and logical solutions to one of society’s increasingly mindless demands – excessive and unquestioning sociableness. Of course, amongst my friends (and they have often taken a long time to come by) I am accepted and understood. Amongst most others, however, I assume I am misunderstood, although there will be some who harbour a secret desire to follow suit and for these I offer wholehearted encouragement. The more willingness there is to be unsociable and for people to respect and accept this position, the better.
[This post is an edited version of an article by Joe Collier that first appeared in the BMJ Group Blogs on 20th July 2009 ]