Chapter 4.Self: Virtues of Character


Why Truly Sociable People Hate Parties

The idea of being a sociable person is nowadays heavily associated with finding enjoyment in going to, and in all likelihood also in giving, parties. To be sociable means welcoming the idea of being in a room replete with an above-average number of other guests, many of whom will be unknown, most of whom will be holding a glass of alcohol, bantering, with lights lower than they normally would be, and music somewhat higher than required in order faithfully to catch the details of another’s voice.

Parties have become synonymous with sociability because of certain underlying ideas about what true social connection might require and entail. We assume that sociability naturally springs up when lots of people are put together in a room, that it means speaking a lot and notably cheerfully about things that have been happening in our lives, that it depends on a jokey manner and – ideally – on the possession of a few entertaining anecdotes, often involving striking coincidences.

But such assumptions sidestep two sizeable objections. Firstly, true sociability – that is a real connection between two people – is almost never built up via anything cheerful. It is the result of making ourselves vulnerable before another person, by revealing something that is broken, lost, confused, lonely and in pain within us. We build genuine connections when we dare to exchange thoughts that might leave us open to humiliation and judgement; we make real friends through sharing in an uncensored and frank way a little of the agony and confusion of being alive.

Secondly, true sociability requires a context. We are generally under such pressure to appear normal, self-possessed and solid, we are understandably uninclined spontaneously to disclose our true selves. Our default mode is – without anything sinister being meant by this – to lie about who we are and what is really going on in our lives.

This suggests that a genuinely social occasion might be rather different from what we typically envisage. We think of a ‘good host’ as someone who makes sure there is enough wine and, at a pinch, ensures people know each other’s names. But in the profound sense, a good host is someone who creates the conditions in which strangers can start to feel safe about being sad and desperate together.

Unfortunately, the modern world seems particularly resistant to anything that seems artificial around parties, which threatens to evoke that most dreaded of all social genres: the corporate get-together. The thought is simply to pack a room and leave the rest to nature. But a commitment to deep sociability might lead us to recognise that we depend on a little artful choreography to get us into the psychological zone in which connections can unfold. We might need encouragement – and even a helpful lanyard – to share a little of what is sad within us. We need help in networking, not in order to find new investment opportunities  but so as to identify shared regrets, humiliations and feelings of despair.

Parties as they are currently structured constitute a clever ruse by a sharp minority, perhaps only ten per cent of humanity, to persuade the rest of us that we have been provided with the social contact we crave. But, in truth, it takes a sharply insular and misanthropic person to feel that what goes on in an average party really counts as anything like the requisite encounter with one’s fellow human animal. If we have a lingering horror of parties, we should be generous towards our hunches. It doesn’t mean that we don’t like other people, rather that we have too ambitious a conception of social contact to put up with what is on offer at most parties. The mark of a truly sociable person might, in many situations, simply be a strong desire to stay at home.

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