“Man is a social animal. He who lives without society is either a beast or God.”
What do we spend most of our time background-thinking about? Most of this rumination has to do with our social ties: where they are, where they are going, what could go right with them, what could go wrong—the source of much anxiety. Most of our important conflicts are between family members, because the stakes in close relationships are the highest. The people closest to us are the main source of help and support—the source of the traditional family business. Altruism starts at home and largely locates there for the human lifetime.
Social rumination is all part of our intensely social nature as apex primates. Human nature has two faces, and they seem opposed in a paradox: while we are intensely social, we are also intensely territorial, and spend time thinking about where our boundaries are (our reputations, our holdings, and wealth both material and social) as well as how well those boundaries are working—or being challenged--in the social realm (see “Territory” blog, February 27, 2022). For a consummate review of territoriality, see Simon Winchester’s Land: How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, (2021).
Why are primates such social creatures? This is the leading inquiry among primatologists. How do we operate as social beings, going beyond our individual boundaries to create, manage, and transfer thinking and behaviors across generations? Ever since researchers sequenced the chimp genome in 2005, they’ve recognized that people share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, making them our closest residing relatives. This raises the question of what chimp behavior have to say about ours?
Animal researcher Edward O. Wilson sees social behavior, the product of evolution—sociobiology, as the best collective adaptation for survival and reproduction for the group. As an old saying goes, “One monkey is no monkey.” Paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman identifies our intense social nature to be the root of our uniqueness. “Humans are intensely social creatures, and more than any other species, we cooperate with unrelated strangers…. As a result, we have been elected to enjoy doing activities in groups, to assist one another, and to care what others think of us” (Exercised, 2020).
Viewing human life and goals as a system of organized thought and decision-making opens new lines of observation and experimentation beyond but including individual biology, brain, and behavior. The key to culture is its uncanny ability to balance major forces like self-centered instincts with our ability to socialize with people outside the family bond: in religion, cities, professions, sports, government, the military, as well as across generations and clan relatives.
Complex social organizations, as well as language, make every social level and effort a set of rules and skills that contain power and leverage influence. They enforce the rights and reputation of individuals who worry about losing social footing and rank in any given group. Our constant rumination about our place in the hierarchy mediates between building status in our competitive careers and holding on to our place in the many lines we maintain throughout a lifetime—while being generally cooperative and open to new alliances.
The individual personal space, and the many social spaces we inhabit in the course of living, do have something in common with fierce territorial impulses. The paradox in this duality is that in order to be properly socialized, the first step is to be in control: the neocortex--upper brain--and its executive centers must be developed and in control in all social encounters. This involves hundreds of limits we unconsciously observe even in the briefest of encounters. In other words, in order to be a social creature, you must have territorial awareness.
What does this awareness entail? First of all: boundaries. Knowledge and respect for personal space, our core territory. We are supremely sensitive to spatial invasion by other people, so that every social encounter must abide by the spatial separation. Break this rule, and it’s over. Focus on the other speaker – eye contact, body language literacy, appropriate signals that show understanding. Language compatibility. Emotional focus and response. Appropriate content—information revealed and hidden. Voice register, pacing, tone, and allowing for alternative speaking. In other words, quickly changing awareness of person, place, purpose, and proceeding in any situation. Language level, status and role, age, class, and gender markers all operate within the context. It’s much for the mind and the emotions to handle, besides the conscious awareness of past, present, and future repercussions of whatever is said and replied to.
The ability to understand “theory of mind” – knowing how others think, feel, and act, and the rules of engagement. This covers not just basic manners (knowing if and when to speak, how to ask questions and offer information), but how and when to reveal personal information, and what specific contexts require or prohibit revelations. The life-long learning that humans undertake is largely about how to start and maintain good relationships, how to note and repair damage to them, how to connect others in our lives (or keep them apart), and discover our unique talents in conversation, presentation, leader- or follower-ship, as well as what situations and people we are better keeping away from.
All these skills must be constantly honed and refined, shifting with thousands of situations, some familiar, many unknown. It is a genius-level undertaking. Yet all of us do it every day--with astounding virtuosity. And how is this all learned? Through experience, not so much through tutoring. From a high-stakes court testimony to a casual hello in the company hallway, we learn mastery, and creative, unique responses, to whatever emerges next—whether in person, on the phone, or in writing.
Although we are intensely sociable, we save this intensity for a defined circle (see Altruism blog, May 30). We are particular about who we spend our time with—and that time is increasingly shrinking. The notable fact of human life is that we are highly social—only baboons approach our level. At the same time, though, we are also highly territorial about how we mix with others on a regular basis. The short list of our most favored contacts over time makes up the inner circle that revolves around the center---yourself. This circle includes immediate family, close friends, close colleagues, religious and association co-members, neighbors geographically close, and friends-of-friends. We are acutely aware of this list, as well as who else is around us and how aggressive they are. This is why our limited time is also spent in avoiding or placating those unfavored many who would like to join our list but who we determine are simply not worthy of protracted time and attention. Of course, each of us is also on the “do-not-admit” lists of many people we aspire to be closer to.
Technology is now taking over times and places of the more expensive in-person events everyone cherishes but few have the time budget for anymore. With the number of distractions now available plus the constant phone and computer streams, we have a wider circle but shallower connections. Think of play dates, breakfast meetings, and zoom conferences, and the infamous low social skills of Millenials and Gen Z. There are reasons we have become even more picky about who we let into our inner circle and the time budget for each. Like all human activities, our social lives are on an agenda limited by time, travel, work, leisure, and every other demand. Covid has reinforced these limits so as to make them more acceptable as a ticket to opt-out.
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