A world of singles

Overthinking pavement interactions

I recently read Erving Goffman’s Relations in Public (1971). Goffman is the dude when it comes to ‘micro-sociology’ - ‘studies of face-to-face communication and related rituals of social interaction’ - the sociology of everyday life.

Relations in Public (which does not, sadly, have anything to do with the discipline of public relations) (or, for that matter, exhibitionism) is about how we interact with other people in public settings. The whole book is peak overthinking, aided and abetted by Goffman’s slightly-snarky tone of voice and fondness for discursive footnotes. Next time I’m worried that I’m falling down a rabbit hole, I’ll try to remember that Goffman wrote six pages describing how two people meet on the sidewalk.

His attention to nano-scopic detail what makes the topic so genuinely fascinating. Goffman makes an immense effort to parse, step by step, the mundane social interactions that we take for granted. When we’re walking down the street and someone is coming from the other direction, how do we know what to do? Do we stop and knock out a quick cost/benefit analysis of who steps where? Are there decision trees? A manual to reference? Do we shout? ‘Hey you, I’m stepping to my left?’ Do we panic and dive into oncoming traffic? Somehow, we go through a series of swift mental calculations that guide us as to who has precedence, how close we can come to one another, how we pause a conversation, if we make eye-contact, and, ultimately, who goes where and when. It is rather remarkable when you think about it.

If you’ll excuse the digression, reading Goffman’s book helped me better understand my current experience of having a small child. Sticking to the pavement example: after a lifetime of successfully walking down the street in an incident-free way, I’m now accompanied by a knee-high ambulatory land-mine. After a few blocks of playing chicken, I will patiently explain that we have to share the pavement, and sometimes that means stepping out of the way. It takes a few dozen iterations of ‘why?'’, but that will finally stick. But then we’ll be committed to the opposite extreme: when my kid catches a glimpse of anyone, anywhere, no matter how far away, they’ll dive onto the grass and refuse to budge until the pavement is completely clear again.

(Also, this is why we’re late for everything. Sorry.)

As evidenced from my conversations with the goblin child, it is almost impossible to come up with ‘hard and fast’ rules on how to act. You can’t legislate for the infinite variety of potential encounters. How we behave needs to be intuited with agility, not imposed from above.

This is the difference between codes and rules, says Goffman. When it comes public social interactions, very few behaviours are mandated or legally-binding. We’re governed instead by codes: a social construct, created communally, and enforced as norms.

Think, for a moment, about social media. (Sorry.) Twitter, which was a prominent social media site until circa 2022, had a defined set of principles in how it functioned. There were at-s to speak to someone in a way that everyone can see and DMs to speak to someone privately. You could tick various boxes to limit what groups of people can view or reply to what you say. You had a character limit, and a limit to how many pieces/types of visual content you can append to each message. There were further rules (sometimes) around things like ‘calls to violence’ or ‘mocking its CEO’. But the rules proved how difficult it was to regulate - formally - the millions of social interactions happening at any moment.

And that’s where the codes came in. Ones that were critically important for social interaction, but also impossible to mandate. For example:

  • When and how to enter a public conversation; including one taking place between two people (and how that varies if you know both, one, or neither)

  • How to interpret if a tweet is an invitation to respond, or simply a statement of fact

  • Where and when to respond in a sequence of tweets

  • When it really means to like, retweet or quote tweet, and how that varies by your relationship to the original tweeter

  • How one approaches someone with more social status (far more followers, a blue tick, etc)

  • How one approaches someone who visibly identifies as a different gender

  • When and how it is permissible to privately message someone

  • When it is appropriate to tag someone into a conversation or photograph

  • When and how to use ALL CAPS or other forms of emphasis

  • How to indicate that something is sarcasm, parody or humour

  • When it is appropriate to use or re-use someone else’s joke; dependent on factors such as the format of that joke (text, image, or other content), the status of the initial joker, the status of the appropriator, the number of shared followers, etc.

These are codes. Only if you follow both the rules and the codes can you meaningfully engage in a public community. (For added complexity, the codes of offline interaction don’t apply in an online space - certainly not consistently. Each time you enter a new online space you have to learn new codes. Which is why, say, joining Mastodon isn’t just a matter of deciphering new vocabulary and downloading an app, it is also about committing to learning an entirely new set of social norms.)

When codes are violated, it unsettles us. Whether that’s being anxious about our small child chop-blocking strangers, frustration with someone ambling blindly along while engrossed in their phone, or the discomfort when someone stands too close to us in a line. The codes matter. They not only get us from Point A to Point B in an efficient way, they have emotional repercussions.

Goffman also establishes that, for the purpose of understanding these interactions, ‘individuals’ break down into two categories: ‘singles’ or ‘withs’.

Singles are, as it sounds, people on their own, while withs are a combination of people (2-3, generally) who act as a self-contained social unit. It may be a romantic couple, parents and a child, or a group of friends. They make decisions as one, and, for people on the outside, trying to interact with any constituent member means addressing the entire with pack. These mini-blocks move as one - think of how they take up space on trains, or walk down sidewalks. (Goffman points out that one of the constraints on the size of a with is simple infrastructure. In a busy city, it is hard to have a continuous conversation that involves more than two other people at a time - the sidewalk and the background noise simply won’t allow it.)

There can also be a temporary with. For example, when you sit down next to someone on a long plane flight, chat for a few hours, and then part. Or the temporary severance of a with: imagine being in a bar with a friend, and they leave for the bathroom. You’re now a single, but you’ll use visual or symbolic cues such as leaving a bag on your friend’s chair, or placing a glass in front of their empty seat, to flag that you’re still part of a (temporarily absent) with.

Singles and withs interact with other human beings, and spaces, differently. Think, for example, of how people might sit in a coffeeshop, or sit in a cinema. Conversing within a with is easy; starting a conversation with another single is difficult. The inverse is also true: withs, generally speaking, are bolder than singles, and more confident about public interactions in general.

(Further emphasising the difficulty of understanding online spaces: on the internet, we are all singles. If you are in a with, it isn’t immediately visible in the same way that you are offline, which makes it all the more complicated for people to navigate. Similarly, the offline interactions that designate with-ness don’t work online: for example, couples engaging in lovey-dovey PDA on social media doesn’t indicate ‘with’ as much as ‘ick’.)

Goffman points out that we can shape spaces to help singles. Restaurant atriums, for example, are spaces for singles to enter the restaurant without committing to it. It allows them scan the room for who they might meet, or where they can place themselves. Similarly, objects like vending machines allow singles to enter and remain in spaces without feeling awkward, and give them ‘stalling’ actions to take while they scan the area. That’s not to say that Pepsi machines are the key to social cohesion (although, if they were, would that make this ad good?!) (no); simply that no detail is too small when it comes to facilitating an experience. This is especially true if the goal of that experience is group-formation: trying to fuse singles into a loose with.

For several years, ‘positive social contact’ (Miles Hewstone, et al) was the watchword for creating integration. But that first word is critical. Dumping strangers into a shared space to feel uncomfortable together is not a productive bonding activity. I’m sorry to say, but I suspect a lot of naive, but well-meaning, attempts may have done more harm than good. Shared activities and experiences are a genuinely terrific way of overcoming biases and forming a shared identity. However, this takes a lot of facilitation, right down to the details of the physical environment. As Goffman would point out: every micro-interaction matters.

As a final tangent: one campaign we developed was focused on ‘positive social contact’ across groups of young people, using local community events. The twist was that we encouraged them to attend not as individuals, but in pairs (withs). A ‘bring your best friend’ kind of shtick. Intuitively, we felt that being invited in this way would make our audience more comfortable, more willing to participate, and more open to meeting pairs of strangers. But intuition alone is not a robust evidence base. We got there (eventually), but I’m sorry I didn’t have Goffman to cite at the time - it would’ve saved a lot of hassle.

Enough of that. Where am I on my romance reading?

First impression: this is going to be fun.

Second impression: there’s much more variety than I expected.

Unlike Westerns, where the values became more-or-less immediately obvious, there aren’t really any clear front-runners from my first batch of reading. On the Instrumental side, four of the six books have shown ‘Responsibility’ to some degree, but that’s the closest thing we have to a pattern. On the Terminal side, there’s even little consistency. Only ‘Family Security’ has shown up in as many as three books.

This may also be a result of the fact that all six books are from different sub-genres. However, that may be confusing correlation and causation: is the sub-genre chosen because it best tells that sort of story? Or does the sub-genre set the tone, and therefore the values? Argh. Who knows.

Christina Dodd’s A Candle in the Window (1992, RITA Winner). A medieval romance. When the young lord is struck blind, his father finds a young noblewoman (born blind) to mentor him. They’re both very proud, which leads to all the inevitable misunderstandings. There’s plot! Some evil nobles wandering around, and a rather amusing sequence where the much-foreshadowed King Stephen finally shows up and the MMC is like ‘zomg, shut up kingo, I’m horny’. There’s also a very good dog. Values-wise? This leans hard into the anachronism, and creates a book-long argument for Equality.

Stephanie Feagan’s Show Her the Money (2006, RITA Winner). The Texan accountancy romance/mystery hybrid that I never knew I wanted. (There’s definitely a uniquely ‘Gonzo Texan’ meta-genre that encompasses books like this, as well as Joe Lansdale and Kinky Friedman.) Pink is a CPA who blew the whistle on some dodgy oil dealings and now has to work for her mom, solve financial crime, and - if people will stop interrupting - get laid. This book is absolutely bonkers. The mystery itself is over-complicated, but the story builds to a surprisingly satisfactory and thematically-consistent cliffhanger climax. Values-wise? Amusingly enough, Pink really just wants the chaos to end. A woman who craves A World at Peace.

Farrah Rochon’s Deliver Me (2007). Two (extremely beautiful) doctors in a New Orleans hospital. Will they talk a lot about really good food? (Yes.) Will they meet one another’s families and/or possessive best friends really early on? (Yes.) Will they bang? (Yes.) Will they overcome their fear of commitment? (On the last page.) It is very debut-y. There’s a lot - too much - going on. Minor characters are introduced with pithy summaries of their entire life stories, there’s a vast network of friends and relatives, and there’s a lot of ‘world-building’ that doesn’t support the story. By contrast, the non-relationship conflict (fund-raising for a health center) is side-lined, while there’s an entirely tangential B-plot - complete with two POV characters. Basically, like many debuts, it throws the kitchen sink at the reader. I’ve read one of Rochon’s later books, and she tightens all this up massively, while still keeping all the good stuff. Values? I’m calling this one for ‘Sense of Accomplishment’. Monica’s really keen to prove herself - professionally, personally - to others and to herself. Monica is ambitious but not opportunistic, she acts in a way that clearly benefits herself, but also does good for others.

Kate Brady’s One Scream Away (2010, RITA Winner). Gawd, the era of romantic suspense! He’s a former FBI agent. Scars inside and out. He lost his wife and child, and now finds himself in the bottom of a bottle. She’s a former victim of a serial killer. Scars inside and out. She lost her… etc. etc. etc. This book comes from the era where serial killers are all way over the top, and feel like they’re being generated by six rolls on Appendix P: Table of Creepy Attributes. Of course he’s the victim of incestuous abuse and catalogues screams and dresses up as a woman and hears voices and is the voices and collects dolls and and and and… One Scream Away is slightly too long, which leads to a repetitive narrative pattern. A hint about the baddie, then a REVEAL, then another hint, then a REVEAL, and, while that spin cycle continues, our two main characters have sprinted towards MADLY FOREVER LOVE. We all know this book is going to end with her chained to a radiator, so why not skip to that part? All that said: the dolls were very creepy. Values? ‘Family Security’.

Laura Drake’s The Sweet Spot (2014, RITA Winner). Easily my least favourite trope: the ‘redeemed ex husband’. But, to give Drake credit, I was never tempted to quit. After the accidental death of their son, Charla chucked out her husband, JB. He slept around, got drunk a lot, and has now realised that maybe he was having a midlife crisis and would like to come back home. After trying to run the ranch by herself, Charla thinks maybe she’d like that too. This is very much about two adults coming to terms with where they are now in their lives, and, rather sweetly, re-making the choice to come together. (It also has the most hilariously unspicy bits of any book I’ve read so far - by choice, no less. But Charla being all ‘I’m wearing my flannel pyjamas to the sexxxytimes’ is a strong and wonderful vibe.) Values? Salvation. The instrumental value (Forgiveness) is more important here, but, ultimately, this is about two people coming back from the brink of disaster, and rediscovering safety and stability.

Sangu Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches (2022). A contemporary cozy about an Extremely Inclusive house of magical people who are all orphans so thank god for their found family and there’s also a cute dog who is part of their found family. It is full of tumblry wisdom about the importance of found family and the difference between ‘kind’ and ‘nice’ and how tea is magical and magic is also magical and families are found, not born, and all the good people are good and all the bad people get what is coming to them. This is a big ol’ sugar cookie of a book, and very enjoyable. It isn’t really much of a Romance. Mika and Jamie definitely have a thing and do some adult things with one another’s body parts, but that’s simply one of the many forms of love in the book. Values? True Friendship. Did I mention the found family thing? This book is about found family.

Happy New Year!

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