Functionalism vs. Sociability

I am rationally minded. And by this I do not mean the self-congratulatory “I am intelligent” sort of claim, but a more technical aspect of rationalism and one that certainly has a dark side.

One definition of rationality is that it is the ability to choose means that are fit to their ends. This definition is easily illustrated when we think about the irrationality of trying to eat soup with a fork. It is rational, then, to choose means (spoon) that fit their ends (the consumption of soup). There is also a range here, because fork<teaspoon<spoon<straw (for liquid soup at least), and we can order the rationality of actions based on their fit to this model.

But when I talk about rationality as a trait, I mean something a bit stronger. The trait of rationality implies a sense of uneasiness, maybe even anxiety, when the chosen means are badly suited to their stated ends. For this reason, I feel discomfort when something appears to me to be inefficient. Large bureaucracies often cause me deep frustration and lead me to try to change them, which rarely goes over well with the staff of these bureaucracies.  I cannot read Kafka without cringing at every page. Army service was a nightmare, at least until I became an officer.

Of course, one aspect of this trait is quite useful. Among other things, I run a small company, and finding sub-optimalities in the ways business “is done” and then fixing them, helps us save a lot of money. Likewise, I optimize a few things in my academic work, which make me marginally more efficient on some dimensions than my peers. I have switched to drinking coffee with  a straw, which saves my shirts from countless stains. etc.

Over the last few years, I came to realize that there is a large cost to this trait. The matching of means to ends—i.e., functionalism—is opposed to another trait, which is sociability. This spectrum applies, I think, to most of our human interactions:


In most human interactions, we trade-off efficiency for a somewhat diffused notion of sociability, which I take to roughly mean something the feeling of a connection, care, or depth of relationship between two people. Sociability consists of ‘excess,’ i.e., of doing things that are not instrumental to any other goal but the expression of care regarding the other person.

The trade-off is best illustrated using an example. Suppose you call a friend with whom you’ve arranged to go see a movie. The most functional, and hence most rational, form would be to start the conversation with a quick ‘hello’ (to verify connectivity and quality of line, the way modems ‘handshake’), and then tell them the time that you believe would be most mutually convenient to meet.  If you are confident in your the information you have and your model of the other person’s preferences, you would probably just state time, place, and other coordination information, and then hang-up. Heck, you might even text this info and avoid this needless ‘hello’. A more sociable person, however, would preface the information exchange with a long small talk, platitudes, pleasantries, and trivial complaints (I had such a long day, how was yours?). Then, instead of telling the optimal time to meet, she would ask if the other person has any thoughts about the time of the meeting. If he is as sociable as her, he will return the question. And they will engage in this spurious back and forth of “yeah, I really don’t care, what do you want?” for a good number of times, before somebody musters the courage to say what they both knew, that they would have to leave at 7:30 to catch the 8:00 show.

A rationally minded person can find this exchange boring and ineffective. But this will miss a critical point. Strong focus on functionalism will not net you compliments on efficiency of communications, unless you are in the army; rather, people will start feeling uncomfortable around you.

Realizing this, I still don’t like small talk, but at least I realize that it’s a problem.

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