Joe Collier: In defence of being unsociable

Professor Joe CollierAlthough many see me as sociable, and in some respects I know this is true, 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. Indeed, I feel strongly that we now live in an over-sociable society (witness, the compulsive use of texts, twitters and Facebook), 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 in the company of others, sharing conversation with others, being able to communicate (chat, pass the time of day etc) with others 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 feel at ease, which I enjoy and 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 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’ – interestingly such events are often held in venues in which one cannot hear what is said anyway! 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 being ‘stuck’ (imprisoned) with people when conversation has dried up and with whom I have nothing more to say, and inevitably wishing I could leave or they (my guests) would do so. Whatever the meaning, being sociable often involves being with people who have drunk too much (it seems to me that for many people, being sociable is such a challenge that it is often only bearable if first their tongues are lubricated, and then their minds are numbed, by alcohol). As a teetotaller, sociable occasions in these circumstances are a real trial.

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. So, 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 -10.00pm’ for example). Then, at 10.00pm, 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 most 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). When I am the host, and am asked to serve a drink by a guest who is already the worse for wear, I simply decline. 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 many of my 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. Often this simply requires the ability to say (or act) ‘no’. 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.