Our default friends and family

Downtown Manhattan across the East River

What was that smell of toast? Each morning at 11am as classes turned over and I checked my email in the computer room, the warm smell would drift through the corridors of Bristol’s economics department. Later I put two and two together. The department’s cleaning staff were having a daily brunch party.

Once, a glimpse through an open door told the intricate tale. I imagine, but am fairly sure I’m right, that having broken the back of the morning’s work there would be a joyful rush to set up the food and drink. A good dozen workers gathered around the table, the rush of pleasure when it has come time for longed-for snacks, the prospect of the end of the working day. Maintenance staff would join in. An ever so slight feeling of beating a system in a building at once calm and aloof.

Each point in our lives is marked, among other ways, by that particular group of people with which we spend most time. We might not even realise who they are, but with a little reflection we could produce the list, our list, the story of the background socialising of our lives.

One highlight of my own list is the card school in third year of senior school, tables pushed together and fabourite games understood by all. Form groups and shared enthusiasms come and go, and later my normal, reliable, default, social situation is the group of friends whose travel plans see them arrive early for school, gathered under the verandah waiting for the gates to open. Later it is the graduate students in our basement flat, sometimes going into college to eat, otherwise sharing food in our kitchen. Then at work I got used to the small group of people, sharing as we did a carpet in a London mews building and spending more time with each other than with anyone at home. Almost all of us could produce a similar list, often unglamorous and unremarkable, always the actual tale of our lives. If we opted to meet up with other friends then we might feel that we did so through choice and that these chosen meetings were better, the real story of our interests and friendships, but our regular background work-and-school groups remain the backdrop to everything else.

Where in the world are we sure that we’ll discuss last night’s TV?

It is possible that much of the time we resent the compulsion of these associations, the intimacy of colleagues, the inability to escape except at lunchtime. We could say that these people are the friends and family that we can’t choose. They are still friends and family.

What then is the effect of an enforced and prolonged absence from our default friends and family? We might feel a thrill at not having to mix with the same people; perhaps we are solitary or introverted by nature. The fact is that we lose a substantial element of socialisation and humanity, for good or bad, in our days, weeks and months. Over time our ability to get along with others in situations in which we have to get along with them, will become dulled.

Most importantly of all, the story of our social lives will forever be altered and will forever have been blank for the duration.

Author: Simon Stevens

Simon Stevens is an independent researcher. He is a founder and Director of the travel company Alpine Exploratory based in Edinburgh in the UK. Simon studied philosophy and economics at Bristol University and economics at Oxford University.