Hard Truths from the Urban Social World

Posted on 2012 November 29


In modern city life, friends and companions and work acquaintances are easily replaced. An ally today may become an enemy tomorrow, as other connections abound in the megalopolis. Yet we persist in imagining that our relationships still occur inside a small, ancestral village where everyone is basically on good terms and loyalty counts for a lot. Instead, as you navigate the urban wilderness, keep in mind these useful, if dark, rules of thumb:

Your heroes will betray you. Today, being famous involves publicity, which attracts narcissists. Those most likely to be seen as heroes are least likely to deserve it. Soon enough, we discover our sports stars are juicing, our pastoral leaders are fornicating, and our political officials are amassing power at our expense. To save anguish, dump them now, and stick with comic-book heroes.

Your friends will betray you. This is not because they’re bad; it’s because people in large urban areas hew to disparate cultures and beliefs, and even where they make friends there’ll be fundamental differences between them. Eventually you may have a conflict over basic principles, and you’ll be tempted to confront them, but if you do, you’re toast: they’ll reject you, because that’s much easier than reassessing their own lives. After all, who needs the anguish when there are always new friends to meet in the city?

If you fall out with a friend in a network, you will lose the network. Let’s say you argue and break off the friendship, but, being civil, you refuse to air the dirty laundry in front of the group. The other friend, however, will assume you’re bad-mouthing him or her and will launch a disinformation campaign against you, and soon the network will boycott you. If you defend yourself with a rebuttal campaign, you’ll drive rifts through the network, and everyone will resent you for ruining the group. So choose friends outside networks, and keep the groups casual. Sounds awkward, but it’ll save a lot of tears.

No good deed goes unpunished. When acquaintances ask for your help in solving some difficult personal problem, turn and run the other way as fast as you can. Make any excuse, even if it annoys them, because that’s far better than what will happen after you’ve tried to help and they find a way to blame their problems on you. You’ll be lucky merely to lose the friendship; you could even get your butt sued.

Everybody lies, but the most honest suffer the greatest penalties. Some people fib all the time and get good at it; others do so only during emergencies and are bad at it. Hence, the honest people get caught while the scofflaws escape.

Married couples end up taking advantage of each other. Only a few people are truly suited for marriage; the rest of us get hitched because we feel insecure and don’t want to be alone. We then resent the power our spouses have over us, and we find ways to penalize them. Recriminations ensue. So stop using them as mood-altering drugs.

When an office romance breaks up, the lower-ranked lover must leave. Neither of you will want to see each other at work — it’s too painful. But neither of you will want to give up your job. Therefore the ranking member of the broken affair will engineer the transfer or firing of the lesser member. So avoid office romances unless you have a trust fund.

If you open a business with a friend, you will eventually close it without one. (See “Married couples”, above.) A partnership often ends up like Communism, where everyone waits for someone else to get things done. Partners tend to believe the other members are slacking off; arbitrary penalties — and recriminations — ensue. So avoid friends as partners, and always assign specific tasks to each member. Otherwise, prepare for a bad divorce during a financial downturn.

The condo is the worst form of home ownership. Nobody in a condo association wants to pay for repairs, and nobody wants to obey the rules about drilling through the walls, but everyone expects everyone else to pay and obey. Recriminations ensue. (See Business Partners and Communism, above.)

You can never, ever, ever convince acquaintances of the opposite political party that you’re right. Politics isn’t about reason; it’s about teams. If they allow even one of your arguments, that’s like letting a man get on base; a couple more arguments and the bases are loaded; they’ll never allow that. Focus your reasoning instead on those who are undecided, or on people who already agree with you and want to network; it’ll save you hours of hot air.

Your friends don’t like you as much as you think. For all you know, you’re an alien in an alternate universe, lying on a gurney in a coma, tentacles dangling limply, ingesting some very fine psychoactive drugs that create the illusion of this life on Earth. But even if others really do exist, you’ll never truly know the insides of their minds. (See “Everybody lies”, above.) Those judgmental thoughts you have about them? Yep, they’re doing it to you, too. Sometimes it’s better if you’re just dreaming.

And finally: No matter how hard you try, you can never really attain the social status you yearn for. If high position were yours for the taking, you’d have gotten it by now. But we love to ache for things — a really fancy car, a super-attractive mate, a huge house, a killer job, a better body — that are inherently hard to get, generate competition against us, and usually come at an exhorbitant price. True, such a lifestyle is fun to think about, but even the ones who live that way must pay through the nose. So the hell with it: enjoy the life you have and don’t take social status too seriously. If yours gets better, fine; if not, so what? Who cares what others think?

After all, you’re probably on a gurney somewhere, dreaming all of this.