On Talking: People Are Inefficient, But They Do Magic

Humans are not efficient. When they do become efficient, it is in a few shining moments preceded by monumental inefficiency. My undergraduate years were spent in the highly inefficient Torrey Honors Institute, where classes were three-hour conversations leading to personalized oral examinations for every student. I suppose that the success ratio of students who go in and graduates who come out is enviable, but it is a very expensive and gruelling program that only highly motivated and well supported people can finish — again, a testament to monumental inefficiency. Some “waste” was recovered through students supporting each other and through cohesion gained over time, and we sharpened each other’s ability to communicate. We often talked about talking so that more talking would result in better talking — ineffecient tickling of the levers of efficiency. Now, 99% of my Torrey friends and acquaintances are effectively gone from my life. Clearly, efficiency was not the goal.

My college experience was a very rich and intense version of what people deal with all their lives. You get to know some people, you learn how to work with them, and after many years you form a dream team at your job, school, church, or wherever you meet. When you have a group of friends that has grown together over a long time, it is much easier to get results if you want to date, network, or have a party. When people do things together, they figure out how to do things together and get more of the results they want more quickly. People move away, change jobs, graduate, die, have children, and do all sorts of things that take them away from their core group. All these people you built social capital with are gone and the accrued capital takes the value of Confederate dollars. I see this a lot in my current line of work teaching English abroad, because I meet a lot of interesting people and then they go away after six to eleven months. I could probably help myself in this respect by staying in one place and see who also stays in the country, but it is still rough.

It is particularly difficult for me because people skills have never been one of my default strengths. Talking with me is never a very straightforward exercise, and you either have to know me for a long time or connect with me in very particular ways to get at what I am really thinking. When people do connect with me, though, there is no guarantee that they will always be there; even if they are able to be there, they or I might have to move. In view of the inefficiency of relationships and the long time required to make them work, why should I invest in them at all? If I follow that logic, I make stupid decisions and move away when friendships are just getting good or awesome people show up. No math or scientific prognostication works with people because people are not efficient and they do not do logical things.

What are people like? What do they do? They are grubby, cantankerous wonders. They do magic. If you do X, Y, and Z for them on an inefficiently consistent basis, there is a greater probability that they will come through for you in some other area, validating all of your past effort. If you want to have decent communication with people, you have to be with them for a long time, and often you have to give them things unrelated to what you want to talk to them about. If you want to deal with people and do well, you have to be awake. You always have to measure and re-measure with people because you never do know what is coming next. It is always better to know a person for more time rather than less time, but the stability of long-known characteristics of a person should give you a platform from which to observe them even more closely.

I do not get people. Only God fully knows all people because he effectively has people themselves in his mind; in the past, present, and future. It is possible to form general theories about people by knowing many, but individuals are always ready to bust my theories. There are ideas founded upon venerable doctrines like the depravity of man that my non-Christian bosses grind up on a daily basis. There are ideas founded upon happy-go-lucky assumptions that all people are always wonderful that Christians have thoroughly destroyed for me. I get back in the game with real people and see good people and bad people all over the place. Perhaps the best place to start with people is with obedience to God’s commands to love them: we might not know the first thing about them, but we do know the first thing to do to them.

Image via Flickr.