Veni, Vidi, Amici

As I get on in life, I get to spend time with some interesting, clever people. But they can come with sizeable egos. And that can translate into ‘High Status Behaviours’.

That’s not necessarily a problem. ‘Happy High Status’ is feeling good enough about yourself that you can feel relaxed and good about the success and contribution of others. But not everyone manages to keep the ‘Happy’ in High Status.

The alternative is less attractive – being so concerned with your own status that you need everyone else to recognise it. Or worse, to knock down others to assert it. I wonder if there’s a Greek term for that? Narcissism is one.

But whatever you call it, loneliness seems to me to be an inevitable by-product. I think dominant High Status behaviours are completely missing the point of life.

For Aristotle, that central point is to attract and nurture better friends. Friends care for our virtue and excellence, as we care for theirs. The best of friends are the means and end of it all.

But, as Aristotle said:

No one loves the man whom he fears.

He who hath many friends hath none.

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.

So why do smart, successful, powerful people sometimes behave in ways that seem to get in the way of true friendship?

Seeking power, wealth and acolytes has always been a primal driver. And on the face of it, it helps not to be too sentimental. But an instrumental view of others – that they are means to your end, hammers useful only as long as there is a nail – is missing the point I feel. As Aristotle also said:

My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.

Friendship of this type is earned, nurtured and freely given, not bought, demanded or taken. About the best thing in life, I reckon, is true Aristotelian friendship.

A contented ego is a prerequisite, but a conceited, instrumental or selfish one just gets in the way. Friendship, not conquest, is the purpose of the good life.


I read a fascinating article this week which gives the theoretical underpinnings – and even an equation – to make transparent why we are opaque.

Indirectness, innuendo, plausible deniability and nuance are all tricks of language we learn. But on the face of it they seem inefficient, unclear and downright unprofessional.

I’ve often felt put out – particularly at work – when people pull me up and say ‘what exactly do you mean’, or ‘what exactly are you suggesting?’ I sometimes find these sorts of questions irritating – even scalding. When the topic is complex or involves others, being suddenly pulled up can leave me feeling undermined, impugned or misunderstood. What’s going in feels far worse than a simple accusation of imprecision or rambling. Now I know why.

Steven Pinker of Harvard explains it all very straightforwardly in his 2007 paper ‘The logic of indirect speech’ which is vividly brought to life in an RSAnimation. Paraphrased in a [I admit large] nutshell, he writes:

Humans employ several, mutually incompatible, modes of cooperation and, as a result, are extremely touchy about their relationships. With some (typically family, lovers, and friends), they freely share and do favours; with others, they jockey for dominance; with still others, they trade goods and favours.

The ‘dominance’ relationship is governed by the ethos, “Don’t mess with me.” It has a basis in the dominance hierarchies common in the animal kingdom, although in humans, it is based not just on brawn or seniority but on social recognition: how much others are willing to defer to you.

The ‘communality’ relationship conforms to the ethos, “What’s mine is thine; what’s thine is mine.” It naturally arises among kin bound by shared genes, within monogamous pair-bonds, bound by their shared children and by close friends and allies bound by shared interests. It can be extended to others by nonverbal cues of solidarity such as physical contact, communal meals, and shared experiences.

The ‘reciprocity’ relationship obeys the ethos, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” It has an evolutionary basis in reciprocal altruism. It is usually signaled by fair exchanges or division into equal portions but, unlike the other two relationship types, can be negotiated by people via explicit verbal contracts.

People distinguish these relationships sharply, and when one person breaches the logic of a relationship with another, they both suffer an emotional cost. Nonetheless, humans often have to risk these breaches to get on with the business of life, and they often use language to do so. In exploring the boundaries of relationship types, humans anticipate what other humans think about the relationship: what the other party in the relationship thinks; what any gossipers think; and what the other party thinks about what they think about what the other party thinks about what they think, and so on.

The need to preserve our relationships while transacting the business of our lives can thus explain humans’ tendency to fill their lives with innuendo, hypocrisy, and taboo.

So now I understand why I sometimes say things in less than transparent ways at work – and feel put out when people don’t get my subtle drift. There’s always a complex interplay of ‘dominance’, ‘communality’ and ‘reciprocity’ in the workplace. It’s the most obvious place where the constantly shifting balance of cooperation and competition between humans means clarity isn’t always appropriate, realistic or welcome.

As Pinker shows, human relations are too just complex for plain speaking, sometimes we have to take the indirect route.