Monday, October 29, 2012

People Sorting Algorithm

"So what do you do?"

We've all been asked it. For some, it's a question of dread and foreboding. For others, it's a point of pride. It just depends on where you are in life. Even though it's a relatively innocuous smalltalk question, it can quickly end a casual conversation. Because for some people, it's part of a sorting algorithm for meeting people:

1. Does this person have normal behavior and seems well adjusted?

2. Would I be comfortable being seen with this person in public?

3. Is this person in my same socioeconomic group?

There's this sitcom on Fox called New Girl and in its latest episode, the main character (an unemployed teacher) asks her best friend (a model) a question, "do you think if we met each other today that we'd still be friends?" If you take out your decoder ring and parse through to the actual intent of the question, it'd be something more along the lines of: "please reassure me that our personal compatibility can more than compensate for our difference in socioeconomic status".

In scripted comedies, the main characters often have different personalities and situations. The humor is often derived from the characters navigating through their differences in order to come to a shared destination or objective. The best example I can think of that illustrates this dynamic is the movie Knocked Up. An alcohol fueled one-night stand that results in an unplanned pregnancy forces a driven, meticulous media personality and a lazy, immature, unemployed slacker to come together and find out the best way to raise their baby.

But this isn't how the Real World works. It's not often that individuals from two distinct socioeconomic groups have deep, meaningful interaction with each other. It's gotten worse in recent times because the Great Socioeconomic Sorting is mostly complete and people have cloistered themselves up with people who are of similar backgrounds.

It's a truism that doctors marry doctors and lawyers marry lawyers. But the reason for that cliche is increasingly being applied to everybody else. College graduates marry college graduates, move out to the suburbs that have good public schools, raise their kids, and then send them off to college to repeat the cycle. Meanwhile, the high school dropout knocks up another high school dropout, they (or more accurately, she) raise a kid without the proper emotional and economic support to ensure the child's well being. That kid then matures, goes to high school, drops out, and repeats the cycle.

Statistics bear this out. Last year, all women under the age of 30 were more likely to bear children out-of-wedlock than not. The only exception is those women who are also college graduates (approximately 30% of the population).

Whether we're conscious of this or not, we sort through the people we meet based on how similar they are to us in key factors: education, profession, and net worth. But it's not like we were immune from this type of behavior when we were young. We just had different criteria.

In high school, the smart kids stuck with the smart kids. Football players stuck with football players. The outcasts stuck with other outcasts. We were already learning to sort ourselves into neat, packaged groups as early as middle school based on "shallow" things like physical appearance, what clothes you wore, and how good you were at sports.

This is why we all have a group of friends, friends we made early on, who don't quite fit into our socioeconomic group now. I have a lot of them right now. And I do compartmentalize them away from the friends I've made recently. It's definitely not something I pride on doing, but I do it nonetheless.

If I were creating a people sorting algorithm for how I currently determine who is friendworthy, the pseudocode would look something like this:

function DetermineFriendshipStatus{
var newPerson=Life.MeetNewAcquaintance();

if not (newPerson.HasCollegeDegree() && newPerson.IsSociallyWellAdjusted()) return void;

if not (newPerson.IsEmployed() && newPerson.IsDecentLooking()) return void;

if (newPerson.SharesMyInterests()) return new CloseFriend();

else if(newPerson.LikesSports() && newPerson.LikesAlcohol()) return new DrinkingBuddy();

else if(newPerson.LikesPoliticsAndCurrentEvents()) return new FriendYouDiscussPoliticsWithAtLunch();

else return new SituationalFriend(newPerson.Personality);

Cold, clinical, and vaguely sociopathic? Probably. But everybody does it, and it's no good pretending that people sorting doesn't exist.

The fact that you still have old friends (from high school or even further back) you keep in touch with reveals something fundamentally more important about friendship: it's about having each other's backs. Just showing up matters a lot, and that has nothing to do with how much money they make or what job they have or what neighborhood they live in. That's determined by a person's character, which is much harder to discern than simply asking them "so what do you do?"

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