In a long post mostly about a different issue, Zvi Mowshowitz writes:

I also strongly endorse that the default level of reliability needs to be much, much higher than the standard default level of reliability, especially in The Bay. Things there are really bad.

When I make a plan with a friend in The Bay, I never assume the plan will actually happen. There is actual no one there I feel I can count on to be on time and not flake. I would come to visit more often if plans could actually be made. Instead, suggestions can be made, and half the time things go more or less the way you planned them. This is a terrible, very bad, no good equilibrium. Are there people I want to see badly enough to put up with a 50% reliability rate? Yes, but there are not many, and I get much less than half the utility out of those friendships than I would otherwise get.

First of all, I'd like to say that nothing in my post should be construed as saying Zvi's desire for reliable friends is invalid or wrong. It's disappointing to expect a friend to come over and then they don't. If you're a busy person, on vacation or otherwise limited in time, a friend's canceled plans may mean that you've missed out on an important opportunity to do something productive and/or fun. It is very reasonable to want to befriend people who will reliably show up places they said they will on time. However, I do want to explain why I myself am quite unreliable and how I benefit from a social norm in which this unreliability is acceptable. (We should also note that I have lived in the Bay for the majority of my adult, actually-socializing life, so I may be unfamiliar with the benefits of a non-flake lifestyle.)

I primarily get places through public transit and Uberpool. The Bay Area's public transit system is really really good compared to public transit in most of the rest of the country (for one thing, it is possible to get places on it). However, our public transit is certainly inferior to, say, New York City's. One of the ways this works is that sometimes, based on the Inscrutable Whim of the Train Gods, the train will choose to show up fourteen minutes late. Uberpool also has high variance in time estimates, because they have to pick up and drop off other people. What this means is that when I say "I will get there at such-and-such a time", I mean "there is a bimodal distribution of times when I could show up which is centered around this time and probably has a standard deviation of like five to ten minutes."

So there are ways I can fairly consistently show up on time. One is that I could take UberX wherever I'm going and eat the extra expense-- although doing that consistently would trade off against my goal of using money responsibly. Another is that I can plan to show up on average ten or fifteen minutes before I'm supposed to show up, and then most of the time I will be on time. (This is what I do for doctors' and therapists' appointments.)

There are two problems with adopting the latter strategy in general. First, my time also has value! If it's bad for me to show up ten minutes late because the person is waiting around being bored, then it is also bad for me to show up ten minutes early so I have to wait around and be bored. Second, in many cases, showing up early is just as inconvenient for others as showing up late. For instance, if a friend invited me over for dinner and I show up fifteen minutes early, they might be still in their bathrobe and really counting on that fifteen minutes to shove the floordrobe into the closet and take the garbage out. That would be considerably ruder than showing up fifteen minutes late (at least if you keep them posted), because at that point the food is probably only beginning to get cold.

(I guess I could arrive early and then hang out on a street corner until it was time for dinner but see above re: my time has value.)

In general, instead of trying to always show up before you said you would, I think the best strategy is to try to be early about as often as you are late, unless it is something where being early is much much better than being late (a theatrical production, a doctor's appointment, a job interview) or vice versa (a party with lots of other invitees).

However, Zvi didn't just talk about being on time: he also talked about flaking. My local corner of the Bay seems to have less of a flaking problem than his corner. I, a diagnosed agoraphobe, still manage to make the majority of the social events I agree to go to, and many people of my acquaintance make as much as ninety or ninety-five percent. (Maybe I am particularly charming and people don't want to flake on me, or maybe I'm proactive and flake on them first.) But I think it is very useful that no one gets angry at me for flaking as much as I do.

I'm scared of leaving my house. This means that when I make social arrangements a lot of the time I won't end up actually going to them because I will be too scared of leaving my house. Whether I'm going to have a good mental health day or a bad mental health day is hard to predict even a week in advance, because it depends on short-term triggers like whether I've fought with a close friend, whether the assholes across the street have decided to set off fireworks, whether a person has said something unpleasant about me on the Internet, whether I've been doing a good job of remembering that in spite of what my brain tells me doing things will make me feel better and not doing things will make me feel worse, and so on. So the only way I can achieve any sort of reliability in social arrangements is by not making them.

I do not want to not make social arrangements. Social isolation makes my mental health worse. And doing literally anything tends to make me less depressed. I am also informed that some people would occasionally like to talk to me [citation needed]. So therefore I have decided to make plans anyway, and push onto my friends the negative consequences of dealing with my flakiness.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that one would object to this state of affairs and choose not to have me as a friend. (This is one of many good reasons why someone might not want to have me as a friend.) But I think before advocating for a complete shift in social norms one should consider the benefits the social norms already have to those participating in them.

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Ozy, it sounds like you're counting "time waiting before appointed time" and "time waiting after appointed time" as equivalent. Is that correct?

Yes, that is generally how I feel about it.

Okay, I think this is the crux of the argument. For me, time spent waiting after an agreed upon time feels much worse than time waiting before. Morally, time waiting after represents Someone Breaking a Promise in a way time waiting before does not (absent a meta agreement about what "on time" means, which it sounds like you have). Practically, time when I know when I'll be interrupted is much more valuable than time when I could be interrupted at any moment, and people tend to get angry if you keep them waiting after the appointed time, even if they were late. I can't start something new if I might be interrupted at any moment and I can't pick something that will fit in the time slot because I don't know when I'll be interrupted, so the time is just *lost*.

I don't count these as symmetrical for a) the reasons that elizabeth mentions, and b) differences in anticipation - even in a culture which embraces unreliability, "time from now(early) until appointed time" is known, where "time from now(late) until other person actually arrives" is not.

I would consider waiting for a duration the length of which is known from the start to be less annoying than waiting for the same duration but but not knowing that length. If I know how long I will be waiting, I can choose how to engage my attention in ways that aren't feasible if I don't; I can commit to focusing on a book or podcast for a certain amount of time without worrying if it's too short to become engaged, I can do a task on my phone which I want to do in one sitting and which I anticipate will take an amount of time less than my expected wait time, I can wander about the area and look at interesting nearby things.

Further, when you have a meeting involving more than two people, (1) when you're early, only you have time wasted as a result, whereas (2) when you're late, everyone else has time wasted as a result. This favours norms against unexpected lateness for the many-people case, and it's simplest for them to carry over to the two-people case.

I will care if people flake on me at the last minute if I'm going out to meet them, because leaving the house is hard. If I can avoid that cost to myself by inviting them to my house or even a nearby cozy cafe, I'm all for making as many tentative plans as it takes.

Problems like Zvi's are why I want stronger schelling point meetups in the community. Rather than continue to make unreliable plans, make a solid plan that accounts for unreliability. Let there be a time and place where [things] will happen if they will and [other things] can happen if they won't.

This is kinda sorta, but not quite what happens with the flexible group I was talking about.

I've been thinking about this lately, in large part because the person I'm dating has health problems that cause us as a couple to be much less reliable than I have a reputation for and this has caused serious pushback from some of my friends when I have been unexpectedly unreliable. And frankly I kinda agree with them because, and this is my actual point, we were still used to scheduling activities based on the idea of me being reliable. To the extent reliability necessary virtue to be accepted by society vs. kinda nice is a binary choice I lean toward the former, but I've realized that how important it is depends a lot on the type of activities you do. Excluding intentionally stupid hypotheticals like "bet on when people will show up" the activities workable for reliable groups are strictly greater than the set of activities available to less reliable groups, which is why I value reliability, but I think unreliable groups can still be pretty good if you are well calibrated about your group's reliability.
To give some object level examples; having a role playing game with a party of four players can be really fun for reliable groups, but when health issues (mostly my partner's) lead to both of us missing several games on short notice the rest of the group got angry because their quests were basically unplayable with half the party missing (lots of this was plots aimed at our characters or using specialized skills so they couldn't just do the halve the number of enemy NPCs thing). On the other hand I was part of a rationality group that had a soft start time/socializing in a public place at the beginnings of meetings and a double digit number of nominal members. It was very common for large chunks of people to flake or be late, but as long as the organizer got in on time it was fine and she aimed to be early.

If my friend doesn’t care enough about me, or hanging out with me, or my plans, to leave their house 15 minutes early in order to make it to a get-together with me on time, are they really my friend? (No.)

Similarly and conversely, sometimes I show up at a friend’s house 15 minutes early (due to the Inscrutable Whim of the Traffic Gods), and that friend is still in his bathrobe and taking out the garbage. It is Not A Problem, because we’re friends, so who really cares? (No one.)

(I guess this is what people mean when talk about “the California sense of the word ‘friendship’”, i.e., not the real thing.)

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that one would object to this state of affairs and choose not to have me as a friend. (This is one of many good reasons why someone might not want to have me as a friend.) But I think before advocating for a complete shift in social norms one should consider the benefits the social norms already have to those participating in them.

Ozy, the first two sentences of that paragraph are quite reasonable, but the third sentence doesn’t seem to follow. Why would I consider the benefits that social norms have to people I have no interest in being friends with? Surely, much more important would be the benefits that social norms have to me, and people that I would want to be friends with?

There are several reasons why you might want a community norm that accommodates people whom you wouldn't want to be friends with, most notably because your friends might have a different opinion on what traits make a good friend.

Such differences of opinion, if they are anything more than minor, lead to bad outcomes. I don’t recommend having them.

My policy of “be friends only with people who agree with me on what constitutes friendship” has served me very well. I recommend it heartily.

I don't think that's true, as long as you both agree on what *your* friendship is about. For example, I am significantly more tolerant than many of my friends of friends who disagree with me politically. I can respect that they find political arguments stressful, and they can respect that I don't think isolating people from disagreement is a good method of getting them to change their minds. This does not cause any particular stress on our friendship.

In general, I think it is okay to care about different things in your relationships than the people you're having relationships with do, as long as everyone is on the same page and has mutual respect for their differences.

The implied moral principle here (assign zero value to the welfare of people that you wouldn't be friends with) would lead to some seriously deranged behaviors if broadly applied. But even if that were a workable system, you and your friends are still likely to benefit from a high-trust society that assumes mutual prosocial compromises. If you don't treat non-friends as agents capable of tit-for-tat behavior in the service of their own interests, and plan social interactions with them accordingly, then you and your friends probably won't have satisfactory outcomes.

The implied moral principle here (assign zero value to the welfare of people that you wouldn't be friends with)

That’s not the implied moral principle. How did you get this from my comment…? What made you think I am even advocating a moral principle? I am confused. :(

I was talking about social norms for a community or group of friends.

you and your friends are still likely to benefit from a high-trust society that assumes mutual prosocial compromises

The norms that the OP advocates for are not prosocial.

If you don't treat non-friends as agents capable of tit-for-tat behavior in the service of their own interests

I do that, though. I just don’t include them in my communities / social groups.

and plan social interactions with them accordingly

In fact I try to avoid social interactions with such people, period.

then you and your friends probably won't have satisfactory outcomes

Empirically, the diametric opposite is true.

In conversations with people in the greater rationalist community, I am often struck by how common is a dissastisfaction with social outcomes, with friendships or attempts at friendships, with their social environment. My social circles, my friends groups, are, empirically, more satisfying in almost every way than (from what I hear, again and again) those of (it seems) most rationalists.

My secret? Simple:

Associate with cool people. Avoid sucky people.

And that’s what I’m advocating for.

Are you sure it's not just selection bias? I'm very happy with my circle of friends but I am not going to go about specifically stating "I am so happy about all my friends."

Uh… ok. Well, I am very happy about all my friends, so… I’m not sure what to tell you.

Have you at all considered not being friends with people about whom you’re not happy?

I believe you misunderstood my point. People who are unhappy about something (in my experience) are far more likely to bring it up than people who are happy about things, perhaps because the happy people don't wish to rub it in everyone's faces or because "things are basically okay" is not a very interesting topic of conversation. So your sampling method will tend to overrepresent unhappy people. (I continue to be perfectly content with my current set of friends in all aspects except location.)

My… sampling… method? What? What is being sampled, here? Where are the unhappy people who are being overrepresented, in what I’m saying? (How can unhappy people be overrepresented, when—in the situation I am describing—no one is, in fact, unhappy…? You are saying some very confusing things :( )

Edit: OH! I understand now, sorry :)

Ok, yeah, that’s definitely not the issue here. My point is that in my social circles, there is no one like that (with the unhappiness and dissatisfaction and what have you), whereas when I bring this topic up in many rationalist circles, the response is often “yeah, it’s like that for me” from many people, and not really anything to the contrary from anyone but me; and when there are people speaking up with experiences like mine, they’re usually folks on the periphery, or outside, of “rationalist” circles.

You should consider (though of course you may already have considered, and in any case you may well reject) the possibility that your principle of associating with "cool people" and avoiding "sucky people" means in practice that (1) you avoid making friends with people who might sometimes be difficult, even if on balance their friendship would be a big net positive, and that (2) if someone is going through the kind of difficult time that might make them grumpy or unreliable or otherwise "sucky" then you will drop them if they were formerly friends, and certainly not befriend them if they weren't.

(The alternativ is that you've just been incredibly lucky and neither you nor any of your friends has ever had such difficulties.)

Anyway, #1 seems like a substantial potential utility loss for you and #2 seems like a big potential utility loss for your (actual or possible-future) friends. And if you're going to start throwing around suggestions that anyone's notion of friendship is "not the real thing" and #2 is anywhere near the truth then I think we may disagree on what "the real thing" is.

you avoid making friends with people who might sometimes be difficult, even if on balance their friendship would be a big net positive

We’re all difficult. (My friends, and I as well.) One learns to be less difficult, in the ways which really matter to friendship, and which hinge on respect for one’s friends. And if not—then the friendship is not a net positive.

if someone is going through the kind of difficult time that might make them grumpy or unreliable or otherwise "sucky" then you will drop them if they were formerly friends,

As I consider personal loyalty to be among the highest virtues—perhaps even the highest virtue—my threshold for this is very high. Not unreachably so; but much higher than (from what I gather) those of most people. So no, I would certainly not ever “drop” a friend just because they were going through a tough time. The notion leaves me aghast, to be quite honest.

In fact, the idea that being simply “grumpy” or—what? depressed? otherwise ill? busy?—is what qualifies a person as “sucky” is, also, alien to me.

and certainly not befriend them if they weren't.

If you’re a sucky person, and later grow / mature / change / fix your issues to the point where you’re awesome, why, I’d possibly be happy to be your friend!

Here is the truth: none of the close friends I have now, were perfectly well-adjusted, fully emotionally balanced, or generally-content people when I met them. (Nor was I; indeed I think I have met very few such people in general, and perhaps none at all whom I’d consider interesting.) But they were—and are—definitely, definitely awesome and cool and amazing and possessed of other superlative traits besides.

Anyway, #1 seems like a substantial potential utility loss for you and #2 seems like a big potential utility loss for your (actual or possible-future) friends. And if you're going to start throwing around suggestions that anyone's notion of friendship is "not the real thing" and #2 is anywhere near the truth then I think we may disagree on what "the real thing" is.

But #2 is not anywhere near the truth, as you see. Which means, I take it, that we agree after all…? :)

I'm scared of leaving my house. This means that when I make social arrangements a lot of the time I won't end up actually going to them because I will be too scared of leaving my house. Whether I'm going to have a good mental health day or a bad mental health day is hard to predict even a week in advance, because it depends on short-term triggers like whether I've fought with a close friend, whether the assholes across the street have decided to set off fireworks, whether a person has said something unpleasant about me on the Internet, whether I've been doing a good job of remembering that in spite of what my brain tells me doing things will make me feel better and not doing things will make me feel worse, and so on.

A prime example of the benefits of an internal locus of control.

[+][comment deleted]3y 2