"Unplanned Interactions" and Friendship
Paul Sztorc
14 July 2018

The Alchemy of Friendship

Sociologists make a claim that I find interesting: that friendship requires (or at least, overwhelming thrives on) “unplanned interactions” among potential-friends.

I am confident that the claim is valid. And, obviously, friendship requires interaction. But why unplanned interaction?

A third party could plan to contrive a situation where two others experience [what they think is] “unplanned interaction” (UI). The two parties may be oblivious to this puppet-mastery. Since they can’t know, one way or another, about other’s “plans” for their UI, then 3rd-party-interaction-planning cannot have an effect on the friendship-creation process. And so it can’t be about the presence or absence of “a plan”. Instead, there must be something going on among the two parties themselves. Either “planning to make a friend”, or else “suspecting that someone is trying to be your friend”, or both, must create some kind of interference that causes true friendship-creation to fail.

Intent of Interacting

When one of the two parties builds a plan-to-interact, (and when this plan-construction is observed1), it conveys an intent of interacting (IoI).

These IoIs have a few features:

  • They leak information about the relative desperation of the interacting individuals.
  • They are anti-egalitarian – the planner is putting in “extra effort” to look their best. It sets a baseline that is unequal (and therefore unsustainable), or else it introduces unilateral effort with the expectations to reciprocate.
  • They introduce a motive for deception – when you plan to interact with someone, you are “putting your best foot forward”. UIs, in contrast, just allow people to relax and learn about each other’s True Self.

For some reason, the problem of friendship-creation reminds me of the Byzantine General’s problem, only in reverse. In this reverse-BGP, both parties want to make friends, but can’t afford to invest in the wrong person too quickly. It is a kind of game where neither play wants to attack the town, and they are hoping that the message-passing becomes vague and ambiguous enough for them to both decline to read too much meaning into each other’s intent.

I have previously referred to parties and conferences as “pretext factories”.

Friendship as Investment

I have a separate theory for the question posed by the NYTimes (“Making Friends Over 30?”), which is that friendship is a kind of investment – a kind of “real option” or “insurance policy”.

First, like all insurance policies, it becomes more attractive when the world is more hostile and chaotic (ie, when we are younger). During some chaotic crisis (like a natural disaster), our friendship-hardware probably powers itself on, but in docile tame periods it is sleepy.

Second, like all options, it costs a fixed amount but has large potential upside – your childhood friends might really need your help and companionship, and then they might go on to do great things or become very interesting people. But once they actually are older, their ‘true market value’ is more-easily known by everyone. So, whether they are priced high or low, they are no longer “good investments” (because there is no longer any “insider trading”).

I still find this requirement of “unplanned” interactions to be very confusing (ie, very interesting), so please message me with your theories!

Update (Oct 2018)

A few new thoughts occurred to me, wrt “repeated, unplanned interactions”:

  1. Repeated interactions force the creation of specific human capital.

By interacting with people, you will inevitably learn about how they affect you – how they please or displease you. And you will almost certainly learn about how you affect them. This is a kind of “investment” in social capital. But, it is specific as well as general –you are learning about one specific relationship (the “you-and-Friend1” relationship), in addition to learning some globally relevant social skills that would apply to all relationships.

Since time is finite and scarce, you can only make these specific investments with very few people. And so it would make sense for you to prioritize these people – you have invested “in them”, and so you should care about them more.

  1. Unplanned interactions “get at” the real, underlying person, and are more stable in times of genuine crisis or need.

If all of the interactions were planned, then one wouldn’t know how to attribute one’s experiences – do we attribute them to enduring qualities of the person, or to features of the plan? How do we know that a quality is “enduring” or not, in the first place?

Real life is unpredictable, and “unplanned”. And so “what you need from your friends” will also be unpredictable and unplanned. In order to make absolutely certain that you actually possess real knowledge about your friends, there needs to be some element of realism to the signals which they send. Uncertainty helps reintroduce this realism.


  1. In other words, the plan in question is not a secret plan.