in: People, Relationships

• Last updated: March 14, 2024

The Challenge of Social Discoordination

We’ve written about the importance of making and maintaining friendships in adulthood and the benefits of face-to-face interaction.

After reading one of these articles, maybe you tried to get your friends together to do something.

Perhaps you threw out a text to them, and the resulting conversation went something like this:

You: Hey, that new pizza place just opened up. Let’s get together for dinner there next week. What night would work for you guys?

Friend 1: I’m free Saturday night!

Friend 2: Reese has a basketball game that night. 

You: What about Friday night?

Friend 2: I’m going out for my and Cheryl’s wedding anniversary that night. How about Thursday?

You: I’ve got Boy Scouts that night. 

Friend 1: Thursday wouldn’t work for me either. How about Wednesday?

Friend 2: I’ve got to work the late shift that night.

And on it went until the discussion devolved into a vague commitment to try to get together some other time. 

Not only is it hard to corral your friends for a simple hang out, but if you belong to any civic or church groups, you’ve likely encountered a similar difficulty in getting people together. You plan an event for which hundreds of people might potentially attend, but only a handful show up. Folks just have all kinds of other conflicting events going on. 

A lot of ink has been spilled on what’s causing the decline in in-person socialization in the West. Technologies like television and the internet have undoubtedly played a role. But an oft-overlooked factor is that in our modern, hyper-individualistic world, people no longer have schedules that sync up. When everyone is living in their own timeline, there are fewer shared areas that overlap, and getting together becomes increasingly difficult to do. 

The Soviet Nepreryvka: A Case of Top-Down Social Discoordination

There’s a telling lesson from history on what happens to individuals, families, and society when there’s no longer a shared calendar or schedule: In 1929, the Soviet Union adopted a continuous workweek plan called nepreryvka. The plan aimed to increase the productivity of factories to speed up industrialization. 

First, they rejiggered the calendar so that a week only had five days instead of seven. Next, workers were assigned to five different color groups. Each group was assigned a weekly work schedule where they’d work four days and have one day off. Which days were work days and which day was an off day differed between each group. On any given day, 80% of the population was at work, while 20% was at home.

While this arrangement allowed factories to run non-stop, it also had immediate social consequences. Friends, family members, and even husbands and wives were often separated into different color groups. Socializing became nearly impossible because everyone had different schedules. Clubs and church congregations began to atrophy, friends stopped seeing each other, and families became distant and stressed. From the point of view of the Soviet commissioners, this disruption of organic social life was only another benefit of nepreryvka: keeping people atomized made them easier to control. 

By 1931, the Soviet Union gave up on nepreryvka because production began to slow down, likely due to a plunge in morale amongst rightfully resentful employees. But the social damage had been done. Those two years of schedule discoordination created tears in the fabric of society that took a very long time to mend.

Western Hyper-Individualism: A Case of Bottom-Up Social Discoordination

In the modern West, we see a similar thing happening as happened during the Soviet nepreryvka. Instead of some giant bureaucracy jacking up everyone’s schedule from the top down in the name of collective efficiency, our social discoordination is coming from the bottom up, as individuals choose different schedules to make a living or pursue interests, often for the sake of personal efficiency.

Due to the changing nature of work, the traditional Monday to Friday, 9-5 job is no longer the norm. Many people not only work during the day but also in the evenings and/or on weekends. 

Not only does modern work create syncing problems, but the abundance of choices in leisure and extracurricular activities (for both children and adults) can keep people apart as well. Whereas a hundred years ago, maybe the only game in town on Wednesday night was a meeting at the Freemason lodge, now someone might be at a CrossFit class, movie, church youth group, or any number of their children’s sports games. 

Oliver Burkeman wrote about this issue in his book Four Thousand Weeks. He pointed out that what usually keeps people from getting together with friends isn’t an outright lack of time, but the simple inability to sync up schedules. 

How to Mitigate and Manage Social Discoordination

This challenge of social discoordination is a stinker of a problem to solve. Here are some suggestions that have worked for me and that I’ve seen work in other people’s lives, which can at least help manage and mitigate the issue: 

Accept that getting together with others is going to be hard. The expectations you set for something play a primary role in how you experience its result. If you’ve got it in your head that getting together with people should be fairly easy to do, when it isn’t — which is very often the case — you’ll end up feeling frustrated and resentful. Instead, accept the fact that any kind of socialization in the modern world will include friction and take effort and won’t always work out. When it does work out, count it as a great win. When it doesn’t, just shrug it off and try again some other time.

Create a set, recurring date for get-togethers. One effective way to mitigate social discoordination is to create a shared schedule with your friends and family by setting a recurring date for get-togethers. 

People often can’t fit in an event with only a week’s notice, but when an event is recurring, they can start planning their calendar around it.  

A few years ago, I belonged to two different social groups — one a scripture study group and the other a book club — that got together regularly by using this practice. With the latter group, we met the third Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m.; with the other, we got together every other Thursday at 8:30 p.m. We all agreed to the schedule and stuck to it and were able to plan the rest of our lives around it. It worked wonderfully for a couple of years. (Both eventually disbanded due to people moving. Sad!)

We’ve seen success with this tactic on The Strenuous Life. Early on, we noticed that local chapters had trouble planning and organizing meet-ups because members couldn’t sync schedules. So we introduced the idea of “Strenuous Saturday” and designated the third Saturday of every month as the official day for meet-ups. Groups don’t have to have their meet-ups on the third Saturday of the month, but setting that as the general norm certainly helped make events easier to plan and more frequent. 

The recurring events you set don’t have to be things that you do weekly or monthly. They can be annual traditions too. Maybe every year you throw a Memorial Day BBQ for your friends. They always know it’s coming, and always know to save the spot on their calendar for it.

Try a 2-hour cocktail party on a Tuesday night. People’s weekends are pretty booked up. On Wednesdays, some people have church youth group. Thursday nights are a great night to attempt to get folks together — people are already transitioning into the weekend mindset but aren’t as busy as they are on Fridays and Saturdays. But if you really want to plan an event where the preponderance of people will be available to attend, Tuesdays are where it’s at. Tuesdays are dumb. Hardly anything goes on on a Tuesday, and a fun social event would be an accessible and welcome break from the norm. 

You could plan any kind of get-together for a Tuesday, but to maximize the fun and effectiveness of the event, you can’t go wrong with a “2-hour cocktail party”; Nick Gray goes into all the details of how to execute one in this episode of the podcast.

Get rid of the “maybe” mentality. Manners expert Thomas Farley says that “we’re living in the age of maybe.” We get invites to weddings and parties and never commit to yes or no because we think there might be something else going on at that time that will conflict (and that we’d rather do). This makes planning an event harder for hosts and social initiators, which makes them more reluctant to plan future events, which makes in-person get-togethers more and more infrequent. 

Instead of saying “maybe” to social invites, make a firm commitment to either yes or no. If you say yes to an invite, stick to it, even if something else comes up. 

Embrace “Downton Abbey” sociality. There have been other times in human history when logistical factors prevented people from socializing very often. On the Western frontier, people who lived on far-flung homesteads sometimes didn’t see any non-immediate family members outside of a long trek to church on Sundays and very occasional visits from extended family and friends. It was the same deal in many rural areas up through the 20th century. 

In Downton Abbey (hey, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it — it was a good show, man), the characters live in homes and manors spread out across the English countryside. Set in the early 1900s, when automobiles and telephones were coming on the scene but not yet common, friends and relatives could go weeks and months without seeing each other and communicated largely by letter. In the show, when characters do have the chance to meet up, they tend to blurt out their deepest feelings for each other, without much preliminaries. Some of this is, of course, the product of screenwriters who are looking to condense and gin up the drama. Yet it also feels authentic to what these kinds of interactions would have really been like; when it might be weeks before you’d see someone again, when you did see them, you’d skip the idle small talk and get right to the nitty-gritty. 

In our own age, we’ve returned to a time of Downton Abbey-esque sociality. We “talk” to people more often via text than we see them in person, and we can go quite awhile between the times we interact with them in the flesh. When we do get together, then, we might take a page from the post-Edwardian era and really make these meet-ups count, spending less time on trivialities and more time on the deeper things we’ve been thinking and feeling since the last time we rendezvoused. 

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