burning man
A while ago, had an article about ‘unequally cool couples’, where one half of the couple is someone we would die for, while the other half leaves us cold. Modern Western society is very family-based, and social activity revolves around the family, and around interests shared by the adult couple. To some extent that means “love me, love (or at least tolerate) my significant other”.

But one of the phenomena I have noticed recently in the whole field of social networking (both online and face-to-face) is the number of people who are travelling around meeting up with people of like minds (sometimes with a business networking objective, sometimes not) but leaving their significant others (SOs) behind. And these days, at least in North America, the line between business and social networking gets pretty muddy.

I can see the business imperative in this — customers and colleagues now make (rightly or wrongly) major time and social demands on business executives and sole proprietors, and it’s neither reasonable nor desirable to drag one’s SO wherever one goes, even if the SO is in a similar line of business, interested in the same things and people, and free to fly around the country on short notice. This is one area where there is a huge difference between Americans and the rest of the West — Americans seem prepared to put their families on ‘hold’ to advance their careers, especially when the financial enticements for doing so are extraordinary and offer the promise of early retirement, while those of us in the rest of the West are not willing to make that trade-off at any price. It seems to me ironic that America, where ‘family values’ reign, is the one Western country that subordinates family to wealth and career. Just to show how pronounced this difference is, a recent report by a Canadian bank attributed the entire 20% ‘productivity’ advantage of Americans over Canadians to social factors: (a) Canadians’ participation rate in the labour force is lower because many fewer Canadian couples both work during their child-rearing years, and (b) Canadians on average work significantly fewer hours per week and are less likely to moonlight, because they value their leisure time more highly than the money they could earn. If it weren’t for these factors, Canadian productivity would actually be higher than Americans’, and the Canadian dollar would trade at a premium to the US dollar rather than a discount. The discrepancies between Americans and many Europeans are even more pronounced. And while some of the reasons for this difference are undoubtedly caused by economic factors (because of the poorer social safety net and lower minimum wage many Americans have to have both spouses working long hours and moonlighting just to survive), some of it is clearly attitudinal (many Americans in the top 5% income bracket have earned so much money they don’t have to work).

But what about the non-business social networking — the blogger conferences and one-on-one meetups with online acquaintances and political get-togethers and other ‘meetings of minds’ of people in new communities of interest on subjects from wikis to scrapbooking? From what I can see, most of these encounters also omit significant others, and this phenomenon is not limited to the US. Why is it that, with this incredible and unique opportunity to find and connect with people across the world with whom we really see eye-to-eye, so many of us are exploring this brave new world solo?

I think there are several possible reasons for this phenomenon:

  1. The Internet Walkabout Theory: Our SOs think we’re temporarily nuts or at best going through a hormonal life change event, and are willing to indulge ‘social networking’ as long as it doesn’t last too long, cost too much, or lead to infidelity, and as long as they don’t have to be involved in it.
  2. The New Age Separate Mini-Vacations Theory: We love our SOs for reasons emotional or chemical, but, just as we don’t expect them to share our love for [insert favourite sport, musical group, sexual fantasy or hobby here], we don’t expect them to share our love for [insert favourite political cause, advanced technology, or intellectual passion here], so we don’t even try to subject them to it. In fact, we have tried in vain to get our SOs to also use [blogs, social networking, meetups, other Internet phenomenon] to find other people that share their [favourite political cause, advanced technology, hobby or intellectual passion].
  3. The Unwanted Competition Theory: We are subconsciously aware that whatever attracted us to our SO could very well attract like minds to him/her as well, and that he/she might out-network us as well. But we’re not the jealous type, are we?

Well, enough theorizing. My bet’s on #1, but you tell me. When you travel, for business and for ‘social networking’ events, do you invite your SO? Why or why not? Do you think event organizers encourage or discourage inviting SO’s, and why? And when couples meet with other couples at these events, how often does 2+2=4, and how often is it unbalanced or just plain awkward?

(photo above is from the 2003 Burning Man festival, an annual and unusual social networking activity, from remarkable photographer and journalist Xeni Jardin)

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  1. Ton Zijlstra says:

    Hi Dave,I think it has to do with diverging interests. Luckily my SO and I share and have come to share part of our professional interests, coming from different angles to the same results.But I don’t see that very often with other couples. So I counted myself very lucky two weeks ago where we both were at BlogTalk, Elmine presenting, and me chairing a few parts. Earlier Elmine has accompanied me on several trips, where she would be exploring a foreign city while I was at some workshop. It would be awkward if one of us was only sort of tagging along with the other with no clear sense of my or her place in an event other than accompanying the other, but we both have our own agenda’s, which overlaps at several points.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Ton: That must be wonderful to experience, and it’s so rare. It interests me that the comments I’ve received on this post have been almost all by e-mail, rather than ‘public’ postings to this comments thread. It would seem that this issue, this lack of (and even divergence of) common intellectual and philosophical interest with one’s SO is quite troubling to a lot of us. Perhaps we’ve all come to expect too much of a single relationship.

  3. Catnmus says:

    I think part of it is just that businessmen no longer have housewives that are expected to accompany their husbands on business trips or cook dinner for the boss and his wife, like Samantha Stevens on Bewitched. Our economy just doesn’t work that way anymore. Then, speaking for myself, I don’t need the moral support of my significant other in areas of my passion – I’m confident in my own abilities, thank you very much. For us, it’s a win-win situation – I get to indulge my passion without being overly concerned about whether he’s enjoying himself or if he’s bored out of his skull and wants to leave ten minutes ago. On top of that, lots of times he would much rather have a “bachelor evening” of pizza and endless music and car magazines and the internet. Of course for some events, I know that it may be just inertia, and if I just get myself out there, I’ll have a wonderful time and would then be free to get together with those same people without him. It’s always a toss-up. There just aren’t that many events these days where couple-hood is the EXPECTED attendance.

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