Too Busy to Relate

Dunbar’s Number

by Vicki on December 6, 2013

How many friends do you have on Facebook? Followers on Twitter? Connections on LinkedIn? How many social groups do you belong to? How many co-workers do you connect with? How often do you meet with family and friends?

Connections to other people matter.

In fact, research suggests that one of the greatest predictors of happiness is social relationships.

But how much is too much?

This week, I was reminded of a concept that sheds light on our ability to develop and maintain relationships – Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar’s Number is:

…a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.  Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.

Reading through all the online chatter about Dunbar’s Number and how it applies to today’s world leaves me with more questions/thoughts than answers.

On one hand I think that too many relationships can be physically, emotionally and cognitively taxing and over stimulating. My perspective is that we simply cannot care deeply about and really connect with 1000s of people. Our cognitive limits come into play.

But on the other hand, having many connections in place can be useful and fulfilling.

What I think matters is:

Recognizing that our technical ability, speed and ease to connect with people is changing quickly.

But that our ability to connect with others is constrained by the limits of human cognitive capacities.

The concept of Dunbar’s Number provides us with an interesting concept through which we can think about the relationships we have. How do we connect with others? What is the quality of those connections? Are there relationships to grow? Some to cut?

As it does with most things in life, I think it all comes down to balance and awareness.


No Cheap Talk

by Vicki on November 8, 2013

I went to a new bank today. My purpose for being there was to make a certified deposit for one of their members (I’m not a member).

Here is how the conversation went from my perspective –

  • I was greeted promptly
  • I explained what I needed to do
  • A rigorous inquisition ensued (I had receipts as well as business cards from the bank the funds were withdrawn from – it was legit!!)
  • The teller asked if I was happy with my current institution. I said yes.
  • She said, “It is important to be happy with your institution, isn’t it?”
  • She ignored me for 5 minutes while she waited for the member’s home branch to accept the deposit. Repeating over and over that they should not be taking so long.

As I was waiting for the deposit to be completed, I found myself thinking about how the conversation went and how it could have gone instead.

As Susan Scott, internationally recognized leader in executive education, says about conversations:

…Whoever said talk is cheap was mistaken.  Unreal conversations are incredibly expensive for organizations and for individuals.

…The conversation IS the relationship.

…If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller.

…Our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.

…While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, or a life—any conversation can.

…Each conversation we have with our coworkers, customers, significant others, and children either enhances those relationships, flat-lines them, or takes them down.

To be clear, the conversations Susan is referencing are not about the platitudes of life where you just talk with someone to fill the void…..she is talking about “fierce” conversations.

…A fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

…Fierce conversations are about moral courage, clear requests, and taking action.  Fierce is an attitude.  A way of conducting business.  A way of leading.  A way of life.

The conversation I had with the bank teller could have been different. It could have been deeper and more meaningful. It could have positively colored my perceptions of that bank and the people who work within it. But it didn’t.

What kinds of conversations are you having? With loved ones? Socially? With colleagues? With clients?

Remember Susan’s advice – talk isn’t cheap.

Book Notes by David Mays
Fierce Conversations, Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott, Viking, 2002, 266 pp., ISBN 0-670-01324-0


This is Water

by Vicki on October 25, 2013

Every once in a while I come across some tidbit online that I really connect with – a photo, a video, a posting.

It might connect the dots for me, help me understand my view of the world or really make me feel something (good or bad).

Yesterday morning, I followed a link to a video on Upworthy, a website whose mission it is to –

….find things on the Internet that have real meaning — things that take you out of the tempting narrow focus of your own existence and give you some perspective about your neighborhood, your community, and your world.

This speech, delivered at Kenyon College way back in 2005, encapsulates that vision perfectly.

I really hope you take the time to watch the video. I think the message contained within can really shape the way we move through the world and interact with the people in it.

This history of the speech according to Wikipedia:

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life is an essay by David Foster Wallace, first published in book form by Little, Brown and Company in 2009. The text originates from a commencement speech given by Wallace at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005. Before Little, Brown’s publication, a transcript of the speech circulated around the Internet. The essay was also published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006.

This essay covers subjects including “the difficulty of empathy,” “the importance of being well adjusted,” and “the essential lonesomeness of adult life.” Additionally, Wallace’s speech suggests that the overall purpose of higher education is to be able to consciously choose how to perceive others, think about meaning, and act appropriately in everyday life. He argues that the true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be adjusted, conscious, and sympathetic.

The speech is powerful. It spans so many facets of the things our blog often touches on – education, social psychology, mindfulness, community and connection, relationships.

If you choose to watch the video, I hope it is as impactful to you as it was to me.


Communication: More than what you Think

October 11, 2013

Today’s blog is a bit out there. But stick with me, it’s a fun one. One evening this summer, I caught a segment on Joe Rogan Questions Everything (please don’t judge me for my TV watching….I’m pretty open minded and interested in lots of weird and wonderful genres). This episode explored the world of psychics […]

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The Taboo of Eye Contact

August 9, 2013

I had the opportunity to travel a bit this week…. Something I don’t do very often. Being out of my usual surroundings, one facet of human behaviour was especially salient to me: In most situations in downtown Seattle it is not socially acceptable to make eye contact with oncoming pedestrians or when in line with […]

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