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Surrogate Relationships

We humans are social beings. We are not the only social animals on the planet. Social tendencies have developed in a diverse number of animal species and are not therefore limited to any one evolutionary branch. However, the complexity of the social relationships and organization varies with the intelligence of the species. Social mechanisms are at their most complex in human beings.

At the very simple level, social organization is based on colonies that are chemically marked. All the members of a particular colony are identified by a unique chemical marker and any individual lacking this marker is deemed an intruder and eliminated. In these animals, there are no actual relationships between individuals, just roles within the colony. This organization is best observed in insect colonies.

At the next level, we have social organization based on dominance within the group. Individuals belong to the group by virtue of position. There is hierarchy that determines priority of procreation. The social group also has a chemical marker, but its main application is marking of territory rather than individuals. The individuals have other ways of identifying one another mainly through scent, vision and sound.

The important thing is that the hierarchy doe not get upset. New individuals can be admitted into the group, but based on various rituals. In some cases, the individual has to fight their way into the group and most likely dislodge another to take up their position within the group. The fighting is not necessarily physical. It could simply be a display of superiority. What matters is that positions within the group are constantly in contention both from with the group and from outsiders. Most social mammals follow this model.

A step above the hierachy model is the enhanced version where individuals can both gain access to the group and also rise through the ranks by forming alliances rather than fighting individually. This is best observed in monkeys and apes. One very popular way of gaining favor and creating alliances is through grooming. It must be noted that some fighting is involved at one point, but this is useless if the individual has not invested in getting numbers on his/her side. Sharing of food is also a known strategy in winning over supporters.

The most advanced techniques in social animals are found in humans. It’s interesting to observe that humans also employ the organization strategies found in less intelligent animals, but in somewhat modified form. For instance there are a number of visual and aural cues that are widely used in defining social groups and on their strength decisions are made whether to admit or reject an unknown individual.

There is also hierarchy that is contested in both violent and non-violent ways depending on circumstances. Individuals also build alliances and social capital in order to get ahead within the group. Humans have access to a great many ways of building social capital unlike their distant cousins.

However, I have observed something even more intriguing in the way modern human beings socialize. The modern world has seen many of our community boundaries breached and increasingly difficult to define. It is more likely that an individual shall interact with unfamiliar people rather than familiar. There often isn’t enough time to build proper traditional relationships using previous techniques. And yet, we have to somehow cope with this new world and build some very fast relationships.

Almost all the key aspects of a social relationship cannot be built overnight. Trust, affection, dominance need time to take root and grow. How does the modern human do it? The answer is surrogate relationships, the latest technique in social organization. Over and above the prior forms of social organization, the modern human has to learn how to form surrogate relationships. A surrogate relationship is one that doesn’t actually exist. It is formed in the mind of the individual and contains the qualities the individual would like to work with in whatever social situation they find themselves in.

The simplest example is receiving a guest in your house. Someone you have no prior knowledge of. You have no idea what sort of person the guest is and whether you’d like them at all. But instead of wearing a blank unfriendly expression, you adorn a warm smile and welcome the guest to a seat while you go about making them as comfortable as you can. The same scenario is played out more often in the work place, in restaurants, at clubs, on the street, virtually everywhere you are likely to interact with a stranger.

The surrogate relationship is not fixed, it contains the aspects you think are fitting to the occasion. For instance, if you are on a blind date, you’ll bring in what you think are the appropriate nuances for romance. You’ll greet your guest with a hug rather than a hand shake. In a business meeting, the surrogate relationship shall have the hand shake rather than the hug. In both cases, you have no idea what kind of person you are dealing with, but you deal with them anyway.

Since you need to have some social means of dealing with the situation, you use the surrogate relationship. The surrogate is a place holder. Over time, repeated interaction with the same individual gradually fills in the blanks and you have more of a solid reference to how you should regard the person. Eventually, you interact sufficiently with the individual to have a proper relationship and no longer need the surrogate.

The types of surrogate relationships people form vary according to individuals, cultures and prior experience. For instance, if you have been betrayed by strangers in the past you will tend to have a surrogate that says the stranger is untrustworthy. Note that this is all in your mind. You usually have no way of actually knowing that they are not to be trusted. The surrogate relationship is the most sophisticated form of social organization and allows us to interact with hundreds of strangers and carrying on the business of our lives without requiring a huge amount of time investment and without being constrained to our local communities.

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  1. August 31, 2009 at 15:28

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  2. December 16, 2009 at 01:45

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  3. January 28, 2010 at 12:21

    Great post, glad I found this blog. 🙂

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