Monday, July 02, 2007

A Question of Chemistry Continued: Groupings Dynamical

Hey, remember when I did a post about interpersonal chemistry and I actually got lots of feedback on it and I said I'd do a follow-up post? No? Well, guess that's not too surprising, since that was about, oh, four months ago. Back then I talked briefly about the chemistry between two people; today my thoughts are turned more towards chemistry of slightly larger groupings.

I've long been fascinated by group dynamics, and how the presence or absence of a single person can drastically affect the actions and behavior of others. Sometimes the reasoning behind these changes are obvious (e.g. a group of guys toning down their raucous behavior because of a female addition to the group) but often the reasons can be much subtler and more difficult to pin down.

When reflecting on the time I spend hanging out with various iterations of my groups of friends, I find that I tend to think of certain combinations as (for want of a better phrase) “optimal” configurations. For these groupings, all the personalities, backgrounds, senses of humor, etc. gel just right, and, in my eyes at least, the group becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, for me, the gauge I use for determining these optimal groupings is generally the amount of time I spend laughing when I’m with a group. If I tend to laugh so hard that I injure myself more often when I’m with configuration A than with configuration B, then configuration A is my optimal grouping.

My prime example of this is Clan Stoneheart. I always have more fun when I’m hanging out with Zinger, Pooh-Bear, and Coronela all at once than I do when one or more is missing. It’s not that I don’t enjoy hanging out with each of them individually; it’s that, somehow, for some reason, when all four of us are together it creates just the right blend of comfort level, shared history, personality quirks, and so forth to enhance the enjoyment of any given situation. Another example can be found among the Book Monkeys, where the combo of Rebel Monkey, The Mag, Rose Hips the Enforcer, and myself tended to turn even the most mundane of tasks into a laugh riot.

Now, the neurotic side of me demands that I stress that the groupings I just mentioned are not the only ones which I find enjoyable; they’re just the ones that popped immediately into my head since they’re two of the longer-standing examples. Also, they’re both kind of “critical mass” style groupings, wherein that special exponential increase in side-splitting laughter doesn’t occur until you reach your full contingent. Those sort of groupings stand out more to me than groupings whose optimization is more situational (watching certain types of movies; going to sporting events; playing games, etc.) since these event-oriented groupings are, on the surface at least, much easier to understand the mechanics of.

Of course, when you have these optimal configurations, they can be thrown off balance not only by the lack of a crucial member, but also by the addition of an extra one. Sometimes it’s because the additional group member doesn't mesh well with everyone else, and thus throws everyone off their game; when there’s a group member who doesn’t quite get your oddball jokes, or a little too reticent to join in on your HyperForce antics, it can’t help but put the brakes on things. But at other times, it’s because they do mesh well with almost everyone. And this is where we start to move into discussing an important factor here: personal perception. After all, while I may consider a particular grouping to be premium, for all I know any other member could see my presence as the albatross around the neck of the group that drags down everyone’s fun; or, to take a slightly less self-deprecating tack, maybe that particular configuration is a blast for everyone involved, but to some people it would be even more of a blast if one other person were added to the mix. For me, a lot of the times when the addition of another person throws off my perception of perfect group chemistry, it’s generally because the new addition somehow steals focus from me, diluting my impact on the group as a whole. I know that might sound a bit selfish, and there’s a good reason for that: it kind of is. But, I doubt there are many who, given the choice of feeling like an integral part of a group and feeling like a fifth wheel will choose the fifth wheel status. With my tendency to think of myself in terms of The Outsider, I’m probably more prone to going down this road of thought than others.

One of the dangers of thinking in these terms is the possibility of it leading to cliquish behavior; if you think of Grouping A as the best of all possible worlds, then you’re not as likely to welcome the inclusion of another member with open arms. I know I've fallen into this trap before, being so worried that a new addition to a group might throw things off kilter that I've been less than welcoming which, in turn, often throws things off kilter.

Being a bit of a paranoiac, it naturally occurred to me that some blog monkeys might read about this and wonder if they themselves are part of any such optimum grouping, or if they, instead serve merely as a distraction from my preferred group configurations. All I can say is, if you are thinking like that, please stop immediately; that way lies madness.

Trust me, I know whereof I speak.

So, tell me, my blog monkeys: am I the only one who looks at groupings of friends and sees patterns like this? Or do some of you also have these optimal configurations floating in your heads?