Social Relationship



Social relationships are so important to our humanity, to society, to Christianity and to Quakerism, that I think it is worth spending some time examining our typical relationships and considering how they might be better crafted.


I talk to someone face-to-face at a party, in the office, after Meeting or at home. I write a note to myself that I read at a later time. I send an email or a text to someone in the same room or across the world. I write a children’s story. I broadcast a news item on radio or television. I make a film. I write a computer programme. I mend a chair. I walk along the street. I sit in a Meeting for Worship.

Some useful characteristics


These are all common social relationships, although you might not have thought of some of them as social or as relationships. They all involve one-to-one relationships between two people. In some of them there are parallel relationships with many people such as Meeting for Worship or a formal presentation. While I am always present, the other person in the relationship need not be, as when I write to myself or make a film.

Dynamic Patterns

Things, objects are static and form static relationships with other things. They sit there until something or someone moves them; then they keep going until something or someone stops them. People are not like this, they are constantly moving – even in Meeting for Worship. In Meeting we come together for a short time, sit and wriggle, sigh a bit, may be squeak and rumble. We might listen to spoken ministry or minister ourselves. Then we get up and move about, talk to one another and go home. We repeat this pattern regularly. A speeded up film of two people talking in a conversation, shows them dancing together with synchronised body movements, facial expressions, gestures as well as speaking. More dramatic and complex than Strictly Come Dancing.

Episodes pyramid, rich benefits emerge

Passing someone in the street is a simple, brief, single episode encounter. It has a definite beginning and definite end. It lasts for a (short) time. It takes place in a particular location and a time. It involves walking and steering behaviour and it has the rules that: I must not make physical contact with the other person, and I must not ‘catch their eye’. Collectively these behaviours characterize and define the passing-in-the-street relationship. A life-long committed relationship while it begins with a single encounter, it develops a human richness and depth through many encounters.


Even passing-in-the-street has communication. There is no verbal exchange, but I notice the other person and predict where he or she is likely to move next. The other person might be talking on his mobile and not pay any attention to me. Directing my gaze to avoid eye contact signals that I am not threatening the other person. Stepping aside shows that I do not want to make contact and so on. In contrast, writing a note to myself is a wholly verbal (but not necessarily formal or grammatical) communication, with none of the gestures, body language or facial expression of passing-in-the-street.
If I stop paying attention to people in the street, perhaps I run for a bus or just walk straight ahead, or stare everyone in the eye, I also change the relationship. In these examples I will pretty quickly find myself in a fight.

Personal value

Each party in the interactions must gain something from each episode or else they break it off and do not renew it. The social commodity gained might not be worth the effort expended, the value received by the parties might not be equally or equitable, the relationship might be abusive, damaging or exploitative.

The more benefits exchanged, the more long lasting the relationship and the more complex is the relationship. Social benefits include the positive and cathartic subjective experiences of the relationship, movement of physical commodities, delivery of social services (health, education, charity etc) and bonding of small groups within the larger society. Positive thinking and Quaker prejudices not withstanding, social commodities also include violence, abuse (crime, manipulation, exploitation) and domination. In this view, that highly emotive commodity, money becomes just another form of social grease, a way of keeping social score, of measuring one’s social contribution.

Drama of journeying in social relationships

There is drama in even the simplest of actions. Think of a child taking his or her first steps. Will he make the next step? Will she reach mummy’s arms? Later, will the child reach school or a friend’s house without incident? Will he encounter a gang on the way? Will she have an accident?

A social interaction is an adventure, a risk, a journey that might end in disaster and damage or delight and prosperity. It starts in the first encounter. Uncertainties are reduced through eye-contact, identification of each other, opening and disclosure of personal information. Each notices how the other looks and their body language. There is nodding and keeping eye-contact. There may be encouraging or discouraging acts. The interaction might intensify through further questioning and disclosure to establish and strengthen the common ground of shared interests, experience and goals. Once established the relation will probably move through many cycles of tension and resolution as the interactions moves through different situations and the players deploy their skills and abilities to satisfy each others needs and service the social group in which they operate.

Finally the relationship comes to end, hopefully because the purpose of the interaction is satisfied and the parties have achieved sufficient social and physical benefit: They have enjoyed it, interaction has been successful, the enterprise they contributed to has worked and their society has grown. There are many other reasons for ending an interaction including death and moving away.

Inner experience and banal familiarity

If this seems rather banal, it is because I think we habitually think of our relationships in terms of our own feelings our own needs and our own ideas and objectives. We think of other peoples’ relationships in terms of our own experience of similar relationships. Our cultural heritage from ancient myths through Shakespeare and soap operas to Star-Trek explores our feelings about people and how, in the author’s mind, these play out and interact.

Simple encounters and their contribution to building social relationships have become uninteresting because they are so routine, so common, so familiar. They have lost their entertainment value. We stop thinking or worrying about them. Unless of course we have a child in the relevant condition. The trouble is that we have stopped thinking about all our gestures, body language and simple social encounters by the time we reach adulthood.

Helpful insights

Two things seem obvious to me.

Developing, maintaining, repairing and ending a social interactive relationship calls for many different skills, for knowledge, judgment, diagnosis and treatment – crafts in fact. They range from the micro-behaviour (almost at the unconscious level) of eye-contact, body-language facial and verbal expression through formal politeness, formal meetings and parties to sophisticated treatment of communication problems, misunderstanding, mis-perception, and similar interaction engineering techniques.

Secondly. The most critical and the most neglected crafts are in the domain of communication. It is no surprise that writing, printing, broadcasting, film-making, mobile phones and the Internet are so popular. The master of social interactions is aware of and uses them all in appropriate ways.

Master of social interaction engineering’

Of course there are exceptions. Actors perfect their control of micro-behaviour so that they can portray any emotion or relationship at will. They turn it on and off with the camera. Politicians, salesmen and confidence tricksters do the same thing in different contexts. These people have mastered the craft of social encounters.

It is one thing to play out an encounter on stage or in front of a camera, as directed and as specified by the script’s author. It is quite another to play with behaviour and relationships in real life. We all distrust politicians, while succumbing to their charm. Acting is not enough, behaviour with honesty and integrity are required. Changing behaviour is scary. More, its risky. By making a change we hazard our existing relations and the might forfeit the benefits they bring.

The term ‘master of social interaction engineering’ should raise no eyebrows. Each of us has been manipulating and using our social abilities since birth. It becomes immoral (in my view) when the interaction is becomes abusive or perverted. I think we should bring all our testimonies (to integrity, respect for others and equality before God) into play in the engineering process: it should be open, honest and ethical.

Considering the great difference in the social skills of a baby and those of an average adult it is obvious that social skills are learned and developed. It seems obvious to me also that such skills can be taught as well as learned – like any other craft.

Craftsmanship in social relations

Thinking of relationships as things in their own right, defined by the behaviours that occur within them, means that I can, at least in principle, study them and manage them - in short craft them - into quality relationships.

Making a good social relationship, one that benefits us particpants and enriches the society to which we belong, means I must manage my own behaviour and speak plainly and honestly with others, respecting their value before God. I need to master many communication and behaviour crafts.

The knowledge and experience of craftsmanship gained in science, art and handcraft can now be applied (again in principle) to the crafting of social relationships. The relationships of interest to the craftsman are those in which he has control and influence through his own actions and behaviour. Typically these are the one-to-one, face-to-face interactions.

Master Quaker

Quaker recognition of inner spirit and outer behaviour are core to social craft. The experience of relationships in particular the emotions and spiritual behaviours have been the life-blood of novelists and dramatists since the days of Greek theatre and medieval Mystery plays (and probably long before that). One can see why Fox and the puritans were so set against drama and fiction. They saw the difference between inner feeling and outer behaviour as being dishonest – and so it may be. But we can use this difference, the ability to act that we all have, to take into account the ‘football worlds’ in our communications and work for better interactions through acting well, in spite of (or perhaps because of) or inner trepidations. In spiritual language, this is courage, persistence, wisdom and so on.

That of God?

Where does God fit in to all this?

The external aspect of God is in the physical. Whether you belief in the literalness of the Genesis story or the cosmological Big Bang, physical objects or all complexities are the manifestation of the creation. I choose to consider them created aspects of God, which have evolved, and from which complex properties and relationships have evolved. This physical (and chemical and biological) world is the platform on which all our relationships are built and which mediates all our communications with each other. It is the basis for our social interactions and our social relationships. Continued survival (of individuals, societies and our species) is an imperative that can be clearly seen in the scientific as well as the biblical literature. They are works of God and thus expressions of, and part of God. Human, social people are also evolved parts of God.

The inner aspect of God is what I experience subjectively and spiritually. It interprets my experience and colours it. It guide my decisions and hence my behaviour.

Answering that of God

As I encounter the physical world, as I encounter other people, as I encounter social relationships, so I encounter God. Each encounter is a an exchange. I listen, observe, smell and feel. I interpret what I perceive and formulate a response. I express that response in my own behaviour. Then I begin again and look for the reaction in the physical and personal. And so it goes on, round and round, building my relations with people and with God. It begins with answering that of God and moves on to being a pattern and an example.

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