‘Humans are a social species’ – but what do we mean by ‘social’ exactly?

We ought to examine our understanding of human sociality to account
for the not-very-sociable amongst us.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It is a truth universally acknowledged that “To be human is to be social”.* 

But what do we mean by ‘social’ exactly?

Psychologists and anthropologists commonly equate it to being sociable. We are told that all human beings have an innate need to interact and form intimate attachments with others. 

But if that’s the case, how do we account for the not-very-sociable amongst us? The people who don’t crave close relationships? Those who choose to live their lives – quite contentedly – alone? 

The fact is, humans vary in the amount and type of social interaction and connection they need – with some not needing very much at all.

For that reason, our understanding of what it means to be social deserves to be examined – with more consideration given to those whose social needs deviate from the ‘norm’, and the different – i.e. less intimate – ways there are to be social.

‘No man is an island’ 

Humans are a social species – in the sense that ‘no man is an island’. We can’t help but exist as members of human society. Our survival – both as individuals and as a species – is dependent on us being able to interact, and crucially, cooperate with one another, as part of that society. 

No individual person can take care of all of their needs by themselves. We rely on a wide variety of social structures, processes and institutions to keep us clean, fed and watered;  to keep us safe; to educate our children, and to treat us when we’re sick. 

This means our daily lives are likely to require some sort of social engagement – however transient or transactional. As this article points out, “much of modern life… entails being around other people whether you like it or not… adult life typically involves coming face to face with other humans—waiting in line at the bank, running into people in the park, trading pleasantries with the person across the counter.” [emphasis mine]

Even if you could make it through the day without speaking to another human being – perhaps you worked from home and used the self-service checkout at the supermarket – you would still have been dependent on networks of people communicating and cooperating with each other somewhere to provide you with your internet connection and the food at the store. 

Humans are social, first and foremost, because we need each other in order to survive. This isn’t what psychologists are referring to though when they say humans are inherently social beings. 

Hardwired desire

The dominant view amongst psychologists is that humans need each other, not only to help fulfil our basic needs, but our psychological needs as well. 

All human beings have a hardwired desire for social interaction, connection, companionship. We hunger to be ‘seen’, to be loved, to belong. We all need friendship, intimacy, family; a sense of connection to others. This is a view that goes pretty much uncontested.

Further still, we are told that “so important is social connection to humans that the lack of it is terrible for our health”.

But what is meant by ‘social connection’, exactly? The overriding consensus amongst psychologists is that the human need to be social equates to a need for close relationships, to form strong emotional ties to others. Furthermore, we need frequent social interaction and ‘in-the-flesh’ companions.  

There’s a problem with this view though – which is that it doesn’t account for the loners amongst us. 

Different social needs

There are human beings who manage to lead happy and healthy lives without intimate relationships or much social contact.

Take those with no interest in partnering up or becoming parents. Their lives can be equally as fulfilling as the lives of people with families. Just ask an aromantic person or someone who is ‘single at heart’.  

Then there are those who are more solitary: the hardcore introverts; the high-functioning schizoids; the loners; the solitaries; the nocturnals.  People who prefer their own company, who don’t experience a desire to socialise, who don’t need other people around all that much, who can go for days, or even weeks, without talk or touch.

I’m one of those people. I don’t have any friends – and I’m perfectly okay with that. I genuinely don’t have any interest in forming close relationships. I like my solitary life.  

This isn’t to say that I, or the other asocial members of the human population, have no social needs whatsoever.  It’s just that our ‘need to be social’ doesn’t equate to a ‘need’ for romantic love, deep emotional attachments, or regular social contact. 

The human need to be social can take different forms. We don’t all need intimate or interpersonal engagement with others to meet our social needs. There are different ways to ‘be social’. 

Different ways to be social

Casual connections As I said at the start, it’s highly likely that our everyday lives will necessitate some social interaction with others, even if that does only amount to a ‘hello’ or a ‘thank you’.  It would be extremely hard for someone to get by if they were cut off from all human society. Even the loners of the world still have to deal with landlords and plumbers; doctors and cashiers; the pizza delivery guy.

Then of course there’s work. Whilst some jobs can be pretty solitary (lorry driver, cleaner), and remote working makes it easier to go a whole day without speaking to another human being, it’s still the case that most work requires us to engage with other people to some extent, whether they be co-workers, clients or customers. 

The casual conversations and superficial associations humans have with one another to ride out our everyday lives can be enough to satisfy some people’s need for social connection. A person can be ‘social’ in the sense that they cooperate with colleagues at work and pass the time of day with their neighbour. But they don’t feel any particular urge to socialise or be on intimate terms with anyone.

Virtual connections  ‘Real life’ relationships are not the only ones that count. Online friendships and other acquaintances forged over the interwebs can be just as important, and just as fulfilling to some folk, as any IRL equivalent. Indeed, could it be argued that the very existence of virtual communities – Discord servers, Facebook groups – suggests that real life social networks are incapable of meeting all human social need?  

Media use for company Interpersonal interactions with other human beings – whether in-person or online – are not the only way to ‘be social’. For some people, the desire to reach out to, and form connections with others, can be pretty weak, or practically non-existent. Nonetheless, such individuals might not want to feel completely cut off from all human society.  In which case, they might plug into mass media – surf the internet, tune into a tv show, stream some music. It has been pointed out that taking part in such “media activities” whilst alone “may still reflect a ‘social’ experience”.  I would agree. A YouTuber on your laptop, or a podcaster on your phone, can provide you with some form of human company. And such company can be all a person needs to experience a sense of connection to others and the world at large. 

Communication via creative expression In his book Solitude, Anthony Storr wrote: “It is generally accepted that most human beings want to be loved. The wish to be recognized and acknowledged is at least as important.” How do people fulfil this wish? By forming relationships. We look to our loved ones to shore up our sense of self. But that’s not the only way. There’s also creative expression (writing, painting, music, dance, design). The urge to create can also be an urge to communicate; art is a means by which humans can receive affirmation from other humans for their ‘being’ in the world. 

I am a very solitary person. And yet I still have some need to be ‘seen’. This is why I write. I want to reach people with my work; to be ‘known’ in this way. And I prefer to meet this need via writing rather than close relationships. Why? Because writing is a more safe, satisfying and authentic way for me to express myself than through interpersonal relations.  

Loners lovin’ lockdown

Human beings may be social beings – but that doesn’t mean everyone is social in the same sort of way. The majority of people may seek out close interpersonal relationships to satisfy their need to be ‘seen’, to be loved, and to belong. However, there are others who have a lower threshold for social interaction and emotional connection, and for such people, casual connections, virtual interactions, media use, and creative expression can instead suffice to meet their social needs. 

Unfortunately, the dominant view of psychologists – and mainstream society at large – is that regular – IRL- socialising, and intimate relationships/friendships are essential to human health and happiness. The idea that solitude could better suit some people, or that an individual could simply be uninterested in forming close, emotional attachments with others, isn’t given any major credence. Instead, people with a preference for their own company, who don’t need to form strong social bonds, are generally seen as eccentric at best, and downright abnormal at worst.

“All the push, all the time, is toward relationships, and if you resist that you’re just considered antisocial or even crazy”.

Ester Buchholz quoted in ‘Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World’ by Michael Harris

The coronavirus pandemic provided a perfect example of how modern society conflates the human need to be social with a need to be sociable, with a need for close contact with other human beings. 

When the world went into lockdown, sirens sounded for the detrimental – even devastating – impact it would have on people’s mental health. We were told that social distancing could only be anathema to our very being. The assumption was that time spent apart from loved ones, being denied access to our usual social networks, would cause us all to, invariably, suffer.

Of course, a lot of people did struggle with loneliness during lockdown; being separated from family and friends did take its toll on people’s emotional wellbeing. However, there were some individuals who coped just fine:

I, too, mostly enjoyed, rather than endured, lockdown. I spent the pandemic at home, by myself, with very little social contact. And it didn’t bother me in the slightest – I felt incredibly content and comfortable in my solitude. 

The alternative means by which we did stay socially connected were also largely lamented. Zoom calls, remote working and online social gatherings were generally considered a poor substitute to their IRL equivalents. It was assumed that people would – (‘naturally’?) – get sick of talking to people over screens, that they would prefer to hang out in-person again.   

What wasn’t mentioned so much though was how these different – more distant – modes of communication would have suited some folk better. 

Asocial is to social as gay is to straight

“many human beings make do with relationships which cannot be regarded as especially close, and not all such human beings are ill or even particularly unhappy.”

Anthony Storr

When a person’s needs, desires and preferences differ from those of the majority of the human population, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with that person.

In the Western world, this is (largely) understood and accepted when it comes to sexuality. Heterosexuality may be the most common type of sexual attraction, however it’s also recognised that a diversity of sexual orientation exists amongst humans. 

So, why can’t this be applied to sociality? 

The majority of people may experience a need to be emotionally connected to others, and to form close attachments. Yet, we should also recognise that a diversity of social need does exist amongst humans. There are those who deviate from the ‘norm’ in that they don’t desire intimacy, they don’t need friends. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them., Some individuals can get by with little social interaction, and even thrive leading a more solitary life.  

Our understanding of what it means for a human to be social should therefore be expanded. It is necessary to move beyond the belief that all humans need close interpersonal relationships. Society needs to acknowledge the existence of more socially ‘atypical’ people, and accept their different social needs, and ways of being social.

*Quote from Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

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