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The Baked Goods Theory of Social Interaction

The Baked Goods Theory of Social Interaction

I’ve recently come up with an idea that I like to call the Baked Goods Theory of social interaction. It goes like this:

If you don’t have at least one event a week where you can give away a tray of baked goods, then your social life is unsustainable.

What sort of event qualifies? You need to use some common sense for this, but here’s some guidelines that I think apply:

  • it should involve between 8-30 people.
  • it can’t be a commercial activity (it’s hard to give away brownies at restaurants or out at the club!)
  • it must include people you see on a semi-regular basis. You should have some reason to like them. (Most people would not give away baked goods to strangers.)
  • it has to be in person (virtual cookies are great[1] but don’t count.)

[1] Despite the EU’s claims otherwise.

Other than those requirements, though, the event proscriptions are fairly loose. Loose, weekly community gatherings qualify. If you go to four different events every Sunday, each of which repeats monthly, you’re probably good. Even the action of simply going into a mid-sized office once a week counts.

There's an important additional clause here that's subtle. The group should be a place where every person can contribute, and where those contributions change the nature of what the group of doing. Lectures, or large gatherings like parties, don't quite work, even though you could bring a tray of cookies to those events. This is why there's an upper cap of about 30 people. I think the baked goods analogy breaks down a bit here, but a friend of mine points out that maybe you don't want to hand out baked goods to a bunch of strangers anyway.

Why baked goods?

Many baking recipes call for you to make far too much food for a person to consume in one sitting. A cookie recipe will often make 24 cookies, and a brownie recipe will make thousands of calories of brownies. Most of the time, it’s too much for a family to eat over a week. So despite the fact that baking itself is a solitary act, it’s surprisingly social. You have to know people to offload give your baked goods to.

(You don’t actually have to bake a tray of cookies. You just have to know that you could.)

Why does this matter?

The key word in this theory is sustainable, a trendy green word that I’ve misappropriated for my own uses. ‘Sustainable’ means that you can keep doing something for the foreseeable future. Here’s an example familiar to most: if you’re broke and spending down your savings, your life isn’t sustainable — you’re going to hit zero at some point, or your credit card will cut you off (if you choose to go negative).

The notions of saving and income exist in social networks too. When you spend lots of time socializing with people, you’re investing in your social future (and reaping its rewards, too!). You’ll naturally meet people, and you’ll spend time with them and their friends, making more friends in turn.

For most people, high school and college are natural places to accumulate social capital. Later in life, though, it’s easy to start spending down social capital without ever re-accumulating it. If you started off with plenty of friends, you’ll probably be fine — for a while.

But modern social lives have a natural and surprising attrition. You’ll get in a fight with your friends, or they’ll start dating someone you hate, or they’ll move across the country. Once you get older, they’ll start literally dying.

And, if you’re not careful, it will be hard to make new friends. Many of my best friendships started as weak ties with people I saw regularly but infrequently. Over time, we started spending time with each other, and those regular gatherings helped provide regular touchpoints for our relationship until it was strong enough that we just hung out independently anyway. But you need to have people in all stages of the pipeline — it takes five years to make a friend you’ve known for five years.

This is where your baked goods social group helps: it’s a natural source of weak ties. And yet it’s worth saying because it’s far too easy, especially today, to become a social shut-in. My modal archetype of this is a white-collar remote worker who lives with their partner, in a suburb they moved to in order to be able to afford a home.

I’ve noticed that I like to phrase this theory in the negative (if you don’t have this then things are bad) instead of the positive (if you have this, things are good). I think it’s because it expresses a state of emergency — if you aren’t seeing a group of weak ties regularly, things are bad!

I myself was in this bad state when I moved to San Francisco recently. I saw plenty of people, but it was only because I put a lot of effort into going to social events and arranging social dates. Those efforts helped kickstart my socializing, but it would have taken far too much energy for me to maintain that all the time. It wasn’t sustainable.

Then I joined a local community choir, where one of the tenors occasionally brought baked goods to rehearsal. Realization struck. Rehearsal was a good thing for me, and a source of easy weak ties that I’d been missing since our move.

Our choir is on hiatus, and when we resume we’ll be on a once-a-fortnight schedule. But now I know that I should try to fill the rest of my weeks with at least one sort of regular gathering.

A lack of sustainability, itself, isn’t always bad. Sometimes life changes happen. Maybe you need to move across the country to take care of family, or you’re taking a year off to travel the world, or you’re putting your head down for a few months to work. But I think it’s well worth it to pay attention to the alarm bells if your life keeps constantly being like this.

Some notes on community

If you feel like it’s hard to find such a community, you’re not alone. Tanner Greer has written about the fall of the community-based organizations and the impact it’s had on our ability to shape the world.

As an example, he discusses how during the Civil War, women’s communities organized across America to create nursing organizations, which fed and sheltered soldiers. During modern crises, it’s unlikely anything like that would happen — we’d probably all stay at home, or wait for the government to tell us what to do, or spend all day shouting on Twitter about what we think should happen. (Isn’t that what happened during COVID?)

I suspect there is also something good and heartening about being part of a community that’s gathered to work on a common cause. Nowadays, those causes are often singing songs together or playing football. But there’s no reason it can’t be to plan urban design together, or to organize voter drives, or to build and maintain a local makerspace.