The Rules Of The Five-Man Band
On how social interactions at parties, bars, and similar gatherings work
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I quit drinking so long ago I honestly can’t remember the last time I tasted alcohol; it's been at least twelve years.
But before I quit drinking I knew the libation-based ecosystem I think of as The Heart of the Carnival intimately. There’s an age at which you meet your best friends almost exclusively at places where alcohol is served, which isn’t a bad thing if you don’t live in that world after it’s time to leave it. You learn a lot about people by talking to them in unguarded moments, which absolutely describes strangers with a few drinks in them, and that social skill set carries over surprisingly well to the rest of your life.
So while I’m packing up boxes and getting set to move, here are a few rules I learned hanging out in bars with Wolves and other reprobates.
The basic unit of social interaction is the five-man band. Five people is the optimal number for a stable system. The next stable unit down is three people, then two. Four is a red herring; it’s invariably either two sets of two or a set of three with one person being excluded. More than five is inherently unstable (groups of six or more are really five and a surplus).
Within a five-man band, there are only five possible social roles. They are:
The social roles of the five-man band are not fixed. They are randomly assigned by fate for the duration of the interaction, and are unrelated to the nominal social positions of its members. Situationally, the leader role is just as likely to be filled by a second-string kicker as the captain of the football team at a team party. It’s a roll of the dice. I cannot stress this enough.
The relationships between each member of a five-man band, on the other hand, are fixed by God above. You cannot change them, and trying to act against your situational social role is a recipe for failure. They are as follows:
The leader steers the conversation and (depending on the environment) either decides or casts tie-breaker votes with regards to group decisions. Otherwise, his role is the same as that of the first mate.
The first mate defers to/enforces the decisions of the leader, gives the rookie shit, and argues with the devil’s advocate and wins.
The rookie defers to the leader and the first mate, is given shit by the leader, first mate, and devil’s advocate, and argues with the devil’s advocate and loses.
The devil’s advocate defers to the leader, argues with the first mate and loses, argues with the rookie and wins, and occasionally gives the rookie shit.
The asshole is wrong. This is never not true. If you’re not sure whether you’re the asshole, an easy way to find out is to tell the best joke you know. When you’re the asshole, your jokes never land, regardless of how good they are. That’s because your role is to be the punchline.
It does not matter which role you land in, situationally. As long as you understand what role you’re in, and do your social duty by performing that role, you’ll have a good time. All the roles are situational and random. If you find yourself in the asshole role, relax. Your friends don’t hate you. It’s just your turn.
If you want to shuffle the deck, go to the bathroom. The moment the group dynamic changes by the addition or subtraction of a member, the roles all randomize. They don’t reset to what they were when you come back; you get an entirely new deal. This can happen an unlimited number of times.
All conversations involving six or more people are at their heart a five-man band with people tagging in and out—it looks like a bigger conversation, but it isn’t. What’s actually happening is that every time someone jumps in, the roles shift, and sometimes that happens so quickly that it catches people off guard. Five people is the ideal number for a relaxed gathering, or a unit within a gathering.