In a group, the art of decision-making requires, at best, consensus. Or at least the volume of one voice to rise higher than the others in the room. And always, it must end with a clear destination and path forward.
There are four in our group, including myself. It is not an ideal number for making democratic decisions, the obvious hurdle being the lack of a tie-breaking vote in the event of deadlock. The first time we all went out for dinner only came after three previous attempts to decide on an establishment had ended in shouting matches of exasperating nature, and that is the story I have decided to tell here.
I have a feeling that the friends in question would not take too kindly to explicit identification. In fact, I know this because I asked and was voted down.
Fine, then. If they wish for all of us to remain anonymous, then that is a democratic outcome I will respect.
Our group is myself, another guy, and two girls. We’ll call him Samurai, because of his haircut. The girls we’ll call Library and Singer, respectively.
No, I didn’t have to think too hard about these names.
And no, I didn’t come up with a name for myself.
That would be embarrassing.
Back to dinner.
The first time we had such a negotiation, we were under a tree in the campus square. It’s where we always meet up after each day’s business is done, late afternoons, and chat. By this point, we’d all been friends for a few months, but never had we faced this decision.
I was the one that suggested it.
“I thought it might be nice, you know?”
“All right.” I took my phone out, ready to find directions. “Where do we want to go?”
“Oh, I’m okay with anything. It’s up to you,” Samurai said.
“Could we do Chinese?” said Library.
“I’m not really feeling noodles.”
“Chinese food isn’t just noodles.”
“They have rice,” I offered.
“Gluten-free?” said Library.
“What happened to being okay with anything?” I said.
“I am! I just don’t want Chinese.”
I looked to Singer, who was busy texting or something.
“Do you have any ideas?”
She looked up. “I’m fine with whatever … You know what, just give me a sec.”
I sighed as she went back to her phone.
“Maybe I’ll just order pizza?”
The cry of outrage was as universal as it was instant, and no one cared that we were on the verge of a public scene.
Samurai seemed the most offended of the three.
“How could you even say that?”
“I’m the only one trying to get to a decision.”
“Um, did I not just suggest Chinese?”
“What is it with you and Chinese?”
I would say that the conversation devolved from that point, but, yelling names of random foods and beverages at each other is already a rather low ebb.
I would also like to say that it all ended swimmingly; that we settled our differences and, riding a wave of good feeling, ended up going out to eat that night. But that would be lying. I bought a service station pie on the way home from campus. The next two attempts were much the same, except the negotiations broke down even faster.
“Why do I even try?” I said, on the third occasion it all went hopelessly wrong.
“Well, why are you so hung up on this?”
“Yeah, what’s your deal? It’s just eating!”
“Why do you have to control everything?”
That night I drove straight home and went to bed without eating anything. Didn’t sleep, mind you – just played games on my phone all night. And every time the solitaire app told me that there were no more good moves, that I had to draw again, I remembered what had happened earlier that afternoon.
Until a text arrived: Pop! How are you?
It was Singer. She followed it up by apologising for making a scene.
I sent an apology too; added that I was fine. Hungry, but otherwise fine.
I wrote: Is it too much to ask of them?
The reply: You mean us?
Today was the third time in two weeks.
It’s fine! We’ll get there!
That was the end of the conversation, and tiredness caught up with me soon after.
The next morning, I met Library at the bus stop. She asked me how I was. I shrugged and stifled a yawn behind my hand.
“Why do people say that they’re okay with anything?” I said.
“Is this about yesterday?”
“I just don’t understand how people can have such low standards.”
“What are you on about? It’s just making it easier to come to a decision.”
“No, it’s not. It’s harder to reach consensus when the votes are completely blank.”
“Maybe they just don’t want to be too involved with the process. They don’t want to suggest something that everyone else won’t like. So, they leave it to one person.”
I crossed my arms.
“Then they’re not taking any responsibility for the decision, despite still wanting to be a part of it. Which is worse, as far as I’m concerned. So why should I be copping it when I just want us all to have a good time together?”
Then she raised an eyebrow and muttered something suspiciously like “controlling”, but when I pressed her, she shook her head and told me not to worry so much.
“We’re all on the same side,” she said.
“Really? I had no idea.”
“It’s not like we won’t be friends just because we don’t do anything away from campus. Why is it so important to you that we do this?”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
She laughed again.
The bus pulled up then, excusing me from further interrogation. We took our seats up the back and spent the commute in a reflective silence. Or I did, at least – I snapped out of it long enough to see she was reading on her phone.
If only these people cared more. Somehow, they just didn’t understand the implications of their passivity. How would they ever be able to determine their own futures when they couldn’t make a decision like this? Could they not see the favour that I was trying to do them?
Unfortunately, the core principle of negotiation is a shared vision; I needed them in order to move forward.
Some free time arrived around noon, and lined up with Samurai’s timetable, so the two of us met for a walk.
“You need to chill, man,” he said.
“Hey, I am so chill right now.”
“You weren’t yesterday.”
“I don’t like people making easy things hard, when they don’t have to be.”
“Are you talking about me?”
“I’m not naming names. But there is a certain subset of our group that doesn’t want to take responsibility for group activities. Apparently, any kind of organising or negotiating is just a battle to see who can care less. People thinking they’re being easy-going and casual when they’re contributing nothing.”
“I was going to save it for later, but now I’m worried you won’t make it to the end of the day without kicking a table over or something.”
I nudged him with my shoulder.
“Shut up,” I said. “What is it?”
“After you left yesterday, we talked about it. All of us are going to go out and eat tonight, and we’ve already decided where we’re going. That way, you don’t have to worry about anything. Let us take care of it for you.”
That surprised me. It would have stopped me in my tracks, if we weren’t already walking quite slowly.
After a moment, I told him that it hadn’t occurred to me that a group negotiation would take place in my absence. All parties must be at the table, no?
Still, I also said, I was pleased that our group possessed the capacity to make a collective decision, despite my absence. And, in the knowledge that this outcome was in part an apology to me, I stated my thanks.
It then occurred to me that I’d said none of this aloud.
So, I just said, “Huh. Cool.”
“Yeah? Are you proud of us?”
I laughed. “Something like that. Where are we going?”
To this day, I don’t know why he wanted to conceal that information. It was just Chinese.
And we had a decent time that night, save for one moment:
“How’s your food?” Singer asked me.
I glanced down at my rather sad helping of overcooked noodles and pork.
I can’t help but feel that if they had involved me in the decision, I could have at least steered us in the direction of a half-decent restaurant. Not that I had the heart to tell them.
And that’s the story. I like to think that I learned something out of that experience. Something about being more easy-going. I suspect the others believe that.
But the reality is that I still don’t know.
Was I any more enlightened about the art of decision-making? We’re all still good friends, a couple of years on, which says yes and no. There have been many collective decisions since these events, and the phrase “I’m okay with anything” has thankfully been whittled from conversation. All it takes now is a withering glare to move along with the process.
Did it tell me something about, I don’t know, being one person in a group of friends? That I don’t have to control everything?
Not really, no.
Maybe not knowing the answer is just something I’ll have to be okay with.