Sixteenth Century Engraved sun and moon image. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I have always liked categorical statements that are obviously wrong. When someone says to me “This is the way the world works,” I get very excited, even though of course nobody knows how the world works. Or, even better: “There are only two types of people in the world.” This statement is usually followed by two binary qualities that could be used to define and divide all of humanity. Such a proposition is clearly ridiculous and, to me, deeply appealing. This is perhaps why my favorite game is called Dichotomies.
The game originated because my friends and I are always talking about our other friends. One night my friend Nick and I began idly categorizing people we knew, somewhat arbitrarily, as either thunder or lightning. We knew immediately who was which: Nick and I are both lightning. Our friend Ben: thunder. Alex: lightning. Graham: thunder. Lily: thunder, though maybe she has a bit of lightning too? We discussed and debated. This dichotomy is a good one in part because of its ambiguity; not everyone interprets it quite the same way, but everyone has a strong instinct for what each category might mean, and a sense of who might be which. Our attempts at categorizing people opened up some interesting questions: Was so-and-so outgoing, or actually quite shy? Did he make a big impression at first, or grow on you later? Was there a certain kind of power in being thunder and a different one in being lightning? Which would you rather be? And why was it so easy to tell the difference?
So I began to think of other interesting binaries. Another friend and I decided that some people are “men about town” and some people are “helluva town guys.” (Gender-neutral.) As I see it, a man about town is someone who always has fifteen plans that they’re running to, someone who is excited to meet new people and try new things, someone who is essentially oriented toward the public sphere and the allure of the untried and untested. At a party, they will end up talking for hours to a fascinating stranger who they will never see again, but they’ll remember the conversation forever. A helluva town guy is someone who likes to go to the same bar every weekend and drink ten beers with their best friends and say, “Man, life is so good!” But they are also someone who might know the secrets of the city a little bit, who might take you to an unremarkable-appearing restaurant that turns out to be special. They are your quintessential regular; they return, and they identify with the fact of their continuous return. Sometimes helluva town guys might find themselves living man-about-town lives—but at their core, they remain helluva town guys, even if they’re going out five nights a week. Dichotomies are, crucially, not about preference; they are about someone’s essential essence.
All summer long I thought of other ways to divide the world in half: New Hampshire/Vermont, Picasso/Matisse, punk/hippie, still/sparkling, IPA/lager, Beatles/Stones, France/Italy, Bob Weir/Jerry Garcia, glamour/charisma, hater/enthusiast, ellipsis/etc., elusive/available, green/blue, beer/shots, Yankees/Mets. Many of these pairings betray my own particular interests—you could endlessly reformulate them, and in fact I do. The best ones are pairs that are not actually quite opposites but proximate and different. So I began to play this game with people, often in groups, where you might ask someone to go around and categorize everyone, even people they don’t know well. Or, if there are two of you—say, on a date—you might go through them together and discuss who falls on which side of the aisle. I began to play it endlessly, in almost any circumstance. I started keeping a note on my phone, a running list I could pull out when someone said, “Okay, do another one.”
Maybe this sounds boring, or annoying (boring/annoying is a classic dichotomy), but I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations of my life while playing this game. It helps that I am interested in nothing more than people, and especially the people I know, and talking with the people I know about other people we know. So I am an obvious candidate for the game Dichotomies, but I’ve met very few people who didn’t like it at least a little. Sometimes the discussion can get quite heated, for obvious reasons. We are trading in stereotypes and lazy characterization here. You might put your foot in your mouth by labeling someone France who is proudly Italian, or telling someone they are lightning when they perceive themselves as thunder. In fact, one of the things I have learned from playing the game ad nauseum is that people very often want to be the one they’re not. This is not really surprising—it is a fact of life that those of us, like me, who are Vermont (fancy cheese, Phish shows, Birkenstocks) would prefer to be a bit more New Hampshire (fireworks set off in cornfields, rusting trucks, camping by the lake). Most of us have a little of both, and even the states of Vermont and New Hampshire have plenty of both. But the magic of Dichotomies is that you have to draw a line in the sand. I think this is part of what the game is all about for me: I am tired of ambivalence and equivocating, even though I am prone to both of those things. We are always being asked, often appropriately, to recognize nuance, to see that people have many different sides and qualities. Okay, fine, obviously. But sometimes I just want to know something solid about the way certain people are in the world, even if it is essentially meaningless, like whether someone is wood or glass.
One night a friend and I got ourselves into trouble when we made up a new one: Hot or funny? It was obvious to us immediately—she was hot and I was funny. Which is sort of strange, because she is very funny, one of the people I laugh most with; she would also probably say that I am hot, and in fact immediately did upon making her pronouncement. But the hot/funny dichotomy is not really about whether you are hot or funny—assume that you are both, or neither, or mostly just that it’s irrelevant. The dichotomy is about how you present yourself, what you choose to foreground, and what others see in you most; it’s a mix of factors you can control or can’t, it’s about what you decide to do with what you’ve got. The results of this complicated amalgamation put you, always, on one side or the other. She and I knew right away that this was an evil dichotomy, and quite an interesting one. It cuts far too deep, if you have ever been insecure about whether you are attractive—and who hasn’t?—or worry about whether you are entertaining—and who doesn’t? Either answer is kind of a bad one, especially because you’ll likely wish you got the other one. So I wouldn’t recommend playing this one in public, or telling other people which they are. But it is a question to consider, and I bet you know the answer, because there is always only one: are you hot or funny?
Sophie Haigney is the web editor of The Paris Review.
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