Cass Sunstein, the eminent Harvard law professor and writer, notes that some people are spinners and some people are tuners.
The spinner is the life of the party. The spinner is funny, socially adventurous and good at storytelling, even if he sometimes uses his wit to maintain distance from people. Spinners are great at hosting big parties.
They’re hungry for social experiences and filled with daring and creativity. Instagram and Twitter are built for these people. If you’re friends with a spinner you'll have a bunch of fun things to do even if you don’t remember them a week later.
The tuner makes you feel known. The tuner is good at empathy and hungers for deep connection. The tuner may be bad at small talk, but in the middle of a deep conversation the tuner will ask those extra four or five questions, the way good listeners do.
If you’re at a down time in your life, the spinners may suddenly make themselves scarce, but the tuners will show up. The tuners may retreat at big parties, but they’re great one-on-one over coffee. If you’re with a person and he’s deepened your friendship by revealing a vulnerable part of himself, you’re with a tuner.
Now, of course, all social categories of this type are vast generalizations and really just a form of conversational game playing. But if you look around at your friends, or at the world’s celebrities, I do think you'll find some people who seem to be good spinners (Amy Schumer, Jack Nicholson, Quentin Tarantino), some who seem to be tuners (Oprah, Jake Gyllenhaal, Adele) and a few lucky souls who are strong at both ends (I’m looking at you Stephen Colbert and Bill Clinton).
Spinning and tuning are different kinds of courage – the courage to be adventurous and the courage to be intimate. It seems to me that spinners and tuners each have their own kinds of happiness and sadness. Spinners love the whirl of a happy group activity and suffer from restlessness and a penchant for self-destruction. Tuners love connection, and with their emotional depth may be prone toward depression.
I even think writers and thinkers fall into these categories. Shakespeare, Einstein and Isaiah Berlin were spinners, playing, in almost a thrill-seeking manner, with a whirl of ideas. Dante, Proust and Toni Morrison fall into the tuner category.
A lot of the novels I read are narrated by tuners about spinners. That is to say, they are narrated by quiet empathetic characters about adventurous, vivacious characters. Novels like “The Great Gatsby,” “All the King’s Men,” “Brideshead Revisited” and “A Separate Peace” fall into this category.
Now if you are looking for friends, the spinners are great. But my questions for the class are: If you’re looking for a life partner, should you go for your same type or your opposite? Should you marry someone who meets your strengths or fills your needs?
My guess is that if you can’t find someone with both traits, marry a tuner, even if that gives your relationship a little extra drama.
The second question is: Can people change types over time? I’d say Oscar Wilde went from being a spinner to a tuner (though maybe he just got sadder as he was more oppressed). Others, of course, do not believe people change their basic emotional makeup, even over decades.
It should be said that both spinning and tuning are patterns of social interaction. They are patterns of being outer directed (now there’s a social category type with legs!).
Some people are inner directed. Their way of being in the world is based less on a pattern of interaction and more on a way of projecting what’s inside to the surrounding environment. Let’s call these people projectors.
I’d say a lot of heroes are projectors. Their primary attachment is to an ideal. They can go through life faithful to that ideal and carry on despite a blizzard of abuse or indifference. I’m thinking of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Aung San Suu Kyi.
On the other hand, there are some projectors whose primary attachment is to some psychosis, some emotional or narcissistic wound. They project outward from that. I add this distinction because every social typology has to have a slot for Donald Trump.
There’s one final social category I just learned about, from a talk I heard Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology give at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
She observed that some 4-year-olds wander on to the beach with their own shovel and bucket. They’re fine to play alone, but they’re welcoming if anybody wants to join them. They have a mixture of self-sufficiency and sociability. Turkle noticed that other kids are drawn to these kids, just as they recoil from the kid who doesn’t have a bucket and is needy for theirs.
So my lesson of the week is: Go into every social occasion with your own bucket. Be a spinner when life’s going good, a tuner when things go down, and have a great Fourth of July weekend.
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.