“Oh! Do you know So-and-So?”

Just five words and your heart plummets. It’s the opening salvo of the Acquaintance Game.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve had this conversation. You have just met someone new and found out that he hails from [Name of Place] or attends [Name of School] or works at [Name of Company]. Hey, you think, I know a person who is from [Name of Place] and has been to [Name of School] or works at [Name of Company].

So one of you says, “Oh, you went there! Do you know [Name of Person]?”

You say this as though it is going to lead somewhere, even though almost every experience you have had before proves the exact opposite.

Instead, the conversation runs as follows.

“Oh! You went to Cornell!” says your new acquaintance. “Do you know Lee Warslinger?”

You have no idea who Lee Warslinger is. You have never heard of a Lee Warslinger before in your life. You squint and get the distinct look of someone who is concentrating very hard or suppressing a sneeze. “Maybe,” you say. “Does Lee play lacrosse?”

“Maybe?” the other person says, looking a little confused. Evidently this is not the sort of thing that the Lee Warslinger your interlocutor remembers would do, but maybe Lee has changed since high school.

“Sort of tall?” you say. “With, you know, arms and things?”

The other person frowns. “Could be,” he says, noncommittally.

“I think he might have been in my finance lecture,” you say, trying really hard to imagine this person.

“Oh, no,” the other person says. “The Lee I know is a girl.”

“Oh,” you say.

But instead of quitting while you are behind and your new acquaintance is wondering what kind of person describes another human being by saying he has “you know, arms and things,” you plunge right back into it.

“Do you know a Kyle Singewicz?” you ask.

“Kyle Singewicz,” the other person says. He frowns. He gets that same look of concentration. “Oh!” he says, suddenly, brightening. “Kyle! He’s in the engineering school!”

“Yes!” you say, enthusiastically. “That’s Kyle!”

“Yeah!”

A hush descends. He looks at you, evidently expecting that you are going to tell him fun facts about Kyle that he did not know. You realize that you don’t really know Kyle all that well. “Kyle was in my math class,” you say, lamely. “There were two Kyles, and he was Kyle S.”

“He seems cool,” the other person says, without conviction.

I ask you: Are you any better off for having said these things to each other? Do you feel any closer? Do you know each other any better? No, no and of course not.

Suppose you did both know Kyle and liked him a great deal. Then the conversation would go like this.

“No way! Kyle!”

“Yeah!”

“Kyle and I were, like, best friends in middle school!”

“Kyle’s great!”

“Yeah!”

“Oh man, I’m going to text him right now!”

(You both text Kyle. A silence descends.)

“I can’t believe you know Kyle!”

“That’s crazy.”

“Small world.”

“I know, right?”

(Kyle texts back to say what a small world it is.)

(You stare at each other with nothing left to say.)

The only situation where this goes well is if it turns out that you both know the person, but dislike him — or, at minimum, have a serious complaint about him.

“Do you know Kyle?” you say.

“Kyle!” your new acquaintance says. “Love him —” (The speaker glances nervously at you to gauge your response) “but —” (Another nervous glance. You lean in conspiratorially) “he’s a little — well — you know?”

“OH MERCIFUL JUPITER, YES,” you exclaim, feeling a wave of intense relief wash over you because you were going to have serious difficulty saying things about Kyle that weren’t “Kyle used to wake our whole room up at six in the morning by blasting the theme to ‘Top Gun,’ and sometimes he would just squat on his bed for hours making chirping sounds.”

What I’m trying to say is: Basically, there is no good payoff to this game.

And yet we keep on playing it when we meet people. Why? Do we think we just need to find the right mutual friend’s name and then suddenly we’ll become fast friends through some kind of transitive power of friendship? Because I can guarantee this will not happen.

During situations when we could be actually establishing things we have in common with new acquaintances, we instead choose to stand there clutching our plastic cups of punch and yelling, “HOW ABOUT JENN SALAZAR? DO YOU KNOW A JENN SALAZAR?” over the pounding beats.

Here is a chart I made to illustrate this.

“Do you know A?” someone asks:


There is only one good outcome, and the odds are against it.

It’s like Battleship or Go Fish. But instead of playing with a deck of 52 cards or a board with a fixed number of potential squares for parking plastic cruisers, you are using the Entire Universe of People From Cincinnati And Its Environs. The odds are against you. And if you actually do find a person you both know, still no one wins. Instead, you must carefully gauge whether you both like the person, both dislike the person or have differing opinions about him. Sometimes you get it wrong and burst out with, “MAN, HATE THAT DEREK! HIS VOICE SOUNDS LIKE A DOOR HINGE, AND I SUSPECT HIM OF RACISM!” and the other person gets very quiet and says, “Derek saved my life in middle school,” and then you can’t ever be friends.

This is like going up to someone with two pennies in your hands and saying, “Hey! Let’s be friends, but only if both of these come up heads twice in a row!” It’s a poor strategy. Sure, later, after you have established whether or not you like the new person, you can inquire about fellow Cincinnatians and discover Derek as a pleasant surprise. But as an opener, it’s far from optimal. Why persist? It’s 2014. Facebook exists now, if you Absolutely Must Identify All Mutual Acquaintances. Folks, we don’t have to do this anymore.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.