On a night out in Reykjavík, you can have one of two experiences: that of a smoker or that of a non-smoker. Non-smokers live in a cocoon of narcissistic anti-social haze. “Can’t we go somewhere quiet to sit and talk?”, “It’s too loud in here”, “I haven’t met anyone all night!” Newsflash fuckwit, there’s a quiet place to talk, meet people, and take shelter from the noise. It’s called a smoking section.
Unfortunately, the science is in on smoking. It’s bad…mmmmkay? There’s no point in denying it or trying to downplay just how harmful it is. It’s really, really bad for you. So is being a loser, though. It’s probably worse.
What I am talking about is social capital, the cumulative value of social networks. There is no time in life when the ability to increase your social capital is more important than when you’re young. Smoking, whether it’s good or bad, gives you an advantage–using sociability as a resource that manifests around a ritual. Iceland is such a small country and tight community that networking is one of the only ways to be successful. You need to be out there and present for people to know you and, potentially, help you.
You meet people when you’re out. You meet people at work from different departments and different levels of authority. You learn to ask strangers for things (Can I bum a smoke?). You learn to give (Sure, I’ve got smokes). You display a certain structured consistency and loyalty (Ok, it’s time for a smoke, shall we?).
It’s easy to tell the difference between 20-year-olds who smoked and those who didn’t: that certain social inability and constant echoing vibe of a person who thinks his or her life is too important to risk on frivolous hedonism and nicotine. Non-smokers always have backhanded insults when you go out, “Wow, everyone knows you here…”. Yes. They do. I’m not a loser like you. Keep trying to spark up conversation on the treadmill. I’m sure your neon yellow shirt will take you places, but my yellow fingers got me the job.
Unless you go completely overboard, quitting smoking by the time you are thirty reduces your chances of dying from smoking related illness by 90%. This gives you roughly 10 to 15 years to use smoking for your own personal gain. Start young and quit young. Then at the end you get a triumph story, more social capital. You conquered the evil spectre of addiction–great table talk for those mid-thirties dinner parties.
Still though, I wish there was a better alternative. Electronic cigarettes completely remove any gains from smoking. You have nothing to share and you don’t need to go to a meeting area. Can you imagine offering someone a pull on your e-cig? It’s essentially swapping saliva on an adult pacifier. It’s too babyish to be cool or social. The impermanence of cigarettes is what gives them their power. You must destroy something every so often in order to feel good. It is no longer here. You did that. Well done.
There is a healthier option for benefitting from the social capital of smoking. You can just follow smokers and bring smokes. Make friends with a smoker and go out when he or she does. There will be some mild secondhand smoke, but you’ll meet people and you’ll have smokes to share if need be. This does, however, rely on the fact that smoking still exists, so it is only possible for a few social scammers out there with the bravado to use a social ladder they did not build.
The french philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu saw social capital as a mechanism for creating inequality and decried its effects on democracy and society. Here in Iceland there are constant complaints about nepotism and favouritism. That being the case, knowing what is doesn’t necessarily dictate what ought to be done. I’d rather be talking about inequality with friends in the smoking section, than experiencing it.
Light ’em up.