Sleeping with the enemy

No, this has nothing to do with the 1990s movie based on which some 3 or 4 Hindi movies (Fareb, Agnisakshi, etc.) were made. This is more of the philosophical concept of how you deal with people you don’t like.

The standard reaction with someone you don’t like is to avoid them. This is perhaps how we have evolved – the first response to “danger” or something you don’t like is to “run”. Consequently, if you know that something or someone unpleasant lurks somewhere, you avoid the place and the person.

Yet this is not the optimal strategy in all cases. Let me illustrate with an example from Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a story set in the late 1600s in Western Europe. One of the chief characters is Eliza “de la Zeur”. The polite but mostly dumb Etienne de Arcachon would have made several attempts to woo her, and marry her, but she harbours a deep dislike for him and his family.

Yet, at an opportune moment, when all seems doomed for her, she decides to marry him. This comes across as a massive surprise (sorry for the spoiler there) for the lay reader who likes to steer clear of his enemies, but a little analysis reveals that this was her best strategy at the moment. Rather than steer clear of her enemies, she actually commits to sleeping with one of them. And as the book reveals (no more spoilers), it indeed turns out to be a masterful strategy.

Sleeping with the enemy is also an important strategy when it comes to international relations. If there is a country that you feel threatened by, and which you think might invade you, you should seek to increase (rather than decrease) trade with that country. While this may not be intuitive, the increased trade increased the cost of attack for the potential aggressor, since the invasion will ruin its own economy. One of the reasons for the prolonged tension for the Cold War was that back in those days, the US and the Soviet Union didn’t trade much with each other. Analysts talk about impending “US-China tensions”, but this will never come to bear, since these two superpowers trade considerably with each other.

The strategy has important implications in business also. Sometimes it is easy to be driven by emotions in your business – there might be a person or firm that you don’t like due to historic reasons, for which the intuitive reaction is to “have nothing to do with them”. That, however, can lead to suboptimal outcomes since by doing so, you are denying yourself the opportunity of profiting from them. Unpleasant as the company or firm may be, if there is a way in which you can profit from them, it is irrational to not take it! And it doesn’t matter to you whether such an action can help or hurt this unpleasant counterparty.

My school diary used to come with a “saying” at the bottom of every page. These sayings didn’t change over the years (for the people who had said such sayings had long been dead by the time I went to school), and they would get recycled all year round in “thoughts for the day” on the blackboards. One of them said “to smile at an enemy is to disarm him“.

I invite you to suitably modify this saying in the context of this piece.

One thought on “Sleeping with the enemy”

  1. Ha! I’m back to school later this week and was brushing up on The Divine Mother’s quotes in order to have a decently effective speech. Also, as usual … I can think of implications in the startup world. A lot of people work with well-funded giants in industries or markets similar to the ones they want to start up in. I, some time ago, interviewed for a job with someone I knew I was going to compete against eventually. It was a considerably large investment in terms of time but the tradeoff’s benefits I shall continue to reap for several months to come.

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