The Enlightened Caveman

The Lobby and The Appearance of Dignity
February 15, 2005, 4:42 pm
Filed under: Hijinks, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
Here’s my day – I learn (or maybe notice) two interesting things.

I wake up in DC for a meeting with a prospective customer, emerge optimistic but wary of the work involved in finding out, fly back home to Atlanta, arrive at 6pm, repack, apologize to my wife on her birthday, take my son to the basement so he can play my drums (which he can only incessantly call “bum” and which also includes my guitar – either me playing it while he endlessly motors around, or me holding the chord with my left hand while he attempts to strum.), much consternation on his part at the end of our impromptu “session,” and then it’s off to Philly for two days. An odd city, if you ask me, Philly.

The perimeter of it is depressing. More than a couple of times, the thought crosses my mind that I would be very distraught if I were suddenly informed that I’d have to live here. Just sort of cluttery, but desolate at the same time – I’ll pass. But then I cross over this river and go into some scary areas, where I think I would be very nervous if I was to suddenly have to live here. Abandoned buildings with broken glass all throughout, on streets that look like the video game, the shooting game, where villains pop out from behind every object and shadow. And it’s overlooking water! Truly puzzling from a real estate development prospective – seems like some Trumpionnaire would clean house and put up a revitalized waterfront district or something expensive-sounding like that. It’s like nobody cares, which is the first remarkable thing I notice today.

Almost as quickly as the cab and I enter into this archetypical run-down area of a city, we emerge into a Chicago or New York kind of downtown, with massive buildings right on the street, with shops at street level, and residences or offices (or both) going up into the heavens. Street vendors, convention centers, bars, restaurants, mass transit, hotels, shopping centers – all in about 3 square blocks – at least that’s what it seems like. The transition from ghetto to modern metro is like passing between two different worlds, not mutually exclusive, but recognizably distinct.

In one, folks care about looks. In the other, they don’t, at least not enough to take care of them. That’s what I notice tonight as my cab pulls up to my hotel. Kind of hum-drum, but that’s before a few rounds on the old cognitive spin cycle. The only minor-league, and I mean really minor-league excitement is my well-timed dart through the huge rotunda of a lobby to avoid colleagues who might be in the bar. One false move and I end up in there all night. It’s happened before and it ends up leaving me tired, hungover, and generally off the next day.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean shit. I can almost always be counted on to join in the festivities if people I work with are. I have what I call the party gene. (That’s another topic that’ll get its ink in due time.) Anyhow, that’s where the drama, minor league as it is, comes in. The inner conflict. You see, attendance at the professional, expense-account boozefest has a long record of benefiting my work environment, even though, these days, especially today, I am more apt to settle into my room, get online, and see what happens. A quandary you might say, settled by the half-assed, but probably still better than your average civilian’s covert lobby crossing. If he gets spotted – bourbon and ginger (plus requisite cigarettes) till two. If not, the tamer tour through the blogosphere, but the benefit of a feel-good tomorrow. Finkel. Einhorn. Finkel. Einhorn…

Being a master of compromise (and lobby crossings – it’s all about the diversion), I settle upon forcing myself to encapsulate the random, but not so random, thoughts that have crossed my mind on my three city tour. Then, I may see what’s happening downstairs. Whew. Glad that’s settled. Anyhow – let’s make this quick.

I keep coming back to this two cities thing. Think about how important appearances are in different socioeconomic settings. People with nothing could care less about how they look. They can’t afford to. And it seems like there’s a direct, but leading, correlation between taking care of appearances and achieving prosperity and predictability. It’s direct because the guy who cares about his appearance gets the job before the slob in most cases. Nothing shocking there. But, it is a leading (as in an economic leading indicator) correlation because the appearance change almost always precedes the achievement of prosperity.

As they say, you sometimes gotta fake it till you make it. This is why stock-brokers wear Rolex (would the plural be Rolei?) watches, drive expensive cars, and live in expensive houses, even when they’re just starting out and can’t make the money to support the lifestyle – it gives the impression that they’re successful at handling people’s money. The “he makes money if his clients make money” arrangement is understood, so the broker’s wealth means his clients must be doing well. Ergo, it makes sense to do business with him, to let him help you manage your money. In our terms, it makes sense to accept him.

Now, obviously, if the guy’s a total boob, he probably won’t do well. But if he’s not, and he’s persistent, that interpersonal acceptance will pay off. So, what I’m saying is that you have to start caring about what you look like before a lot of good things will happen to you in life.

Appearance becomes a sort of investment. You do the things you need to do to keep your person looking right – right clothes, right hair, right teeth – and you take an instant step up on the ladder of mass social acceptance. In essence, you’re decreasing your delta. Remember, the idea is that it is possible to have an appearance that virtually guarantees that, unless you’re a total jerk, the people you meet will accept you. They’ll be interested in you, and they’ll be hoping that you like them. Your delta is how far, objectively speaking, you are looks-wise from that point. The further you are, the more likely it is that the exact opposite will happen – the people you meet will not lock eyes with you or take any interest in you, and if you dislike them, they will not notice, nor will they care if they do. That’s harsh, but it’s reality for some people. Fortunately for most people, the delta problem is tractable.

Suppose there’s a figurative delta scale from zero to 100 – zero being the lowest delta (closest to mass total acceptance) and 100 being the highest delta (closest to mass total rejection). Something as broad (and purposefully vague) as an appearance delta would not have your typical bell curve distribution, would it? Yes, buuut, zero would be on the fringes of one side, say the left (arbitarily, lest any political notions enter into this). There are only a handful of folks at the zero delta point. They’re the ones who presumably have the life. They set the styles and dominate all visual media. But, relatively speaking, there aren’t many of them.

The numbers increase steadily as you move to the right, away from zero. Eventually, they peak and you have the average-looking person, not perfect, but not noticeably or distractingly flawed. Then, those drop off to the people who have something troubling about their appearance, something that causes people to be careful about looking. The curve ends at the other fringe with people who have it the worst in terms of human acceptance – maybe they’re shut-ins because they just can’t bear to go out, or maybe they’re just invisible. Even though, thankfully, there aren’t that many of them, there are still too many, and I hate to think about what that must be like. But I musn’t dwell, there’s booze to swill.
(That was the lamest rhyme ever. I have to admit that.)

Getting back to the point here, the delta scale is useful because we can imagine that one who has no interest in his appearance, somebody like your urban-variety bum, has a lot of easy ground to make up in terms of delta. A nice shower, a haircut, a trip to the dentist, some consistently good nutrition, and the guy can go from say a 70 to a 40. At 40, he may be close enough to the average person to start finding interpersonal acceptance fairly expectable. This, from some psychology I’ve read but honestly can’t remember where (told you this was vague), is the turning point for self-esteem.

The moment you start to expect that you’ll be accepted in interpersonal situations is the moment you begin to have self-esteem. Don’t know if it’s true, or if it’s possible to know, but it sounds about right. So, thinking back about my cab ride (but now with the Bill Conti music from Rocky as a soundtrack – ahh, editorial license), I’m wondering how many folks are living there who just don’t care about how they look, about how their house looks, or about anything like this. And I’m wondering, what if they did?

Socially sensitive people will answer that caring about your appearance isn’t going to suddenly make a job materialize. These people are in poverty, they’ll say. I’ll grant that this may very well be the case for many of these people. But what about the ones who could simply decide to care about their appearance? They live within walking distance of any number of mail room-level jobs, jobs that go to guys (and gals) with the same background, only they clean up.

Maybe it’s about dignity. Maybe this whole thing is just way to say that dignity begets pride in appearance, which begets acceptance. If so, I’m an idiot for wasting the festive hours in the bar downstairs on a single sentence. But that brings me back to the second thing I learned today. There’s a self-perpetuating cycle going on here. I might ordinarily have ruminated on this idea and forgotten about it until something cued it back up again. But, as the word “blog” is short for weblog, which connotes ship’s log or captain’s log, and since I don’t always have something particular to write about, I am informally committed to putting something down. In this case, it turns out that the whole thing is about information distillation and articulation, which happen to be the toolset of the writer. And duh, epiphany – that must be why I do this. Having written a book, I still don’t think of myself as a writer. But tonight, considering that I distracted, and then deftly out-manuevered the lobby threat, and now it’s too late to reconsider, it occurs to me – I am a writer. (It sounds gay to even type it.) Nevetheless, it’s a milestone, I suppose.

Then, reality sets back in, as I wonder if it ever really pays well.

Changing Your Cover – Appearances – Part 2
February 13, 2005, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, sometimes you can, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Whether or not this statement is true, the fact is that sometimes, lots of times, people will try. Furthermore, it’s usually really tough to tell who’s “thin slicing” based upon looks, and who’s not. As I mentioned in the last post, I think there’s a real value in understanding that a unknowable, but significant, percentage of the population is actively caught up in judging books by their covers.

They’re deciding who they’ll be courteous with, who they’ll ignore, who they’ll be afraid of, and who they’ll open up to, all based upon appearances (at least initially). And, for the most part, these are not rogues and lunatics. These are not simply people who occupy the fringes of the depth bell-curve, people who can and should be dismissed. An unknowable subset of these people only use this technique as a filtering process. They are open-minded and intelligent enough to modify their assessments with the acquisition of more and more data. For whatever reasons – maybe they’re extremely busy, maybe they’re inundated with books that bear out their preliminary cover assessments, maybe they’re fearful of social situations – these people modulate their up-front human interactions using the shallowest of information. We could fault them for it. But what if, in doing so, we miss the chance for deep and meaningful concurrence? What if, and this applies most to high delta people, we limit those whom we take seriously so much that we’re virtually guaranteeing ourselves loneliness? Thankfully, just as it takes infinite courage to really be a pacifist, it takes more than most people are willing to give to take a truly hard-line against appearance-based prejudice. Most folks, myself included, give in.

So, here we have an interesting question. If we acknowledge that we play along with this shallow game in certain circumstances, in lots of circumstances, then the question is how much do we give in? How much should we be willing to change our covers to plant the judgement we want in the minds of the judges, the ones we secretly despise for operating in such a way?
In America, it’s pretty much accepted that our teeth matter, and not just for health reasons. How else do we explain the massive industry that is orthodontia? It’s a given, once you get to even a modest socio-economic level, that your kids will get braces if their teeth are screwy. (Sure, some people are against this. But I think most folks, if they can afford it, are happy to be able to do this for their children.) The point is that getting braces is expensive and not altogether painless or trouble-free. Yet, we do it. We cower to the shallow beast of appearance anxiety and tweak our covers. The same is true with respect to fashion.

The big fads come along, and the masses get on board. One friend, a sales executive in the medical device field, works for a guy who is about 50. This guy, the owner of the company, is always teasing him about his clothes, the square-toed shoes, in particular. He says they’re “trendy” and that my friend is a boob for buying into the trend. My friend, being 35, single, and quick on his square-toed feet, comes back with a witty retort:

Say whatever you want, Pal, but I’m hunting ladies at all times, and it is essential that I do not limit my selection. I’m after that long-term relationship, which means I have to sift through the market to find what I’m looking for. The fact is that the kind of girls I’m pursuing have guys after them all the time. They make the first cut based upon appearances. If I’m Mr. Traditional, like you, in cap-toed shoes and pin striped suits, I come off like a dud – an insurance salesman or an accountant. Any girl who’s gonna be able to handle me for the long-haul is going to write the dud off in two seconds. So, to make the cut, I look the part. Then, once I’m in the door, the tables turn, and I’m making the next cut. Get it? So, mock my shoes all you want. Just know that when you call me at 8am on a Sunday morning and you go straight to voice mail, it’s because I was up all night banging a hot chick that likes square-toed shoes. That’s the only trend I care about perpetuating.

Now that is one enlightened caveman. Say what you will about the morality of his endeavors, but there’s no denying that he has a good handle on how to manipulate reality to his own ends. Fashion is like that for some people. I’ll wear some conservative variation on the faded-front jeans, but not because I feel I just have to be in style, but because it sends the message that I care about my appearance and that I’m aware of what’s big these days. That shaves a bit off my appearance delta, you might say. And look at it this way, if my plan backfires and someone dismisses me because I’m wearing trendy clothes, then there’s a good chance they’ll really object to some of my more outlandish views on the world. It’s a self-correcting system, I figure. Anyhow, all I’m saying is that the cover change, in itself, isn’t shallow or the equivalent of selling-out. But what is?

Some would say cosmetic surgery is beyond the line. I know women with capped teeth who absolutely abhor the thought of getting breast implants. Hmm. Is there really that big of a difference? Like it or not, a female with a nice chest, all other things being equal, will get noticed more than one with a modest lower neck. And the surgery, silicon scare aside (yes, scare, as in, not real), is pretty routine and is cheaper than veneers. And what about liposuction? How many people have saddle-bags or love handles that will not go away no matter how much they diet or exercise? What’s wrong with them having a doctor wave a canula to make it all disappear? Of course, the funny thing is that many proponents of cosmetic surgery will say, “But I’m doing it for myself. I just want to like what I see when I look in the mirror.” Suuuure. Whatever you have to tell yourself. But again, their delusions aside, I’m saying it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want to change your cover, strictly for the benefit of the cover judgers in society.

It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. What do you get in terms of delta reduction, and how does it compare to the costs? This is the part many folks miss, I think. There’s an aspect of the appearance delta concept that must now be revealed – the ideal appearance, the one to which ours is compared to compute the delta, the one that gets us a free ride in terms of interpersonal acceptance (in particular circumstances of interest), includes an assessment of how hard we’re trying. You get points off (that is, your delta grows) if it looks like you’ve gone too far in changing your cover. You look needy. This is why the girls who get the massive DDD boob jobs actually diminish the field of acceptance, rather than expand it. This is why the guys who shave every hair from their bodies, for no practical reason (like say an Olympic swim competition), come off as odd-balls. This is why massive lip jobs, repeated face lifts, and botox-induced expressionless faces rarely yield the desired return on investment. These people just end up looking funny. So what to do?

If you’re going to change your cover, and I’m not saying you should, you should aim to change it so that strangers can’t tell. Girls, get reasonably-sized boobs for your frame. If guys really can’t determine if they’re real, but they break their necks trying, you’ve probably hit the target. Same thing for guys – if you’re driving a 10-year old Toyota, you might rethink the giant fin on the back. (Yes, the appearance delta applies to cars, too. But that’s another discussion.) But there’s still more to this.

Another complication to consider is what people you know will think. If you conduct your inner-circle affairs with an avowed disdain for appearance-based prejudice, then you may find it hard to explain changing your cover in any dramatic way. Maybe you could acquaint your closest friends and family with your enlightened rationale for the change, and maybe they’d understand. Or maybe there’s nothing you could say to make them understand. Maybe their view of you would be tainted forever. Who knows? I would simply argue that no substantial cover change should be undertaken without reflecting on this.

In the end, if we’re going get what we want out of the social side of life, the side that, more than anything else, determines the tenor of our happiness, we have to decide how much we’re willing to give in to this shallow, appearance-oriented game. We have to decide where the line is drawn, and we have to be careful to get what we pay for. Even if we can rationally justify the desire to improve our frail and thin lips, there isn’t much to be gained by looking like a duck. Unless of course, our desire is to be accepted at the ritzy spa for desperate housewives. That, too, is another discussion entirely.

The Appearance Delta and Gimmick Theory
February 11, 2005, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve written, on occasion, about the influence of looks in our society. Let me attempt to codify my thoughts. The whole thing hinges upon the generalization that individuals in America (and elsewhere, but America, in particular) respond differently to people they perceive as physically attractive versus people who come off as unattractive. I believe this is largely genetic.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends some time discussing the biases that we all have below the surface of consciousness. The point of the book is to put forth the notion that our minds are very good at “thin-slicing,” which is using a small amount of information to make decisions very quickly, and that, while this should often be embraced, it happens behind the locked door of our subconscious. He cites the intuitive behavior of successful art dealers, professional athletes, professional poker players, and military leaders to demonstrate the good side of thin slicing. However, he examines the dark side of thin slicing when he discusses how people respond to physical appearance.

In evolutionary terms, there are physical attributes that indicate fitness – tallness, healthy hair, healthy teeth, symmetry in facial features, good posture, a muscular and lean physique, and so on. Youth in females indicates fertility, so males prefer younger women. Conversely, size and brawn and chiseled features indicate virility in males, which is why females prefer “hunks.” (We’re talking about cavemen here.) The idea is that our evolutionary ancient emotions, the ones operating under the radar of consciousness, are tuned to be drawn to people with these attributes. Gladwell mentions the ex-president Warren Harding as a prime example. Here was a guy who was big with a Roman aristocracy kind of good looks, but he wasn’t especially intelligent, nor was he an impressive public speaker, and he had a long list of character flaws. Nevertheless, with the help of a clever senator, he was elected to office, presumably for nothing more than his good looks. A more contemporary example is the poll Gladwell conducted of half the companies on the Fortune 500 list.

He found that almost all CEOs are tall white males. Brevity, if I am capable of it, prevents me from detailing all of his caveats and conditions, but suffice it to say that his findings bear a stark contrast to normal demographic distributions. In short, it appears that upward mobility is easier for tall white males than it is for short ones or non-white ones or both (surprise, surprise). Of course, the argument can (and should) be made that Gladwell’s findings only betray the extent of in-group prejudice among the few who make it to the top. But, even if this is the case, how things got to be that way still warrants an explanation. For my part, I’m inclined to agree with the author that individuals whose physical appearance indicates fitness in an evolutionary sense enjoy an advantage when dealing with other people, an advantage that is largely unknown by the people conferring it upon them.

If this is true. If. Then, it means that looks do matter in society. It means that no matter how enlightened we may become, no matter how we may deliberately look beyond physical appearance, we are ill-served if we expect the same thing out in the world. We may choose to take the higher ground and assert that people who modulate their interpersonal behavior based upon something so shallow are to be ignored. But the notion that much of this appearance bias happens below the level of consciousness strains the sensibility of this approach. No, I think there’s a better option. Once again, I find myself in a situation where I need two sets of rules for how I operate. I’ve stumbled on another sort of dualist strategy.

I think of all people as falling into one of two groups – people I want long-term relationships with and people I don’t. When I first meet someone, I don’t know which category they’ll fall into, so they start out in the latter. Over time, however, if we get along, and it makes sense, they can transition into the former. The point is that I apply different interpersonal rules to the two different categories.

For the long-term relationship folks, I prefer enlightenment. I encourage looking beyond physical appearance because I know that the rewards are plentiful. Shallow people don’t make the cut. But for people with whom I have no intention or interest in any meaningful long-term relationship, I have no requirements whatsoever. I abstract them all into this group that, among other things, is defined by the least common genetic denominator. I assume that they’re all cavemen doing precisely as their genes instruct. Sure, I’m proven wrong a lot, but it’s better than assuming that they’re all highly aware of their genes’ negative influences and are compensating for them all the time. The consequences of getting this wrong are regular disappointment. Anyhow, things get interesting we we realize that sometimes we need things from these people.

I need to get one of them to like me enough to hire me for a job, for example. I assume that this person will form an instant impression of me simply by how I look, and that depending upon what he or she comes up with, I may or may not have an easy time in the interview. Just to venture into absurdity for a moment, suppose there’s a scoring system that is used by the interviewer to determine if I get a thumbs up or thumbs down, say from 1 to 10. It takes a 9 or better to get the job. If my appearance impresses him or her, I may start with a 6 or a 7. That means I only have to come up with a couple of points to ensure success. It may be my intelligence or my personality or my experience, but whatever it is, it will not be about my appearance. But suppose another applicant comes in and the interviewer is dazzled by his appearance. He may start with a nine, meaning that if he doesn’t do anything to cost himself points, the job is his. What I’m getting at here is the notion of an appearance delta.

I would define this as the difference between my appearance and the appearance that would grant me instant acceptance in any given social situation. Women like Elizabeth Hurley, for example, have no appearance delta. She’s so attractive that people fall over themselves to spend time with her. This is the bane of the beautiful but intelligent woman’s existence – she has a tough time being taken seriously simply because she’s hot. Similarly, a guy with Sean Connery’s looks experiences an entirely different version of life than I do. I’m not upset by this; it’s a fact of life. Indeed, I think recognizing this has a lot to offer in terms of enjoying what little time we have here.

It’s very useful to figure out what your appearance delta is, and I should note that it is somewhat situation dependent. To a heterosexual soldier coming home from two months of all-male field exercises, an average-looking woman has less of a delta than she does if she meets him when he’s been in the general population for a while. Nevertheless, knowing where you stand looks-wise in the minds of others has its benefits. We have to acknowledge that much of the enjoyment we get out of life has to do with interpersonal acceptance. It’s that concurrence thing I keep talking about. It’s an axiom in human endeavors that not being accepted in social situations is emotionally distressing. Sometimes, given the idea of subconscious appearance bias, the culprit can be how we look. Regardless of how distasteful this may seem, I just can’t see how there’s anything to be gained by being indignant or burying my head in the sand on this. It’s a matter of practicality.

The key to the usefulness of the appearance delta is in the notion that it can be overcome by non-physical attributes. All it takes is a gimmick, and there are all kinds. Being smart can be a gimmick, as can being funny or empathetic. Being an artist, such as musician or painter, can also serve as a gimmick, and being rich and/or powerful works, too. The point is that knowing your delta tells you how much gimmick you need in any given situation if acceptance is what you’re looking for. Harsh as it is to say, if you’re short, fat, and bald, you’re gonna need a lot more gimmick than the guy who’s tall, lean, and well coiffed. Now, you can object and refuse to participate in this ever-so-shallow game of human interaction, but you should do so at your peril.

As for me, I do what I can with what I have. I stay in shape and I try to look presentable when I’m in situations where acceptance among folks in the non-long-term relationship category will be of benefit. I pay attention to what I wear and how I carry myself. I estimate my delta and decide which kind and how much gimmick I want to employ. Shallow? You bet. Does it work? Yup. However, when I’m around members of the long-term relationship group, I’m less concerned about appearance. I don’t care if my hair is messed up and I opt for flip-flops and t-shirts instead of nicer clothes. And I don’t bother with gimmick; I’m just myself. That’s the beauty of the inner circle – you can rise above the bullshit and just live.

At the end of the day, we all want to be accepted. We all want to be in on the inside joke. And as much as we’d all (especially those who have a high delta) like it if acceptance were strictly a function of character, it just isn’t, at least not enough to sustain us. What can start as a relationship founded on looks or looks plus gimmick can turn into anything but. To close ourselves off to these opportunities simply limits the amount of acceptance we’ll enjoy in life. This doesn’t mean that we long for acceptance so much that we pursue it indiscriminately. That’s trading problems for problems. It only means that we play the shallow game to get our feet in the door and then let our criteria for separating long-termers from non-long-termers kick in. It ain’t pretty, but it works.

Interpersonal Truth – Part 2 – Emotional Coercion
September 11, 2004, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Relationships

There’s a little thing I call emotional coercion, and it is going on all the place. It’s wrong and it needs to be talked about. Because it doesn’t get much attention, I’ll admit that I find it a bit awkward to describe. But hey, my intentions are good, so here goes.

To coerce is to bring about by force or threat. To emotionally coerce is to bend the actions of others by threatening emotional turmoil. It takes place most prevalently between people in close romantic relationships. It exists because many people choose to appease the desires of hotheads and manipulators because it simply isn’t worth it to do otherwise. For example, a husband with a quick temper emotionally coerces his wife by asserting his wishes upon her, even though he knows that he is making her do what she doesn’t want to do. In some cases, the threat of real force underlies the emotional coercion. In other cases, the outbursts are enough to bend her will. Husbands will often complain about wives who give them so much grief that they avoid behaviors rather than running the risk. Who hasn’t been held hostage by a loved one in tears?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that people need to be allowed to express their emotions. However, some people, the emotionally coercive, are aware of the power they have, and they use it to get what they want. This is no way to interact with people we care about. To those for whom this notion of emotional coercion hits home, I’d say you need to think about how it feels to be forced to do something you don’t want to do. Then think about how despicable it is to do this to a loved one. And to those who find themselves emotionally coerced, I say stand up for yourself. It is never acceptable for someone to wield emotional power over you to get you to behave as they want, not as you want. Yes, there is compromise, but this is beyond compromise, and there is never any chance of confusing the two. Relationships must be built on mutual respect and admiration. Anything less is settling.

I am convinced that good romantic relationships are available to everyone who’s willing to do what it takes to be desirable. Unfortunately, too many people get into relationships that are fraught with emotional coercion. Instead of seeing this as a deal breaker, they suffer on. In doing so, they miss out on the opportunities for real relationships with solid foundations. If the idea that emotional coercion is wrong were articulated alongside the idea that honesty is the best policy, we might end up with a generally more content population. But nothing will ever happen until people realize that this is a human phenomenon that has no place in our modern world of reason.

The Status-Oriented Inferiority Complex
August 27, 2004, 3:12 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Relationships

I know a Brazilian girl who is attractive, smart, and has a great personality. She’s down to earth, open-minded, and accepting of everyone. The problem is that she doesn’t know it. Or maybe she knows it, but it doesn’t matter. There is something else that hinders her ability to realize her value as a human being. She comes from a poor family. In other words, she started life with very little status, and this has given her an inferiority complex that plagues her even to this day.

The current in thinking in evolutionary psychology is that the human mind was designed by natural selection to be very cognizant of status within social groups. In caveman days, when natural selection was in full force shaping man’s ability to survive, being high on the social totem pole translated into a direct reproductive advantage. The humans that survived, therefore, were the ones who had a genetic predisposition to seek and obtain status. They were our ancestors, which means that we share their genetic quest for status. However, now that status is unnecessary for survival, the mind’s tendency to seek it is causing all sorts of problems. My Brazilian friend is a perfect example.

She is a first generation American. Her family moved to the US when she was very young. Her parents have worked tirelessly to give their daughter opportunities that they never had. So, by seeing to it that she was able to attend college, they are still poor. And because she is human and status is important to her brain, she feels inferior to people who come from more wealthy families. She dates a guy whose father is a doctor. She admitted to me once that she often feels uncomfortable around him, especially when his parents are present. It is as if she feels unworthy of him. She suspects that his family would prefer him to date someone with a better background. This is truly sad.

The fact is that our standing at birth is absolutely irrelevant in today’s world. The notion that some people are better than others simply because their families have more money is ludicrous. Yes, it is true that those born into wealth have access to better education. They often have more opportunities in life. However, to suppose that this somehow translates into human value is a tragic mistake.

If you want to see what makes for a valuable human being, go to a cemetery and read some grave stones. Rarely, if ever, will you see, “John Smith 1935-2004, Largest Landowner in the State.” They say things like, “Loving father of three” or “Friend to all people.” The point is that human value can only be based upon ethics. What do we as people hold as the core of our values? Do we respect others? Are we honest? Do we value fairness and justice? Do we seek knowledge? In the end, this is what brings love to our lives, and this, in my view, is what it’s all about.

So, to my Brazilian friend, I say this. Forget about where you come from. Concentrate on who you are as a person. Most importantly, demand that others do the same. Those who would hold your background against you are not worthy of your time, no matter how much money they may have. It is the fact that you are a good person that matters. All else is trivia. Your mind is indeed wired to respond differently, but this is not beyond your control. As a rational, conscious being, you can choose to follow your emotions or you can choose to reason your way to a positive self-opinion. And the good news is that once you start down the road of rejecting those emotions that make no sense, life becomes a much larger place. It gets easier with every passing day to cling to what you know makes for a good person and to reject status-oriented assessments of yourself. When feelings of inadequacy pop into your brain, you simply escort them out, knowing that they are artifacts of our collective human history that have no place in today’s world. Pretty soon, those thoughts will be gone for good.

The plain and simple truth is that those who emphasize status above ethics are the inferior ones. Leave them to their games and get on with your life.

Interpersonal Truth – Part 1
July 1, 2004, 2:41 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Relationships

Whether we know it or not, the basis for our self-esteem is normally founded in our expectations of interpersonal acceptance. If we believe we will be accepted by those we encounter, we feel good about ourselves. If we imagine that we’ll be rejected, we feel bad. Of course, this is quite a generalization but, as you may have already concluded, generalizations are my thing. Anyhow, as simple as this sounds, there is a little more to it.

How do we decide if we’re being accepted by people? I think it all comes from past experience. Those who have been burned repeatedly by people they thought were their friends tend to be skeptical of what may appear as acceptance. This makes sense – it’s a defense mechanism. We see this in individuals who carry around insecurity, always offering caveats to their expressed ideas and always claiming to be neutral when the decision to choose a restaurant comes up. Though the individuals in their midst may truly like them, they maintain their skepticism – “I wonder what he’s really thinking” is always on their minds. Some folks get this way by spending too much time with duplicitous people. Even if they have faired well in the acceptance game, being exposed for too long to people who don’t really mean what they say has distorted their ability to trust their perceptions. It’s sad but it’s EVERYWHERE. Mistakes in perception of acceptance also happen on the other end of the spectrum.

Those who have always been accepted will almost automatically expect acceptance, even when the evidence is pretty clear that they aren’t well-liked. We all know people like this, people who act like jerks but are then astonished when they learn that most people don’t care for them. I have found that this presents itself most often in people who are quite physically attractive. My next book will deal with looks and how our minds are tuned to pay deference to the most attractive among us, even though it now makes no sense at all. For now, suffice it to say that it is ironic for some people that the characteristic they have that should make life easy for them ends up making it much harder.

So what’s the point of all this? Simple – there’s an easy solution to the interpersonal acceptance problem. Truth. For those who carry around feelings of insecurity, try this: take EVERYONE at their word. If they’re your family or close friends, tell them that this is your policy. What you get from this is immense. You get out of from under wondering what people are really thinking. If someone tells me they’re neutral and I’m not, we’re eating where I choose. Period. I can’t read minds and it’s too stressful to try. Of course, with people you don’t know, you should never put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of. I’m not saying believe everything someone tells you. I’m just saying don’t try to put other words in their mouth.

Over time, people who don’t mean what they say will get on board with your policy or separate themselves from you. It’s a self-correcting system. (If you do this and find that you still don’t have lots of friends, you’re a different kind of person – not any better or worse than any other, just different. That means you need to pack your crap and find the people out there who are different like you. No matter what, however, do NOT give in and try to fit in where you don’t. It’s not worth it. I promise.) The bottom line is that worrying about what other people are thinking is crazy. Not only does it place unneeded stress on your interpersonal situations, it causes your personality to become too heavily filtered, which is visible to anyone paying attention. Consequently, you may find that people who would normally accept you do not – because you’re not you, you’re the person you think they want you to be. Oh, what an ugly, vicious circle. Take them at their word, trust your gut, and do your thing. Believe me, it works.

And for people who expect too much in interpersonal acceptance, ask yourself these questions: do I automatically think of myself as better than someone because I am more attractive than they are? Do I give preferential treatment to people I believe are “in my league” looks-wise? This is where truth comes in. Be honest. If the answers to these questions are yes, there’s a good chance you’re a jerk and most everyone who knows you thinks so. Get over yourself and recognize that though your looks may confer some perks in daily life, the real litmus tests for value as a modern human being have nothing to do with physical attractiveness. Trust me on this.

This brings me back to the original idea of self-esteem. If you must connect it to expectations of interpersonal acceptance, there’s only one way to do it. Be concerned about being accepted by good people, people who live up to your ethics (this presumes that you’ve reasoned your way to a set of ethics – more on this later). With regard to all others, interpersonal acceptance is irrelevant. In fact, we should want things to be a harshly truthful as possible – that way we know where we stand. If I go to a hoity-toity party and some lady is going on about how the trim on her Mercedes seats was supposed to be white but it turned out to be black, I simply about face and head for the bar. That generally doesn’t go over well, so my acceptance there is probably nil. But that’s OK. I have no interest in acceptance in that kind of environment. Alternatively, if I’m with someone I deeply admire and I get the impression they are disappointed in me, I pursue it. Fortunately, the situations that don’t matter are far more frequent, so, for the most part, interpersonal acceptance is rarely a consideration. Those who think like this are drawn to one another – the discourse is BS-free. As the philosopher Dan Dennett is fond of saying, “You can externalize most anything if you make yourself small enough.” True dat.

The Ethical Caveman
June 19, 2004, 2:37 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Relationships

We don’t have to reject our humanity to make progress these days. Yes, our caveman tendencies are causing us problems. However, we can retune them to work for us, rather than against us. One way in particular is to adopt a set of fixed ethics as the core of our value system.

Our comparative analysis tendencies are genetic so we’re hard pressed to do away with them. But we can teach ourselves to compare ourselves to what we can think of as an ideal person. For example, we may decide that an ideal person is one who is kind and honest, one who is fair and open-minded, and one who is respectful of all people. When we do, we have adopted those characteristics as our ethics. Then, we simply compare ourselves to those on a day-to-day basis. It’s amazing how powerful this concept is.

Right away, we are free from the desire for social acceptability. It is a fact that being popular does not in any way indicate being ethical. We all know of despicable people who are embraced by society. When we strive to live according to our ethics, we end up internalizing very little in life. The reality of our world is that the opinions of most people don’t matter at all. They are their issue, not ours. When we rationally determine what it means to be a good person, we can hold our heads high as walk through life trying to live up to our ideals. If our contemporaries don’t share our values, so be it. Who cares?