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Appropriate Masculinity

The previous essays in this series described social confidence and how most social norms are tests, not rules.

This essay discusses an important application of transcending social norms: the importance of connecting with people by treating them with respect, comfort, devotion, and attraction.

My essays about appropriate masculinity are written primarily for my sons. So I acknowledge that being able to understand and draw up appropriate masculinity can be beneficial to both men and women, but may use male pronouns inclusively when refering to someone trying to be masculine.

Connecting link to here link to tables of contents

My sons, one important part of being an attractive and appropriately masculine person is knowing how to connect with other people. This is not difficult. But it may require unlearning some common cultural messages.

The Four Facets of Friendly link to here link to tables of contents

Everyone older than a toddler has four basic needs they try to fulfill through relationships.

Respect - they want to feel worth respecting

Comfort - they want to feel worth spoiling

Devotion - they want to feel that they inspire others and can motivate them

Attraction - they want to feel that they are charming and can sweep other people off ther feet

These four needs are totally separate from each other. They are like the four sides of a tetrahedron.


Most people do not feel whole and complete. In their life at least one of these four needs is not fully met.

Consider a person for whom one need is notably less filled. They desire a social interaction that "polishes" that side of the tetrahedron. Someone whose body language or words does this seems especially attractive and friendly.

Unfortunately, our current culture teaches boys and men to always treat people (especially girls and women) with respect. Most boys and men follow that advice. But doing that makes you average. You will only seem especially attractive and friendly to people who feel habitually unworthy of respect. Aside from a very few people with highly overlapping interests and temperment, everyone else will consider you to be a polite and helpful person but not an espcially close friend.

You should, of course, respect people who are worthy of respect. But that is very different from always treating them with respect. Do you always interact with attractive people using body language and words that convey your attraction? Of course not. That would quickly become tiresome. Do you always try to spoil the people you consider worth spoiling? Of course not. That would also grow old really fast. It is equally socially awkward and one-sided to always demonstrate respect.

At any moment during a social interaction you can only help fill one need. You can only "polish" one side at a time of someone else's tetrahedron. In fact, doing that probably makes the other three sides slightly more tarnished.

The Tetrahedron Tragedy

People need respect, comfort, devotion, and attraction. We can only provide these one at a time, and it usually diminishes at least one of the others.

If you pay attention to other people's body language you can usually learn which of the four needs they most need filled at that time. Be friendly and relate to them in that way.

Social Situations link to here link to tables of contents

Consider how the Tetrahedron Tragedy applies to several common social situations.


A smile that shows respect is relaxed and symmetrical. It is either closed-mouth or it shows teeth only slightly. Look at one of the other person's eyes. Allow your vision to focus tightly on the other person. It is not a Duchenne smile (it does not include the orbicularis oculi muscles that raise the cheeks and form crow's feet around the eyes).

A smile that provides comfort shows more of the teeth. It is also not a Duchenne smile. (Revealing more of your teeth looks needy. You are wanting or selling something—even if all you want is to provide comfort.) Eye contact may or may not be steady, but either way remains soft by keeping peripheral vision open rather than focusing tightly. (The intensity of a focused gaze reduces comfort.)

A Duchenne smile shows devotion. It may be tense or include opening the jaw slightly. Eye contact often strays from the other person's eyes because of embarassment or a desire to take in more of the other person. The eyes may also open especially wide, either momentarily (to communicate "Look at me, I am here for you") or while staring in infatuation.

A smile that acknowledges attraction is asymmetrical. Think of a playful smirk, or the smile you make when about to tickle someone. (In some romantic relationships one person is much more infatuated than the other and will always use the devoted smile instead of the attracted smile. Expect problems!) Eye contact that remains soft by keeping peripheral vision open feels playful, whereas eye contact with vision focused tightly on the other person may add a sexual tone to the gaze.

Thus the body language involved in smiling limits us to filling only one of the four needs. No combinaton of mouth shape and eye contact communicates more than one of the four facets of friendliness.

Moreover, the types of smiles conflict. People who want to feel respectable will feel disrespected with eye contact that wanders or is too soft, or by an asmmetrial smile. People who want to be spoiled will feel intimidated by the intensity of a focused gaze and troubled by what a person with a playful smirk might be expecting. People who want to feel inspiring will feel objectified or imposed upon when eye contact that is too steady. People who want to be recognized as attractive will consider a symmetrical smile as too needy, bland, or creepy, especially if the eyes are open unusually wide.

Menial Help

Menial help requires no special skill or effort. Around the home it includes washing dishes or bringing someone a cup of tea, but not replacing a broken pipe (a special skill) or mowing a large lawn (a special effort).

Be polite and prompt to show respect when doing menial help. If you are in the middle of something, interrupt that to offer the help, then resume what you were doing. This shows that the other person is a priority but you are not clingy.

Be willing to be attentive to provide comfort when doing menial help. Finish what you are doing, then not only provide the help but stay with the person. This communicates that you wanted to be ready to more truly spoil the person, not merely offer a quick fix.

Be present to demonstrate devotion when doing menial help. Because being in the same room as the other person makes any of your tasks nicer, you are nearby and ready for an opportunity to help but not idle with nothing to do. You probably offer the menial help and then return to being present, quietly busy, and ready to help again. But if the other person enjoys doing a certain menial chore and begins doing that, you might ask to do that work together.

Be invisible to acknowledge attraction when doing menial help. Ask any wife: watching her husband do dishes is comforting, but coming into the kitchen to be surprised that dishes are done is exciting (the wife is more likely use the word "magic" to mean exciting). Doing the menial chores when not watched demonstrates that you are attractive because you are thoughtful and not seeking recognition, and therefore they are attractive because they have charmed such a good catch.

My sons, take note of that last dynamic. Acting as if you are so attractive that you do not need to earn approval makes the attention you give other people cause them to feel attractive. This is huge! Being friendly in a way that fills people's need to feel attractive does not require you to flirt with women or compliment men's muscles. It is enough to be paying attention to them in ways that communicate that you are not needing anything from them but are giving them your time and attention anyway. (This dynamic also happened with the playful, asymmetrical smile in a less obvious way.)

Again the four types of menial help conflict. People who want to feel respectable will feel disrespected by clingy or invisible help. People who want to be spoiled will not receive enough of an offer of active attention from the other types of help. People who want to feel inspiring appreciate being waited upon, but only by people who are being inspired to do something while nearby and ready to help. People who want to be recognized as attractive will consider visible menial help boring: their presence should be provoking other people towards spontaneity and fun, not a decision to get chores done.

Giving a Gift

Follow social etiquette when giving a gift to show respect. This usually means the gift is practical and about the person's future plans, although there are occasions with traditional gifts that do not fit that pattern, such as a watch given to an employee at retirement. Usually the gift is either personalized (to acknowledge a hard-earned milestone or achievement) or returnable (for lifecycle events).

The classic way to provide comfort with a gift is with "comfort food". These recipes are usually easy to prepare, because the effort of preparation adds to how the recipient feels worth spoiling. Most comfort food have inexpensive ingredients to hint that the gift can be repeated as often as needed whenever the recipient needs more comfort.

Gifts that demonstrate devotion are usually ephemeral and expensive. (Roses and fancy chocolates are classic examples. Breaking a bottle of perfume over Jesus's head is another well-known example.) They convey the messages "you motivate me greatly" and "you are so inspiring I want to do something extravagant."

A gift that demonstrates attraction will ask the recipient to spend time with the gift giver. Two friends might take each other out for coffee weekly while alternating who pays: that habit communicates that spending time together is a priority for both. A husband might plan a surprise weekend vacation for his wife, or buy a gift certificate for them to go to her favorite restaurant.

My sons, one detail. Never give a woman clothing in an attempt to demonstrate attraction. A flattering dress, swimsuit, or lingerie does not actually communicate the mesage "you are so attractive that I want to spend time with you". Instead, it insults her by implying a need for improvement: "if you wear this then I will want to spend time with you." As a young man you might not understand why a woman who knows your feelings of attraction would still be besieged by an imagined insult. Just trust me that sometime during her first dozen years of life, society has damaged her ability to receive gifts that enhance her appearance.

Gifts can avoid the Tetrahedron Tragedy, when circumstances and careful planning permit. For example, consider a young couple who just got engaged and is planning on moving into a shared apartment next week, but currently own no baking stuff. Either one could buy them both a baking pan, silicon mat for the pan, spatula, and ingredients to make brownies. That gift would in a small way show respect (acknowledging the needs of the new apartment), comfort (brownies are comfort food for most people), and attraction (they will bake and eat the brownies together). If the couple was living on a tight budget, splurging on high-quality baking chocolate would also include devotion.

Asking a Question

The respectful way to ask a question is to leave the question as open-ended as possible. For example, a businessperson scheduling a meeting with a client might ask, "Which of our agenda items should we prioritize?" or "What day and time work for you?" This kind of open-ended question shows that the person asking trusts the other person's knowledge and decisions. Asking an expert for advice related to his or her expertise is common type of open-ended and respectful question.

To provide comfort, attach a preface or preference to a question. Providing a "conversational hook" to which the other person can respond makes it easier to answer the question, especially when the other person understands he or she has no obligation to agree. For example, a husband might ask his wife, "Where should we go for dinner on Friday? I am in the mood for garlic." He might say this even if had actually had no preference for garlic! Simply adding that conversational hook makes it easy for her to reply. She might say "Italian, then," or "Garlic? No, let's do barbecue." Note that a teasing conversational hook often works as well as a serious one. "Where should we go for dinner on Friday, to Paris?" or "That burp made me remember to ask whether Friday or Saturday afternoon would work better for a visit to the city's rose garden?"

Devotion is shown by asking someone a question of the form "How can I help you do what is important to you?" This might be a mother asking her infant, "Poor colicky baby, how can I help you?" It might be a Christian praying, "Here I am, Lord, lead me." It might be that rare volunteer who offers to help a charity without specifying any preference about what to do.

Questions do not demonstrate attraction. Questions imply neediness and decision-based action, not independence and sponteneity that show attraction. Demonstrate attraction by acting as if the other person makes you so carried away that you spontaneously do playful things. However, it is wise to use a teasing question as a preface, to test the other person's readiness before you act. If you ask a person, "Guess what I am thinking?" or "What am I going to do with you?" you can use their reaction to determine whether that is the right time to sweep them off their feet.

Questions clearly suffer from the Tetrahedron Tragedy. Trying to combine the four facets of friendliness usually creates a minor catastrophe. "How would you fix my computer? With a browser upgrade? And how can I help you in return? Know what would be fun? Get in the car, I'm taking us to dinner—where is a surprise." Yucky.

Agreeing to a Request

Agreeing to a request unconditionally is respectful. Say "Yes" (maybe also use their name, or in certain situations say, "Yes, sir") and go do what you agreed to do.

The comforting way to agree to a request is to append a conclusion that maintains momentum in the situation. This is another type of converational hook. As before, it works best when the recipient understands that he or she has no obligation to agree. Conclusions should be simple, action oriented, and easy to accept or refuse. "Sure, and then we'll decide what to eat." "Yes, and then let's go for a walk." "Okay, and afterwards I have a secret to tell you."

Devotion is shown by adding that you are willing to do more. "Okay. Anything else?"

Demonstrate attraction by playfully pretending to make the other person earn your acquiescence. As usual, the keys are to communicate that you are playful and they are the one needed to earn approval. The type of attraction shown can be friendly ("I'll get you more coffee, but you must do your own smiling") or flirty ("Get you more coffee? Let me see you turn around and shimmy.")

The four types of agreement conflict, with the exception that some circumstances permit showing both respect and devotion.

Greeting a Stranger

When greeting a stranger, use the type of smile that matches the greeting.

A greeting that shows respect is deferent without being subservient. (No one feels respectable because someone subservient defers to them.) Approach the other person at a normal pace. Stand so you are squared off. Shake hands with your palm sightly upward so the other person's hand naturally takes the dominant position. Share your name. Drop eye contact first.

A greeting that instills comfort is non-threatening. Approach slightly slowly. Drop eye contact while still approaching. Instead of squaring off, stand almost side-to-side so your body and that of the other person make a V. Do not touch the other person. Instead of sharing your name, begin making small talk about something you at which you are both looking. A question can be comforting if it is completely impersonal (ask "Is that a good brand of suitcase?" not "Where are you going?")

One detail: when you are introduced to a stranger by a third person, that introduction provides comfort. Then the expected behavior in most American subcultures is to use the respectful greeting.

A greeting shows devotion by its enthusiasm. Approach slightly quickly. Use an approriate two-handed handshake: show child-like devotion by holding both hands, or show adult devotion by adding to a normal handshake by using your other hand to cover their handshake, touch their arm, or pat their shoulder. Talk about the other person.

A greeting that acknowledges attraction emphasizes, as usual, being not needy, playful, and spontaneous. Approach slowly. Touch the other person as appropriate. As men, you might bump fists or jostle elbows wth other men, give a female acquaintance a friendly hug, or give a romantic partner a kiss or nose beep. Maintain eye contact the entire time. Offer a witty challenge that provides the other person an easy opportunity to qualify himself or herself, and do not drop eye contact untill they reply.

The body language involved in greetings is also limited to filling only one of the four needs. No combinaton of speed, stance, smile, eye contact, and touch communicates more than one of the four facets of friendliness. And the differences are again so pronounced that supporting one need makes the other three feel diminished because they receive the opposite of what fits them.

Saying Farewell

When saying farewell, use the type of smile that matches the farewell.

A farewell that shows respect is again deferent without being subservient, and nearly the reverse of how to greet a stranger. Use their name, square off, either shake hands or wave, be the first to drop eye contact, and depart at a normal pace.

A farewell that provides comfort hints that the recipient could expect more comfort from other people. Usually this is done with a small touch or hug followed by a polite request to have a good day or be well. The implications are "you are not too icky to touch" and "more comfort is coming your way". Together these imply that the other person is worth spoiling. You willing to do small things to make them happy, and you expect the other people they will meet will be similarly willing.

A farewell shows devotion with a chaste kiss on the cheek or back of the hand. This happens in all sorts of relationships that involve someone who is inspiring: a mother to her infant, an old-fashioned beau to his sweetheart, a subject to a monarch, and often a member of a religious tradition to a high-ranking official of that religion. When appropriate, add a promise to be with the other person again. This could be an actual scheduled appointment ("Mommy will see you when you wake up" or "I will see you at the tournament, my lord") or a more vague commitment that still expresses your desire to be together ("I will dream about you, my dear" or "We will dance again tonight").

A farewell that acknowledges attraction combines hesitancy to depart with the usual playful spontaneity. A classic way to avoid communicating the neediness of devotion is to say farewell to part of the other person. With a friend this might look steady eye contact during a slightly long silence concluded with a comment such as "I'll miss your sense of humor." With a romantic partner it might be a passionate kiss followed by playfully saying you will miss a part of their body.

The body language involved in farewells is also limited to filling only one of the four needs, and again the differences are again so pronounced that supporting one need makes the other three feel diminished because they receive the opposite of what fits them.

Using Nicknames

The best nicknames are ones you give to people as a remembrance of what about them you first found notable. Depending upon what is being remembered, the nickname can show respect, comfort, admiration or attraction.

Connection link to here link to tables of contents

My sons, realize that most people will be grateful you fill thier needs, but will not have the self-awareness to realize that what makes you stand out is your ability to help fill whichever need they currently feel most strongly. They will instead say that they feel a sense of connection with you, not realizing how self-focused is their partial understanding.

Also, you obviously will not always have the freedom to fill any of the four needs in any way you wish. Your boss at work might react poorly to a smile that shows attraction; on days when he or she clearly needs to feel more attractive that might be more effectively communicated with a greeting or menial help. The timid girl at a social dance might be overwhelmed by a greeting that shows devotion; if she visibly needs to more often seem inspiring to someone a better choice might be a farewell that shows devotion after dancing together, followed by a smile that shows devotion as you later ask her to dance again.

But I also encourage you to enjoy experimenting with this information. No need to risk your job by experimenting at the workplace. The world has plenty of other people. For example, on a day when you feel easily inspired, try spending one day greeting and saying farewell to all strangers with devotion. You can learn a lot from that kind of experiment. Does it help you be inspired by strangers? How do they react? The people you interact with seldom will mind these exeriments if you are genuine.

Leadership and the Librarian's Dilemna link to here link to tables of contents

Consider the Librarian's Dilemna.

The Librarian's Dilemna

A librarian's official job description is taking care of the library. He or she is judged on whether the library is neat and clean, books are in their places and in good condition, books and easy to find and use, etc.

But the librarian's actual work is to help people mess up the library! Patrons constantly track in dirt, leave about scraps of paper and other bits of trash, take books off the shelves, cause wear and tear damage to books, and take books home where other patrons cannot use them.

My sons, you will often be in positions of leadership. These may be minor, such as leading a group project at school. Or they may be major, such as owning a small business and feeling responsible for the livelihoods of your employees.

All leaders suffer the Librarian's Dilemna to some extent. Your job description will be to get the project done, produce the desired product, or keep the numbers right. But your actual work will be to connect with people. You will help everyone at the table or workplace feel whole and complete as you motivate, demonstrate, direct, assign, moderate discussions, and celebrate victories.

If you do not focus on connecting with people, you will fail. The people you are responsible for leading will lose morale, stop working hard, and perhaps leave. You will find yourself either trying to do all of the work yourself or constantly hiring and training new people. Neither will work. The work is too much for one person. Investing time and energy in equipping new people detracts from getting the work done.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when leading the best way to comple the work is by focusing on connecting with people instead of focusing on completing the work. People want leaders, not managers. Management is about analyzing, categorizing, evaluating, and goal-setting. Good leaders manage data. Good leaders connect with and lead people.