The previous essay in this series described social confidence. This essay discusses how someone with social confidence can transcend social norms.
The next essay will discuss 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.
Art is about play and about transcendent meanings, not reducible to politics.
- Rachel Kushner
Psst. I will share a secret with you.
Most social norms exist to divide people into two categories.
Most social norms are tests, not rules.
People who pass the test are "more attractive". People who fail are pushed into the "less attractive" category so that the "more attractive" people can ignore them.
People who are "more attrative" are allowed to approach each other and treat each other with respect, comfort, attraction, or devotion. People who are "less attractive" may only treat the "more attractive" people with respect—when they are allowed to approach them at all.
Most social norms exist so confident people can surpass them.
Treat younger men as brothers...and younger women as sisters...
- from First Timothy 5:1-2
My sons, consider how a stereotypical older brother treats his younger sister. He is honest about how she makes him feel, both overall and moment to moment. He does not want anything from her. He does not even want her attention.
So he does pay attention to her, but only for a moment before walking away. This communicates, "I am busy with my own life, but I am here if you need me." A lot of these brief displays of attention and affection are sportive teases. He might tousle her hair as he walks by. He might pick her up and toss her over his shoulder, then pretend to look for her while she hollers "I'm right here!" When she is young this teasing makes her laugh. When she gets older she still loves it, but now she pretends it annoys her.
When she is bored she can go see what he is doing. It might not be something that interests her, but just being with him is relaxing. His presence makes her feel safe and more like herself—around him she does not need to try to be anything. He does not care if she is disheveled and lazy and procrastinating from her homework or chores. Yet he always has a small compliment when she makes herself pretty, or acts feminine, or earns some academic or athletic victory. He knows the value of working hard and being respectable, and he wants those for her.
(For the sake of pronoun clarity this example used a younger sister. But a younger brother would have worked equally well.)
My sons, to pass the tests that masquerade as social rules you must act like that older brother.
You transcend those social norms by showing four criteria.
To illustrate more precisely, let's examine what I think is the most quintessential "big brother" behavior. This egregious act demonstrates breaking six social norms in a way that is not only excused but appears more attractive than following the norms.
The Quintessential Big Brother
Imagine a boy at a coffee shop who wants to tease a girl he does not know who seems nice. He sneaks up behind her, zerberts the back of her neck, and then walks away without looking back. His purposeful walk clearly communicates that he has no intention of interacting with her anytime soon. She sees he is well groomed, and sits with his friends who chat and laugh.
In that example, the boy was genuine. He really thought teasing the girl was a compliment that she deserved.
The boy was wantless. He did not care if she reacted, or how. He was not trying to get anything from her.
The boy was playful. He treated her like a very young sibling. He wanted to say "Thanks for being you" and picked an absurd yet clear way to say it.
The boy was wholesome. He looked respectable and apparently has nice friends.
Because of these four qualities, the boy was able to ignore the social norms that say "do not invade a stranger's personal space", "do not touch someone without their clear permission", and "do not put your lips on strangers".
The boy would have failed if he was missing any of the four criteria. If, instead of being genuine, he was acting because one of his friends had dared him to do that, the girl would have been able to tell and would have felt used instead of complimented. If, instead of being wantless and walking out of her life, he had looked back and smiled and waved (or, worse, stood there looking at her), the girl would be alarmed because he was some kind of rude and needy stalker. If, instead of being playful, he had tried to introduce himself and then compliment her verbally, the girl would be annoyed because she was interrupted by a boy who does not "get it" about interacting with girls. If, instead of seeming wholesome, he dressed and smelled like a homeless person and sat down by himself, the girl would be creeped out that an unattractive loser had touched her.
So the boy also had to ignore the expected social norms of "smile big to show you are friendly", "say or wave good-bye when departing", and "when meeting a stranger start by introducing yourself".
That boy probably would pick a different playful act to compliment a stranger who was another boy. If he is old enough to be at a coffee shop with friends, then he is old enough that giving a zerbert to another boy would seem wierd (not wholesome) instead of playful. An equivalent quick compliment might be to get a boy's attention with a playful fist bump to the arm before saying "nice shirt" and walking away.
My sons, I should not need to say that the recepient's opinion matters for what counts as playful and wholesome. Some people are so serious that they have trouble enjoying lightheartedness. And many mothers have disagreed with her teenage daughters about whether scruffy, jobless guitarists are indeed acceptably wholesome young men.
If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face, then it is not really an education at all—it is an indoctination designed to reproduce oppression.
- Jesse Hagopian
The worst social norms hide a threefold demand for unattractiveness. They say, "Put on a polite mask. Do not be genuine! Act needy! Do not be wantless. Be serious! Do not be playful."
(At least these social norms cannot require someone to be unwholesome. They are norms, after all. They cannot be quite that evil.)
You should normally ignore these social norms. The exception is when you are in a situation that requires everyone to treat each other only with respect, such as a formal business meeting, and award ceremony, or activities at a military base.
Being genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome is an art. Like any real art, mastery requires patience and practice. Like any real art, it highlights certain truths to make life more bright and fun. Shine, and teach others to shine.
Maintaining eye contact is not staring as long as it remains soft by keeping peripheral vision open rather than focusing tightly.
Dropping eye contact first says that you do not want to cause any emotional reaction. By disengaging, you are proclaiming that you want to be passive and inconsequential. What a terrible type of want to communicate!
There are no playful facial expressions you can use without eye contact. By dropping eye contact your forfeit the ability to be playful with body language.
When you drop eye contact you are not genuine. People's faces are interesting to look at.
Many women smile just after you ignore this social norm. If maintaining eye contact is a new habit for you, then you will imagine the eye contact is getting awkward just a second before her face brightens and she smiles. This is perhaps the easiest social norm for seeing yourself pass the test!
In casual conversations, someone who has invested the time and effort required to establish habits of being genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome can relax and say the thoughts that pop into his or her head.
Sure, it is important to consider your next words carefully when in a job interview or trying to calm an overly emotional person. But most of the time spontaneity works.
Carefully choosing your words is not genuine. Doing so usually means you want something—at least the other person's approval. It is less playful than being spontaneous. And it may even seem less wholesome, because you are hiding something.
The respectful way to greet a stranger is to square off, shake hands, and share your name. However, this is never the natural thing to do. Unless you are in one of those rare situations where only formality is acceptable, you can communicate respect better by interacting in a unique and personalized way with an improvised greeting that is genuine, wantless, and playful.
Trust your instinct. (Even if your instinct is wrong, using it improves it!) If someone looks unusually happy or sad, the genuine thing to do when greeting them is to comment on that. If someone is wearing a distinct focal item, such as a necklace or tee shirt slogan or hairstyle, do what is genuine and comment on that. If someone reminds you of someone else, the genuine thing to do is say so.
Add a phrase to keep your greeting playful. Curiosity works just as well as teasing. Instead of a plain "You look sad" add something like "...and it is not even eleven o'clock yet." Instead of a plain "Nice necklace" ask where it is from, or what it is made from, or who gave it to them. Instead of a directionless, "You look like my friend so-and-so" add something odd about that friend, such as "...do you also eat pancakes for dinner?"
With greetings the simplest way to be wantless is to either share a time limit or keep walking. "You look sad. Need a hug? Or something else I can do in [you check the time] 48 seconds?" Or as you walk by someone, "That's a happy face. You also have someone new make you breakfast? Next time tell me more."
It is more relaxing to react, respond, and reply than create the energy and momentum in a situation. Take the more difficult role so the other people can take the easier role. Lead so they can react. Even rejecting a genuine and playful request is more relaxing and fun than creating something new.
A wise husband adds his own preference when asking his wife where she wants to go for dinner. It is easier for her to reply to "Where do you want to go for dinner? The Indian buffet?" than the shorter "Where do you want to go for dinner?" Similarly, a wise male admirer suggests to the girl whom he wants to see again that they meet at a certain time and place. It is easier for her to reply to that than an open-ended question.
So do not be afraid to give orders. You can make suggestions, physicaly rearrange how people are standing, and initiate making plans about the future.
Of course, you still need to be genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. There must be some genuine reason that rearranging people helps the conversation. You must make clear with your body language and tone of voice that you have no emotional investment in your suggestions, so others feel free to keep the flow of conversation going by rejecting them. You must offer fun and respectable ideas.
People like bossy leaders who are genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. This is the first way social norms test your lead.
A smile that shows teeth looks needy. This is the smile used by salespeople, politicians on the campaign trail, and moonstruck unrequited lovers.
It is not playful. Whether it is faked or honest, it shouts "I want your approval, and probably something else from you." Nothing playful there.
It is not even genuine. Even if you honestly want something, you are not actually that needy. The job interviewer, the coach for the team you want to be on, and the cute girl all know that your life will continue fine without them. There are plenty of other jobs, teams, and girls.
Instead, use the smile called a "playful smirk" or "amused wry smile". If you do not know what this is, try the smile you make when about to tickle someone but keep your lips closed. Your smile will be asymmetrical. One side of your face will have the corner of the mouth raised and the skin beside the eye crinkle.
This is not the most welcoming smile. Try searching for photographs of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to study his habitual small smile: an exemplary smile that communicates "I am happy and you would enjoy starting a conversation with me". But that smile is not offering to lead—to put out the energy and momentum that will start the conversation so that the other person can relax into reacting, responding, and replying. A welcoming smiles says "I am a good friend to other people", but it takes a playful smile to say "I am about to become your good friend."
The second way social norms test your lead is by telling you to let the other person claim control by setting terms. (Usually these terms make them appear more wantless than you). Instead, react to their terms by setting your own even more restrictive terms. Pass the test by being the most genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome.
One example of this behavior was used earlier: announcing that you have a time limit. "Hey, how is it going?" "Sorry, I am on my way to a meeting." "No problem, I only have a minute. I just wanted to compliment your necklace. Is it a souvenir? You must have been to places more interesting than meetings."
Strangers often resist offers of help, and try to set terms to protect their pride. "You look sad. Anything I can do in eighty seconds?" "Who are you? I'm okay." "You're a terrible liar. And I'm really no good at helping strangers. I just thought, well, I might as well try."
Young women often try to take advantage of a sanctioned prejudice that expects young men to always seek physical affection. You can be more wantless, playful and wholesome by accusing her instead. "Hi!" "Do you always talk to girls on the street?" "Huh? I just like how you did your hair. Does a guy saying hi always make you think about sex?"
In other words, both lead and withdraw. Provide the conversation's momentum, but also set its limits. Push by adding energy, and pull by adding requirements. Be more genuine (call out their polite lies), more wantless (prod them to defend their implied assumptions and desires), more playful (brief yet intriguing), and more wholesome (reflect their concerns back upon them).
As with greetings, to be wantless you must be quick. A brief and spontaneous touch usually treats people more as a real person than boring formality does. Keep it playful with your facial expression and the words you say.
Pay attention to what happens after you touch a stranger or a friend-of-a-friend. Almost every time they become more talkative and open, whether or not they appreciated your touch. People are grateful when you are brave enough to communicate "You are not too icky to touch".
So touch people briefly if that is the genuine and playful thing to do. Trust your instinct. Give people who need it a pat or a hug. Bump their shoulder or elbow with yours to show solidarity. Use high fives and fist bumps. Flirt when it is the right thing to do.
Boring! There is always something more genuine and playful. Improvise. Also, a wave asks them to wave back, which is not wantless. Treating the person as an indivdual you know rather than a generic passerby is also more personal and wholesome.
So save your waving for when you are in too much of a hurry for a real interaction with someone, or when you see an acquaintances you do not know well on the other side of the street.
This has the same problems as the previous social norm.
Boring! If someone asks you, "I am going to the store. Need anything?" when you do not actually need their help, then the correct reply is, "Surprise me."
If you do need their help, be practical. Community is when people feel gratitude for having helped each other in the past. That is more important that passing one social norm test. Be helped. Be grateful. Offer help next time. You will have plenty of other opportunities to be wantless.
Be brief, on topic, and physical when you interrupt. Touch the shoulder or arm of the person to whom you wish to speak as you say "Excuse me", say something quick, get a response, and then move on. This communicates that you are only interrupting because there is no other option. You are not wanting to interrupt, but are forced to do so. You respect the people you interrupt by being polite, efficient and caring.
"Excuse me," you say as you touch Frank's arm. "Frank, I have a question about next week's plans. Call me today before dinner?" Frank agrees. "Thanks," you say, and then walk away.
Most interruptions do not need quality farewells. You usually interrupt to establish or affirm a connection, not to move socially apart.
Usually this social norm is sound.
There is one exception. Sometimes you can see it in action at a dojo, gym, or team practice. Someone who has worked hard to become capable and experienced can use playfulness to tease someone beneath him as encouragement. The real message is "You remind me of my past self. I know you can rise to my level. I know there are no shortcuts. So I will give you the respect you earn, but no more. I will not have patience with your procrastinations or demands. Catch up to me." But the words are usually closer to, "Pretty good for a newbie. I remember how happy it made my grandmother when she could finally press that much."
Some people are unable to receive that type of playful taunting as encouragement. Be cautious.
The previous essay talked about this more, in a subsection entitled "Enforce Your Personal Boundaries".
The next essay will talk about this more, in a subsection entitled "Agreeing to a Request".
My sons, remember when I defined community as people feeling gratitude for having helped each other? Being too considerate will rob people of the chance to ask you for something and feel grateful when you comply. If you are so accommodating that people need not say "excuse me" to squeeze by you, then people will perceive you as a doormat instead of a polite gentleman. A guideline for being acting hospitable but not obsequious is to think twice before doing a favor that you would not do for a close friend of your own gender. Offer your guests tea, but if you are both sitting let them get their own refills.
Of course, not all social norms are tests. Chew with your mouth closed. Use "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me". Call you mother at least weekly.
Knowing the truth about social norms does not mean you must always use those four criteria to be attractive.
Merely calling out when this truth applies is often enough. Being able to verbalize that you are aware of how attractiveness works can also make you attractive. People will know you "get it" even if you are not currently in the mood to entertain them.
Just make sure you can use this truth when you need to. There will be moments of crisis and courage, when circumstances attempt to steer your life in a bad direction. Knowing how to transcend social norms to be attractive is a form of self-defense against bad circumstances that can allow you to keep control of your future.
The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with beauty and truth.
- John Keats
Of those four qualities—genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome—one deserves further explanation. What makes a social interaction playful?
Consider two examples.
Two Playful Social Interactions
As I am walking to my car from my office, I pass a co-worker who says, "Look at the beautiful sunset!" The sunset is indeed goregous. I reply, "You did a pretty good job, but maybe next time put a bit more orange in it."
At the library I see a boy who looks bored and tired who is holding a library book while his parent and young sibling look for more books. I whisper to him, "I recognize that book cover! It looks like a normal story. But inside it is really lessons about being a ninja. Very sneaky!"
First, a playful start to a social interaction is about the other person. I pretended my co-worker was responsible for creating the sunset. Had I merely agreed, "Gorgeous sunset!" that would have been friendly but not playful.
Second, a playful social interaction is unexpected. When talking with the boy, had I merely been myself and made small talk it would have been friendly but not playful. Imagining we shared secret knowledge of a ninja manual was unexpected.
Third, a playful social interaction shares new, positive possibilities. Fictional possibilities are okay. It is playful to imagine that people could make sunsets or a secret ninja manuals hide in the library. Had I quoted a Shakesepeare verse about a sunset, that would have contributed to my co-worker's conversation but not been playful. Had I asked the boy if I could read him his book, and done using funny voices for the characters, that would have been silly but not truly playful. (Of course, negative possibilities are usually insulting and not playful.)
Fourth, a playful social interaction starts with medium energy and pace. Neither situation would have been playful if I had seemed tired and bored. Nor would either be playful if I was overly intense. Once a social situation is already playful, a speaker can challenge a listener to match his or her high level of energy or effort. But that challenge is usually too competitive for framing a new interaction as playful.
Why is recognizing that most social norms are tests a part of appropriate masculinity? Boys and men are always required to take these tests to join the world of "attractive people". But beautiful girls and young women are often welcomed into that world just because of their appearance.
A lot of men never learn that most social norms are tests, and how to pass these tests. That is a rough truth about growing up male. Understanding how social norms are tests is a part of appropriate masculinity because men never get a "free pass" into the world of "attractive people".
Most beautiful women with a free pass usually crash when they reach their late twenties or early thirties. Their beauty fades. They are then required to take these tests, and they fail. They also never learned about the tests. They never invested the time and effort required to establish habits of being genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. Such a woman laments, "My old friends are so shallow! Women only wanted to be with me because having a pretty friend made them look good. Men only wanted to be with me because they wanted my body!" But life is not unfair because her beauty has faded. It is more fair. She is merely asked to take the same tests as everyone else. If, in her early years, she had become genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome then her old friends would have wanted to be with her for more than her beauty—and would want to be with her still.
My sons, realize that most examples of distinctly feminine vocabulary are designed to avoid embarassment or blame. One example is how women use the word "creepy".
A woman runs several risks if she labels a peron as "unattractive". In part this is because many women, despite what they profess, will behave as if they all shared a common ranking for their mutual acquaintances.
A woman who called someone "unattractive" would be revealing information about her own standards on that common ranking, which might open her up to either ridicule or a need to defend herself to others or personal introspection. She might accidentally insult a friend whose standards are not as high. (The friend would feel bad because she does find that person attractive, which means her standards are lower, which means her status is lower). She might be asked for details about what is unattractive and need to explain herself, which could be embarassing, especially if it was the unattractive person asking—the follow-up question asking for suggestions about how improve attractiveness would reveal that she did not even care enough to want to provide that help.
Using the word "creepy" avoids those risks. It sounds like a feeling, for which explanation or justification is inappropriate.
Using "creepy" also allows the truth about breaking social norms to remain secret. If a woman actually said, "That person is unattractive because his eye contact is neither playful nor genuine" then she would reveal that attractive people do not use the deferential and overly respectful eye contact we are taught as a social norm. (Remember that a young women often do not themselves know what they finds attractive, because they have never needed to realize that the social norm is actually a test.)
Similarly, calling someone "attractive" can risk embrassment or blame. Instead, saying that someone "just gets it" is a vague phrase for which explanation or justification is unnecessary. Explaining what the attractive person "gets" (that social norms are tests, not rules) can be easily avoided.
Notice, my sons, that actions are never themselves "creepy". A very attractive person can interact boldly and without fear of reprisal using actions that would cause bring a lawsuit upon an unattractive person. Very attractive people might be accurately labelled as rude, pushy, or misogynistic, but will never be called "creepy".
It would be remiss of me to end this essay without saying more about acting like an older brother to people younger than you.
Most younger people will enjoy it when you use humor and wit to plafully tease them as if they were literally your younger siblings.
Communicate an assuring and confident presence that is unobtrusive but at their disposal. Tease, not flirt.
Not only do people enjoy this kind of teasing, but it allows you to test who is willing to act as your younger sibling. This is important, especially in the workplace.
Anticipate that your younger friends and coworkers who lack your confidence (and therefore feel indecision and fear more often and intensely than you do) will feel betrayed if you do not act as their rock and shelter during crises. They never warned you that they would expect that help. You never agreed to provide it. Moreover, when a crisis arrives, they may demand this help while acting unwilling to follow your lead! Yet still your failing to meet their unreasonable and idealized expectations may prompt them (especially women) to react spitefully.
So protect yourself by only acting as the older sibling to people who are willing to act as the younger sibling. Those who lack your confidence yet become upset when you treat them as a younger sibling should be avoided. They will eventually be socially awkward for you, or dangerous to you in the workplace.
There is no need to hide this social contract. When people ask you to explain why you treat younger people as younger siblings, cite First Timothy 5:1-2 and share some specific examples you have seen about how the people you playfully and appropriately tease cooperate with better teamwork and do better in crises under your wing.
My sons, currently you are six and three. Sometimes you are genuinely confused if you are acting like a bully towards your brother.
The simplified version of this essay for children uses these lists:
|safe||worry or hurt|
|hi and bye||clingy|
|look at you||look at me|
You can be friendly if you pat your brother on the head as you walk by. You would be acting like a bully if you pulled his hair (hurt), grabbed it even without pulling (clingy), also told him "My hair is nicer than yours" (look at me), or added "I want that toy" (want).
You can be friendly if you give you brother a quick hug. You would be acting like a bully if you wobbled and made him think you were falling over (worry), did not let go of the hug (clingy), said "Feel how strong I am" (look at me), or demanded "Come with me" (want).
Notice how asking permission to touch a friend is usually not required. But asking first is often helps by making your touch cause less worry or feel less wanting. Similarly, using please with requests helps because it focuses on the other person (look at you) while implying that you will not fuss if your request is refused (no want).