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Saturday, March 30, 2002

Social Vice

I've spent a great deal of time in my life trying to understand what it is that people want and get from each other. Each time I think I have finally understood, the answer seems so unbelievable that I discard it and keep looking, only to eventually come upon the same conclusion again.

But each time I reach that conclusion, I understand it more deeply than the last. So perhaps some day it will stick. I don't think today is that day, however, for what I am about to say only rings true to my most cynical self.

The reason I need to ask this question in the first place is because the vast majority the social universe has been completely opaque and unaccessible to me since birth. As a young child, I struggled with the mystery of: what do all these other kids have which I don't that makes them like each other and not me? The very same question plagues me to this day, only the kids have grown up and the most obvious answers seem even less conceivable.

As a child, the root cause was probably quite simple: I was always the new kid on the block, sometimes moving many times in a single year. Only once, from third to fourth grade, did I attend the same school two years in a row.

This didn't inherently seem a problem, since I myself was totally benevolent and accepting and couldn't imagine how or why anyone else could be otherwise. If you wanted to be my friend, all you had to do was be my friend--be fair and honest with me, and wish me no harm. Beyond that basic issue of trust, I had no litmus test nor initiation rite that anyone had to pass, nor could I imagine the need for one. Being new in town, or dressing wrong, or whatever protocol I violated--none of these sorts of things were even on my radar for what made someone a friend vs. an enemy. And yet, at any given time most to all of my peers clearly wished me harm, while at the same time they all seemed to be friends to each other. It was deeply perplexing. What had I done to become their enemy? What was wrong with me? What did they all understand that I did not?

If you'd told me the truth, I would have thought it too stupid to be believed.

Depending on the year, there was sometimes another social reject or two to befriend. They inevitably had the same standards as me--they were fair and kind, and required nothing more in return. In my one year of junior high, it was a fellow named Core, but he was only around for a few months before his military family moved onward. In fourth grade, it was a boy named Eric, who moved away after he was gang raped by the other boys in our apartment complex. There were a few others, but the rest of the time there were none at all--none who were not part of one exclusive clique or another.

As the years passed, the clique boundaries faded slowly from sight, becoming increasingly more abstract and intangible. And yet still to this day they remain as a subconscious social undercurrent, slamming doors in my face when I fail to fake the right signals. But perhaps even more relevant is the imprint left behind on the very nature of social interaction--an imprint that looks very different in my mind than in most people's. And herein lies the truth I have such difficulty swallowing:

Being an outsider in any crowd, the only connection I seem to find with most people is intellectual--consciously discussable ideas, concepts, knowledge, inspirations, creations. Tangible, substantial things which will actually make a difference in people's lives. Things which pique people's curiosity and self-interest enough to break through the social barriers they don't know they have.

The trouble, the thing I'm coming to realize, is that only a small subset of the population is substantially motivated by such interests. They are the N's in the Jungian metric, and they are only about a quarter of the population. Further, probably only the IN's have this as their primary mode of human interaction, and they are but one in ten.

So what about the other nine?

That is, if I strip away useful insights, meta-level social commentary, deep philosophical questions, technical inspirations, and other such weighty subjects centered in the domain of ideas and ideals, then what, exactly, is left?

For me what is left is silence, which while I find it an equally enjoyable way to share someone's company, most people find equally disconcerting. For them, for most people, their default mode of interaction falls into some middle ground between the substantial and the silently implied. And it is this seemingly empty abyss which I am now endeavoring to explore.

And so I have watched and listened carefully to one conversation after another, taking note not just of what people say, but what they walk away with. And from all this, I can only draw one conclusion, which I loath to believe but the evidence keeps supporting it: Most people, most of the time, effectively talk about nothing--because conversation for them is not about what it said, but about how it makes them feel. And how it makes them feel dates back to those childhood clans; how it makes them feel is, quite simply, that they are accepted.

And this is why I continue to be a leper--because I live in the interstice between clans where acceptance and rejection are meaningless concepts, where not only is there no need to talk about nothing, but it is ok to talk about something. And when I talk about something, or ask something, anything substantial, I can see the warning lights going on in their heads, because in this SJ-dominated world, you are required to agree with your clan, and the easiest way to do that is to simply avoid any possible areas of contention, ever.

But again I am left to wonder what is left to fill that void. If I avoid all topics of substance, as I must reluctantly admit is truly the norm, what is left?

I am reminded of Daryl Zero in The Zero Effect commenting on how to fit in anywhere: simply observe what everyone else is doing, and do the same thing.

I have tried to tabulate it, since it doesn't come intuitively to me, tried to catalog and recall the standard conversational protocol, but alas my mind refuses to hold on to even one bit of it. My ubiquitous experience with this borders on comical, since no matter how hard I try, I cannot find enough substance in their banter to make it stick in my memory. It's the same experience I have when reading an uninteresting book, where my eyes follow the page but my mind won't adhere to it. I end up reading it over and over and just can't make myself care enough to absorb it. And so it is with most conversations, finding the words so arbitrarily chosen from amongst obvious truths, obvious fallacies, and irrelevant trivia that the information content is actually negative when you consider the resources required just to attend to it.

But, with considerable effort I have been able to blend in with content-free conversation in the past, at least for a short time until I am discovered to be an interstitial being.

But that's not good enough. I have reluctantly understood that what most people get from a conversation is not knowledge or information but simply feeling. And I see that nearly all matters of substance generate bad feelings. But this leaves me with inert conversation as the only tool at my disposal, which is hardly an enviable position. In order to be attractive, according to this new cynical model of the world, I simply need to make people feel good.

For this observational study I chose a rather unlikely but appropriate subject: Garrett*. Garrett*, like me, is an INTP. But unlike me, on the rare occasions he drags his butt out into public everybody likes him; and he always gets the girls. That latter point, of course, is of particular interest, and it conjures up that old perplexing question of what connection they find with him but not with me. But unlike the past, here is an example of someone very much like me (compared to the average person) in so many ways... So there are far fewer differences to consider.

The first realization, in the vein of all the foregoing, is that I've been unable thus far to decipher the nature of his intellectual connection with most people quite simply because there isn't one. This is not to say those people are stupid--it has nothing to do with that. It's just that what they intuitively expect from a social connection does not include, or at least does not require, anything whatsoever intellectually substantial. This is really a revelation for me--something I may never truly accept intuitively. I can't imagine, for instance, how someone could be interested in me if they didn't know me, intellectually. This despite having some very notable examples to the contrary (the case of Alicia, for one, which I will describe below). It is an error in my intuition, one which leads to a great deal of social inconfidence and hence incompetence, that I deeply believe that without my intellectual attributes there is no reason someone should value me. I consider some of my best virtues to be my objectivity, intelligence, kindness, fairness, honesty, diligence, caring, and so on. (Not coincidentally, these are the same things that make me a trustworthy companion in the interstitial world--a world where real things, not arbitrary social dictate, are all that matter.) And hence, intuitively, I may forever be flabbergasted to witness the love and affection afforded those who sometimes lack all of these qualities. Nevertheless, I do understand it--I understand that human psychology is so much more Pavlovian than anyone cares to admit.

The second realization is rather more concrete and applicable: Garrett* views all conversation first and foremost as a game of puns and witticisms. All the time. I have been annoyed with him in the past for providing humorous answers where useful ones were needed, but I hadn't realized until recently how ubiquitous this practice is with him, nor how relevant it is to his social success. I have since watched him pass an entire evening amidst a fairly unfamiliar social crowd without saying one thing of substance, and I can extrapolate from their looks and prior experience that they all liked him, especially the girls.

Now, you would think this would all be obvious to me, but it wasn't until now. I appreciate humor as much as anyone, but I appreciate a lot of other things too and an evening full of nothing but humorous banter, while viscerally enjoyable at the time, leaves me feeling rather anxious that I ended the evening no further along than I began it. For me humor is best when it is pulled in naturally along the way--along the way to somewhere new and interesting, not just along the way to my eventual death right here where I started.

But there I go again with substance.

Putting the formula together, it's rather simple: Accept that most people are simply looking to be entertained, the once unavoidable struggles of existence and prosperity long left behind to the paleolithic days, ambition and curiosity atrophied along with the appendix. Humor is your best weapon, a lever on their pleasure center and their guard--meant to relax long held assumptions now in question, laughter calling this out to others, combined with the joy of discovery once the old path is cleared. And us clever humans, we've figured out how to trigger it on demand, with the joke, the witty remark, or for those less evolved, the pun. Such a tool at our disposal, like a drug we can deliver with a word, in public no less, and without the consent of the recipient. Pavlov's dog is before you, and though you can't appeal to her intellect, you can still ring her bell.

And before you get all personally offended, remember that I'm talking about the social expectations of the world at large, who's rules are written for the lowest common denominator (or the majority, which for our species may be the same thing). Even those who do have ambition, and who do enjoy matters of intellectual substance, still most of them know intuitively that the hive-mind does not partake in these things outside of the workplace. Perhaps some day my intuition will come to grips with that as well.

As pertains to women in particular, I am reminded of a quote from James Watson's autobiography, Genes, Girls, and Gamow, where he mentions the important realization that "parties are for the entertainment, not the enlightenment, of the fairer sex."

The remaining question is: why do I want to get along in this environment I seem to so detest?

Most generally, it remains a thorn in my side that I cannot do it, since inevitably I am forced to try now and again. More relevantly, most of the women who I have found attractive throughout my life in both looks and personality have fallen into this category (which is to say, I have no connection with them intellectually, and hence they have been completely unaccessible to me) and while I have brushed this off with some success in the past as merely failing at a game I don't wish to win, the truth is more that while it is not my ideal, I still wonder if it wouldn't make me happy.

Having found no semblance of intellectual connection with anyone on this island, I found myself back in this game I haven't played in a very long time, trying to woo a girl, Jane, who I found attractive in looks and personality but not in intellect. As I hadn't warmed up to this game again after my long interlude, nor reminded myself of its rules with this recent analysis, I eventually let slip a number of mistakes which caused me to stumble, trip, and eventually spiral downward in self-defeat. There are a number of ways in which circumstance conspired against me, though, and I do wonder if things wouldn't have worked differently otherwise. But I hate that such transient matters as context and timing could make such a difference. On an intellectual level, I have no attraction to someone for whom that is true--my true companions are more meta than that. And I hate that I find her attractive anyway. Perhaps I'm not so meta myself. Humans suck.

On the "bright" side, it feels more a frustration than a genuine loss. She ranked high on short-term attractive, but fairly low, or at best unknown, on long-term desirable. Call me what you will, most relationships are built upon no more. Still, I wish for more; and it's funny the pain I cause myself when I try for less. I'm sure many would say I simply have less and more reversed and I'm just unworthy. Seems I'll never escape my childhood.

As a closing thought, I am reminded of Alicia, who seems to fit here as Exhibit A, oddly both in support of my cynical theories of the annoyingly mechanistic and irrational nature of the female emotional psychology, and in support of the possibility that still there is some happiness to be found, even for me, in such a relationship:

I met Alicia outside a sushi bar in Palo Alto some years ago. I was actually out to dinner with another woman I was marginally interested in but who obviously wasn't interested in me. Alicia was sitting outside waiting for someone when we entered the restaurant, and she was still there waiting when we left. Since things with Kathy were clearly and firmly on the "just friends" track, I gave her a curious look and hinted toward Alicia's direction. Kathy said "she was pretty cute -- you should go talk to her". So I did, enough to learn she'd been stood up by a friend, and I offered her to join us for dinner at the Good Earth nearby where Kathy and I could get desert. And for the next two hours I sat silently and smiled in anguish listening to the most politically and philosophically offensive dialog I've ever been unable to walk away from. Alicia and Kathy hit it off great. And, by association, she walked away that evening with indelibly positive feelings toward me. I had been carried into her clan by a vector.

I never did talk to her again--I couldn't imagine we'd ever get along--until a few months later when I lost my room in the big house in Palo Alto where I'd originally met Kathy. I tried staying a night in a cheap hotel (I was only in town two weeks each month) but after one night I knew I'd be miserable there so I called everyone I knew, including Alicia. By chance, her roommate was leaving town for just the two weeks I was there, and wanted to sublet her room. I slept in that room for two nights, and in Alicia's for the next two years or so. How twisted and random is that?

The example is noteworthy to me because here circumstances conspired in my favor and made something work that I would have botched in five minutes left to my own! It worked because I gave up any hope of an intellectual connection with her, without ruffling her feathers in the process. The lesson I should take from it: begin with no expectation of an intellectual connection. It worked because Kathy kept her entertained in my presence, thus forming a positive association with me. The lesson: dopamine is my friend; just make people happy, don't even try "getting to know each other". It worked because circumstance brought us together again, long after I'd written it off completely. The lesson: people are looking for much, much less than I think they are. And it worked for two years because, despite my initial gross misconceptions about her requirements, once having stumbled accidentally through the door I can never open, I had no trouble making the best of what was there. I simply avoided any weighty topics with her. And mind you, she was brilliant in her own right--read three pages a minute, worked as a translator for some five languages, and was a concert cellist. She was the last sort of person I would think I could have a non-intellectual relationship with.

And if but for bizarre circumstances beyond my control, she was the last sort of person I could have had any relationship with at all.

And still to this very moment that deeply irks me. I don't think I'm any better at it now. I still can't believe it's as simple as it seems to be, and so I will probably persist in complicating it enough to fail. Perhaps if I took up drinking. A lot. All the time.

I am reminded of Joe vs. the Volcano: "I know he can get the job, but can he do the job???" For me it's the other way around. I know I can do the job, but can I get the job? So many places in life this is my lot. Hell, I couldn't even get hired as a grocery clerk.

Perhaps the lesson is the same in both cases: I shouldn't be applying for jobs I'm over-qualified for. :)

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com