How to assert a right you don´t have: Making people like you

Finally something other than psychotherapy, but it will still be a rant. Oh noes, I guess that will deter even the brave readers who made it through the posts about Dr. Stoneface. At least according to the “social skills manual” I want to rant about.

I would post the exact source, but the girl who wrote it is a blogger who I believe isn´t an arrogant jerk, but genuinely wants to help socially awkward people, so it doesn´t seem nice to shoot down her article with all my sarcastic remarks; and besides, her advice as well as the tone in which she delivers it are fairly interchangeable, so you´ll basically find similar stuff anywhere.

Now, what she said was basically the following:

1) Social skills are not a talent, but, well, a skill. You can learn them. Anyone can learn them.

2) Telling people sob stories about how shy you are or about how difficult your life was (being bullied and stuff) might make them pity you, but it won´t make them like you.

3) Be [this], but don´t be [that]. Practical advice, such as “be polite”, “don´t be negative”, “be average”, “don´t talk about your favorite subject all the time”, “don´t talk about controversial subjects such as politics”.

Part of this had me cry in frustration, part of it made me feel – destroyed. I might be the only person on earth who feels like that, and maybe it is just because I am such a negative, rude, sarcastic person who hates small-talk, constantly waffles about Jack the Ripper and genuinely wonders why she wasn´t elected prom queen. Well, I will dissect this step by step (so much for JTR, at least I won´t send the article´s uterus to the police, and I bet dadaistic humor is a taboo as well, even at 2:30 a.m.).

Good, alright. I don´t even disagree with her first point so much. I guess you can learn a certain amount of agreeable behavior. There are some things she says which I don´t agree with, though. First of, she writes this article as someone “who once was socially awkward as well”. To be honest, I cannot stand it when people who have gotten oh so far in terms of overcoming their weaknesses graciously give advice to those who are still stuck within their social awkwardness. Not only does such advice tend to come across as very preachy and very condescending (probably against the author´s intentions), it also has a tendency to be particularly offensive and hurtful. Why?

People who have overcome a weakness you are still struggling with know that weakness by heart. They know everything that you are thinking, every “dysfunctional” thought, and they also know everything you tell yourself in order to minimize your feelings of shame and inadequacy. And they will target precisely those thoughts and strategies. “You might be thinking that xyz, but in fact…” Seeing all your thoughts spelled out and dismissed doubles and triples your feelings of shame and inadequacy, I can promise you that much.  Especially if they don´t even give you reasons. Reasons that go beyond “I used to think so, too, but now I have moved on to some kind of superior wisdom and I´m more successful and much happier than you!” I guess this lack of proper argumentation is also what makes such advice-giving look so condescending. “I have thought about it for a long time and I think my belief that everybody else was just stupid was wrong because…” sounds a whole lot less condescending and offensive than “I know you think that everybody else is just stupid and this is why they don´t like you, but really, that´s bullshit! It was only after seeing that I was the problem that I managed to make friends – but so can you!” (No, this is not what that specific girl said, but you get my drift, I hope?”) The latter sentence sounds a bit as if you only had to blame yourself for all your problems in order to solve them, and that, apart from being cruel, is way too simple as well. I blamed and shamed and hated myself for my problems long enough, and it didn´t get me anywhere near solving them. If anything, it made me feel like I deserved my problems for being such a useless, unlikeable person.

Now for the second problem with the idea that you can learn social skills. Social skills like polite behavior might make people grudgingly acknowledge that they cannot really criticize anything about you. What social skills can´t do is magically force people to like you. There are absolute jerks who, for some reason, are extremely popular (maybe they are entertaining?), there are polite, helpful people who I´d much rather not be around. Why? Well, the guy in question honestly tries to be polite and helpful, and he even is, but I feel, I simply feel that this is a facade. I don´t rationally think that behind that facade he is a serial killer, but he still gives me the creeps. I feel like his politeness and his help come with some kind of demand or expectation, and that makes his presence very uncomfortable. I don´t know why this would be any different with someone who tests his newly learned social skills on people.

This leads us directly to her second point. She basically says that you have no right to be liked (respected, treated with decency, yeah. Liked? No.). I second that. A world in which people could be forced to like another person would be about as creepy and inhumane as 1984. You can basically go two ways from there:

1) “Well, of course I will try to be a decent human being, but whether or not people like me is out of my hands. Affection is an feeling that follows no rules, it is nothing I can force, and if a person should have affection for me it is a gift, not something I earned. This also means, however, that my self-worth does not depend on whether or not other people like me.”

2) “If you believe that people should (or would?) like you just the way you are, you are a complete asshole with a massive sense of entitlement. If you want people to like you, of course you have to do something for it!”

It is so fascinating how differently the idea of a “right to be liked” is interpreted in these two approaches. The first approach sees a right as something that you can enforce, and the idea of enforcing the right to affection seems bizarre if not scary. In the second approach, a right is the basis for selfish, egocentric demands. In a way, though, the second approach is highly paradoxical: Since we aren´t entitled to anybody´s affection, we are supposed to earn it. But this suggests that we can actually force people to like us – if we´ve earned it, they will have no other choice than to like us. Isn´t that a bit like enforcing a right you don´t even have?

The article unfortunately adopts the second approach, though it doesn´t use quite the same words. And it tells me what to do and who to be in order to be liked, as if other peoples´feelings could be operated just like that.  Apart from that, I have two major criticisms of her third point:

1) She says stuff like “be this”, and “don´t be that”. It is one thing to give people recommendations as to how to behave, such as saying “hello” and “goodbye”. It is another thing to tell them what kind of person they should BE if they want to ever be liked. It is these parts of the article that made me feel destroyed. “Don´t be negative.” Well, I am a pretty negative person. Watch me, right now, I´m dissecting another person´s hard work with my butthurt remarks instead of just going to sleep (it´s 4 a.m. by now). I am cynical and sarcastic, I constantly talk about how I hate this and that and how some stupid commercial pisses me off to no end each time I see it, and now I publicly display myself as a difficult, awkward, annoying person instead of keeping my self-doubts and my negative self-image AAAALLL under tight wraps. So when someone says “If you want to be liked, don´t be negative!” I feel rejected. Rejected as in: Nobody could ever like you and you even deserve that because “ha ha, now, I know we have all seen those disgruntled naggers before, and, really, you just don´t want to be like them, do you? They are a real pest, don´t we all think that?” *social skills students nod and mutter in heartfelt agreement*

Telling me what to be and what not to be suggests to me that certain traits are inherently bad or ridiculous or that people with such traits can never be liked. In fact, many of the things she touches upon are not bad character traits at all. There is nothing wrong with having a special hobby or being extremely interested in a completely exotic subject. It´s actually quite beautiful. And being sarcastic can be a coping mechanism – or a special talent for comedy. Giving people advice how to use such character trains is fine, but telling them not to BE nerdy or sarcastic is judgmental, and a form of shaming.

2) She conveniently assumes that everybody likes the same kinds of behavior in a person, or even the same character traits. Let´s stick with “don´t be negative”. The assumption behind this advice is that everybody likes positive and dislikes negative people. This, however, is simply not true. I, for example, like negative people. When I´m surrounded by do-gooders who are all buzzing with harmony and brotherly spirit, I am extremely grateful for anybody who mutters a disgruntled comment about how this constant optimistic smiling and the exaggerated kindness remind him of a cult. Then again, I am just a loner socially awkward loser who won´t even admit he has a problem, so my standards probably don´t count.

I would love to finish this with some great words of wisdom, but it´s half past four in the morning and I´ll fall asleep with my head on the keyboard if I don´t go to bed. I might come back to this subject at another point, but at the moment I cannot keep my eyes open anymore.


4 Responses to “How to assert a right you don´t have: Making people like you”

  1. vicariousrising Says:

    Call me crazy, but I want to be liked for me and not because I get all the social skill handbook rules right. My mom is/was an etiquette freak — and no one likes her. And anyone with too much social skill makes me suspicious. I like real. I don’t even mind socially awkward people. I get kind of fond for curmudgeons so long as they are not bullies. I am completely socially stupid and hate big social gatherings, but weirdly most of the people who I like seem to like me also, even as I worry they will eventually realize how unlikable I am. I dont want people to hate me, but I think it is stupid to have a goal of having people like you. I have to admit a level of disdain for people needing to have hundreds of Facebook “friends”.

    Just curious what you mean about waffling over Jack the Ripper. I’ve had a fascination with that case for years and even have a shelf in my library dedicated to books on Ripper stuff.

    • I´m so glad I´m not the only one here! When I´m around a bunch of social skills geniuses what it does to me is basically that I think: “Oh god, I would never have remembered offering help/demonstrating my interest by asking that follow-up question/…, I´m such a jerk, how can anybody ever like me.”

      Being liked as a goal – I think the problem with this is simply that you cannot force people to like you. If a person aims to be popular or famous, there are certain things she can do to achieve that – but that is not the same thing as being liked, so it really seems like a rather pointless goal.

      About Jack the Ripper – my interest in him is part of a general interest in serial killers. I do not nearly know enough about him specifically to call myself a Ripperologist. What I was alluding to was this type of conversation where I sit through all the “and my ex-boyfriend´s ex is now dating whoever” stuff without saying a word, but when the topic shifts to London in the late 19th century I´ll suddenly start to talk about why the murders stopped or seemed to stop after Mary Kelly, and I can wonder about that for ages. Another example of me having “obnoxious” exotic interests is that over the last few years, there have been two crimes in my town which might somehow be linked (one old woman was raped somewhere in the mountains, another one was murdered in a forest just outside the city) and I´ve spent hours looking through newspaper reports, trying to figure out what type of perpetrator might be behind this. Needless to say my friends aren´t overly interested.

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