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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills
1. What is the Purpose of Friendship?
Though we appreciate charm when we find it, most of us rarely think of consciously setting out to be charming. The very idea of learning to be more charming sounds off-key, for we tend to believe at some level that we are simply born charming (or not) – and that any conscious attempt to acquire the quality would be fatefully lacking in authenticity. In other words, it seems rather wrong to think too hard about trying to get people to like us.
That’s a pity, given how many important things need to be accompanied by a dose of charm in order to get going in the world. Ideas, projects, political proposals and people all stand in need of being presented in a charming way if they are to succeed and win an audience. It therefore seems a grievous surrender to fortune to leave charm only to those who spontaneously possess it – or to the apparently unscrupulous who are sanguine about plotting directly to obtain it.
The first thing we need to get straight is what we want to be charming for. This requires us to ask a prior question: what is friendship for?
Friendship should be one of the high points of existence, and yet it’s also the most routinely disappointing reality.
Too often, you’re at supper at someone’s house: there’s an impressive spread and the hosts have evidently gone to a lot of trouble. But the conversation is meandering and devoid of real interest. It flits from an over-long description of the failings of the inflight service on a particular airline to a strangely heated discussion about the tax code. The intentions of the hosts are hugely touching, but (as so often) we go home wondering what on earth the whole performance was about.
The key to the problem of friendship is found in an odd-sounding place: a lack of a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for.
The problem is that we are unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship and in fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.
There are at least five things we might be trying to do with the people we meet:
It’s an unfairly maligned idea. We are small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours. This idea of friendship was given a lot of space in classical literature. Take The Argonauts, the legendary Ancient Greek tale which traced how a heroic captain called Jason networked in order to assemble a band of friends to sail on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. Later the same idea emerged when Jesus networked to put together a band of twelve disciples with whom he could spread one or two world-changing ideas about forgiveness and compassion. Rather than diminish our own efforts as we hand out our business cards, such prestigious examples can show how elevated and ambitious networking friendships could ideally be.
The human condition is full of terror. We are always on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of sexual compulsion, regret, rage and confusion. They refuse to admit that they too are going slightly out of their minds. Yet, the reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous.
That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle-sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. We can put on accents, share lewd fantasies or doodle on the newspaper: adding a huge nose and a missing front tooth to the president, or giving the fashion model distended ears and masses of curly hair. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.
Fourthly: Clarifying our Minds
To a surprising degree, it is very hard to think on our own. The mind is skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that assists us with the task of knowing ourselves.
Fifthly: Holding on to the past
A number of friends have nothing to say to whom we are now, but we keep seeing them, get a little bored in their company – yet are not wrong to retain them in our lives. Perhaps we knew them from school or university, or we once spent a very significant holiday with them twenty years ago or we became friendly when our children were at kindergarten together. They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet to which we still remain loyal. They help us to understand where we have come from and what once mattered. They aren’t relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever entirely contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.
One side-effect of getting a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives is that we’re likely to conclude that, in many cases, we are spending time with people for no truly identifiable reason. These proto-friends share none of our professional ambitions or interests; they aren’t reassuring and may indeed be secretly really very excited by the possibility of our failure; we can’t be cathartically silly around them; they aren’t in the least bit interested in furthering our or their path to self-knowledge and they aren’t connected up with important phases of our lives. They are simply in our orbit as a result of an unhappy accident we have been too sentimental to correct.
We should dare to be a little ruthless. Culling acquaintances isn’t a sign that we have lost belief in friendship. It’s evidence that we are getting clearer and more demanding about what a friendship could be. In the best way, the price of knowing what friendship is for may be a few more evenings in our own company.
2. The Problem of Over-Friendliness
There is a particularly poignant way to be a social disaster: through over-friendliness, a pattern of behaviour driven by the very best of motives which ends up feeling as irritating as outright rudeness.
We meet the over-friendly at the office, laughing at the jokes of the senior management; behind the desk at the hotel, wishing Sir or Madam a highly enjoyable stay and across the table on a first date, lavishly endorsing their would-be partner’s every opinion about recent books and films.
The over-friendly are guilty of three large errors:
Firstly, they believe they must agree on everything. If the other says the world is going to the dogs, they immediately nod in consent. If a second later, there is a prediction of a utopian technological future, they will agree just as much. When we say something clever, they are thrilled. When we say something equally daft, they like it no less. Their ritual approval may seem attentive. In truth, it’s a version of not listening at all.
Secondly, their praise is ill-targeted. Plenty of nice things are being said, but they are not the ones we happen to value. They claim to love our umbrella, our credit card is from their favourite bank, our chairs are deeply beautiful, we apparently have a nice way of holding our fork… but none of this counts for us if it isn’t connected up with our own sense of meaning and achievement. Everyone loves being praised, but to be praised inaccurately is its own kind of insult.
Thirdly, their friendliness is remorselessly upbeat. They point out how well we look, how impressive our job sounds, how perfect our family life seems. They want to make us feel good, but they dangerously raise the cost of revealing any of the lonelier, darker, more melancholic aspects of our characters.
By contrast, the less ardently friendly and therefore properly pleasing person will keep three things closely in mind:
Firstly, that disagreement isn’t necessarily or always terrible, that it may be exhilarating to be contradicted when we don’t feel that our dignity is at stake and that we are learning something valuable at the hands of a combative interlocutor.
Secondly, that people only want to be complimented on things they are actively proud of. The value of the currency of praise depends entirely on it not being spent too freely – and so the truly pleasing person knows they must pass over many things in discreet silence, so that when they eventually do bestow a blessing, their words can have a proper resonance.
Thirdly, that we are cheered up not so much by people who say cheery things, as by people who appear to understand us, which usually means, sympathise with our sorrows and show a willingness to travel with us to the anxious, hesitant or confused parts of our psyches.
What enables the pleasing person to please is their capacity to hold on in social encounters, even with rather intimidating and alien-seeming people, to an intimate knowledge of what satisfies them. They instinctively use their own experience as a base for thinking about the needs of others. By contrast, the over-friendly person allows themselves to forget their own likes and dislikes, under the pressure of an excessive humility which suggests to them that anyone impressive could not possibly share in the principles that drive their own psychology.
At the core of the pleasing person’s charm is a metaphysical insight: that other people cannot, deep down, ever be very ‘other’ and therefore that, in core ways, what one knows about oneself will be the master-key to understanding and getting along with strangers – not in every case, but enough of the time to make the difference.
Over-friendliness isn’t just a feature of one-to-one encounters. It’s an entrenched flaw within modern consumer society more generally. This explains why the airline exuberantly wishes us a perfect day upon landing in a new city, why the waiter hopes we’ll have a truly wonderful time around the first course and why the attendant in a clothes shop pulls such a large smile along with their suggestion that we try on a new pair of trousers.
Here too, the cause of an asphyxiating friendliness is a sudden modesty and loss of confidence around using oneself as a guide to the temperament and needs of a stranger. Companies become over-impressed by the apparent ‘otherness’ of their clients and thereby overlook how many aspects of their own selves are being trampled upon in a service context. They sidestep the knowledge that just after landing back home after a trip abroad, we may feel horrified at the thought of our responsibilities in the family; or that moods of introversion and sadness can accompany us even inside a clothes boutiques. They behave as if they were cheerful Martians encountering broken, complex humans for the very first time.
The fault of the excessively over-friendly person can, in the end, be traced back to a touching modesty. They are guilty of nothing more than a loss of confidence in the validity of their own experiences as a guide to the pleasure of others. The failure of the over-friendly types teaches us that in order to succeed at pleasing anyone, we must first accept the risk that we might well displease them through a candid expression of our being. Successful charm relies on an initial secure sense that we could survive social failure. Rehearsing how it would in the end be OK to make a hash of seducing someone is perhaps the best way to seduce them properly and confidently. We must reconcile ourselves to the risk of not making friends to stand any chance of actually making any.
3. How to Overcome Shyness
Because shyness can grip us in such powerful ways, it’s tempting to think of it as an immutable part of our emotional make-up, with roots that extend far into our personality and perhaps biology – and that we would be incapable of ever extirpating. But in truth, shyness is based on a set of ideas about the world that are eminently amenable to change through a process of reason because they are founded on some touchingly malleable errors of thought.
Shyness is rooted in a distinctive way of interpreting strangers. The shy aren’t awkward around everyone; they are tongue-tied around those who seem most unlike them on the basis of a range of surface markers: of age, class, tastes, habits, beliefs, backgrounds or religions. With no unkindness meant, we could define shyness as a form of ‘provincialism’ of the mind, an over-attachment to the incidentals of one’s own life and experience that unfairly casts others into the role of daunting, unfathomable, unknowable foreigners.
On contact with a person from another world or ‘province’, the shy allow their minds to be dominated by a forbidding aura of difference. They may (silently and awkwardly) say to themselves that there is nothing to be done or said because the other is famous while they belong to the province of the obscure; or because the other is very old while their province is firmly that of twenty somethings; or because the other is very clever while their province is that of the non-intellectual; or because the other is from the land of very beautiful girls while they hail from the province of average looking boys. This is why there can be no grounds to laugh, to hazard a playful remark or to feel at ease. The shy person doesn’t intend to be unpleasant or unfriendly. They simply experience all otherness as an insurmountable barrier to making their own goodwill and personality apparent.
We can imagine that in the history of humanity, shyness was always the first response. The people over the hill would have triggered the feeling because they were farmers while you were fishermen, or they spoke with a lilt in their vowels while your diction was monotone and flat.
Yet, gradually there emerged a more worldly, less exclusive way of relating to strangers: what we might call a psychological ‘cosmopolitanism’. In the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, prompted by ever increasing encounters between peoples who lived very different and mutually unfamiliar lives, thanks to developments in trade and shipping, an alternative to shyness developed. Greek travellers who worshiped human-like divinities learnt that Egyptians revered cats and certain birds. Romans who shaved their chins met barbarians who did not. Senators who lived in colonnaded houses with underfloor heating encountered chieftains who lived in draughty wooden huts. And among certain thinkers, an approach developed that proposed that all these humans, whatever their surface variations, shared a common core – and that it was to this that the mature mind should turn in contact with apparent otherness. It was to this ‘cosmopolitan’ mindset that the Roman playwright and poet Terence gave voice when he wrote: ‘I am human: nothing human is foreign to me’ and that Christianity made use of in rendering universal sympathy a cornerstone of its view of existence.
Someone becomes a cosmopolitan not on the basis of having a buoyant or gregarious nature but because they are in touch with a fundamental truth about humanity, because they know that irrespective of appearance, we are the same species beneath, an insight that the tongue-tied guest at the party or the awkward seducer in the restaurant are guilty of implicitly refusing.
The cosmopolitan is well aware of differences between people. They just refuse to be cowed or dominated by them. They look beyond them to perceive, or in practical terms simply to guess at, a collective species-unity. The stranger may not know your friends from primary school, may not have read the same novels or have met your parents, may wear a dress, or a large hat and beard or be in their eighth decade or only a few days past being four years old, but the cosmopolitan won’t be daunted by the lack of local points of reference. They are sure they will stumble somewhere upon common ground – even if it takes a couple of false starts. All human beings (however varied their outward appearance) must – they know – be activated by a few basic dimensions of concern. There will be uniting likes, hates, hopes and fears; even if it is only a love of rolling a ball back and forth or a mutual interest in sunbathing.
The shy provincial is a pessimist at heart. The moderniser won’t – they feel certain – be able to talk to the traditionalist, the enthusiast of the left must have no time for anyone on the right, the atheist won’t be able engage with the priest, the business owner must get awkward around the socialist. The confident cosmopolitan, by contrast, starts from the assumption that people are – of course – endowed with wildly opposed views, but that these need never fatally undermine the rich range of similarities that will remain in other areas.
Traditionally, rank or status have been major sources of shy provincialism: the peasant felt he could not approach the lord, the young milkmaid stammered when the Earl’s son visited the stable. Today, in an echo of such inhibitions, the person of average looks feels they could never hang out with the very beautiful girl, or the modestly-off lose any inability to talk to the very wealthy. The mind fixates on the gulf: my nose looks like a child modelled it out of plasticine, yours as if it had been carved by Michelangelo; I fear losing my job while you fear that the expansion of your business into Mexico won’t be as profitable as you’d forecast.
Shyness has its insightful dimensions. It is infused with an awareness that we might be bothering someone with our presence, it is based upon an acute sense that a stranger could be dissatisfied or discomfited by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance. Someone with no capacity whatever for shyness is a scary possibility; for they implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They are so composed and sure only because they haven’t taken on board the crucial possibility that the other person might rightly have a disenchanted view of them.
And yet, in most cases, we simply pay an unnecessarily heavy price for our reserve around people who might well have opened their hearts to us – if only we had known how to manifest our own benevolence. We cling too jealously to our province. The pimply boy doesn’t discover that he and the high school beauty share a taste in humour and a similarly painful relationship with their father; the middle-aged lawyer never unearths a shared love of rockets with the neighbour’s eight-year-old son. Races and ages continue not to mingle, to their collective detriments. Shyness is a touching, yet ultimately excessive and unwarranted way of feeling special.
4. Why Affectionate Teasing is Kind and Necessary
It may not seem like it, but teasing done with affection and skill is a profound human accomplishment.
There’s nasty teasing, of course – in which we pick away at a sore spot in someone’s life. But we’re talking here of the affectionate version, something generous and loving – which feels good to be on the receiving end of.
It may be lovely to be teased when, for example, you’re a teenager and in a grumpy, sullen mood, and your kindly dad nicknames you Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Danish prince of gloom.
Or when you’re 45 and pretty serious in business and your old university friends come around and call you by that name they made up for you aged 19, the night you failed dismally trying to pick up a German student who was in town.
All of us get a bit unbalanced in one way or another: too serious, too gloomy, too jokey. And so we all benefit from being tugged back towards a healthier mean. The good-teaser latches onto and responds to our distinctive imbalances and gets compassionately constructive about trying to change us: not by delivering a stern lesson, but by helping us to notice our excesses and laugh at them. We sense the teaser trying to give us a useful little shove in a good (and secretly welcome) direction and therefore know that, at its affectionate best, teasing is at once sweet and constructive.
The English literary critic Cyril Connolly once famously wrote: Imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signalling to be let out.
It’s a general idea with multiple variants: inside the fussy, over-formal individual there’s a more relaxed person looking for an opening; there’s an ambitious, eager self quietly despairing within the lazy man; the gloomy, disenchanted cynic harbours a more cheery, sunny sub-self in need of more recognition.
The teasing remark speaks over the head of the dominant aspect to the subordinated side of the self, whom it helps to release and relax.
There’s a moment in The Line of Beauty – a novel by Alan Hollinghurst, set in the 1980s – in which Nick, the charming young central character, is invited to a grand party and meets the British Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Everyone is slightly terrified of her, but Nick warmly and teasingly suggests she might like to dance to a pop song. The other guests are horrified – she’s meant to be obsessed by stringent economic reform and hard-nosed politics – but after a brief inner struggle, she replies with a smile: ‘You know, I’d like that very much.’ (Perhaps if, in reality, there had been more people to tease her, the pop-loving, dancing side of Mrs Thatcher might have played a greater role in national affairs – and history would have been different).
When we enjoy being warmly teased, it’s because the teasing remark emerges from a genuine insight into who we are. This person has studied us and put their finger on a struggle that’s going on in us; they’ve taken the part of a nice – but currently under-supported – side of who we are. It’s pleasing because normally others don’t see much past the front we put on for the world. Typically, the world just thinks we are gloomy, or stern, or intellectual, or obsessed by fashion. The teaser does us the favour of recognising that the dominant front isn’t telling the whole story; they’re kind enough and perceptive enough to see past the surface.
Perhaps the most instructive question we can ask – the one that teaches us most about the value of affectionate teasing – is simply: what do I need to be teased about?
5. How to Be Warm
While politeness is, of course, always preferable to rudeness, there are ways of being polite that badly miss the mark and can leave us feeling oddly detached and dissatisfied. Picture the person who ends up, despite their best efforts, seeming what we can call coldly polite. They may be extremely keen to please those they are seeing, they obey all the rules of etiquette, offer their guests drinks, ask them questions about their journey, suggest they might want a little more gravy, remark on the interest of a recent prize-winning novel – and yet never manage to make their hospitality feel either engaging or memorable. It may be a long time before another meeting with them is suggested.
By contrast, there is the person we recognise as warm, who follows the cold person in the basic principles of politeness, but manages to add a critical emotionally-comforting ingredient to their manner. They might, when we have an evening planned with them, suggest making toasted cheese sandwiches at their place rather than going out to a restaurant, they might chat to us through the bathroom door, put on the songs they loved dancing to when they were fourteen, plump up a cushion and slot it behind our back, confess to feeling intimidated by a mutual acquaintance, bring us a posy of daisies or a card they made, call us up when we’re down with the flu and ask how our ears are feeling, make encouraging ‘mmm’ and ‘ahw’ sounds to show sympathy and interest for a story they’ve teased out of us about our insomnia, give us a sly conspiratorial wink when they notice we’re finding someone else at the table attractive, mention they like our haircut and then, when we spill something or fart by mistake, exclaim: ‘I’m so glad you did that! Usually it’s me.’
Beneath the difference between the warm and the cold person lies a contrasting vision of human nature. Broadly, the cold person is operating with an implicit view that those they are attempting to please are creatures endowed only with the highest needs. As a result, all kinds of assumptions are made about them: that they are interested exclusively in so-called serious topics (especially art and politics), that they will appreciate a degree of formality in dining and sitting, that they will be strong, self-contained and mature enough not to have any hunger for reassurance or cosiness and that they will be without urgent physical vulnerabilities and drives, which might prove deeply offensive if they were mentioned. These higher beings would, the cold host believes, wince if someone suggested they curl up on the sofa with a blanket or handed them a copy of a magazine about film stars when they headed for the bathroom.
Yet, the warmly polite person is always deeply aware that the stranger is (irrespective of their status or outward dignity) a highly needy, fragile, confused, appetitive and susceptible creature. And they know this about the stranger, because they never forget this about themselves. Warmly polite people have much in common with the character Kanga – the tenderly maternal Kangaroo in A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. In one of the stories, the little animals are deeply disconcerted by the arrival in the Hundred Acre Wood of Tigger, who is very big, very loud and bouncy and assertive. They treat him with caution and are – we might say – coldly polite. But when Tigger finally meets Kanga, she is immediately warm with him. She thinks of him in much the same terms as she does her own child, Roo: “Just because an animal is large, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want kindness; however big Tigger seems to be, remember that he wants as much kindness as Roo,” says Kanga, in what might be a definition of the philosophy of warmth.
Sometimes it is deeply generous to think that another person may be more elevated than us. Collectively we’ve taken this thought very much to heart. We have internalised distance and learnt caution, moving on from the naivety of the small child who wonders sweetly when you are sad if you might like to sniff their grimey blanket.
But this has given rise to a touchingly sad possibility that in fact the other is much more involved in our kind of vulnerabilities than they let on or that we dare to suppose. Two people may be secretly yearning for the same modest thing while each being too polite (that is, too under the sway of a cold interpretation of human nature) to properly recognise or act upon their desires.
The warmly polite person may not hold to an explicit theory of what they are doing, but at root their conduct is based on an understanding that however solid and dignified someone appears on the outside, behind the scenes there will inevitably be a struggling self, potentially awkward, easily bemused, beset by physical appetites, on the verge of loneliness – and frequently in need of nothing more subtle or elevated than a cheese sandwich, a glass of milk and a hug.
6. Why Flirting Matters
Flirting has a bad name. Too often, it seems a supreme form of duplicity, a sly attempt to excite another person and derive gratification from their interest without any corresponding wish to go to bed with them. It looks like a manipulative promise of sexual affection that, at the last moment, leaves its targets confused and humiliated. In our sadness, back home alone after the nightclub or the party, we may rail against the flirt for ‘only’ flirting, when it had appeared there would be so much more.
But this kind of pattern represents only one, unedifying and regrettable possibility around flirting. At its best, flirting can be a vital social process that generously lends us reassurance and freely redistributes confidence and self-esteem. The task is not to stop flirting, but to learn how better to practice its most honourable versions.
Good flirting is in essence an attempt, driven by kindness and imaginative excitement, to inspire another person to believe more firmly in their own likability, psychological as much as physical. It is a gift offered not in order to manipulate, but out of a pleasure at perceiving what is most attractive in another. Along the way, the good flirt must carefully convince us of three apparently contradictory things: that they would love to sleep with us; that they won’t sleep with us; and that the reason why has nothing to do with any deficiency on our part.
Good flirting exploits – with no evil intent – an important truth about sex: that what is often most enjoyable about sex is not the physical process itself so much as the idea of acceptance that underpins the act, the notion that another person likes us enough to accept us in our most raw and vulnerable state and is, in our name, willing to lose control and surrender aspects of everyday dignity. It is this concept, far more than the deft touching of skin, that is what contributes the dominant share of our pleasure as we undress someone for the first time or heed their request to call them the rudest words we know.
The good flirt knows this and is therefore spared a guilty sense that they might not be in a position to offer their lovers anything valuable. They are wisely convinced that it is eminently possible, simply over a dinner table or in the kitchen at work, to gift a person just about the most wondrous aspect of sex itself – simply through the medium of language.
The good flirt is an expert too in how correctly to frame the fact that there won’t be sex. By a deeply entrenched quirk of the human mind, it is generally hard for us to hear such news without at once reaching one overwhelming and crushing conclusion: that it is because the seducer has suddenly found us deeply and pervasively repulsive. The good flirt loosens us from such punitive narratives. They powerfully appeal to some of the many genuine reasons why two people might not have sex that have nothing to do with one person finding the other disgusting: for example, because one or both party already has a partner, because there is an excessive age gap, a gender incompatibility, an office that would disapprove, a difficult family situation or, most simply, a lack of time.
Freed from the rigid and blunt supposition that flirting has to be the prelude to actual sex, the good flirt can artfully imply how different things might have been if the world had been more ideally arranged. And the recipient of the flirt can, with equal grace, ascent to the story without a need to twist it through self-hatred.
We all stand in need of reminders of what is tolerable and exciting about us. It is a desperate foreshortening of possibilities to insist that such reawakening can only be justified by actual intercourse. Understood properly, flirting can beneficially occur across the largest gulfs: gulfs of political belief, of social, economic or marital status, of sexual inclination and (with obvious caveats) of age. The 26-year-old corporate lawyer and the 52-year-old man behind the counter of the corner shop can flirt; and so may the cleaner and the CEO. It is all the more moving when they do so because it signals a willingness to use the imagination to locate what is most attractive about another person who lies really very far from one’s own area of familiarity. The question of what, if I considered someone, anyone sexually, I would find charming is one of the most intimate, interesting and necessary questions one can ask.
The good flirt needs skill to home in on the less obvious – but still very real – ways in which every one can be attractive. They might, within an elderly or rather large person, draw attention to a nicely shaped elbow or to an intelligent characteristic tilt of the head. They must actively search for the location of another person’s sexual allure, piecing together a portrait like a great novelist gradually revealing the hidden charm of an apparently ordinary character. Like Jesus, they are giving attention to the secret goodness of someone whom (to the hasty glance of others) will appear an outcast or a sinner unworthy of love.
We have for too long been warned against flirting by an unfortunate Romantic ideal of total coherence, one that implies that either we are completely sincere in flirting and so must make love or we are, in effect liars. In many Romantic novels of the 19th century, ‘flirt’ is, therefore, a term of abuse. No hero or heroine could ever adopt a playful, semi-erotic tone with anyone except their true love. But they would thereby miss out on an important enlargement of their sensibilities.
The ideal flirtation is a small work of social art co-created by two people; a civilised artifice that acknowledges limitations, worries about consequences and knows the importance of not letting momentary impulses damage long standing commitments. It knows that avoiding sex is usually very wise, but is intelligently invested in sharing some of the benefits of sex without the act itself
The good flirter isn’t making things up; they are not merely flattering or manipulating. They are offering us a view we very rarely get of ourselves as desirable. A few people, of course, have an excessive belief in their own attractiveness. But mostly, we suffer gravely in the opposite direction. We generally learn – through a rich sequence of rebuffs and criticisms and via intelligent modesty which quickly alerts us to our own shortcomings – to see ourselves as far from ideal. We know we’re in some ways not terribly lovable or exceptionally alluring. This picture of ourselves is not inaccurate but is isn’t entirely true either. So the good flirt carries out an important psychological mission: to restore balance to our view of ourselves. They remind us that, for all our failings of character and bodily liabilities we are, in fact, in certain ways, properly appealing and in a better situation than the one we find ourselves in, a truly interesting person to want to spend a night with. The flirt supplies an antidote to a characteristic sickness of maturity: an excessively negative view of ourselves. It is because we are so prone to self-hatred, so liable to forget how to appreciate ourselves properly, that we need more vigorously, and with fewer qualms, to engage in the important business of flirting with one another.
The good flirt is doing (via a well timed smirk, a coyly arched eyebrow, a quiet observation or an expectedly warm remark) crucially important social work. They understand that being recognised as erotically appealing is a hugely beneficial and ethical need of the soul, for feeling desirable is key to rendering us more patient, more generous, more energetic and more content. It is a quiet tragedy that this widely consequential need should so often be expected to pass through the desperately narrow gate of sex.
The good flirt is wisely and liberally rebelling against such a stricture. Their mission is to give erotic endorsement (and all the benefits this brings) a larger opportunity in life, liberating it from the tiny, difficult window of opportunity offered by an actual requirement to start to make to love. The flirt knows how to broaden the circle of attractiveness, they know – in essence – how to love someone without needing to give more than they should ever realistically be expected to. The ideal flirt is a pioneer in a crucial democratic science: they are attempting to correctly identify attractiveness in a way that will serve the many rather than the few. We should not only be grateful to good flirts; we should try to become good flirts ourselves.
7. Why Kind People Always Lie
Truly good people are always ready and even, at times, highly enthusiastic about telling lies. This sounds odd only because we are in the grip of a heroic but indiscriminate and delusional addiction to truth-telling.
A lot of it can be blamed on George Washington, first president of the United States. Legend recounts how, at the age of six, he was given a little axe as a present. He was so excited with the gift that he went straight into the garden and hacked down a beautiful cherry tree. His father was furious when he discovered the chopped tree and asked George if he was responsible. The boy was said to have replied: ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I.’ The story is probably apocryphal, but it has stuck because it encapsulates an ideal to which we are intensely collectively committed: a devotion to the truth in spite of the cost it exacts on oneself. In this scenario, the liar is odious because they seek to evade a necessary and important truth for the sake of low personal gain.
But good people do not lie for their own benefit. They aren’t protecting themselves and they aren’t disloyal to the facts out of mendacity: they tell lies because (paradoxical as it sounds at first) they love the truth intensely and out of good-will for the person they are deceiving.
We’re ready enough to admit to a role for lies in certain situations. You might be visiting an elderly aunt who prides herself on her talent for carrot cakes with vanilla icing. But her heyday is long gone. Now she muddles up the recipe and sometimes forgets how long the butter has been in the fridge. The result is pretty off-putting. But it’s deeply important for her to feel that she’s still able to please others. That’s why you lie.
The lie isn’t produced to protect oneself. It is told out of loyalty to a bigger truth – that one loves the aunt – that would be threatened by full disclosure. As is so often the case, a great truth has to pass into the mind of another person via a smaller falsehood.
What makes falsehoods so necessary is our proclivity for making unfortunate associations. It is, in theory, of course entirely possible to love someone deeply and at the same time believe they are terrible at baking. But in our own minds, the rejection of our cakes tends to feel synonymous with the rejection of our being. We’re forcing any half decent person to lie to us – by the obtuseness of our thought-processes. It is because the aunt is in the grip of a falsehood (‘if you don’t like my cake, you can’t like me’) that we will have to offer her a dose of untruth (‘I like your cake’) by which we can make sure that a big truth (‘I like you’) remains safe.
The same principle applies in more tricky situations. Suppose a woman goes away to a conference. One night, after a lovely conversation in the bar, she gets carried away and slips into bed with an international colleague. They don’t make love but have a sweet time. They rub their lips together and entwine their legs. They will almost certainly never see one another again, it wasn’t an attempt to start a long-term relationship and it meant very little. When the woman gets home, her partner asks how her evening was. She says she watched CNN and ordered a club sandwich in her room on her own.
She lies because she knows her partner well and can predict how he would respond to the truth. He would be wounded to the core, would be convinced that his wife didn’t love him and would probably conclude that divorce was the only option.
But this assessment of the truth would not be true. In reality, it is of course eminently possible to love someone deeply and every so often go to bed with another person. And yet, kind people understand the entrenched and socially-endorsed associations between infidelity and callousness. For almost all of us, the news ‘I spent a night with a colleague from the Singapore office’ (which is true) has to end up meaning ‘I don’t love you anymore’ (which is not true at all). And so we have to say ‘I didn’t sleep with anyone’ (which is untrue) in the name of securing the greater idea: ‘I still love you’ (which is overwhelmingly true).
However much they love the truth, good people have an even greater commitment to something else: being kind towards others. They grasp (and make allowances for) the ease with which a truth can produce desperately unhelpful convictions in the minds of others and are therefore not proudly over-committed to accuracy at every turn. Their loyalty is reserved for something they take to be far more important than literal narration: the sanity and well-being of their audiences. Telling the truth, they understand, isn’t a matter of the sentence by sentence veracity of one’s words, it’s a matter of ensuring that, after one has spoken, the other person can be left with a true picture of reality.
This concern for the well-being of others explains why kind people only ever lie when there is little chance of their untruths being detected. They know that a lie which gets unearthed will cause proper and unjustifiable trouble, leading the other person to a second and even more radically false conclusion: not only that ‘you don’t love me’ (first untruth) but also that ‘you lied to me because you don’t love me’ (a second, even greater untruth).
It can feel condescending to hear the logic of the good liar spelled out. But that’s only because we don’t like to acknowledge the fragility of our own minds. We may believe we’re heroically ready to embrace the truth, however painful. We may insist that others should tell us everything, whatever they do. But we thereby discount our own powerful tendencies to emotional indigestion. It’s why we should not only occasionally tell untruths – but actively hope that, from time to time, others will lie to us – and quietly hope that we will never find out that they have.
8. How to Be a Good Listener
Being a good listener is one of the most important and enchanting life-skills anyone can have. Yet, few of us know how to do it, not because we are evil, but because no one has taught us how and – a related point – few have listened sufficiently well to us. So we come to social life greedy to speak rather than listen, hungry to meet others, but reluctant to hear them. Friendship degenerates into a socialised egoism.
Like most things, the answer lies in education. Our civilisation is full of great books on how to speak – Cicero’s Orator and Aristotle’s Rhetoric were two of the greatest in the ancient world – but sadly no one has ever written a book called ‘The Listener’. There are a range of things that the good listener is doing that makes it so nice to spend time in their company.
Without necessarily quite realising it, we’re often propelled into conversation by something that feels both urgent and somehow undefined. We’re bothered at work, we’re toying with more ambitious career moves, we’re not sure if so and so is right for us; a relationship is in difficulties; we’re fretting about something or feeling a bit low about life in general (without being able to put a finger on exactly what’s wrong); or perhaps we’re very excited and enthusiastic about something – though the reasons for our passion are tricky to pin down.
At heart, all these are issues in search of elucidation. The good listener knows that we’d ideally move – via conversation with another person – from a confused agitated state of mind to one that was more focused and (hopefully) more serene. Together with them we’d work out what us really at stake. But, in reality, this tends not to happen because there isn’t enough of an awareness of the desire and need for clarification within conversation. There aren’t enough good listeners. So people tend to assert rather than analyse. They restate in many different ways the fact that they are worried, excited, sad or hopeful, and their interlocutor listens but doesn’t assist them to discover more.
Good listeners fight against this with a range of conversational gambits. They hover as the other speaks: they offer encouraging little remarks of support, they make gentle positive gestures: a sigh of sympathy, a nod of encouragement, a strategic ‘hmm’ of interest. All the time they are egging the other to go deeper into issues. They love saying: ‘tell me more about …’; ‘I was fascinated when you said ..’; ‘why did that happen, do you think?’ or ‘how did you feel about that?’
The good listener takes it for granted that they will encounter vagueness in the conversation of others. But they don’t condemn, rush or get impatient, because they see vagueness as a universal and highly significant trouble of the mind that it is the task of a true friend to help with. The good listener never forgets how hard – and how important – it is to know our own minds. Often, we’re in the vicinity of something, but we can’t quite close in on what’s really bothering or exciting us. The good listener knows we hugely benefit from encouragement to elaborate, to go into greater detail, to push a little further. We need someone who, rather than launch forth, will simply say two magic rare words: Go on…
You mention a sibling and they want to know a bit more. What was the relationship like in childhood, how has it changed over time. They’re curious where our concerns and excitements come from. They ask thing like: why did that particularly bother you? Why was that such a big thing for you? They keep our histories in mind, they might refer back to something we said before and we feel they’re building up a deeper base of engagement.
It’s fatally easy to say vague things: we simply mention that something is lovely or terrible, nice or annoying. But we don’t really explore why we feel this way. The good listener has a productive, friendly suspicion of some of our own first statements and is after the deeper attitudes that are lurking in the background. They take things we say like ‘I’m fed up with my job’ or ‘My partner and I are having a lot of rows…’ and help us to concentrate on what it really is about the job we don’t like or what the rows might deep down be about.
They’re bringing to listening an ambition to clear up underlying issues. They don’t just see conversation as the swapping of anecdotes. They are reconnecting the chat you’re having over pizza with the philosophical ambitions of Socrates, whose dialogues are records of his attempts to help his fellow Athenians understand and examine their own underlying ideas and values.
A key move of the good listener is not always to follow every byway or sub-plot that the speaker introduces, for they may be getting lost and further from their own point than they would themselves wish. The good listener is helpfully suspicious, knowing that their purpose is to focus the fundamental themes of the speaker, rather than veering off with them into every side road. They are always looking to take the speaker back to their last reasonable point – saying, ‘Yes, yes, but you were saying just a moment ago..’. Or, ‘So ultimately, what do you think it was about…’ The good listener (paradoxically) is a skilled interrupter. But they don’t (as most people do) interrupt to intrude their own ideas; they interrupt to help the other get back to their original more sincere, yet elusive concerns.
The good listener doesn’t moralise. They know their own minds well enough not to be surprised or frightened by strangeness. They know how insane we all are. That’s why others can feel comfortable being heard by them. They give the impression they recognise and accept our follies; they don’t flinch when we mention a particular desire. They reassure us they’re not going to shred our dignity. A big worry in a competitive world is that we feel we can’t afford to be honest about how distressed or obsessed we are. Saying one feels like a failure or a pervert could mean being dropped. The good listener signals early and clearly that they don’t see us in these terms. Our vulnerability is something they warm to rather than are appalled by. It is only too easy to end up experiencing ourselves as strangely cursed and exceptionally deviant or uniquely incapable. But the good listener makes their own strategic confessions, so as to set the record straight about the meaning of being a normal (that is very muddled and radically imperfect) human being. They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature and see that being a bad parent, a poor lover, a confused worker are not malignant acts of wickedness, but ordinary features of being alive that others have unfairly edited out of their public profiles.
When we’re in the company of people who listen well, we experience a very powerful pleasure, but too often, we don’t really realise what it is about what this person is doing that is so nice. By paying strategic attention to our feelings of satisfaction, we can learn to magnify them and offer them to others, who will notice, heal – and repay the favour in turn. Listening deserves discovery as one of the keys to a good society.
9. How to Be Open-Minded
One of the distinctive features of social life is that most of the people we meet seem really quite normal. They often appear reasonably responsible and logical, harbour little self-hatred or compulsion, and strike us as cheerful and more or less content with their partners and their lives.
This can feel hugely and horribly at odds with what we know of life from our own minds. Beyond a certain age, once we have lived a little inside ourselves, we tend to become acquainted with a range of deeply alarming and regrettable sides to our characters: we recognise the extent of our confusion, compulsion, sexual waywardness, disloyalty, meanness, insecurity and peculiarity.
This gap between the knowledge we have of ourselves and the public evidence of the nature of others can end up feeling intensely bewildering and painful. We may wonder why we may have ended up quite so strange, our lives so difficult, our characters so crooked.
Our sense of isolation is never greater than when we run into the armies, widely distributed through society, of the closed-minded. Full of broadly benevolent intention, these types nevertheless keep a close eye on any signs of the more regrettable aspects of human nature and are ready to censor their appearance from the first. We learn to recognise their disapproval and to keep our shadow sides especially private in their vicinity – which protects our reputations, but increases our underlying sense of freakish isolation.
By contrast, there are those rare individuals who seem able to take most of what we are entirely for granted from the first – and whom we gratefully honour with the term open-minded. Without particular surprise or fuss, they assume from the first that being human is a messy and impure business and that any person they are likely to come across will contain a host of less than ideal dimensions and at points be really quite close to madness. They know, simply on the basis of your membership of the human race, that you have thought and done a range of wild, unethical and sometimes lamentable things. They don’t know the details, but they correctly assume the broad shape of the issue. They calmly accept the gap between how a person appears and what they are probably like in private. For them, a person who seems normal is just someone they don’t yet know very well.
The open-minded are unafraid of what is inside the human soul for two reasons: firstly, because they are confident that there is in almost everyone a huge and secure gap between feelings and actions. They understand that most of what we fantasise about will never be played out in reality and therefore doesn’t pose an active threat to ourselves or the social order. We may well spend a good deal of time entertaining what we’ll say to our enemies, how we’ll give up on everything and everyone (and the world will be sorry), and crafting lurid sexual scenarios contrary to every civilised dictate. But, as the open-minded know, fantasising isn’t a prelude to action, it’s an alternative to it. So our odder thoughts can be looked at, discussed and sometimes laughed over – in the secure knowledge that they will eventually safely be put back in the box. And what’s more, such examination won’t aggravate them, it will help contain and neuter them.
The open-minded also know that the existence of highly troublesome elements doesn’t preclude the simultaneous presence of vast zones of goodness, humility and benevolence in our characters. They are implicitly fond of the distinction, formulated by early Christian thinkers, between ‘the sinner’ and ‘the sin’, and like St Augustine, they strive to ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. They know that one’s right to charity, attention and friendship should not be irrevocably lost on the basis of our darker sides. While hoping it might be otherwise, the open-minded simply take it for granted that nice people constantly do and think not very nice things.
The open-minded person isn’t merely being sweet in accepting this calmly as a given – and therefore not judging harshly when news of misdeeds arises. They are committed to open-mindedness because they are operating with a picture of how people improve. They implicitly propose that the way we change is through warm forgiveness, not cold censure.
The closed-minded are also committed to improvement, but their philosophy of education involves humiliation and disapproval. Only if a person can be brought to hate themselves enough, they reason, can they be counted upon to start to want to change their ways.
The problem is not only that this fostering of self-contempt can on occasion be very cruel; it is also (more seriously) liable to be extremely ineffective. Self-contempt tends badly to sap the will and renders us hopeless and incapable before its ravages. In the face of it, we may seek refuge in our vices to escape our violent dislike of ourselves and our less admirable characteristics. By the angle of their lips and their moments of silence, the closed-minded act as proactive agents of a counter-productive loneliness. They create a world in which significant parts of ourselves must remain homeless and without a path to redemption.
The open-minded know that most people are already brim-full of self-criticism. We’re not in need of further, harder condemnation. Where we truly need help is in liking ourselves enough to dare to develop, given what we know of the sinister regions of our psyches. By their unshocked reception of the stranger elements of who we are, combined with supportive exhortations to betterment, the open-minded model for us the relationship we would ideally have with ourselves as we strive to encourage the nobler parts of our nature and overcome the weakest. It is easy to see why we should so badly want them as friends.
10. How Not to Be Boring
One of our great fears – which haunts us when we go into the world and socialise with others – is that we may, in our hearts, be really rather boring.
But the good news, and a fundamental truth too, is that no one is ever truly boring. They are only in danger of coming across as such when they either fail to understand their deeper selves or don’t dare (or know how) to communicate them to others.
That there is simply no such thing as an inherently boring person or thing is one of the great lessons of art. Many of the most satisfying art works don’t feature exalted or rare elements; they are about the ordinary looked at in a special way, with unusual sincerity and openness to unvarnished experience. Take, for example, some grasses painted by the Danish artist Christen Købke in a suburb of Copenhagen in 1833. Outwardly, the scene is utterly unremarkable and could initially appear to be deeply unpromising material for a painting, and yet – like any great artist -Købke has known how to interrogate his own perceptions in a fresh, unclouded underivative manner and translated them accurately into his medium, weaving a small masterpiece out of the thread of everyday life.
And just as there is no such thing as a boring riverbank, tree or dandelion, so too there can be no such thing as an inherently boring person. The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, is always interesting. When we call a person boring, we are just pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them. By contrast, we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in saying how and what we truly desire, envy, regret, mourn and dream. Anyone who faithfully recuperates the real data on what it is like to exist is guaranteed to have material with which to captivate others. The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has travelled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at large geo-political events. Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the weighty themes of culture, history or science. They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable honest correspondent of the tremors of their own mind and heart, and who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being alive.
What, then, are some of the elements that get in the way of us being as interesting as we in fact are?
Firstly, and most crucially, we bore when we lose faith that it really could be our feelings that would stand the best chance of interesting others. Out of modesty, and habit, we push some of our most interesting perceptions to one side in order to follow respectable but dead conventions of what might impress. When we tell anecdotes, we throw the emphasis on the outward details – who was there, when we went, what the temperature was like – rather than maintaining our nerve to report on the layer of feelings beneath the facts; the moment of guilt, the sudden sexual attraction, the humiliating sulk, the career crisis, the strange euphoria at 3 a.m.
Our neglect of our native feelings isn’t just an oversight; it can be a deliberate strategy to keep our minds away from realisations that threaten our ideas of dignity and normality. We babble inconsequentially to the world because we lack the nerve to look more closely and unflinchingly within.
It feels significant that most five year olds are far less boring than most 45 year olds. What makes these children gripping is not so much that they have more interesting feelings than anyone else (far from it), but that they are especially uncensored correspondents of these feelings. Their inexperience of the world means they are still instinctively loyal to themselves; and so they will candidly tell us what they really think about granny and their little brother, what their plans for reforming the planet are and what they believe everyone should do with their bogeys. We are rendered boring not by nature so much as by a fateful will – that begins its malevolent reign over us in adolescence – to appear normal.
Yet, even when we are honest about our feelings, we may still prove boring because we don’t know them as well as we should, and so get stuck at the level of insisting on an emotion rather than explaining it. We’ll assert – with ever greater emphasis – that a situation was extremely ‘exciting’, ‘awful’ or ‘beautiful’ but not be able to provide those around us with any of the sort of related details and examples that would help them viscerally understand why. We can end up boring not so much because we don’t want to share our lives as because we don’t yet know them well enough to do so.
Fortunately, the gift of being interesting is neither exclusive nor reliant on exceptional talent; it requires only direction, honesty and focus. The person we call interesting is in essence someone alive to what we all deeply want from social intercourse: which is an uncensored glimpse of what the brief waking dream called life looks like through the eyes of another person and reassurance that we are not entirely alone with all that feels most bewildering, peculiar and intense within us.
11. How to Talk about Yourself
Polite people have it instilled in them from an early age that they should not talk too much about themselves. A few comments aside, they should – to prove appealing – always ask the other about their lives or stick to impersonal topics found in newspapers, lest they be accused of that heinous charge: self-absorption.
But this rule fails to distinguish between different ways of talking about oneself. There are, as well-mannered people sometimes forget, better and worse ways to share details of one’s life. It is not the amount that one talks that should determine the issue; only how one does so.
There is one particular way of discussing oneself which, however long it goes on for, never fails to win one friends, reassure audiences, comfort couples, bring solace to the single and buy one the goodwill of enemies: the confession of vulnerability and error. To hear that we have failed, that we are sad, that it was our fault, that our partners don’t seem to like us much, that we are lonely, that we have wished it might all be over – there is scarcely anything nicer anyone could learn.
This is often taken to signal a basic nastiness in human nature, but the truth is more poignant. We are not so much crowing when we hear of failure as deeply reassured – reassured to know that we aren’t humiliatingly alone with the appalling difficulties of being alive. It is all too easy to suspect that we have been uniquely cursed in the extent of our troubles, of which we seldom find evidence in the lives around us. The media offers us unending accounts of the financial and creative success of others, while our friends and acquaintances constantly pepper their conversations with ever-so subtle boasts about their and their children’s accomplishments.
By an ultimate irony, these self-promoters aren’t trying to alienate us. They are labouring under the touching but seriously misguided impression that we will like them more for their success. They are applying to social life a model of a relationship between popularity and success that in fact only applies in very selective contexts, perhaps when we seek to please our parents or need the help of successful people to advance our careers. But the rest of the time, as the boasters forget, we find success an enormous problem.
We put in so much effort to be perfect. But the irony is that it’s failure that charms, because others so need to hear external evidence of problems with which we are all too lonely: how un-normal our sex lives are; how misguided our careers are proving; how unsatisfactory our family can be; how worried we are pretty much all the time.
Revealing any of these wounds might, of course, place us in great danger. Others could laugh; social media could have a field day. That’s the point. We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us. Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable to someone by talking: not a fancy present, but something even more precious, the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity. It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world – when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that is what makes us endearing to others, and transforms strangers into friends.
12. How Not to Rant
One of the risks of social life is that we will in the course of an evening or in the kitchen at a party end up trapped with a person of excessive conviction or, to put it more colloquially, a bore. Bores can be found harbouring any manner of obsessions: they may be deeply concerned about grammar (and the ever increasing misuse of the subjunctive) or believe that modern architecture has alienated us from ourselves; they may be horrified by the predatory nature of contemporary capitalism or disgusted by the whingeing of the environmental movement; they might hate feminism or see misogyny in every corner of life. Bores aren’t necessarily wholly misguided, they may be making some very good points along the way; but our discomfort in their company arises from the intensity and relentlessness of their manner. We long that they might fall silent or, more realistically, allow us to run away.
Part of the reason why bores bore is that we sense they are not being entirely honest with us. They are certainly upset, but the real reasons why don’t seem on offer. We feel – in the midst of their explanations – that their intensity is drawing heat from a source beyond the argument as they define it. They may well be emphasising a range of studiously impersonal political, economic or social factors, but we intuit that there must be a more personal story from which we, and their conscious selves, have been carefully shielded.
It’s a general truth, in no way humiliating, that our seemingly-objective adult concerns often have their roots in incidents of personal vulnerability that unfolded long ago and that may be awkward to recover and discuss. Perhaps, when we were young, our father lost his job to a corporation that relocated their offices to south-east Asia: the pay-off was relatively generous but the shame intense for the family. Or perhaps we have been passed over for promotion many times by a young and conspicuously fashionable management team with an interest in contemporary design. Or maybe there was once a woman we liked very much, who was doing a PhD in gender studies on the work of Julia Kristeva and who showed signs of interest but then went off with a rival. It left us quite upset for a while. We may not like to remember these incidents, let alone tell new acquaintances about them at parties. Yet they are still active within us and seek some way, however disguised, of expressing themselves. But all we know consciously is that capitalism is the most abusive and unsustainable economic system ever devised, that modern architecture has shamefully forgotten the nobility of the Classical tradition as embodied by the works of Bramante and Schinkel and that feminists are out to systematically destroy the foundations of male earning power in advanced economies.
When we come across such ardent views, it isn’t that we want to hear less, it’s rather that we would ideally want to hear more – but in another direction, inwards rather than further into socio-cultural and economic abstractions. And we want to do this not from prurience but because social life is guided by a wish to encounter the reality of other people – which is here being arcanely denied. Our boredom is at base an impatient resentment at being held at bay from the genuine traumas of another’s life.
The bore is never just other people. It is – in given areas – also always us. When we take a psychological audit of our intellectual ideas, we all stand to discover that some of our concerns owe their intensity to personal experiences which are hard to define and frightening to own up to.
This alerts us to how we might in the future respond to the speeches of the over-zealous. The task isn’t to engage head on with the matter apparently at stake, it’s to gently try to shift the conversation away from its official target to its origins; sympathetically asking when the issue first emerged and what more personal associations might surround it.
Even if we never get there, the knowledge of the structure of the problem should make us careful not to engage people of excessive conviction in too many prolonged head-to-head arguments. There is no point trying to list why capitalism is not the worst system ever devised, why modern architecture has its high points and why feminism remains necessary. This would be to believe that the other’s rage was a kind of intellectual error that could be magically resolved with the help of one or two deft ideas. The kind conversationalist is more compassionately pessimistic. They accept that the roots of certain of our convictions lie deeply tangled in frightened, anxious parts of the psyche unlikely to be accessible outside psychotherapy.
We’re so aware that it could sound patronising to treat people as less self-aware than they believe themselves to be, we overlook that it may sometimes also be the height of generosity to keep in mind the complicated role that denied personal wounds play in our ardent convictions. And we should hope that others will repay us the favour the next time we find ourselves delivering long and ever more intense speeches about the decline in handshaking, the colonisation of Ecuador and the corruption of the English language.
13. The Charm of Vulnerability
The desire to fit in is deeply engrained in our nature. We’re social creatures with a long evolutionary history that stressed the importance of not standing out in the group. The oddball would be the last to get their share of mammoth meat. We are the descendants of those who conformed – and got fed.
So, it’s understandable if we become awkward, and very lonely, around our own oddities. We become reluctant to admit to anything very strange about ourselves. We police our admissions and strive to appear more usual than we really are. We say we like football, because it feels so difficult, as a man, to admit to much else. We feel constrained to order a whiskey at the bar because it would be very confusing to confess to one’s real desire: a glass of milk. Perhaps we are amongst the handful of adults who are interested in toy trains and have joined a society to find out more; maybe we find wearing an old-fashioned watch enhances the intensity of our love-making; perhaps on holiday we secretly like to visit local hydrochemical plants. Our oddities can be intensified when other aspects of our lives are taken into account. If we are a tax-specialist director of a law firm, it’s especially awkward to announce an interest in socialism. If we are studying engineering, it can be tricky to reveal to fellow students that ideally we would like to be a puppet maker; if we are a flight attendant, our colleagues might take it badly if we went on at any length about our admiration for the novels of Benjamin Disraeli.
It is this background of secrecy that explains our delight when, finally, someone dares publically to be a bit strange: when they say, for example, that they are sexually turned on by sportscars or the Russian president or are so phobic about germs, they always open public bathroom doors with their feet, when they tell us – without particular embarrassment – that they spent the weekend crying at how badly their careers have gone or are engaged in an online flirtation with someone almost twice their age on another continent.
It isn’t that we necessarily share these habits and interests. The delight such comments can provoke lies in the permission they give us to bring out our own more curious sides. The confidence of the confessor encourages us to feel more at ease with our specific range of disavowed feelings. Via their simultaneous awareness of their oddity and ease with it, they are establishing a possibility that we too could make use of around our quirks. In their courage to speak, they are operating with a more accurate and more consoling picture of human nature: one alive to the fact that – statistically speaking – we are all bizarre in quite a few respects. It is extremely normal to be rather abnormal.
The confident confessor is sure we do equally odd (but very different) things. And these unusual things – they are suggesting – are highly compatible with being a pleasant person deserving of love. Through their cheerful acceptance of their own strangeness, they break the oppressive link between being similar and being thought nice – which is otherwise so often active as a punitive force in our minds.
Charming frankness isn’t merely engaging to encounter; it is a guide to our own less lonely future.
14. The Ultimate Test of Your Social Skills
It can be easy to imagine we possess reasonable social skills, because we know how to maintain conversation with strangers and – every now and then – manage to make a whole table laugh.
But there’s a test far sterner than this, surprising in its ability to trip us up: the challenge of having a pleasant time with a child we don’t know. Theoretically speaking, this should be so easy. We were all once kids. We know a great deal more than they do and – as far as they’re concerned – hold all the cards: if we felt like it, we could buy 26 packets of biscuits and go to bed whenever we wanted.
Yet, in reality, it’s strangely hard to get at ease around children we’re not already close to. Imagine being invited around to your boss’s house for lunch and being left alone at the kitchen island with her moody ten-year-old son; or being introduced into a playroom with two shy five-year-old girls, the children of a friend. We may swiftly grow bewilderingly tongue-tied and inept.
The reason is that children are unable to do any of the normal things that ease social encounters between adult strangers. They don’t ask polite questions about what we’ve been up to. They have no feeling for our lives or what might be important to us. They don’t do the news or the weather. And they can’t usually tell us much about themselves and their enthusiasms. If we ask them why they like a toy or a film, they tend to look blank and say they just like it, that’s all.
So for all their sweetness, children present formidable and fascinating barriers to social fluidity – which is also why they are the greatest tests of one’s mastery of the arts of charm and kindness.
We have – across cultural history – a few moving examples of accomplished adults getting on well with children. Montaigne remarked that he found ‘nothing more notable’ in the life of Socrates (the man who more or less began Western philosophy) than that he was exceptionally gifted at playing with children – and would, especially in his later years, spend many hours playing games and giving them piggy-backs. ‘And it suited him well,’ added Montaigne, ‘for all actions, says philosophy, equally become and equally honour a wise man.’
Henri IV, King of France from 1589 to 1610 is remembered as one of the most benign French monarchs who also happened to be very sweet around children. On one occasion, famously painted by Ingres, the Spanish Ambassador came to see the king and found him pretending to be a horse for his children to ride on. Rather than interrupt the game immediately, Henri kept the Ambassador waiting a little while, sending out a strong signal of where he felt sensible adult priorities should sometimes lie.
Henri IV Receiving the Ambassador of Spain, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1817
What’s touching in these cases is that the adults did not insist on using their obvious, socially-endorsed strengths around children. Socrates did not opt to deliver lectures about metaphysics, Henri IV did not sit impassively on a throne discussing how to rule a kingdom. They put aside their well-known virtues and prestige in order to make themselves vulnerable – as one must whenever friendship is at stake. They dared to lay themselves open to attack by those who might have described them as ‘silly’ or ‘undignified’, implicitly understanding that friendship can only emerge when we let the fragile, unadorned parts of us meet – without artifice – the fragile, unadorned parts of others.
Furthermore, these two grand men knew how to find common ground with creatures who were, in so many respects, entirely alien to them. Cosmopolitans of the mind, they imaginatively searched for what unites rather than what divides people and were able to locate, somewhere within their characters, the joys and excitements of someone who has only been on the earth a few years. The socially-adept know that we contain (even if only in trace, embryonic forms) all human possibilities within us, which they draw upon to feel their way into the needs and points of view of strangers. So even if they happen to be confident, they will know how to be in touch with the more timid version of themselves; even if they are the financially secure, they can mobilise their own experience of anxiety to enter into the inner world of someone beset by money worries; and even if their careers have not gone well, they can, without bitterness, find a part of themselves that would love to prosper and use this to engage warmly with someone whose professional life has gone very well indeed.
The moves that these grand people made with kids are ones we should all learn how to make with anyone, of whatever age, we want to bond with. But it’s particularly useful that these were grand people who made neighing sounds, for what so often holds us back around others, and makes us cold when we deep down long to be close, is a fear of a loss of dignity. Friendship begins, and loneliness can end, when we cease trying to impress, have the courage to step outside our safety zones and can dare – for a time – to look a little ridiculous.