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Sociability • Social Virtues
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 publicly to be a bit strange: when they say, for example, that they are sexually turned on by sports cars 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.