Chapter 4.Self: Virtues of Character


How to Be a Good Guest

It’s normal to want to be a good guest; an intense wish to please tends to guide us when we accept a dinner invitation or spend a weekend with friends. And we generally fulfil this ambition by following a leading theory of what satisfies other humans: we mimic our hosts. We follow their lead in the conversation, we discuss what they want to discuss, we eat when they want to eat. We are malleable, we adjust; we laugh at pretty much anything they find funny.

It sounds extremely generous and deeply well-intentioned but there’s a strange aspect to this theory: the mimetic person is not, in practice, especially pleasing. They may not be offensive, but nor are they particularly memorable, interesting or even likeable.

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By contrast there is another social type who is a great deal more winning: the person who expresses their own distinctive needs with clarity while nevertheless remaining at all times gracious and socially vigilant. This more richly characterful person will, over dinner, remark with a smile that they happen to find the politician everyone is meant to hate oddly attractive, at least in fantasy. They tell us about an embarrassing thing that happened to them recently at work – or about a regret that haunts them in their emotional lives. When they are our house guest, they inform us in a rather precise, though always highly polite, way when they like to go to sleep, how much time they need on their own and what their bathroom requirements are. They apologise for being a bit mad in a way that suggests profound sanity. They add that they’d deeply appreciate a boiled egg with biscuits for lunch. They are, in the best way, a bit peculiar.

It isn’t that the mimetic person harms us; they simply don’t reassure or endear us. A key part of what we seek in social contact is a feeling that our eccentricities and less easily mentioned dimensions find an echo in another person. And yet all we see when we come to closer to the conformist guest is our own reflection.

What truly charms is the person who manages to possess both a character and politeness. The archetype for this is the endearing four-and-a-half year old child. They’ll tell a near stranger their ideas about where squirrels go at night, what they like to put in their sandwiches and their nickname for their elderly grandfather. We colloquially call this ‘cute’ but it’s perhaps something more serious than this implies: more pointedly, it’s a relief from the customary pressure to standardise human nature and to say nothing that will sound too odd or flavoured. The small child is reminding us that the variegated surface of every personality – theirs but by implication ours as well – could be put on display and, rather than hurt or offend, simply charm and enliven.

The good guest combines the candour of the child with the social empathy of the self-aware adult. They know how to be that rare and much prized social phenomenon: a loveable eccentric.

There is a sad background to the people pleasing adult who doesn’t in the end even please so much. They are generally the outcome of a style of parenting that didn’t allow character or originality to show through. They had to hide who they really were for fear of upsetting an angry or vulnerable set of caregivers.

We cannot erase the past, but we can cease waging an active war on our characters in public. Our true selves may once have been unwanted, but it’s only on the basis of being able to show them now that proper friendships can begin. Being merely polite is, in the end, an overly low ambition. We have exaggerated how much people like to be imitated and invariably agreed with. It is easy to tolerate such types, but very hard to love them. To truly please people requires that we dare to show a little more of the touching weirdness that lurks within us all.

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