June 16, 2004

Change is good?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at June 16, 2004 12:38 AM

Via Eugene Volokh, some musings on "men and sexy":

And I know a fair number of (good adjectives) single men, but [it's generally] also clear why they're single. They don't listen, and won't; they won't get a real job; they're boring but don't want to acknowlege it or do anything about it. Hey, if that shirt was "in" when they were in high school, no need to see if any ads/mannequins/humans under 60 wear it today.

I don't have a single female friend who hasn't asked herself, "What am I doing wrong?" and been totally open -- often too open, in a self-blame-y way -- to the answer, and to changing the answer, often with great success. But I almost never find that men ask that question, or are even willing to hear the answer, let alone do anything about it. Instead, single men in my experience behave as if the only life possibilities are being the way they are, or acting. The idea of growth and change don't make the radar.

(There's more, but this is the core of it.) I'm less interested (at the moment) in the differences between male and female approaches that are the focus of the piece, than in the idea that one should change oneself to become more attractive.

I'm a great believer in the mutability of personal identity; the alternative for me is despair, because if I don't change who I am on a timescale of five years or so, I anticipate ending up in a very unhealthy situation. So, I consider myself a work in progress, and am in principle dedicated to certain self-modifications, although in practice these often turn out to be very difficult to achieve.

Furthermore I'm unlike "most" single men as this piece would have it* in that I'm fully aware that fundamental aspects of my personality are major factors in keeping me single -- overwhelmingly so. I've blogged about this before, and it all still applies.

So far, so good. But, something's bothering me about all this: Given the circles I travel in, I meet a lot of quirky people. And, in my experience, quirks are not attractive. Most women find quirky guys off-putting. Nevertheless, most if not all of the quirky guys I know feel no need to suppress their idiosyncracies to be more socially acceptable, and my gut feeling is that this is an admirable trait.

Now my gut is an inveterate liar, and therefore I tend to submit gut feelings to a barrage of skepticism. In this case, my viscera defend their intuition as follows: Quirky behavior is valuable because it makes a person unique. The person who takes pride in his quirks is asserting sovereignty over his own identity, whereas the one who suppresses his uniqueness in favor of attractiveness is in effect submitting to majority rule of his personality. So I admire a proudly quirky person because he is his own man.

On the other hand, there's no evidence that the author of the piece quoted by Volokh values uniqueness or individuality, because she does not distinguish between healthy personal growth and conformal to social norms; in effect she is encouraging homogenization. She says, "[t]he idea [sic] of growth and change don't make the radar," but look at what she means by this:

They don't listen, and won't - Classic self-absorption; for a guy to change this would be a good example of growth.

they won't get a real job - There's a whole quagmire awaiting me in the interpretation of "real job"; I am going to avoid it by assuming that the key word is "won't", and this bit is aimed at the guys who live in their parents' basements and are temperamentally opposed to working for a living. If that's what's meant here, then it's another example of room for growth, but it describes a tiny fraction of single guys rather than most guys. Perhaps the author spends too much time at Star Trek conventions?

they're boring but don't want to acknowlege [sic] it or do anything about it. - But this is very different from the previous two items, because boring-ness is not an intrinsic property of a person: it arises from the interaction with an observer. While no one is objectively boring, a guy could have the misfortune of being found boring by the vast majority of single women. This is certainly a problem, but solving it is an issue of homogenization rather than growth, and there are trade-offs. In my case, my line of work is extraordinarily uninteresting to most women, and by leaving physics for something more exciting (for them) I could increase my chances of hooking up. But I like physics, doing physics makes me happy, and doing something else just to get laid doesn't make me a better person, it just means I'm selling out.

Hey, if that shirt was "in" when they were in high school, no need to see if any ads/mannequins/humans under 60 wear it today. - And fashion decisions are just thrown in with the other items as if they all go together. Are we talking about "growth and change", or are we talking about changing my shirt? Is this discussion about character flaws, or being found boring by the general population, or having matching socks? When you say, "single men in my experience behave as if the only life possibilities are being the way they are, or acting," can you explain how I can change my wardrobe in a sincere way as opposed to "acting"? This one sentence makes it very hard to take this piece seriously.

In the end I think this piece fails to acknowledge distinctions in the ways one can change oneself: superficial vs. fundamental, growth vs. conformity. If I make a deep change in who I am just to be more attractive, I lose part of myself in the process - as well as any claim to being my own person.

(Damn, it's been a while since I had a good rant.)

*I have no idea whether the author is correct about this; I hesitate to generalize from my own example, as I'm hardly typical in other ways.


Much food for thought here. I often think the issue of looking for love (in all its form) is wrapped up in a whole sea of missed connections, differing expectations, and undue pressure. People don't need to fill up each other's holes or be uniformly similar or even complimentary. That's boring, at least to me. People change anyway, or at least try to, without having to be told to by others (or after being told to by others, depending on the situation...)

But what your previous post and perhaps this one doesn't always take into account is that change and risk are related. There are certain "fundamental" aspects of personality and behavior that may seem immutable, but they could also be a function of a particular paradigm that seems impossible to change because doing so would upset a carefully-constructed balance. Whether that balance is real or a figment is another story, of course, but it's there.

And I personally think quirky traits are admirable as well, possessing my fair share of them. But it's less of a risk to remain defiant about it than to figure out how to make such quirkiness work in the context of life, the universe, and getting dates. It's not necessarily a sacrifice of self...just an adjustment.

Posted by: Sarah | June 16, 2004 9:03 AM

Well, dang. Personally, the day we stop learning, changing, and growing is the day we day, be that in a literal or figurative sense.

On another side of things, while quirkiness in particular may not be attractive, I believe a sense of... not quite confidence, not quite pride, not sure what the word is... in one's quirks and sense of self as a whole is far more important anyway. For example, having a small penis likely isn't nearly the disadvantage of having a blatant inferiority complex. Furthermore, following your gut to make decisions, or really using any method of judgement to make decisions, at least from an attractiveness standpoint, is likely far less important than the confidence with which you make them, and the sense of responsibility and readiness for the consequences you adhere to (at least insofar as this is visible by others).

I could get into a tangent and mention that the further you drift towards a sense of superiority rather than confidence the worse, imho, but I could run off on tangents forever.

Of course, that's just my 2.718 cents.

Posted by: Lemming | June 16, 2004 12:23 PM

Dangnuts, that'll teach me to proofread. The word is "die," not "day," and I think there are plenty of other typos that are less vital in understanding what I said. I'm a tard.

"Well, dang. Personally, the day we stop learning, changing, and growing is the day we die, be that in a literal or figurative sense."

Posted by: Lemming | June 16, 2004 12:24 PM

Good points, both...

Sarah: What comes to mind when I read your comment is (of course) a physics metaphor: to the (large) extent that my personality is determined by the environment that I find myself in, it is like a particle in a multi-dimensional potential, and it naturally finds its way to a stable equilibrium that is well-suited (in some sense) to the environment. If the potential looks like a trench, then I may be able to change myself easily along some vector, but if it looks like a well, the relevant aspects of my behavior are balanced against each other to fit my environment and I will find it difficult to change any of them. (Unless I have totally misunderstood you, and you are talking about a different sort of balance.) In a case like this, it may be more effective to try to change the environment I find myself in, but this has its own difficulties...

Your thoughts on quirkyness are exactly the sort of middle ground I tend to overlook when I'm in rant mode. :)

Lem: If there's one thing almost everyone agrees on, it's that confidence is attractive. It's probably also a big part of the reason I admire the unashamedly quirky, although I didn't realize this when I wrote the original post last night.

The importance of confidence to sexyness is something of a thorn in my side, for the obvious reason that confidence is both a cause and an effect of success; since I don't already have a successful record, I naturally have no confidence in myself. So as a description for attractiveness it's very accurate, but as a prescription it's not useful. On the other hand, I can always try to fake it.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | June 16, 2004 3:10 PM

Having spent much time pondering the successes and failures of those relationships around me, primarily in an attempt to somehow solve the riddle in time (59% off according to the 2000 U.S. Census), I've decided that confidence is not the magic bullet. There seems to be three bases for relationships: want, need and opportunity.

Want seems to be the strongest. If you find someone that you want and that person wants you, things seem to work out (or be worked out). This is the only way I can explain the Nightstalker being married and getting fan mail and my cave being quite with a mailbox of bills. The Nightstalker's wife wants something capable of that (some psychologists believe it makes women of this kind feel more feminine) and he wants someone who appreciates his "accomplishment". I currently think that all stable relationships must meet on this ground eventually.

Need is a simpler beast (and keep in mind, you don't want what you need). This is where one or both sides of the couple provide something that the other needs. It could be material (money, citizenship, etc.), mental (praise, management, etc.), spirtual (direction, purpose, etc.), or social (attention, interaction, etc.), but they all essentially require that some (perceived) need/flaw be compensated for by the partner. This is a good way to explain cultism and its ability to beguile and control.

Opportunity is even simpler than need, it's where you take what is available for little or no reason. A good example would be Scarlet O'hara's first marriage, she neither wanted the man nor needed him, for all intensive purposes she said yes because all the guys were leaving and he asked. And much like Scarlet's marriage these relationships tend to mean little and not last, but they do form.

That having been said, there's little arguement that self confidence and self image are very important. And really your outward appearance is more a reflection of that than you give it credit. It is sort of a representation of time you've spent on yourself, and if you're worth your own time you might be worth someone else's. I think this could also be the key to the United Statesian focus on fitness where a more robust figure is appreciated in more needy areas.

The generalization that men are boring would to my mind be more a comment on a difference in approach. Often men tend to give the first direct answer to a question and it takes a little more work to get them to expand on a topic. This might be efficient but is not good conversation/entertainment. The most sucessful male conversationalists I know have two tricks: 1- the have a reserve of stories the tell over-and-over and 2- they tend to wrap the conversation back around so as to require/feel out a new direction from the initator. It's a hairdresser's trick really, they aren't really more interesting than anyone else, but they keep conversations going like a broken record (but since the person doesn't hear it over-and-over it appears interesting and exciting).

(An aside here. I've never thought of what any of my collegues interests were boring, and I was quite insulted when one of them thought mine was. I never dumb down my response to the "What do you do?" question, and yes that has been an effective conversation stopper at times. But I don't think the person asking should be presumed ignorant and I'd hate to insult someone AND myself with a dumbed version).

As for not listening, admittedly you'll hit the "Seminar Filter" if you can't manage to say something catching before it kicks in. Sorry, it's a self defense mechanism that I've developed to escape that leaves me with the capacity to hear something and think about something else. I do have issues with the "and won't" part of it though, you merely must make the conversation worth listening to rather than merely hearing.

To take on the PES problem, I'd view it as a collinear reaction between New-You-Old and so the PES looks LEPS like. You're in your nice little You-Old trench until you reach the saddle point and decide whether you'll become New-You (even if you have to Bobsled (a form of tunneling) to get there) or reflect off the barrier and stay You-Old and you're not very certain what energy you'll have regardless. (Gives new meaning to the spurrious potential wells in some LEPS surfaces too (I should start a "Life as a Tri-atomic Collinear Reaction" book... ok maybe not)).

I'm a little stuck on quirkiness, I'll grant it as an interesting feature, but I'm not sure it can be an attractive feature nor that it is inherently a repulsive feature.

Anyway, I'm more than a little suprised no one has quoted Space Ghost here yet, but that's ok.:) Take good care.

Posted by: Mylanda | June 16, 2004 5:52 PM

Interesting taxonomy... It wouldn't have occurred to me to consider your "opportunity" class of relationships, but now that you mention it some examples do come to mind (besides Scarlett's, which does illustrate the idea nicely).

The question of how much looks and physical condition matter for men seems murky, but it clearly matters some... also, I personally get a bit of a confidence boost if I've been working out recently.

For years I've been carrying around vague intentions of putting in the practice necessary to master the art of conversation, as I'm convinced this is just a skill like any other. Sadly this is not as easy as training other skills, which is why I haven't made much progress (but I'm also not trying that hard).

What surprises me is that Tracy hasn't appeared to scold us for our scientific metaphors...

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | June 17, 2004 6:51 PM

Mylanda, you're right, confidence itself certainly isn't a silver bullet, though in most cases at least some level of confidence is, I believe, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition to get things rolling. If there is a silver bullet, I'd have to say that it's simply luck.

Oh, and Mylanda--I only half-followed that last bit. What are "PES" and "LEPS"?

On quoting Space Ghost, I'm afriad I can't help. I can think of several quotes, naturally, but none seem to quite fit the topic... There is an episode that is simply perfect, but I don't remember any of the dialog verbatim. To sum it up, Space Ghost is infatuated with one of his guests, but Zorak seduces her while he is out chasing wild geese, and it naturally ends with Space Ghost blasting everyone (including the guest) with his power bands. Oh well.

As far as "The Art of Conversation", didn't Sun Tzu write a book about that? Though I must admit, some of his advice seems a bit confusing, for example:

"Hence, when able to talk, we must feign to listen; when using our charm, we must seem unimpressed; when we are interested, we must make the other believe we are bored; when bored, we must make them believe we are interested."


"If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his wits are united, separate them."

though some points are a bit more sensible:

"In conversation, then, let your great objective be to charm, not to talk on and on for hours."

Consider the following, however:

"Now the conversationalist who wins admiration makes many calculations in his temple ere the discussion is held. The conversationalist who loses admiration makes but a few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to popularity and the adulation of your peers, and few calculations to social despair: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can forsee who is likely to please or displease"

I am a bit befuddled by his wordiness--wouldn't it suffice to say, "think, then speak"?

Ah well, I've rambled on enough. Laters,

Posted by: Lemming | June 18, 2004 6:27 PM

Ooh, uh, yeah. Iím going to have to go ahead and sort of disagree with you there. Yeah. /Lumbergh

It's my impression that luck -- in the sense of the standard deviation under a lot of trials -- is not a large factor in attracting women compared to things like interpersonal skills or confidence. But my opinion on this comes with a whole bunch of caveats:

*I don't have any statistical evidence.

*As mentioned earlier, my gut feelings are not at all trustworthy.

*If I don't believe that factors under my control are more important than chance, I am forced to believe that I can't do much to improve my own attractiveness, and this is very depressing. So my belief that luck plays a small role may merely be a self-defense mechanism.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | June 18, 2004 7:50 PM

Perhaps I didn't quite say what I meant, and perhaps we disagree. Then again, perhaps I didn't think about what I said before I said it, and spoke to soon. Of course, I meant it when I said it, but is that what I really think typically, averaged over time? Now I must ponder...
I think, perhaps, my take on luck is more my take on just meeting the right people. The ratio of girls I have met to girls I've actually been interested in is somewhat reasonable, perhaps a little high due to a history mostly lacking any sort of romantic success (well, in particular during my more formative years). The ratio of girls I have met to girls I've really believed I could love, so to speak, is incredibly high (makes more sense to invert it, actually, in which case it's incredibly low). Physical desire aside, there aren't that many girls out there that I'd be deeply interested in--the likelihood of meeting one *and* hitting it off in a chance encounter is rather slim, and, thus, I see luck as being a factor. Sure, I've certainly chased after girls that I didn't feel this way about, but of course I can't usually tell if I feel this way until much later (though I'm pretty sure some of my friends have picked up on it considerably sooner on occasion). Whatever...

Of course, all the luck in the world won't do you a bit of good if you finally find somebody you could really care about, and you're not someone they could be bothered to give a damn about.

On another slightly different note, I sort of believe that there's a certain inevitability, given that two people who could really care for each other get to know each other enough. I see a convenient metaphor in the term "falling in love". You can think of it as a potential well, once two compatible entities are proximal enough, the lowest energy state involves both of them stuck at the bottom of this potential well... I think that's my hopelessly romantic geeky self talking though, I can't really support that one way or another.

Now I've really lost my train of thought, so I'll stop again soon. I'll say one other thing though. I've always thought it was more important to better one's self for the sake of one's self, and let attractiveness or whatever to come as a convenient side effect of that. If you can make yourself desirable to your own sensibilities, perhaps you'd naturally be desirable to someone who's desirable to you?

Posted by: Lemming | June 18, 2004 11:19 PM

Lemming: It seems that we don't disagree as much as I thought, then; I agree that luck is a big factor in finding people with whom one can make deep connections; I had been thinking (in my previous comment) about attractiveness by itself. Indeed, finding women I could love is not a big priority for me right now; given that only about 5% of the women I meet are single, and only about 5% of those give me a second look, it would be putting the cart before the horse to look for soul mates in that tiny fraction.

I also agree that falling in love is pretty common among people who get to know each other well (though I wouldn't say inevitable). Your potential well model does suffer from a common failing: the real world is rarely as symmetric as the theory...

I do think there's a certain tension between working toward one's own ideal self and toward a more attractive self. Part of the problem is that attraction is about presentation; it's a surface view rather than a cross-section. Women who get to know me well tend to enjoy my company (although it's obviously a self-selecting sample), so that's not the problem - it's convincing women that I'm worth getting to know, which involves a different (but not disjoint) set of properties.

Fortunately I think the properties related to my self-ideal and the ones that would improve my attractiveness are, when not aligned, at least orthogonal so that I can work on both.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | June 19, 2004 5:48 PM

I was going to read the whole conversation, but then I saw how long it was and am completely aware that I should have already gone to bed. (I've been starting work too late in the day recently.)

As usual, I'm just going to attempt to be snide rather than contribute anything useful. I have to be me, you know? :)

Anyway, one thing to say is "to be great is to be misunderstood."

Of course, perhaps we should modify that to say, "To be pretty good, one has to be misunderstood.'

One can also echo Ambrose Bierce's comment about conforming: "We submit to the majority because we have to. But we are not compelled to call our attitude of subjection a posture of respect."

In truth, I would argue that we don't have to, because I have spent my life refusing to do that even if some things might occasionally be easier, because I just _don't want_ to. I like who I am far better than I like who the average person is, so why I should I become more like something I detest? I'd _much_ rather be less-liked by most people and find the really awesome people, and I've noticed that I tend to get extra props from those people because I'm the way I am. Interestingly, I was recently told by a student that I am so approachable as a prof _because_ of how informal I am, the fact that I'll openly show my human side when I'm supposed to be professional (and acting "professional" sickens me mightily), etc.

I could also add the quote, "A tan fades. A high score lasts forever." However, that would be a bit of a non sequitar.

Let me also quote Douglas Adams: "Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with
reason, logic, or physics." (Douglas Adams, "Tea")

Anyway, I deviate from the norm more than most, and I am not at all ashamed of it. If it makes life harder at times, so be it. I can be insecure about a lot of things and can also be self-conscious about a lot of things, but being a nerd/freak/geak/whatever isn't one of them.

Personally, I like the fact that people tend to remember me because of how unique I am (for better, worse, or both). It's far better than just being an anonymous face in the crowd with 10 million clones all over the world.

Anyway, I'm sorry if some or all of my points (however snidely written) duplicate those above. I really should get to bed, and I'm lazy enough that I felt like writing my own response rather than reading everything above to make sure I didn't duplicate anything.

Oh, and people like that author should just go marry a filthy yuppy, because they deserve that kind of misery!

Posted by: Mason Porter | June 20, 2004 10:35 PM

PES is short for Potential Energy Surface

LEPS is for London-Eyring-Polanyi-Sato, the physicists that came up with the particular PES most often used in triatomic collinear reaction codes.

Posted by: Mylanda | June 21, 2004 11:21 AM

I've never met any of you people, but I dig you all. I'm also a bit out of place, I think I'm the only non-scientist here. So please don't beat me up after class.

I have to comment on this, if only because smart-ass Travis tried to call me out here. :)

After high school I decided that I was not going to compromise who I was for anybody, friend or boyfriend. Obviously I realize that all relationships require an amount of compromise, but I'm talking about not pretending to be something that I'm not, just to "fit in". I'm so happy with who I am that I just don't give a damn anymore. I love to be loud and happy and talkative. That's who I am. I'm no good at being mysterious, I'm no good at playing the "games", I'm just me. In your face, and happy to tell you aaaaaaall about it. If that means I'm single forever, well, so be it.

And quirky is hot. That's just how I feel.

And one more thing: SERIOUSLY. The science metaphors?? STOP. YOU'RE KILLING ME.

Posted by: Tracy | June 29, 2004 1:45 PM
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