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Come check out the new scene!
We all know that a basic grasp of small talk is necessary if you want to be a semi-functional member of society. There will always be first dates, mandatory social functions, workplaces, client meetings, and other settings where you may be forced to talk about nothing with someone you don’t necessarily like.
Let me explain a bit more about my personal relationship with small talk. I was raised in a family where things like religion, politics, philosophy, morality, and literature are freely discussed. Furthermore, I have always had friendships with thinking people who enjoy getting beneath the surface of things and analyzing emotions, situations, and behavior. Now, keeping the conversation light is not always a bad thing; in many settings it is clearly appropriate. However, since I have had the opportunity to travel in a few other continents and have been raised by immigrants, I have found it striking how superficial we are here in the US. It’s been suggested that the rampant materialism of our culture may contribute to this phenomenon. Whatever the cause, around here it is surprisingly rare to meet people that enjoy lively discussions about substantial things, and indeed, that are able to disagree while still keeping the conversation friendly.
So yes, there’s a reason I don’t usually enjoy light socializing in bars: small talk gets tedious. I tend to cope with this discomfort by distracting myself with alcohol. This results in my progression through the following stages of inebriation:
In this stage, I am passing the time by gluing myself to the bar, repeatedly wondering out loud where the server is, or have my drink attached to my face so I don’t have to talk.
After a cocktail or two, I am usually infused with a sense of well-being, and probably act more normal, well-adjusted, and relaxed than I do when I am stone-cold sober. I am able to engage in small talk without too much background effort, unless a situation is exceptionally awkward
My style of drunkenness is best described as “philosophical.” In this phase, my interest in discussing topics that fall outside the range of small talk will begin to overcome the filter between my brain and my mouth. Things can start to get analytical. At this phase my ability to hide contempt also becomes hindered. If anyone is saying something stupid or being a douche, they can probably expect some barely concealed eye-rolling, or if I’m very annoyed, some well-placed mockery.
This is my highest phase of drunkenness. Being of Eastern European descent, even if I am extremely wasted, I can usually remain somewhat articulate. However, my ability to tolerate small talk is almost completely obliterated. It is in this phase that if I suddenly realize I am surrounded by Christians, I will loudly and compulsively announce that I am an atheist to make it clear that I in no way identify with religion or spirituality of any kind. Yes, that has really happened multiple times, and has resulted in people telling me that I have no soul. In Code Red phase, I am perfectly happy to discuss any number of taboo topics, and have been known to cause various levels of strife in social situations by pointing out unpleasant truths or expressing controversial views. In sober life, I don’t necessarily think that being controversial is wrong, I’ve just learned over the years that picking my battles reduces my chances of being burned at the stake.
So, from a person with a persistent internal clash between their misanthropic side and their social side, here are a few strategies I have developed to deal with the soul-crushing boredom that can be small talk.
Pay attention to nonverbal communication
Nonverbal cues like vocal tone and body language account for roughly 65% of human communication. Even if what a person is saying out loud is so vapid that you are suppressing the urge to start banging your head against the nearest wall, figuring out what they are communicating nonverbally can actually be an absorbing project. Is the person really engaging with you, or are they focused on someone else? Are they comfortable or are they anxious? Are they lying? Are they attracted to someone in the room? Are they attracted to you? There are countless resources out there that can help you start to pick up on signals you never even knew were there. For example, learning to pick up facial microexpressions can help you decipher what people are really feeling, even if they are trying to hide it. In case you haven’t already heard, microexpressions are split-second flashes of emotion. They are so fast that they often don’t consciously register until you learn to look for them. To get you started, here is a brief, free test of your microexpression identification abilities.
You don’t have to just focus on nonverbal communication, you can also hone your general observational skills. Paying attention to what people wear, how they present and carry themselves, and what conversation topics they initiate can be surprisingly informative. Even if you never get good at cold reading, looking for patterns can be pretty interesting, especially if you keep an open mind. As boring as people can be, I’ve personally never found them to be 100% predictable, and I always need things to keep me humble, right?
The bottom line is, when you are armed with knowledge, even the most mundane interactions can teach you something about people and give you skills you can take with you, and it can even make small talk . . . fun?
Break up the small talk with another activity
Having something besides alcohol to distract you from your asinine conversation can not only save you a hangover, there will something else to do if there is an awkward silence. This is a big reason why I picked up playing pool and salsa dancing, but the possibilities are as varied as your own interests. Find a venue with a ping pong table, live music, or knife-juggling lessons . . . whatever floats your boat, man. If you can steer social interactions around entertainment, activities or minor competition, who knows, you might actually have a good time.
Ask people about what interests them the most.
Everyone knows that people like to talk about themselves, so this is a pretty easy way to get the conversation rolling if all you can hear are crickets. Once you get a person talking about something they are really into, you might even learn a thing or two. Unfortunately, this strategy can backfire if you ask about what interests a person most and they start talking about accounting, insurance claim adjustments, or Jesus. Then you’re just screwed. Sorry.
Mine people for valuable information.
Others can really be a wealth of resources. I’ve discovered a lot of great music, art, and travel ideas by asking for recommendations. Not only do people love to talk about themselves, they also love to recommend things. Even better, when people tell you about their favorite things, you are really getting the highlights of their personal experience with a given subject – the best of the best. This isn’t any guarantee that a recommendation will be quality, but there also isn’t any guarantee that your life won’t be extinguished tomorrow by a freak accident, so suck it up, cupcake.
You could take this a step further, but then you might be crossing over into dangerous, non-small talk waters, so watch yourself (ALERT! ALERT!). If your conversation partner seems smart, savvy, or accomplished, you could even subtly ask for advice in whatever topic of interest is appropriate. Another way to phrase this is to ask how this person dealt with certain challenges they have faced. I’ll leave it up to you to work out how to gracefully interject something like this into a conversation. Fly, little bird, fly.
Be charming. Flirt, even, if the situation calls for it.
Don’t in any way read this strategy as an endorsement of ass-kissing. There are few things more annoying than smarmy ingratiation. That being said, people adore compliments (you know you do!), but it’s only good when it’s genuine. If you can find something you admire about someone or how they present themselves, a little charm can go a long way toward opening up the conversation. When people feel encouraged, they might talk about more interesting things, which will only help. Your positive vibes (you devil, you!) can rub off and generally make things more pleasant for everyone. Like any of these strategies, it won’t necessarily work, but it usually doesn’t hurt to try.
If you’re downright going to flirt — and this only works if the other person in your conversation is flirt-worthy — it can make even the driest of exchanges amusing. It’s all about the subtext. So brush up on your double entendres, keep it classy, and try not to make an idiot of yourself. Then again, if you do end up in the throes of mortal embarrassment, at least you’re not bored, right?
STRATEGY (for dealing with someone who has a verbal diarrhea problem):
Run, just run.
Disgust: By Polylerus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Birds: By Chiltepinster (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Tense pool game: By PH2 (DV) Eric Lippmann (U.S. Navy) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wink: By Alex Kapranos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Blah Blah Blah: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Blah_blah.gif
The process of going after the dream career makes for some sobering moments when you actually try it. Just like with most things in life, no amount of pedantic lecturing or advice will replace experiencing that special joy for yourself. What makes me presume to know anything about the subject? Well, pursuing my dream career has been my primary focus for the majority of the past decade, at the expense of pretty much every other area in my life. Currently I’m in in the graduate school phase of this career, which let’s just say is science-heavy and has a lengthy, demanding, and competitive educational progression.
Anyway, I graduated high school as idiotically idealistic, and between then and now there are definitely some things I learned the hard way. Let me share some of my most awkward realizations with you now for your entertainment.
You will have doubts.
From purely anecdotal observation, I’ve noticed that people tend to assume that a dream career is something a person wants with unshakeable certainty. While this is true for some, it is not always the case. When I took the first, shaky steps on my own career path, I was only about 60% sure it was what I wanted. As I increasingly invested more time and energy into it, I worked my way up to about 90%. That still means that about 10% of the time I want push my career off of a large cliff and watch as wolves devour its mangled remains. Here it is: things worth doing are often difficult. If it was easy to become a professional rock climber, doctor, or a rock star, it wouldn’t be nearly as valued or admirable. When I am catatonic and huddled in a corner rocking back and forth as I contemplate my life choices, I try to remind myself that the doubt is temporary, and that it will always crop up from time to time. As long as it falls within acceptable ranges, full steam ahead.
People will try to stomp on your dreams.
Rejection is a universal life experience. No one, I don’t care how beautiful, successful, or famous, will go through life completely unscathed. Elvis Presley and the Beatles were told that their musical careers were going nowhere. Before she got famous, Oprah was fired and told she was unfit for TV. Harry Potter and the fucking Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected 12 times before it was published. Charles Darwin, in his own words: “I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”
The list goes on and on.
I’ve had my share of people stomping on my dreams, but I’ll tell you the story that really defined the experience for me. One of my former bosses, who I now refer to as “The Dream Crusher,” used to be a hero of mine. The Dream Crusher was intelligent, a forbidding wealth of knowledge, and someone who I admired unwaveringly.
One day, I was told by another boss (yes, I had multiple bosses which was – as I am sure you can imagine – delightful) that I had been stripped of an important responsibility, largely because The Dream Crusher had deemed me incompetent. I felt devastated and bewildered because, at the risk of sounding immodest, I was one of the cleverest and hardest-working people at my level. To defend The Dream Crusher, it was not entirely without reason. I was still learning and hadn’t been properly trained at that particular task, which made for some flustered moments. However, I was the only newbie who had studied it extensively on my own time, and I didn’t see anyone else getting demoted. Without getting into all of the gnarly details, I was essentially being told conflicting things about how to perform this task correctly by my various bosses. This compounded the stress of learning a complex new skill, which didn’t help combat the image that I was uncomfortable with that aspect of my job.
When I later had a closed door meeting with The Dream Crusher, I was informed that “some people just aren’t meant for certain things.” This was essentially the same as telling me that I wasn’t meant for this career. I was then condescendingly told that I was very proficient at another, low-level responsibility at my job (that even a monkey could do). Thanks, hero.
This whole series of events threw me into a depression and made me seriously consider giving up my career choice. If someone I admired was telling me I was incompetent and that I aimed too high for myself, who was I, an inexperienced underling, to question this expertise? As someone who believes in taking responsibility for my own shortcomings, it took a while to figure out that I was put in an unfair situation. Soon after that, I spoke up for myself and was promoted back to my old position. I have long since moved on and had other mentors refute the negative comments of The Dream Crusher. This taught me an important lesson, which really, I should have figured out much earlier in life: some people are assholes.
If you are not likeable and / or lucky, hard work will only get you so far.
This awkward realization is more traditionally known as “life isn’t fair.” In spite of the fact that I have probably been hearing this phrase since I was a zygote, I still don’t fail to occasionally become stunned when I realize that it’s true. Ironically, I whine like a little bitch about it even though in comparison with the majority of the world population, it is usually true in my favor.
So, remember that job that I told you about with my charming boss, The Dream Crusher? Turns out I had some other haters there, too. This brings me to another lesson I had to learn the hard way.
When I first started at that job, I started at the lowest, dirt-scraping position possible, and I was eager to move up. Fresh from the university, I made the mistake of assuming that work was a meritocracy, and if I proved that I was intelligent and hard-working, that I would be rewarded accordingly. I was wrong. When charming and well-liked fellow employees made mistakes, it was often overlooked. People who were not as popular would be singled out as scapegoats, which was convenient when higher-ups needed to vent their frustrations on someone. I was that scapegoat for a while, and I won’t lie when I say it was a relief when that torch was passed on to the next unfortunate victim. Frankly, I was shocked at how supposedly civilized people can act so horrible when they get into a pack mentality.
Since I find ass-kissing to be repugnant and it is definitely not my forte, it was a learning curve for me to figure out how to mesh with my less appealing coworkers and bosses without feeling like a whore. I eventually honed my interpersonal skills a bit. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it’s amazing how much better life got.
The moral of the story is: If you aren’t likeable, being a hard worker won’t mean much. Don’t just take my word for it; eighty percent of available jobs aren’t even advertised, and fifty percent of jobs are found through networking. This means you are often relying on your current contacts, luck of the draw, and your interpersonal skills when it comes to promotions or job hunting. You can bet that if you don’t make a good impression, you’ll be passed up for someone who does.
That being said, don’t even try to aim for universal popularity, because that’s impossible. At a certain point, you’ve just got to come to terms with the fact that . . .
You will have to make sacrifices.
In this society, we are bombarded with options. Whether choosing a toilet paper brand, cell phone, relationship, or career, trying to make the right choice can be paralyzing. While we are incredibly fortunate to have so many choices, there is a dark side. When we do actually commit to something, the fact that we’ve passed up so many other options can make us more dissatisfied with the choice we’ve made. What if it was the wrong decision? What if there is something better out there? This phenomenon has been described as “the paradox of choice.”
What’s particularly insidious about this is that sometimes people get so attached to keeping their options open that they can’t commit to anything. Now, there is a lot of awesomeness that comes with being a rolling stone.
That being said, the very act of keeping your options open means you are sacrificing other awesome experiences you could be having. Realizing that isn’t always easy – we all know that one person that can’t settle on a long term plan and unwittingly winds up accomplishing nothing.
On the flip side, if you do commit to something, yes, you are indisputably giving up other options.
Whether it’s a giant school loan, time that you’ll never get back, or a hobby you have to put on hold, sacrifices are inevitable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. At a certain point, making a decision and sticking with it can bring you rewards that aimless wandering simply can’t. The research behind the paradox of choice theory reveals something interesting: your happiness isn’t so much dependent on making the absolutely best choice possible, but rather being satisfied with the choices you do make. While obviously you want to put some thought into your decisions, often there is no clear right or wrong answer. Sometimes you just have to pick something and go with it.
Just because it is your dream career doesn’t mean that you will be happy all of the time.
Somehow we are spoon fed this myth that once we find our One True Calling, everything will magically fall into place. When we find that life contains suffering no matter how awesome our profession, it can be difficult not to wonder – irrationally – “what the hell is wrong with me?”
To forever be stating the obvious, though, even the most sought-after professions have their downsides.
Think it would be awesome to be a rock star, with adoring fans, a smorgasbord of sex, and drugs that flow like … wine?
Well, what about endless hours on the road in a confined space with the same few people, day in and day out? How about the inevitable strain that would put on your significant other or children should you choose to have a committed relationship? How about the crushing stress of having to please thousands of fans on a given night, even if you would rather be laying on a couch in the fetal position in your pajamas?
What about becoming an artist? That would be pretty awesome, too, right? Yeah, aside from the fact that you are probably suffering from the constant, nagging stress of trying to pay your bills. The research shows that to a point (around 60K, to be specific), money actually can buy you happiness. Being poor is also more likely to make you miserable. As you start falling below that salary line, you’re increasingly screwed.
Also, it turns out that people in creative jobs have some of the highest depression rates. Of course, those rates don’t necessarily reflect that job choice alone is responsible for an increase in depression. The creative types that choose those careers are predisposed, so it’s not always easy to tease apart causation and correlation.
What about your dream to become a doctor? You’d have prestige, a great salary, and best of all, you’re making a living helping people. Well, as far as careers go, doctors have some of the highest suicide rates around. The years upon years of school, long hours, and pressure to perform can really take a toll.
Perhaps becoming a veterinarian would be better, right? Think again. Their suicide rates are even higher than those of doctors. It isn’t just about playing with puppies all day long. Veterinarians have a lot of the same stresses that doctors do, except they get paid a lot less. Plus, vet school is hardcore: a whopping 32% of veterinary students show symptoms of depression by their first year of study.
Now, I am NOT saying you shouldn’t choose any of those careers. There are plenty of people in every one of those fields that lead fulfilling and wonderful lives. My main point is that no matter what you choose, there is shit that comes along with it that you are not going to like. And that’s to be expected.
No matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes.
Yeah, yeah, everyone knows that.
Knowing this rationally, however, and coming to terms with it are two different things entirely. Let me explain. My chosen field tends to select for people with personality traits similar to my own, such as neuroticism, anal retention, and a propensity for stress-induced acid reflux. Incidentally, it turns out that being around these people for long periods of time can be . . . unnerving. This is partially because most of us are perfectionists, and we’re competitive. We’re talking getting bent out of shape over getting one exam question wrong. Making mistakes can be blown way out of proportion.
There is logic behind this. Once we actually start working, our mistakes will have the potential for severe consequences. For each and every one of us, the day will come when we make a very unpleasant mistake, and it’s going to suck. We all try not to think about it, but even people in very trusted professions, like surgeons, make mistakes all of the time.
So yes, the day will come when you make a mistake that will have unpleasant consequences, and there’s no explaining away the discomfort that comes along with that. Just keep in mind that it happens to everyone, and chances are you didn’t just wrongly perform an amputation on someone’s good leg.
Man at desk: By LaurMG. (Own work.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Asshole: Breakfast of Champions (1973), Kurt Vonnegut
Haters Gonna Hate: http://kuroikii.deviantart.com/art/AND-ZORDONS-GONNA-ZORD-283790161
Keith Richards: By Dina Regine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Sad monkey: By frank wouters (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Egg: (By Jorge Barrios (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
When it comes to dating and relationships, clichés are thrown around as liberally as drug recommendations at a pharmaceutical fair. It can be tempting to grasp on to some of these ideas in an attempt to deal with the uncertainty of it all. Some clichés are classic and pretty fail-safe, like “actions speak louder than words,” but others can be useless and downright misleading. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell the difference until you are jilted and double-fisting bottles of cheap liquor, wishing you were dead. When you’ve accumulated a long enough history of unfortunate dating events, like I have, you start to be able to pick out the subtext of the inevitable lines that people feed you. Some of these lines are meant to be comforting, some are used to manipulate, and others are blurted out of sheer idiocy. I can’t by any stretch of the imagination call myself an expert on dating and relationships, but I can probably say I am fairly well-versed in dating disasters. Here are the disclaimers to some of the dating clichés that I wish I had known. Before the cheap liquor.
“Don’t have any expectations.”
You can’t expect that things will always go your way, but do expect your date to treat you like a human being.
When someone tells you not to have any expectations, they somehow think they’re saving you from potential disappointment. To state the obvious, letdowns are inevitable troughs in your life sinusoid.
If you are never disappointed by anything, that probably means you don’t aim very high in terms of life experiences and are subsequently missing out. Either that or you’re living in a constant, lithium-induced stupor.
The problem with this cliché is that it encourages you to be a doormat. Douchebags circle people with no expectations like vultures circle a dying wildebeest. If you think that you need to give up all of your expectations or no one will date you, you are opening the door for people to take advantage. When someone tells you to have no expectations, they are basically telling you not to expect things to work out. Question this approach. Specifically, if you go into situations with your default setting at “I’ll probably get rejected,” this may increase your chances of actually being rejected. Psychology studies such as this one, although perhaps not the paragon of irrefutable science, say so. If you can stomach it, spinning your expectations to be positive end of the spectrum may actually help your chances of success.
And anyway, everybody has expectations whether they like it or not, so telling someone not to have any is like telling them not to feel pain when they are stabbing themselves in the face. Suspending expectations is nearly impossible. If someone says they want to see you again after a phenomenal date, it’s going to be pretty difficult, not to mention unreasonable, to let go of the expectation that they do, in fact, want to see you again. Yes, you might have low expectations, as in, “I have the expectation that my date will not steal my credit cards while I am asleep.” They might be high expectations: “I will only date someone who is educated, fit, exceptionally attractive, wealthy, emotionally mature, confident, humble, and can speak to dead people.”
While people with unrealistic expectations will probably be spending a lot of time alone, most of us lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. We expect that our date will not show up two hours late. We expect that our significant other will take our perspective into account when making major decisions, and be nice to us most of the time.
Another shitty thing about this particular cliché is that it implies weakness in a person with expectations, when in reality, just the opposite is true. If you can assertively handle a situation where your expectations aren’t being met, you are setting the bar for how your relationships will go. If your expectations are sensible, in the long run they may actually save you from disappointment because you are holding people to basic standards that need to be met if you want a crack at something that lasts. Expectations put the power in your own hands to decide what kind of person and what kind of relationship you will let into in your life.
“You’ll meet someone when you least expect it…”
… if you are attractive and / or lucky.
This dating cliché is probably meant to serve less as an absolute truth and more as encouragement to stop acting so fucking desperate. It’s true that you when you put the pressure of a potential relationship on every encounter with someone remotely bang-able, you will probably drive people away. Of course, wildly attractive people don’t have to worry about these kinds of rules. They get away with a lot more crazy and still have plenty of options.
The danger is that you can read this cliché as an excuse to stop trying. For example, if a single person spends their weekends shotgunning entire seasons of Breaking Bad and wallowing in a sea of Doritos, vodka, and despair, they probably aren’t expecting to meet anyone, right? I bet they’re least expecting to meet someone in that state, in their house, with the doors locked and the blinds closed. You know what? I also bet that they won’t meet anyone.
From time to time (and I know this statement will leave some of you reeling with shock), you have to work at meeting people. Whether you’re joining the beer-pong league, going on a few internet dates, or starting to pluck out your unibrow, sometimes it just takes a little extra effort. If you’re putting in that effort, you’re probably expecting that your chances of getting regular sex are at least slightly elevated from baseline. Sure, there are plenty of people that meet in charmingly unexpected ways at delightfully unexpected times, but if I had to bet on it, I’d say that a shitload of people that find love were looking for it when they found it. If 1 in 5 committed relationships now start through online dating sites, that is one in five attached people right off the bat that were looking to get in their relationship. That number is nothing to sneeze at. And that’s just a subset of the people who were looking for (and getting into) their relationships.
And apparently, we aren’t even going to consider the millions of unattached people that for whatever reason aren’t expecting to get in relationships and aren’t getting into relationships either. Not to be a downer, but some people’s options, whether by choice or not, are just going to be more limited. It’s a cold, hard fact. A person that weighs 600 pounds is probably not going to be swimming in prospects. Not saying it can’t happen, because it can (and only click on that link if you really want to know about it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you). It’s just that the good times might be fewer and farther between for some of the population than for people who look like this:
The bottom line: If you want to meet someone, do something about it. Get out and meet new people, even if it makes you want to throw up a little bit in your mouth. For most of us, it is possible to improve the odds of finding someone without acquiring the dreaded stench of desperation.
“You’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do…”
… but you are not obligated to bet on a horse that you know will lose.
This cliché assumes that you are incapable of learning from experience, and while dating absolutely is about taking risks, you are totally allowed to select risks that have a decent chance of paying off. This line further implies that confessing your undying love for someone is the only way to find out if they feel the same way. That’s like going from 0 to 60 on the relationship speedometer, and there is no reason you can’t assess your potential date’s interest in you by subtler means, like first finding out if they know your name.
If the people you pursue consistently happen to be seeing someone else, live thousands of miles away, or don’t return your feelings, you are at risk of suffering a string of soul crushing rejections. There is nothing like repeated, soul-crushing rejection to put a dent in your confidence (even science says it really can fuck you up). That’s game you could have had to spare when taking a risk that could have actually paid off. If you are one of those people that isn’t particularly fazed by rejection, play the numbers game and you never know, you might hit the jackpot. For the rest of us, especially for introverts who find failed interactions emotionally costly, there is nothing wrong with dipping your toes in to see if the water’s warm. That could be a lot better than diving in head first and cracking your head open on a rock.
When your date says, “I believe in monogamy…”
“… but this doesn’t apply to you or any of the other people I am currently seeing.”
This is a convenient statement for people who claim to hold a certain ideal about relationships, but in a more abstract, avant-garde kind of way, in that it doesn’t resemble anything close to reality. Of course, there are plenty of people out there who truly believe in monogamy with integrity, but it’s not always easy to pick out the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
People who say they are monogamous but in actuality sleep around may not even intend to be assholes. Plenty of them have had their hearts stomped into the ground by an ex, are afraid of getting close to someone, or are simply ignorant of their hypocrisy. Unfortunately, intentions don’t mean nearly as much as actions when it comes to other people’s well-being. You can have the best of intentions, but if you hurt other people by not taking responsibility for how your actions affect them, you are still an asshole. Then of course, you have the people that use the line “I believe in monogamy” just to get sex. Those people know they are scumbags. When tested by people in white coats and clipboards, they are the ones that rate higher in Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Essentially, there are people out there that have no problem with lying or using people because they really don’t give two fucks about how the other person feels. I’m not just talking about major clinical personality disorders, either. Plenty of these people rate higher on these traits but are still not considered mentally ill. So yes, they walk among us. Don’t tell me you haven’t met any.
In psychology, there is a school of thought called attachment theory. In short, there are three major attachment “styles” that people have when it comes to relationships: secure, ambivalent (sometimes called “anxious”), and avoidant. The theory goes that more secure types tend to have an easier time with relationships than the anxious and avoidant ones. A hallmark of an avoidant attachment style is the tendency to idealize relationships that don’t exist, (e.g., fantasizing about meeting the perfect person), but not really committing to the relationships that are actually available. This is just the kind of person that might genuinely “believe in monogamy,” but have a few fuck buddies on speed dial at any given time. A friends-with-benefits situation can be a real lifesaver for the avoidant attachment style because it’s a loophole: they’re not technically in a relationship, so they are exempt from any of the expectations that come along with one. That can be a real bummer for the other person.
If you think you might be latched onto someone with an avoidant attachment style, or even a Machiavellian narcissist, it might be time to bust out the old “actions speak louder than words” cliché again. If someone’s saying one thing but doing something else, that’s your clue. Of course, if you’re like me, knowing something’s not right and choosing to ignore it is a perfectly legitimate option.
When someone says, “I don’t believe in labels . . .”
“ … because I am in denial about what’s really happening.”
Maybe at one point in history, like August 15, 1969, there was genuine sentiment behind these words. I’d like to think they were uttered by free spirits who shunned archaic and puritanical relationship conventions, and instead wanted to enjoy love on their own pure terms.
No one’s saying that the labels “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” accurately encompass every type of successful relationship out there, or that a marriage certificate is a guarantee of lasting happiness. Labels are just words, after all, and words aren’t equal to reality.
That being said, rarely have I heard an expression so stripped of meaning and made so trite by overuse. Again, this cliché can be vomited out for any number of reasons, but I find that it’s usually code for something else. Here are some example translations of the phrase, “yeah, we are hanging out, but I don’t really believe in labels, you know?”
Translation: “My date won’t refer to herself as my ‘girlfriend,’ so I won’t call her that either, even though I desperately want to.”
Translation: “My date wants me to be her ‘boyfriend,’ but I don’t really see myself that way.”
Translation: “I’m insecure and if I say this, you’ll think I’m awesome.”
Translation: “I am incapable of having an original thought.”
What’s even worse about this phrase is that people generally only “don’t believe in labels” when it’s convenient for them. People will not hesitate to start using labels when their date solidifies their commitment, or when they have found somebody they officially dig. There is nothing like the putrid stink of hypocrisy to befoul a statement to the point which renders it meaningless.
Saying, “I have to work on myself before I am ready to start dating again…”
“… and I might be saying this to avoid dating indefinitely.”
Do you need to focus on medical school right now so you don’t fail out? Do you really want to take the time to lose that extra 100 pounds? Do you need to be in therapy for a while so that you can successfully repress the urge to cheat on everyone you date? Then by all means, work on yourself. I want to say up front that I think self-improvement is a wonderful thing, and has the potential to boost your general success as a person. The danger lies in the false promise that if people just analyze themselves and their relationships enough, they will be able to outwit pain.
There is also a class of people who use self-improvement as a tactic to pursue an unrealistic ideal of how they should be. This is a handy procrastination tool for anyone who is gun-shy of dating. As in, “dating is terrifying. I think I’ll work on myself for a few decades to avoid it.” The problem is that if you think you need to be perfect before anyone will date you, you will be “working on yourself” forever. As we all know, perfection isn’t attainable. With the quest for perfection, there is the additional danger of becoming so intolerant of other people’s shortcomings that it actually becomes harder to get into a relationship.
Sadly, dating is not a meritocracy. Sometimes the most deserving, intelligent, and kind people, in spite of their best efforts to work on themselves, just aren’t as successful in the dating arena. Conversely, there are those who are successful at relationships without even trying. Some of the successful ones are stupid, evil, or (horribly) both. In case you haven’t seen this meme yet, it illustrates my point exactly: Just remember, these people are married, while there are smart, caring people going home to an empty apartment every day. And remember the subclinical Machiavellian, psychopathic narcissists? Turns out, they rack up more sex partners than nice people.
When your date says, “I believe in complete openness and honesty in relationships.”
Deception is ingrained into the evolutionary fabric of human mating behavior. There are massive studies that actually put statistics on what kinds of lies people tell and how they maximize people’s chances to pass their genes on to the next generation. I’m NOT saying this is a justification to be a dishonest asshole, I’m just saying that deception is deeply rooted in our biological makeup. I am backed up by evidence.
On the bright side, this cliché is often used with good intentions. After all, honesty and open communication are important and integral to dating and relationships. Disclosure, trust, and the freedom to bring up difficult issues undoubtedly make relationships stronger, but employing a unilateral strategy of complete openness? Um, no. When it comes to dating, there are countless and perfectly reasonable situations where you shouldn’t be completely open.
For example, the need for total honesty is unnecessary when it comes to pointing out flaws that people can’t change. If it comes time to reject someone, you can get the basic message across without being unnecessarily brutal. For example, I once dated a guy who was pretty good-looking but not the sharpest pencil in the box. This relationship was doomed to failure for many reasons, not least of which that he was a multiple felon and semiautomatic assault rifle enthusiast. I wish I was joking. Anyway, never did I feel the ethical obligation to be completely open about the fact that I thought he was a moron. You can judge me all you want for making poor dating choices, and I deserve it, but I think that the majority of people would agree that it’s unnecessary to insult your significant other just for the sake of honesty.
There are plenty of other reasons to think twice about being completely open with a date or significant other. To state the obvious again, too much information too fast or uncensored openness about your feelings can send the other person running away screaming. Call me crazy, but when a guy is pursuing me, I really don’t want to hear about his internet porn collection or that his ex is better looking than I am. There are some stones best left unturned. Also, dating is about give and take, and a lot of the fun comes with revealing things gradually, as opposed to taking a giant crap of TMI on someone you are just getting to know.
For people in more committed relationships, when it comes to bringing up negative issues or a partner’s flaws, picking your battles may be a better bet than a unilateral strategy of complete openness and honesty. The key is to keep the ratio of negative to positive interactions and feelings at 1:5 or less. Repetitive discussions about the status of the relationship or pleas for reassurance can become counterproductive. After a certain point, discussion stops solving problems and starts creating them, even if it’s honest.
When it comes to the subject of withholding certain truths, my favorite fictional TV misanthrope, Dr. House, consistently delivers. In one episode, a man well-liked by his community needs a liver donor, and a crowd of people volunteer to be tested as matches. That is, until the man confesses to a host of acts which reveal that he is a veritable shitstorm of douche-baggery. Nearly all of the potential donors leave. His doctors discuss:
“Chase: Out of the two donors who didn’t walk out, both were negative for a potential match. Telling the truth may have just killed this guy.
Adams: I told him to tell his wife he cheated, not confess every sin he’s ever committed.
Park: If everyone did that, we’d never find a donor for anyone again.
Adams: Everybody doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal from their friends.
Chase: Yeah, they do. Maybe not as much as this guy, but if people told nothing but the truth, the world would probably burn down overnight.
Adams: Some people think it’s burning now. Maybe if everybody didn’t lie…
House: Aw, that is cute. [drinking a martini] I’m talking about your breasts. [She puts a hand up to pull the neck of her dress closed.] They always get perky when you’re being painfully earnest. Truth. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? More truth… I only noticed because Chase was staring at them. [He sits at the table and continues.] He’d never admit it, because he doesn’t want to offend you. Same reason he’d never tell you that he’s thought about having sex with you. Although, to be fair, every man you’ve ever met has thought about having sex with you. They’ll lie, because if you knew… you probably wouldn’t want to have sex with them. And that’s just some of the lies from the last minute. And here’s a bigger one… you already know this, but you pretend you don’t because it makes you feel civilized. Most people find it easier to ignore the truth. “
Well said, sir.
Booze: (GFDL [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Van Gogh Skull: (Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Brangelina: (Georges Biard [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Horse: (By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)