“Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.”
You recently had a job interview that, like the fancy dinner date from last weekend, you believed went very well. Still, just as that woman whom you seemed to charm has since flaked on you, so you have not heard back from the hiring manager, even though he had seemed impressed with you. This is a mystery. After all, the man said you had a unique skill set, your resume speaks for itself, and you were confident and articulate, asking smart and informed questions. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to you, there was “something about you” that he didn’t quite like. So you did not get the position, and remain puzzled as to why.
So it is often with human relations and relationships. For the simple reason that other people’s minds are theirs and not our own, we can never quite be sure as to what they think of us. Here, then, is a truth that, though simple, is yet enormous in its effects, and we therefore do well to keep it in mind.
The old cliché that “all the world’s a stage” exists for good reason. Not only is it true that knowledge of other minds is by definition uncertain, all human beings are at least somewhat adept at dissimulation, and some of us are masters of it—the Second Sex in particular. Nor is this altogether bad, for there are countless times in life when it serves our interests to keep others from knowing what we think of them. ROK is a website devoted to game, and like a good politician, a player is basically an adroit actor. But there is a dark corollary here: if, in a world ruled by self-interest, everyone is an actor to some extent, then we must be mindful that just as we have some skill at lying, dissembling and all the rest, so others do too, making it wise to view them with some amount of suspicion and distrust. And yet we do not want to take this habit of mind too far; like naivete, paranoia is no virtue.
When two attractive women meet for the first time, something like the following hilarious exchange will often occur: “I love your shoes! Where did you get them?” “Thanks! At Macy’s. And I love your hair—it’s so adorable.” The compliments are of course ironic. They function to conceal (and perhaps somewhat discharge) the mutual and deeply competitive hostility the women feel for one another. The trite jargon of corporate America—the universal insistence, for example, on being a “good team member”—is similarly hollow. But it serves a valuable purpose, creating an atmosphere in which every smiling sycophant is supposed to be a part of some big happy family: a kind of pragmatic phoniness which serves to conceal the vile egotism and exploitation that are the real driving forces in the pursuit of “success.”
But while in these examples the real motives of human nature are plain enough, that is by no means always the case in human affairs; and it is only through hard-won experience, by which we come to possess shrewd and discerning eyes, that we can undrape other men and women, then seeing them for what they are, which is usually something rather unpleasant to behold.
When it comes to heterosexual dating, men must understand that it is instinctive in women to appear other than they are (and it’s this talent, by the way, that makes them so good at professions like sales and marketing, and indeed anything that involves deceit but not courage). The reason is that from puberty until middle age women live under the overwhelming gaze of men, with all the pressure and anxiety that comes with this. Here manipulation and deception function as tools whereby women survive or excel in the world despite their inferior reason and lack of physical strength. If player rule #1 is approach and approach, #2 should be distrust and distrust.
It must also be understood that just as women are natural born actresses, so they have an extraordinary knack for detecting male motives, however well these may be concealed. You may be quite a smooth player, with charm and agreeable BS coming out of your ears. For all that, many women will still see through you, even though you may think otherwise. Because women excel at telling people what they want to hear, and at not telling people what they don’t want to hear, it is only natural that women should be very keen at noticing when others try to do either to them. The ability to intuit what other people are all about is also the reason why, deep down, so many women can’t stand other women: they know only too well how petty, unjust and utterly fake their fellow women are.
A genius, and an aristocrat by temperament, Sigmund Freud was sometimes disdainful of “ordinary people.” But even so, he found them inexhaustibly fascinating once he looked beneath the surface and saw them in all their complications and complexities. However good we may be at “reading other people,” there is no doubt that we often fail to see much of what there is to them. I have a close friend who is a fierce man, obstinate, prickly and quarrelsome. Given this aspect of his character, you might not think he is also a man of great sensitivity and compassion, with highly nuanced thoughts, feelings, and tastes. But that is just what he is.
Having dated many attractive American women, it goes without saying that I have known many entitled brats. And yet, being a student of human nature, I have often observed, even in these women, in many respects so unattractive internally, aspects of them that were deeply compassionate and caring. Of course, no one would expect that from a woman whose haughty POF profile reads as a list of demands.
To some degree or other, every human being is a bundle of contradictions. For however it may be shaped and, in our time, horribly perverted by societal conditioning, human nature is an irreducibly complex endowment. It is like a story without end, and we can never be sure what will issue from it. It follows that people—all people—are more many-sided than we tend to perceive. Then too, we rarely perceive them in much depth. Even in close friendships and romantic relationships it often happens that a person suddenly shows us another side, or, as we may say in anger, “his true colors.” Where it had been all along, this other side or these true colors? Somewhere within his character or personality. Why did we not see it before? Either it was perceptible but we missed it or it was not so; it had not yet been called forth by the right occasion. And in any case, this gives human affairs a strange and bewildering character.
For simply consider language itself, so messy and bound by nature to produce misunderstandings. How often there is a gap—though not necessarily recognized—between the intention of an utterance and its interpretation by our interlocutor. You meant one thing, your friend understood another, and then your attempt to clarify things is itself misunderstood! It is one of the more regrettable aspects of the age of texting and email that in these impersonal modes of communication there is no tone or inflection to help convey meaning. Take away the human voice, leaving only words on a screen, and misunderstandings of others—already common and inevitable—become much more widespread. We think we have people right; in fact, we don’t even know we have misunderstood them. Thus the human scene resembles a kind of vast ignorant comedy. Innumerable relationships and marriages do not work out, and how easy for a mass of finger-pointing ignoramuses to blame the other person for “what wasn’t meant to be.” Time to “do you,” to be sure.
The Socratic maxim “know thyself” is perhaps the world’s greatest piece of wisdom. Everyone should consider it his duty to follow it. Knowing others is rather more difficult. We must still try to do so—we have, after all, to put up with one another!—but here we must always remember that our knowledge is bound to be partial, tentative, incomplete. Of course, this also holds for human knowledge generally; “the last word” on contemporary physics will not be arriving any time soon.
Liberalism makes much of the virtue of tolerance, and though it is more limited than people tend to perceive, it remains essential in human relations. But the unavoidable problem with tolerance is that human beings are generally poor at understanding or relating to what they have not themselves experienced. What is more, we are by nature so irrationally self-interested that it is futile to expect each other to be exemplars of tolerance—the delusion of many liberals. In general, in order for peoples of very different backgrounds and opinions to tolerate one another, they must first remove whatever they would find offensive in their fellow man. But obviously this is not tolerance; it is mere hypocrisy.
In our time, many people are quick to say “don’t judge me” since they are both wary of hypocrisy—always so prevalent—and concerned that others not say the unsettling truth about them, to which they are often blind. But though it is foolish to try to get through life without judging other people—a robust notion of value is impossible without it—it is indeed wise to do others the service of never believing we have understood them in full or “summed them up.” There is an important difference between a “judgment free zone”—that fearful, coddling and most unmanly thing—and endeavoring to have as nuanced an understanding of others as our limited minds can afford.
Read More: The Value of Self-Reliance