Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

For those who don’t know, The Tao of Steve is an excellent movie. Go watch. In short, it revolves around this guy who has developed a three step system for getting women to sleep with him. It’s surprisingly simple and, by all estimation, very effective.

  • Be desireless. Essentially, don’t lust after the woman you want, just hang out with her.
  • Be excellent. Whatever you do well, do it in front of her.
  • Be gone. “We pursue that which retreats from us.”

I’ve yet to meet someone, male or female, who wont admit that it is probably a sound plan. Ironically, in the movie (spoiler alert: skip the paragraph if you don’t want a really vague suggestion of the rest of the movie), the protagonist decides that he doesn’t want to live by the Tao anymore. Earlier in the movie, though, he tries to convince a fellow character that the Tao isn’t about getting laid (that is a side effect), but rather about being a good person. I think he was right.

I think the Tao of Steve is a fundamentally sound way to live your life, and not just a way to attract women (though it probably does that too). Lets look at the steps:

  • Be desireless. Buddhists and Catholics agree, being overly desirous is bad for you. This prohibition not only keeps you from lusting, but combats our society’s tendency to objectify others. If you are treating everyone like a friend, you aren’t treating them like a (insert your preferred derogatory term here). I’m reminded of the core advice from a great book, The Holy Man, which predates the dime-a-dozen tiny self-help books fad. “Treat everyone you meet as if they were a holy man.” (On a distantly related note, this is an interesting story about groping.)
  • Be excellent. Take your skills, your job, whatever you do, and excel at it. This is basically just telling you to work at self improvement. Hard to argue with that.
  • Be gone. For a long time I thought this was the weak point of this argument. It’s basically playing hard to get, isn’t it? Nope! This is a prohibition on resting on your laurels. You shouldn’t sit around doing nothing, basking in the glory of your previously acquired excellence. Nor should you stop looking for new experiences. (If this restlessness results in retreating from some people, thats okay).

Maybe it is a bit of a loose argument, but I love the simplicity of the Tao. If nothing else, it’s not a bad way to relate to members of the opposite sex, so long as you don’t abuse it. After all, if you can take all the potential self-destructive energy that relationships can stir up, and redirect it into being a better, more successful person (while having more romantic success), that has to be a good thing.

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I have this hopeful, nostalgic idea that, sometime before now, people were moved by common decency to treat others well. I believe – or really, really want to – that at some point before our litigious, pre-nup signing, anti-social, isolated society, people had manners and showed hospitality. If nothing else, I choose to believe that people really did fear Zeus in ancient Greece, and showed good xenia.

However, it just doesn’t seem to happen that often anymore, and I’m not sure why. Do we really want to live in a society where the laws tell you not to offer people assistance in an accident, because it makes you liable? For that matter, in a society where you would sue someone for trying to help?

Ironically, it’s not just that our society doesn’t promote treating people well; people are actually confused by it. I love doing little things for my friends. One common one that never seems to go over smoothly is paying for dinner. (I don’t mean a big tab either!) I suppose a certain amount of politeness is to try to decline, but I think it’s better if it goes both ways, rather then not go at all. Whats mines is yours, whats yours is mine (with a please and thank you, of course).

I shouldn’t say it never happens, of course. In fact, Julio Diaz is an amazing example; he convinced his mugger to take his coat, some cash, and have a free meal on him, in return for surrendering his knife. It’s an amazing story.

And in case you need a selfish reason to be nice to others, how about this: according to a study conducted by doctors from Columbia and Harvard, generosity makes you happy. I’m sure at least part of that is payback from enriching your environment.

The (admittedly hard) part about this is to teach yourself how to decide what is fair. People do it all the time, but most don’t do it very well. Instead of fairness, they think of entitlement. “Well, it’s only fair that you do this for me.” But fairness is always a two way street, and you must give to receive. True fairness lies in saying, “Well, it’s only fair that if your going to do this thing that is really important to me, I will do this other thing that is really important to you.” I know, compromising is hard, but it’s precisely that it is hard to do that makes it so effective at building close, productive, and supportive relationships.
Keep in mind the – admittedly cliche – saying, “Trash in, trash out.” Put out generosity and compassion in your environment, and expect the same in return.

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Building Rapport

Joel Falconer at Life Hack recently offered some tips on building rapport. This is an area that I could stand to make some improvements in my own life. Being able to engage strangers in conversation can come in handy frequently (applying for a job, meeting new members of the opposite sex, etc). Here’s what Joel suggests if you have trouble building rapport, summarized.

Smile. Smiling tends to put people at ease. (Unless you’re this guy.)
Compliment. Don’t lie, but if you can subtly and genuinely compliment someone, do so. Really, you might as well anyway! But it makes people feel good, which will reflect well on you.
Make eye contact. This is a common piece of advice for public speakers. It makes it clear that you are interested in the other person.
Let them talk about themselves. Everyone is an expert on at least one thing: themselves. So if you have trouble talking to other people, let them talk. Ask follow up questions about the things they tell you. Listening is a deeply appreciated skill.
Make use of coincidences. If, while they’re talking about themselves, they mention something you have in common, talk about that. It might be the foundation for your relationship.
Match their body language. This is a pretty hardcore sales technique. The best salespeople tend to do this naturally. When two people have great rapport, they tend to speak and move in concert. Tone of voice, hand gestures, body posture, eye contact, etc. are all mimicked back and forth. If you can consciously do this with subtlety (as Falconer says, “in moderation and ‘invisibly'”) it can be effective, but without subtlety it comes across as fake.
Benefits over features. Another sales technique. Copywriters focus not on the good features of a product, but on the benefits of having those features. (Not “The vacuum has more suction,” but “The vacuum’s extra suction will keep your carpet cleaner.”) Falconer suggests you can do the same with relationships, but I think it will typically only apply to situations like job interviews. Don’t emphasize what about you makes you a good candidate for the position, but how choosing you would benefit the employer.
Diffuse tension. If a relationship is really important to you (such as your relationship with a new employer), and tension arises, recognize why the tension exists and take steps to remedy it. Of course, how far to go is always a difficult decision; in some cases, it may be worth it to concede something to the other person in order to make peace, but there are also times when your happiness will depend on drawing a line.

This reminds me of a skill that a friend from high school excelled at: code switching. This is a linguistics term for switching between dialects fluidly. She gave tours at a local museum. With each tour group, she would adjust the way she spoke to more closely match their vocabulary and way of speaking. She was a natural (and it was a pleasure to watch), but it’s possible to practice this skill. Indeed, all of these skills can be practiced. The most important thing is to put them to use.

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For a while now one of my favorite blogs has been No Impact Man, the ongoing writings of a liberal environmentalist who got sick of waiting for the world to change and decided to change himself. He set out over a year to drop his net environmental impact to zero (very little negative impact plus some positive impact), in the middle of New York no less. His journey is instructive for those looking to lower their impact (or save some money), but now that his year long experiment is over, he’s been doing a lot of reflection, trying to decide what restrictions to keep and which to let slide.

Interestingly, he’s found that he doesn’t want to give up a lot of the rules. True, it was difficult (especially with a small child) to avoid buying anything new, to eat local food, to go without power. However, he repeatedly found that with less stuff in the way, he was closer to his family. He appreciated his life more. Some of his posts on this subject have been incredibly touching. One recent post in particular caught my eye.

I have to feel bad for his wife. (I should say, the spouses of immersion journalists in general.) She has put up with a lot of hardship for his experiment. Still, it’s interesting how it has rubbed off on her. He recently described his most amazing No Impact Man moment yet.

He’s been composting (vermiposting, actually, I think), using a cheap, second-hand plastic bucket to hold food scraps, because the project rules forbid them from buying anything new. The project is over, so she wanted to go splurge on a shiny new metal container for the scraps. No sooner had they left the store the she stopped them.

“I want you to take it back. We can just wash out the plastic bucket and use it until we find a better trash can on the street or at the flea market… I think the consumer brainwashing has worn off.”

I suppose I’ve always believed to a certain extent that consumption doesn’t make one happy, but I’ve been surprised reading the No Impact Man experiment by how much reducing consumption has improved his life. He repeatedly says that the experiment has taught him that most people don’t really want more stuff – rather, stuff is a consolation prize – but more and closer relationships with their friends and family. A cleaner conscience about the environment (as well as, by extension, a more beautiful environment and typically a healthier body and bank account) certainly can’t hurt with happiness.

I wouldn’t say the No Impact Man lifestyle is for everyone, but I’ve found it interesting and rewarding to read through and try some of the easier measures.

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In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs mentioned a book called Radical Honesty, which, it turns out, is part of a larger site and organization. In the book, he quoted them on the thrill of being completely honest (worthy of an amusement park ride). I don’t have first hand experience with the level of truth telling they mean, but I’m sure they’re right. On top of that, honesty seems like it should be good for you in many ways; building more open relationships, less stress, avoiding the repercussions of being caught in a lie.

I’m currently in the middle of a secular Lent (fasting from fried food), but I’m considering giving up lying (as well as gossiping) for a while after Lent ends on the strength of Jacobs’ story. (Amazingly, I’ve gotten a handful of people to join me to varying degrees, but more on that closer to Easter.) However, as with my fried food fast, trying to remove something from my life raises a lot of questions, some of which Radical Honesty has tried to answer.

My first response when I started to consider the project was, “I don’t really lie that much,” but the more I think about it, the more I catch myself doing it. A.J. Jacobs had the same experience; once he had to stop, he found he did it constantly.

We are always telling some kind of story, building a case for ourselves and trying to put on a best face… in a nationwide survey titled “The Day America Told the Truth,” 93% of Americans admitted that they lie “regularly and habitually” at work and 35% admitted they have had or were currently having an affair which they were keeping secret from their mates. -Radical Honesty

What exactly then constitutes lying, for those of us who would like to quit? Radical Honesty takes a pretty extreme approach; they suggest more then just truthfully responding, but actively speaking your mind, even as far as telling an ugly person they are ugly. He suggests this is a chance to start a deeply open conversation, I suspect it’s a good way to get a black eye. Jacobs takes a less stringent approach, and one close to my own thoughts. Flat-out lying, big or small, is wrong. Lies of omission, when done to deliberately mislead, are wrong too (but no one will call you a lier if you forget a little detail of a story by accident or because it really doesn’t matter).

Of course, the important thing is the effects of being honest. Radical honesty promises a lot. Maybe they can deliver, I’m not sure. I do believe, though, that it can lead to better relationships (even when those relationships fail, but thats for another post), and a general sense of having done the right thing. Don’t most people feel at least some guilt when they lie? Besides, as Radical Honesty points out, the consequences of honesty are often less frightening then we imagine.

People can actually get furious at other people and get over it in 15 or 20 minutes. People can avoid being angry at someone else for 10 or 15 or 20 years, and if they actually got angry at them, they’d probably get over it in half an hour. -Radical Honesty

A friend of mine gave me similar advice about small children: it’s hard but sometimes you have to make them angry for their own good, but don’t worry, because they get over it. I think Radical Honesty has a point here. In the long run, it’s better to be honest and make them upset. If the relationship someone doesn’t mend, then it probably wouldn’t have been worth the effort of holding it together with a million white lies. At the same time, the possibility exists to have a much more open, beneficial, and ultimately strong relationship without the need to posture, exaggerate, and lie. And that seems like the sort of relationship that would make you pretty happy, at least most of the time.

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