I discovered Neil Strauss’ blog today. Here is my first response, on approach anxiety.

Here is his entry from earlier this year, “Is Your Mind Your Worst Enemy?” It talks about approach anxiety and the little voice inside our heads that tells us “Don’t bother” when we want to approach others or try to form a relationship with them.

It’s a great rallying cry for social courage. But there’s just one teensy weensy problem with it… and it starts with a B.

It’s a very specific kind of insecurity that fuels the Don’t Voice. Insecurity about boundaries.

Because what good is conquering your approach anxiety if you still end up stepping on boundaries? Only when you succeed at both, when you can approach without violating boundaries, do you stand a chance of being attractive. Otherwise, all your outgoingness may matter for nothing, because you’re being a creeper.

But here is my problem with boundaries: everything I read about them seems to reinforce the Don’t Voice. There is such a theme of “one and done”– you come off as creepy once, and you’re forever cooked with that person. Is that not what “move on” means? “Move on” is something you see all the time in any discussion of boundaries.

But what I’ve found must frustrating about boundaries in that I feel they put me in a position that’s dependent on others’ approval. I know intellectually this is not true, but emotionally I can’t trust in any behavior of mine being attractive, unless I see other people saying yes to me as a result of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive behavior like smiling or conversing– if others don’t want it, it becomes negative. It doesn’t matter anymore what I feel about my self, my needs or my values… if the boundary keeps them out, they’re worthless in any sense that matters.

Basically, in order to be boundary-safe, it seems your default mode should be NOT to be look for love, or think you’re going to be attractive to anyone but yourself. Curb your expectations. This is where I really HATE all those studies saying humans are social creatures and we’re healthier when we’re in relationships and blah blah blah, because it makes us have all these expectations for our lives and our support systems. Because you can’t have a relationship– ANY relationship– without being said yes to. And you never have control over whether someone says yes to you.

I don’t think most people realize how many ducks have to be in a row for relationships to he successful. Because “we’re social creatures”, we think it should happen easily and magically. When really, if we’re going to fully implement a consent and boundaries model, we’re going to have to accept that a lot fewer relationships are going to happen. That our default mode is, in fact, “alone” unless someone else makes the free choice to let us into their boundaries.

Which means we have to stop shit like measuring our social skills based on others saying yes to us. Because it doesn’t matter if we have all the personal skill in the world, if someone else’s boundary stops that skill from reaching the outcome it was intended to reach.

Most of what I’ve read about boundaries takes this cautious approach. Better not to approach than be creepy. “Move on” is forever. When someone in your life sets a boundary with you, that’s forever too.

And it’s hard to convince me of the value of self-confidence, when impact matters exponentially more than intent. You really don’t even know how positive a personality trait, behavior, or choice is until you see its impact on others. Anything you think of as positive can be transformed into something negative this way.

So please, stop telling me how important relationships are. Because what you’re really saying is, “you’re a failure as a human being unless other people want you”. Which is about as beneficial for you as arsenic.

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Saying “I’m just not a sales-type person” is not an option, when every job is a sales job.

My response to the latest Marty Nemko workplace column on Psychology Today:

Most American jobs that cannot be outsourced have at least some sales functions associated with them. You can’t offshore emotional labor or personal touch, after all; and of course most corporations think the quickest way to increase profits is to make everybody who works there a profit center– I.E. a salesperson.

Plus, sales skills have long been a proxy for good people skills in general, so how many employers are just going to prefer a job applicant who likes or is good at sales? At the very least, someone with a sales mentality is very likely to be thought of as a better representative for the company and a better morale builder.

But beyond that, some companies are trying to force all their employees to act like salespeople.

I’m sure you’ve heard about Comcast and how they pushed sales quotas and functions onto ALL their employees– even the tech support and admin positions. And how Wells Fargo required their employees to meet unreasonable account quotas– inevitably leading to opening accounts that customers did NOT want, and eventually a lawsuit by the City of Los Angeles.

I have problems with upselling not because I’m bad at sales– I actually proved myself pretty decent at sales during my stint in retail– but because I believe that manipulating customers into buying something they don’t need is wrong. And it’s doubly wrong when you make this a job requirement… now you have an incentive to try to force customers to buy your service, or lose your job. Invariably, the most successful people in such a culture are going to be the ones who are willing to do that– who will NOT respond to the customer, but run roughshod over them.

So it’s not just about whether you’re a “sales type person”… there’s an ethical issue here. As in, WHY does my job depend on trying to disregard the consent of the customer? Even as an actual salesperson that’s bad– you are going to lose your customer base if you alienate them.

Being rejected means you have no proof you can socialize well.

We have some big hangups about free choice and consent in social relationships. (And sexual too, but that’s a story for later.) And the title of this post is a big reason why. If not the biggest reason.

We see reciprocation– someone saying yes to us in a social situation– as evidence that we are skilled socially. We see a person saying no to us as a sign we have failed. And that’s a big mistake.

Because always framing a rejection in terms of YOUR failure to charm someone, misses the important point that the other person always has free choice. And their “no” is a referendum on their preference, in that moment in that time– NOT on you. They don’t have to have a reason for saying no. You could be perfectly OK at socializing. You could even be very charming. It has to do with THEIR free choice.

The other reason seeing a Yes as a sign of our good people skills, and a No as a sign of our ineptitude is a big mistake? Because it then puts us in a position of trying to coerce yeses out of people… because only successful reciprocations are evidence that we are good at this socializing thing.

Damn other people’s free choice. The ability to socialize well is a highly sought-after quality in our society, and to employers; and even to doctors and the legal system. And the way we prove our likeability is by getting other people to choose us. Popular people, by definition, have a lot of people like them and choose to spend quality time with them.

And if they won’t choose us of their own free will? Why, we’ll make them choose us.

Because how else are we going to prove we’re not social failures?

I don’t understand people’s mystification about social anxiety or where it comes from. Because modern social life is designed to foment anxiety. Every social encounter, no matter how small, has high stakes. Every person you meet is a potential job, love affair, new experience. And being turned down for any of that, feels like losing a piece of your life.

Hell, not only that: with every rejection, you’re losing some proof that you can socialize well. Others around you might start to think you’ve socially inept, or even that you have Asperger’s… unless you can make other people say yes to you in enough numbers to counterbalance that.
Sometimes, if you’re especially dangerous, you may even sexually assault people. Naturally, to force them to give you proof you’re romantically charming.

Who has time to care about someone else’s free agency, when your own reputation as a socially healthy and likeable person is at stake? You have no time for rejections! You have no time to let a silly little bunch of Nos make you lose your competitive edge in the game of life.
Why… a few years later you might be up for that Wall Street job, and you’re going to lose that to that slick, oily, schmoozy classmate of yours who gets girls just a bit more effortlessly. Or that other classmate with the 10,000 Facebook friends. Or that other one who’s been “Most Well Liked” since high school and FSM knows when. They have proof they can socialize. They have evidence… a lot more than you.
And you’ve been slacking. Your career is at stake. Your life is at stake. The winner is the most popular one, the one with the most Yes and the least No in their column. Must… get… that… Yes… come what may!

Sound ridiculous enough yet? Good.

It’s time to stop seeing acceptances as proof we’re good with people, and rejections as proof we’re not. Because thinking we’re in 100% control of how people react to us leads us down some very bad paths.

Why we should be VERY careful what we’re conflating with emotional intelligence.

Anyone who has caught my postings elsewhere on the web knows that I feel a bit cautious about emotional intelligence. To name a few reasons:

    • The way it enjoyed universal, unquestioned approval for many years;
    • The way it, indirectly, holds up status-quo seeking as the most emotionally healthy attitude;
    • The way it, even if unintentionally, pathologizes criticism of society and social dynamics;
    • The way, corollary to the previous two points, it ends up boosting privilege.

We already have enough of society propping up privilege. It would be very dangerous indeed if being privileged became reframed as emotionally intelligent. Because so many of us believe emotional intelligence is an unalloyed positive good. We all want to have good emotional and mental health, and to take whatever actions are necessary to get there.

So, forgive me if I have a problem with so many of the people who are held up as examples of great EQ. They, quite frankly, look to me like the privileged.
As if it doesn’t matter how destructive the prosperity gospel is to both our spiritual life and our economy– all that matters is if it gives some of us self-confidence– which has long been held to be a necessary ingredient for high EQ.
As if nothing could matter more than calm. Notice how much mental health advice is all about accepting your lot in life and not trying to make it better. (Even right down to the famous Serenity Prayer.) Notice how much of it frames thinking as a problem, inferior to emotion and intuition. (Thinking is not superior OR inferior to feeling. They are equal co-partners.)

My intuition tells me that who you hold up as an example of your concept, speaks much louder than your description of the concept. So you can tell me all the time that EQ is not all about lulling yourself into bovine complacency. But if that’s the main emotion of all your high-EQ exemplars– if there’s no dissenter, no social critic, no– well, emotional person with high EQ that you can point me to– then I will feel less than enthusiastic about getting on board the emotional intelligence train.

UPDATE 7/13: My response to No More Mister Nice Blog’s discussion on the politics of punishing the poor. Why do the poor have to be punished? Because they fail the marshmallow test, of course. *facepalm*

Great news today

The Affordable Care Act upheld, 6-3.

AND… even better: Texas Dept. of Housing vs. Inclusive Communities. Upheld 5-4 with Kennedy joining the four Democratic-appointed justices.

Both cases were worrisome. But the ACA’s case was a bit less so. King vs. Burwell was founded on so ridiculous a premise, such a feat of mental gymnastics, that on some level I thought it couldn’t possibly prevail. But seeing how the ridiculous and fantastical so often have prevailed recently, if only because certain very ideological and determined people wanted ridiculous stuff to prevail.. *Walker cough cough*
Let’s just say, I was surprised when reality did win the day over craziness. But only a little surprised. John Roberts is pro-corporate… he’s not a loon.

But the Inclusive case really did worry me, because its defeat would NOT have been ridiculous or unexpected. Not only because our society is so “what’s in it for me?” Not only because we feel freer to indulge our worst instincts to love Teh Epistemic Closure and hunker down with people just like us.
But because we generally suck at considering impact over intent. Because it’s psychologically painful. It forces us to rethink, at times, our entire purpose and reason for doing things. It sometimes even seems to ask us to consider ourselves… gasp… bad people. And nobody, but nobody, likes to think of themselves as a bad person.

(One good way to avoid feeling like absolute crap when considering impact is to frame it as bad actions, not bad people; like Jay Smooth does here. But I digress.)

Supreme Court Justices are no more likely to wish to feel like bad people than the average person. It’s just so much easier to not think about things like “disparate impact” and just focus on intent. It just feels too much like reading too much into things to think about racist effects hidden within ostensible neutral actions.

But luckily, we don’t have to have that discussion. The Fair Housing Act still stands.

How about a little celebration, then?

Are you tired of studies saying loneliness will kill you? So am I!

Another psychological study doing its very best Dick Cheney impression. If you don’t eliminate terrorismloneliness, you’re gonna die!

March 25, 2015 marked the first time I’ve seen a major online publication, Psychology Today, question something that has become, through the power of repetition, a widely held truth.

“Loneliness will kill you.” How many times have we heard some variation of that? How many times do we keep hearing from the media that we are social animals and just aren’t at our best without relationships?

Then after that, how many times do we see any discussion of how we are to achieve the salubrious state of social support? Especially in a way that respects our right to be distinct human beings… and does not try to prescribe a best personality or a best way of living?
That does not assume we have 100% control of the uncontrollable– other people’s feelings, boundaries, and perceptions– and therefore, says it’s 100% our fault if others’ choices do not favor us?
That does not promote a “whatever it takes” attitude to combating loneliness, thereby ensuring we try to coerce others into reciprocating our social overtures?
That actually challenges our instinct to hunker down with people who remind us of ourselves, instead of saying “embrace it”?

Let’s just say, I have more fingers on my hand.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Believe it or not, a big part of what holds us back is our relationships.

I’ll restate that: what holds us back are the unspoken rules we follow about our relationships. The actions we take as we go about this socializing thing. The everyday behaviors we engage in to be sociable, be friendly, be likeable.

Too often, in the choices, behaviors, and decisions we make in our everyday lives to attract a social support system (and therefore protect our health, according to the media), we choose conformity with the dominant culture.
We choose to uphold white privilege, for instance, because we just feel safer and more comfortable with white people.
We choose to let sexism slide, because the consequences to our career, reputation and lives are just too steep– ask any man who wants to stay home with his kids. Hell, ask any victim of GamerGate.

Likeability itself seems to require not rocking the boat, because that’s the picture we hold in ourselves of a likeable person– someone who goes with the flow with a minimum of complaint. Someone who’s OK with things staying just the way they are.
Why does the exemplar of the “emotionally intelligent” ideal employee in business come off as so… unconcerned with the consequences of unchecked greed? So single-minded in the pursuit of calm– over any other emotional state? Like solidarity, compassion, altruism and egalitarian outlook?
Why did it take 20 years after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book, to see any kind of substantive criticism of it? To see any kind of consideration that EQ might have unintended consequences?

Or to see that positive emotions could, in fact, be used for selfish and even negative ends:

In this single line, “Compassion and altruism are the key to low inflammation and even a longer life,” the presupposition is that compassion and altruism are a means. The end is health and longevity.
…We ought to become more compassionate and altruistic not for the personal good it does for our health, but for the benefits it has for others. The fact that it also may have some benefits for me personally is a nice side-effect, but not the reason for doing it.

If we presuppose that the reason for doing good is to personally benefit… [we] contribute to a degraded society of selfishness and moral decay.

Duff McDuffee, “Compassion Reduces Inflammation, but Saying that Reduces Compassion.”

Love from others, too often, has a hidden price of admission– first, you must make me look good to others and feel good about myself. Then, and only then, will I invite you into my community. The fitting in, the benefit to ourselves, becomes more important than the love and compassion.

Closer to home for anyone invested in social justice: how many times have we all tried to practice activism in our everyday lives, but our friends and loved ones just didn’t want any part of it? They didn’t have time, they didn’t know what to do, or they found it too negative?
And what did we choose to do? We chose the respectful and likeable thing, of course. We backed off. We saved our activism for someone who cared. We toned it down. Because if we kept it up, our loved ones may not have found us so lovable any more. They might even decide to leave us… and sort themselves into a group of more like-minded people. Because more warm and fuzzy feelings.

Oh, and by throwing health concerns into the mix? That all but makes being in a relationship compulsory, in the practice of everyday life. Because of both not enough of us having health care (thank you, Republican governors), and because of the American ethos of “always help yourself before asking for help from others”, the practical effect of saying “loneliness is bad for your health” is to make loneliness taboo.

We trust the media less and less overall. But we still trust them when it comes to messages about our health. And for many years now, we have been getting such a steady diet of uncritical promotion of health through relationship, that we largely accept it without question.
We would rather fit in than stand out, because it has been drilled into our heads that rapport and friendship require that first we make ourselves similar to our would-be friends. That we must have something in common with someone, in order to care about them.
And so we put up with things from our social circles that we swore we never would put up with, when we were growing up. Because we see the negatives as worth being in relationships. We see gender inequality as a small sacrifice for being married and having children. We see emotional abuse and overlong hours as a trade-off for having a good job. We see the pains of the dating game and of possibly having to live beyond our means to fit in, as an inevitable consequence of living a rich single life.

We see ourselves as being realistic about our social world, and doing the best we can.

But what if we can do even better?

What if we do NOT have to choose between having friends, and being our best selves?

What if our social circles were not warm, fuzzy straitjackets… but real bonds of solidarity? Real give-and-take that does not impose a hidden cost on us (except for Don’t Be An Asshole)? Real forces for personal and social transformation?

Loneliness may or may not kill you. But social circles that are contingent on you not rocking the boat, will smother your soul in a fluffy, comfortable blanket.

Note: Cross-posted to Daily Kos.

Daily Kos diary: Why “Generation Sell” bothers me

This concerns a New York Times piece that was recently published in the New York Times about the Millennial Generation, “Generation Sell“.

Now, despite having been born in the late 1970s, which most sociologists consider part of Generation X, I have always identified much more with Millennials. My social attitudes, my career trajectory (*cough*) and the cultural values that really speak to my heart, just more closely align with those slightly younger than me. I have long been waiting for the day when Americans would wake up and start questioning the cultural values we’ve put up with for a long time, particularly regarding how to earn a living; and the Millennials, by and large, have been it. It has been the Millennials, far more than Generation X, who have been willing to redefine our social relationships to make them more democratic, rather than just living with them.

But Millennials have a danger lurking beneath the surface that could undo their ideals; and it was spelled out for me in that New York Times article.

At first blush, I liked what I was seeing: Millennials see small business as a key factor in bringing back economic fairness to America. Moreover, it’s an idea with staying power: one grounded in reality and with potential to make our small-d democratic ideals have real influence for decades to come.

What the corporate consolidation of the past few decades has done has not been merely slash jobs. It has decreased the number of possible business models to emulate, and put pressure on remaining companies to copycat for their own survival; thereby making our economy functionally a monopoly/oligopoly. Thirty flavors of salad dressing, all made by the same company, is exactly the right illustration.

A commitment to increasing the number and diversity of business models can only be a good thing, for a fair economy and for everyday democracy.

But still, there is something inherently unfair and undemocratic about “Generation Sell.”

One of the things that has most chafed us, in fact, about large corporations is the culture they have created of “always be selling”. The pressure on us to always be representing our company in a positive light, even in our off-hours; opens the door to all manner of corporate/employer intrusion into our private lives.

The “always be marketing yourself” and “always be representing your company” mantra is the impetus behind firing someone for their off-hour Facebook postings, and for the disregard of education, qualifications, and even hard work itself in favor of hiring for “fit”. Which has resulted in a lot of workplace cultures homogeneous of personality, because people do self-select for people who resemble themselves; and a lot of companies that may feel comfortable with each other, but may be neither diverse, nor equable… nor even particularly adept at business, as Wall Street has shown us.

Marketing as we know it today, or as how the large corporations have come to define it, is inherently discriminatory. Marketing loves stereotypes, and uncomplicated personalities that can be easily pigeonholed; because like it or not, that’s what our instincts too often prefer.
When it comes time to make a decision quickly, in those instances when our lizard brains override our higher functions, we all too often make decisions that are inherently looksist, albeist, and ageist; because quite simply old, disabled and unattractive people don’t “sell” as well in our current marketing culture. (It’s not personal, honey; it’s a business decision. It just so happens that the ones who make the most money for the company are the ones who adhere to conventional cultural roles.)
And not only would seem to be but a small step from those “–isms” to full-blown sexism and racism too; fulfilling these marketing needs is inherently pro-privilege. It’s a lot easier for a wealthy person to make continuous “investments in themselves” so as they can be fit to work with the public, than a 99-percenter.

Not to mention the even more onerous pressure to never say anything negative about a company or institution. Which unfortunately has some teeth behind it: the fact that people have actually lost their jobs for being critical about their employers on their off hours. When all criticism becomes a possible career-ender, no matter how politely we couch it; when we lose jobs for disagreeing with the boss, as when a former president acted like a CEO and took action to keep “marketing discipline”; when our very financial survival demands we adopt a fealty to the lifestyle we are marketing; then we lose the ability to disagree with each other and still be friends. Which is vital in any task of coexisting with a large, diverse group of people.

Prejudice is, at its heart, about fear of feeling uncomfortable; and feelings of safety around people like us. It’s about an attempt to feel socially secure. But just as it’s wrong to balance a budget on the backs of those least able to afford it, it’s wrong to build our feelings of security and happiness from denying other people opportunity and social connectedness.
Moreover, we need to keep our instincts fresh for the purpose in which they really shine: alerting us to dangerous people. Such marketing values have misled our instincts, turning us off to potential friends and allies while driving us into the arms of those who make us feel good in the short term, but ruin us in the end. It’s no accident that the attractive, socially smooth sociopath has risen to such heights of success in American culture. That’s exactly the kind of person our “always be marketing” culture has held up as an exemplar.

Millennials are poised to become a small d-democratic powerhouse for economic and social justice. But if we’ve internalized the marketing values we’ve grown up with, our efforts will be cut off at the knees. We’ll have failed to get over our prejudices in any meaningful way; believing, as our old big-box customer service employers taught us, that an older person won’t sell, a disabled person will turn off too many customers, a minority won’t be able to “relate” to the majority white customer base.
Our task is to broaden the definition of marketing, so that more types of people can “sell”. So that more of us feel we have a place in this economy, and can look forward to a long life of being an active player in our communities.

This will be one of the hardest things we have to do, because it will often require going against our very instincts, and our very notions of what makes us feel good and comfortable. But any fundamental change in the American business model demands it.

Those gut instincts everyone says to trust in? They’re sexist (and racist, and classist) little buggers.

The root of all evil is not money. It’s something more basic.

More to the point, it’s something that makes us feel so good, so comfortable and healthy and right, how could it possibly be bad?

It’s our need to feel comfortable. For the most obvious example: racism and sexism are, at their base, about our need to feel more comfortable and secure in our surroundings. Countless studies have proven that we like best the people who most remind us of ourselves… and we feel safest in a community that shares our values, preferences and life experiences.

And we are also coming off a decades-long charm offensive by psychologists, medical doctors, liberals, conservatives, spiritual leaders, cultural luminaries, and intellectual heavyweights alike attesting to the healing power of happiness… with no mention of how we get that happiness. Which has elevated stress-relief to a virtue, to the point of making thinking and concern for the less fortunate as emotionally less-than-healthy. Which has looked, uncritically and almost uniformly without dissent, on emotional intelligence; not openly acknowledging any possible dark side or side effects until a good 15 years after the fact.

How far down the rabbit hole have we fallen? I’ll just let my comments in the Alternet piece, “The Attractiveness Bonus in the Workplace” speak for themselves:

Why appearance bias in jobs where there is ostensibly no public contact? Because attractive people make our l’il gut instincts feel good.

Those touchy-feely things… which, I might add, were held up as better judges of character than our rational minds, and more reliable and closer to the truth than thoughts, by just about everybody under the frickin’ sun with barely-microscopic levels of dissent, from Oprah to our former president to our entire media to an army of credentialled doctors over the last couple of decades… well, those instincts of ours just like feeling comfortable above all else in the world. They like things fast, easy, and familiar. They like it so we don’t have to take too much time or emotional energy processing pesky things like complexity. Our instincts love stereotypes.
And may I add that happiness and being stress-free is the most important thing in the world? May I add that it doesn’t matter HOW you get your happiness, or where it comes from, or whether it was bought by screwing up someone else’s life, turning off our empathy switch, or surrounding ourselves with yes-men… only that we’re happy; because happy people are ALWAYS healthier and smarter than unhappy people, and EWWW I don’t want you contaminating me with your poisonous cortisol?
May I add that we are social beings and, as such, it’s more beneficial and healthy to follow the crowd than to stand up and challenge things? Besides, silly rabbit, everyone knows you can’t change the world; you can only change yourself, and your response to things.

For that I blame two people more than anyone else: Daniel Goleman and David Brooks. Goleman for spawning an industry that gave us a green light to stunt others’ LIVELIHOODS and malign others’ characters for failing to tickle our subjective fancies; Brooks for continuing to set the tone as to what it means to be a sociable human being– which, apparently, means someone who will put up with a lot of emotional manipulation and subtle coercion; because, goshdarnit, those are necessary prices to pay for love and friendship; and ZOMG, gender essentialism is so SEXY.

We are continually told that if we follow our gut instincts, we will be happier. And if we are happier, we are automatically healthier, smarter, and have more friends. In a country where 1 in 10 people suffer from depression and many more suffer from other mental illnesses and just basic unhappiness, these are not just empty promises. They are emotional manna to us. We eat these words up… like triple-chocolate ice cream with a touch of catnip. Besides, our economy being what it is; an creeping monoculture where everyone must be selling, baby, selling, where the personality traits of financiers and decision-making-by-mysticism are increasingly setting the tone for every line of work in America, our very livelihoods may demand we sing in tune…

We tell ourselves we are emotionally healthier and more intelligent, that we are socially well-connected and sound judges of character. Because we’re doing what the culture has been telling us to do. We’ve been trusting primarily, or entirely, on our gut instincts. And they make us feel good.

And we forget just how prejudiced our gut instincts can be. How racist, sexist, classist, ableist, every kind of -ist they can be. Because we forget that what our gut instincts enjoy more than anything, is not rocking the boat.

Money is just a tool.