Showing posts with label empathy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label empathy. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection

Hey Arnold!, the classic Nickelodeon animated TV series about a kid growing up in the big city, gave us many gifts during its witty and often melancholy five-season run, not the least of which is what I like to call the Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection.

The theory comes from “Arnold & Lila,” an episode in the show’s third season. In it, a series of Three’s Company-esque misunderstandings results in Arnold realizing he has feelings for his friend Lila, who, by the end of the episode, no longer feels the same way about him. (“I really admire you, and I treasure our friendship ever so much,” Lila says, as a way of letting Arnold down softly. “We can still be good friends, can’t we?”)

Afterward, while talking to another one of his friends about what happened, Arnold makes this astute observation:

It’s funny. When you like someone, and they don’t really like you back, it’s not so bad. But when you really like them-like them, but you find out they just like you, it hurts.

Here’s the theory in dank meme form, which I definitely didn’t make when a girl definitely didn’t turn me down for a date, because I’m definitely not a grown-ass adult who turns to late 1990s cartoons to seek comfort and wisdom when I’m feeling bummed.



It’s worth breaking down why this is true. When someone rejects you outright—not only do they not want to go out with you, but they don’t want anything to do with you—it sucks in the moment, but it’s easy to console yourself. They’re rejecting me because they don’t really know me, you can think. If they knew all the things that make me unique, if they knew my personality, my sense of humor, my quirks, then maybe it’d be different. In short, they just don’t have enough information, so they’re not rejecting me; they’re rejecting their incomplete idea of me—which, again, still kind of sucks, but you don’t take it too personally.

But when someone “partially” rejects you—that is, they like you, but they don’t like you-like you—that shit stings. You can’t hide behind the idea that they just don’t know you, because they obviously do: they like you! They see what you have to offer, and they totally appreciate it! They want you in their life—but not in that way. For whatever reason, it’s not quite enough for them to return your feelings. Why Arnold is right when he says it hurts is simple: they’re not rejecting you because they don’t know you; they’re rejecting you precisely because they do know you. (And double ouches if, in your heart of hearts, you know they’re making the right call—but that’s a different discussion for another day.)

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection is often cited as evidence of the insidiousness of the “friend zone,” which is annoying for two reasons: the feelings Arnold is describing are a little more nuanced than the friend zone, and, more significantly, the friend zone is bullshit.

* * *

When I was in high school, the friend zone referred to the belief that if you’ve been friends with someone for too long, a romantic relationship was impossible. Nobody ever seemed to have the exact figures for how long was too long, probably because it was, again, bullshit.

It’s not that by being “just friends” for a week, or a month, or whatever other arbitrary length of time, you magically become undateable; we had several counterexamples all around us of people who were good friends first, then started dating. Instead, what’s happening is that, in that time in which you were just friends, your friend learned something about you, your personality, or your beliefs that made you unattractive to or incompatible with them—or, perhaps, something that seemed charming or intriguing at first became less so after repeated exposure to it. There’s also the harsh possibility that many find difficult to face: your friend was never attracted to you in the first place and at no point were you ever a romantically viable prospect.

Curiously, the idea was embraced by both guys and girls, with guys generally being the friend zoned and girls being the friend zoners. (The friend zone seems to be a pretty heterosexual—and, indeed, heteronormative—concept.) For guys, this provided a way to save face when he was rejected; it’s not that he was unattractive, but rather, the inviolable laws of the friend zone are what they are. For girls, this provided a gentle way to reject a guy—either because they wanted to avoid upsetting the guy by offering a real reason (“you too ugly, bro”), or occasionally because they didn’t want to think of themselves as the type of person who’d reject a guy based on, say, the fact that he too ugly, bro (“I’m not shallow; it’s just the friend zone”). It was an exercise in self-delusion, with both guys and girls having incentives to perpetuate it.

That, obviously, is less than ideal. (Are we enabling guys whose egos are so fragile that they have to comfort themselves with lies? Are we conditioning girls to avoid expressing what they really think to make guys feel better about themselves? Are we telling girls it’s better to be nice than to be honest?) In practice, though, it played out harmlessly enough: the friend zone was accepted and unchallenged, and the rejected guy could, after licking his wounds, go back to being friends with the girl. Encouragingly, guys who were purportedly friend zoned generally didn’t blame the girl (“Damn bitch friend zoned me!”) but rather themselves (“My bad, I waited too long”), which helped make guys and girls less adversaries in dating and more fellow travelers bound by the same principles.

* * *

Of course, my high school was different from other high schools. We didn’t have lockers. Nobody went to prom, even when MTV decided to record and humiliate us. Our AP calc class was as frequently about math as it was about playing Monopoly while watching the 2000 Nicolas Cage film The Family Man, apparently the only DVD our media center had. And I’m pretty sure at least a part of our campus was a repurposed Waffle House, which would explain both the smell and the despair.

This wasn't a scientific poll, but I'd say it captured our collective sentiment nicely.

So I’m not sure if I grew up with a different understanding of the friend zone, or if the definition has changed. But now, when a man complains about the friend zone, it usually takes on a much creepier vibe: I was so nice to her, and that bitch friend zoned me! She was just leading me on! Typical woman friend zoning me because I’m nice, yet she’ll probably go out with some asshole who won’t treat her right!

Obviously, some caveats: There are women who do lead men on intentionally and manipulate emotions for their own benefit (hey, free dinner!), because women are people and some people are shitty. And yes, there are women who find niceness unattractive and assholery attractive, because women are people and some people have weird issues. But I feel confident that these cases don’t represent the majority of friend zone whining.

(Also, as an aside, my pet hypothesis is that being nice isn’t so much an inherently attractive thing, but rather an intensifier if you already find someone attractive. Like, niceness won’t do much if someone doesn’t think you’re cute, but if you’re cute and it turns out you’re nice, it makes you that much cuter. It is in this way that niceness is a lot like eyeglasses, tattoos, and impeccable grammar.)

This mindset comes from the idea that if a man does enough nice things for a woman, he’s entitled to her time, her affection, or her body. In this view, a woman isn’t a person with her own desires, but rather a puzzle to be solved and a prize to be won. Or not even that—she’s a product to be purchased, which he deserves because he paid for it with his niceness. This is a point rebutted by an oft-memed quote misattributed to Sylvia Plath:




This betrays a serious lack of empathy. All of the men bemoaning how nice guys get friend zoned would disagree that, if a woman he found repulsive baked him enough cookies or gave him enough gifts, he should ignore his own desires because she earned him and that overrides his feelings. All of these men would recognize that they get to decide with whom they go out and have sex, and “because she’s really, really nice and really, really likes you!” isn’t sufficient for them to set aside their own preferences.

But they generally don’t extend that same courtesy to the women they want to bone. And I get it—you’re the main character in your own story, and she’s your perfect dream girl. Super Mario Bros. taught you that if you do the right sequence of things, you earn the right to some Tanookie Mario with Princess Toadstool, even if she has expressed no interest in you and your shoes smell like squished Goomba.

However, she’s the main character in her own story, too, and just like you want someone you think is gorgeous and lovely, so does she. And you might not be that person, no matter how nice you are. It’s okay. It happens sometimes. You just have to deal.

* * *

One of the worst things about the friend zone is that it makes some men embarrassed of their friendships with women. Being friend zoned is seen as a mark of emasculation, and since there’s supposedly no other purpose of being friends with a woman besides having sex with her, every platonic friendship with a woman is viewed as an implied rejection and thus a failure. Every act of kindness shown to a woman that doesn’t result in her ripping off her clothes isn’t just a waste but a pathetic act of self-torture (“You picked her up from the airport? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL 100! She had a bad day at work and you listened to her for a few minutes without getting any ass? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL INFINITY!”). These men will have fewer friendships with women, which means they’ll have fewer women they care about, which means they’ll be more accepting of whatever misogynistic nonsense they read on some creepy subreddit. And the cycle of toxicity will self-perpetuate.

The reverse happens, too. If women are constantly suspicious of their male friends’ motives, they may decide that male platonic friendships are more trouble than they’re worth. Who wants to deal with the hurt when someone you thought was a really great friend just wanted to have sex with you? Who wants to be accused of leading someone on or berated for being a typical woman who can’t appreciate a nice guy?

(Also, what’s the deal with people saying that if a man is sexually attracted to a female friend, it’s proof that he’s not really her friend, or that male-female friendships are impossible? If a woman is attractive, there’s a decent chance that at least some of her male heterosexual friends would be pretty stoked to sleep with her. But if she doesn’t want to sleep with them, it’s entirely possible that they’re okay with that and value and appreciate her friendship anyway. In fact, it’s kind of fucked up that “is sexually attracted to a woman” and “genuinely values a woman’s friendship” are often accepted as mutually exclusive concepts—what the hell does that say about us? In any case, as the great Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby says, it can be two things.)

* * *

During the rest of Hey Arnold!’s run, Arnold still crushed on Lila. And Lila continued to view Arnold as purely a platonic friend, much to his chagrin. But Arnold didn’t accuse Lila of leading him on or complain that Lila was a stupid bitch who friend zoned him because she couldn’t see how nice of a guy he was.

Yes, asymmetrical affection sucks for the reason Arnold articulated perfectly, but Arnold found a way to deal with it without being a self-pitying asshole. As with most things in life, we should all be like Arnold.

Or maybe Gerald. That dude has a field named after him and has some pretty rad hair. Let’s be like him, too.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Running a kindness deficit

When people use the phrase “kindness deficit,” they usually mean “a lack of kindness”; e.g., “Our society is experiencing a kindness deficit.”

People are free to use the phrase however they want, of course, but I don’t like that definition. First, it makes the phrase kind of unnecessary (just say “a lack of kindness,” right?), but more importantly, it ignores some of the nuances in using the deficit analogy.

Here’s a better definition: Just like a budget deficit occurs when a government spends more money than it takes in, a kindness deficit occurs when a person gives more kindness than s/he receives.

This is a more serious problem than someone merely not getting enough kindness. When people realize they’re giving much more love than they’re getting, they regret it. They feel stupid. They correct it by slowly closing their heart. They swear to never make the same mistake again.

And then the world becomes that much shittier.

It’s our job—all of us, collectively—to do what we can to prevent each other from regretting being kind. Look, we’re not personally responsible for rescuing every single human being, but we need to catch people when we can—when we see that the universe is kicking someone’s ass who doesn’t deserve it; when we see someone normally prodigal with their love start to be stingier with it; when we see the spirit and warmth start to fade from someone’s eyes.

It’s easy to talk a big game about wishing the world was friendlier and kinder and more wonderful, but this is what we can do to make it so. It’s one of the worst things in the world to make some regret being kind; corollarily, it’s one of the purest, most genuine acts of love to make someone feel good about it.

So yeah. We don’t even have to make them break even or anything. Most people don’t mind running a kindness deficit just as long as the deficit isn’t large enough to make them throw up their arms and say fuck it all. We just need to catch people when we can: large things are nice, but small things—a compliment, a candy bar, a hug, a thoughtful note—can nudge a deficit towards manageable and buy enough time until someone else more qualified can take over.

Human beings are warriors against misery, and we should be on the same team.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A note on Valentine’s Day


Generally speaking, it’s easier to be kind when people are kind to you. You worry less about your kindness being wasted or unappreciated, and you don’t fret about being taken advantage of when you can see your kindness being returned, even indirectly.

People talk about how one small act of kindness can have a lasting impact or how you get the love you give, and a lot of that does sound like motivational poster horseshit or Western culture bastardizing Eastern theology.

But to be charitable, I think this is all they mean—being kind to people helps them care for others fearlessly. It helps people overcome some of the insecurities and worries that stop them from exercising their selfless, compassionate, empathic impulses and lets them, at least for a moment, tap into a better part of themselves.

And it’s one of the purest acts of love to help someone have as many of those moments as possible.

Have a happy Valentine’s Day. Be kind to people. And go get laid maybe.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If your holiday sucks, I hope you’ll consider letting us know on social media

I hope you have a genuinely lovely holiday, filled with warmth, love, and joy. But if your holiday sucks, I hope you’ll consider letting us know on social media.

The ability of Facebook, et al. to make everybody miserable is well-documented. People present the best versions of themselves on social media, downplaying or completely omitting the negative aspects of their lives and exaggerating the positive aspects. When others compare their lives, warts and all, to the ostensibly perfect lives they see in their News Feed, it compels them to put on a similar façade on their own Facebook page—and the process repeats, assuring a cycle of perpetually stolen joy. It’s not a problem social media created, but, as this short film by the Higton Bros. demonstrates, social media has certainly amplified it.


This is particularly true during the holidays. Posts about perfect families and perfect Christmas trees and perfect gifts are everywhere, and, for the most part, it’s easy enough to contextualize or ignore. But if you’re already feeling down, no matter how often you remind yourself that it’s madness to compare the real you to the fictionalized them, it can be impossibly difficult not to take it all as more evidence of how inadequate your life is.

And while we can all roll our eyes whenever people post stuff that’s obviously hyperbolic (“This is the worst Christmas in the history of humanity!”) or intentionally vague (“I will never forgive you—you know who you are!”) or complainbragging (“Ugh, my new Maserati is such an ugly color”), there’s something to be said about simple, matter-of-fact statements about a holiday that isn’t going so great: This Christmas is a little rough; I’m kind of lonely this time of year; I wish I could’ve afforded better gifts for my family this year.

After all, shared joy is nice enough, but it can be facile and fleeting. It doesn’t require looking beyond oneself, and it doesn’t necessarily engage any empathic impulses. The connections forged from shared joy are often tenuous, which isn’t surprising—I’m doing great and you’re doing great! is pretty hard to sustain, and those connections can break as soon as someone starts feeling less than great.

Shared misery, on the other hand, is a much more powerful force. It requires two people to get out of their own heads, even for just a moment, and extend a bit of kindness to each other. It’s a much more daunting task because it’s hard enough to get a handle on the contours of your own sadness, let alone figure someone else’s out (to misquote Tolstoy badly, happy people are all alike; every unhappy person is unhappy in their own way). But the result of doing so—or at least trying—is a connection that’s predicated on the strength of understanding and selflessness.

That’s kind of heady stuff for social media, so I’ll just say this: People can post whatever they want to post on social media, and they can do so for whatever reason. When people brag about their holidays, I don’t doubt that many of their loved ones will be happy to hear that they’re happy—but because it’s generally easier to be happy for others when you yourself are happy, those loved ones are probably doing okay. On the other hand, for someone who feels alone and isolated, it’d probably mean a lot more to read that they’re not the only ones feeling that way.

In other words, posting about the things that are great will likely make happy people somewhat happier. But posting about the things that aren’t so great could very well make someone feel less lonely and miserable.

I’m not suggesting that everything you post on social media needs to be an act of altruism designed to make everybody feel better. I am, however, saying that you should feel totally free to break the cycle of projecting perfection, if not for your own sake then for the sake of someone who might really need to see it broken.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cri de coeur

Every single person falls into one of two categories: people who have had their hearts broken and people who are going to have their hearts broken. And that’s a compelling reason to be kind to each other—or, at least, a reason not to make things worse.

Left to its own devices, the world is a pretty fucked up place. The onus is on all of us to be the corrective force that makes it a less shitty place for each other.

Everybody's heart is as alive, real, and pained as that of your own

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I hope you have a nice day

I have a pet theory that says we should all say “I hope you have a nice day” instead of “Have a nice day.”

“Have a nice day,” as many people have pointed out, has become kind of useless—a stock phrase that’s automatically uttered at the end of a phone conversation or a retail transaction that means nothing to the speaker or the listener. “Have a nice day” is just translated as “this is the end of our interaction.”

That kind of sucks—I think the idea of verbalizing a desire for someone’s day to go well is charming. And like asking “How are you?,” I think there’s value in what others might dismiss as conversational lubricant; by asking (for instance) your barista how she’s doing, it’s basically a shorthand for, “I know that it’s easy to forget that the people around me aren’t just characters in my story but rather human beings with their own lives that are as real as my own, and especially in customer service situations, there’s a tendency to reduce people to, say, ‘human who’s making my coffee’ instead of the complete, vibrant people that they are, so even though it’s probably impractical and undesirable to go into the ins and outs of how your life is going, I want to ask you the question just to acknowledge the fact that you do, in fact, have a life beyond our interaction and I respect that.”

“Have a nice day” is supposed to serve the same purpose—an acknowledgement that you understand that they’re going to have a day beyond their interaction with you—but through sheer repetition and the customer-service-ization of the phrase, it’s no longer really effective.

It has a simple fix, and that fix is “I hope you have a nice day.” It’s an atypical phrasing, so it forces the speaker and the listener to actually notice the words being said. It turns a command that can be kind of pushy and presumptuous (because, hey, maybe I don’t want to have a nice day today—you don’t know what’s going on in my life) into a humble little well wishing. And it’s a much more sincere sentiment; it’s a lovely kindness to hope for something good for someone else.

As a part of my ongoing project of leaving little Post-it notes in library books, I’m testing my theory out. (At the very least, it’s probably nicer than the note I left in Paper Towns saying that I hate John Green’s face. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But I swear the man has a face of a dude who corrects your grammar at parties, and seriously, screw that guy.)


Attempt #1: "I hope your day goes well today."
I added a heart, just in case the message seemed to cold. But then it kind of looks like I'm being all flirty, so I specified that it was a "platonic heart." Just so no one gets the wrong idea.

Attempt #2: "Hey, I hope you have a good day today."
To make it even friendlier, I drew a cat. But then it doesn't really look like a cat. So then I clarified that it's "supposed to be cat." Which somehow makes it look less like a cat. Eh, whatever.

Attempt #3: "I hope you have an interesting day today! Unless you're in the mood for a boring day. Basically, I hope you have the sort of day that makes you happy."
tl;dr: You do you, buddy.
But no, seriously. I hate John Green's face.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eating McDonald’s in a foreign country

There’s a fried herring cart in Stockholm called (aptlyNystekt Strömming.

It’s apparently a favorite among locals for a quick snack, and with good reason: it was easily the most delicious 60 SEK I spent in the city. Continuing my strategy of making gastronomical decisions based in part on what I could pronounce, I had the “Special,” which was fried herring with potatoes and a bit of salad. It was amazing fast food, in the literal sense of “fast food”—no line, my food was served just a minute or so after I ordered it, and was devoured just a few more minutes after that.

Across the street, literally less than a minute’s walk away, is this McDonald’s.



You can’t tell from the picture, but (1) the line to the register stretched to nearly the door in what was a fairly large McDonald’s; and (2) this was after the lunch rush had died down.1 In my (admittedly limited) experience, this isn’t uncommon in big, European cities: tourists love McDonald’s, and around lunch or dinner time, it’ll probably be among the busiest places to eat.

You know what else isn’t uncommon? People—usually other tourists—looking down on tourists eating at McDonald’s. And I kind of hate that.

In fact, I kind of hate that because I used to say and think that. There’d be a line out the door at a McDonald’s in Rome, and I’d scoff to anyone who’d listen, “Ugh, don’t they know they’re in Italy? Why would you want a greasy Big Mac when you can get authentic Italian food?”

I, of course, wasn’t asking the question sincerely, so I didn’t take the minute or so to consider the multitude of completely legitimate scenarios in which travelers can simultaneously be aware of what country they are in and still want to eat at McDonald’s:

  • Maybe they’re on a budget, and they can’t really afford most of the local cuisine
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and they didn’t like it
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and the portions were smaller than they expected, so they’re still hungry
  • Maybe traveling is completely new to them and having to adjust to an unfamiliar city, language, culture, transit system, and monetary system is a little overwhelming, so having something uncomplicated to eat that they don’t have to think about is comforting
  • Maybe they’re feeling a little homesick, and they just want something that reminds them of home at the moment
  • Or maybe they just really like Big Macs, and I need to get off their dick about it, geez

What’s gross about McDonald’s condescension is that it presupposes that there’s a right and wrong way to travel, and it takes a lot of gall to tell someone that they’re doing something as personal and individual as travel incorrectly.

People, after all, travel for all manner of different reasons—to meet new people; to get away from people; to relax; to challenge themselves; and so on. And some travel without even having a reason, or travel in search of one.

And yes, it may be worth remembering that if you’re in a foreign country and all you want to do is lounge poolside at the hotel and order Pizza Hut that you may consider trying something that you couldn’t do at home (airfare’s kind of expensive, after all, and there are plenty of pools and Stuffed Crust Pizzas waiting for you once you get back). But I wouldn’t dare tell anyone that they’re traveling wrong or wasting their travel, especially when I don’t know anything about them besides what I’ve deemed as incorrect travel choices.

The reality is, no matter what you do, someone will think you’re doing it wrong: You’re taking too few pictures (“When are you ever going to be here again?!”) or too many pictures (“Put down the camera and just be in the moment!”). You’re missing all the big sites, or you’re going to too many touristy things. You’re not meeting enough people, or you’re not connecting with yourself. You’re trying to do too much, or you’re not doing enough.

The best decision any traveler can make is to just let all of that go. Ultimately, you can either stress over the idea that nothing you do is right, or you can take comfort in knowing that nothing you do is wrong. And as long as you’re kind and polite and respectful, you’re free to just do you—or, if that isn’t working out, do something else and try that.

People have their reasons for why they do things, including why they do what they do when they travel. And for the most part, we don’t know what those reasons are. That means our default posture shouldn’t be one of disdain or judgment but of encouragement and understanding—or, at least, cheerful indifference.

Or, more simply: no matter how delicious that herring is, maybe they just really like Big Macs. And that’s okay.


1In case you were wondering, I was in that McDonald’s to use the restroom. I try to be a good traveler and respect the mores of the places I visit, but there’s one place my Ugly Americanism rears its ugly American head—I really don’t like paying to use a public restroom2. The idea here was to use the restroom at McDonald’s by waiting by the restroom for someone to exit, then pretending to fall in line for a few moments, and finally leaving with an annoyed look as if I was planning on buying something but the line was just too long. In a karmatic twist, by the time I put my plan into action, I legitimately did want a 10 SEK McDonald’s ice cream cone, so after I used the restroom, I really did fall in line in earnest and really did leave annoyed once it became clear that getting an ice cream cone would take ten to fifteen minutes.
2Some of the small kindnesses I encountered in Europe that are most resonant to me involve people helping me not have to pay for using the restroom: a guy holding open the pay toilet gate for me so I can sneak in, a barista being all, “Oh no, go right in” when I asked if I had to make a purchase to use the restroom, and so on. People are pretty great sometimes.