They’re not unfriendly - they’re afraid: People
I mentioned to a friend that I didn’t see myself as someone people particularly wanted to hang out with, and she was surprised. She’d thought of me as a cool high-status person, and therefore felt like she should wait for me to reach out to her instead of the other way around.
If enough other people feel this way towards someone who presents as high-status but doesn’t feel that confident on the inside, what they end up seeing is a bunch of people who accept their invitations, but never reciprocate. So they feel low-status, since it looks like no one affirmatively wants to hang out. This conversation happened near the end of July:
Friend: I noticed (and commented on) your vaguebook, and I noticed something else you said the other day. The sum of this caused me to realize that maybe you don't have a solid self-image as a really cool person who people want to hang out with? Which surprised me, because I expected that you did.
Me: Yeah, basically that is not in my self-image; or, not firmly. I'm a bit surprised that you're surprised & curious why.
Friend: Because my current model is that you're a really cool person who people want to hang out with?
Me: Ah, thanks for the compliment.
Friend: It’s not intended to serve as a compliment.
Me: Sure. What's the evidence that people want to hang out with me? I guess I can sometimes persuade some cool people to hang out with me. Often this involves bribing them in some way, or nudging them repeatedly, which is not what I'd expect to see if people affirmatively wanted to hang out with me. There are occasional exceptions, but the decay curve is steep.
Friend: “Affirmatively wanted”?
Me: As opposed to it being possible to manipulate them into it. Like, it's in some sense the revealed preference of the gambling addict to donate a bunch of money to the slot machine, but you never see them walk up and just shove a bunch of money in and walk away. Like, people rarely ask me to hang out unless I fish super obviously.
Friend: So it turns out people are really bad at this.
Me: & mostly then it's people I'm either dating or sorta dating, which is an edge case.
Friend: Like, people are really bad at successfully connecting with others, even when they would get a lot out of it. There are reasons why the world is like this. So I do a lot of the scheduling of interactions that I have. I'm all "hey, want to hang out and talk about X sometime this week?" (for example)
Friend: And often they do want to, and then we do and often it's good and they're all, "Gosh, I liked that," and then i keep doing it. And i'm not super great at this. I think I'm missing lots of connections because I don't know to ask. So I think I'm observing something fairly similar to what you're observing, and I interpret it more optimistically.
Friend: One thing I forgot to mention: I confirmed with other people that yes, you do present as high-status, which means that people of status similar to how you feel are discouraged from reaching out to you, including me.
Lots of social advice for the poorly socialized - at least, the advice that’s concrete and specific enough to be useful - is about mimicking high-status but not extremely dominant behavior. Taking up a lot of space with your body, with an open posture. Looking people in the eye. Smiling and moving slowly. Taking the lead.
I learned a bunch of these things without fully understanding what makes them work and why. I think a lot of people do this, especially in the communities I’m a part of. Then they completely miss the social function of some low status behavior in getting one's needs met and building social connections.
They’re not unfriendly - they’re afraid: Dogs
Several months ago I was staying in an AirBnb where the dog-owning proprietors were out of town. The dogs freaked out and barked at us a lot.
In the past I'd have just figured that they were mean dogs who wanted to hurt me, and been scared. This time I realized that they were terrified - their people were gone and these unknown intruders were entering their home! So I was able to be more compassionate.
The dogs ran and hid when we entered, but much later in the night when I was going to the kitchen to get something, I saw them there and they started barking at me. So I lay down on my back exposing my belly. Scariest thing I've done in my life. These were greyhounds, and I'm not a dog person but they were big and scary.
One of them cautiously walked up to me, and stopped barking when they saw I was just lying there. Then the others stopped barking. Then they walked back to their bedroom, somewhat more calmly.
It didn't last. They were afraid of me again later. But they weren’t as panicked as they had been before. And I wasn’t as scared of them. It helped.
They’re not just offering help - they’re asking for it
I recently went through a very painful breakup, after a bunch of other stressful stuff happened. I wrote about it publicly afterwards. At first, I was frustrated with how the offers of support came rolling in only once I was already on my way out of the hardest couple of months of my life.
Then people started alluding to similar problems they themselves were facing. At first I thought this was just a way of expressing sympathy for me.
But then if I nudged just a bit, if I indicated my openness to talking about it, I found that they wanted my support! I talked a couple of friends through their own recent or pending breakups, and talked with a few more about their depression. In some cases these were friends who had been depressed for a long time, and I had never known!
By being open about what happened to me, I gave my friends an occasion to show me their own pain. I got the chance to help them. I got the chance to grow closer to them.
For as long as I put up a good face, looked nothing but strong, confident, and in control, I missed these opportunities.
I’m glad I didn’t just keep projecting “high-status” behavior. I’m glad I opened up.