Tag Archives: friendship

Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be)

In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.

The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.

Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production. Continue reading

Dominance, care, and social touch

John Salvatier writes about dominance, care, and social touch:

I recently found myself longing for male friends to act dominant over me. Imagining close male friends putting their arms over my shoulders and jostling me a bit, or squeezing my shoulders a bit roughly as they come up to talk to me felt good. Actions that clearly convey ‘I’m in charge here and I think you’ll like it’.

I was surprised at first. After all, aren’t showy displays of dominance bad? I don’t think of myself as particularly submissive either.

But my longing started to make more sense when I thought about my high school cross country coach.

[...] Coach would walk around and stop to talk to individual students. As he came up to you, he would often put his hand on your shoulder or sidle up alongside you and squeeze the nape of your neck. He would ask you - How are you? How did the long run feel yesterday? What are you aiming for at the meet? You’d tell him, and he would tell you what he thought was good - Just shoot to have a good final kick; don’t let anyone pass you.

And it felt really good for him to talk to you like that. At least it did for me.

It was clear that you were part of his plans, that he was looking out for you and that he wanted something from you. And that was reassuring because it meant he was going to keep looking out for you.

I think there are a few things going on here worth teasing apart:

Some people are more comfortable with social touch than others, probably related to overall embodiment.

Some people are more comfortable taking responsibility for things that they haven't been explicitly tasked with and given affordances for, including taking responsibility for things affecting others.

Because people cowed by authority are likely to think they're not allowed to do anything by default, and being cowed by authority is a sort of submission, dominance is correlated with taking responsibility for tasks. (There are exceptions, like service submissives, or people who just don't see helpfulness as related to their dominance.)

Because things that cause social ineptness also cause discomfort or unfamiliarity with social touch, comfort with and skill at social touch is correlated with high social status.

Personally, I don't like much casual social touch. Several years ago, the Rationalist community decided to try to normalize hugging, to promote bonding and group cohesion. It was correct to try this, given our understanding at the time. But I think it's been bad for me on balance; even after doing it for a few years, it still feels fake most of the time. I think I want to revert to a norm of not hugging people, in order to preserve the gesture for cases where I feel authentically motivated to do so, as an expression of genuine emotional intimacy.

I'm very much for the sort of caring where you proactively look after the other person's interests, outside the scope of what you've been explicitly asked to do - of taking it upon yourself to do things that need to be done. I just don't like connecting this with dominance or ego assertion. (I've accepted that I do need to at least inform people that I'm doing the thing, to avoid duplicated effort or allay their anxiety that it's not getting done.)

Sometimes, when I feel let down because someone close to me dropped the ball on something important, they try to make amends by submitting to me. This would be a good appeasement strategy if I mainly felt bad because I wanted them to assign me a higher social rank. But, the thing I want is actually the existence of another agent in the world who is independently looking out for my interests. So when they respond by submitting, trying to look small and incompetent, I perceive them as shirking. My natural response to this kind of shirking is anger - but people who are already trying to appease me by submitting tend to double down on submission if they notice I'm upset at them - which just compounds the problem!

My main strategy for fixing this has been to avoid leaning on this sort of person for anything important. I've been experimenting with instead explicitly telling them I dont' want submission and asking them to take more responsibility, and this occasionally works a bit, but it's slow and frustrating and I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

I don't track my social status as a quantity much at all. A close friend once described my social strategy as projecting exactly enough status to talk to anyone in the room, but no more, and no desire to win more status. This may be how I come across inside social ontologies where status is a quantity everyone has and is important to interactions, but from my perspective, I just talk to people I want to talk to if I think it will be a good use of our time, and don't track whether I'm socially entitled to. This makes it hard for some people, who try to understand people through their dominance level, to read me and predict my actions. But I think fixing this would be harmful, since it would require me to care about my status. I care about specific relationships with individuals, reputation for specific traits and actions, and access to social networks. I don't want to care about dominating people or submitting to them. It seems unfriendly. It seems divergent.

I encourage commenting here or at LessWrong.

Copernican revolutions, lordship, and bondage

I got a wonderful compliment from a friend recently.

They had mentioned that I was a good host - that I got some important things right (this on its own made me feel recognized) - and expressed some worry that I might feel unappreciated. Another of their friends had expressed the sense that their contributions to the community weren’t being reciprocated. From what my friend could observe of my behavior I was acting fairly similarly, and they were worried I’d burn out.

I responded to the effect that I am already "burnt out" in the sense that I'm only doing things if they feel worth doing with no expectation of reciprocation. (My other motives are finding it intrinsically motivating to do good for others, and empowering allies to do good things more generally.) But, I continued, I was sad that I'm not setting off a success spiral where other people perceive the public goods I'm contributing to as benefiting them, and try to reciprocate by generating more public goods of a similar kind. A sort of public goods success spiral, where people do more, not just because they have more resources & like people, but because they perceive themselves to live in an environment with prosocial norms.

My friend responded that my behavior had inspired them to be a better host, and given them affordances of things to do, that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise. They gave a concrete example: offering people water when they come in. And this was exactly the thing I'd wanted to happen, and had sort of given up on.

I shouldn’t have given up. But I should have expected it to be hard, because it implies a level of spiritual development that you can’t just skip ahead to. I should have known this, because I've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Continue reading

Heterosociality hypotheses

Why are most of my close friends women? I’ve been thinking about how to cultivate close friendships, and this questions keeps coming up.

Most of the rest were born in female-typical estrogen-dominant bodies, assigned female at birth, and haven’t taken strong steps to present as masculine-typical in ways that would override my initial impression. My closest friend in the remainder of the remainder is an androgynous guy. And an interesting symmetry: several of my female friends note that they’re mostly friends with guys!

I don’t have a strong idea why this is so, but I’ve generated a few hypotheses. Continue reading

Steve Jobs and the Impossibility of Parents

Steve Jobs felt abandoned by his parents - but which ones?

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs repeatedly brings up Jobs’s sense that his birth parents abandoned him by putting him up for adoption, as an explanation for his bad behavior towards others: setting people up to believe they’re close friends or even revered mentors and father figures to him, only to suddenly and coldly abandon them when their usefulness to him has ended.

This explanation - that the central trauma of Jobs’s life was a sense of abandonment by his birth parents - doesn’t quite fit. Other of Job’s famously bad behaviors are is not explained by this: the quickness with which he would categorize people into “geniuses” and “bozos,” or their accomplishments into “amazing” or “shit,” and the fury with which he would berate those in the second half of the division. In addition, Jobs was adamant that his adoptive parents always made him feel special, making a point to tell him that they had picked him out, chosen him.

One passage from early in the book stuck out to me, and I think it helps resolve this puzzle. Jobs told Isaacson a story about how, when he was a kid and becoming interested in technology, a friend showed him something his father - who had been teaching him how to make things, about electronics, etc. - wasn’t able to account for. A big part of Jobs’s relationship with his father had been his father teaching him how to make things, and how things worked. In that moment, Jobs says, he began to realize that he was smarter than his parents, and as soon as he noticed this thought, felt a deep sense of shame. Anyone who knows anything about the character of Steve Jobs will be unsurprised to find out that shame was an emotion he rarely experienced. I don’t have a copy of the book handy, but would be unsurprised if this is the only time the word shame is used to describe Jobs’s state.

The central trauma of Steve Jobs’s life was that he felt abandoned by his adoptive parents, when he realized that they were not as smart as him. His father couldn’t be his mentor anymore. No one was above him. Continue reading

Social trade

Social mercantilism

Recently I noticed that my model of social capital is fundamentally mercantilist, and that's pretty dumb. I seem to be trying to maintain a favorable balance of trade, trying to earn social capital through meeting others' needs, and trying to minimize the extent to which I "spend down" this capital. I have a tendency to spend down my real capital to accumulate social credit. This may often be counterproductive because most social currencies depreciate rapidly, and if instead I asked for help in ways that built up personal real capital (e.g. skills growth, introductions, etc.), I'd be in a better future position to trade for what I need. The obvious next move here is to figure out where I should be investing in myself instead of piling up social credit. Continue reading

Connections and alliances

In my post on counterfactual hugging and vampire friendship, I started to develop the idea of one type of friend as an optimizing process who takes initiative to further your interests even when you’re not around to notice or prompt them.

A real life example:

I have a friend who learned when she was a child that oleander trees are very poisonous. (You can apparently get sick just from bruising the leaves and then touching your mouth.) She immediately started trying to warn people whenever she saw them interacting with an oleander tree, or at risk of doing so (because it was in their yard). She still feels the urge to do this. I didn’t see anything I could or should do about this, but I made sure to include this in my model of her, because it’s a thing she feels strongly about. When I think of oleander trees, I now automatically think of her wanting to warn people. A few weeks ago we were going for a walk and another friend pointed out a flowering tree across the street. I said that I thought they were boring because they were white flowers, and the first friend said, “No, they’re terrifying! That’s an oleander tree!” Immediately, I walked across the street to look at the tree, so that I could learn what an oleander tree looks like, so that in the future I could warn others about oleander trees, should the opportunity arise.

I still think this kind of friendship is beautiful and worth aspiring towards, with one’s closest friends. But I’ve been having a problem with this kind of friendship: whenever I’m medium-good friends with someone, I feel a tension, like I need to know whether they’re headed towards the category of a permanent ally, almost another self, or whether they’re just a casual acquaintance. For years, I’ve known that this binary view was insufficiently nuanced, but I had no good theory to replace it. Until now.

Continue reading

True friendship is being counterfactually hugged by vampires

Justice, reciprocity, and the trader principle

I continue to be pleased and surprised by how much and how strongly I stand by this poem. I keep wanting to bring it up in conversation, as a summary of my feelings on friendship and what one true friend owes another. This post is an attempt to make these ideas more explicit.

There is a transactional model of doing good to others, whereby one immediately receives some benefit. There is separately an idealistic model where one tries to help people simply because they are good. There are also some bridging categories in between, and I think various types of friendship are intermediate categories.

Continue reading

My friend Micah was visiting me three weeks ago, when my the cherry blossoms had just come out, and we got some lovely but seasonally inappropriate springtime snow in DC. We took this photo:

Cherry Blossoms in the Snow - Original Instagram Picture

Now Google Plus has "Auto-Awesomed" it, and you can "see" the "snow" falling:

Cherry Blossoms in the Snow

Pretty neat, huh?