Tag Archives: social

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.


"Back off and give him more space -" said the dry voice of Professor Quirrell.

"No!" interrupted the Headmaster. "Let him be surrounded by his friends."

-Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Words of distraction or encouragement

Recently, at the gym, I overheard some group of exercise buddies admonishing their buddy on some machine to keep going with each rep. My first thought was, “why are they tormenting their friend? Why can’t they just leave him alone? Exercise is hard enough without trying to parse social interactions at the same time.” 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

A Plus, Is Greedy

Miri has an interesting post (h/t Kate Donovan) on the relation between depression and isolation. I've never been diagnosed with depression, or had any internal experience that felt as debilitating as what people who have say it's like. This paragraph describes something pretty recognizable to me anyway:

Depression is really nothing but a huge negative feedback loop. The worse I felt, the more I became convinced that I have nothing of value to offer other people as a friend, partner, or anything else. I found that I could barely stand messaging with friends online (something that’s normally my lifeline) because I felt like I had nothing to say. People would ask how my life is or what’s up or how I’m doing or whatever and I had no way to answer that question. My life is bad. Nothing is up. I’m doing shitty. And you?

I've certainly had times when I felt like I had nothing to answer "What's up?", because not much was going on. And as I've written before, it's not unusual to have trouble with this, even if you're not feeling terrible.

A lot of my social interactions got a lot better, easier, and more valuable when I connected these four things I already knew:

  • It makes me happy when other people ask me for things, especially advice or information.
  • Sometimes I want things from other people, especially advice or information.
  • Sometimes I don't know what to say in a conversation.
  • What makes me happy is likely to make someone else happy.

Instead of just letting my unmet needs, unanswered questions, unasked requests, and unresolved confusions simmer inside me, I decided to start asking other people for what I wanted - especially if what I wanted was advice, sympathy, or information.

At the CFAR workshop, if someone giving a presentation said something I didn't understand how to use, I didn't worry about whether I'd already put enough thought into figuring it out for myself. I just asked them, and if I didn't understand their answer, I kept at it, until we figured out where the confusion was. As a result, for the first time since before high school, I asked an instructor a question where I was genuinely confused, and got an answer that actually helped me learn. For example, I figured out that one reason some of the emotion-based techniques weren't working for me is that I have a limited emotional vocabulary, so if I want to use them I should work on building that capacity first.

(I asked questions in high school and grad school, of course - college doesn't count because my tutors weren't supposed to be serving as subject matter experts. But either it was a smartass question meant to show off, or a leading question meant to clarify a point I thought might confuse others. In the few cases where I really needed an answer, I got no help at all. I learned that the only way I'd get past the confusion was to read the textbook or work on the next assignment.)

When my grandmother died, I wanted to talk about it, so I contacted a few people who were online who I was sort of friends with and told them. I got to think through my feelings in a low-stakes conversation, and as an added benefit, one of them became a much closer friend as a result.

If I'd used this approach last time I was looking for a job - or when I was considering grad programs - I would have made much better choices, and performed a much more effective search. I remember one time when I was considering doing a PhD program in finance, and had the following two problems:

  1. A mentor of mine had introduced me to a professor at a well-regarded local finance program, and I was supposed to talk to him, but wasn't sure what to say to him or what questions to ask.
  2. I wasn't sure whether I had enough mathematical background to jump straight into a finance PhD, what my skill gap was, and how to close it. I didn't know how to put together a plan to do this, how to assess what skills I'd need, etc.

In hindsight, I should have used the second problem to solve the first one, and asked the professor all my questions. It would have been something to talk about, gotten us into an object-level discussion where we could work on a specific problem together, and gotten him used to being on my side. It would also have answered my object-level question about how to bring myself up to the mathematical level needed.

The key principle in all of this is to be greedy. Have a clear idea of what you want, and ask for it.

I'm mainly talking about requests for information or attention. This doesn't quite work for requests like "Can I have $1,000?", or "Will you help me paint my walls?". Requests for information or attention flatter the other person, which makes them mutually beneficial.

The other caveat here is that you have to be prepared for them to say no to your request, or to try to help you ineffectively. The point of this interaction isn't to have your problems completely solved with total certainty by the end. The point is to create an opportunity to make any dent in it at all, even if the only progress is that you learn about something that won't get you what you want. I find that this lower-pressure attitude makes it easier to think of things I want to ask for.

By the way, if you are looking for a job - first, do lots of informational interviews. This should be your primary search method, starting with people you have some direct connection to if possible.

Second, especially if you're just coming out of school or for some other reason you have a deadline, it may be tempting to just focus on wanting "a job," or "a job in field X." This won't help you bond with the people you talk with, it won't help them help you, and because of this it won't make them feel good about the interaction or put more work into helping you. Instead, try to figure out what you'd ask for if you were being maximally greedy. A billion dollars a year, sure. But also, maybe you find writing really fun or want to learn how to build models in Excel or want to work with people who speak a foreign language. The more specific things you know you would like, the more and better questions you can ask, and the more ideas the people you're talking to will have. You may not get all of them - but you might get some, and you'll likely do better finding "a job in field X" too.

You can also get greedy about the things you don't know. What's your workday like? What are the other roles where you work? Basic questions are fine, especially if you're new to the field and you've done the obvious reading of the easily available information.

Similarly, if you're in an interaction with a friend or acquaintance, and you don't know what to say, specific questions and requests at least give them cues for what they should be saying or doing to make the interaction go well. (Did you think you were the only one who didn't know what to say next?)

Now, how do you apply this to "What's up?" Remember that "What's up?" is not a literal query about the objectively most important thing in your life, or a demand that you impress the asker. It's an opportunity to bring up a topic of conversation you want to talk about.

Now, if what one most needs is to brag about something (and sometimes one does), then you can go ahead and do that. But if you're feeling boring and lonely and useless, then you might be well-served by keeping a list of things you want. For example:

  1. I have some free time and am looking for book recommendations.
  2. I am trying to write more, but keep not doing it. Want to meet up for a writers' study hall?
  3. I am feeling shitty and need some cheering up. Can you send me some cute animal pictures / social validation that I am liked / happy music?
  4. This stressful thing happened to me and I just want to complain about it to someone.

I did the second and it worked out really well and I felt awesome and interesting and got to hang out with a friend without having to try to be anything special or do anything impressive or say anything smart. We just went to the Kogod Courtyard and wrote for a couple of hours. It was great.

And you're not the only one who feels better if you do this. People like to feel needed. It feels good. It makes them feel valuable, smart, competent - all the things you wish you felt too. (Thank you notes are super powerful for the same reason.)

And what if you can't come up with a list, or don't know what to ask this particular person for, or are too confused or overwhelmed by your problems to come up with a specific request?

Then you get meta-greedy: ask for help with that.

The one thing it's better to be asked for than a minor favor, is advice. Most people love to tell other people what to do. For example, I read Miri's post on depression, and like an asshole, I am responding by giving advice to people whose problems I don't understand and likely never will. (This advice is not actually intended for Miri in particular, or even specifically for people with depression - it's more a bunch of stuff I wish someone had told me ten years ago - but it's still kind of a terrible response, and not at all what I'd do in a one-on-one conversation if I was trying to be helpful.) I'm writing this blog post, telling the generic reader how to solve their problems, if their problems happen to be identical to mine. I don't expect to reap any material benefits from this - it just feels good to write it, and it will feel awesome if anyone says they were actually helped by it.

Sometimes I do favors for friends out of obligation, or when it's a chore to do so. But if a friend asked me for advice - said that they wanted my opinion in particular, that they wanted it very much, that if I could help them think something through it would be very useful to them - well, then, there's not much I wouldn't gladly and easily give up for that, with no willpower expenditure at all, because it's simply a pleasurable thing to do. One of my more recent friends basically turned me from a friendly stranger to someone who considers her a fairly close friend, by asking me for lots of advice.

One of the things it took a while for me to really deeply grok about managing other people professionally is that telling people what to do isn't a guilty pleasure to be suppressed, or indulged only when absolutely necessary, but instead a necessary part of the job.

Recent requests I've made of a friend:

  • I want to do something to help mitigate existential risk but don't know where to start.
  • I got some bad news about a friend and I have limited control over dealing with it and I want to help them but I can't make decisions for them and I don't know what to do.

Examples of other requests one might make (and I've made modified versions of these requests too):

  • I am in a slump and don't know what will get me out of it.
  • I need something but I don't know what. Help me think - I need another brain!

Of course this requires a certain level of confidence to do, even over text. It requires confidence that your request is comprehensible. It requires confidence that you are asking for something that it might be possible to get. It requires confidence that you are valuable, and worth your friends' time - and that they're your friends at all. Sometimes one doesn't have this confidence. But if you don't have this confidence, you can write the email you'd write if you did have that confidence. You don't have to decide whether to send it until it's written - nobody has to see it - but if you write it, and it makes any sense, and it's not an onerous request - why not?

Sometimes people say no, of course. That's life. No need to pre-reject yourself, though.

Now, if only I could get myself to read this post, and follow the advice in it. 😐