On Enjoying Disagreeable Company

Bears re­sem­blance to: Ureshiku Nar­i­tai; A Suite of Prag­matic Con­sid­er­a­tions In Fa­vor of Niceness

In this com­ment, I men­tioned that I can like peo­ple on pur­pose. At the be­hest of the re­cip­i­ents of my pre­sen­ta­tion on how to do so, I’ve writ­ten up in post form my tips on the sub­ject. I have not in­cluded, and will not in­clude, any spe­cific real-life ex­am­ples (ev­ery­thing be­low is made up), be­cause I am con­cerned that peo­ple who I like on pur­pose will be up­set to find that this is the case, in spite of the fact that the lik­ing (once gen­er­ated) is en­tirely sincere. If any­one would find more con­crete­ness helpful, I’m will­ing to come up with brief fic­tional sto­ries to cover this gap.

It is use­ful to like peo­ple. For one thing, if you have to be around them, lik­ing them makes this far more pleas­ant. For an­other, well, they can of­ten tell, and if they know you to like them this will of­ten be in­stru­men­tally use­ful to you. As such, it’s very handy to be able to like some­one you want to like de­liber­ately when it doesn’t hap­pen by it­self. There are three ba­sic com­po­nents to lik­ing some­one on pur­pose. First, re­duce salience of the dis­liked traits by sep­a­rat­ing, re­cast­ing, and down­play­ing them; sec­ond, in­crease salience of pos­i­tive traits by iden­ti­fy­ing, in­ves­ti­gat­ing, and ad­miring them; and third, be­have in such a way as to reap con­sis­tency effects.

1. Re­duce salience of dis­liked traits.

Iden­tify the traits you don’t like about the per­son—this might be a hand­ful of irk­some habits or a list as long as your arm of deep char­ac­ter flaws, but make sure you know what they are. No­tice that how­ever im­mense a set of char­ac­ter­is­tics you gen­er­ate, it’s not the en­tire per­son. (“Every­thing!!!!” is not an ac­cept­able en­try in this step.) No per­son can be fully de­scribed by a list of things you have no­ticed about them. Note, ac­cord­ingly, that you dis­like these things about the per­son; but that this does not log­i­cally en­tail dis­lik­ing the per­son. Put the list in a “box”—sep­a­rate from how you will even­tu­ally eval­u­ate the per­son.

When the per­son ex­hibits a char­ac­ter­is­tic, habit, or ten­dency you have on your list (or, prob­a­bly just to ag­gra­vate you, turns out to have a new one), be on your guard im­me­di­ately for the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror. It is es­pe­cially in­sidious when you already dis­like the per­son, and so it’s im­por­tant to com­pen­sate con­sciously and di­rectly for its in­fluence. Ele­vate to con­scious thought an “at­tri­bu­tion story”, in which you con­sider a cir­cum­stance—not a char­ac­ter trait—which would ex­plain this most re­cent ex­am­ple of bad be­hav­ior.1 This should be the most likely story you can come up with that doesn’t re­sort to grum­bling about how dread­ful the per­son is—that is, don’t re­sort to “Well, maybe he was brain­washed by Mar­ti­ans, but sheesh, how likely is that?” Bet­ter would be “I know she was up late last night, and she does look a bit tired,” or “Maybe that three-hour phone call he ended just now was about some­thing ter­ribly stress­ful.”

Reach a lit­tle farther if you don’t have this kind of in­for­ma­tion—“I’d prob­a­bly act that way if I were com­ing down with a cold; I won­der if she’s sick?” is an ac­cept­able spec­u­la­tion even ab­sent the least sniffle. If you can, it’s also a good idea to ask (earnestly, cu­ri­ously, re­spect­fully, kindly! not ac­cusatively, rudely, in­tru­sively, bel­liger­ently!) why the per­son did what­ever they did. Rest as­sured that if their psy­che is fairly nor­mal, an ex­pla­na­tion ex­ists in their minds that doesn’t boil down to “I’m a lousy ex­cuse for a per­son who in­trin­si­cally does evil things just be­cause it is my na­ture.” (Note, how­ever, that not ev­ery­one can pro­duce ver­bal self-jus­tifi­ca­tions on de­mand.) Whether you be­lieve them or not, make sure you are aware of at least one cir­cum­stance-based ex­pla­na­tion for what they did.

No­tice which situ­a­tions elicit more of the dis­liked be­hav­iors than oth­ers. Every­body has situ­a­tions that bring out the worst in them, and when the worst is already get­ting on your nerves, you should avoid as much as pos­si­ble let­ting any ex­tra bub­ble to the sur­face. If you have in­fluence of any kind over which roles this per­son plays in your life (or in gen­eral), con­fine them to those in which their worst habits are ir­rele­vant, miti­gated, or lo­cal ad­van­tages of some kind. Do not ask for a ride to the air­port from some­one who ter­rifies you with their speed­ing; don’t pro­pose split­ting dessert with some­one whose self­ish­ness drives you up the wall; don’t as­sign the pro­cras­ti­na­tor an ur­gent task. Do ask the speeder to make a quick run to the bank be­fore it closes while you’re (ever so in­con­ve­niently) stuck at home; do give the self­ish per­son tasks where they work on com­mis­sion; do give the pro­cras­ti­na­tor things to do that they’ll in­ter­pret as ways to put off their other work.

2. In­crease salience of pos­i­tive traits.

Don’t look at me like that. There is some­thing. It’s okay to grasp at straws a lit­tle to start. You do not have to wait to like some­one un­til you dis­cover the mil­lions of dol­lars they donate to miti­gat­ing ex­is­ten­tial risk or learn that their pseudonym is the name of your fa­vorite mu­si­cian. You can like their cool hair­cut, or the way they phrased that one sen­tence the other week, or even their shoes. You can ap­pre­ci­ate that they’ve un­der­gone more hard­ship than you (if they have, but be gen­er­ous in in­ter­pret­ing “more” when com­par­ing in­com­men­su­rate difficul­ties) - even if you don’t think they’ve han­dled it that well, well, it was hard. You can ac­knowl­edge that they are bet­ter than you, or than baseline, or than any one per­son who you already like, at some skill or in some sphere of achieve­ment. You can think they did a good job of pick­ing out their fur­ni­ture, or loan them halo effect from a rel­a­tive or friend of theirs who you think is okay. There is some­thing.

Learn more about the lik­able things you have dis­cov­ered. “Catch them in the act” of show­ing off one of these fine qual­ities. As a corol­lary to the bit above about not putting them in roles that bring out their worst, try to put them in situ­a­tions where they’re at their best. Set them up to suc­ceed, both ab­solutely and in your eyes. Speak to any available mu­tual friends about what more there is to like—learn how the per­son makes friends, what at­tracts peo­ple to them, what peo­ple get out of as­so­ci­at­ing with them. Solicit sto­ries about the ex­cel­lent deeds of the tar­get per­son. Col­lect ma­te­rial like you’re a bi­og­ra­pher ter­rified of be­ing sued for li­bel and dread­ing com­ing in un­der page count: you need to know all the nice things there are to know.

It is ab­solutely es­sen­tial through­out this pro­cess to cul­ti­vate ad­mira­tion, not jeal­ousy. Jeal­ousy and re­sent­ment are ab­solutely coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, while ad­mira­tion and re­spect—how­ever grudg­ing—are steps in the right di­rec­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, you are try­ing to use these fea­tures of the per­son. It will not fur­ther your goals if you dis­count their im­por­tance in the grand scheme of things. Do not think, “She has such pretty hair, why does she get such pretty hair when she doesn’t de­serve it since she’s such an awful per­son? Grrr!” In­stead, “She has such pretty hair. It’s gor­geous to look at and that makes her nice to have around. I won­der if she has time to teach me how to do my hair like that.” Or in­stead of: “Sure, he can speak Latin, but what the hell use is Latin? Does he think we’re go­ing to be in­vaded by le­gionar­ies and need him to be a diplo­mat?” it would be more use­ful to­wards the pro­ject of lik­ing to think, “Most peo­ple don’t have the pa­tience and ded­i­ca­tion to learn any sec­ond lan­guage, and it only makes it harder to pick one where there aren’t na­tive speak­ers available to help teach the finer points. I bet a lot of effort went into this.”

3. Reap con­sis­tency effects.

Take care to be kind and con­sid­er­ate to the per­son. The odds are pretty good that there is some­thing they don’t like about you (rub­bing some­one the wrong way is more of­ten bidi­rec­tional than not). If you can figure out what it is, and do less of it—at least around them—you will col­lect cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance that you can use to nudge your­self to like the per­son. I mean, oth­er­wise, why would you go to the trou­ble of not tap­ping your fingers around them, or mak­ing sure to pro­nounce their com­pli­cated name cor­rectly, or re­mem­ber­ing what they’re aller­gic to so you can avoid bring­ing in food suit­able for ev­ery­one but them? That’s the sort of thing you do when you care how they feel, and if you care how they feel, you must like them at least a lit­tle. (Note failure mode: if you dis­cover that some­thing you do an­noys them, and you re­spond with re­sent­ment that they have such an un­rea­son­able prefer­ence about such a deeply held part of your iden­tity and how dare they!, you’re do­ing it wrong. The point isn’t to com­pletely make your­self over to be their ideal friend. You don’t have to do ev­ery­thing. But do some­thing.)

Seek to spend time around the per­son. This should drop pretty nat­u­rally out of the above steps: you need to ac­quire all this in­for­ma­tion from some­where, af­ter all. But seek their opinions on things, es­pe­cially their ar­eas of ex­per­tise and fa­vorite top­ics; make small talk; ask af­ter their pro­jects, their in­ter­ests, their loved ones; choose to hang out in rooms they oc­cupy even if you never in­ter­act. (Note failure mode: Don’t do this if you can feel your­self hat­ing them more ev­ery minute you spend to­gether or if you find it stress­ful enough to in­hibit the above men­tal ex­er­cises. It is bet­ter to do more work on lik­ing them from a dis­tance if you are at this stage, then later move on to seek­ing to spend time with them. Also, if you an­noy them, don’t do any­thing that could be char­ac­ter­ized as pes­ter­ing them or fol­low­ing them around.)

Try to learn some­thing from the per­son—by ex­am­ple, if they aren’t in­ter­ested in teach­ing you, or di­rectly, if they are. It is pos­si­ble to learn even from peo­ple who don’t have sig­nifi­cantly bet­ter skills than you. If they tell sto­ries about things they’ve done, you can learn from their mis­takes; if they are worse than you at a skill but use an ap­proach to it that you haven’t tried, you can learn how to use it; if noth­ing else, they know things about them­selves, and that in­for­ma­tion is highly use­ful for the pro­ject of lik­ing them, as dis­cussed above. Put what you know about them into the con­text of their own per­spec­tive.

Note gen­eral failure mode: It would be fairly easy, us­ing fac­similes of the strat­egy above, to de­velop smug­ness, self-righ­teous­ness, ar­ro­gance, and other un­seemly at­ti­tudes. Be­ware if your in­ner monologue be­gins to sound some­thing like “He’s gone and bro­ken the sink again, but I’m too good and tol­er­ant to be an­gry. It wouldn’t do any good to ex­press my dis­plea­sure—af­ter all, he can’t take crit­i­cism, not that I judge him for this, of course. I’ll be sure to put a note on the faucet and call the plumber to cover for his failure to do so, rather than nag­ging him to do it, as I know he’d fly off the han­dle if I re­minded him—it’s just not ev­ery­one’s gift to ac­cept such things, as it is mine, and as I am do­ing, right now, with him, by not be­ing up­set...”

This monologuer does not like the sink-breaker. This monologuer holds him in con­tempt, and thinks very highly of her­self for keep­ing this con­tempt os­ten­si­bly pri­vate (al­though it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that he can tell any­way). She tol­er­ates his com­pany be­cause it would be be­neath her not to; she doesn’t en­joy hav­ing him around be­cause she re­al­izes that he has use­ful in­sights on rele­vant top­ics or even be­cause he’s dec­o­ra­tive in some way. If you don’t wind up re­ally, gen­uinely, sincerely lik­ing the per­son you set out to like, you are do­ing it wrong. This is not a credit to your high-mind­ed­ness, and think­ing it is will not help you win.

1 A good time to prac­tice this habit is when in a car. Make up sto­ries about the traf­fic mis­be­hav­iors around you. “The sun is so bright—she may not have seen me.” “That car sure looks old! I prob­a­bly wouldn’t han­dle it even half as well, no won­der it keeps stal­ling.” “He’s in a ter­rible hurry—I won­der if a rel­a­tive of his is in trou­ble.” “Per­haps she’s on her cel­l­phone be­cause she’s a doc­tor, on call—it then would re­ally be more dan­ger­ous on net if she didn’t an­swer the thing while driv­ing.” “He’d pull over if there were any place to do so, but there’s no shoulder.” Of course any given one of these is prob­a­bly not true. But they make sense, and they are not about how ev­ery­body on the road is a ma­niac! I stress that you are not to be­lieve these sto­ries. You are merely to ac­knowl­edge that they are pos­si­bil­ities, to com­pen­sate for the deem­pha­sis of hy­pothe­ses like this that the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror will prompt.