I’ll begin the examination of this myth with an example involving a woman I will call Miss Manners. Miss Manners was a co-worker of mine who became fairly notorious for her awkward failed attempts to date certain other female co-workers, myself included. While nobody ever took these advances as harassing or threatening (nor was there homophobia at play as those of us she crushed on were all into ladies), her approaches typically led to a lot of discomfort and usually ended with the object of her affection avoiding her and freezing her out. (This is important and you’ll see why.) Another co-worker of ours who we’ll call Tony would flirt with female co-workers quite frequently. None of this was altogether ill-advised considering that at our workplace, romantic relationships between employees of equal rank are permitted. However, Tony found himself being questioned in the HR office on multiple occasions…not because any of the women he was flirting with reported him for sexual harassment. Rather it was because Miss Manners decided to report him on their behalf even though when asked directly, none of them seemed to have an issue with Tony’s behavior. In fact, many of them were actually rather insulted at the idea that they needed rescuing and that if they were uncomfortable they couldn’t have handled the issue themselves. In the end what started out as Miss Manners’ sexual harassment Crusade quickly became a harassment case against Miss Manners, where if she continued the Vendetta against Tony, she could have faced disciplinary action for retaliation.
In case you haven’t yet noticed, this myth is very closely related to Creeper Myth #2; the idea that attractive guys can literally say and do whatever they want to any woman no matter how outrageous their words or actions while the dating game for unattractive or awkward folks is a creepage minefield even if they do the same exact things the attractive guys are doing.
What is also underlying myth #2 but much more so here in #5 is the conscious or subconscious belief that it’s at least a little bit wrong to make sexual interest known to the person you’re interested in. Indeed, in order to “get away with” something in the first place there must be some sort of supposed wrongdoing to be gotten away with. This is why some people, when looking at their own actions or others’ situations, confuse anything except for the most chaste and ambiguous approach for harassment and objectification. This is shown in Miss Manners’ apparent belief that even though the women Tony was flirting with didn’t object to it, there was no way they couldn’t have been uncomfortable and threatened. After all, she made LOTS of women uncomfortable with WAY less than what he did.
Sometimes it goes as deep as thinking sexual interest in and of itself is at least a little bit disrespectful and must be approached apologetically if at all. Following this line of thinking, if we are to accept that it’s wrong to flirt or ask women out, those who do it successfully on a consistent basis must be really really good at being bad bad people.
Myth #5 splits from myth #2 in that in #2, guys get away with so called “bad” behavior by being good-looking and your looks are something you’re stuck with to a certain degree. Social skills which we deal with here in #5 can be improved much more easily than your birth-face and yet due to the beliefs underlying this myth, many people choose not to improve them.
We won’t be touching on the people who won’t learn social skills because they’ve concluded that they can’t until a later post. For socially awkward types who see a lack of social calibration as both the main obstacle to their dating success while also seeing social skills as a tool for evil, their feelings on the matter can be a little more complicated. Particularly for Nice Guys, Vultures, and White Knights, who already tend to have a self-righteous streak, this can lead to a stubborn, sour grapes attitude toward improving their situations.
Much of this stems from a misunderstanding of just what social skills look like and what they can and can’t do. When imagining how social skills might change their dating life many guys picture a greasy, disingenuous salesman type selling his dick like it’s a used car. Or they picture a “sociopath” TV character who while being an obvious dick to all and sundry, still manages to charm a conga line of women into his bed that despite his otherwise callous treatment of them, never seems to end.
Let’s put it all together. You’re an okay guy. You’re not really that unattractive. You’re just kind of awkward and that seems to be your biggest hurdle. Meanwhile, THOSE awful guys seem to be rolling in poon and the difference between them and you seems to come down to the fact that you think of yourself as a person who respects women while those guys clearly don’t and they also seem to have a huge advantage over you in social skills and charisma. This might make you think that social skills and charisma are stepping stones to becoming Ted Bundy and that it’s morally better to remain just as awkward as you are now. Alternatively, you may decide you want to be just like Charles Manson. But not with like 20 or so women, only just this once with this one girl you really like. And you don’t want to involve her in murders, race wars or weird commune stuff or anything. You just want her to be your girlfriend. This is probably not because you think Charles Manson is awesome, but because you think successful dating requires you to be at the very least, a heavily diluted Charles Manson. It doesn’t.
The reason why con-artists, miraculously popular douchebags, and “successful sociopaths” are often the most used examples of social skills and charisma is because in everyday use, social skills don’t typically stand out very much. It’s actually very difficult to see from third person observation how a normal guy manages to ask a woman out and not mess it up or why walking up to any woman and simply aping that guy’s behavior doesn’t usually work. Even with that success, his social skills specifically probably went entirely unnoticed to everyone involved from observers to the woman he asked out, and even possibly to himself if he has even a moderate natural talent for them. It’s because social skills are largely subliminal and most of all normal and innocuous that in most everyday situations they can seem practically invisible. That is until you have somebody pulling off something that seems practically impossible…like having people still manage to like you and having egregious numbers of women still want to sleep with you even though you’re Charles Manson.
The truth is, unless you already have evil intentions (and making yourself more attractive to prospective dates doesn’t count as evil.) working on your social skills and charisma will not by itself turn you into an evil puppet master…often times even if you think you want it to.
What it will do is help you act appropriately in different situations and help you be more attentive to the subtle emotional states of those around you. This will make your interactions smoother and less awkward and you’ll come off as a more comfortable and pleasant person to be around because you can see people’s emotional cues or the particular energy of a room and adapt to that.
That’s because social skills, first and foremost are rooted in empathy. This might seem strange but even though you aren’t having a daily Circle where you pass around a box of Kleenex and pints of Ben & Jerry’s, you use empathy on a small scale several if not dozens of times a day picking up tiny emotional cues that guide your behavior in certain situations. This is how you can tell the store clerk is having an aggravating last few minutes of their shift and the difference between when your boss calls you into his office because you’re getting a raise and when he calls you into his office because you’re in trouble and probably getting fired.
Related to this is the fact that conspicuously, the evil social skills idea only seems to apply to socially skilled men and not socially skilled women. The empathy connection is obvious for women who seem to many to be naturally there to make us feel good and listen to us. Meanwhile while men can certainly use this the same way they are seen as only out to get laid and using social skills purely for this purpose.
The empathy stuff all sounds nice, but you’re probably thinking “But, doctorfishcraft, what does this have to do with sociopaths who get laid a lot?” and the answer is still empathy.
For starters, on one hand there’s emotional empathy that causes you to actually feel what another person is feeling to a degree. Your brain and body actually react to the response you’re seeing, like feeling sad for a kid who lost his parents or seeing a guy get hit in the nuts.
Then there’s cognitive empathy which is a little more on the analytical side. This is what allows you to see a situation from another person’s perspective and know how they’d feel and react to certain things without necessarily feeling anything yourself. This is also the kind of empathy that sociopaths can sometimes be strong in, which sometimes leads people to think of it as a less-good type of empathy that you don’t really need unless you’re trying to pretend not to be evil. This isn’t true. If your friend Andrew is really bummed about a date going badly and you know he likes group things and really enjoys MST3K, you might propose an MST3K night with friends to make him feel better and take his mind off things. If you had very weak cognitive empathy (but still had emotional empathy) you’d probably try to make him feel better with something that would make you feel better, something that worked in a movie, or something you assume all guys like; completely missing what would work better for Andrew.
While empathy tends to be seen only in a warm fuzzy light, like any skill, it can be abused. Just as strength can be used to beat people up and intelligence can be used to trick people, manipulation and mind games are basically weaponized empathy. The same empathy you used to figure out what would make Andrew feel better can be used to figure out how you can take advantage of him while he’s down. Similarly, the same empathy you can use to tell what makes Clarissa happy or sad can be used to figure out what sort of yarn you can spin to make her think you’re soul mates and want to sleep with you immediately. Add a lack of a conscience and no qualms about burning bridge after bridge after being exposed as this kind of jerk dozens of times, and you have the air-dropped cognitive empathy cluster bomb that leaves evil jerks with endless strings of jilted lovers.
The moral of the story is that social skills aren’t superpowers. For most people they are what makes a first date or asking someone out go normally instead of terribly. There doesn’t have to be evil sorcery involved so there’s no need to treat practicing reading social cues like acquiring the One Ring or the Black Crystal Sword.