Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Efficiency of Being a Dick

What's the difference between the relationships you have with your close friends and the relationships you have with people you barely know, who you just meet on the street everyday?

Are you nicer to friends than to strangers?

If so, I can't help but to feel a little sorry for you.

When addressing this topic, be forewarned: I approach friendships and relationships as networked connections which exist for the sake of the benefit of the subject. This might be distasteful, as terms like "network" are heavily de-sanctified illustrations of relationships that are extremely important for people. Or, you might like the idea that I have no respect for: that people can be universalist and truly treat all other people equally.

Not true. People treat each other with caution or trust in accordance with experience of those people, their relationship with them. Dunbar's number illustrates that people do not have an endless capacity for relationships. The typical mind seems capable of only maintaining relationships with about 200 people at a time. We are not built to have close, intimate relationships with everyone on Earth. We don't have the capacity, and when I talk about capacity, I mean we don't have the information capacity or the attention. Information capacity matters because humans are complex and understanding who they are requires significant amounts of memory. Attention matters because attention is the interactive connections we make to gather that information, our choices of who to notice and how much to notice them. Depth is essential, and depth takes time and focus.

So, let's structure your friendships a bit. You probably have a handful of relationships that are very close, intimate, where you know this other person as well as they know him or herself. Then there are probably a few good friends that you know well enough to be comfortable around. Then there are a mess of people you know who you are acquainted with in a straightforward, functional manner. Everyone else is essentially a stranger, although certain signals, like clothing or verbal accent, can make you comfortable in the presence of strangers as a result of displayed, shared identity. That's completely normal.

Each of these relationships represents a degree of investment. As I said, depth requires time and focus, and said time and focus are investments made of attention and information capacity on the time dimension. Your best friends and relatives are the most deeply invested in you, and vice versa. With people you just see on the street, once and only once, you just need to maintain a demeanor that defuses conflict. Those behaviors are called "manners".

And there's nothing more irritating than having a close friend who treats you with their "best manners". It means that they look at you like a stranger. It means invested time, attention, and capacity has been wasted.

Intimate Assholes

To some degree, politeness and constructive honesty are inversely related. Unless you are in the middle of a heavy game of emotional warfare, giving a friend information they don't want to hear is probably the strongest indication that you care, that you value them and want to see them succeed so strongly that you are willing to deliver short-term emotional pain for the sake of long-term benefit. 

Is your friend acting like a rude prick to people who could screw up his life? Does he dress terribly or use terminology that will make him look bad? Is he letting himself go, not using the proper level of formality and not maintaining himself when dealing with others, making him look like shit? Is alcohol consumption or drugs ruining his life? (the TV show Intervention exploits this situation for ratings) Is he giving up? Is he overconfident? Is he out of touch and delusional about what life has to offer? Does he have any problem where his subjective interpretation of what's going on is fucking up his prospects for whatever goals he gives a shit about?

You, as a friend, have the invested emotional capital to call him on it and be believed, and hopefully this person will also see what you're doing and appreciate it. This is what friends are for. The individual's awareness of what's going on is extremely fallible to flawed interpretation and misplaced attention. People in tight relationships are supposed to watch out for each other in order to defuse this.

And sometimes, that requires breaking through the ego by calling this person a fucking retard when they aren't seeing reality.

This trust is the wellspring of loyalty. We do not value each other equally, and we cannot. The most trusted are the most valuable, and the interpersonal structures that matter in our lives are the hierarchies of value that we place on one another. From family and tribe outward, they make us who we are, because they control the most relevant and reliable feedback we get from the world. When you really internalize this, you will also internalize just how ludicrous the concept of equality is when extended to our personal lives and evaluations.

Trust in Hierarchy

There is a certain kabuki theater that people play when in social circumstances beyond the intimate that most of us know very well. We nod or say hello as we pass strangers. We chat with new people who might be useful. We love our pleases and thank yous. And we can't stand to be ignored. Such are the expectations when dealing with those we don't know well, or don't know at all. Manners reduce friction when the parts are not used to lining up. 

Think about this in contrast to a group of people who know each other. Specifically, think about a group of men who know each other, where the roles and ranks have been worked out and expectations and actual behaviors DO line up.

Men, specifically men, are wired to deal with hierarchy and its rigors extremely well, because men have had important shit to do for a very long time. Efficiency is key. When legitimate orders are given, you obey. You don't question the judgment of someone who is ostensibly in charge for a good reason and is trying to lead everyone in the same direction. You certainly don't go off Vincent Vega-like and say, "A please would be nice."

Fuck nice

Men with some kind of camaraderie give each other shit and test each other all the time when the pressure is off, they haze newbs so that they will be invested in the group by paying dues, but the shallow appearance of meanness underlies real bonds, and an understanding that they're on the same team. For the over-polite individual, they are truly an individual alone and their politeness is bred of caution, fear and uncertainty. "Polite" is what you are when you might get your ass kicked at any time. Women and weak, obsequious men are polite, but men with both strength and character are simply brusque or blunt and don't take any shit. They behave in a way that communicates an expectation that they should be trusted, that they're used to authority and that, with continued trust comes a consistent reinforcing feedback that their actions, words, and judgments have value. This matters: being nice about it does not. Being nice means dancing around the issue at hand, be it social dominance or practical necessity. When these things are worked out, all that is left is to do what needs to be done. Pussies want a nice boss. Men prefer a trustworthy asshole. Men prefer a guy who's right and shows it through confidence to a guy who's nice about being wrong. If you're right, then why phrase your orders as a polite request, as if it would be sensible to decline or argue?

Just say it, man.

This dickishness is economically efficient. Time has a value, and hierarchy which can simply say "go" and expect that shit will happen like it's supposed to runs like a fucking clock. Efficiency comes from trust, understanding, shared values, and the kind of relationships where stopping to talk about the weather and ask how mom 'n them are doin' is a complete waste of time. Manners are not efficient. Manners are like a tax you have to pay in order to minimize the chances of confrontation, or better, like an insurance policy taken out on a day-to-day basis when you live on a flood plain and are particularly vulnerable to the weather. It would be better to live in a place where you know a tornado isn't coming through tomorrow and you can just do what needs to be done without paranoia.

If you want organically reactive speed and you have the self-esteem to do your job without demanding constant emotional support, then you want blunt honesty. You don't want to play the theater of niceness all the time in order to get anything done. You don't want to have to constantly concern yourself with politics. If everyone is on the same page and knows that everyone respects everyone else in their position and capacity - if there is trust - then a chain of command can function smoothly simply by having a boss give an assignment and have it carried out without sweating details. The details are the job of the underbosses. There need not be any pleases, thank yous, chatting about your kids in order to put people in a mindset to where they want to listen and be inspired to do their job. A task is understood to be important if you trust the judgment of the boss, as proper hierarchical attention distribution means that he's looking at the big picture, and dedicating his resources - his employees - to getting it done. The employee focuses on handling the mechanics of the job; the boss assigns the job because the boss' role is to figure out what needs to be done in order to achieve larger goals.

And yet, today, we would prefer there be no hierarchy, or that our understanding of leadership should look like what's on the bottom:

Now, we want to be inspired.

Of course, this is impossible. The boss can't be on the ground with you: he has other employees, too. The boss can't spend time explaining himself and personally motivating every swinging dick that handles the actual grunt work; it would completely subvert the entire concept of specialization. A boss on the ground pretending to do menial labor is a politician looking for a photo op: God help the idiot culture that comes to value such naked bullshit.

The idea behind it, of course, is that you will work harder for someone you like, that you will empathize with someone who empathizes with you. And wow, can you ever tell women are in the workplace these days. This is what a woman thinks of as "making it personal". Not men.

Getting men to accept the hierarchy requires one of two things: trust, or a sense of duty. No boss in charge of more than 200 people has the time or attention to go around gaining some deep personal trust from every one of them individually, or explaining the logical necessity of every action. That doesn't mean that a good boss won't listen to concerns from his subordinates, but even this must be a matter of his judgment. There is an opportunity cost to spending time and attention listening to someone talk, and most people, consciously or not, will be serving their own interests more than the larger body's interests if given an audience. In organizations with thousands of people, no one can afford to listen to all these issues in any kind of truly personal fashion. The boss must be the boss. There are middle managers, supervisors, and sergeants to handle the personal elements of leadership, although eventually, that will chafe too, as the powerlessness of your immediate supervisor will only remind you of the greater powerlessness you have as an individual.

So duty - an expectation based on rank with justification beyond personal interests - is the go-to drive that motivates obedience in groups larger than the 200 limit of Dunbar's number. Intimacy drives personal actions at the tribal level or lower. Duty, with a built-up sense of legitimacy, drives actions for a society at a larger level. It has taken thousands of years of conditioning, the innovations of organized religion, and the occasional use of blunt force trauma to make societies bigger than the tribe work. Napoleon was not just being an asshole when he gave the Parisians a taste of grapeshot. He saw a society disordered and broken, and fixed it with extreme prejudice. There was no time for anything else.

And that works. We live in an era when hierarchies at work and elsewhere are supposed to be getting leveled and where the boss is trying to be one of the guys. It's an unmitigated disaster that sets the ego of every fool into overdrive and cuts down the ability of every boss, no matter how skillful or knowledgeable, to get anything done without having to be an ass-kissing politician. If the Japanese proverb is true and business is war, then Western society is setting itself up for a degree of failure it has never known before.

Excessive Manners Reflect Alienation

In a society becoming more global and less local, our understanding of justice is becoming far more depersonalized, and there is a certain price to pay in efficiency for that. Not financial efficiency, but interpersonal efficiency. Interactions between the genders, the races, old and young, rich and poor, politician and politician, and all the groups that have any cause for animosity become more and more strained as they know each other less intimately and their demonizing imaginations take over. We align official justice with our sense of empathy, the feminized position; in a society where expectations are neither clearly understood nor rational, this is all that can really exist.

The intense alienation of the modern West comes from undeveloped relationships, due to attention distribution well outside of the parochial. There are few things sadder than someone with an intense interest in world issues but no personal life. Among the things that are sadder are people who care about celebrities without knowing their neighbors or being able to count on their friends. The bigger the circle of awareness becomes for people, the more global in scope, the less intimate and, of course, the more flawed the perspective, as no one can really understand anything of these larger issues outside of what they "learn" through the media. Attention is a scarce resource.

This, among other reasons, is why democracy sucks. You don't know that asshole you just elected. You know that asshole's media image. How do you know the difference between the ones who are competent and hard-nosed, and the ones that are just assholes? Because you watched a debate and saw the look in their eyes?

The look in their eyes has been focus-grouped within an inch of its life, you dumbshit.

That delusional sense of intimacy only finds traction in a society where close relationships are lacking. Some people on the left literally do not understand the difference between localized social support systems and centralized welfare bureaucracies. They want to see America as one big happy fuckin' family. 

This attitude leads to a people who are entirely too sure of their rights in the larger world, despite their low contribution to the big picture, but who are deeply insecure in their personal lives. They know people judge them, but they don't know how. They don't know what people like or value. They don't know what the hell they're doing.

The normal, natural way of life for people is to live in a world that is environmentally insecure, that requires work, but with secure relationships. Today, that's been reversed: our relationships are insecure as we live in a world that is excessively secure. That shouldn't be surprising. As the world becomes more secure, those relationships end up with a lower value, because they are less necessary. Secure relationships are built on mutual need, and if the only needs we have are emotional, then only the ass-kissers thrive in the larger world by winning PR games, while real friendships become more and more rare. We're looking at relationships like women: our interactions exist to promote our self-esteem, to make us feel good about ourselves. That makes our relationships shallower, just like it leads to a more shallow knowledge of the self, given how little fully honest feedback we receive. This can only happen in a world where reality can be safely ignored, a world under too comprehensive a state of control.

Somewhere in here, we crossed a threshold into solipsism where we believe it to be just that the world exists to serve our emotional state, instead of being participants in a society fighting to ensure the continued survival of something more than our individual self. We lose connection to the world as a result. 

The identity of the individual relies on the parochial. You are who you are as a member of a group of people who values you, in the sense of real, instrumental value, because you DO something. If you have value just because you are a human being and all human beings have value the world over, then your bullshit alarm should be blaring right in your ear. There are over seven billion people in the world. The value of anything is reduced the more of it there is. With that many people around and no role to differentiate you, no characteristics that make you uniquely worthy of investment by others, how much value do you actually have?

Because of this, I celebrate the assholes. I celebrate real friends. I celebrate the Sancho Panzas and the disillusioned prick with Truth Tourette's. I celebrate real bosses. I celebrate the hard-nosed father, the coach who yells when you fuck up the play, the teacher who calls you out and embarrasses you to prod you into doing homework, the boss who gets right to it without asking if your needs are being met, the no-bullshit drill sergeant who will not only tell you that you're doing it wrong, but will smoke the shit out of you in order to reinforce the point. They will make you feel bad, because they assume you can do better. And in most cases, you can.


  1. "When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite."

    Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.

  2. Of course. What matters is whether you actually know someone, or have some kind of sensible reason to trust them. Anyone can be polite.

  3. Manners and politeness are simply the proper social rules for being unkind to an asshole who needs such.

    I am far more polite to strangers and enemies than I am to my friends.

  4. Very much encompasses the idea of being nice versus being kind. Telling someone what they may need to hear instead of what they want to hear (often being a dick) is a distinguishing factor in this duality. I can definitely be nice, but I won't lie to anyone or neglect to "call them out on their shit" if I have a relationship with them.

    Great article

  5. I'll treat you like a friend: You talk out your ass and use too many words to do it.

    1. I'm not talkin' out of my ass, but I did suspect I used too many words.

  6. When it goes from "blunt truth" to hierarchy.

    They are not interconnected. Sometimes saying what need to be said at the cost of disillusion is a good thing to do... and you just can't do it to "anyone" only people that trust you. Fine.

    But hierarchical organizations are extremely flawed and on their way out. They were useful with limited information and when reason was weak and emotions ruled. While they take a way the tax of manners, they do impose much larger one - tax of clubbing people on the head until they yield to your dominance, plus the tax of struggle for top spots. The more hierarchy the larger the inefficiencies. Yes - you can clamp everybody towards one direction, but at extreme costs. Army is the most hierarchical (though it still has a side line of sergeants to officers line of command) and it has the grossest mismanagements.

    For an example of flat organization - read on Valve. Their success is staggering and they've leaked a guidebook for new employees. While it's Gabe Newell who's owning it - it's not some cooperative - actual work is fluidly structured and there is no hierarchy. Not to "feel good", but because there are a lot of people who can meaningfully contribute to decision making. If you isolate one boss for it - his capacity will likely underwhelm. Flat is like internet, while hierarchy is one big computer. When we couldn't set up webs that would actually do the job, we had to fight for domination and than rigidly rule the process. But these days are over.

    1. You seem to have absolutely no idea how wrong you are.

      And yes, I've read on leveled hierarchies. Plenty. Newell's thing is based on not having formal titles, but that does not mean that implicit hierarchies aren't forming within that organization.

      You can trust me or not, but I promise you this: hierarchy is forever. So long as people have values, some will be more valuable than others. And that means leverage and power.

      Beware of utopians, brosef.

  7. I remain polite because I have no "governor". Meaning I have no line that I know not to cross. I believe (from observation) most people have this. In a situation where guys are just horsing around (they claim) I may go violent and escalate rapidly. Since I wish to avoid prison I stay polite and disengage. For the same reason I carry no weapon. Because fundamentally I don't care. Also I have no friends. Because I cannot trust me.