Tag Archives: advice

You’re Probably Underestimating How Hard Good Communication Is

People talk about “Public Speaking” or “Oration” as skills, and they are. We call people “gifted communicators” if they’re generally skilled at conveying complex information or ideas in ways that even those without topical expertise will understand. 

We get, on some level, that communication can be hard. But the above is mainly about one-directional communication. It’s what you’re engaging in when you write blog or social media post, when you’re speaking at conferences or in a classroom or for a Youtube video. It’s not what people engage in day to day with their friends and family and coworkers, which is more two-directional communication.

And yet we don’t have a word for “two-dimensional communication skill,” the way we do “Oration,” or words for people who are really good at it. We might say someone is a “good listener” if they can do the other half of it, and there are some professions that good two-dimensional communication is implicitly bundled with, such as mediators or therapists, but neither is specifically skilled in doing the everyday thing.

So first let’s break this “two-directional communication” thing down. What does it actually take to be good at communicating like this? What subskills does it involve? 

1) Listening to the words people actually say, also known as digital communication.

2) Holding that separate from the implications that went unsaid, but may be informed by body language, tone, expression, etc, also known as analogue communication.

3) Evaluating which of those implications are intended given context rather than the result of your heuristics, cached expectations, typical-mind, and general knowledge you take for granted.

4) Checking your evaluation of implications before taking them for granted as true or reacting to them.

This is what it means to be a good listener. Not in the “you let me talk for a long time and were supportive” sense, but strictly as a matter of whether you managed to accurately take in the information communicated without missing signal or adding noise.

The second half of being a good communicator involves:

5) Communicating your ideas clearly, with as little lost between the concepts you have in mind and the words you use to express them.

6) Being aware of what your words will imply, both to the individuals you’re speaking to and to the average person of the same demographics.

7) Being aware of what your body language, tone, expression, and the context you’re saying it will imply. 

8) Adding extra caveats and clarifications  to account for the above as best you can.

Each of these can be broken down further, but as the baseline these are all extremely important. And yet very few people are great at all of them. let alone consistently able to do each well at all times.

I think this is important both as a signpost for what people should strive to do, as a humility check against people who take for granted that they’re communicating well while failing at one or more of the above, and last but not least, as something that should be acknowledged more often in good faith conversations, particularly if things start to go awry.

Good communication is harder than we collectively think, and effective two-directional communication is one of those skills we often take for granted that we’re at least decent at because we engage in it all the time, and usually get by just fine. But this leaves us less prepared for when we’re in a situation where we or others fail at one of the above skills, in which case it’s good to have not just a bit more awareness of why we fail, but humility that it’s always a two-way street.

Trust vs Trust

The word “Trust” was never quite operationalized as well as it should have been in society, and as a result it can now be used to mean two rather different things.

The first form trust takes is probably the most commonly understood use of the word; expecting someone to behave in a way that’s cooperative or fair. If you trust someone enough, you may enter into a business partnership with them or let them borrow your belongings or vouch for them to friends or colleagues. This trust can be broken, of course, if they start to act in ways other than what you expect them to, particularly if they start to defect from agreements. It is, ultimately, about how well you can model their ability to act prosocially.

The second form trust takes is much rarer, and yet somehow feels to me more like the “true” meaning of the word. It’s a level of trust that’s related to your confidence in someone’s character, sometimes despite their actions. It’s not about predicting what they’ll do in any given situation, but rather predicting the arc that their actions will take over a long enough timeline; trusting them, essentially, to error correct.

This may seem like it has the same outcomes, like if you trust them enough in this way you’d still be okay with lending them something, but it’s far less reliant on game theory or incentives, and far more about what you believe about what kind of person they are. In the first case, if the person you trust does not give back what you lent them, your trust is broken. In the second case, if they do not give back what you lent them, your trust endures, because your expectation is that their character is one who had a good reason not to give it back. This doesn’t require a resolution; it’s baked into the decision to lend them the thing itself, as you’d expect yourself not to regret lending it to them if you had all available future information, and are thus okay with not having that information.

That’s why, in this second sense, “Trust” really only has meaning if it’s applicable to situations where you might normally trust someone less or be unsure of them. If you can always know what someone does and why, your trust of them lacks the real power of the second definition. It’s only when someone is able to act without your knowledge, or acts in ways that you don’t understand, or even that seem like they harm you, that your “true” trust in them is tested, and either justified or not.

Because it can be unjustified. People can trust others in this “true” sense and still be wrong, and be hurt as a result. I think this is why it’s such a rare form of trust, in the end; it’s a more vulnerable stance to take, the same way an expression of love is different from an explicit commitment.

Which ultimately makes this trust about you as much as others. Whether you want to be the kind of person who trusts others to that degree or not is an orientation to vulnerability, and the deeper connections that can result from it. It makes sense not to grant it too often, but to never grant it at all would indicate either an inhibition of true connection, or a paucity of good friends.

Classy Agency

[Epistemic status: still figuring things out. Like most discussion of class or society, this is a somewhat reductive view on categories of people and their thoughts/preferences/behaviors. I’m trying to figure out and point to broad trends, not prescribe what should be, or what has to be, for any given person.]

The relationship between class and agency has been really interesting to poke into as a way of exploring both. I’ve been working on developing a new lens on this in relation to my actions and what perspectives/generators they’re coming from, and it seems to have uncovered some assumptions/blind spots.

Starting to notice what class my actions would signal has lead to a feeling of constraint on what I could actually do to solve problems around me. The explicit version of an inexplicit chain of thought I had today would be something like “If I want to test this brush before I buy it, the obvious thing to do is just lay my jacket out on the floor and test how good it is at getting dust off.” Which totally works, assuming you don’t care what strangers in a store who you’ll probably never meet again think of you.

And that lack of care can be crucial to actually getting things done sometimes. When you boil it down, about a third of what “having agency” ends up requiring in the world includes the willingness to break social norms that others would be too afraid of censure or judgement to breach. This is a big part of why Quest Day is so successful for students at the end of SPARC or ESPR; it creates an atmosphere that gives license to do things that are, in essence, “weird,” such as walking up to strangers and gathering data on unusual questions, putting on an impromptu improv show at a local pub, or asking a cab driver to let you put on a blindfold and get dropped off at a random location.  Weirdness isn’t necessary in many cases where showing agency is what gets something done, but it can’t be an impediment if the thing you’re prioritizing is actually to Do The Thing.

But there are costs to ignoring some Chesterton Fences around others’ comfort that someone blind or uninterested in class or status is much more ready to pay. And this means more than just how people judge you; it includes the comfort of those associated with you. Being able to make that trade can be vital for someone who has no other options in getting something difficult done, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it, if you judge the tradeoff too high.  you can have more than one consideration while prioritizing, and there’s a fine line between determination and tunnel-vision, and if you’re used to doing things with low resources, then you might get stuck in a local maximum when your context has changed.

High class people don’t have this problem, because they operate with fewer constraints, and have socially supported ways of exercising agency. This isn’t to say that all of them do; I’m not actually sure which classes are most or least “agentic,” and maybe the framing itself is still too entangled in what it means to enact your will on the world.

But it seems more clear to me now how, when high class individuals exercise agency, it looks different than what lower or middle class people are used to; primarily, it’s through delegating tasks to others. My friend Lulie made the analogy of limbs as an extension of the self in enacting agency in the world, and obvious though it seems in retrospect, it unlocked a whole cascade of realizations.

Giovanni makes a similar argument in my story at one point, but at the time I wrote it more as a method to achieve difficult goals, not ways-of-being. How well you delegate suddenly doesn’t just seem a matter of efficiency; it’s like an entirely different theory of self.  When you legitimately think of yourself as not just your body, but the resources at your command, your agency is enacted through everyone who does what you want them to, for whatever reason you give them to do it.

From many low or middle-class perspectives, this can look like indolence, sloth, parasitism, etc. Part of this is because being low-resourced develops habits that skew against relying on others, but I think another part is because bodily skills feel intrinsic and heroic, while social skills seem (and in the case of things like money, often are) transferrable, which is bucketed with concepts like “unearned” or “vulnerable.” The average skilled laborer could get dropped naked onto a deserted island and maybe build themselves a shelter, but the average elite raised with a silver spoon would be helpless.

Except that’s clearly a challenge biased toward one set of skills. Social skills may be more contextually fragile, but they’re also immensely more powerful in a world as interconnected as ours; success through skills useful in the state of nature may be a more deep-seated value evaluators, the same way muscles do, but social muscles are no less real for being invisible.

(This is probably in part reinforced by fiction. Heroes (both in life and in stories) use charisma all the time to talk their way out of problems, but most fiction doesn’t turn those sorts of actions into interesting plots resolutions outside of a few narrow situations like rousing speeches or duplicity. This is largely because a) most writers are themselves unused to seeing these dynamics play out, and b) most readers wouldn’t find the challenges of someone in this position as relatable or aspirational. By and large, people want to be rich and socially respected to *avoid* conflict and hardship in life, not to face new types.)

What’s left, then? Well, there’s also general attitude of what agency “looks like” and what it says about the person.

One of the major marks of an “Honor Culture” is that how you’re perceived has actual effects on how you’re treated. The best example of this is what’s considered an appropriate response when someone gets insulted. In most “modern, progressive, civilized” societies, ignoring insults is a sign of maturity and status; it indicates that you’re secure enough in your life and sense of self to be utterly unconcerned by what someone else thinks of you. But in Honor Culture it’s a sign of weakness, because reputation often means as much, if not more, than resources. If being perceived as weak invites attack, then you have to show strength at all times.

Similarly, I think taking action to solve one’s own problems seems intrinsically to be a lower class act by those in the upper classes. For the leisure classes, security is taken for granted, and so any actions taken are at most a hobby or interest, not something you get invested in. In more cut-throat setting, being invested is a sign of vulnerability; if you care about something besides your wealth, you may be willing to trade wealth for it at disproportionate rates.

In addition, not having someone at hand to do something for you could indicate a lack of sufficient security itself. Taking on the task of repairing an out of date automobile is impressive if it’s a choice, but it doesn’t signal competence at anything that “matters,” because the moment you actually need a car to be fixed, it’s almost always a better use of your time to hire someone else to do it for you.

To lower and middle class people, being personally dependable and resourceful in this way is an attractive and admirable trait, but if it is the only way you can get something done, it seems on net a weakness.

This is all still a series of tentative hypotheses, but they feel like the start of a new generator. Meanwhile the class-lens feels much clearer, and the self-reflective part of it feels less restricting; instead it’s more like there’s new space for “me” to stretch into, if I choose to.

Epistemically Honest Reassurance

There’s a problem I’ve been seeing a lot since I started doing couple’s counseling with rationalists: we are, on the whole, uncomfortable with lying, particularly to people we care about, even if it’s for a good cause. Being put in a position where someone asks you to lie to them can feel like a gear grinding in the head, or a disembodying from your true self, or a sense of suddenly walking on eggshells.

Not just rationalists feel this way, of course, but the following exchange is nearly ubiquitous in normal romantic culture:

“Do you think [bad thing will happen]?”

“Of course not, everything will be fine.”

On an intellectual level, the person asking often knows that their partner can’t actually promise this. But for many people, particularly in times of crisis, words to the effect of “Everything will be fine” are comforting, and all they’re really asking for in that moment is emotional reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there is a desire for aspirin when you have a headache.

Meanwhile, this is what might happen for rationalists:

“I’m scared of [bad thing happening].”

“Well, there’s a chance that it does, of course, but on net it doesn’t seem likely.”

or, if it does seem likely:

“Well… [brain lock]… Uh… [something meant to be reassuring but undermined by tone and affect].”

And sometimes the issue isn’t even about probabilities at all:

“Have I gained weight/does this make me look fat?”

“Are we going to be together forever?”

“Do you think they’re more attractive than I am?”

“Does it bother you when I get really sad for no reason?”

Again, it’s taken as the default in general romantic culture that what matters in responses are that they are reassuring, not that they’re true. Most people in normal culture would react with indignant outrage on their friend’s behalf if told that a spouse gave an honest answer to any of the above that reaffirmed the insecurity.

And again, even for other rationalists, the person asking may know that they’re putting their partner in a double bind, but the thing they want is not actually a “comforting lie.” Many people, particularly rationalists, really appreciate a partner who will be scrupulously honest with them.

But what still matters more than the object-level question is answering the implicit query:

“[I’m feeling insecure; do I have reason to be?]”

Which is why it might help to see the desire for verbal reassurance as similar to the desire for a hug; it’s about the sensation and the signal, and those can be provided without saying anything that feels false.

How Do?

First, its important to reiterate that this is meant to be a way to reassure someone who is having a bad time, not a method of “fixing” underlying insecurities. Everyone needs a hug now and then, and sometimes all you can do for a cold is pop some aspirin. If there seems like a deeper issue at play then resolving that requires more in-depth discussion than this article is going to cover.

Second, I am not suggesting platitudes. If you can’t think of something both honest and reassuring to say, that’s a separate problem; if your partner wants reassurance that you love them or are committed to the relationship, and you can’t give that, don’t make it seem otherwise.

Third, remember to be ready to reverse all advice. Some people do actually want to be told “Yes, that makes you look fat.” But hopefully you will learn this through the relationship itself, and often even in those cases people don’t just want radical honesty, but also reassurance and understanding; this article is trying to help those who have already tried addressing the object-level and found their partner wasn’t reassured, without ignoring the possibility that they did in fact want object-level reassurance about improbability and wanted more emotional reassurance.

Speaking of which… a related problem is the one where people are unsure if their partner wants to “vent” or “problem solve,” and this post has advice on that which is very relevant here too.

…my answer is almost always “I want to understand my problem better, feel understood, and be reassured that the people important to me agree that this is a real problem, or at least that they support me in general. If understanding itself doesn’t solve the problem I will want to problem solve after I understand it”.

Similarly, people expressing insecurity through unanswerable questions often want to feel understood, and reassured, and maybe then also problem solve. That might look something like:

Am I getting fat?

What’s making you think that?

I no longer fit into these pants.

I’m sorry, I know you like those pants. I think you look great, but maybe we can find another pair you might like as much?

But that’s a nuanced and context dependent maneuver, not a one-size-fits-all password. The point of this post is to highlight to those who ask questions like this why their partner might have trouble answering them, and help those who are asked these questions understand what’s really being asked for is not always an answer to what’s being asked.

The root generator you want to tap into here is the one that creates your own optimism. What do you feel good/safe/confident about that you can share with your partner? What truth about yourself or your relationship do you want them to take comfort from?

“Do you think I’m going to get long COVID?”

“Either way, I’m here for you. We’ll get through it together.”

“Are you attracted to them?”

“Not the way I am you. You’re the only one I want to be with.”

“Do you think we’re going to make it through this?”

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m with you because I believe in us.”

“I hate how depressed I get all the time. I feel like I’m never going to be ‘normal.’”

“I know that must be frustrating, but I want you to know that I love you, and feel so lucky to be with you.”

And so on. For that last one, conversely, a bold prediction like “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will someday” could be counterproductive even in normal romantic culture. Some might want that object-level reassurance, but for others it would be missing the point;  the actual thing they want is, again, to know that your love and support isn’t dependent on that happening.

Remember, try to find words that are true for you and feel right for your partner, and stay curious about what your partner is actually seeking in those situations; it may change over time, or be different in one context vs another. Then, once the moment is past, talk to them about it! Ask them what they felt when they asked something, what they meant by it, how your response was, what they would like to hear more of or less of.

There are also of course physical things you can and should do as well; touch is important for comfort and reassurance, as are gifts and acts of service. If you own a scale and your partner asks “Have I gained weight,” there are some pretty good ways to show that you find your partner attractive, and that question is a decent signal that you should do them more often.

Emotional/IFS Integration 102

(This is going to be another brief + tips oriented review of IFS concepts; be sure to read the 101 post if you’re totally new to this)

Not all parts that can exist inside you are naturally there or equally fleshed out. Circumstances in life will strengthen one or another, but like the saying about the two wolves inside us, you can also intentionally “feed” specific parts to make them stronger, and there’s one part in particular that your whole system will benefit from having strong.

Some call it the Ideal Parent Figure, others the Ideal Future Self, Inner Champion, Inner Mentor, etc. By some interpretations these could be considered “guides” or “critters” or “voices” rather than parts, in that they may speak to you but not want to act on their own, but that might vary per person. Additionally, their roles are subtly different based on the internal system they’re part of, but are still broadly those of Mediator, Comforter, and Encourager, whose primary value is their endless compassion for you and your parts.

Self-compassion is crucial to IFS, not as a prerequisite but as the primary ingredient for true acceptance of your parts/emotions, productive forgiveness for your mistakes, and a dignity that no one and nothing in life can take away from you. When you unconditionally love yourself, all sorts of healing and growth become possible, and you can create much stronger boundaries between yourself and harm.

Developing and feeding these inner parts can look similar, but experimentation can help find which works best for you. For this post I’ll just give brief advice for the first two:

Ideal Parent Figure is often a source of compassionate mediation between your parts. It helps you bring the Exiles in from the cold, soothe Anxiety’s fear of being ignored, understand Anger’s justifications, relax Firefighters’ vigilance, etc. Those who had abusive or distant parents often don’t know where to start with constructing this, unless they’re lucky enough to have met a friend’s parent or other mentor in their life who can serve as a model. Fictional characters can work too; Mr. Rogers is an example of someone widely considered a “platonic parental figure,” and many have found comfort and self-compassion by internalizing his “voice” and perspective to help replace some of the more harmful self-talk and their own (often well intentioned) imperfect parents left them with. You can also use this Protocol to help visualize what having a part like this could actually look like.

Ideal Future Self in many internal systems (my own included) serves identical purposes to the IPF; it’s particularly useful for those who had no sense of “parents” as a distinct emotional category, positive or negative, by instead drawing directly on your aspirations. Constructing and feeding your Ideal Future Self is done by thinking over and writing out what a version of you with all the skill and wisdom that you hope to develop would say if they were around and freely able to give it to you, all in a compassionate way. Your ideal self would not judge any shortcomings and failings you have, because they remember your journey and all the difficulties you struggled with along the way. They serve less often as the mediator for your other parts (those without “parent” as emotional category are more likely to act as their own internal mediator), and more a source of encouragement for you; they believe in you, and care about you, and are waiting for you, no matter how long it takes. This means that you can also develop them by writing to your past self, and telling them what you wish someone had told you, particularly in your darkest moments. Like with the IPF, it can often be very healing to deliberately imagine yourself hugging your past self as you deliver the words, and similarly imagine your future self using soothing touch as they comfort and encourages you.

Psychologically, whatever this part is called, it acts as a container for all the things you intellectually might believe, but still have trouble emotionally accessing at all times, particularly at your low points.  Samples of the sorts of things they would often say include:

  • “You don’t have to be perfect to deserve love and kindness.”
  • “I know it’s hard, but I’m proud of the progress you’re making.”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with your wants/feelings, even if they’re confusing.”
  • “You made a mistake, but it doesn’t have to define you.”
  • “You can get through this. I believe in you.”
  • “It’s okay to hurt. I’m here. We’ll get through this together.”

It’s okay if you don’t believe these just yet, or if there are other voices shouting the opposite. The purpose of taking time to better build up these models and strengthen these parts is to help make these feel more real, particularly if you have memories of times they did feel true and spend time meditating on those experiences.

Once these parts are solid enough, they make practically every other aspect of emotional integration easier. It’s quite literally like having a perfect ally travel everywhere with you, ready and waiting to step in and help you whenever you need a steadying hand and comforting word.

(For further reading, here’s a good overview for why self-love and self-compassion is so powerful, with more good resources at the end.)

Emotional/IFS Integration 101:

(The following is my own understanding and practice of IFS, and may include elements that conflict with the standard model. In an attempt to keep these brief I won’t be going into much theory, and focus on what seems to work best for myself and my clients)

Internal Family Systems is a form of therapy that treats psychological or emotional difficulty as the result of disagreements between the “parts” that make you who you are. Sometimes these parts make themselves known as (disagreeing/discordant) thoughts, other times as (conflicting/painful) emotions. A variety of labels can be useful to identify and understand their effects and interactions; in the classic model, these are Exiles, Firefighters, and Managers, as well as the Self, which is the “part” that your conscious mind remains associated with even amidst fragmentation.

But there are many forms IFS can take, or layers that can be applied onto each other. For some, characterizing their parts as actual family members (Child, Teenager, Adult) is very useful. For others, a starship crew (Security, Engineering, Science, Captain) makes for easier internal communication. Whatever form these parts take, IFS can be valuable for many purposes, but the most straightforward one is simple “emotional integration,” which is to say, conversely, feeling more like a unified individual rather than struggling with emotional turmoil over some looming decision or past action.

The path to integration looks something like this:

Acknowledge->Identify->Accept->Manage->Integrate

This is not always linear progression, as emotions and parts might shift or grow nuanced over time. It’s also uneven; you can have one emotion Integrated, while struggling to Accept another and having trouble Identifying a third.
 
Most people who struggle with emotions/parts are either trying to skip ahead, or mistakenly believe they have succeeded at one step before they actually have. It’s also not always fully in our control. It can take time to process things, particularly traumatic things, and that’s okay.
 
There are skills that help with each. Meditation and mindfulness techniques help with Acknowledging. Gendlin Focusing helps with Identifying. Eliminating “shoulds” helps with Acceptance. Note that eliminating “shoulds” includes eliminating “shouldn’ts.” Parts are what they are, even if confused/traumatized. Healing starts with compassion toward your part, or yourself for having it.
 
(This can, admittedly, be tricky if those shoulds and shouldn’ts feel like they’re coming from other parts! But your “core self” can then differentiate itself from the part that’s expressing the should, and accept both parts, the same way writers learn to harness their inner critic rather than silence or be cowed by it.)
 
Learning conflict mediation helps with Managing, whether you act as the Mediator between your parts or one of parts takes on that role. Systems theory, cybernetics, NVC, reflective listening, double crux, all that fun stuff are useful here. Again, these are learnable skills, and it doesn’t take much more work to apply them to your parts instead of other people; just extra imagination and honesty and self-compassion.
 

Finally, Integration comes from practice, patience, and trust. As I said, it’s not always a steady progression. We encounter new things, life gets messy, parts get out of sync. But trust yourself, be patient with yourself, practice the skills, and the rest of you will be ready and waiting to re-integrate until you feel like unified again.

(You can learn more about IFS from this more in-depth article)

Seasons of Growth

So over the past year I’ve been breaking every three months up into personal development seasons, in the style of the CGP Grey video on Themes.  They’ve been far more successful than I expected going in, maybe in part because I’ve had a great Season Buddy to talk to every few weeks about our goals and progress. I highly recommend it in general, as the benefits from each previous season definitely seem to be persisting past them.

My first was Season of Completion (stop taking on new projects, go through list of old ones and finish what I could), then Wealth (lean into asking for more money for things, and spending more money on myself), then Health (physical therapy and regular exercise), and my latest one has been Season of Aesthetics, as in trying to develop my own sense of it for myself and focusing on more deliberate ways to embody it.

There have been some fairly big additional motivations along the way throughout the past year that have definitely helped with all this, but I think it’s really worth highlighting the ongoing, *gentle* motivation and guidance that the seasons provide to decision trees I face. Often something unpredicted will provide a big burst of energy to start doing something, like swimming every day, but the Season will provide added, ongoing motivation to maintain it.

Standout benefits so far:

1) I finished a handful of non-fiction articles that have been on the backburner for years, and feel better capable of deciding whether to take on new projects or not.

2) I’ve consistently been asking for more money for things I do, sometimes 1.5x-2x as much as I used to, and feel more comfortable about it.

3) I’ve bought about a dozen things that would have felt frivolous before despite the convenience and value they add, and seem to have eliminated any sense of guilt over self-purchases as high as $320 (Oculus Quest 2) and as low as $10 (slim wallet for Season of Aesthetics).

4) My average weight has gone down ~20 pounds, and my single arm barbell lift weight has increased from 15 pounds to 25. When I started swimming at the start of October it was for about 20 minutes before I’d get exhausted, can now swim for 40 and barely feel winded.

5) I’ve also acquired a number of new sets of clothing, particularly more fancy ones than I would normally wear, for a variety of weather types and events.

The year’s not over yet, but overall it’s been a massively valuable experiment, and I figured I should share all this now so people can think about it before the new year starts in case it’s something they want to try (not that it has to start on a clean new year, “themes” as Grey calls them can be short so even a month each is fine, but 3 months felt right to me). Would be happy to answer questions about this if anyone has any, as this is definitely the sort of thing I’d like to encourage to catch on.

Nice Guy Anti-FAQ

“Nice Guy” is a pejorative label used almost exclusively to make fun of men who express frustration at the “unfairness” of the romantic world for good, kind-hearted guys. It comes from the saying “Nice guys finish last,” and many have attempted to defend the perspective and insist that the frustrations and beliefs at its core are genuine reflections of reality.

As someone who struggled with these sorts of thoughts in high school (classic story of self-believed nice guy in unrequited love with a girl whose boyfriend seemed to be mistreating her) but then quickly outgrew it (remained friends with girl through her breakup with first boyfriend and finding actually nice new boyfriend), I view the debate surrounding the worldview and its components with a mix of frustration and sympathy. So I thought I’d write this to help clear the air a bit, and hopefully convince some Nice Guys that their beliefs are largely the result of biased perspectives and limited information, so that they can also grow past them.

(Note that girls can be “Nice Guys” too. Plenty of girls have found themselves to be essentially invisible to guys romantically, despite being nice and caring and giving them a shoulder to cry on as the guys pined after other (often less nice) girls.  This post is going to keep the genders static for simplicity, but most of it can be applied to the reverse situation as well.)

0. What is a Nice Guy?

1. Why Do Girls Date “Assholes”?

2. Why Do Girls Claim to Like Nice Guys?

3. Why Do Girls Complain to Nice Friends?

4. Why Bother Risking the “Friendzone”?

5. Why Are Nice Guys Mocked?

6. Why Should I Believe Any of This?

0. What is a Nice Guy?

Everyone’s going to have different definitions of this, but the ones I find most useful/true tend to use some combination of the following tenets:

1) A guy who believes that being kind, polite, or caring are overall detrimental traits for dating.

2) A guy who believes that the things women claim to care about romantically (like being treated well) are not what they actually care about.

3) A guy who believes that women complaining about their dating life to nice male friends who want to date them are being hypocritical.

4) A guy who believes that being just friends with girls they are attracted to is either impossible, or too painful to be worth having them in their life (fear of the “Friend Zone”)

Additional tenets I often see attributed to Nice Guys that I don’t think are necessary to be one:

5) A guy who believes being friendly and spending money on girls obligates them to sex.

6) A guy who thinks women are only valuable for sex.

I only ever briefly held beliefs 1-2, and knew plenty of others who held 3-4 as well, but I don’t believe 5-6 are “core” parts to being a Nice Guy, and think the majority of the hate/disgust people have toward Nice Guys usually focus on their expressions of 5-6.

Explaining why 5-6 are harmful and obviously wrong beliefs is beyond the scope of this FAQ, and hopefully not necessary to most reading it. However, some combination of 1-4 are somewhat more understandable beliefs that are often the result of biases (sample, confirmation, and others) and pain/frustration/loneliness. Since 5-6 are the beliefs that cause the most harm to others, they’re the ones that tend to get the most attention, but when people assume that anyone who believes in 1-4 also believes 5-6, that makes conversations around the topic of “Nice Guys” hard to navigate.

1. Isn’t Tenet 1 true? I know plenty of girls who date assholes, and lots of them won’t date their nice male friends!

So there are two separate beliefs that combine to form the first tenet.

First, yes, you know plenty of girls who date “assholes.” Most people do. I’ve also heard girls talk about guys who date “bitches.” And guys who date assholes and girls who date bitches. Simple truth is, shitty people exist of all genders, and they are capable of finding someone to date them.

Sometimes the person they date is similarly shitty. But sometimes the sweetest, kindest people you know also date people who treat them poorly, or treat others poorly. Maybe because they don’t see how shitty they are, or they’re dependent on them in some way, or they have amazing sex, or because they don’t have the self-esteem to think they deserve better, or because they hope their SO will change, or because they’re afraid of being alone, or internalized societal messages about needing a “protector” (which can be confused for aggressive jealousy), and so on.  People stay in relationships for a lot of reasons, but there are plenty of people who break up with shitty boyfriends and girlfriends too.

So let’s be clear: if someone ever told you that people only date nice people, they misinformed you. At best they were overly optimistic. At worst they probably just wanted to encourage you to be nice. It was probably your mother. Try not to hold it against them.

But just because a rule you were taught turns out not to be true doesn’t mean the opposite is true.

If Nice Guys just believed that being nice isn’t a positive aspect for dating, that would be one thing. Still wrong, but less wrong. To think it’s actually a detriment requires a second data point that seems to support this belief: that these girls have nice male friends, but they won’t date them instead of the assholes.

So, “some girls date assholes while not dating their nice friends instead” becomes “being nice is a detriment to dating.” It’s a leap in logic, but at least you could see why someone who only focused on these two bits of data would conclude that… especially if the nice guy is observing examples of niceness “losing.” An example of this is if a nice guy asks a girl out, gets a “no,” and accepts that, then sees another guy get a “no,” keep asking, and eventually gets a “yes.”

But again, it’s due to an artificial rule: the belief that being nice is the most important feature, translating to thinking that if you don’t choose the nicest person to date, then you must not care about niceness.

But “Nice” is not all you need to date someone. I wouldn’t even say it’s much of a positive. If I’m being brutally honest, if you consider “nice” to be one of your best features, you’re not saying much about yourself. Most people looking for a partner to go through life with consider “nice” to be a baseline attribute. Some combination of mutual attraction, interests, values, humor, and more are all higher on the list of what “matters” for most people. Again, not because niceness doesn’t matter, but because anyone not nice is often filtered out fairly quickly.

But again, Nice Guys who believe Tenet 1 don’t just think “Niceness isn’t the most important thing,” which is true. They believe it’s completely irrelevant at best, and a detriment otherwise.

Guys who believe that women who won’t date their nice friends must not care about niceness have only to ask themselves the same question: would I date a nice girl who I don’t find interesting or attractive?

Any guy reading this who says yes: think long and hard about every female friend and acquaintance you have and have ever had, every single one that was at all nice to you, and ask yourself if you’d really date them all just because they showed an interest in dating you.

Not just go on a date with them. Not just have sex with them a few times. I mean commit to a relationship, say at least a few months.

If that seems unfair, remember that not everyone has the same priorities as you. Assuming that girls should be willing to just “give a guy a chance” despite not being interested in him romantically is assuming that the girl is interested in casually dating someone she doesn’t see a future with. And any guy who asserts that girls should do that anyway, “just in case,” is just setting himself and his peers up for heartbreak.

Some guys will still say, yes, they would definitely date a nice girl who expressed an interest in them no matter what other factors about that person are true, and will believe they mean it. And for some this will be true.

To those people, I say kudos! To you, niceness is the most important factor for dating. That’s great!  

But not everyone is like that. To plenty of people, it’s just not the most important factor, and they can no more force themselves to prioritize niceness above all other traits than you could force yourself to prioritize something else in who you’re attracted to.

In any case, even conceding that niceness isn’t the most important factor for dating for most people, that still doesn’t prove that niceness is a detriment for dating.

For that to be true, women need to actively turn away from niceness. They need to see two guys, equal in every way, but one is nice and one isn’t, and say “I’d prefer the one that treats me poorly, please.”

Again: I’m not saying this isn’t possible. People are weird. Some people get off on degradation, and others just don’t trust someone who isn’t as selfish as they are.

But if it’s your default assumption for how “most” people think and feel, or how women think and feel distinct from how men think and feel, then it’s probably worth unpacking what you think “niceness” even is. Not everyone agrees on it; on one extreme end, some guys see the disgust people have for macho-male sexuality and catcalls and unsolicited dickpics, and internalize “niceness” as not ever showing any romantic interest for fear of being “creepy.” On the opposite extreme, some people think being nice means being a doormat, having no boundaries, accepting anything other people do to you and making any sacrifice to fulfill even the smallest of gestures for the person you like.

Finding the balance between being confident in yourself and considerate of the people around you isn’t always easy, but studies show that both often affect the perceived attractiveness of potential partners.

2. If Tenet 2 isn’t true, why do women say they care about guys who are polite and nice caring, but date guys who treat them so poorly?

Again, some women do this, yes. As for why, the short answer to this is that people are complicated, and don’t always know what they want… but to be clear, deciding that you know better than they do what they want is the trap that many Nice Guys (and just generally unpleasant people) fall into.

The longer answer has to do with expectations versus reality.

People tend to have an ideal image of what their romantic partner would be like: attractive, romantic, funny, competent, generous, educated, etc. A lot of this is informed by things people are told are important by their parents, or peer group, or popular culture, and I can’t emphasize enough how damaging romantic movies are here. Most people are told at some point that porn is an unrealistic portrayal of sex, but it’s less commonly explained how misleading “romance” movies are in portraying healthy relationships. Hell, in The Notebook the couple goes out together for the first time because the protagonist threatens to kill himself in front of the girl if she doesn’t agree to go on a date with him… while she’s already on a date with someone else. 

So yeah, some people end up with very confused ideas of what healthy, stable attraction and love look like, or what kind of attributes to look for in a partner.

But however they come by them, people ultimately form an ideal set of attributes that they will explicitly think or say they want. Some are generally applicable, others are more specific, like “Went to an Ivy League school” or “Plays an instrument,” but far less common are ones like “Went to Harvard,” or “Plays piano.”

Then, as they meet people who satisfy enough of their ideals to date, they make compromises. It’s okay that they’re not into the traditional romantic stuff. Or, it’s okay that they don’t give to charity. As they continue to date, there are often other things they didn’t expect they’d care about, and learn to appreciate. They get comfortable dating them. They know each other, have shared habits and friends and maybe even a shared apartment. Eventually they might even fall in love.

Maybe some time passes and the guy lets himself go a bit. Less focus on his appearance, gaining some weight. Or the girl spends less time studying or working, and lowers her aspirations. Or simple time changes their perception: his humor, at first unique and witty, now seems cynical or repetitive. Her competence at her job, at first impressive, now seems middling at best.

But if they love each other, they keep dating anyway. One or two things slipping a bit aren’t usually enough to break a relationship. Hell, even everything slipping a bit usually isn’t enough. Once people fall in love, it tends to take a long, steady decline in multiple areas for sufficient will to arise to change their pattern.

So here’s the thing: “niceness” is one of those areas.

Maybe the guy wasn’t really that nice to begin with, but they pretended. Forced himself to go to family events, held back criticisms of her, stopped himself from yelling at the waiter who got his order wrong, went out of his way to do nice things on all the major holidays, took her on dates because it was expected.

Or maybe things just changed. He doesn’t want to see her family as often anymore because he’s gotten to know them and doesn’t particularly like them, or vice versa. He doesn’t really care how her day at work was anymore because he finds her talking about it repetitive and trivial. He gets angry when she buys something expensive without talking about it first because now they have shared accounts.

If she saw these behaviors at the start of their relationship, she might not have gone on a second or third date. But once they’ve been dating for months or years, once love is in the picture and they live together and have a mutual friends and pets and even have kids together, it gets harder and harder to justify breaking things off and upending their lives and being single again, just because he’s not as “nice” as she’d like.

This isn’t just a story. This sort of thing happens all the time. I see it among couples that come in for counseling, know people who complain about it as a growing irritation they have for their SO. Unfortunately, it can even go on past the point of just not “being nice” to verbal or physical abuse. Sometimes people take years to leave a relationship that’s long since become toxic.

So, are girls lying if they say they like nice guys, even though they’re dating someone not all that nice?

No. But “I like nice guys” or “I want to date nice guys” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date someone if they aren’t nice,” any more than “I like funny girls” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date an unfunny girl.”   For some people it does mean that, but even then, people compromise on their ideals all the time… especially for love.

And if you’re thinking “But what about girls who date guys even though they’re an asshole right away?” then you’re forgetting the first part of all this: people are complicated. Some think they can make them better people through dating them. Others have low self-esteem and don’t feel like they deserve people to be nice to them all the time: they’re just grateful that the boy is nice to them some of the time.

And ultimately, some really don’t care all that much about niceness. If these people say they do, they’re lying, either to themselves or others. It happens.

But that doesn’t mean all or even most girls are that way.

3. Okay but Tenet 3 is obviously true. Girls complain about their boyfriends to their nicer male friends all the time. Don’t they know they’re being hypocritical?

Let’s say a girl complains about how her boyfriend ruined their dinner when he tried to make it, and the friend she’s talking to is a great cook. Is that hypocritical?

Let’s say she complains about him not applying to a better job he said he would, to a friend who’s successful in their profession. Is that hypocritical?

If someone suggested that a girl should break up with her boyfriend because he’s a bad cook, and date the guy who’s a great cook instead, they’d be dismissed as ridiculous. But many seem to take it for granted that, if a girl is unhappy with her boyfriend’s not getting her a great gift on her birthday, or dismissing her interest to see a movie together, or not being nice to her family, everything else about him shouldn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I think kindness should be valued far above cooking skill or professional aspiration. But it seems apparent that not everyone feels that way. And even if they do, as explained above, most girls who say they like niceness and kindness aren’t lying just because their boyfriends aren’t always as nice or kind as their male friends might be.

There are just other factors that are apparently strong enough to make them stay in the relationship. People complain about their SO to friends all the time. When a girl complains about lack of niceness to a nice friend, whether that nice friend wants to date her doesn’t change what she wants, and isn’t hypocritical.

Also, it needs to be said that if you’re a nice male friend of a girl you’re attracted to, and you think her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her and you would treat her much better, you should at least consider that you might be affected by some bias. Not just the “obviously I’m a better person than someone I have reason to dislike” bias, I mean things like confirmation and sample bias too. Some people are more likely to complain about their SOs to friends than talk about how great they are. But just because you’re only hearing about the negative things doesn’t mean that’s all there is.

Of course, if a girl knows her male friend wants to date her, talking to him about her boyfriend is probably not the most tactful thing to do. But that’s why it’s important for people to have mature discussions about boundaries if certain things bother them.

4. Why bother? Tenet 4 isn’t about objective facts, it’s about feelings, and if there are unrequited romantic feelings, isn’t that friendship just going to be painful and pointless?

This question could take a whole book to answer thoroughly (or at least it did when I tried), but the short answer to this is “it depends on the people involved.”

Friendship is great. Ideally, everyone should be open to more friendship. But friendship can come with costs. To end a friendship is basically saying “I don’t value what you bring me enough to justify what you cost me.” Which you should be able to say, especially if they’re abusive or shitty friends.

But sometimes what a relationship costs you is not always someone’s fault.

Unrequited love sucks. Really, really sucks. Comparing it to the loss of a loved one isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off either. It’s a whole stew of terrible feelings all mixed into one ongoing emotional torture: desperate hope, crushing loneliness, acidic jealousy, etc. It eats at your self-esteem, your self-worth. It sucks the joy out of things, concentrates them all in one place.

To get through that, to endure it, for the sake of a friendship is perhaps more than anyone should be expected to do. But I do encourage people to at least try to do it, because I’ve done it twice, and I’m glad I did both times. It helped me grow as a person and left me with two (or more, if counting their spouses) great lifelong friendships. I encourage others in the hopes they can benefit from them and keep their friendships too.

But I don’t judge someone for deciding not to put themselves through that. Because maybe it’s just not true for everyone, or every situation: maybe for some it’s a never-ending spiral of darkness.

But that’s unrequited love. If you like someone, have a crush on them, are attracted to them, or pretty much any feeling that basically amounts to “I would like to date this person, they make me feel good and warm and happy,” but they just want to be friends? It’s really hard to understand why that friendship would be “pointless” just because it never evolves into a relationship. If you’re heterosexual, and your best same gender friend admitted to attraction to you, you would probably be really badly hurt if after saying you don’t share their feelings they said “Whelp, guess this friendship is all worthless then if we’re never going to have sex, bye forever.” 

So tenet 4 really comes down to the two individuals. For example, someone shouldn’t stay in a relationship where they’re being strung along, or where the other person is being insensitive to their feelings for them. This is where mature conversations need to be had: if you’ve never admitted how you feel and can’t bring yourself to say “Please don’t tell me about that guy you hooked up with last night, I have feelings for you and hearing about that feels like a stab to the gut,” or a less vulnerable version like “I’m still sorting out my feelings for you and things like this make it harder.” Otherwise it’s unfair to expect them to know better.

Ultimately, no one should feel obligated to stay in a friendship they don’t want to continue, for whatever reason. Where it becomes a problem is when, rather than a guy admitting that he ends his friendships with girls because he doesn’t want to deal with the negative emotions that are stirred up by them dating others, he blames the girl for not choosing to date him.  

So yes, Tenet 4 is true… for most people most of the time. But it’s not an absolute, and without Tenets 1-3, it’s far less harmful. What causes Nice Guys to get flak for the belief is the way it turns to blaming women.

5. Why are Nice Guys mocked by women/men?

Again, hopefully I don’t have to explain why Tenets 5 and 6 are wrong and get judged poorly by others here. There’s no definition of “nice” that covers treating people like sex dispensers or believing they owe you things they never agreed to. 

But there are a number of common threads I see in criticisms of Nice Guys that relate to Tenets 1-4, and now that I went over them a bit, I want to address why they elicit the reactions they do from others.

Women in general tend to dislike Nice Guys because their beliefs stereotype women and undermine their agency: Tenets 1-2 amount to “girls don’t like nice guys and if they say they do they’re wrong or lying.” Of course there are girls who like “bad boys,” and some who currently don’t may have done so when they were younger, but treating “girls prefer assholes” as a rule of dating makes women out to be either too dumb to understand themselves (the way the speaker can supposedly so clearly see through them) or too insincere to tell guys what they really want.

This is the equivalent of women saying that men “only care about looks.” Sure, it’s true for some men, even many men. But there are plenty of guys who genuinely care about their partners for more than just their looks, but who get irritated at women for assuming guys only care about sex.

Women tend to dislike Tenets 3 and 4 because they essentially make women out to be callous manipulators who go around breaking nice guys’ hearts for sport. Even if no malice is assigned to them by the guys, a lot of girls know first-hand how painful it is to have good friends cut them off just because the girl doesn’t want to date the guy, which is rarely acknowledged by the guys who are so focused on their own pain. 

Even if the guy wants more than sex, and wants an actual romantic relationship, the distinction between friends and dating often comes down to flirtation and sex first, which means women have to deal with being “Relationship Zoned,” and only treated as worth friendship if it will lead to something more.  Any guy who doesn’t think it sucks to meet someone and become friends with them only to get the cold shoulder as soon as they find out you have an SO needs to practice his empathy. When it happens constantly, some women get understandably bitter.

Generally, men and women feel safe acknowledging that people shouldn’t feel forced to stay in friendships if they don’t want to. Most agree that even if it sucks, it’s no one’s fault if a guy likes a girl who doesn’t like him back, and staying friends with the girl is too painful. Again, what reliably brings out the mockery and anger is when Nice Guys make out girls to be the bad guys for not being able to force themselves to like someone, or not giving their Nice Guy friend “a chance.” Some people feel okay with going on dates in an exploratory way, and might be willing to do so; others are afraid it will change the friendship, as it often can. 

Also, rejecting guys can be scary. No matter how nice someone seems, it’s always a risk for women, and even if the guy doesn’t start insulting them or physically attacking them, it could lead to the guy cross-examining them about what “went wrong” or asking for another chance. For most people it’s just easier to not open that door.

Men who dislike Nice Guys tend to fall into two camps. The first generally disagrees with their beliefs, and finds them immature or sexist… in other words, not actually “nice.” They also might be guys who are, you know, nice and sweet and kind too… but have girlfriends, and so are living proof that “girls only date assholes” is just not true. So the perpetuation of the “nice guys finish last” myth kind of strikes a lot of guys as implicitly insulting, as if to say that they must not be as nice as all the single guys who want to date their girlfriends. 

On top of that, guys who see Nice Guys complaining about how being nice doesn’t get them girlfriends tend to think that they’re only in it for sex/romance, and don’t actually care about the girls as people, so they find them somewhat hypocritical.

Another type of men who mock Nice Guys generally agree with their beliefs, but mock their decision to “stay nice” and be “beta” while encouraging them to abandon niceness. These tend to be advocates of Pick Up Artist communities who try to “game” women into sex, or Red Pillers who believe that women are biologically programmed to only care about looks and bank accounts, and insist that Nice Guys need to wake up to “reality” and embrace their (often harmful) definition of masculinity or gender relationships rather than whining about how unfair it all is.

The latter group, by the way, is a mixed bag in terms of value to guys. A lot of what they preach is basic positive stuff that everyone could benefit from: Get fit. Develop hobbies and interests. Have more confidence. Don’t put people on pedestals. These are all good pieces of advice to guys or girls who are romantically frustrated. The problem comes in when they sell this advice (which, again, is very basic and they did not invent) alongside suggestions for predatory dating practices, representations of females as biologically driven gold-diggers incapable of love, and promotion of one-size-fits-all ideals of good relationships.

And finally, there are just some people who mock “Nice Guys” because they’re mean people who like to make fun of others, or because they have bad listening skills/reading comprehension and see all expressions of loneliness as  entitlement to others’ affection, even if none of the 6 tenets were invoked. Sorry about those people. They suck.

6. So now what? I’ve got these beliefs that you say aren’t true, I’m just supposed to believe you over my experiences?

I don’t expect anyone to believe a stranger on the internet, but I hope I can help people understand why even first-hand experiences can lead us to false beliefs if they’re not carefully examined.

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. A number of our mental biases come from the mind’s tendency to take a subset of information and experiences, and turn them into a general rule. This is useful when you’re trying to survive in the wilderness, and seeing a couple people die after eating a spotted mushroom or wandering into the forest at night leads you to believe that “those mushrooms are poisonous” and “that forest is full of predators.”

Some of these beliefs turn out to be true, others false, but humans aren’t just pattern-seeking, we’re also risk-averse. Whether true or false, the beliefs we form off of anecdotal evidence are more likely to be be stubborn about updating if they help us avoid or minimize risk of being hurt.

So let’s look at how some romantic stereotypes form:

“Girls like to play hard-to-get” or “Girls find you more attractive when you aren’t seeking them.”

There’s a core element of truth in both of these: namely, desperation tends to be unattractive. Some people fall for each other immediately, but for people who take time to slowly warm up in their attraction, coming off “too strong” is definitely a negative. But they’re also somewhat contradictory.

So here’s a thing that happens sometimes which might cause those beliefs:

Alice is friends with Mike. Mike likes Alice, and wants to be more than friends. He makes some subtle hints, but Alice misses all of them, too caught up in her attraction with John. A year later, John is with someone else and Alice has begun to see Mike as more than a friend. Mike, however, has already given up on Alice, and is interested in someone else. When Alice brings up her attraction to Mike, he becomes upset that she “only likes him now that he’s not interested in her.”

Alice is hurt: she genuinely didn’t know Mike used to like her. Mike is hurt: he thinks she’s just playing with his emotions. In the best case scenarios, their friendship survives, and maybe Mike still feels enough for her to give the relationship a try. But if he really has moved on, he might become bitter about the year of unrequited feelings he had. He might be more likely to believe that “women like to play hard to get.”

Another thing that might happen is that women who have been hurt before, and/or heard lots of stories of guys who seem interested at first eventually get bored of their partner and move on, only feel safe with someone who expresses constant, passionate interest, such that they inadvertently (or even purposefully) turn dating into a competition for their affection. Even worse, many people advise women not to ever be the one to call or text first, in order to filter for guys who are genuinely excited about you, rather than a convenient person to sex zone (a common female concern , likely as common as the nice guy concern).  It’s also more of a risk for women to be “too interested” first, as this might attract guys who will prey on their interest to use them; the way some guys worry about girls taking advantage of them for their money, most women worry about guys taking advantage of them for sex.

“Girls can have any guy they want, while guys have to jump through hoops to get a girl’s attention!”

There is, again, a core of truth in this, if you ignore a lot of factors that I’ll get to in a minute: As almost anyone who’s ever been on a dating site can attest to, even controlling for attractiveness, men and women have very different experiences. A reasonably attractive woman’s week-to-week experience on a dating site is essentially sorting through messages to find the few articulate, interesting, and/or amusing ones from guys they find attractive. Even a reasonably attractive guy’s day-to-day experience is messaging a dozen women and hoping one of them responds.

Some guys take this as definitive proof that dating is easier for women. I know these are often separate people from those that complain about being labeled as “only after sex,” but it’s still a point worth addressing. Many will refer to popular videos that show a guy going around asking random women on the street for sex and getting no positive responses, while a woman doing the same thing gets plenty.

And if sex is all that guys and girls care about, then it’s true: girls can get sex much easier than guys can.

But there’s a mismatch of expectations and standards here. The average man’s starting standard for “enjoyable sex” is far lower than the average woman’s. A healthy, sober guy will reach orgasm almost every time they have sex. But even though a girl’s enjoyment of sex doesn’t require orgasm, even if it’s not a goal, the sex can still be far less enjoyable for a wider variety of reasons.

(Research suggests that, on average, women are more sexually aroused by stimuli that include “mood” rather than men, who tend to be more easily stimulated by the merely physical or visual.)

Most guys who believe that women can get sex whenever they want fail to consider that women are far less likely to want sex whenever guys want. That’s not just a remark about sex drive, by the way: there are plenty of women who have higher libido than men. The point is that to find sex with a stranger or even new acquaintance desirable, even an attractive stranger/acquaintance, tends to be harder for women. Even if we ignore societal pressures against being a “slut,” even if we ignore the various different physical risks to women, they still can’t know whether the man is even skilled or generous enough in bed for the women to enjoy the experience.

It’s kind of like giving someone a Lifetime Pass to a particular movie theatre that plays movies at random, and mostly only gory horror movies, with a low chance of playing something else. But not everyone enjoys horror movies. In fact some find them, well, horrifying.  

And for guys who love almost all movies, including gory horror movies, to look around and see women getting free movie tickets seems pretty unfair. It’s also hard to always see the strings attached: or rather, to see how often what you think are gestures of niceness and friendliness turn out to be strings. To paraphrase Chris Rock, encountering “Wanna grab some lunch? How ‘bout some dick?” and “Wanna see a movie? Wanna see my dick too?” almost every time a guy interacts with you can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright dehumanizing when one gets to the point where they have to constantly think about whether people are being friendly with them to just get some sex.

To simplify, a lot of guys imagine women being able to just walk into a video store, peruse the aisles, and walk out with the high quality movie of the exact genre they want. The reality is more like being constantly barraged with DVDs of random movies in varying quality. Even if such a service were available to them, they have to want what’s on offer to enjoy it.

So even the attractive girls on dating sites who don’t want a short term relationship, or don’t want to date someone who’s more interested in sex than in finding an interest they both share and can talk about, or actually want a romantic relationship with someone they can form a connection with… Their inboxes might as well be empty most days too.

To reiterate, I’m not saying it’s not easier for women to get sex, or even to find a relationship. I’m saying it’s not easier for women to be happy.

You can’t act like women don’t like the attention. I know a girl who’s leading three guys on at the same time, makes them pay for everything, and still complains about not being able to find a “nice guy!”

Yep, I believe it. I’ve known women who went from one relationship to another, cheating constantly and leeching off their boyfriends. I’ve also known guys who spent their entire relationship broke and jobless, living off their girlfriends’ love for years while doing drugs and being abusive all the while.

Selfish people exist. Toxic people exist. See above about why people date others who treat them poorly.

The point of this isn’t to say that these situations don’t happen: it’s to show how judging a gender by its worst members is, well, the definition of prejudice. Saying “Girls don’t like nice guys” or “Girls like getting attention” is no different from saying “Guys just care about sex” or “Guys don’t date to marry, they just marry whoever they’re with when they’re ready to settle down.”

There are too many arguments that essentially boil down to “guys and girls are just different!” by people who are not psychologists, let alone neurologists or evolutionary psychologists, and when you look for sources what you find tend to be dating manifestos or gender philosophies masquerading as science from decades ago.

This happens on the extreme end of the female side as well, whether it’s from cynical older women warning their daughters about how men are pigs or radical misandrists blogging about how all sex is rape.  It’s worth pointing out not just because it should be called out on both sides, but also as a way to empathize: if you as a guy dislike it when people judge you by the worst of your gender, you should be capable of understanding why women feel the same way.

In truth, there are some research-backed differences between men and women, as linked to above. But the differences are not always biological, they are not nearly as absolutist and generalized as many assert, and they are often not even restricted to “men” and “women!”

One of my favorite non-fiction writings by Isaac Asimov was a letter in which he described the relativity of wrong, explaining that someone who says the earth is a sphere is actually incorrect: it’s an oblate spheroid, with mass concentrated more at the equator than the poles. But someone who says it’s a sphere is not as wrong as someone who says that the earth is flat. 

Similarly, someone who says men and women are “the same” is wrong. But they are a whole lot less wrong than those who insist that men and women’s inborn psychological differences can be used to reliably predict any individual’s behavior or motives.

Almost every woman I know is like this. You’re talking about “unicorns,” but they’re the rare exception, and I’m never going to find one that isn’t already taken.

Beliefs about large numbers of people that don’t have some kind of falsifiable % put on them are kind of worthless.  Even if we accept for the sake of argument that most women don’t like nice guys, the word “most” can mean anything from 99.999% to 50.001%, and not bothering to distinguish between the two means you’re okay with potentially being wrong as often as a coin flip.

It’s been said that luck is statistics taken personally, and in truth it is possible for someone to justifiably believe that girls who actually prefer nice guys are exceptions.  Just by the sheer numbers involved in the amount of people around the country and world, there will be some Nice Guys who go through their early life encountering a majority of women who embody the worst stereotypes of the gender—guys whose mother, sisters, and early romantic interests all make them more likely to accept the idea that women are just interested in attractive assholes. 

When such beliefs are formed and reinforced so early and consistently, it can be hard to see past the confirmation bias that develops as a result. But, again, it’s possible that this happens even in a model of reality that says that most women are not like that.

By contrast, the reverse circumstance isn’t broken by counterexamples. For people with lots of female friends who are dating genuinely nice guys, the idea that being nice is detrimental to dating doesn’t get proven by examples of abusive guys who have chains of girlfriends, or girls who claim to want nice guys but keep dating assholes.

This is all bullshit. I’m a smart, kind guy who’s in decent shape, has a good career, and a variety of hobbies. If girls actually care about that stuff, why can’t I get a girlfriend?

Oof. That’s rough buddy. I’d like to start by giving you a hug, because the place you’re in is shitty. I know how lonely it is, how frustrating. How the bitterness and desperation is sometimes your only defense against the pain.  It really, really sucks, and this next part is going to seem cold. So bring it in.

/hug

Ready?

The universe is an unfair place.

There are no soul mates. (Thankfully.) People are not destined to have fulfilling, lifelong romantic relationships, let alone entitled to finding such partners by the time they’re 20, or 30, or 40. 

Maybe the perfect woman for you is on the other side of the planet. Maybe she lives in your apartment building, but you’ll never cross her path or have anything interesting to say to start a conversation that leads to a relationship.

Some people will meet their future wives or husbands in grade school, be married by college, and die within a year of each other when they’re in their 80s. Others will die within a year of being married. Others will never find a relationship that lasts longer than a few years. Others will never find a relationship at all. That’s life.

And if you’re about to say that you’re not talking about happily-ever-after, you’ll settle for just any relationship, just to have someone want to hug you and cuddle you and kiss you and love you for a month, a year, anyone, well, the above still applies.

Relationships are random. They correlate to things like physical appeal and intelligence and fun personalities and whatnot, but you still need to run across someone who’s attracted to you first. If you’re not okay with meeting online or doing long-distance, they need to be in your area. And even if you’re compatible, you need to meet at the right time where you’re both looking for a relationship, rather than being, say, 10 years old, or 13 and 18 years old, or in the middle of a different relationship already, or about to move away for college or a new job and not thinking about dating right now.

So if you’re 23, or even 33, or even 50, and haven’t ever had a girlfriend before, it might not be because of anything in your control. You might have just rolled a sequence of bad dice. With enough people rolling enough dice, it happens. I’m not saying this to minimize your pain, but it’s worth noting that some kids die of bone cancer before they’re even teenagers. The universe doesn’t care.

Take solace in that, if you can, because while there certainly are things people can do to improve their odds, blaming yourself can lead to some unhealthy depression and anger, and blaming women is the quickest way to ensure you’re stuck alone. Cold comfort though it may be, I believe that recognizing the unfairness of the universe is one of the ways you can potentially move past blaming yourself or others, and start really considering the problem in ways you can maybe do something about.

Because here’s the thing: if you really are a smart, kind guy of average attractiveness (or even below average attractiveness) who has a stable career but is frustrated by lack of romantic prospects? I’ll bet you a thousand dollars to one that I can find you someone who will be willing to date you within a year.

How? By lowering your (probably unrealistically high) standards. That’s all. 

They probably won’t be someone you initially consider attractive. And they might not have any skills for employment. They might suffer from some physical or mental disability. They might have totally different taste in music and movies and hobbies. And come to think of it, they might not even be all that nice, when you really get to know them.

How much do each of those things matter, to you? Think about it.  What are you willing to settle on, if all you really want is someone who loves you? Because this is an important thing to consider, when addressing the question of what the world owes us (nothing) compared to what we expect of it (quite a lot, probably, when we actually examine what we want). There’s nothing wrong with wanting a lot, but as the Buddha said, expectations, suffering, etc.

OKCupid used to have a research wing that analyzed the behavior of those on the site, and what they’ve found is that men tend to rate women as more attractive, on average, than women tend to rate men… but that men predominantly message women on the higher end of the attractiveness scale, while women are more willing to message men who are lower on the attractiveness scale.

Really think about that the next time you consider who among your female acquaintances and friends you’re romantically pursuing, opposed to which ones you’re ignoring that might be interested in you. And then think about whether you’d be willing to date the ones you’re not considering, if they expressed interest in you. Because while having standards is good, and having high standards is admirable, having high standards while bemoaning the lack of choices available to you is just bad math.

Tangential to the Nice Guy myths are a lot of others that deal with this perceived romantic imbalance between genders. Guys who refer to highly attractive women when they say “If only some girl would give me a chance,” or “Girls can get all the sex they want at any time,” while ignoring the existence of women below their  attractiveness threshold, whose experience might better match their own frustrations.

So is it really all that strange that you haven’t found a girlfriend yet, if the only girls you’re considering and pursuing are all on the higher end of all the various criteria you consider important?

And remember, this isn’t an argument of “people can only date within their attractiveness level,” it’s an argument of “don’t form beliefs about a gender solely off of members of it you’re disproportionately focusing on.”

And if none of that applies to you, then you still might just have rolled a series of critical fail rolls. Hopefully you’ll regress to the mean soon; it feels cliché, but it’s still true that the more effort you put in the more likely the dice are to be in your favor.

But if it does apply to you, reconsider what you think you know about what girls “really” want and why, and consider more carefully what you really want, and why.

Cleanliness Orientation

For Alice, a clean home means it’s been dusted, vacuumed, and window-wiped sometime in the past week, with all the dirty laundry in their hamper and all the clean clothes already folded and put away, no dishes in the sink, no visible garbage poking out the top of cans, and no visible stains anywhere.

For Bob, a “clean home” isn’t incompatible with having some clothes draped on furniture (but not the floor), some dishes in the sink and some garbage in bags by the door; he’ll take them out all together at some point soon. The bed doesn’t need to be made, the bookshelf doesn’t need to be dusted… that stuff’s just extra work.

For Carol, as long as nothing is rotting or liable to trip someone, it’s “good enough.” Sure, it may not be “clean,” but it’s livable and safe and with two kids and a dog running around that’s all she feels she’s got the energy for. She may do some extra cleaning if guests are coming over, but she doesn’t stress about it day to day.

David doesn’t have kids or a dog, he’s just not bothered by the state of his home. He works 10+ hours a day, and spends most of his time at home in bed, watching TV, or on the computer. The pile of dirty laundry by the door and the stain on the couch aren’t hurting anyone, nor is the perpetual pile of dirty dishes in the sink; he rinses them first, after all, and he can clean them as he needs them.

And still others live with the perpetual stink of pet urine that’s steeped into the carpet, boxes of junk crowding the halls and living spaces, and other stuff that makes a therapist called to the house for crisis intervention go “Oh…”

But let’s put that last category aside. Even within the range of what would generally be considered “normal,” whether you’re the kind of person who feels a need to scrub the toilet every week, the kind of person who is now wondering when the last time they scrubbed their toilet was, or somewhere between, the chances that you’ll end up sharing your living space or life with someone who has exactly the same ideas of clean as you are fairly small.

Of course “exactly the same” isn’t necessary. Most people can get along okay as long as they fall within the same general range of turnover for chores.

But deeply ingrained in all of us is a sense of what “clean,” “fine,” or “messy” looks like, feels like, smells like. And it’s not just a matter of taste or preference; something about our nature and nurture have instilled a sense of normalcy to certain environments. The affordance widths tend to be lopsided toward cleanliness, as most people are comfortable in environments cleaner than their baseline, but if it goes too far it can still be stressful (if that seems weird to you, imagine the feeling of being in a very rich stranger’s mansion and being told to make yourself at home while every move you make is under careful watch).

How does the orientation frame help?

I can’t count how many times I’ve observed or experienced the following type of interaction:

Bob: I thought you were going to clean the kitchen last night?

Alice: Uh… I did?

Bob: The top of the fridge wasn’t dusted.

Alice: Well I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.

Bob: Can you do it now?

Alice: It feels pointless. No one’s regularly going up there for anything.

Bob: It’s still bad for our health to have dust build up in the house.

Alice: Says who?

Bob: *googles it* See?

Alice: *googles it too* No, look, see?!

In reality, a google war isn’t a bad outcome; at least the question is being put to some objective measure, and evidence might even soften one or the other’s position. If Bob is Alice’s parent, the answer in most cases is “Because I said so.”

Assuming research is brought into it, however, what Bob might discover is that regardless of what the research says, he can’t actually feel comfortable unless the fridge is dusted, while Alice discovers that also regardless of the research, the risk is so small that the hassle of getting a footstool and wiping the top of the fridge still feels like an onerous and pointless chore. 

But “This is a pointles chore” is different from “This is making X happy,” and even that is different from “This is making X comfortable.” Recognizing that the issue is more important for one person than the other can short-cut the debate entirely.

Of course it might raise a more important point: whose responsibility is it to appease Bob’s orientation? Again, if Bob is the parent, the default is probably going to be “everyone’s.” If they’re roommates, Bob might feel bad asking others to accommodate him if the thing he needs feels too far outside the “expected norm.” That might also apply to a romantic relationship, though Alice might also accommodate Bob knowing he would do the same for her.

It can also be tempting to think “Well it’s not a lot of effort, really, especially compared to cleaning the whole kitchen. Why make a big deal about it?” But doing a chore that feels necessary vs one that doesn’t can have a huge impact on motivation, and when it comes to something that needs even more regular maintenance, like making the bed, or affects the way you live day to day, like eating somewhere besides the table, conforming entirely to another person’s preferences in every way can be a very onerous ask.

For some people the idea that how clean a house should be is as “important” as whether or not the relationship is monogamous or how involved extended family is silly, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong. Most people find it much less important, both on an emotional and a consequential level. Not all orientations are created equal, and cleanliness is much closer to the “preference” side of the spectrum than extended family, let alone sexuality.

But if you consider how consistently your living environment will be around you day to day, it can be a bit easier to see why this is something that can be important to use the orientation lens on, and why the expectation that others “just relax” or “just do more” can miss the mark on what they’re actually asking of each other.

Extended Family Orientation

In an ideal world, everyone comes from lovely, supportive families that accept whoever they marry and get along with their new in-laws and respect the couple’s boundaries and wishes for how their children will be raised.

Unfortunately, in the real world, many people want little or nothing to do with their families once they’re adults, in-laws regularly make snide or condescending comments whenever they visit, and statistically speaking your own parents probably don’t respect your boundaries, let alone those of your partner.

Some people have great relationships with their family, and don’t understand how anyone could not want to visit on holidays or have grandparents involved in child rearing. Others get along okay with their parents while recognizing their flaws, but feel awkward about how adamantly their spouse dislikes them, or vice-versa. Bad enough if holidays are the only times tensions rise; what if you live near one or both sets of parents? Can they drop in any time? Who’s responsible for telling them they can’t, if someone’s not comfortable with that?

Unlike sexual or romantic orientation, I believe family orientation is mostly the result of nurture rather than nature. Some cultures, particularly Western ones, are very individualistic; “I married you, not your family” is a phrase you might hear fairly often in couples counseling. But other cultures have a very strong family orientation, such that it’s taken for granted that multiple generations will live together; when you marry someone, you are in a very real sense joining their family, not just creating a new independent unit.

In addition to the effects of culture are the effects of upbringing. A loving and nurturing family will make it easy for people to want to involve family in their lives even after they grow older and start their own. A mixed upbringing or family with some good and bad members or memories may make some extended enmeshment feel acceptable, but not too much. And a traumatic upbringing will make people want to never see their family again, or (sadly often) feel guilted into doing so by those family members or their culture while continuing to suffer… though it might make someone very happy to spend time with their partner’s family, if it’s less dysfunctional.

There are some real, hard questions that need to be answered in this space. Not just how involved in potential children’s lives will they be or how often you’ll visit whose family, but also how will you care for family members if they get old/sick? Will they live with you? How much will you be expected to bend to family’s preferences vs standing firm on your own? How much should you contribute to bailing family out of poor financial decisions? How much is “appropriate” to tell your family about your relationship?

When two people have very different orientations on this it can cause endless drama, and that gets worse if one side’s family is actually abusive or manipulative in ways that they’re used to and find hard to notice.

How does the orientation frame help?

Communication and clear expectations are key to navigating these issues in general, and just speaking your preference and inviting your partner’s perspective on how much or little you prefer extended family be involved in the new family you create together can be very valuable.

Some people are very open about this (“If my family doesn’t like you we have a problem,” or “I don’t want to see my family ever again”), and if that’s the case, respecting those orientations is important. It isn’t necessarily mutual; some people are okay with their partner’s family but not their own, might even prefer them. But respecting your partner’s boundaries when it comes to family involvement, particularly their own, can head off a lot of difficulties.

This is an orientation where change is possible to some degree, because it’s predicated in large part on extrinsic factors. Most people would want supportive, loving, interesting people in their life. Most people do not want selfish, hurtful, boring people in their life, but will make an exception for family because they’ve been conditioned to think it’s okay or normal. If you notice your partner’s orientation is very closed to extended family involvement, noticing why that might be the case can be very useful; if it’s something that can be changed, changing it might help their orientation soften. 

But don’t try to change their mind without at least recognizing the cause of it, and notice that the frame of “orientation” still points to something intrinsic; even with perfectly fine and positive family members on both sides, some people are more private than others, or more introverted, or more independent.