PQ 5.10 — How do I evaluate my choices when the effects of my actions are impossible to predict?
I hate to break it to you, but those times when the effects of your actions are impossible to predict?
That’s nearly 100% of the time. Especially when it comes to interpersonal interactions.
One of our greatest tasks as human beings is figuring out the best way to deal with our fate as social animals. It’s not anything we asked for, having to navigate these complicated matrices of behavior, communication, impact, and emotion. But we don’t really get much of a say. Here we are. So we have to deal.
The Birth of Social Math
As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with other people. Watching what they do. Wondering why. Guessing what’s going on in their heads. Inventing possible backstories and rich inner lives for people I’d see only once, in passing.
It was a kind of play — like making stuffed animals talk to one another. And writing stories.
And yet, as I grew out of childhood into adolescence, my relationship with my mother grew strained. Like a lot of parents, she preferred children to adults. And teenagers? Well, they were dead last. And it didn’t help that mom and I are the kind of people who if we weren’t related, if we lived next to each other at an apartment complex or something, that we would have locked eyes when we took out the trash, avoided each other. Silently judged one another by small indicators: Her by how many times I miss the pick-up date. Me by how forced her smile is. And how quickly it turns when she thinks I’m not looking.
Nothing I said or did was right. I was a constant disappointment. And an embarrassment.
The guessing game of my childhood took on sudden utility. I would read her moods and adjust my behavior. Middle school became a crash course in self-monitoring.
Some people consider such things tact. Others call it being a fake person.
I think it’s maybe some of both, but that neither extreme completely covers the complexity. Or the sheer investment of energy.
Because it was a constant process of calculation. I called it social math then, when I’d write about it in my journal. Knowing what to do with any one person was akin to constantly solving ever-changing problems.
It was a form of survival. And although I did a lot of thinking to keep it going, I didn’t think much about why I did social math. Or what other people would think of it.
It wasn’t until I met Seth, my first husband, that I really talked with anybody about it.
Seth and I were eating dinner with one of Seth’s friends at a truckstop when someone I didn’t know visited us briefly on his way out.
“That guy’s probably a drug dealer,” I said to Seth, after the stranger left.
“That’s amazing. He is. How did you know?” Seth’s friend asked.
It was the pager, I told them. And the way he spoke about where he said he was going next. His tone. What he left out. How he covered (unnecessarily) for his omissions. The stilted prosody. He was probably on his way to a deal.
I didn’t think much of it at the moment. The observation had just kind of slipped out. But Seth took an interest in it, the idea of “reading people. ” A lot more interest than he normally showed in anything I had to say.
So I opened up. Explained. And in the short term, it felt incredible to be able to discuss something I’d never really talked about before. That I wasn’t fully aware I was even doing.
My reads weren’t right all the time of course. I knew that. But it was constant analysis, however subjective and incomplete. And sometimes? I was pretty okay at it.
But Seth’s view of it soured quickly when it dawned on him that I could be doing the same thing to him.
But Love Interests Were a Special Case
The sad thing? I wasn’t doing it to him. I don’t like to self-monitor much around people that I’m closest to. Certainly not people I’m deeply in love with. There a few reasons:
- One of my favorite quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh: “In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand.” I believe this. And on the other side of things, I believe that to be loved is to be understood. So to obscure my self would defeat the whole purpose. If they understood me to be a false — or at least less complete — version of myself, they would not be loving me but an idea of me that wasn’t quite right.
- It’s hard work reading people. And hard work being tactful. It’s exhausting. If you spend a great deal of time around someone, it isn’t really sustainable. Not in a way that doesn’t make you miserable and undermine the relationship.
I told this to Seth, but he didn’t believe me. And nothing I said to him changed it. He remained suspicious for years that I was secretly manipulating him. Or trying to.
When Seth Surprised Me
It was only in the final year of our relationship that I heard him speak positively of it again, social math and self-monitoring.
“It’s not fair!” Michelle complained bitterly. “You get everything you want. Everyone likes you. Wants to hang out with you. I want to go out places, and what do I get? You’re so spoiled. You don’t get it.”
It was a tense confrontation on the second floor of the house four of us shared, all members of my web. It had been a difficult transition when Seth and I relocated to move in with Rob and Michelle. And it was shortly going to get worse. Much worse.
But here we were again. Michelle upset with me. I was flustered and exhausted. I had heard this argument from her many times before. Each time, I tried to reassure her that people did want to spend time with her. I had offered to go do things with her multiple times, but things had fallen apart when I asked her when she wanted to schedule it. Not only that, but I’d set her up with a mutual friend for a lunch date, and though she said she was interested, she blew him off when he reached out to her.
I just didn’t get it.
As I stood there flabbergasted, Seth stepped into the conversation (both Seth and my boyfriend Rob had frozen in place, during the heated conflict).
“Michelle, Page does a lot of work. You have no idea,” Seth said.
“No, she doesn’t, ” Michelle spat back. “She just has things handed to her.”
“You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about,” Seth replied. “I used to be jealous of how easily Page made friends. But what you don’t get is she puts a lot of effort into it. She thinks about it really hard. Tries to be considerate. Really tries to give people what they need.”
“This isn’t your fight. Stay out of it,” Michelle said.
“Whatever,” Seth said. He went up the stairs, into the attic, his part of the house.
And like that, the rest of us dispersed, leaving Michelle and I to hash out the rest over texts and IRC.
But even as I trudged through the stressful work of processing, I couldn’t help but smile and be amazed by what Seth had said.
So, the short answer as to how I evaluate the choices I make in interacting what other people?
It’s thinking about the likely impact of my actions.
Yes, I said at the beginning that it’s impossible to predict the effects of your actions. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the best guess you can. Informed by what you observe, what people in your life tell you, and what your history interacting with someone has told you.
And importantly? To consider not only the impact of your actions on others but also on yourself.
Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide?
Jiminy Cricket wasn’t completely wrong (although holy crap was he a shitty babysitter). Acting in accordance with personal values is important (for many reasons). But if we don’t consider the social context of the rules we follow? We can easily go astray.
And that’s why I still find utility in being analytical about people. Paying attention to social interactions. Relationships.
It’s never perfect. I’m still wrong sometimes. Make plenty of mistakes.
But I can’t imagine making informed decisions that are mutually beneficial and ethical any other way.